Critical Theory And The End Of Noise – Post #1 (2 of 2)

(this post is continued from last week)


Critical Theory And The End Of Noise – Post #1 (2 of 2)

Giving value to Noise allowed electronic music pioneers to experiment with and establish new forms of musical expressions. The innovative power of electronic music lies in the hands of those composers who use the medium for experimentation in order to scrutinize musical axioms. French composer, musicologist and experimental electronic pioneer Pierre Schaeffer coined “music concrete”; ‘concrete’ meaning “directly” as opposed to dealing with the detours of notation and conductors (xiii). Many influential musicians worked with Schaeffer in his electronic studio including Varèse, Györgi Ligeti, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Luciano Berio. Composer Makis Solomos notes, “It is true that the electro-acoustic practice of the 1950s made Ligeti, Stockhausen, and Berio discover radical new ways of conceiving music in general, and that they applied these new ways of thinking to their instrumental music” (245). In this way composers used Noise as the sound upon which they would build from. In essence, this is the ‘grain’ that Barthes wrote about. Some composers were captivated by new sounds before they began experimenting with electro-acoustic music. Solomos notes, “Xenakis is more like Varèse, who wrote radically new music before the introduction of the new technology, a music that is no longer composed with sounds but composes the sound” (245). After World War II, new theories about music composition and production thrived simultaneously.

Iannis Xenakis

Iannis Xenakis

Solomos mentions, “I will say with [music theorist] Theodor Adorno that the evolution of the new, electro-acoustic means of artistic production converged with the independent evolution of music itself ” (245). The power of experimental music was found in the new Noise. Solomos notes, “With Xenakis, as with some other composers of his generation, music became partially experimental. A traditional composer is supposed to recreate, by means of “interior audition,” pre-existing sounds of course in new combinations. For the composers of the second modernism (music after 1945), the point was to produce previously unheard sounds. The only way to do this is by experimentation” (248-249).


This author is reminded of the way that Foucault looked at his own work, which has similarities with the above experimental compositional tendencies. Foucault states that his works all turned around a set of problems of the same type and that it is possible to analyze a particular object through discursive practices that is predicated on the objects internal rules and their conditions of appearance (Foucault 1994: 272). It is possible that other issues, perhaps subliminal, may have motivated composers. Perhaps these composers were responding to the fears and threatening times that they lived through. As Benjamin notes “Man’s need to expose himself to shock effects is his adjustment to the dangers threatening him” (62).

In Chapter 10 of Audio Culture, the essay “Noise” by Simon Reynolds defines Noise as something that interferes with the communication of an emotional or spiritual musical message (55). He senses a cultural noise found within a collective subliminal message. Reynolds states, “The subliminal message of most music is that the universe is essentially benign…”(55). The message being that eventually sadness and tragedy is resolved at the level of a higher harmony. Noise troubles this worldview because it undermines confidence that through individual endeavor, we can become the subjects of our lives and work together for the general progress of the commonwealth (55). Bourgeois power structures use music to pacify and control. Thus, Noise is a culturally important response to bourgeois power structures that often employ nostalgic references for emotional manipulation. Nostalgia is a subliminal response to the acceptance of an authoritarian assertion of power that the world is benign. However, Noise may disrupt nostalgia.

