A Speech for Noise, published in ‘Earshot, Journal of the UK and Ireland Soundscape Community’ no 5, August 2007

A Speech for Noise

This is a speech about listening to that of sound which forever remains an experiential moment of one’s singular perception, incomplete, in the sense that it cannot meet a shared language to say what it means. It is concerned with the problem of how to listen to a piece of sound work that does not, or not only, produce meaningful sounds in relation to a musical composition, the chronology of the film soundtrack, or an identifiable visual object or event. In discussion of this problem I will advocate a sonic listening without floundering in a sea of doubt and uncertainty about what is heard, even if the heard does not invite a straightforward interpretation and meaning. The sound so perceived I will call noise: ephemeral, out of sight; an autonomous audio racket.

        The broader concern motivating this speech is the articulation of an auditory aesthetic. The suggestion is that the nature of sound refutes not only the application of a modernist aesthetic, which judges the artwork in relation to its substantial and categorisable appearance, but that it challenges current postmodern theories of a fragmented and performative aesthetic even. I pursue the idea that the immersive and insistent nature of sound demands a different aesthetic discourse if we are to hear it rather than understand it.

           The aim of this speech is the articulation of 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, I identify noise in relation but not in opposition to a visual sensibility, which comes to its aesthetic judgement through distance and objectivity, points of reference and a notion of meaning. The identification of the sonic within such a visual vocabulary limits what can be heard to what can be understood within the parameters of a visual sensibility. Sound work needs a different vocabulary if we are to practice a sonic listening. To this end, I want to remove expectations of meaning and value, the possibility of distance and objectivity, by insisting on sound as noise.

            My principal desire to develop an auditory aesthetic presents not a wish to distill, categorize and frieze what is being practiced with sound. 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 how it is being heard. This critical vocabulary can itself never be fixed but must constantly evolve with what there is to be played and heard. The articulation lies in the process of listening rather than in what is said about sound. Any articulation proposed is thus only a passing theory. An auditory aesthetic must remain a strategy to listen rather than an instruction to hear.

The need for such an auditory aesthetic 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. However, noise’s aesthetic function lies outside such systemic conventions and compositional interpretations, in the contingent perception of the listener, who performs what I shall call an innovative listening.

The second is the problem, and the two are intrinsically linked, that most people are extremely visually literate: we know how to read an image, to make sense of it, to understands its points of reference and contexts. 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 it. 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. Noise-Sounds, sounds which exist outside the conventional musical framework, the ‘meaningful’ sounds of the diegetic soundtrack, or the audio-visual relationship, need their own words in order to stimulate an engaged listening for it to be heard as sonic material rather than be understood as a conceptual counterpoint.
            Noise forces the sonic discourse ‘outward’. It foregrounds the contingent subjectivity of its perception; the sonic material as it sounds in the ears of the listener. This stands in opposition to the ‘inward’ understanding of a systemic musical, filmic, or source-orientated listening that produces a quasi visual interpretation. The latter finds a meaning in relation to something, the first produces, what Maurice Merleau-Ponty terms ‘non-sense’, individual phenomenological sense established in intersubjective sensation rather than in a rational encounter with the material. (1)

            Noise is not radical, however, it simply amplifies the demand of any sound to be considered in its immersive contingency rather than in relation to a pre-conceived reference system. Noise is not a special case, it is simply more insistent on its sonic particularity. Through this particularity it provokes a more general shift in thinking about sound; prompting the idea of a sonic sensibility, leading to an auditory philosophy and the notion of aural knowledge. - And that is why I propose to suspend our believes and think of all sounds as noise.

The starting point for such a shift in thinking lies in the development of aesthetic theory from modernism to postmodernism, whereby the relationship between modernism and postmodernism is understood as one of continuation rather than of discontinuation and rupture. I feel it is necessary to briefly outline my understanding of the status, consequences and relationship of these two aesthetic discourses in order to argue why noise challenges both methods of judgment and valuation and to illustrate how it demands a re-thinking of aesthetic discourse per se.

            The modernist aesthetic focuses on the production of form, the substantial, the essential, the categorisable artwork. In search of objectivism the modernist art critic sets down clear rules as to what is good art in respect to clearly typified and categorised manifestations. From this principle identification modernism mobilises the idea of discipline and unity, deliberating the qualities and 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 à 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 à 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.(2) 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 the Notenbild (the image of notes/ the score).(3)

                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, he/she too is totalised and unified as a transcendental subject. All doubt of his/her own perception is eradicated in a visual knowing.

            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 non-representable. I interprete this ‘non-representable’ 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 work 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.

In this sense postmodernism is to modernism the noise of heterogeneity and incompetence, working outside and across disciplines, squandering its systemic valuation in decadent centrifugality. The postmodern is a radicalisation of the modernist understanding of the artwork. However, in the overall context of modernism the postmodern excursion into decadence is ultimately redeemed. Lyotard’s interpretation of the postmodern 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 recuperated within a solid consensus of meaning. In fact postmodernism never abandons the notion of consensual meaning, good taste and form, in the first place. It queries the nominalism 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 of 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 only a current dominant meaning but the possibility to produce shared meaning at all, and that I believe is the true criticality of noise. The significance of this, in relation to auditory practice is the observation that postmodernism, as a critical framework for artistic production and perception, is not radical enough for sound to be heard.

