A concise history of noise in music…

The essay The art of Noises: Futurist Manifesto (1913) by Luigi Rusollo gives the earliest history of noise music, and described the direction in which it should go. Hence, in order to give a detailed account of the (anti-) movement itself, a well detailed account of the history leading up to it is necessary.


This is only a quick one, as I have to go to work, but I wanted post up this essay I did on noise music. I dig it.

The No Wave scene of New York (ca. 1975 – ca. 1984) was a reaction to the sheer amount of doom and gloom in New York around that time, as well as the stale state of punk and new wave music flooding the airwaves. No Wave encompassed many different artistic areas, but the most prolific was in music – No Wave was an attack on rock and roll using the standard tools. Guitars screeched, drums were primal, bass was tight and repeating, while the vocals were a squealing, harsh mish-mash of gibberish. The essay The art of Noises: Futurist Manifesto (1913) by Luigi Rusollo gives the earliest history of noise music, and described the direction in which it should go. Hence, in order to give a detailed account of the (anti-) movement itself, a well detailed account of the history leading up to it is necessary.

The art of Noises: Futurist Manifesto (1913) is for the musical shift of Futurist artists to firstly “observe all noises attentively”, and secondly, give other futurists a “a passion and taste for noise” (Russolo 1913, p. 13). (With Futurism having been defined as the first major Avant-Garde movement of the 20th Century that lasted for approximately 30 years, and a movement that rejected “traditional social and aesthetic values and called for a new art that celebrated modern technology, speed, noise, violence and war. The movement was centred in Italy and Russia, and encompassed painting, sculpture, music, architecture, typography, poetry, cooking and clothing design.” ) (Cox and Warner, 2004 p. 411).

Russolo’s essay moves through the stages of noise in history, starting at the 19th C, where noise was born with the invention of machines. At the early stages of noise and musicianship, humanity was only acquainted with the sounds of naturally occurring events, and were ‘stupefied’ at the first plucked string. Sound was a sacred thing – “sound was attributed to the gods” (Russolo 1913, p. 12), and thus, it was reserved for priests. It wasn’t until the after Middle Ages that chords were invented on the back of the Greek tetrachord system and Flemish contrapuntalists. After these significant inventions, dissonance was soon created and modern music had a defining feature. It is at this point, the point of dissonance and modern sounds, that Russolo’s essay moves to a directive – “We must break out of this limited circle of sounds and conquer the infinite variety of noise sounds” (Russolo 1913, p. 12). Russolo states simply that “musical sound is too limited in its variety of timbres…Thus, modern music flounders within this tiny circle, vainly striving to create new varieties of timbre.” (Russolo 1913, p. 13)

It is also at the stage of modernity that people are actually considered ready to listen to noise in the context of music, as noise is simply something that modern humans experience daily. “The ear of the 18th Century man would not have been able to withstand the inharmonious intensity of certain chords produced by our orchestra (with three times as many performers as that of the orchestra of his time). But our ear takes pleasure in it, since it is already educated to modern life, so prodigal in different noises. Nevertheless, our ear is not satisfied and calls for ever greater emotions”.(Russolo 1913, p. 13) So, with this in mind, now a look into the ‘creative enterprise’ of music, and noise music in particular – the history of it, the practitioners of it, and the current purveyors.

The History of Noise in music

In keeping with the avant-garde nature of art and the academic nature in which art collectives were facing their work around the 1910’s, it was those with no formal training in music that were most inspired by Russolo’s essay, (himself being a ‘prominent painter in the Italian futurist movement’) that led the vanguard in making noise a part of music. (By the time, No Wave came about, this still rang true – no members of MARS had any previous knowledge of playing music for example) Marcel Duchamp (28 July 1887 – 2 October 1968), an artist a part of many avant-garde circles such as Dada, not only led to the readymade being considered as art, but also created an interactive piece – “With Hidden Noise (A Bruit Secret) (1916)” in collaboration with Walter Arensburg. The work had an unnamed object that rattled to create sound – a concept that was continually built on by many others.

In 1920, ‘noise instruments’ modernists Edgard Varèse and George Antheil had started creating instruments that reflected the noisy modern world – a player piano (a pedalled instrument that ‘played’ scrolls with the musical notation perforated on it) and a siren. It seems that what followed after these forays, could be aptly described as a re-defining for music – a definition in which music could now posses drones, ‘junk’, chance and caprice. 4’33’’ by John Cage – a seminal thinker and musician had finally justified the acceptance of noise into everyday music – even when a piece of music is ‘silent’, it simply is not possible.