The relationship between Noise and nostalgia has a lot to do with the popularity of Adele’s song “Someone Like You”. This is one of the reasons the song became so popular in the UK and the United States in 2011. In this song, the protagonist laments a lost love as the chorus repeats the line “Sometimes it lasts in love but sometimes it hurts instead.” In each verse the protagonist alludes to earlier happier times. For example, in the line, “Only yesterday was the time of our lives”, not only is the sentiment nostalgic but two other nostalgic songs are referenced and conflated; “Yesterday” by the Beatles and “The Time of Our Lives” by Green Day. The next line, “We were born and raised in a summer haze” alludes to the songs “Summer Breeze” by Seals and Crofts and “Purple Haze” by Jimi Hendrix. The last line of that verse finishes with, “Bound by the surprise of our glory days”, is a reference to the song “Glory Days” by Bruce Springsteen; another song that references nostalgic emotions from it’s protagonists. In the bridge, allusions are made to “Nothing Compares To You” written by Prince though famously sung by Sinead O’Connor. The lyric “who would have known how bittersweet this would taste”, alludes to “Bittersweet Symphony” by The Verve. When we take into consideration Barthe’s aforementioned perception of vocal ‘grain’ with respect to Adele, it is the grain in Adele’s voice that is the noise. This noise is the obstruction to collective inner peace. The obstruction to peace interferes with a harmonious resolution. The grain of Adele’s voice is contrary to an emotional resolution because it is the grain that subconsciously informs the listener that the world is not a benign place and that everything is not ok. Despite the fact that a repeating lyric is, “Never mind, I’ll find someone like you”, nobody believes it. According to the L.A. Times, “”Adele underwent vocal cord microsurgery by Dr. Steven Zeitels to stop recurrent vocal cord hemorrhage (bleeding) from a benign polyp.”[iii] After hearing her performance at the Grammy Awards on February 12, 2012, I sense that the operation may have removed the cause of the grain in her voice. This author hopes that is not the case. If the cause of the grain and thus the noise was removed, what is left?

When used by performers as a source of inspiration, Noise has phenomenological consequences. In Audio Culture, it is revealed in Chapter 11, “The Beauty of Noise: an Interview with Masami Akita of Merzbow”, that Akita, who began performing rock music by Jimi Hendrix, Lou Reed and Soft Machine, later got involved with performing free jazz after being influenced by the sounds of Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler and electro-acoustic music. For Merzbow, who produces deafening levels of feedback in concert, Noise is a vehicle for spiritual ecstasy (59) and an erotic form of sound (60).

As the discourse challenges aesthetic distinctions between “high art” and “popular culture”, Cox and Warner claim that the discourse flattens traditional hierarchies between “high” and “low” venues for publishing (xv). In this way, the authors would have us believe that power is more evenly distributed. Personally, this author doubts that. An argument could be made that certain venues of publishing such as the New York Times, The Manchester Guardian, Oxford University Press, and Princeton University Press, just to name a few, continue to be standard bearers of high scholarship and research. Few independent bloggers generally have a budget for such in-depth research. Lack of funding for in-depth research corresponds with a lack of power in peer reviewed academic circles. Furthermore, Cox and Warner believe that music prefigures social relations because it moves faster than economics and politics (7). However, it is important to remember that people make music through social interaction. Those social relationships may be highly predicated on economics and politics, essentially, power.

Noise is used as an expression of and response to power. Noise is power because it provides inspiration for composers and performers to create and shape contemporary musical expression. Additionally, Noise is a culturally important response to bourgeois power structures that focus on promoting banal forms of expression. The use of Noise is a way to push back at authoritarian powers that seek monopolistic control to dominate the discourse about music through mass media and public airwaves.

Is it time for the “emancipation of noise”? The “emancipation of dissonance” as coined by composer Arnold Schoenberg in 1926 meant that sounds regarded as dissonances would be on equal footing with the sounds regarded as consonances (260). The idea is that consonance and dissonance are not opposites; they only vary by their degree of proximity to the fundamental or root.   The emancipation of ‘noise’ would mean that Noise would be placed on equal footing with the sounds commonly regarded as ‘music’. If Noise succeeds in achieving an equal footing with ‘music’, would it then become part of the establishment? If so, what would the next assertion of power sound like?



[i] Camp, Lauren. “Musicians Protest Removal Of 31 Grammy Categories.” Santa Monica Daily Press. 10 February 2012. 04 March 2012.<>

[ii] Google. “images for Adele Grammy’s.” 12 February 2012. Google Images. 04 March 2012. <>

[iii] D’Zurilla, Christie. “Adele: Surgery Successful, Prognosis Good, Her Doc Says.” LA Times Blog. 07 November 2011. LA Times. 03 March 2012. <>




Attali, Jacque. Noise – The Political Economy of Music. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985. Print.

Bailey, Derek. Improvisation – It’s Nature and Practice in Music. New York: DaCapo Press, 1980. Print.

Barthes, Roland, “The Grain of the Voice.” Philosophy of Media Sounds. Ed. Michael Schmidt. New York: Atropros Press, 2009. 93-102. Print.

