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Narrative and Noise
For all its suggestions of narrative, Pandemonium relied heavily on an ostensibly abstract form of instrumental music. Classical Western art music traditionally has worked to exclude any sound that would reference the world at large. Allusive sound is barred in music’s very structure, which divides musical tone (sounds with periodic vibrations such as tuned instruments and vocal chords) from noise (ambient or concrete sounds with nonperiodic vibrations).  As media arts scholar Douglas Kahn explains in his 1999 book Noise, Water, Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts, Western art music has, “long-standing habits of imagining that sounds transcend or escape meaning or that sounds elude sociality despite the fact they are made, heard, imagined, and thought by humans.”  Kahn refers to conventions that hold ‘absolute music’ to be fundamentally abstract and therefore require composers to banish narrative and purge their work of imitative sounds. Modern music issued a series of challenges to this taboo, however, and Pandemonium compressed a host of these referential strategies into its sixteen minutes.In the 1830s, European programme music set out deliberately to evoke extra-musical narratives.  The genre takes its name from written program notes that often parsed musical movements into narrative episodes for the listener. Though programme music actually predates the nineteenth century and intersects with ongoing practices of opera, ballet, and film scoring, it was codified and most richly exploited in the Romantic period contemporaneous with Eastern State Penitentiary’s early history.  Programme music relies on synesthetic correspondences between music and visual arts or lyric poetry to evoke colorful associations in the listener’s mind. Hector Berlioz’s (1803–1869) psychedelic Symphonie fantastique (1830), for example, represented with ninety instruments the experiences of a love-stricken artist as he poisoned himself with opium. Modest Mussorgsky's (1839–1881) Pictures at an Exhibition (1874) simulated with piano an attentive promenade through the galleries.Approaching the twentieth century, programme music sharpened into singular character studies or impressions of phenomena as in Richard Strauss’s (1864–1949) tone poem Don Quixote (1897) and Claude Debussy’s (1862–1918) ‘Nocturnes.’  Debussy’s focused sonic images, the sea in La Mer (1903–1905) for example, pushed the idea of musical tone as coloristic timbre to such an extreme that it exceeded programme music’s representational calling and ushered in a modern mode of expressive abstraction. Debussy played with timbre and intensely delayed crescendos to “free music from formal convention.”  In Jeux (1912), his last orchestral work, Debussy’s experiments took “cinematographic form . . . [through] constant motivic renewal in which undulating fragments gradually evolve into a scalar theme which is itself broken off at its violent climax.”  Pandemonium seems to reference this formal shift from Romantic to modern music by fluctuating between narrative episodes and phenomenally textured passages and culminating in its own delayed climax.In the twentieth century, noise replaced narrative as the material with which to challenge and innervate music. The avant-garde sought to make available to music material heretofore excluded.  Artists denaturalized the distinction between tone and noise, demonstrating that non-periodic vibrations were in fact resident in all sounds—in the initial sounding of a tone, for example, and in the enunciation of consonants.  Rather than transgress musical convention entirely, experimental musicians recuperated noise in a way that corresponded with preexisting elements of Western art music or could be appropriated from non-Western musical sources: dissonance, timbre, and percussion.  These they organized into music’s rhythmic structures. Noises that refused to let go of mimetic qualities they further manipulated through mechanical processes. In his 1913 Art of Noises manifesto, Italian futurist Luigi Russolo (1885–1947) argued for an expansion of musical timbre to include the entire spectrum of concrete sounds that animate the modern, mechanized world. He declared:We will delight in distinguishing the eddying of water, of air or gas in metal pipes, the muttering of motors that breathe and pulse with an indisputable animality, the throbbing of valves, the bustle of pistons, the shrieks of mechanical saws . . . Russolo outright rejected the distinction of tone and noise, arguing that all noises could be assigned a degree of pitch that would make it possible to organize them relative to one another “rhythmically and harmonically.”  A year later, Russolo debuted the Intonorumori, an acoustic sound generator built to execute these principles by mechanically manipulating noises into usable, areferential form. 
