The word ‘noise’ carries a myriad of definitions, forms, and qualities, each with their own separate connotations. In the audio and musical sense of the word, it’s basically “undesired sound,” and is generally to be avoided at all costs. In the artistic sense, however, it’s a musical tool that can be used to enhance any piece of music or stand alone as music itself. During the late 20th century, noise grew to become a staple of music as well as its own genre with dozens of subgenres and scenes worldwide. While noise is inherently an abrasive and off-putting form of sound, it made its way into the modern vernacular of music in the sense that the musical world allowed noise inside it. It’s a reflection of our daily lives, the one filled with tons of every day non-musical sounds that carry an undeniably relatable quality.
Noise as a genre inherently desires to break down the very definition of music itself into something more conceptual and allows the room for creativity to be nearly limitless. Shedding the grid and requirements of typical music offers a sort of freedom that’s not found in other genres. Noisy elements in music are the recreation of our modern world, put into a musical context and used to embellish the artform into something greater.
The origins of noise music, as in, the community of sound manipulators that makes up the entire genre of purposely inaccessible music, began in the ’30s and ’40s as an academic pursuit. A bunch of composers started playing with the first electronically generated soundwaves using frequency oscillators, modulators, and tape recorders to make something completely new and different that the world had never heard. Composers such as John Cage, Steve Reich, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Pierre Schaefer came out of the scene and took with them huge innovations in the art of music composition and audio technology far and beyond its perceived borders. These early instruments gave birth to the first synthesizers, musique concrète (the first forms of sampling), and the concept of electroacoustics, meaning the space in which music exists electronically.
Once you hit record, you’re transcending music into a different medium. It stops being organic and turns into something wholly electronic and at the mercy of the artist. These early forms of music were extremely avant-garde and purposely challenged the listener and artist at all times. It assumed a degree of knowledge on the listener’s part and was often made more for their peers than a general audience. For real, it’s some of the craziest shit you’ll ever hear. However, the sounds created in this era were incredibly groundbreaking and inspired countless artists that were fortunate enough to stumble upon this odd and intense scene. Probably the most mainstream interpretation of this music is The Beatles’ “Revolution 9”, and was mostly influenced by Yoko Ono’s participation in the experimental art ensemble Fluxus, which came out of the experimental scene.
Once the outcomes of the scene hit the market, it changed the landscape of popular music forever. Robert Moog premiered the first commercially available synthesizer in 1967, which took modular equipment out of the laboratory and into the hands of musicians that were smack-dab in the middle of the most creative and boundary-pushing era of music the world had ever seen. Recorded music already contained an unavoidable analog hiss, which was magnified when played over the radio, making crisp, noise-free recordings nearly impossible. In the ’50s, producer Phil Spector used this effect to his advantage, and combined newly invented artificial reverb effects with precise and inventive mixing techniques to create his famous “wall of sound” effect that was representative of the time. This carried into the next stage of rock and roll, which began to embrace newly-discovered effects such as distortion and delay. Rock embraced a more electric approach with Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, and The Velvet Underground. With the advent of psychedelic rock and protopunk during the ’60s and ’70s came a wave of noise elements in mainstream music in the form of synths, delay, and distortion. These set the stage for the experimental sounds that were to come.
This eventual build-up of noise coming from both the proto-punk and psychedelic rock scene led into Lou Reed’s 1975 album Metal Machine Music, which was his sneering response to the record label demanding another release from him. A divisive record, it forced purefuckingnoise music into the forefront of legitimate rock music and allowed listeners to regard it as something tangible. Most didn’t, and the album littered dollar bins and clearance aisles of record stores for decades. The album was a landmark statement, however, and, like The Velvet Underground & Nico, it inspired countless artists to create noise music of their own, specifically in the industrial rock and no wave scenes that set the stage for the next decade of underground music. It also gave noise music its tongue-in-cheek snarky quality, bringing a sense of self-awareness in the form of “yeah, we know what we’re doing is crazy.” Moving into the ’80s, a wealth of noise music began to pop up globally and some of the first pure noise albums were released in the scenes of punk and rock music. Throbbing Gristle, Einstruzende Neubauten, and Sonic Youth were at the forefront of their respective scenes, breaking ground in rock music and taking it into uncharted territory. Glenn Branca and Thurston Moore ruled over New York’s noise rock scene, hosting many nights of abrasive shit that daring art lovers and intense punks would stick around to enjoy. In addition to these fringe scenes that peppered the experimental rock world, noise elements were being developed in an unlikely place: hip-hop. The turntable scratch became a staple of the genre and inspired a new generation of artists to use whatever instruments were at their disposal, those instruments being turntables and records. This scene birthed a new type of noise solo, one that was wholly urban and tactful. While noise rap wouldn’t become a recognized genre until the late-2000s, sprung by artists such as Saul Williams and Dälek that were influenced by DJ Premier’s turbulent instrumentals, the talent and creativity of the DJs who birthed the genre is hard to understate.
