Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Elliott Sharp



Elliott Sharp (2000)

Elliott Sharp is a multi-instrumentalist and composer who plays electric guitar, steel guitar, bass guitar, soprano saxophone, bass clarinet, and other instruments. Sharp studied music with Morton Feldman, was one of the first to use samplers and computers in performance, and is also an inventor of new instruments (eg. a combined string-percussion instrument called a Pantar, basses with movable bridges known as Slabs, etc.). His music is as influenced by Mandelbrot sets, the Fibonacci series, and chaos theory as it is by heavy metal rock (eg. his CD "Datacide"), Morroccan, klezmer, and contemporary classical music (eg. his string quartets "Hammer", "Re/Iterations", "Shapeshifter". "Twistmap", and "Tessalation Row"). For his Roulette TV performance, Sharp creates two improvisations, "Noospheric" for saxophone triggering electronic and percussion samples, and "Spliny Thicket" on his original eight-string guitar that also triggers samples and is processed digitally. In the subsequent thought-provoking interview, Sharp relates how mathmatics in his music changed the way he heard tuning and structure. He describes "Syndicate", a score played by his orchestra Carbon based on 144 composed fragments and a set of rules that has to do with lateral transmission of information, like the activity of flocking birds, African choir drumming, or large-scale quantum interchange. He draws a parallel between musical performance and Douglas Hofstader's concept of the "meme", or an idea as a virus introduced into the world.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Aesthetics of Noise



 
The Aesthetics of Noise
Torben Sangild




Noise can blow your head out. Noise is rage. Noise is ecstatic. Noise is psychedelic. Noise is often on the edge between annoyance and bliss. Noises are many things. Noise is a difficult concept to deal with.
Some would say that it is no longer meaningful to talk about noise as something special, since we have finally reached a state in which all sounds are equal. That may be so for certain avant-garde artists and advanced listeners, but I will assert that we still hear a difference between noise and more traditional musical sounds. Noises are the sounds which used to be denounced as non-musical. To include noise in music thus still has an effect and bears a certain aesthetic power. That power is the topic of this essay. To give an exhaustive explanation of it, though, is not only beyond the limits of an essay, but seems to be fundamentally impossible due to the evasiveness of the matter.1 There is a constant discrepancy between the essentially indescribable object and the attempt to verbalize and understand it. It is my hope that the following reflections are nevertheless able to sketch out an approach to understanding the important part noise plays in the music of today.
After defining noise and giving a brief history of noise in music, I will take a closer look at Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, Merzbow and Curd Duca as four very different aesthetic approaches to noise. Ranging from aggressive ecstasy to soft intimacy, from melodic sweetness to abstract hard-core noise, from the guitar to the computer, these examples serve to indicate the variety of noise in both rock music and electronica. Reflecting these in a broader perspective I will then turn to philosophical concepts such as the sublime, the Dionysian, multiplicity, and the abject.



What is noise?

Etymologically, the term "noise" in different Western languages (støj, bruit, Geräusch, larm etc.) refers to states of aggression, alarm and tension and to powerful sound phenomena in nature such as storm, thunder and the roaring sea. It is worth noting in particular that the word "noise" comes from Greek nausea, referring not only to the roaring sea, but also to seasickness, and that the German Geräusch is derived from rauschen (the sough of the wind), related to Rausch (ecstasy, intoxication), thus pointing towards some of the aesthetic, bodily effects of noise in music.
A single definition of noise is not possible; instead I will provide three basic definitions: an acoustic, a communicative and a subjective definition.

A. Acoustic noise
In the field of acoustics the concept of noise is in principle purely physically defined. Noises are sounds that are impure and irregular, neither tones nor rhythm - roaring, pealing, blurry sounds with a lot of simultaneous frequencies, as opposed to a rounded sound with a basic frequency and its related overtones. To name different kinds of noise, synaesthetic metaphors are derived from the spectrum of color so that 'white noise' is a signal ideally containing all of the audible frequencies at the same time, like an untuned radio. A signal in which certain frequencies are preferred to others is thus called "colored noise," ranging from "violet noise" (a bias on the high frequencies) to "purple noise" (a bias on the low frequencies).

 

B. Communicative noise
In communication theory, noise is that which distorts the signal on its way from transmitter to recipient. There will always be an element of distortion, either externally or internally, coming from the medium itself. In music noise is often originally a malfunction in the instruments or electronics (a disturbance of the clear signal), which is then reversed into a positive effect. The distortion effect of the electric guitar, for instance, which is now ubiquitous, was originally an overload of the amplifier, causing it to fray the sound. In the early sixties, guitarists began to deliberately construct this distortion by fiddling with the amplifiers, and soon the industry marketed pedals with names like "fuzztone", "overdrive", and "distortion" as an easy way to obtain the same effect.
In the same way electronica artists work with different sorts of overloads of the devices, or they deliberately induce errors with unpredictable results. One of the methods is giving the midi too many signals for it to handle, resulting in an uncontrollable musical output. Another technique is the obvious one of creating distortion by overloading a digital amplifier.
When you reverse a disturbance into a part of the music itself, it is not smoothly integrated but infuses the music with a tension. There is still a play on the formerly negative relation between noise and signal when a noise is legitimated. This tension is an important part of the musical power of noise.



