Thursday, June 24, 2010

Bring the Noise, Postgrad-Style

Been a bit skint on content 'round here recently, eh? Forgive me, I've been preparing for my presentation at next week's noise conference at the University of Salford. I'll be part of the first panel, on "Post-Punk Noise" (July 1, 11:30am in room AH012 of Adelphi House; chaired by Sheila Whiteley), alongside Michael Goddard, who will be speaking on The Gordons/Bailter Space & The Dead C. Despite the butterflies in the belly, I'm quite pleased to be the very first panelist of the whole conference because afterward, I can kick back and actually enjoy the three-day brain massage instead of cold-sweating over my presentation. Topics on docket include:
  • Noise as a Political statement in Riot Grrrl and Tweecore (Rachael Neiman)
  • Xenakisian Sound Synthesis, Its Aesthetics and Influence on 'Post Digital' Computer Noise (Christopher Haworth)
  • Releasing the Inner Idiot: Noise Music, Marginality and Madness (Marie Thompson)
  • The City as an Aural Map (Deepa Ramaswamy)
...and so much more. I'm going to come home either 25 IQ points higher, or woefully confused.

Reproduced below is the abstract of my presentation, which I submitted to the call for participation. Inspired by Ian Svenonius' "Rock 'n' Rolligion" essay in The Psychic Soviet, it grew out of an idea I first kicked around here several years ago: that the theological analog of noise music was atheism. As I'll be elaborating next week, I quickly decided this wasn't a compelling comparison: noise rock, as typified by its early American practitioners, is more directly paralleled by Pentecostalism.

A few things have changed between by initial proposal & the final paper, especially how I frame noise music in Japanese society; the conclusion has also taken on a more theoretical tone. But the gist is essentially the same. Anyone not attending the conference who has an interest in reading the paper, please e-mail me. Endnotes are included in the comment section.

Make a Joyous Noise: The Pentecostal Nature of American Noise Music

American noise music is intrinsically different from that of other, less-religious cultures. European noise music can be understood as a response to “the collapse of the industrial city,”(i) while Japanese noise music may be an uncanny inversion of traditional ongaku (“enjoyment of sound”). But American noise music finds its symbolic roots in another American original: Pentecostalism. A nation forged by religious die-hards and prone to recurrent flurries of theological fervor, the United States is a professedly Christian country. Yet since the Second World War, religion has been supplanted by pop music as America’s sociocultural fundament. According to punk polemicist Ian Svenonius, this “radical transformation… from the Christian doctrine of denial to a new capitalist religion of eating a lot”(ii) was a consequence of postwar wealth and power, as rock ‘n’ roll was constructed as “a capitalist cult”(iii) that “worship[ped] the tenets of the market economy: consumerism, newness, and planned obsolescence.”(iv)

In order to seduce converts, rock and pop music necessarily resemble the Christian template, down to its constituent sects: “Work cults like indie rock resembled Seventh-day Adventists, garage and rockabilly purists resembled the Amish (for whom history had stopped at a certain moment),”(v) etc. Noise music is modeled upon Pentecostalism, a movement born (again) in 1906 “designed to reproduce in contemporary time the church originally established on Pentecost, A.D. 30.”(vi) This reductionist approach was constitutional to the late-1970s No Wave scene (wherein American noise music became recognizable as such), whose bands abandoned canonical (blues) forms and “rearrang[ed] the basic building-blocks of music.”(vii)

Dispensing with constrictive protocols and hierarchical divisions between “conduit” and audience, both noise music and Pentecostalism are “drawn to the irrationality posited by the possibility of any, all and no meaning,”(viii) baptizing its participants in “the power of a spectacle that is physically oppressive”(ix) – volume for the former, the Holy Spirit for the latter. Further, both seek to return its participants to a pre-lingual, pre-subjective state via “abandonment of the priority given to consciousness, knowledge and the mediations of language… creat[ing] new affects and compounded emotions… for which there is no language.”(x)

Ultimately, the same dangers threaten to extinguish both noise music and Pentecostalism as potent forces. The first is institutionalism: the ossification of practice and “a rapid accumulation of stock gestures”(xi) that signify “authenticity” while betraying the opposite. The second is success. Noise music that ceases to be noisome loses its essence, becoming mere music. Meanwhile, should Pentecostals live to see the Second Coming, it would put a literal end to their faith. “Success would, in any case, signal the end…”(xii)


Seb said...

i. Csaba Toth, “Noise Theory,” in Noise & Capitalism (Arteleku, 2009), p.29.
ii. Ian Svenonius, “Rock ‘N’ Rolligion,” in The Psychic Soviet (Chicago: Drag City, 2006), p. 66.
iii. Ibid., p. 63.
iv. Ibid., p. 63.
v. Ibid., p. 76.
vi. Bastell Barrett Baxter, “Who are the churches of Christ and what do they believe in?”, at
vii. Arto Lindsay, interviewed in Scott Crary’s Kill Your Idols documentary (2004)
viii. Howard Slater, “Prisoners of Earth Come Out!,” in Noise & Capitalism (Arteleku, 2009), p.159.
ix. Paul Hegarty, Noise/Music: A History (London: Continuum, 2007), p.124.
x. Slater, op. cit., pp.159, 163.
xi. Ray Brassier, “Genre is Obsolete,” from Noise & Capitalism (Arteleku, 2009), p.63.
xii. Hegarty, op. cit., p.126.

