Kim's Blog

Thoughts on senses, data, access, and equality by Dr. Kim Foale.

Art of Noises: risk, live music, play and power

Art Of Noises is an experimental board game of avante-garde musical improvisation. Five words are dealt out (like purple, Communism, Taj Mahal, scared, snooker), and players take it in turns to perform one of them using a variety of toy instruments. It's like Pictionary, but for sounds, but more abstract. More information is on the project page.

Photo of the componants for Art Of Noises
Art of Noises components showing: cards to be performed; some sample instruments; and selection cards to let people pick which sound they think is being performed with famous composers on.

It stems from my PhD research in listening, and is aimed at getting people to think about how they use sounds to communicate. It channels John Cage's passion for experimentation, chance, and his open-definition of what music is, and explicitly makes the players performers in their own scratch orchestra.

It's named after Futurist composer Luigi Russulo's The Art Of Noises, a book which in many ways laid the way for both Cage and the Experimentalists, and the soon-to-emerge Musique Concrete. In it, Russolo lays the groundwork for a compositional toolkit of scrapes, bangs, screeches and whistles, and began to theorise man made sounds as a category. It seemed an apt title for the game: in which I encourage people to create sounds using a similar auditory palette, in order to represent various concepts.

The rules of the game are on GitHub, and will be periodically updated. The whole thing is available under a Creative Commons license, if you want to print-and-play your own version. I have a few physical copies too, available from me when I tour it. The rest of this article is about the process of development: from experience to finished product.

Background

My experience of live art (sound or otherwise) is overwhelmingly an emphasis on spectacle. Aesthetic and artistic considerations aside, audience members are conditioned to stand in silence, "shh"-ing anyone who speaks, listening to an "expert" perform, after long days at work, preferably while nursing an overpriced drink. Lefebvre called this "Dressage": a kind of social conditioning that is taught and enforced through repetition and ubiquity, akin to horses being "broken-in". Human interaction, actually talking to people, becomes difficult: secondary to the central experience of hearing the auteur perform their latest composition. The same rules apply for art galleries or performance art or any other "high" culture. In these contexts, silence is holy.

Of course, the aesthetic and the artistic can be wonderful, life-enriching, educational, moving experiences. I've been to thousands of gigs and hundreds of galleries and exhibitions over the years, and love the experience of live music. I love learning about art, and creativity, and understanding different periods in history through their creative outputs. I love listening to or watching talented performers in their element, creating sounds for a live audience, immersed in the music. Live music can be electric. This is not in question. What the above paragraph hints at though, are the "invisible" rules of music, and art in general. One does not heckle at a classical concert. One does not wear a suit to a metal show. The strictest rule all though: the performers are the performers, and the audience are the audience. This relationship is rarely, if ever questioned.

The inadvertent inspiration for Art Of Noises came from taking a tipsy friend to a noise show. While I was enjoying the performance, the friend I was with, who I hadn't seen in a while, really just wanted to talk to me (with hindsight): in the room with a performer (the wonderful Rosanne Robertson) making subtle, sometimes quiet, harmonically complex sounds using a sheet of metal. My friend's not-so-subtle (or quiet) attempts at making conversation immediately made me feel... uncomfortable? Embarrassed? Apologetic? It's hard to put a finger on the experience which immediately accompanies the feeling of doing something wrong, like being scolded by a teacher, but there it was. This is a form of dressage that I have been taught and internalised: being around someone who has not was (and is) a distinctly unsettling experience.

My immediate reaction was to bundle her out the room. But then the thought started growing: isn't part of the point of experimental music to be open to all the possibilities? What would John Cage think of a drunk person talking all over a performance of 4'33'? I strongly suspect he would laugh, and smile, and be amused and delighted at the varied reactions from the audience: horror from the music critics, muted sniggers from the less fanatic. Given the legacy of the scratch orchestra and random chance in composition, as well as my own PhD research into listening, how is it that this kind of real, honest, spontaneous intervention is something that makes me feel this uncomfortable?

I have no idea how anyone else in the room felt, apart from my friend who was probably not enjoying it as much as me. Perhaps the performer found it funny too, or simply a valid part of the piece. I've no idea what the audience's impression was either: perhaps they didn't hear, didn't care, or were more open to it than my intuitive subconscious reaction that this just isn't the done thing, don't you know. And indeed, there are surely many, many concerts where this kind of chatting wouldn't even be noticed: in short, my reaction surely says more about my socialised attitudes than anyone else's. It was a watershed moment in understanding my own research, and the socialised implications of listening.

Experimental Music

"Experimental" music I think is often misunderstood. The central idea of the Experimental music movement was that the processes of creating sounds should be documented, rather than extensively documenting the specifics about what the sounds should sound like. The latter approach was that of the Serialists, most famously Stockhausen and Webern -- who created scores that attempt to encompass every facet of the final sounds (Weltanschauung) -- exact measures of pitch, duration, timbre, and so on, with increasingly detailed scores. John Cage and the experimentalists, by contrast, denoted what should be done rather than what should be heard -- perhaps most famously, his Prepared Piano works which instruct the performer to attach rubber bands, sticks, bolts, and other materials, to a piano's string bed. There is, by design, no way of knowing how this will sound from the score. Instead, the performer is following a list of directions, performing an "experiment", to see what emerges.

All improvisation is experimentation, to an extent. A live happening always has some aspect of audience interaction, apart from perhaps some of the more uninspired laptop performances. However, if (say) a drone musician is creating drone music, like they did last time, to an audience of drone music fans, is there anything experimental, or unknown, apart from on the most literal of levels? Does anything truly surprising or unexpected come out of this process?