C. Subjective noise
"Unpleasant sounds" – this is the common and colloquial, but also the most intricate, meaning of noise. And it is obviously a subjective definition. There are very few general rules as to which sounds are unpleasant (the higher the frequency and the louder the sound, the more unpleasant it feels); it is to a great extent a matter of personal idiosyncrasy and cultural-historical situation.
An important factor in coming to dislike certain sounds is the extent to which they are considered meaningful. The noise of the roaring sea, for example, is not far from white radio noise, but is nonetheless not considered unpleasant and irritating. We still seek meaning in nature and therefore the roaring of the sea is a blissful sound, whereas radio noise (even if we were to hear it as indistinguishable from the sea) is normally considered a disturbance. Artists, who deal with noise in their music, as well as their audience, have a different approach to white noise, no longer considering it a nuisance.
One might conclude from this that the subjective definition is not relevant to the aesthetic use of noise in music. But, as I have already suggested, that would be a hasty dismissal of the important tension you get from infusing the formerly negative. To reach a point where a harsh, white noise is not considered unpleasant demands a training of the senses to the point of being familiar with this expansion of musical sounds. Reaching that point, noise will still contain a certain power due to the tension of listening to what used to be dismissed as repulsive (cf. below on the abjective character of noise)



The history of noise – a brief sketch 2
The origin of music was in principle a process of purifying certain sounds by filtering out the irregular sounds, the noise. The church music of the Middle Ages was an extreme in this respect, allowing only the pure sound of the male voice and considering the interval of the third (today essentially consonant) a dissonance. The classical, Western tradition has (generally speaking) fostered instruments of pure sounds and maintained the exclusion of the impure, with some exceptions for dramatic effects (thunder, canons etc.). During the 19th century music became increasingly complex and dramatic, and at the same time the orchestra began to include more percussion instruments that were considered noisy. They were nevertheless far from what is today considered noise.
The first composer to consciously operate with noise as music was the Italian futurist Luigi Russolo, writing the manifesto "The Art of Noise" in 1913. He constructed the so-called "intonarumori" (noise intonators) and composed a few works for these machines. They were quite primitive, each instrument making a single sound when turning a handle, and the music still had a residue of the mimetic, illustrative function. But the idea of allowing all sounds to be music was a crucial turning point.



Edgar Varèse and John Cage both started from that point. For Varèse, the important thing was to expand the possibilities of music within the tradition of an autonomous artwork, i.e. including new sounds, formerly rendered non-musical, now without their illustrative effect. He tried to emancipate noise from its mimetic function, abstracting it as purely aesthetic in works like Ionisation (1931), where he used sirens because of their glissando-possibilities rather than alluding to an emergency. By shifting the focus from the notes to the sound, by seeing music as layered, organized sound rather than melodic-harmonic development and by experimenting with electronic instruments, Varèse is the probably most important pioneer of electronic music.
John Cage had similar visions, developing from an expansion of musical sounds in his invention of the prepared piano to the postwar philosophy that all music is just sound, and hence that all sound is music. He wanted to open our ears to all the sounds that surround us, emancipating all noises. This vision is still a long way from fulfillment.

After the Second World War musique concrète evolved in France, using tape technology to make music of found sounds. Pioneers were Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry. Pure electronic music was made possible by the mid-fifties, centered around the Cologne studio with composers like Gottfried Michael König, Karlheinz Stockhausen and György Ligeti. The inclusion of electronic noise and a distinction between various noise qualities was an integral part of this period. Since then, numerous composers have worked with acoustic as well as electronic noise.





Rock music and guitar noise
Noise in rock music is centered on two effects, both connected to the electric guitar and developed in the sixties: feedback and distortion. Feedback is the back-coupling of the sound when the small pick-ups on the guitar react to the sound from the amplifier, i.e. the sound they themselves transmit. Distortion is the fraying of the guitar sound originally produced by amplifier overload, now normally by pedals.
The deliberate use of these effects can be traced back to Link Wray's "Rumble" (1958), but it was garage bands like The Kingsmen, The Kinks and especialy The Who, who made it an integral part of their sound. The great innovator, however, was undoubtedly Jimi Hendrix, who constructed a whole catalogue of noise effects, using them with virtuosity in his blues-inspired rock compositions.
Aesthetically, however, the influence on noise rock came not from Hendrix, but rather The Velvet Underground, with their minimal, lo-fi, sinister music and disillusioned texts. On tracks like "European Son" and "Sister Ray," the noise is alarming in ways that has made Velvet Underground a reference point for all noise rock.



In the 70s The Stooges continued the noisy garage tradition, combining it with free jazz elements, and paving the way for the punk rock movement. Lou Reed made his outstanding concept album Metal Machine Music (1975) – four vinyl sides of sheer guitar noise and nothing else, made partly as a provocation directed at the record company, the record has gained a reputation as a place for weird, noisy beauty. I will also mention Pere Ubu's legendary first single "30 Seconds Over Tokyo" (1975), one of the most disturbing pieces of rock music ever made, and the provocative Throbbing Gristle debut 2nd Annual Report (1977).
The term "noise rock" (in Danish: støjrock) denotes a part of the post-punk scene rising from the ashes of punk in the late 70s. The use of guitar noise becomes a characteristic feature for a lot of bands, exploring its possibilities further. Post-punk is characterized by a certain preoccupation with the sinister, melancholy, pain, fear, death, excess, perversion – in short, what the philosopher Georges Bataille (1897-1962) has called "the heterogeneous". This term denotes that which does not fit into the normal and rational in modern society, that which cannot be subjugated by the public utility or profit. Post-punk thus tries to distance itself from the smoothness and cheerfulness of pop, though mostly without discarding its melodic qualities.