In the 1920s, blues singers Ma Rainey (1886–1939) and Bessie Smith (1894–1937) made of their voices modern noise instruments, reaching millions of listeners with now-classic recordings then at technology’s cutting edge. Rainey and Smith made meaning out of the very vibrations of their vocal chords, by turns growling and explosive.  They exploited timbre, texture, pacing, and diaphragmatic strength to deliver words in such a way as to overpower and subvert their denotative functions. They absorbed syncopated rhythms of the train or the modern city into a thoroughly musical organization.  Marshaling call-and-response, the core blues pattern which also structures Pandemonium, they raised collective consciousness to protest the status quo while sustaining individual agency within multiple, simultaneous perspectives. Edgard Varèse (1883–1965) honed in on noise at newly perceptible, molecular levels. He defined music open-endedly as “organized sound,” clarifying that noise was nothing more than a cultural construct— “any sound one doesn’t like.”  Scored for thirteen players negotiating an eclectic array of forty percussion instruments, his Ionisation (1933) is a thrumming five minutes forty-five seconds of rhythmic counterpoint:
Opening with a hushed murmur of bass drums, gongs and hand-cranked sirens, the music picks up momentum in its ninth measure when a military snare drum raps a jagged tattoo, bongos burbling alongside. A smaller snare drum chatters in contrast; maracas, claves, tambourine and guiro (a scraped gourd) form an insect chorus in the background . . . sirens and clanking anvils evoke an urban jungle. Rude eruptions repeatedly jut through simmering surfaces. In the last 17 bars a celesta and tubular bells produce the work’s only definite pitches; also added is a piano, its keys mashed in clusters with a forearm. The piece ends as mysteriously as it began, with a sonorous pianissimo fermata. Ionisation elicits rhythm and timbre from objects of unstable pitch.  Its narrative program, if it has one, relates to the process by which the movement of electrons reverses the charge of an atom, anticipating electronic music after the late 1950s that would, “[work] with nothing but flows of electrons run through filters and modulators . . . to produce a deeply physical and elemental form of music.”  Ionisation’s military and jungle motifs created a metaphoric atmosphere for molecular attraction and repulsion. Varèse’s use of the siren was an especially potent musicalization of noise, organizing a diverse world of sounds into a “gradient of all possible pitches.”  Kahn describes such glissandi as “the perfect modernist anthem,” balancing form and subject matter in “beautiful parabolas of sound” that evoked the droning modern city. Already in the 1920s, George Antheil (1900–1959) put siren and electric instruments to use to modernize the ballet score. He responded to Ferdinand Léger’s commission for music to accompany screenings of Ballet mécanique (1924) with a composition for, “electric bells, hammers on anvils, car horns, and mechanical pianos.”  A switchboard sat at the center of Antheil’s sound universe. His 1925 score for “Mr. Bloom and the Cyclops,” for example, features a switchboard controlling sixteen mechanical pianos, eight xylophones, and an orchestral array of instruments transmitted by gramophones.  Pandemonium’s very functionality depended on a late-twentieth-century adaptation of the player pianos used by Antheil that were at peak commercial prominence in the 1920s; its MIDI system evoked Antheil’s switchboard actuators.In the second half of the twentieth century, artists pushed the amplitude of noise—volume—to the limits of human hearing. John Cage (1912–1992) amplified barely audible sounds, demonstrating that noise is pervasive and silence a myth.  Cage frequently recounted the strong impression made on him by a visit to the anechoic chamber at Harvard University in 1951.  In this space of near-total sensory deprivation he heard two sounds, one high and one low. The engineer in charge explained that these noises were Cage’s nervous system in operation and his blood in circulation. No matter how deprived its environment the human body—indeed all matter—generates energetic sound.  Cage’s student the fluxus artist Dick Higgins (1938–1998) mined the opposite pole of the immersive noise spectrum with works like Loud Symphony (1958), screeching feedback generated by his passing a microphone in front of a loudspeaker for half an hour.  Higgins and his peers, especially La Monte Young (b. 1935), explored loudness as a way to listen to music from within, “establishing a common space of auditive being for both the musicians and the audience,” where individual autonomy seemed to evaporate into vibrant, collective being. In the rock and roll arena, music crossed a noise threshold in 1969 when Jimi Hendrix (1942–1970) addressed the crowd at Woodstock with the Star Spangled Banner, his protest wailing through amplifiers powered at ten watts and hooked up to sixteen massive loudspeakers.  Bands like Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, and The Who broke records in the 1970s with concerts exceeding 120 decibels. Noise defined the countercultural punk aesthetic of the mid-1970s and 1980s, proponents of which boycotted musical technique in protest of its complicity in consumer culture.  A subsequent wave of anti-establishment noise bands salvaged industrial refuse, using sheet metal and oil drums as instruments.  A powerful interface of noise, rhythm, and identity politics propelled Afro-diasporic electronic music in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, as traced in the Black Audio Film Collective’s documentary The Last Angel of History (1995) from a pre-history in the blues of Robert Johnson (1911–1938) to the avant-garde jazz of Sun Ra (1914–1993), futuristic funk of George Clinton (b. 1941), Detroit techno of Derrick May (b. 1963), and on into the future.