Pondering a Paradox: the Seduction of Noise, paper presented at NoiseTheoryNoise2 conference organised by the Centre of Research in Modern European Philosophy, London 20.11.05

Pondering a paradox: The seduction of noise

The context of this paper is a concern with the articulation of an aesthetics of sound art. The suggestion is that the nature of sound refutes not only the application of a modernist aesthetics, which judges the artwork in relation to its substantial and categorisable appearance, but that it challenges current postmodern theories of a fragmented and performative aesthetics even. In my research I seek to present that the immersive and insistent nature of sound demands a different aesthetic discourse. Subsequently I attempt to draft proposals for the articulation of such an aesthetics of sound art.

In relation to this broader research project, this particular paper is one such proposal. The aim of this presentation, in the spirit of this event, is to articulate an aesthetics of sound art in terms of the noise it makes rather than the meaning it produces. Fully aware that there are many different definitions of noise, my paper identifies noise in relation but not in opposition to a visual sensibility, which comes to its aesthetic judgement through distance and objectivity; orientation and the notion of meaning.

The identification of the sonic within a visual vocabulary limits what can be heard. Sound work needs a different vocabulary if it aspires to engender a sonic listening.

However, my over-all desire to develop an aesthetic of sound art is not the desire to distil, categorize and frieze what is being practiced under that name. Rather, the aim is to produce a vocabulary that witnesses, documents, narrates and takes measure of what is going on in this field and thus aids to critically develop what is being practiced and heard. This critical vocabulary is itself not fixed but is constantly evolving.

The need for such a vocabulary is based on two main points:

One is the issue that sound art still finds its vocabulary often only in relation to a visual practice and its processes of production and perception. The invisible sound object is described and grasped in visual comparisons: in relation to a visual source or space; or in terms of a visual ‘equivalent’. This dependency affirms and in a sense condones the sublimation of sound to the visual and limits any truly sonic perception to visual boundaries. That of the sonic experience, which finds no acknowledgment in such a visual vocabulary, eludes its discussion, or under the name of noise, becomes its dialectical opposite.

In relation to such theories noise simply manifests the failure to communicate, it becomes the negative of what is beautiful, permissive and harmonic. Considering the soundtrack of film and video works I debate how noise’s aesthetic function lies outside such systemic conventions and compositional interpretations, in the contingent perception of the listener, who performs what I will call an innovative listening.

The second is the problem, and the two are intrinsically linked, that most people are very visually literate: we know how to read an image; to make sense of it; to understands its references and context. In other words we know how to look at and view artwork. However, we are often literally in the dark as to how to listen to work. Not knowing how to understand, reference and listen to a sonic artwork frustrates any attempts by even the most generous of audiences to engage. Consequently all a potential listener does is either walk away or look for visual clues: the sound work remains unheard, the sonic artwork unrealised. And is particularly noise, understood as sound which exists outside the conventional musical framework or the ‘meaningful’ sounds of the diegetic soundtrack, that needs its own critical language in order to stimulate and orientate an engaged listening.

In this sense noise forces the sonic discourse towards an ‘outward’ orientation, into the context of perception, in opposition to the ‘inward’ understanding of a systemic, musical, and hence quasi visual, interpretation. Noise is not radical, however, it simply amplifies the demands of any sound to be considered in its immersive contingency rather than in relation to a pre-conceived system. Noise is not a special case, it is simply more insistent on its particularity. And through its particularity it provokes a more general shift in thinking about sound.

The need for such a shift in thinking is the motivation for this project in general and this paper in particular.

My starting point lies in the development of aesthetic theory from modernism to post-modernism. I see the relationship between modernism and postmodernism as one of continuation rather than of discontinuation and break. I feel it is necessary to briefly outline my understanding of the status, content and consequences of both aesthetic discourses in order to argue why noise challenges both methods of criticality and to illustrate how it demands a further development of aesthetic discourse.

The modernist aesthetic, understood in relation to early 20th Century modernism in Europe and America, most prominently articulated in relation to visual arts by Clement Greenberg, focuses on the production of form, the substantial, the essential, the categorisable artwork. In search of objectivism the modernist art critique sets down clear rules as to what is good art in respect to clearly typified and categorised manifestations. From this principle identification modernism purports the idea of discilpline and unity, deliberating the qualities and characteristics of the total artwork. According to Jean-François Lyotard modernist art theory seeks ‘to preserve various consciousnesses from doubt.’ (Lyotard, 1994, p74) Its aim is to establish the artwork as certain and knowable in relation to a transcendental a priori. Its vocabulary consequently accommodates the description and judgment of spatial and substantial work: painting and sculpture, at some distance from the viewer.