One of the important ways to achieve this is by using noise. Noise rock is not a coherent style, but a loose term for quite different approaches to a noise aesthetic within a post-punk idiom. It began in New York under the label of "No Wave" in the late 70's and in Germany with Einstürzende Neubauten and other bands centered around "Die Geniale Dilletanten" around 1980. In the UK, actual noise rock did not emerge before 1985, when The Jesus & Mary Chain created the British, more melodic, variant.
It is not within the limits of this essay to give an overview of the noise rock and electronica scene and all its different sub-categories, but I will mention some of the most influential styles and names: Sonic Youth took off from guitar composer Glenn Branca to create their very own harmonic style and guitar techniques (see example below). Bands like Swans and Big Black used noise as a dark, hellish force in their aggressive, Gothic tales. Hüsker Dü, Dinosaur Jr. and others bridged the gap between post-punk and the impending grunge scene with their straightforward use of noisy guitars. My Bloody Valentine (see example below), A.R. Kane, Lush, Ride and many other British bands used guitar noise to create a more poetic, dreamy atmosphere, labeled 'dreampop' or "shoegazer". Band of Susans made a minimal, mantra-like use of guitar noise with a British equivalent in bands Loop and Spacemen 3. Young Gods and Ministry, among others, used the sampler as a noise generator. In Japan, a noise scene grew out of the 70's free jazz environment of Tokyo, featuring Keiji Haino, High Rise, The Boredoms, Merzbow and others.
By 1991 the development of guitar noise seemed to come to an end, culminating with My Bloody Valentine's Loveless as a worthy climax. Guitar noise had gone mainstream with blockbusters like Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins, and the sound possibilities seemed permanently exhausted. The place for noise exploration was no longer to be found on the rock scene but rather in electronic music.
Electronica uses noise in many different ways, sometimes so integrated that any distinction between noise and music is heavily blurred. Samples, drumloops, fast breakbeats, dub bass and of course all sorts of computer-generated sounds can be more or less noisy. An important trend is "glitch", where errors are inflicted on CDs causing it to skip and get stuck. Oval is probably the most convincing glitch-artist, creating a blurred atmosphere not unlike that of My Bloody Valentine. Only few electronic artists, such as Merzbow (see below), deal exclusively with noise.





 
Four music examples
 

Sonic Youth
Sonic Youth made their debut at the so-called Noise Festival in New York, 1981, an event that marked the end of No Wave and the beginning of something new. With guitar composer Glenn Branca as their father figure, they set out to 'reinvent the guitar', considering the guitar a far richer instrument than normally acknowledged, containing a wide range of possibilities.
The guitar can be used as a percussion instrument, beating the strings with a broken drumstick, a screwdriver, or what-ever is at hand. Combining this effect with feedback, Sonic Youth created a bell-like, pealing sound. Every possibility of the instrument - the guitar, the pick-ups, the amplifier, even the electric plugs - were explored, and, as their most original characteristic, the strings were tuned differently, creating a new, more dissonant (sometimes even microtonal) harmonics, far from the general rock idiom. Sonic Youth developed an arsenal of more than 40 guitars each with its own tuning; often the two guitarists play with each their tuning at the same time.




A characteristic trait is what I shall call "the maelstrom of noise," in which the tune and rhythm break off into a whirl of noise, gradually intensifying tempo and volume, absorbing the listener into its ecstatic black hole. This chaotic vortex is in opposition to the structural, formal elements of music, exceeding the boundaries of the senses, although still controlled on a higher level. The maelstrom is at the same time an explosion of energy and an implosion of meaning, turning away from the distinct and semantic into the sublime and ecstatic.
The common effect of noise in music is the aggressive, raging expression also found in the maelstrom of Sonic Youth. Noise is a vehement means, reflecting inner and outer chaos and conflict. But, as the next example will show, noise can also be used to evoke a very different experience.

  

My Bloody Valentine
My Bloody Valentine also had the ambition of reinventing the guitar, albeit with entirely different means and effects than Sonic Youth. In their music, noise is not aggressive, but low-key. Noise becomes introvert, dreamy, almost languidly erotic. This especially goes for the album Loveless and the related ep's Glider and Tremolo.
Listening to My Bloody Valentine one encounters a diffuse blurred harmonics. The guitar chords are gliding, swimming in a muddy sea of distortion. The guitarists' strokes are cut off in the mixing process, so that every sound seems to be growing out of nowhere, with no distinct edges. My Bloody Valentine extract all kinds of sound from the guitar, manipulating it in different ways, also by means of the sampler, so that, for instance, feedback can be transformed into a whistling, melodic instrument. The vocals are placed in the background of the sound stage on the same level as the other sounds, making the words almost undecipherable. The noise on Loveless is extraordinarily integrated in the music, not as a distinct layer of sound and not placed in opposition to an otherwise structural clarity.
All these effects put together with the sleepy motion and sweet, dreamy tunes, form an unreal, disorienting sound picture, "the-not-quite-really-there-sound", as they themselves have called it. The dense sound makes no illusion of an acoustic space. It is claustrophobic; almost like being in an infinitely intimate place. There, the music affects you like the most coveted, yet vulnerable, states: tenderness, love, sex. You have to get very close, to immerse yourself in the web of noises to be able to let the vocals whisper sweet words in your ear. The blurriness of My Bloody Valentine's sound is like the blurriness of getting so close to an object that you lose the outlines of it. And this object is as soft as a tender body.