Anonymous said...

Is it just me or does academia prefer to concentrate on music(s) that have minimum social impact, listeners with minimal social impact and zero accesibility?

Riot Grrl? It's written about as though people actually listened to it - even though it only got column inches from a generation of hacks who didn't 'get' hiphop, and wasted two decades waiting for the 'new punk' (even though there was probably about three distinct pop genres that had far more shock and impact without needing guitars, shouting and a-level culture studies).

See also the endless bologorama that indulges stillborn crap like dubstep for a modern variation of this.

Seb said...

You're one of those "big picture" guys, right? Well, let's do a quick retread of the musical butterfly effect to satisfy your desire for social impact & accessibility, focusing on No Wave as a case study.

No Arto Lindsay or Glenn Branca or Lydia Lunch... no Sonic Youth... no My Bloody Valentine, no Pixies, no Nirvana... no 1990s as we know it.

Would something have existed in the place of grunge & shoegaze? Undoubtedly, and it too would've sprung from some marginal, uncompromising source.

Still not satisfied? Go watch the first minute of Scott Crary's 2004 documentary on No Wave, Kill Your Idols, and the first piece of music you hear is what M.I.A. sampled for "Born Free", the very song that's been garnering god knows how much column space over the past two months.

Also, who the fuck loved Riot Grrl but hated hip-hop? Most critics who supported underground movements like the Olympia, Chicago, and D.C. scenes also adamantly supported groups like Public Enemy, N.W.A., and the Ultramagnetic MCs, for basically the same reasons. Anyone conservative enough to think disco/house/rap sucks is precisely the kind of jack-booted pseudo-fascistic thug forward thinking punks work against.

Anonymous said...

'Big picture' to the point where it interferes with a good night's sleep!

Point taken though. Points added for getting the 3 most important genres right! (None of which required apprenticeships with 'macho art fags' like Glen Branca or Steve Albini).

It's more that the 'importance' of riot grrrl was VASTLY overstated - it was being cited quite an academic bit even when I was doing cult studs back in the 90s. I never said it's cheerleaders HATED hip hop, but there was definitely a sense of critics feeling 'safer' with certain indie pan flashes (I'd argue 'names' like Simon Reynolds et al still don't really 'get' hip hop - these privately educated white boys love claiming it's 'dead' lately - Hollywood war movie rules?).

As for no wave, shoegaze and grunge - maybe the media (and those writing about it) had much more meaningful relationships to 'em than the 'culture' they hoped they would impact upon. There's whole other issues here about race, class, education, canonisation etc. But iff Eno was black (or even working class), would he have got that unquestioning worship he's had since there was a welfare state? Hip hop has largely changed the sound of international pop about three times a decade since Eno made muzak 'academic'.

Can I claim a 'grey lizard' prize now?

Seb said...

You're absolutely right that critics are always happy to jump on the safer, less bumpy bandwagon of whatever miniscule indie variant comes along, rather than champion a form that actually brings something new to the table. Really, who in the past decade has actually offered a significant contribution to the rock idiom? Animal Collective?! Get the fuck outta here.

It's not quite fair to say that it's only "privately educated white boys" claiming hip-hop's dead/dying/undead. Nas, the RZA, Jay-Z, and the like have been vocal over the past 5 years about how artistically stagnant the genre's become.

I'm also not clear on what exactly your criteria for a genre's impact are. Okay, so No Wave & Shoegaze went nowhere at the time, but the extent of their influence over the Aughts has been visible & vast. And grunge? Fuckin' massive. It's very difficult to measure the extent of an event's influence at the time: what the hell are we supposed to make of the fact that there's a Shaggs musical coming out?

Of course, there are whole issues over race, class, etc. but rather than just glibly state that as a given - as if it nullifies the validity & influence of whole forms without explanation - get into it! Was Britpop a tacitly racist movement? Does southern hip-hop a la Lil Jon perpetuate horrid stereotypes? Is riot grrl meaningful because it was the first appearance of conscious feminism in the macho boys' club of hardcore punk? Don't bother with hypothetical exercises about Eno being black (he did come from blue-collar roots, by the way) when there's more than enough historical material to sort through.

(And don't get me started on Eno anyway. I stand by the assertion that he invented every genre of the past 40 years, except dub. But let's not underestimate My Life In the Bush of Ghosts' impact on hip-hop.)

Anonymous said...

A genre's impact can be (crudely) measured by it's non-musical influence - clothes, slang, business practices, the shape of leisure in general. Shoegaze, Riot Grrl and No Wave fall far short on that register - even when you compare 'em to death metal, never mind hip hop.