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”  Philosophy of Media Sounds. Ed. Michael Schmidt. New York: Atropros Press, 2009. 27-63. Print.

Bourdieu, Pierre.  Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984. Print.

Cage, John. Silence: Lectures and Writings. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1973. Print.

Cox, Christoph and Daniel Warner editors. Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music. New York: Continuum, 2010. Print.

Foucault, Michel. “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History.” The Foucault Reader: Ed. Paul Rabinow. New York: Pantheon, 1984. 76-100. Print.

Foucault, Michel. Power. Ed. James D. Faubion. New York: The New Press, 1994.

Foucault, Michel. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972 - 1977.  Trans. Colin Gordon et al. New York: Pantheon, 1980. Print.

Nietszche, Friedrich. On The Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage, 1989. Print.

Schmidt, Michael ed. Philosophy of Media Sounds. New York: Atropros Press, 1996.

Schoenberg, Arnold. “Opinion Or Insight?” Style and Idea. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1975. Print.

Solomos, Makis. “The Unity of Xenakis’s Instrumental and Electroacoustic Music: The Case for “Brownian Movements””. Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 39, No. 1 (Winter, 2001): 244-254. Print.


About admin

Bruce Eisenbeil is a composer, improviser, and guitar instrumentalist who has dedicated his life to the advancement of modern guitar techniques through the growth and evolution of modern composition and improvised music. He has twelve CD’s released on a variety of labels including: ESP, New Atlantis, Pogus, Nemu, Konnex, Cadence, C.I.M.P and Nine Winds. Eisenbeil has performed and recorded with some of the best musicians throughout the USA, Canada, Japan, Switzerland, France, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Brasil, and at many festivals. Eisenbeil has been living in New York City since 1995. In addition to his musical developments, Eisenbeil is trained in advanced mathematics, physics – general relativity and quantum mechanics, organic chemistry, computer languages, electrical engineering, acoustics, art history, philosophy and psychology. He has worked as an electrical technician, mechanical draftsman, auto mechanic and in construction. Although Eisenbeil was born in Chicago, he grew up in Plainfield, NJ which is where he began playing the guitar when he was 4 years old. He has been performing professionally since he was 15. Mostly self-taught, he studied with a few great teachers including Joe Pass, Howard Roberts, Joe Diorio, and Dennis Sandole – teacher of John Coltrane and Pat Martino. Despite the fact that Eisenbeil is singular artist with his own personal sound, those critics who write comparatively associate him not only with guitarists such as Wes Montgomery, Django Reinhardt, Grant Green, Billy Bauer, Derek Bailey, Sarnie Garrett, Sonny Sharrock, Curtis Mayfield, John McLaughlin, Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck but also with saxophonists John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman and pianists McCoy Tyner and Cecil Taylor. Eisenbeil’s ensemble writing has garnered a lot of attention for his unique counterpoint, textures, and sound masses. Because his work is tough to describe, critics have associated Eisenbeil’s writing with that of Miles Davis, Don Cherry, Brian Ferneyhough, Sun Ra, Anthony Braxton, the Art Ensemble of Chicago and the Revolutionary Ensemble. Eisenbeil has performed and/or recorded with some of the best musicians in the world including: Cecil Taylor, Katsuyuki Itakura, David Fox, David Murray, Evan Parker, Rob Brown, Ellery Eskelin, Aaron Ali Shaikh, Jimmy Stewert, Biggi Vinkeloe, Steve Swell, David Taylor, Karl Berger, Perry Robinson, Michael Manring, Alex Blake, William Parker, Kent Carter, Lisle Ellis, Wilbo Wright, Hill Greene, Tom Abbs, Peter Evans, Nate Wooley, Tom Hamilton, Charles Cohen, SKFL, Milford Graves, Badal Roy, Andrew Cyrille, Edgar Bateman, Nasheet Waits, Jay Rosen, William Hooker, Lou Grassi, Ian Ash, Lukas Ligeti, Shiro Onuma, Michael Lopez, and many others. In the 1980’s he worked with Jeff Buckley, Paul Gilbert and in R&B bands. His trio, TOTEM>, includes Tom Blancarte and Andrew Drury.