But the disorientation takes the experience even further than a concrete sexual encounter, towards a more abstract, impersonal intimateness. There is not really an I-you-relation (as in a normal pop song), there is no room for such a distance; the intimacy is overwhelming, ambivalent and transgressive of any subjectivity, suggesting something akin to an incestuous, narcissistic or pre-oedipal relation.
My Bloody Valentine has made a new psychedelia without turning to the effects of the old; a psychedelia of noise. At their live concerts the band experimented with ending the performance with a sustained dose of sheer noise. They developed this stunt to perfection, culminating on the Loveless tour 1992, where a piercing, dazzling white light was thrown out into the faces of the audience while the pure noise took on new dimensions in volume and lasted for more than 15 minutes. This was a stark contrast to the soft, colorful preceding concert and provoked two different reactions: half of the audience left in protest or aural pain, while the other half stayed to find out what this would bring. And the experiences were very special. People underwent different ecstatic states, all pertaining to the trans-individual or pre-subjective: out-of-body-experiences, nirvana-like states, visions of being swallowed up by a giant vagina; and my own: hearing phantom lullabies that I've never heard before – very detailed and continuing to play in my head when I got home in bed. These experiences are not only an effect of an overload of the nervous system but are also inextricably tied up to the preceding concert, opening the mind towards the most intimate feelings.





Merzbow
Under the name of Merzbow, Tokyo based Masami Akita has produced pure noise music since 1979, and especially in the 90's he has released a staggering number of electronically based releases, culminating in the 50 CD (+ artwork and CD-ROM) set Merzbox, a giant compilation of his finest work. Not only very productive, but also very consistent, he is constantly operating close to the limit of what can meaningfully be called music. Starting from Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music, considered by many a terminal point for music, he exploits the varieties of noise without supplying it with any melodic material. Merzbow's music is an ear-splitting assault on the body, at least, that is, until the nervous system is allowed to gradually relax from the state of alarm and enter the world of sensing extreme noise as music.
The name Merzbow is derived from Dadaist Kurt Schwitters' Merzbau (aka Cathedral of Erotic Misery), a work in progress built by the use of found garbage material. If noise is the trash of music, the sounds that we traditionally discard as non-musical, then Merzbow is a trash artist, tirelessly seeking odd and convulsive beauty in the garbage cans of sonic waste. And, like Schwitters, Merzbow's art is essentially urban, reacting to the overload of sensuous impressions in the big city. As a sort of apotropaic3 shield he throws the noise of Tokyo back into our ears, transforming it into an aesthetic experience.



No specific phenomena are recognizable, though. The Merzbow noise is abstract, minimal, deprived of mimetic content. Its effect is immediate, an overload of the nervous system, not being able to sort out the information into categories of relevant and irrelevant – hence the normal reaction of fear and discomfort when confronted with Merzbow noise. "Noise is the unconsciousness of music", Merzbow states, in the same way as his other main interest, pornography and bondage, is the unconsciousness of sex.
Merzbow noise is linked with fear, conflict and aggression as in rock music, but defying any melodies, the pure noise does not incite the listener to ecstatic bliss, but remains hard and somewhat conceptual to most of its audience.4

  

Curd Duca: Touch
Curd Duca's "Touch" (1999)5 is a recent example of communicative noise, continuing a tradition of cut-up vocals that can be traced back to Stockhausen's Gesang der Jünglinge (1956). A female voice sings a line with a keyboard in the background, but we never hear it as a line, it sounds like the CD is damaged, causing it to stutter for a while and then jump to another stutter. The message is disturbed, almost indecipherable. The word "touch" is clear, though, several times manifest in its full length followed by a few notes before it collapses into the ongoing fragmentation. It is almost like a cubistic painting, a fractured view seeing things from different angles, constantly shifting its focus.
The music of this radical sample collage is beautiful. The vocal is gentle and sensually affectionate, singing the few notes of the sample in a longing way, as if reaching out to touch someone. Actually, after a reconstruction, the words seem to be "you'd be like heaven to touch". This message, this gesture, is too disturbed to be communicated. The disturbance is, of course, not really a device error, but it hints at the familiar sound of a CD player not being able to read the digital information on the disc.
A work like this could be seen as a reflection of a cultural situation in which clear communication is disturbed and direct exchange of affections is threatened. The undamaged sample would risk being too sentimental, too pathetic to survive as more than a cliché in a postmodern world of information overload. Cutting it into pieces and transforming its banal statement into a more disturbing beauty actually makes it more authentic by virtue of alienation.
In this piece, noise is not a certain acoustic quality, as in the other examples, but a distortion of the message and of the melody by use of malfunction-like effects
 



Towards an aesthetics of noise
In various ways, noise as a sensual, aesthetic phenomenon points out of the field of the subject as a divided entity, towards what could be called the transsubjective, that which transgresses the individual. This applies to the explosive ecstasy as well as the implosive intimacy. This transsubjective point is also bridging the gap between rock music, normally considered subjective, and electronica, normally considered objective. With noise, rock turns away from its standard focus of a subject expressing his/her feelings, towards a more anonymous state. This was manifested on stage by My Bloody Valentine, having no focus on the band members, who appear only as shadows in front of a big screen with abstract psychedelic films projected on it. The following reflections on noise as Dionysian ecstasy and as abjectal intimacy points in this direction.

