A Joyful Noise
A Joyful Noise
I was around 12 years old, and in our bathroom we had an old radio. Curiosity resulted in my turning of the dials, and on long wave I found a new world. Hissing, scratching unpredictability was suddenly at my fingertips. Though I didn’t grasp it at the time, this discovery and the feeling of it would pitch me down a singular, defining path into the style known broadly as ‘experimental’. In the spirit of information and adventure, this article will explain the nature, essence and approaches that coalesce to form the constantly-evolving umbrella genre of the avant-garde, and what all musicians can learn from it.
What is experimentalism?
In the modern age, the term ‘experimental’ is bolted to any number of musical avenues. Weird indie, ambient, drone, minimalism, lower-case music, vaporwave – all of these styles can claim some attachment to such a nebulous term. The incorporation of field-recording, found-sounds, unconventional recording techniques and structures all feature in the style, but where did this begin?
While many would point to the sixties and bands like The Grateful Dead jamming out and seeing where the music takes them, the concept of both unusual sound incorporation and outright defiance of how music is supposed to be traces its roots to defining moments like The Art Of Noise, the Futurist manifesto in Italy and the establishment of musique concrete in France.
The Futurists believed that owing to the advent of the industrial revolution the man-made sounds of machinery and city clatter had as much of a right to exist in music as the cello or the flute. This led to the creation of the intonarumori, the noise machine. Invented by Luigi Rossolo in 1910, these huge devices were the first modern instruments purposefully crafted not to make a melodic sound. Scraping, grinding and rasping their way into existence, they were to feature in the utterly cataclysmic Suite For Intonarumori And Orchestra. Debuted in Milan in 1913, the piece caused a riot in which a number of people lost their lives and led to the building being severely damaged. A deeply extreme reaction that nevertheless spoke to the divisive power of incongruous sound in a classical context, the intonarumori would not survive the war. Bombed to pieces in Paris, their lasting legacy was a small number of images containing both Rossolo and the machines themselves, in addition to a few blueprints for their construction.
Despite the overwhelming destructive force of these items, as man got used to city noise and the invasive sonic nature of the modern world, many found refuge in these sounds. In 2009 the San Francisco Museum Of Modern Art commissioned luthier Keith Cary to rebuild a number of machines based on Rossolo’s original designs. Contemporary artists like Mike Patton of Faith No More/Mr Bungle/Tomahawk etc have also performed with intonarumori, bringing these incredible devices back into a niche area of the public consciousness.
The concept of sound as an otherworldly force untethered from classicism goes back to the Anahata Naad. An ancient Indian idea, it revolves around the principle of the unstruck sound, a vibration that emanates from the core of existence. This is important because ultimately, it is what every musician is striving for; to find the sound or combination of sounds that allow them to feel, to transcend where and what they are for a time.
This thinking leads, consciously or otherwise, to the realisation that there are no bad sounds, only appropriate or inappropriate. If all sounds are ultimately resonance then such things must have both an underlying universality and a core appeal. Watch any number of bands go for a fire-in-the-kitchen ending with band members making as much noise as they can and remember the excitement of that. That’s a brief but accurate rendition of experimentalism.
A huge aspect of this approach relates to the principle of aleatoricism – the music of chance. First coined in 1955 by Werner Meyer-Eppler, this idea permeates the works of modern luminaries like Steve Reich, Brian Eno’s generative pieces, and any number of improvisers in the jazz and noise scene. Beginning a piece unsure of how it is going to end is the loose cornerstone, but it extends further into artistry. Painting, stream-of-consciousness poetry and so on draw from this wellspring. Beginning a piece without a firm idea of what that original piece will become is a truly fundamental element of experimentalism.
This isn’t to say that structure has no place in aleatoric music. Some artists will place restrictions on themselves for these endeavours. Certain chords to be avoided or incorporated, specific sounds to form the basis of a piece, time limits etc. A perfect examples of this is John Zorn’s Cobra, in which an ensemble is guided by randomised pre-written instructions by whomever has been elected to lead the group. Though the leader has control over the order of the instructions and the selection of the musicians, they can only feed them those instructions – what results is up to the individual. Such an application of strict boundaries to musical freedom means that the piece will never be performed the same way twice, and therein lies its appeal.
In improvisation, the idea isn’t to make a howling, self-indulgent racket. In solo terms, this allows the practitioner to convey exactly what they wish. Not only that, but allowing the unfolding sound to dictate its own path leads both to new sounds and changing approaches to equipment and existing, known sounds. Musicians like Keith Rowe, Otomo Yoshihide, La Monte Young, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Delia Darbyshire all take great inspiration from this.
Keith Rowe is an experimental and avant-garde musician who originated in the jazz scene. Desiring to create a new language for the guitar, he moved his instrument to the surface of the table rather than holding it against his person in the accepted manner. Taking his lead from Jackson Pollock, this new position meant that the guitar itself became more industrial. Keith employed springs, hand-fans, radios and steel wool against the strings of his Steinberger in order to conjure soundscapes that had more in common with distant machinery than hard-hitting riffs. Listening to Rowe’s work today feels like glimpsing another world, a droning, collapsing universe being born and dying at the hands of its creator.
