Can there be meaning in noise?

Xdementia’s thread, “Just about the sound” at the Troniks board has provided me some really interesting thoughts to chew on for the past few days. Originally started to pursue the tempting idea that Noise works are perhaps more entangled with overall concept, packaging, and presentation than works in other music circles; I ended up posting about my concept of Noise being meaningless by nature:

 As I see it, when you’re trying to say something, that’s not noise. It’s purposeful, it’s directed, even if at first apprehension it seems chaotic. the INTENT is to communicate. Music is a form of communication, and I think all music attempts to be meaningful– I say “attempts,” because obviously some fails. I don’t think it’s important to consider how much, or how complex this meaning is.

On the other hand, I believe noise is sound without intent. Regardless of its complexity, if no message is intended, it’s not communicating anything– even if the listeners chooses to appreciate it as they do art. It is much the same as I might appreciate an interesting mineral or seashell… I can enjoy its form (and perhaps even its sense of order) but I can’t rationally believe that the mineral is communicating something to me.

I’m still very much undecided about whether this makes noise “art” or not, so I’d rather not go that far in the discussion yet.

For me, part of the allure of noise is that, in the most enjoyable instances, it is far too much for me to take in. I become highly aware that I am unable to really hear all parts of the work at once– like trying to hold onto too many items, it seems a few parts are constantly being dropped in order to grasp others.

In this way, I find noise to be a very humbling thing. It resists the urge to for me to understand it, or for me to control it in some way. It is senseless and incoherent, like the ocean– seemingly existing on its own terms, regardless of my will.

Putting meaning to noise fundamentally changes it, because it provides a way for our self to understand it, thus asserting a measure of control. The sounds themselves may remain the same, but the overall experience is quite different. It is very much like bottling sea water… yes, it is still salt water from the ocean, but could we properly call it a sea?

So far, the idea isn’t meeting with much of any positive reception… it’s been called everything from pointless to pretentious! Hal McGee had a few nice things to say, and at least seems willing to consider it… although he seems to feel I’ve painted too bleak a picture to be useful:

DaveX does make some interesting points, and I think that his definition of what Noise is (or isn’t) is compelling. But I can’t say that I agree with it. Noise as he describes it really only exists outside the sphere of human influence. Noise and music as we know them clearly do exist within the realm of human activity. When I walk down the street and I hear birds singing, and a baby crying, and an automobile engine starting up, etc., I can organize these sounds in my mind.

I make choices about how the sounds correspond to one another. If, for example, I decide that I am going to make a recording of sounds that occur in spite of me or without my involvement, it’s still no good… because the very act of turning the sound recorder on and off are based on choices. Turning the recorder on and off is like putting a frame around the sounds. It’s framing them in a certain way that says these sounds recorded during the time that the recorder was on are part of the audio work and sounds that occurred before and after are not part of the audio work.

Noise in the sense that DaveX explains it clearly exists outside of art, outside of music. Once you record something it’s not noise any more.”

What do you think?

One Response to “Can there be meaning in noise?”

  1. kingo sleemer Says:

    I’m mulling. Give me a second to mull.

    Hmm… No, not done mulling. Hold on.

    First, I disagree that noise is, by definition, “meaningless by nature.” At least as long as we’re talking about noise on a medium meant to be listened (and re-listened) to. I come down somewhere close to where that Hal McGee person comes down (not just because I love his first name,) but I wouldn’t take it that far. Where he says, “It’s framing them in a certain way that says these sounds recorded during the time that the recorder was on are part of the audio work and sounds that occurred before and after are not part of the audio work,” I think that’s just a tautology, as is “Once you record something it’s not noise any more.” I don’t think those statements are clarifying anything at all.

    For example, say I’m walking around with my minidisc recorder and I just push the record button on a whim and let it record for an hour. If my intent in doing that is to record something that says, “this is what it sounded like around me for an hour at some semi-randomly determined time of the day,” then there’s some attempt to convey a message. But if I hit that button just because it was red and I happened to see it at that particular moment of the day, I contend that there’s no intended message.

    Further: what about when you record a song and there’s noise on it? A lot of people do a lot of fighting to make sure that doesn’t happen; some people less so. But either way, when stray sound, sound the performer/recordist didn’t intend to be recorded shows up in a recorded work, is that somehow “not noise any more?” If so, you’re just re-defining “noise” to mean something other than what it means.

    Still, like I said I don’t entirely agree with you. “Meaningless” is a powerful, heavy word. Even if there’s no intention of meaning behind a piece of noise, recorded or not, it can still have meaning for the listener. It can have INTENSE meaning for the listener. That piece of stray noise in a recorded song might be missed by 999 out of 1000 listeners, but, for the thousandth, it might be the centerpiece of the whole work. It might say something. Same for an entire recording made of undirected sound. People can find meaning in those things.

    Now, what’s also going on here I think is we’re playing with the meaning of the word “meaning.” I would 100% agree with the contention that real noise is not a medium for conveying an intentional message of anything but the most rudimentary kind. In fact that’s the definition of noise, isn’t it? Noise is the part of something that distracts from the clarity of that thing, decreasing the resolution of the message.

    But in that way — how does noise ever stand alone? What is noise, in that sense, if it isn’t a part of some signal? Like light and dark, you can’t really have the noise without the not-noise.

    This is a great way to distract me from every damned thing I’m supposed to be doing.

    Finally, I love this: “It is senseless and incoherent, like the ocean– seemingly existing on its own terms, regardless of my will.”

    Even IF I’d have to put a big asterisk behind that “seemingly” part if what I said above is to hold — noise can’t, by definition, exist on its own terms, it has to be defined by what’s around it. I think. Maybe.

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