  

The Dionysian and the sublime
The ecstasy of noise is predominantly aggressive and vehement, as the maelstrom of noise in Sonic Youth. This is often an aesthetization of violence and suffering, the noise being an ingredient in what one might call a Dionysian aesthetic. In Die Geburt der Tragödie (The Birth of Tragedy) Friedrich Nietzsche described the Apollonian and the Dionysian as two principles of aesthetic attitudes toward suffering, working together in the Gesamtkunstwerk of Richard Wagner.
Apollo represents appearance, form, individuality, beauty and dream; the Apollonian aesthetics is an embellishment of suffering, a self-conscious lie, a veiling of cruelty by use of form and elegance, a semblance of beauty. Dionysus, on the other hand, represents ecstasy, being, will, intoxication and unity; the Dionysian aesthetics is a direct confrontation with the terrible foundation of being, an absurd will driving us all in our meaningless lives. In the Dionysian ecstasy individuality is transgressed6 in favor of identification with the universal will - a frightening yet blissful experience. Frightening, that is, because it is a death-like giving up of the Ego, if only for a few seconds; blissful in letting go of the responsibilities of being a subject. The Dionysian experience is a "metaphysical comfort", knowing that suffering is a necessary part of the effects of the eternal will – the destruction of things in order to create anew. In the Dionysian ecstasy one is no longer concerned with one's individual suffering, seeing instead things from the universal point of view.



In music, the ecstasy of noise is undoubtedly a Dionysian effect, as opposed to the Apollonian melody and form.7 As mentioned above, the German words Rausch (ecstasy) and Geräusch (noise) are related, pointing towards this fact. The Dionysian is that which is not totally controlled or formed, e.g. screams and noises. The Apollonian elements are seductive, inciting the listener to enter the ecstatic bliss of the Dionysian, enabling the listener to dare the confrontation with the dreadfulness of existence. Therefore, Nietzsche says, the Dionysian needs the Apollonian.
Merzbow is so demanding exactly because he refuses this; he does not soften the harshness of noise with any Apollonian elements. Listening to Merzbow is thus a very different experience from the Sonic Youth maelstrom.
One of the reasons for the ecstatic effect of noise is its sublime character. The sublime is that which exceeds the limits of the senses, perceived as chaos or vastness. Despite our ability to put these words to it, the sublime goes beyond making sense - we never really understand it. The complexity of noise (in the acoustic sense) overloads the ears and the nervous system and is perceived as an amorphous mass, incomprehensible yet stirring. The delight of the sublime is the satisfaction of confronting the unfathomable.



Abject noise
As mentioned above, noises are the sounds that are discarded as being impure, unmusical. Music traditionally expurgates the dirty noise and fosters the pure tones. But noise belongs to the same pool of sounds from which music stems. Ideally, music is thus defining itself by a detachment from its origin. This is abjection, using the term coined by Julia Kristeva.
The abjects, in Kristeva's sense, are the rejections from the body: stool, sperm, spittle, snot, nail clippings etc., considered dirty and repulsive. The reason why we are (more or less) repelled by the abject is that it threatens our individuality, being neither subject nor object, but something in-between, confusing our delimitation as individuals. The bodily cleansing process is a way of upholding one's individuality, fearing the blur between the objective surroundings and ourselves. To confront ourselves with the abject is strongly ambivalent, a combination of pleasure and fear, reminding us at the same time of the pre-oedipal symbiosis with the mother and of death, the end of individuality.
Taking noise back, music confronts itself with its abject, plays with it, like a child playing with its stool, metaphorically speaking. This is perhaps a reason for the effects of My Bloody Valentine's music, combining extreme intimacy and noise into something very sweet, but also implementing the fear of this (almost incestuous) closeness.




Noise as multiplicity
In his book Genèse the French philosopher Michel Serres develops an idea of the ultimate being-in-itself as noise. Behind the phenomenal world (the world we perceive) is an infinite complexity, an incomprehensible multitude, an analogue to white noise. All concepts, all understanding of the world is an ordering of this chaos,8 this multiplicity, "noise." Serres uses the term "noise" with two meanings: the English (noise) and the old French word "noise," meaning quarrel. He also hints at the Greek, maritime origin, "nausea" (see above). The multiplicity is conflict-ridden and noisy.
Noise and conflict are normally closely related in music as well. This aspect of noise is the reason why it is often used to express anger, fear and violence. Noise in music belongs, of course, to the phenomenal world, but exists at the limits of our senses, pointing metonymically towards a more fundamental noise, the chaos of the pre-phenomenal world. When we are confronted with a massive dose of noise, we often create our own sounds in our heads, "phantomic sounds", as a desperate way of relating to the audible chaos.
There is also, I think, a more sociological perspective to this. In today's society it is impossible to take in all the information that surrounds us; we are constantly forced to sort out loads of information to be able to find (hear) the desired or relevant information. Information society is verging on noise society, a state in which the information, meant to convey knowledge, ends up losing the ability to speak at all. Our culture becomes taciturn without being silent, moving towards a noisy muteness.