As a previously-frequent attendee of this kind of music show, I would say no. Off the top of my head, I can think of three shows that genuinely surprised or shocked me, and expanded my idea of what live music could be. The vast majority of the time, I know what I'm in for. Again: I love live music. What I'm arguing is that the experimentation in experimental music, the core concept, has been sidelined in favour of music which sounds "a certain way". In fact I think many performances I hear are in much more of a Musique Concrete tradition than an experimental one: generally electro-acoustic, and using sounds and noises as "instruments": a music style that emerged with the invention of magnetic tape, finally allowing composers to both fix music in place forever, and experiment with new sound-creating techniques.

Loss of aural sensibilities

As many authors have documented, we have moved from an aural society (perhaps unconsciously pejoratively referred to as "pre-literate") to an incredibly visual one. Gone are the broadsides): news stories and songs sold on cheap sheets of paper for performance by individuals or crowds to familiar tunes. Gone are the speaking and listening skills of these "pre-literate" societies, where one orator could address 5,000, and politics, philosophy and culture were communicated through mnemonics and rhyme. Gone is a widespread focus on general music education, take-home plays and live musicians in cafés and bars.

Example broadside

Of course there are many places where these things still happen. There are many community choirs, cèilidhs, folk music gatherings, jam sessions, amateur dramatics societies, marching bands, and other places where the lines between performer and audience are blurred. However, there is no doubt these things are a shadow of what they once where. The visual is now king, experts in art, music or literature rule the roost, and considered appreciation is a more socially important skill than being able to actually paint, or play, or write. As Simon Frith tells us, contemporary culture is lived through consumption: we judge people (at least to a degree) based on their music taste and what box sets they own. There is no similar cultural judgement for instrumental skill.

Tying this all together

That's why I composed? wrote? designed? Art Of Noises. We don't have enough opportunities to talk to strangers, to communicate, to make noises, give meaning to the things we are told what to think about. Equally, we are encouraged to be passive listeners or lookers: disengaged in the process of music creation, and yet well informed about its history, and up-to-date on the cool new bands.

Art Of Noises encourages people to be performers, rather than just audience members. It encourages creativity, laughter, play, learning, and establishing a vocabulary of sound. It breaks the ice, encourages performing, listening, interpreting, laughter and experiencing the intimacy of new forms of communication. Fundamentally, it breaks down the performer-audience relationship I've talked about so much in this article. As a composition, it's both prescriptive in some ways and free in others. I've decided how people will interact: people take turns, judge others' performances, and there is a score and a winner. Structurally, I am still a "composer" organising a "recital". However, I feel that the experimental playfulness of Cage and his contemporaries is carried through the work. The barrier to entry is near-zero. There is a freedom of interpretation limited only by the participants' imaginations and shared cultural experiences.

Experiencing people play the game is a joy. Firstly people seem confused -- is this it?. They look with trepidation at the pile of instruments. They pick a few up, tap them gingerly, people mutually giggle. After a pause, an idea forms: you can see the creative idea forming. Q: "How many instruments can I use?" A: "As many as you like". They realise it's only physically possible to use one or two. They have a go. The answer is revealed. Everyone agrees: relief, elation. People disagree: "how could you not get this, it's so obvious?" -- laughter, an exposition of a new creative idea.

The next rounds, people are more confident, the ideas get bolder, the performances longer. People try the more difficult words or concepts. New ways of playing the instruments are discovered -- perhaps smashing a clave into a tambourine, or using a table leg. By the end of that game, the group of people has a new aural shorthand -- a range of shared aural experiences, and a story for next time. They experience performing, playing, improvising, getting positive feedback, and learning about cultural associations and differences.

Final thoughts

I think this piece has been a huge success. With my PhD out of the way, I hope to have a lot more time to promote the game: as mentioned above, the source is on GitHub, but you can make your own version using the guidelines.

I also hope this demonstrates some ways that, as academics, artists, performers, composers, people, we can reconsider the power relationships implicit in everything we can do. As my previous piece demonstrated, ability to create noise while others cannot is power: a power we should not take lightly, or take for granted.

I also hope I can encourage some new forms of risk-taking, and a re-evaluation of the power structures implicit in all noise and sound production. Perhaps we can attempt a return to the more aural sensibilities of past times, and think about the pedagogical implications of our work. As the famous socialist arts and crafts movement artist William Morris wrote: "Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful". Beauty is ephemeral: usefulness is something we can perhaps begin to explore more. In a time where people are simultaneously hyper-available and yet feeling culturally alienated and emotionally disconnected, collaborative music, and play, are perhaps two ways we can re-establish connections and relationships. Art Of Noises provides a stimulus for both.


Other recent articles

  1. Pass-SING -- gender, sound, power and patriarchy

    Are sounds gendered? How do we listen to gender, and how do we perform gender through sound? Sophocles proclaimed that that “silence is the kosmos (good order) of women”. Today, women are still a minority of public speakers and musicians in the public ear, while at the same time many studies show people perceive women to talk much more than they actually do. Absolute ability to create noise or enforce silence has always been a seat of divine power ("in the beginning was the word"), and a source of wonder, something the patriarchal establishments of Church and government are keenly aware of. Equally, while we have a plethora of discussions on visual aspects of gender identity, we have very few discussions of how, consciously or otherwise, people use the sounds of their body to convey their chosen gender.

    Continue reading

  2. Selective Imagination

    One of the most frustrating things about any kind of vaguely nerdy fandom is the application of what I can only describe as selective imagination. This is most extreme in things like Game Of Thrones -- producers and fans will happily defend the whiteness and male gaze of the thing, as it's "realistic", you know, because it's really medieval. Board games are not much better. But why, when the industry claims to want to be more diverse?

    Continue reading

Want to go further back? Here's an archive of all my posts.