Reviving Noise

Monday, January 20th, 2014 by asobol

Working through What is Media Archaeology? I was struck by the concept of noise—this both as an aural quality but also in its relation to excess and refuse. Noise has been an old hobby horse of mine, both as a fan of sound and as a musician. How can one make use of this thing, this seemingly unwanted thing? How can it be harnessed? What was cataloged as noise in the chapter all came qualified with negative connotations. Spam. Interference. Noise is a thing to be quelled, as it inhibits whatever medium it accompanies.

I paused as I read that “noise was everywhere” because it indicates a value judgment. Noise is not simply a sign of modernity, as the Futurists would have had it. The sun, atmospheric conditions—they all have their own accompanying “noise,” the people at Bell apparently discovered. But the sun and the atmosphere, they’re not what you’d call signposts of modernity. It’s only once the instruments are there to read it that someone qualifies it, and by qualifying it as noise, both calls attention to it and attempts to relegate it to the background.

But I’m fascinated by that noise. How can it be used for generative purposes? What ways can the excess, the extraneous be reformed as, say, information, if not art? We have electronic artists who have taken ambient, even unlistenable sounds, and purported to have made art, sound. Artists have recorded the electric resistance of plants and run it through computers turned that “noise” into music. Some have gone further and taken that data and scored instruments. Aphex Twin’s song “[Equation]” contains a blast of sound at the end that can be called ambient noise. Just another sonic texture. Except that when the sound is run through a spectrogram, the visualization of the sounds produce the face of Richard James.

Parikka presents us with this binary: sound vs. noise, which if we’re talking strictly in terms of the sonic is not a binary at all. Sonic noise is sound. It may not be pleasant, but it is sound. Push that to further mediums and the same thing occurs. Internet spam is still information, even when malicious. It can be classified as noise as it becomes irritating to the person interacting with it, which (making a bit of a leap here) suggests that technologies themselves become a kind of noise. How often do we really give any consideration to our devices until they begin to malfunction? How often do people decry new technologies because they are deemed inessential or obtrusive (Google Glass, anyone)?

As things fall out of fashion, out of our vision, how can they be resuscitated for creative purposes? Again, music becomes a perfect example of this. Roland announced it was going to revive its 1980s TR-808 drum machine because eBay and third party sales of the thing have skyrocketed. Oh, how the market can revive something so seemingly obsolete.

A. Sobol.

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