Noise: 'Silence is the New Noise'
Image: Catherine Bridgman, Jo's Room (2012).
Words: Taken from Not So Popular's interview with Joseph Burnett (2016).
After bringing some backbone to our understanding of NOISE as a genre, Joseph Burnett talks silence, south bank & plastic bags...
There's a french noise artist called 'VOMIR', which translates as 'to vomit'. It's a typical noise kind of thing, however he performs in a very interesting way. VOMIR takes, several white noise generators, he boosts the volume up as much as possible, then puts a black plastic bag over his head, not before handing out plastic bags to the audience, then presses a button, and releases this sound which is constant and doesn't stop, he presses the button and just stands there - the visual element is both compelling and also somewhat non-existence as today we're used to people grabbing a mic and swaggering across the stage, playing with the mic, singing and shouting, whereas he just stands there. You can't see anything with a bag on your head. In many ways its utterly surreal, and an extreme version of minimalism, clear shapes, a slow building, it's very simple - it's just a huge wall of sound for a set which last around 30 mins. But as your listening to it, you're sort of leaning in, and suddenly because the sound is everywhere, the modulations in how the sound travels and how they hit your ears and the vibrations that occur in your ears and in the air, it changes the way you hear, and then it becomes an environment you are living in. It's as if suddenly you listen to this imposing, disruptive noise and you list to it and listen to it and then it's like silence, but it's not. Your conception of noise and silence changes, as noise it's everywhere, it's disappears. It's noise, with silence within that. From a formalistic perspective, it's very interesting, because it's not about all the imagery and the history but its just about sound and how you physically react to the sound. It takes a huge leap to listen, with a bag on your head, to a wall of noise, but if you take that leap and make that decision, then suddenly sound which is completely static develops meaning beyond what it sounds like.
Of course, silence doesn't exist. If you're standing in a quiet field at midnight, there will be sound around you. And there's sound within your body, you can dampen sound so that you can hear only your heartbeat.
In 2007, there was an exhibition by Antony Gormley, behind the back of the Southbank Centre... he had built this room out of glass and filled with vapour, and as you walked in it immediately dampened all the sound, you couldn't see anything and I spent 25 mins in there, dressed covered in black with the presence of a kind of grim ripper - shocking the general public who walked in and out during my frozen period... is this what being dead was like? Everything was dampened, muffled, but everything was loud the the same time- if someone bumped into me they would shriek. The exhibition forced you to listen differently, and I think that's possibly the potential of noise as a formal... artistic form... how are we forced to listen? There are forms of music in minimalism called 'lowercase' which do the same thing, they have long breaks of noise, they test your patience, your endurance and possibly even more forcibly than noise, as unlike noise which hits you like a barrage of sound, which you can either turn off or embrace, it is frustratingly quiet. If there is something quiet, with a little bit of saxophone and then pause - and the silence really tries you, it can be a physically demanding form of listening.
I would say noise is easier than silence.
The idea of inaudible playing, a few soft notes, and long breaks. Just leaves you asking what the fuck is going on, when's it going to break? (It's The Waiting for Godot version of noise... says Josie Carder.) With noise, you can sit back and get swallowed up by sounds, but silence asks a lot of the person.
No one likes silence in this day and age, and it's interesting as noise is meant to be used as a weapon. We walk around with our sounds, headphones, plugged-in constantly. I get fidgety if I'm without my music or a podcast on a 10 minute bus journey... people are frightened of silence, and that's possibly, from a purely aesthetic point of view, which is where harsh noise look to go (as noise should be a form of discomfort) to recreate that sense, that feeling of silence - but in a sense of physicality, sound used to make you feel uncomfortable.
Maybe silence is the new noise, who knows? We'll find out soon.