As a genre, noise music is most often coupled with performance art. Intense, sometimes destructive performances come packaged with a live noise set, and feature things such as self-harm, creation and destruction, screaming, interpretive dance, fog, lights, whatever the artist can get their hands on. The noise scene in Japan is hard to gloss over, with their extremely visceral movement being birthed out of punk and hardcore. The crazy live performances by groups such as Hijokaidan and The Gerogerigegege would embarrass even GG Allin, including live defecation, ejaculation, as well as Hanatarash’s last performance which involved destroying the venue with a bulldozer. Part of the cause of this scene was the inevitable growth of rock music into something darker and harsher, punks wanting to be more abrasive, more grating, and stray further from the norm, except they took it to further and further extremes. Merzbow is perhaps the most notable and famous artist to come out of the scene, taking Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music and expanding the concept into something 10 times the value.
The late ’80s and ’90s gave the world new forms of digital audio, changing the landscape of recording and turned the format of music into something more readily accessible and completely new. Trent Reznor’s use of digital audio to enhance his records used new forms of digital noise that were previously impossible. While anyone can easily turn the knobs on their amp up to 10 and wreck a venue, the more profound innovations that Merzbow and Ryoji Ikeda were doing required something more technologically advanced to create their music. Aphex Twin, Autechre, and Ryoji Ikeda’s work in the ’90s used the beginnings of digital audio and manipulated it into something completely and literally unheard of, birthing glitch.
Glitch music is a unique invention that succeeds in being the “aesthetics of failure,” as composer Kim Cascone describes it. The use of CD skipping, low bitrate, digital distortion, and circuit bending creates something wholly post-digital, and elements of glitch are ever-present in the current landscape of electronic dance. The dawn of the 21st century is when the technology was great enough that professional high-fidelity audio processing fell into the hands of the average artist and allowed previously underground and mostly unheard sounds to slowly be ushered into the mainstream. One of the biggest innovations that came with the new millennium was elastic audio, also known as warping, depending on which DAW you’re using. The process of time stretching audio clips and turning them into something completely different was almost impossible in the 20th century, and producers quickly noticed the creative potential as newer and newer programs came out. While originally designed to tempo match different audio clips to the same grid, producers used it to fuck up vocal tracks and distort and time stretch drum loops.
Following this, noise found itself in the electronic music scene, using new techniques for distorting kicks, layering, and using production techniques that had finally become accessible. Styles such as IDM, gabber, digital hardcore, and French house began to emerge, turning what was once a simplistic genre of dance music into something more harsh and complex. Different genres began popping up throughout major European cities, with the Netherlands adopting hardcore techno with Neophyte and Mokum Records, the UK producing IDM and Germany helming digital hardcore with Alec Empire. The noisy and distorted French house scene sported producers such as Justice, Mr. Oizo, and Sebastian, and their loud and highly compressed mixes set the stage for what was to become the biggest electronic music boom ever seen, and brought straight-up noise solos disguised as dance music to the mainstream in the 2010s. Dubstep typically isn’t what people think of when they think noise music, but at the end of the day, most drops are just highly embellished noise solos. The use of sampling, elastic audio, and glitch are dubstep’s prime characteristics, and Skrillex’s first tracks are more reminiscent of the noisy French house scene than UK dubstep.
The state of noise music today is a highly textured and somewhat fragmented landscape. Labels like Halcyon Veil, Deathbomb Arc, and TAR specialize in electroacoustic fusions of mainstream genres coupled with a DIY sensibility, continuing the cassette culture that noise is known for. Artists like SOPHIE, JPEGMAFIA, and Arca are some of the most current notable artists that are breaking down barriers to create some real electroacoustic and noisy music that crosses over into popular genres. The progress of music technology, specifically the advent and evolution of DAWs such as Pro Tools, Logic, and Ableton, has caused a notable boom in the quality and sonic texture of electronic music. Mixing is no longer a niche job and learning it is becoming par for the course for a lot of producers. Thanks to YouTube tutorials and bootleg plugins, even the most amateur artist’s sound can be taken to heightened levels that were unachievable for the DIY musician 20 years ago. Adolescents that grew up hearing nasty orgies of dubstep drops and silly noise samples play in countless gaming videos and AMVs are now old enough to attend clubs and struggle with the limitless possibilities available in their favorite DAW.
In 1913, an Italian artist and musician named Luigi Russolo printed his manifesto The Art of Noises, in which he described noise as the ordinary sounds that make up life. He drew conclusions aimed at what he deemed as “futurist composers,” and stated, among other things, that they should strive to create music that uses the infinite timbres in noise. He held a concert with his own homemade noise machines that was met with incredulous rage from the audience, who ended up destroying his instruments. One hundred years later, popular dance music embraces the din of modern digital and urban ambiance, filling up stadiums and festival grounds to people anxiously awaiting hyped-up drops that are fraught with noise. Luigi’s predictions are surprisingly apt and most noise artists, knowingly or not, have followed these conclusions and vindicated this outcasted Italian painter. Noise is, and will continue to be, a staple of music, and it’s only gonna get noisier and more embedded as a legitimate musical tool as time goes on. The oft-parodied phrase “turn that noise off” has become a reality, and as technology grows, more and more forms of noise will be added into the continuing cycle of popular music.
If you wanna hear the history of this genre, attached is a 50-track playlist outlining the range and history of noise spanning over 100 years: