Noise as a musical metaphor for contemporary aesthetics in popular culture.
Exemplified by the Works of Throbbing Gristle
Zachęta National Art Gallery, Warsaw (PL), 12/5/2010
In this lecture I want to present a framework of how to cope with Noise as one of the most prominent, still widely neglected academically phenomena in contemporary music and popular culture. In doing so, I decided to discuss Throbbing Gristle.
The London-based group Throbbing Gristle (TG) originally existed from 1976 to 1981, comprising the two conceptual art performers Genesis P-Orridge and Cosey Fanni Tutti and the two electronic musicians Chris Carter and Peter Christopherson. One of their friends, Monte Cazazza, had coined the slogan “Industrial Music for Industrial people”, a slogan that later constituted an entire genre of music. In 2005, TG decided to return to the stage and since then, they have gained massive attention, especially in the art world. The last years have seen some publications on the Industrial genre, amongst others Simon Ford’s book “Wreckers on Civilisation” (2001), which is one of the most coherent on the topic.
I will use the artistic interventions of Throbbing Gristle as a reference point for some general thoughts on Noise music. I see industrial as one development of Noise music and as a prominent aspect within late 20th. century avant-garde music.
My lecture is divided in three parts:
1)An introduction to theoretical discourses and a brief abstract of the historical framework of Noise music
2)The history of TG
3)The “practical” side of it: A sound-lecture would be nothing without images, music or films.
I want to begin the theoretical part by arguing the following:
Noise can be considered as the maximum compression of information within a certain framework of space and time. If we consider music in the light of the Futurist Luigi Russolo and of John Cage, music no longer has to be a canonized system of notes but can be understood as a structure of organized audio phenomena. It’s the same argument posited with Marcel Duchamp's Readymades: everything then becomes a sonic quantum. The result is a radical democratisation of sounds in comparison to music.
As the French scholar Jacques Attali has put it in his ground-breaking essay “Noise: The Political Economy of Music” from 1985: Noise lets us hear the audio-signals of the future, as we, the listeners, have not yet arrived at an adequate system of references to decipher these audio-signals as a new semiotic gesture. He argues that “the noises of a society are in advance of its images and material conflicts” (11) and continues: “It is necessary to imagine radically new theoretical forms in order to speak of new realities. Music, the organisation of noise, is one such form. It reflects the manufacture of society; it constitutes the audible waveband of the vibrations and signs that make up society. With noise is born disorder and its opposite: the world. With music is born power and its opposite: subversion”. (6)
The English scholar Paul Hegarty adds in his book “Noise/music”(2007): “Noise is an excess, is thought of as being too much, and for human hearing, this occurs almost entirely through cultural perceptions, and individual reactions within that framework.” (4)
Noise music is not a sonic disturbance but a strategy to make political and socio-economic structures audible. Noise isn’t necessarily “loud”; but it is much more fun to use the whole body as a target-field for sonic assaults.
Some further biographical notes on TG now: Developing from the performance group COUM Transmissions, which had been founded by P-Orridge and Tutti in 1969, Throbbing Gristle released only five official albums on their label Industrial Records plus some extra records like the soundtrack for the film “In The Shadow Of The Sun” by Derek Jarman. Apart from a massive corpus of live cassettes, the label released the output of bands like SPK, Cabaret Voltaire or William Burroughs.
Most prominently known for their bruitistic sound experiments and deviant iconography, they also released some fine, Giorgio-Moroder-like Roboter-Disco-tracks like “Adrenalin” or “Hot on the Heels of Love” from 1978. They became one of the most cited underground bands and inspired legions of other bands, ranging from Einstürzende Neubauten to Nine Inch Nails, Pan Sonic or the Polish avant-garde band Za Siódmą Górą. If you search in Google, TG produces more than 350.000 hits.
In 1975 Lou Reed released his ground-breaking noise-record “Metal Machine Music”, two years later TG came up with their vinyl debut “2nd Annual Report”. In 1980, the Australian band SPK released “Information Overload Unit”, another pioneering Industrial LP and again five years later Attali’s book “Noise” was published in English.
In “Industrial Culture”, from 1983, one of the most essential books on the topic, music journalist Jon Savage outlines five characteristics of early Industrial music:
1) organizational autonomy,
2) access to information,
3) use of synthesizers and anti-music,
4) extra musical elements,
5) shock tactics.
P-Orridge told Savage in an interview from that period:
“We’re interested in information, we’re not interested in music as such. And we believe that the whole battlefield, if there is one in the human situation, is about information. We’re interested in taboos, what the boundaries are, where sound became noise and where noise became music and where entertainment became pain and where pain became entertainment. All contradictions of culture”.
That’s why their quite ambivalent album “Greatest” features the sub-headline “Entertainment through pain” on its cover and why in its images the album quotes the American Easy-Listening-/ Exotica-composer Martin Denny.