…Cage had already been to the most silent room he could find, the Anechoic Chamber at Harvard University. Excited by the prospect of experiencing, for the first time, a near total absence of sound, Cage stepped into the chamber, but was disappointed to find that he could still hear two distinct sounds…The engineer explained that the first sound was Cage’s own blood circulating around his body, and that the second was produced by his nervous system – so much for silence. (Schuftan 2007, p. 71)

So now that everything is a part of music… “why bother to make music?” Cage’s answer? “Well, why not?” (Schuftan 2007, p. 71)

Older Practitioners

From this exploration into noise that has been taking place since 1910, it has found its way into the musical vocabulary of many different artists – the No Wave scene in New York was founded on the principles of unschooled and inventive uses of musical instruments. Admittedly, although the use of instruments to create noise doesn’t quite live up to Russolo’s expectations of using separate objects for this end, the link between the two philosophies is undeniable. Also, surely after ‘artists’ making music, it then makes sense for ‘musicians’ to ‘ruin’ music, and fuse pop with noise – take something old and give it newfound exuberance.

Bands like DNA, James Chance and the Contortions and Mars, thrived on the notion of inventing something new – finding new timbres – and utilised shrieks, howls and dissonant guitar work to achieve this end. All these artists were featured on the timeless Brian Eno produced compilation – No New York. Each band had their separate approach too of course – While the members of DNA were all entirely untrained in their instruments and approached their craft in an anti-typical way, James Chance and the Contortions appear to actually have prior knowledge of playing their instruments in more standard approaches (James Chance was actually a conservatorium trained Saxophonist and well versed in musical theory and the conventions of music). Songs like Dish it out and Flip Your Face by James Chance and the Contortions include dissonance, repetition and screams – all hallmarks of the genre, but also show free-form jazz improvisation and a conscious attack on standard approaches to music.

Like the majority of the pieces, perhaps a more apt name might be scraps of music, (- not to be derogatory in the least, but to show the sheer rawness and bare bones approach – The departure from anything that constituted music in the past.) that appear on No New York, the ‘scene’ and genre itself moved swiftly before ending abruptly. While only four of five bands have received any recognition at all for their time in the avant-garde No Wave, even fewer have started and continued to play bona-fide noise infused music.

One exception, perhaps the only one, is Sonic Youth – a seminal band that formed in 1981 as the No Wave scene was moving to its end and are still fiercely continuing into the current day. Starting out with noisy and dissonant but standard-tuned guitars, occasional screaming, unconventional song-structure and a decidedly ‘art school’ approach, Sonic Youth have continually honed their approach to music. Since their formation, Sonic Youth have used prepared guitar – often using screwdrivers and drumsticks to either scratch the strings or be jammed under them. The new bridge created in the guitar by the jammed screwdrivers often resulted in a variety of different sounds created by the guitar – such as chiming or bells.

Since Sonic Youth’s early days, they have become renowned for their alternatively tuned guitars, (often taking fourty or so instruments on tour as the majority of guitars would only be used on one song,) long improvised interludes (The Diamond Sea being a prime example), and their constantly avant-garde approach to music for over 30 years. They undoubtedly ushered in popular acceptance for more conventional bands during the grunge era of the 1990’s, but have never strayed far from their noisy roots – creating their own label (SYR) to release music free from pressures of a label determined to meet targets.

Due to the sheer amount of time the band have been active, they more than deserve a mere human’s attention, but one need only listen to the opus Daydream Nation (1988) to understand why they deserve respect – not only for their roots, but also for their present. As it was when one success from the Shoegazer scene led to press for every other band, so it is with Sonic Youth and No Wave. To say critical acceptance ever happened for No Wave during it’s era is an out and out lie, but perhaps the passing of time and the allowance for everyone catch up, might just have been it. A Pitchfork Media (the leader in underground music – positive reviews mean a substantial amount of publicity it seems) review of No New York by Brandon Stosuy, November 15, 2005 may just be the landmark point in which No Wave gained acceptance – with a rating of 8.4/10 around 25 years after the fact, it certainly took a long time.


Russolo, L 1913, Audio Culture – readings in modern music, Continuum, USA

Cox and Warner, 2004, Audio Culture – readings in modern music, Continuum, USA

Scuftan, C 2007, Culture Club, 2nd edn, ABC, Sydney, NSW.

Michel Sanouillet & Elmer Peterson (Eds.), The Writings of Marcel Duchamp, Da Capo Press, p.135

Joshua Rayson

Author: kevindotsaville

Likes music, noise, art.