On Generalised Music - An Interview with Myself

Q: hashtag_blacknoise … Why black noise? And why the almost pretentious hashtag?

A: The second question, strangely, is easier to answer than the first. I started thinking of the term black noise in terms of music in the early 2000s. I was fascinated with old cassette tapes and the serendipity associated with finding a ball of crumpled cassette material – and only knowing what sounds still existed on these innards* after laboriously rewinding them onto a cassette spool and attempting to play them. At first my working name for the project was “blinkkant bo” (bright side up), which was the correct way to wind the cassette remains. Soon I started referring to the practice as black noise, and for a growing number of reasons. This of course rapidly turned into a name for myself as musician/sound artist.

When I started thinking of an online presence for blacknoise (it had since become one word), I noticed that others were also using the name, so the hashtag was at first merely a way to differentiate myself from these entities. As time passed, I naturally started drawing in other references, but the origin is quite mundane.

*These have always been somehow intestinal to me.

Q: But certainly the term black noise doesn’t only refer to the innards of cassettes. They’re not even properly black. And with technical terms such as white noise and pink noise one would naturally ask what black noise might refer to in this context.

A: I think I’m avoiding the question because the answer is quite a mouthful, and day by day more contexts that would fit this moniker are uncovered. What makes a definition more difficult is the fact that black noise is determined by negatives – what it is is essentially what it is not, which lands one on difficult terrain as soon as you want to pin it down. It’s a little like trying to pick up a ball of mercury – not as toxic, but probably just as futile.

The first context is somewhat technical. In engineering and physics the term white noise is a commonplace – random sound (or, in the digital domain, sequences of numbers, or any form of energy for that matter) with an equal probability for any given amplitude (or number) to occur. Mapped onto a visual metaphor, it translates as white light.

Because energy increases with increasing frequency, sound scientists have come up with a type noise that is weighted so that equal energy occurs in any given band – this is called pink noise and is often used in the evaluation of sound reproduction equipment. The visual metaphor locates it somewhere between red (low frequency light) and white light – therefore the “pink”.

Black noise, in one sense, is sound (or light) that is weighted so heavily towards lower* frequencies, that it becomes inaudible, or invisible in the case of light.

In that sense, black noise becomes silence, but silence that isn’t silence. (Quantum mechanically silence doesn’t and cannot exist.)

When one starts contemplating silences that aren’t silences, it’s quick to arrive at the concept of loud silences (roaring silence, as I like to refer to them), even really loud silences. My first efforts were to take ordinary (almost/non) silences and to amplify them to such a level that they overpower any other sound. Very very quiet field recordings were amplified well into clipping, often leading to silence again (#loeriesfontein is an example), the silence of old cultures, such as that of the Khoi-khoi and the San, which have been all but obliterated by Western and African interference, have been collected as sound samples that I recorded while I was playing on a number of their quietest musical instruments (strings of cocoons, bows, tiny antelope horns) in a museum context. These samples were then layered, and also amplified into clipping (hashtag_khoe), etc.

But other forms of silences that aren’t silent or noises that have become silent exist. The silence of digital activity, the silence of electromagnetic radiation, the silence of thought, of space, of planetary motion, of plants, of oceanic animals, of sequences of numbers; the silence of that which dare not be spoken, but which shouts out at you in its silence, the silence of the highest and the lowest frequencies, no matter what the modality, the silence of the oppressed, the silence of thinking machines – all of these can be black noise.

Utter silence, on the other hand, can also be noisy. What we call silence, by which I mean the backdrop to our daily lives, can be extremely loud. These so-called silences, as loud as they may be, are constantly being rendered inaudible by some very clever filtering by our auditory system. In a concert situation, such noise levels can become exceedingly high – when these are suddenly disrupted the resulting silence can be almost painfully “loud”.

One can carry on and on in this vein, as should be obvious by now. So I’ll leave it at this: black noise is an investigation into unsilent silences.

* or, sometimes, higher

Q: So black noise is essentially silence? Or the soundscape of our present (and past) existence?

A: I am very uncomfortable with the term “soundscape” as applied to my work. In fact, I find it mildly offensive. Muzak would be a soundscape. Most music, in its commodifiable nature, is soundscape. Black noise is an opposite to that. One does not walk into an art gallery and think of the works on the wall as decorations, or as embellishments of the gallery as creative expression, even though they often are.

Q: But now we are conflating music and art, or at least music and sound art. Are your sounds music or are they art?

A: Well, that would depend strongly on the context in which they appear. If you play ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” in an art gallery context, even not as part of an exhibition, I would strongly suggest that it is acting as an artistic gesture. But the artist of this gesture would not be ABBA. It would be the person/curator/artist/employee who decided to play “Dancing Queen” in a gallery space.

In the same way, a work originally intended as sound art, which is being played at a music festival would be primarily musical. Except, of course, if the artist is subverting the entire festival to act as an art space for this work. But then the experience of subversion becomes the de facto artistic gesture, not the device (the sound art piece, say) that is employed to effect this subversion.

And then this entire gesture may again be reevaluated and turned on its head. It’s complex, but it is somehow clear.

Q: But you act in both contexts?

A: I’d like to think so, yes. And mostly in the fold where these two concepts rub against each other.

Q: So, what is music then?

A: Ah, here we come to the big question. I’ll tell you what it’s NOT if you want.

Q: …

A: As careful as one should be of dichotomies, one might divide (positive) experience into two categories. (The same would probably be true for any kind of experience, and there would be contradictions and overlaps in any such split.) The first would be things which make us comfortable, and the second would be that which provides meaning. Comfort is associated with repetition, and meaning with the ineffable: that which is sufficiently unstable not to be boring, but sufficiently universal to be communicable. Communicable chaos provides meaning, in other words, bearing firmly in mind that chaos and randomness are opposites. This ties in with Jacques Lacan’s Real, although the latter is to me a much more daunting concept than what I am proposing.