So what?
I have often been asked whether noise is subversive. I tend towards the answer "no, not directly, but it has a critical potential." If subversion is what punk imagined itself to be, a riot that shocks bourgeois culture, I do not see any such possibilities in music. It might even be questioned whether punk really had that kind of effect. In the present historical situation, youth culture riots are verging on kitsch. There are a lot of reasons for this, the most visible being that rebel youth has become a lifestyle segment in commercial marketing.
Noise does not have a fixed, aesthetic meaning. Its phenomenological character depends on the musical as well as institutional context in which it is integrated. As we have seen above, noise is for instance not always aggressive and loud. Still, there are some common features: noise tends to abandon subjectivity, individuality, rationality, homogeneity and control in favor of the objectively irrational, the pre- or non-subjective sublime, something unstable and complex. This is a marginal phenomenon and not a permanent realm for anyone to enter. Still, it has (or has had) the potential of being critical of smooth calculation, ascetic rationality and habitual life. Such a critique does not come automatically with noise, of course, but only when reflecting a historical situation and at the same time embodying what is culturally repressed.



Notes:
(1) This brief essay is partly based on my comprensive research in Støjrock og støjens æstetik.
(2) For an unfolding of the composed music part and especially the rock part, see Sangild: Støjrock og støjens æstetik.
(3) Apotropaism is a ritual way of warding off evil by depicting it, for instance by making an image of some evil threat. This is one of the most ancient motivations of art.
(4) Sometimes the hard-core noise audience experiences a certain trance effect, though.
(5) From the album "Elevator Music 2" (Mille Plateaux 1999).
(6) The word Ecstasy (derived from Greek) means "standing out (from oneself)".
(7) I am not following Nietzsche's connection of the Apollonian with poetry and the (metric) rhythm in music, making melody a Dionysian element. For an unfolding of the argument, see Sangild: Støjrock og støjens æstetik.
(8) Serres does not use the word chaos, lest being associated with chaos theory.

Literature:
Julia Kristeva: The Powers of Horror, 1982.
Friedrich Nietzsche: Die Geburt der Tragödie, 1872.
Torben Sangild: Støjrock og støjens æstetik 1996/97. Unpublished. Michel Serres: Genèse, 1982.



Published by DATANOM
Edited by Pelle Krøgholt
ISBN 87-988955-0-8
Copyright 2002 by Sangild & DATANOM
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Monday, July 28, 2014

Manuel Galban



“his own music is an exotic hybrid in and of itself: as the guitarist for the legendary 1960s Cuban doo-wop and beat band Los Zafiros, Galban invented a singular style, rooted in Cuban music”. Dusted Magazine

Manuel Galbán (January 14, 1931 – July 7, 2011) as Manuel Hilario Galbán Torralbas, he was a Grammy-winning Cuban guitarist, pianist and arranger, most notable for his work with Los Zafiros, Ry Cooder and the Buena Vista Social Club. One of two surviving members of Los Zafiros, he died on July 7, 2011 of cardiac arrest at his home in Havana, Cuba.



Manuel Galbán was born on January 14, 1931 and grew up in the small fishing town of Gibara in the Holguín Province of eastern Cuba. After playing guitar and tres in various local youth groups, he got his first professional gig at the age of 14 playing guitar with the Orchestra Villa Blanca. In 1956 he moved to Havana, where he spent seven years playing in bars and clubs and making frequent appearances on radio.



In 1963 he joined the legendary vocal group Los Zafiros, after a mutual friend had recommended him to them. His playing proved to be a such hit with Los Zafiros that he was told by singer Miguel Cancio "Galbán, from now on you're working with us; you're exactly what we're looking for". Galbán was such an essential ingredient to the sound of Los Zafiros that the distinguished Cuban pianist Peruchin once said "to replace Galbán you would need two guitarists". He left the group in 1972 after working hard for years to allay the personal problems that plagued its various members.



Thereafter he spent three years with Cuba's national musical ensemble, Dirección Nacional de Música, and then a further 23 years with the Grupo Batey as a guitarist, vocalist and pianist, touring extensively across four continents.



In 1998 he joined the traditional Cuban group Vieja Trova Santiaguera with whom he toured and released two highly acclaimed albums. He also he appeared in the Wim Wenders film Buena Vista Social Club, filmed with Ry Cooder during the sessions for the debut solo album by Ibrahim Ferrer. Later he recorded with Ferrer and Buena Vista Social Club bassist Cachaíto Lopez, leading to his present engagement as the featured guitarist with the touring ensemble named after the film.



In 2001 he recorded Mambo Sinuendo with Ry Cooder which won the 2003 Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Album. Says Cooder of the making of the album "Galbán and I felt that there was a sound that had not been explored, a Cuban electric-guitar band that could re-interpret the atmosphere of the 1950s with beauty, agility, and simplicity. We decided on two electrics, two drum sets, congas and bass: a sexteto that could swing like a big band and penetrate the mysteries of the classic tunes. This music is powerful, lyrical, and funny; what more could you ask?" "When we first heard about it on the phone, we thought it was a joke," Gutierrez remembers. "But the person said, 'Yes, really.' When it was announced on the media, all our neighbors heard about it. In our building and the one next door, everyone was shouting: 'Galban won, Galban won the Grammy!'"

"I practice a lot," Galban says. "Hey, listen to me. It's hard. To play in a cabaret accompanying the rumba on rhythm guitar is really hard. I'm the metronome."