In 1949, the American mathematician Claude Shannon developed an Information-Communication model, in which Noise is that part of information which doesn’t contain concrete content and thus is diffuse and redundant. If we stay with this definition, Noise can be compared to the interval, defined by Gilles Deleuze. The interval in this sense is the place where “nothing” happens, the “place in-between”. It is not necessarily the beat that defines musical genres, but the time in between the beats; what in Dub music is called “space”. Through a reverse thought, the interval becomes exactly the place of Noise because it is here that all the information is stored, it opens the sonic text to the future, to the next note or the next break. The musical creation out of Noise, out of the interval, is nothing other than what Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek – referring to Lacan – calls “the creation out of nothingness”. Noise constantly produces its own simulacrum through its affirmation of “nothingness” and its rejection of “traditional western values” like rhythm, melody and cadence. Out of its compression of time and space, it generates an information overload unit, an excessive “too much”. Noise is the accompanying soundtrack of the desert of (Lacan’s) Real.
In the last one hundred years, numerous artistic articulations have dealt with the phenomenon of how to “audio-picture” modern life’s necessities in an industrialized environment and revealed repetition as its paradigmatic sonic score. Futurism and Constructivism can be considered as crucial innovations due to the way in which they broadened the sound spectrum with “non-musical” elements like the noises of cars, airplanes, factories and other acoustic manifestations, trying to “audio-picture” the surrounding social noise; Or, what Russian film director Dziga Vertov, in his famous “Kino-Glaz” theory from 1925, had termed “life-facts”. In the middle and late 70s, industrial musicians executed these “life-facts” by reflecting the social grievances and conservative bureaucracies in societies with strong social and hierarchical divides. Industrial musicians would break with musical traditions, mainly understood as an appropriation of self-definition of music and of self-empowerment.
Yet was this also not the case with for example. the “Viennese school” of Schoenberg or Webern, or with Edgar Varèse and Penderecki? This line of reference can be traced back to “Le Sacre du printemps” by Igor Stravinsky (1913) or Eric Satie’s “Parade” (1917), to John Cage, Stockhausen, Tony Conrad and numerous others, nowadays mostly present in works of notorious Noise artists like Merzbow from Japan, The Haters from Canada or Whitehouse from Great Britain. The striking difference to the previously mentioned compositions is that practically all industrial musicians were auto-didactic composers who didn’t want to make music as such – let’s remember the quote of P-Orridge in the beginning.
By discussing Industrial as one occurrence of Noise music, I want to refer to topics like “control”, “power”, “the body” and “production”. Industrial owed much to the “Do it yourself”-approach of Punk and Fluxus. Thinking of COUM, the Viennese Aktionism in the mid-60s also can be named as one of the paradigmatic interdisciplinary artistic articulations – which is putting the body in question and occupying it as a symbolic battlefield. The Aktionism-inspired, but already diluted body-politics of Punk were absorbed by Industrial, highlighting the concepts of the “Materialaktionen” – as a loss of control and power over one’s own body.
As in Aktionism, we have to think of industrial as a genre that identified “the” industry as a synonym for conservatism, an industry that used mass-produced and fascistic strategies for surveillance and suppression. It seems emblematic that industrial provoked deviant aesthetics, as it produced semiotic disturbances through cut-ups of the media, inspired by the notorious Beat-poet William S. Burroughs. Materials were removed from their restricted economy of usefulness. Or, to put it metaphorically, the sense of a user’s manual of a synthesizer was not to read it but to make a cut-up out of it using scissors and glue.
The fascination with machines opened up a field of discourse that is most significantly exemplified by a line of reference from Fritz Lang's film “Metropolis” (1926) to the band Kraftwerk and then to Techno. The mechanisation of production had caused a major loss of the auratic moment of the piece of art. Bearing in mind Walter Benjamin's text “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936) but at the same time that the possibility of mechanized reproduction would extinguish the bourgeois idea of the artist as a genius, which meant a democratisation of facilities, knowledge and acquirement.
The dependence on the mercy of prototypical machines dislocated the artists’ settings of control outside of them. This conscious loss of control was practised as a response to the feelings of social repression within a society of control, as outlined by Foucault’s concept of “Discipline and Punish”. That’s why many Noise artists offer a vast catalogue of live recordings and integrate the affirmation of the atavistic and the primitive. Finally, autonomous label structures guaranteed an output that would blow away Adorno’s theories of the “culture industry”.
In no other country than England, the native land of the industrial revolution, would the evolution of Industrial music have made more sense. P-Orridge once said that they wanted to transfer the music of the time of slavery, Blues and the whole tradition of rock music, to the industrial era. In that respect, the change from guitar to synthesizer bore a political connotation as well.