The key to this approach is understanding two key aspects. The practitioner must listen to what is happening and commit to the sounds being produced. Rowe states in the video What Is Man And What Is Guitar that if his medium is a contact microphone and a table, he should approach it with the same commitment and sincerity that Mozart would use with an orchestral score. In other words, there can be no apology for the sounds created.
I’ve played with musicians for whom improvisation means taking turns soloing. While this is fine in a context where such prowess is required, the essence of group improvisation is both to contribute to and compliment the music being made. If that means you play nothing, sustain a note or turn on every pedal at once, that’s what it needs. Only you can be the judge of that, and finding other musicians with a similar ethos is rare.
Relinquishing the ego and understanding that the music is both the sum of and outside the musicians involved is a huge step. If you are the drummer, you are there to supply all potential aspects of that medium. As a guitarist, while melody is often the go-to, the physically expressive nature of this instrument and its extended peripherals mean that any number of things are possible. Being with a group of musicians who understand and relish this is uncommon, and such unions are to be cherished.
How Do I Do This?
There are certain effects that are common in the experimental and avant-garde approach. Delay, reverb and distortion of all varieties allow for expansive sounds and a greater presentation of detail.
Examining the setups of players associated with or practicing out-there music yields a few surprises. Bill Orcutt runs into loops but not a lot else, Kevin Shields uses a colossal amount of reverbs, distortions, delays and so on, Otomo Yoshihide, Fred Frith and others employ a simple drive/delay combo. Stacking reverbs is a big favourite of the likes of Anne Sulikowski and other drone practitioners. The noise scene, a subject which deserves its own write-up for ethos and myriad approaches, has big fans in the stack-tons-of-drives ideal, in addition to contact mic use, no-input mixing, massive volume and extreme physicality, proffered by the likes of Xome, Hanatarash and Crank Sturgeon.
I’ve Got A Guitar
The beauty of electric guitar as a medium is its lack of real rules. Players like Lee Ronaldo and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, Duane Denison of Jesus Lizard, Marc Ribot of Tom Waits’ band and others have taken drills, bows, hammers, zip ties and more to their instruments in order to create sounds otherwise impossible.
If you’ve read this far and think you’d like to give it a go, the easiest way to access other sounds is to experiment with your signal path. Think about what’s actually happening. Are you adding reverb to drive, or driving the reverb? Having your reverb first means distorting the cloud that’s being produced, rather than adding ambience to an existing tone. Put a looper at the start of your signal path, or have one at the beginning and the end. This allows for effects like sending repetitions out of sequence and time, setting the loops against themselves and each other. Try improvising using only double-stops, playing only chords or partial chords, repeating a phrase by adding one further note to it with each pass.
All loopers have a preset time limit at the end of which the loop repeats irrespective of the choices of the player. Turn the loop level to zero and play – leave the overdub on and when you’re satisfied, turn the level back up and modulate what you’ve created through the rest of your effects. The point is not to reach a destination, but to embrace the sound itself and where it’s going.
Truly moving beyond the realms of convention there are other techniques that result in different sounds. Your pickups are microphones and will reproduce whatever sound is shown to them. For example, placing a radio against your pickups and tuning between stations can act as a burbling, random underlayer to your melodic tones. Proximity to the pickups lets the player control how ghostly or abrasive they would like their sound to be, even without the incorporation of other effects.
Followers of Sonic Youth will know about the drum-sticks-under-the-strings situation. A less extreme version can be achieved with zip ties, string or cloth, manifesting overtones and zinging, choked notes. Put a hoodie or sweater on and pull the arm down until it reaches the strings, part-muting them and giving them the softest of decays. Capo at the 12th and play the strings behind the capo. Play past the bridge. Run the edge of your pick across the springs in your vibrato. Try an alternate tuning like DADGAD, Drop or Double Drop D. Get a spanner, knife handle or pen and use its flat edge to push the strings down between the pickups.
Why Should You Do This?
The point of all this is to break with the tradition of seeing your instrument as a series of semitonal intervals arranged for the production of songs. Realising that any combination of aspects can influence the piece and that you have total autonomy over your sound breeds a degree of fearlessness that makes genuinely individual music. Even if you flirt with it and return to conventional styles, you’ll be more inclined to take a risk that could lead to somewhere you haven’t thought of. Moreover, as a by-product of giving your sounds more time to exist, you’ll realise that throwing the kitchen sink at everything isn’t always the way to go. Fade a swell in rather than striking it fully. Start using your tone control to make your reverb more distant. Embrace the 70/30 rule – if you’re 70% in charge of the end result and the sound itself is 30% in charge, you will always surprise yourself. Take risks. Be free.