Noise: Interview with Music Journalist - Joseph Burnett
Image: A John Cage score
Not So Popular caught up with panelist, music journalist and Noise connoisseur, Joseph Burnett to unpack this provocative genre. A music journalist for the Quietus and Dusted Magazine (and others, sometimes), Joseph writes mostly about noise, drone and jazz. He also once had a crack at being a noise artist. We got the deets (history and all) on what you need to know about Noise as a genre...
Not So Popular: Give us a quick intro then...
Joseph: So, I'm a music journalist, with a particular focus on noise. I'm very lucky that the magazines I have written for so far have allowed me to write about noise music, arguably, in a disproportionate fashion to how many hits they would get on their websites for it.
NSP: What is it about noise?
J: Well, I'm very interested in what noise means. Despite having studied it from a historical point of view, that is where noise as a genre comes from... the avant garde, various forms of Futurism to the Fluxus Movement, to Dada and John Cage, and so on, I've become more and more interested in how this type of noise has come into the mainstream.
It's now become a popular medium, and particularly in the post-punk era, where noise became a sort of excessively provocative form of musical expression, that was designed to be amoral, to confront the world with its own revulsions and unpleasantries elements; noise as a genre deliberately reappropriated graphically violent imagery.
NSP: Can you give an example of how it's entered pop culture?
J: Well, now that pop music can't go any further it's just mining everything. For example, I went to a Britney Spears concert where she used heavy drones as part of her performance. Noise has become a tool for popular music and noise rock has also become a major draw for the alternative rock scene, such as sonic youth, swans. Then, you find extreme forms of harsh noise and which have again picked up on the deliberately amoral and provocative visual images behind the noises they are making and do so without any overt questioning or consideration of what that means.
NSP: So, you're also interested in how these provocative images, often associated with noise, are used?
J: Yes, from a political point of view I am very interested in the use of violent imagery and the use of misanthropic, homo-challenging and misogynic imagery - and what that means within the genre. You see, noise has been my fascination as having got bored of musical form - noise challenged me not only sonically (with harsh sounds and dissonance), but it also challenged me morally. But then that's where the interesting thing about noise emerges, because everyone I've met who is a noise musician, using provocative imagery, is the most non-bigoted person imaginable. And yet, they are happy to play with this imagery and that raises a lot of questions in and of itself.
NSP: Some noise music plays on misogynistic values - do you know how that is received by female listeners or female noise artists? What's the relationship there between noise and women?
J: It's interesting that noise is now becoming increasingly prevalent as a form played with and used by female artists, and if offers something different from other genres of music... There has always been great women playing in rock, soul, jazz and so on - but in these spaces, they've always had to be playing the game of white men. Noise, however, throws this open, because it's such a blank slate, because it's history as nonconformist and completely amoral, allows women to take on the tropes it plays with - misogyny, fascism - and they can put their own stamp on it. I find noise particularly fascinating due to this factor. Because there are women, people of colour and gay people who are now engaging in noise and reworking its cliches in a progressive and thoughtful manner. They take a look at its troublesome elements, and these people on the receiving end of the 'isms' that noise has explored, can come in and explore the apolitical landscape it offers.
Noise's stance on woman has been historically ambiguous, and I think some artists have taken this too far into a sense of amorality as a sense of provocation without backing. It interests me to listen to those that play with amorality and violence in noise.... it leaves me thinking, 'is that inappropriate?', 'is that awful?' and that's interesting. But then, I come from a position of privilege, so I can find it interesting and be disconnected from it in ways. I'm not sure how i would deal with it if i was a woman having to digest some of the imagery of early noise music. It makes you question what you are listening to and how you respond to it.
Especially so when some of what you find is purposefully atrocious - with song titles like slasher films, dripping in violence, murder - a kind of horror movie-esque feel. In the same regard though, as a horror film lover, I know the genre has a dubious history with women and violence toward them. But my approach to horror reflects that of my attitude toward noise. It's for this reason that I adore Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but not The Hills Have Eyes. In Texas, the one left standing, who survives is a woman, she goes through hell, but she survives, is the woman and is the role in the film. And that's how noise exists an in that strange ambiguity around violence and provocation. It's a balancing act that not all artists that engage with noise get right, and not that all listeners get right, but when they do, there's a lot of power in there to change how people listen to music and how they think.
So, I know women who are feminists and enjoy listening to it and respond to it by saying 'I know some of the words and ideas used are troubling, disturbing, but the problem with the patriarchy is not just reduced to a form of noise'. Again, in this sense, noise is a blank slate - a space for women to impose themselves upon the history of noise. They can tap into it's moral neutrality and asexuality.
In terms of how we take on responsibility as listeners of noise, and it's treatment of women, I can only say my stance, and I say this as a fan of noise for the best part of 10 years. I think there are certain noise acts that I will not countenance because of their misogyny, because I think they cross a line. A line which due to the nature of noise is a very silky line - it's not as clearly drawn out as other lines we have, especially for the left-leaning liberals of us. Noise, from a political stand point (and note, that the noise genre contains lots who are apolitical artists - focusing purely on sound) needs to addresses its history: what were the bands intending? What was that artist thinking of? What did that mean?
NSP: As you say, noise is a clean slate to be drawn upon by whoever cares to engage. In a sense, could you build on this and say noise is an art form?
J: Definitely, because noise did come from the experimental art scene and was previously a purely intellectual, 'arty-farty' suit in the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s... but it was only up and until the 60s onwards that it was absorbed by popular music, particularly by rock, and its adoption of distortion and feedback - we see this with Hendrix. This was then swept up and into the punk movement, and punk was, for all its flaws, a clean slate - it cut of the past of what rock history was and said we are going back to basics and rebel. So then noise was brought into this moment, and punk took it away from its avant garde past, history, roots in free jazz, and brought put it in sync with the 'punk ethos' as a way to challenge the authority of the ruling system of politics. So, noise was taken on by people who wanted to break down any barriers of taste, and what we now call political correctness.
NSP: So noise then became a means of rebelling, of protest?
J: In some contexts yes, many use noise as a means of opposition against totalitarianism, fascism, or even a more personal level. For example, there's a Japanese noise (Japanoise) artist called Merzbow, a vegan with a macbook adorned in 'meat is murder' stickers, and he uses noise as part of his protest against the consumption of meat. So noise is often a form of 'right on' protest because if you are going to shake up the system of the Trumps and the Camerons, and all those of the right thinking establishment, there's no better way than to assault them with a blast of pure noise. Hit them with a wall of sound. Punk was made to confront the 'squares' to make them sit up and get angry.
NSP: So, we've talked about it's history, but what about it's pure aesthetic, what about the sound of noise?
J: Yeah, well to go back to the pure aesthetics of it, noise is a very contradictory thing... in its purest form doesn't have melody, rifts, nor does it have a tune, it's a completely abstract form. This comes from it ties to minimalism, the avant garde. So unlike with punk where everything was confrontational, abrasive, there's a purer a history behind in just sound itself: how do we use the sounds around us, the sounds we are assaulted with day to day, how do we take them and make them relevant in an artistic format? Despite all its controversy, noise comes from a desire to explore sound as a phenomenon. It's really just about sound and ideas, left for everyone to contemplate and interpret. As individuals, we're left to take from it what we will.
NSP: And finally, have you got a cheeky fun noise fact for us to whip out?
J: Did you know that the sound of the Tardis was made by rubbing a pencil along a radiator and then recording it and deforming it? Just in this way, noise started out by humans using sounds, in a way which wasn't musical, as music.
fyi - BBC radiophonic workshop created the sound effects for Doctor Who.