What brought TG the freedom to record tracks like “Zyklon B Zombie”, to name one of their manifestos “Freedom is a sickness” or their studio “The Death Factory”, to use a picture of the Auschwitz crematorium for their label logo and to use a lightning flash for their band-logo that resembles both the the sign for high voltage but also the SS-rune? As a first answer, TG liked to refer to the aphorism of the Spanish philosopher Georges Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. Music critic Brian Duguid wrote in 1995: “Throwing the establishment’s own excrements back into the throat is sure to result in a nauseous reaction. For groups intending on outraging society, fascism was a powerful weapon. With methods you had for doing so were those that the authorities had themselves taught you.”
In the times between the decay of Punk and the foreshadowing of the English neo-conservatism known as Thatcherism –, TG's sonic warfare formed one of the first indications of the arrival of the media- and information-society.
TG’s attacks on established modes of listening drew its most powerful legitimation from the parent generation’s coming to terms with the past and from Punk: both were considered on the one hand to be too much programmed in the direction of de-escalation and on the other hand too much occupied with a pseudo-rehabilitation of the past. They used Fascist semiotics to fight the politics of historical exclusion and its culture of silencing it. Or, metaphorically speaking: TG sought to destroy that freedom which had been cynically promised by the Nazis to around one million people, when passing the gates of the concentration camp in Auschwitz which bore the slogan “Arbeit macht frei” (“work will set you free”). This perverseness of freedom could only be wiped out by perverting it. In their artistic expressions, TG synchronized economic concepts like Fordism, exemplified by the assembly-line which was felt to be inhuman, with the factory-like killing machines of the Third Reich. Their noise of factories was the noise of decaying factories, of a society in decomposition. Their 1980 single “Zyklon B Zombie” sold more than 20.000 copies and became one of the “hit”-tracks of the band. Listen closely to the noises at the end of the track which are a sample from a train that arrives at a concentration camp.
Following this, I will show you an excerpt of the video “Discipline”. “Discipline” was a kind of blueprint in the output of TG and typical for their inversion of the inversion. Released in 1981 as a 12” single, the band, standing in front of the former ministry of propaganda in Berlin and wearing self-designed camouflage uniforms, proclaimed: “We need some discipline in here!”. The dry lyrics are overlaid by a massive, ear-piercing noise, however the beats make “Discipline” quite danceable. Consequently, these quasi-dictatorial agitations were barked during live shows in Berlin, which was so to speak the former centre of evil and in Manchester, a centre of the industrial revolution. TG confronted themselves and the audience with a harsh exorcism of the industrial revolution. From this catharsis, there was no way back. As a consequence, they declared shortly after “The mission is terminated”.
To end my lecture, I want to return to some more general thoughts on Noise and on Industrial. Industrial dealt with established taboos by breaking them, their brutal sounds and images merged into transgression. But this transgression in the sense of the French writer George Bataille can’t last for long, as it would become just another boring permanence of the norm itself. Bataille wrote in “Eroticism” (1957) that “transgression suspends a taboo without suppressing it”. From that we can say that for transgression the need for taboos is essential. There can’t be any doubt that TG’s use of Fascist signs arose from an anti-fascist ideology. But way too many people saw in TG only the “wreckers of civilisation” and TG’s martial and national-socialist iconography would open the field for many stupid followers who did not take into account their cynical and even funny tactics of social confusion. Think again of the reference to Martin Denny in TG’s “Greatest Hits” or the picture of Chris Carter on the album “Heathen Earth” (1980), wearing on his shirt a sticker of the Swedish super-pop-group ABBA.
Most of what I have exemplified so far draws its parameters from an analogue age. The digital version of this, to move from the industrial revolution to the revolution of information and its rhizomatic, de-centralized networks of gathering and storing information, is still to come. Nowadays, if you want to produce a contemporary sound-work, you no longer have to compete with the sounds of factories but with those of urban traffic in mega cities, of earthquake simulators, tankships, super-fast computer networks, transatlantic airplanes or sound weapons and cyber organics.
Still, there is no serious debate about how to handle Noise if the sound-tools and its aesthetics are available in every supermarket around the corner; Which means that Noise, the “sound of nothingness”, has become omnipresent.
Noise makes audible the fragile order of chaos, but what to do in a social framework that seems to be obsessed by a paradoxical symptom of total freedom that just looks like the reverse side of the coin called control? Noise music offers a good example of how to overcome repression – but how to cope with Noise if is no longer an exception but a permanent state of existence?
Attali, Jacques (1985): Noise. The Political Economy of Music. Theory and history of literature, Vol. 16, Manchester University Press.
Duguid, Brian (1995): The Unacceptable Face of Freedom. http://media.hyperreal.org/zines/est/articles/freedom.html
Ford, Simon (2001): Wreckers of Civilisation. The Story of COUM Transmissions& Throbbing Gristle. Black Dog Publishing.
Hegarty, Paul (2007): Noise/music. A History. Continuum.
Re/Search Publications (1983): Industrial Culture Handbook. Re/Search, San Francisco. http://researchpubs.com
Throbbing Gristle: www.throbbing-gristle.com