Betto Arcos: Talk about some of the artists you brought on for this recording as well as some of the people that you've really appreciated like Los Zafiros, Manual Galbán and Omara Portuondo. Talk about this incredible song they did together.

Ry Cooder: Los Zafiros was not typically Cuban, it wasn’t typically anything. They were just a bunch of bad boys from the Cayo Hueso neighborhood – low-riders we would have known them as – vatos locos, and rough characters. So they sing in this kind of low-rider-of-the-times style, which is an American East Coast R&B mixed with Cuban. It’s incredible. You would want something like this to exist.



Ry Cooder: I had always imagined that there might be such a thing. I had never known if it did exist. You could hear it happening in the Spanish Harlem music from New York, and you’d think, I bet somebody has done this. I bet somehow there is some Cuban stuff that has this groove in it, and these voices, the doo-wop harmonies. Of course, it turned out that they had done it. But they had all died.


There was a documentary floating around with the one remaining musician before he died -- Chino, the one with the beautiful lead voice, not the high one but the middle -- telling about the old times. In this documentary there’s this black-and-white footage of a guitar player doing this twangy stuff and I thought, “My God! The  Duane Eddy of Cuba.” It’s fun -- twanging, playing the bass strings and the electric guitar. It’s really great.



Ry Cooder: Nick Gold was there on some trip and simply asked whatever happened to Manuel Galbán, the guitar player. He was told,  “He lives over there, down that street.”  So Nick goes down and he’s sitting there playing the guitar but he didn’t have an amp anymore. His guitar was a Fender Telecaster and he was a little bit nervous and uncertain. He didn’t know if he could still do it.

So we brought him in because we thought we could do a couple of these Zafiros tunes. It’s not stylistically where he’s at necessarily, but it would be fantastic to try this because they’re great songs – “La Ultima Cita” and the other one “Herido de Sombras”, which is an incredible, beautiful song. So Galbán comes in and lays it all out for everybody because he was Zafiros arranger. We had him and Gema Cuatro, the girl quartet, sing the vocal parts because we didn’t have Zafiros anymore. That was quite a thrill.



Ry Cooder: After we did the first tune, I just thought, Well this is just pure heaven! Now we’re moving into this hidden element of music from the ‘50s in Cuba that is a little less about the typical kind of popular music or the tourist music or the nightclub music. This is something in which I’m more interested personally, the sub-forms that exist that contain something extra, something strange and unexpected. This is Galbán personified. He takes these ripping solos and I have never heard a Telecaster sound like that. He’s a fantastic guy and very much alive, ready to do whatever it takes.

At some point I said, “Just tell me where you got some of this from. What were you listening to?”  It was Duane Eddy, which is sensational. Absolutely sensational. I’ve played with Duane and I know him.



Ry Cooder: If you look at the line of the surf guitar, the twanging guitar and the electric trace guitar such as played by Arsenio and Niño Rivera, there is some kind of weird, post-bop -- watered-down bee-bop, popularized bee-bop -- cocktail vibe in that music. Of course, we would all give body parts to hear the Zafiros again. Fortunately, they recorded and it’s available. People who haven’t heard that record certainly should. It’s very heavenly, very beautiful.

Galbán's distinctive electric guitar sound makes liberal use of reverb, tremolo, diminished arpeggio runs and palm mutes. Using a Fender Telecaster with heavy gauge strings, he references the tone of Duane Eddy and the early surf guitarists whilst playing the melodic runs and chordal patterns associated with traditional Cuban music. He has been pictured using Fender Twin, Roland JC120 and Fender Bassman amps, as well as a Dunlop TS-1 stereo tremolo pedal.




Manuel Galbán, pride of Cuban music, star of the Buena Vista Social Club
RAFAEL LAM



MANUEL Hilario Galbán Torralbas, the famous guitarist, composer and ex- director of Los Zafiros, celebrated his 80th birthday this January 14. He is one of the great stars of the Buena Vista Social Club, with a musical life dating back more than 60 years, and 170 musical tours under his belt. He remains a member of the group Los Cuatro Fabulosos.
He has won the City of Gibara Shield, the Cuban Culture Distinction, the Adolfo Guzmán Distinction, the Raúl Gómez García Medal, La Gitana Tropical Prize, and the only one missing is the National Music Prize.
He has a collection of guitars in his home in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood, including the one he played with Los Zafiros and a Fender given to him by Ry Cooder. There are photos of him with stars of music and film.


Galbán, let’s recall your first musical steps in Gibara.
Gibara is a fishing town where many boats arrive from Nassau. In our home my whole family played music from the oral tradition, I would improvise with two of my brothers, in serenades and play thetres in amateur groups. I also played percussion which has served me well in my work as an accompanist for singers. II came into the world with music within me and learned many instruments on my own; I play piano for love.



When did you begin to play professionally?
In July of 1944, I was playing in dance halls with the Orquesta Villa Blanca, I mastered the guitar, the trap drums and when necessary I played piano. In those days I admired the music of Orquesta Avilés, the oldest in Cuba.