In relation to music, it is the score that substantiates and qualifies the work in an a priori. The score visualises and thus spatialises and arrests the individual performance in an ideal temporality. The score is proof of its existence and determines its value. According to Theodor W. Adorno, it is the quasi objective relationship between tones in harmonic intervals in relation to the compositional totality of the work that renders the musical work ideal. The temporal quality of music, which could be seen as its critical edge vis-à-vis spatial art practices, is for Adorno a problem, unless it is compositionally controlled; the temporal sounds fixed in what he terms a Notenbild (an image of notes).

Such modernist criteria for discussing and judging a piece of work, visual or sonic, sees the process of viewing/listening as having no impact on the appearance of the artwork nor on the subject perceiving it. The viewing subject is assumed as a fixed identity, it too is totalised and unified as a transcendental subject.

Postmodernism is not opposed to this way of discussing art but rather is a logical interpretation and development of such a modernist idealism of totality and unity via the consideration of perception: challenging modernism via a temporal and individual dimension. According to Lyotard postmodernism puts forward that which in modernism remains unrepresentable. I interprete this ‘unrepresentable’ as the moment when the modernist objective vocabulary clashes with the momentary perception of the individual viewer/listener and fails to account for his/her experience.

Consequently the postmodern reading reflects not the understanding of the artwork as supplying or representing one total and ideal artwork. Rather, it discusses artistic experience as ‘real’ and ‘ideal’ in the sense in which the audience connects it to a personal and individual experience of the real, constructing a multitude of re-presentations.

Post-modernism is to modernism the noise of heterogeneity and incompetence, working outside and across disciplines, squandering its systemic valuation in decadent centrifugality. In this sense, the postmodern is a radicalisation of the modernist understanding of the artwork. However, in the overall context of modernism the post-modern excursion into decadence is ultimately redeemed. Lyotard’s interpretation of the post-modern as language game highlights this state of affairs. As a game it is ultimately halted or at least paused, and its players go back to the pragmatics of everyday living, where homogeneity is produced in order to get on. Any noisy nonsense produced is recuperated within a solid consensus of meaning. In fact post-modernism never abandons the notion of consensual meaning, good taste and form, in the first place, it queries the nominality and homogeneity of those who participate in the meaning making process, never however the possibility of meaning making per se.

And this is the main point for my argument: Noise, not as a temporary abandonment of taste and good form, imminently redeemed in a new (visual) referential framework, but as radically and always just simply noise, upsets not meaning but the system of meaning making. And I believe that is the true criticality of noise.

It is invisible sound in the sense that it is not regulated by the Notenbild of the composition, nor helped along by the speech track of the film.  It does not present bad taste to be redeemed once we leave the language game of post-modernity. Rather, noise simply is sound considered in its own right and no visual metadiscourse can evaluate its soundings.

Rudolph Arnheim in his demand for a blind radio has always challenged and confused me on this point. I can understand and follow his suggestion that such a radio would not be a relay apparatus for football games or musical performances, etc. But it is much harder to imagine what it would be. One thing it could be I guess is Noise. Noise radio in the sense that the sounds coming from the box in my living room would have nothing to do with the visual world around me. They would not be accousmatic in the sense of a reduction of the visual referent by removing the attack and the envelop of a sound, performing the compositional equivalent of a phenomenological époché. Noise is not a reduction of visuality, it is not less than the image, it is radically different, and possible rather more. Noise in this sense is sound that is truly and never was related to any visual source.

It seems an impossible but exciting demand, this desire for sound to be only referenced to sound rather than to a visual thing. I suppose this would mean they are sounds of things that do not exist and that is I guess one way of understanding noise.  Such a blind ‘noise’ radio surpasses and stretches the visual imagination out of its representational and also out of its re-presentational task into a generative presentation: intensively always now, clasped in a continuous present, nothing else and nowhere else. - And if such a noise radio is not genuinely realisable it articulates certainly an interesting motivation for artistic production.