Apply this reasoning to music and you’ll know where I’m coming from.

Q: It sounds a little intimidating to me anyway, having to abandon all that is familiar …

A: Well, it’s just music. It’s not as if the world would collapse. Or maybe I’m wrong on this count.

Perhaps I’m not necessarily advocating the abandoning of all that is safe and familiar, but merely more abandonment: in other words, not holding up safety as truth, or as dogma, but realising that if one wants to find real meaning, one needs to move beyond the mechanical, the predictable, the safe. It’s really the only way I can imagine. (I’m assuming metaphysics to be too uncool a prospect to include at this point.)

Q: Fair enough. But what would generalised music be in that case? You suggest that the concept derives from functional analysis, from mathematics, in other words. Math doesn’t sound to me like abandonment.

A: I assume you are speaking as a mathematician …

But if I have to give you a serious answer I should add that it has been a very long time since I’ve studied mathematics – actual mathematicians might want to turn away at this point.

Generalised functions are a broadening of the classical notion of a function in mathematical analysis. Basically, functions themselves are treated as variables in analysis, for instance allowing discontinuous functions to be differentiated over parts of their domain, something which would otherwise not always be successful.

My reasoning on the subject of music went like this:

Much of music isn’t really music any more. What’s seen as music is a smallish set of constraints, bound up with sentiment and musical cliché, and executed with some or other minimal skill set.

These sound objects are only musical when viewed as concrete music, just like any other concrete sound that’s deemed to be musical would be. In fact, they are consumed as objects.

Qua Pierre Schaeffer’s view in Le Solfège de l’Objet Sonore, these songs, which are operations on notes and pauses, become similar to notes themselves.

This means that one may perform musical operations on these new “notes”, which are in fact musical objects already, whether these operations are accomplished or not.

This is at first glance similar to what happens with functions in functional analysis.

But if songs have become notes, what would their instrument of execution be? The instrument is the loudspeaker.

The musician is anyone who operates this loudspeaker, whether with skill or not, and whether with large or small modifications on the specific song material. (Loudspeakers always modify sound.)

That is the long and short of it. One could of course reason further and with greater sophistication along this train of thought, and expand the definition of music to include all intended process.

Q: So a person playing a commercially produced song on her iPhone …

A: ... is a musician, yes. Though, obviously, more can be said of their musicianship.

Q: And then you are hoping for emergence – for structure to arise?

A: Yes, now we enter the domain of physics, but hopefully by a different route than the jaded “music of the spheres” approach, where there appears to be hard and fast “rules” that govern whether music is beautiful/accomplished/marketable.

I tend to think of the phenomenon in thermodynamic terms, in other words as an instance of statistical mechanics. Just as I think of the cultural tropes that govern its being made as relatively simple resonant phenomena.

Q: Certainly that is not very musical – not to anyone who isn’t open to being a mathematician or physicist anyway …

A: Maybe I should loosely define a new, more general kind of music – a music that aims to create new vocabularies in order to discover implicate grammars that reassign previously inconclusive narratives by formatively reevaluating the notions of outcome and subject and identity as ambient, non-superintendent process.

Q: Certainly very fundamental …

A: Is this not the purpose of any revolutionary impetus – to create fundamental change?

Q: Sure, but it easily becomes not much more than a lot of theoretical beating about the bush. How do you physically approach music making?

A: I just start beating about a physical bush …

And who says theoretical isn’t physical anyway? As Zappa observed: “What’s the ugliest part of your body? … I think it’s your mind.”

Maybe “approach” is indeed the proper word here. Often there is little more than an approach when I make music. But when I decide what I’d like to do, I do sometimes make decisions. I would for instance decide to listen to digital electrical processes directly. I’d then build a small neural net and simply connect the digital throughput to a mixer. Or I would use existing digital processors (the cheap microcontrollers in singing birthday cards are a current favourite) and use them in an unintended way.

Q: But this still doesn’t address the question of narrative. Do you employ narrative at all? If decision-making is chaotic, or even random, as the above seems to suggest, surely the notion of narrative becomes extraneous?

A: I’m constantly plagued by this word “narrative”. But, I guess, if I were fundamentally opposed to narrative as such, it would not have bothered me. So I have to ask myself why it bothers me. In a straight-up Harsh Noise performance the narrative becomes a simple increase of parameters (intensity, density, complexity, chaos, …), culminating in a more or less abrupt collapse, either to silence or to simplicity of some order (and then silence). In Harsh Noise Wall these parameters stay more or less constant till the end.

But this is quite boring in a way. Which makes me wonder whether all narratives aren’t boring – by nature.

The only real narratives there are are density curves, whatever density may denote in this context. Probability distributions, in a way, which again nods to generalised functions. Broadly speaking, there aren’t many kinds of these. Mostly these curves would either be periodic or cyclical, or would exhibit some or other growth or decay function, with or without a cyclical element. There could of course be a random (or chaotic) nature to narrative, but it would be hard to argue that this is a narrative at all, except where it can be accurately described (unwritten?), and especially in the former case. In improvisation there is a happy by-product of not being in control, which (if one were to be of an optimistic bent) often displays emergence. The narrative, if not agreed upon in advance, writes itself. Working with machines that make decisions by themselves (neural nets, for example) creates another kind of narrative, a narrative that might not be as alien as it seems. Maybe this is where I prefer to operate. As the urban poet says, “don’t kill your wife with work, let electricity do it.” (And of course the misogyny, whether intended or not, points right back at a part of ourselves.)