I'd say the influence of Eno, along with Kraftwerk, is VASTLY overstated. Sure they had their innovative fans, but for every 'Bush of Ghosts' or 'Trans Europe Express' there were dozens (if not hundreds) of (mainly) Jamaican producers, Djs, toasters etc. who had a more direct, less academic and less hyped impact on the music(s) that emerged since the 70s. And for every 'Fear of Music' there's Another Fucking U2 Album.

As for Jay-Z and RZA, I wouldn't go anywhere near their current music tastes - COLDPLAY ("Ill" according to the property developer in a shell-suit)? The predictable music of the rich, jaded and middle-aged... Maybe their much-trumpeted monopolistic practice back in the day caused this 'stagnation', and no genre is best best represented on the radio or charts anymore.

I'm carping on a bit, but I'm kinda intruiged by how much 'learned' attention indie micro-genres generate...

Seb said...

No worries about carping, though I do wonder what academics, journos, and mental gymnasts are supposed to do if not study the weird & out-of-the-way. Do we really stand to gain much by having more people arguing about Lady Gaga or Drake? Learning wouldn't be terribly advanced if humans only ever dealt with the biggest object in front of them at any given moment. In fact, we'd probably have died out trampled by elephants.

I also object quite strongly to your criteria for measuring a genre's impact. Judging music by "it's non-musical influence - clothes, slang, business practices, the shape of leisure in general" is equivalent to judging architecture by its impact on fashion. All those things are utterly superfluous to the art itself, byproducts of music's commodification, garnishes & flotsam to brand a subcultural "lifestyle." You're judging music by its market appeal, and insisting that "yeah, well, that's the system within which we have to work" denies any opportunity to get out of it.

I'm also confused by your argument that Eno & Kraftwerk aren't actually influential. Here's your argument: "for every 'Bush of Ghosts' or 'Trans Europe Express' there were dozens (if not hundreds) of (mainly) Jamaican producers, Djs, toasters etc." A familiar rhetorical form, but that formulation epxresses "for every [unique object/event] there were dozens (if not hundreds) of [undifferentiated objects/events]" which seems to support my cheerleading of Eno, not your dismissal of him. For every name-checked star there are hundreds of cats no one knows/cares about? Yeah, and?

(This isn't to defend Eno's boosting of U2. Believe me, that is goddamned embarrassing.)

But you're right that Jay-Z's listening habits are yuppietastic. Though this shouldn't really surprise us, since half of his beats always sounded like they could've been backing tracks for Bryan Ferry.

Anonymous said...

And his raps.

I'm not dismissing Kraftwerk, or Eno as influential (far from it) but decades of being told how world-changingly great they were/are does grate. They're in that cabinet filed "brief phase with no intention of further listening" - along with a whole load of shoegaze/grunge/industrial/whatever else was all the rage long ago. I suspect that their canonisation was helped by the ready-made theories they vocalised for the music press.

I'm definitely not only seeing mass-market appeal as worthy of study. What I mean more is it's impact on how the world is heard/seen/lived in (hence the fashion, language etc. - it wasn't all dreamed up by marketing depts from the outset).

Some genres do that, others don't. Punk did it, but disco did it more - but what (until very recently) has had forests of trees dedicated to it's (critical, academic-worthy) 'importance'? Why was there all kinds of fascinating (and 'new') British music in the 90s - but the 'Blair bubble' of Britpop is regarded in broadsheets as though it was the second coming? The same old story - class, race, gender and not what you know, but who you know.

Diggin' the blog though.

Anonymous said...

PS. Who the fuck is Drake?

Seb said...

Who's Drake? My god, you lucky, lucky, lucky soul. May you never find out who he is!

The strange thing about the "canon" (if we can even agree there is such a thing) is how it shifts over time. Sorry to keep mentioning Eno, but he's a great example of this: he was at best a cult figure until the '80s, when he became known to most of the world as U2's producer. Then in the '90s, he was most highly regarded for his influence on the ascendant electronic genres. These days, it's his '70s legacy of po-mo experimentalism that seems his greatest strength.

Point is, Eno's value to the contemporary audience has changed over time, depending on the tastes & trends of the day. I'm sure no one circa '93 gave a fuck about Bush of Ghosts, but now that hip-hop is being historicized we suddenly give a crap. No one gave two shits about No Wave until Sonic Youth began packing arenas, etc.

I think hip-hop seems perennially relevant & massive by comparison because, for all its in-fighting & preoccupation with "authenticity", it's far less sectarian than rock. Whereas post-punk is still "post-punk", crunk got assimilated about 8 years ago and now it's just "hip-hop" like everything else. If the Fall and Mogwai belong in different genres, then shouldn't Wu Tang and Lil Wayne? Yet, for some reason, they don't - they're just "hip-hop."

At any rate, music's shifting values & forms is a cultural example of the powers sculpting & resurrecting history as it fits. I suppose what I'm trying to do is find a concrete value (or lack thereof) in something.

Very glad you're diggin' it, by the way.