        Noise is invisible sound in the sense that it is not regulated by the Notenbild of the composition, nor helped along by the diegetic progress of the film, and it is not explained by the recognition of its source.  It does not present bad taste to be redeemed once we leave the language game of postmodernity. Rather, noise simply is sound considered in its own right and no visual meta-discourse can evaluate its perception.

        This is not to say that sound work cannot be discussed within postmodern discourse. It can be considered in a relational framework, performing with a visual source or referent, and consequently offering meaning and value through context and association. Much sound work profits in its discussion and description from a contextual audition and evaluation. However sound has another quality too, and this quality seems to me most apparent in relation to noise, which is simply and unstoppably just always now itself. It is its insistence on the moment, the fleeting buzz and whirr that it immerses me in when I am listening that I believe a visually primed subject does not hear. The (visual) postmodern aesthetic vocabulary falls short of being able to truly articulate a critical observation and judgment of the sonic artwork because it cannot hear its content and appreciate its singular non-sense without driving it into a seemingly sensical framework of relations.

            Noise disorientates, challenges reference points and negates objectivity and distance whilst opening a different, subjective and immersive imagination. In this it challenges the postmodern methods for judging and discussing a piece of work. It goes beyond postmodern re-presentation towards the production of what is heard in an innovative listening: A listening that produces a sonic and a visual (or in fact a multi-sensory) imagination from sound rather than attaching the heard to an à priori visual referent.

        Rudolph Arnheim praises such a sonic blindness. He demands of radio not to be a relay apparatus for football games and musical performances but to be transmit a truly sonic, blind , production. It is easy to follow his suggestion as to what such a blind radio should not be, much harder however is it to imagine what it should be instead. One thing this blind radio could be is noise. Noise-radio in the sense that the sounds coming from the box next to my bed, in my car, or on the kitchen table would have nothing to do with the visual world around me. These sounds would not be visually recognisable and interpreted, but neither would they be accousmatic in the sense of a reduction of the visual referent by removing the attack and the envelop of a sound. Noise is not a reduction of visuality, it is not less than the image, it is radically different, and possibly rather more. Noise in this sense is sound that is truly not, and never was, related to any visual source, instead it might lead the listener to invent a ‘visuality’ beyond the visual imagination.

It seems an impossible but exciting demand, this desire for sound to be only referenced to its auditory perception rather than to a visual ‘thing’ or event.  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, gripped in a continuous present, nothing else and nowhere else, its meaning only ever the listener’s. In this context, noise’s principle is truly a principle of the ‘inventor’s parology’ not just as an exception or opposition to a modernist meaning, but as an infinite field of innovation. Noise is sound practiced; listening to invent and produce rather than to recognise and know. . It always demands my participation. And if such a noise-radio is not genuinely achievable it unquestionably articulates an important challenge for sound arts production.


  1. 1.In a collection of his essays brought together in the book Sense and Non-Sense, Merleau-Ponty articulates ‘non-sense’ not in reference to rational sense, as its nonsensical opposite, but rather describes with it a sense that comes out of ‘sensation’. Non-sense, then, is sense produced by a phenomenological subject, who exists in the world produced continually through his/her sensorial existence in it; outlining a ‘life world’ and ‘intersubjectivity’. In this life world the intersubjective subject produces sense through sensory motor actions towards this world. According to Merleau-Ponty, these motions are motivated by doubt, rather than certainty; sensation rather than rationality. Merleau-Ponty’s ideas of doubt and uncertainty driving the human relation to his/her life-world and the consequent notion that he/she makes sense of this world, and him/herself, as non-sense, is particularly articulated in the central essay of Sense Non-Sense, ‘Cézanne’s Doubt’ (orig. 1945). (Merleau-Ponty, 1964)

  2. 2.The term ideal is used here in the sense of the Hegelian notion of Idealität of an ‘ideal objectivity’, which for him decides the beauty of art as an absolute beauty that has overcome the ‘Widerspruch’ (antagonistic contradiction) between discord and harmony in sublimation (Aufhebung), and has attained an ideal objective state. (Hegel, 1979, p70)

  3. 3.A danger of some contemporary discourse on Sonic Arts is that the score is simply replaced by a technological manual. The Notenbild has given way to illustrations of Software processes and Hardware interfaces, the ideology of an à priori objectivism however, remains in place. The work is identified within these visual processes only, and the listening subject too is fixed in relation to this visual totality. Such a focus retains Sonic Arts’ discourse within a modernist aesthetic. It avoids a consideration of the experiential status of the work, its auditory content, which would problematise the compositional control, intention, and the unified appreciation of the work.


Adorno, Theodor W., Gesammelte Schriften, (Suhrkamp: Frankfurt an Main, 1970ff)

Arnheim, Rudolph, In Praise of Blindness, in Radiotext(e), edited by Neil Strauss, (Columbia University: New York, 1993)

Hegel, G.F.W. 1979 [orig. 1823-26]. Introduction to the Berlin Aesthetic Lectures of 1820s. Translated by T.M. Knox. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Lyotard, Jean-François, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, translated by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi, (Manchester University Press: UK, 1994, [orig.1979])

Merleau-Ponty, Sense Non-Sense, translated by Hubert L. Dreyfus and Patricia Allen Dreyfus, (Northwestern University Press: Illinois, 1964, [orig.1948])