‘By The Muddy Banks of Wishkaw’, .WAV sound file on a 17 minute loop, (2018)
A sound-work made from cutting out and re-mixing the feedback wails of Kurt Cobain’s guitar from before every song on Nirvana’s live album ‘By The Muddy Banks of Wishkaw’
This is a sound-work inspired by an essay entitled ‘How I stop worrying and learned to love Led Zeppelin’ by Theodore Gracyk. I first discovered this essay ten years ago, on my introductory voyages into aesthetics and the philosophy of music. As a musician ( and a big Led Zeppelin and Nirvana fan) it was nice to know that actually my musical tastes were definitely sophisticated and definitely clever.
However, over time I’ve actually come to disagree with Gracyk’s argument – as seductive and perhaps intuitive as it is- that music is an act of taming noise, converting noise into intelligibility to the sentient human ear. I think the opposite happens: before there is a conception of what noise is, there must be a discourse on, or at the very least, a folk understanding of what constitutes ‘music’ or the qualities of the ‘musical’. Now the boundaries between a ‘noise’ and ‘proto-musical’ can be blurry, and the quality debatable, but none the less, nothing and everything is music, and nothing and everything is noise, until certain characteristics of ‘music’ and ‘noise’ have been formed by discourse. A sound, or series of sounds, exist in an inbetween state: both noise and music until there is a discourse on what ‘noise’ is and what ‘music’ is.
I liken this thinking to Derrida’s retort to Foucault’s debut book ‘Madness and Civilization’. Foucault believed that madness as a category was initiated and maintained to exclude the ‘mad’ from civil society, justifying their exclusion. Derrida objected on the very logical ground that before one can divide society into the ‘sane’ and the ‘insane’ there first must be an understanding ( a discourse) on what it is to be ‘sane’ and what it is to be ‘insane’. Hence, for Derrida, the discourse came first, with the decision to exclude or ‘cast out’ a result of certain discourses on the what it is to be mad. It was a persuasive argument: Foucault spent the rest of his life digging into the relationship between knowledge and power, and how these were shaped by discourse.
So, to summarize: Gracyk’s argument is that music is in-itself about the taming of ‘noise’; that making music is a process of selecting certain elements from a practically infinite world of noises around us, with music a process of ‘refinement’- drawing and pulling out different pitches and sounds and timbres from the material ( and now digital) world. I would postulate another way of looking at this: that noise can only be seen as musical, or as a potential supplement to music, after a certain point in Western discourse where music has already been established as a category in and of itself; ‘letting’ in noise to musical performances is an act only possible after the establishment of what music is and could be. In fact, the introduction of noise into the Western musical tradition is very much a 20th century notion, with noise itself being imported into the Western tradition by artists, challenging ( a challenge to the discourse) what music can be or include.