The definition of noise seems simple enough. Loud. Disruptive to the senses. Basically a sound that is deemed unpleasant and undesirable. But what if I tell you, quite the contrary, that noise is essential and intrinsic to music? This series of articles will not strive for a definitive outcome to this premise, but will rather seek to present a history on the phenomenon and the various views surrounding this acoustic mystery. In the end, it’s up to you to decide whether our subject matter is a menace or a blessing to our acoustic spectrum. In this edition we will explore the key players of Musique concrète and the very first (credited) piece of electronic music ever.
While World War II was gripping Europe in its dystopian clutches, Halim Abdul Messieh El-Dabh was finishing his degree in Agriculture engineering in Cairo. In his spare time, Halim enjoyed music and in particular the production side of it.
Whilst writing his last essays, Halim borrowed a wire recorder (a short-lived and out-commercialized recording apparatus) from the local radio station called the Middle East Radio and went to the streets to record the various sounds in his surroundings. In one of those streets, a Zār ceremony was taking place, which is a form of exorcism popular in Cairo and major Islamic cities. The ritual was guided by plays and ceremonial hymns, of which the latter Halim deemed to be of interest. Back in the studio, Halim played the recording of the ceremony and tried, by means of various manipulative techniques, to expose the “inner quality” of the ritual.
“I just started playing around with the equipment at the station, including reverberation, echo chambers, voltage controls, and a re-recording room that had movable walls to create different kinds and amounts of reverb,” Halim explained. “I concentrated on those high tones with different beats and clashes that reverberated. I then began a process of eliminating the fundamental tones and isolating the high overtones such that in the finished recording, the voices won’t be recognizable any more; only the high overtones, with their beats and clashes, may be heard.”
But what Halim truly did, was to neutralize the context of the recorded noise, then make use of the obtained sample to create a new piece of music with an unknown and fresh character. This may sound trivial with today’s technology in mind, but it was revolutionary back then and unwittingly preceded a style of music cultivated by our next protagonist by four years.
Songs of Freedom
The raging war was finally at its end, freeing all of Europe from mankind’s most destructive capabilities. A new era commenced, and the various arts used this landmark as an opportunity to step away from what once was and focus on what was not. Music didn’t miss the boat and fresh ideas were developed throughout Europe. As we are most concerned with noise and its cultivators, our focus in this article now rests on a young pupil of that era called Pierre Schaeffer.
Our protagonist was born in Nancy 1910 and raised by two musicians, and thus it seemed inevitable that he would become one himself. Instead, Pierre focused his intellectual energy on his engineering decrees, delving more and more into the realms of electronics. After having studied at various places in France, Pierre made his way to Paris, where he received a diploma in radio broadcasting from the École Polytechnique. During this time, he developed an interest in music and, in particular, sonic structures; fascinations that were fueled by fellow pupils of the conservatorium and his teacher Oliver Messiaen. What they had in common was that they were all on the lookout for alternatives to old musical certainties, such as metrical rhythm, tonal harmony, consistency, standard genres and regular groupings.
In 1936, Pierre joined the Radiodiffusion Française, where he started experimenting with broadcasts and the source of it all: sound. With the newest models of the tape recorder and other instruments at his disposal, Pierre started chopping, reverbing and reversing sounds to the point of unrecognizability, initiating the birth of Musique concrète. His concept entailed that a composer start his creation off with a set of “concrete” sounds, basic sample blocks that he or she must mold into a new musical composition. With these principals in mind, one could then ignore traditional musical instrumentation and the theory on which it is based, giving the composer a freedom that was once impossible. In short, Musique concrète was axiomatized on one rule: namely to forget the old rules and start from the bottom up.
In the years that followed, Pierre and his colleagues expanded these ideas, searching, just like Halim, for the inner source of sound. But where Halim only searched, Pierre tried to alternate its core. By looking on a micro level, Pierre altered the envelopes (the development and fading of the sound itself) of his gathered sounds and came to the conclusion that these manipulations would radically change its musical characteristics and tones. It is here that noise came into play. Whenever sound blocks were altered, these were considered by most musicians of that time to be nothing more than noise. But if one were to alter sound and then place it rhythmically, that was then mysteriously regarded as music. Where is the distinction between music and noise now?
Pierre and his colleagues used the machines they had at their disposal not just to experiment with sound; they attempted to revise the whole concept of what was once considered music, giving way to future genres like psychedelic rock and even the sampling that is constituent for hip hop. The lesson we can take from the bold experimentation by Pierre and his fellow Musique concrète artists is that noise need not be simply a byproduct; it can very well be an essential constituent.
“Noises have generally been thought of as indistinct, but this is not true”
With the invention of the tape recorder, noise took a more prominent role in the realm of music. Sound was no longer static, but could be altered up to the point of unrecognizability, forming blocks of noise that can be constituent for future compositions. But as we have just heard, these cuts were rough and clearly didn’t have the same esthetic value as a well-executed Stravinsky. In the next edition, we’ll examine how noise gained interest with the masses, flanked by the bold statements of John Cage.