When did you arrive in Havana?
In 1956. I arrived in the big city with some crumpled bills in my pocket, a change of clothes and a toothbrush; I began to try my luck, it was the great moment of Cuban music, the mambo was the rage. I tuned pianos, I’m a carpenter, I still have my tools. I recorded some commercial jingles, sometimes I played in the streets, passed the hat, to earn some money. I began with a trio, we went to jam sessions, serenades, we were doing a show in the Club 6 Panamerica; for a time I was with the Conjunto Casablanca, we performed at Hernando’s Hideaway Club. I accompanied the singers Lino Borges, Caridad Hierrezuelo and Evelio Rodríguez.



How did you come to Los Zafiros?
Three months after the group’s debut, December 1962; in other words in March 1963. Reinaldo Hierrezuelo asked me to stand in for the previous guitarist. Los Zafiros were empiric singers, they needed a musician to accompany them, to arrange the tunes and play guitar, piano. It was difficult to accompany them without clashing with their harmony, they were an atypical quartet, different, very special.



How were Los Zafiros musically?
Very musical, they had natural talent, exceptional – remember they were of mixed race, street guys – they moved to the rhythm of theclave, they were spectacular, unique.


Was Los Zafiros’ only foreign tour the test of fire?
In 1965 we went with the Music Hall de Cuba to Paris and continued on in some Eastern European countries. There we were, just a guitar and four voices, beginning to enjoy the demanding audience of the great French theater, the Paris Olympia, we were the most applauded in the broad and prestigious line up which included stars like Orquesta Aragón, Los Papines, Elena Burke. In Moscow they used to touch Ignacio Elejalde’s throat to see what he had inside of his privileged throat.


Was it the end of the world after Los Zafiros?
I stopped playing with Los Zafiros toward the end of 1972, the break up was stormy and sad, as happens with great loves; but the show has to go on. Another phase began, in 1973 I founded the group Batey, with a more traditional repertoire and the project took off, we did 87 tours. During that same period Chucho Valdés’ Los Irakere appeared on the scene.


By the end of the 20th century La Vieja Trova Santiaguera had arrived…
In January 1998, right in the middle of the Cuban salsa boom, that was the rebirth of the old guard of Cuban trova. I played Spanish guitar with them, I also helped with the voice arrangements. We recorded two albums: La manigua and Mambo sinuendowith Ry Cooder.


How did you come to the Buena Vista Social Club?
My arrival in Buena Vista Social Club is owed to Ry Cooder’s surprise at the way I play guitar, very similar to the legendary guitarist Duane Eddy. So Ry said, "Find Galbán," he called me the "guitar wizard," gave me a Fender guitar and asked me to do a recording with him.


What work did you do with Ry Cooder?
We recorded Mambo sinuendowhich won the 2003 Latin Grammy for Best Tropical Contemporary Album. We improvised in the recording sessions without having rehearsed, and had stars like Orlando López "Cachao". It was an album of diverse tones, very varied and rich, hence its success.



Ibrahim Ferrer and a band featuring Manuel 'Guajiro' Mirabal, Jesus Aguaje Ramos, Orlando 'Cachaito' Lopez, Roberto Fonseca and Manuel Galban perform 'Si te contara' from his third and last album 'Mi Sueno'.

What is your technical approach to playing the guitar?
I combine fast passages with arpeggios, while making appropriate use of the bass strings, in that way I give the sensation that more than one musician is playing. I set about synchronizing and fading the strings with the other hand, a trick that I learned backing Kike’s singing in Los Zafiros.



Is that why the great pianist Peruchín said that in order to replace Galbán in Los Zafiros you’d have to put in two guitarists?
Exactly, I was doing the work of two guitars, remember that we had to economize on instruments because of difficulties finding pianos and other instruments in nightclubs in the decade of the 60s.


What compositions have you written?
Three compositions recorded with Los Zafiros: "Oye Nicolás," "Hoy brilla el sol", and "Por muy lejos". With La Vieja Trova Santiaguera: "Se paró la moto", "De contén a contén(dedicated to street sweepers). Other titles: "Tierno amanecer", "Baila mi guaguancó" and "Tambó, tambó".


What’s going to happen with Manuel Galbán in 2011?
In March of 2011, there’s the premiere of a film dedicated to one of my albums, debuting in New York’s Carnegie Hall. It’s a CD with seven great musical stars participating, among them Omara Portuondo representing Cuba. My daughter Magda Galbán and her husband Juan Antonio Leyva are doing the musical production. The executive producer is Daniel Florestano of the Montuno company which manages Buena Vista Social Club.


Galbán, has good luck followed you?

I’ve had a lot of luck, I have seven lives. I have had four serious blows to my health, but I always get back up and say, like Compay Segundo, "I’m asking for a stay of execution."


Discs


Blu Cha Cha (2012)

Mambo sinuendo (2003)

Collaborations


Omara Portuondo: Flor de amor

Ibrahim Ferrer: Buenos hermanos

Buena Vista Social Club® Presents... Cachaito

Vieja Trova Santiaguera: Domino

Buena Vista Social Club® Presents...Omara Portuondo

Buena Vista Social Club® Presents...Ibrahim Ferrer

Vieja Trova Santiaguera: Cuida eso

Los Zafiros: Canción a mi Habana

Los Zafiros: 15 Éxitos de Los Zafiros

Vieja Trova Santiaguera: La Manigua

Los Zafiros: Bossa Cubana

Los Zafiros: Recordando a Los Zafiros

Los Zafiros: Mas de Los Zafiros

Los Zafiros: Mírame fijo

Los Zafiros: Los Zafiros