Rolf Grossmann

Silence, Sound, Noise Aesthetic and Media-Technological Observations

Lärmkarte Flughafen Berlin-Tegel / noise map of Airport Berlin-Tegel

Lärmkarte Flughafen Berlin-Tegel / noise map of Airport Berlin-Tegel

Noise and silence, the parameters surrounding this issue, used to be integral parts of the arsenal of the 20th-century musical avant garde. Think of John Cage’s silences, or the maelstrom of Iannis Xenakis’s swarms. But are those tools the same ones available to musicians today, and if they are, can they be used in the same way?

Media historian and musicologist Rolf Großmann considers the impact that newer technologies are having on the possibilities for the once-cherished sonic extremes of noise and silence. How are digital media changing the landscape of music, and what effect will this have on how any future avant garde will sound?

The attention garnered by noise and its acompaniment fits very well into the current picture. Following the various turns of the visual, the performative, etc., to offer guiding perspectives, the auditory now stands at the center of contemporary discourse. But such a focus on sound is nothing new. Is the memory of discourse really so short that it’s once again putting on the theoretical agenda those controversies and upheavals relating to silence and noise that permeated the 20th century since its very beginning? Is there nothing more important and relevant to our time of political vacillation and hybridization of art and technology as we face a new era of digital control, a post-human future? How is the power of the culture industry changing within this context, how are its economic and legal-moral assets transforming themselves within the systems of copyright and digital distribution? Perhaps, though, it is in fact precisely such auditory sideshows that are capable of opening up new perspectives on these shifts: [1] the noisy, low-culture music of the disadvantaged, displaced, or forgotten classes, regions, or cultures; the unheard background; the resonance of the body and the unconscious; the silence of the lambs, aware of the position they are in. If we are not to simply naively follow such perspectives, it is important that we remember. What is the role of those 20th-century explorations of noise that form the backdrop of today’s sonic renaissance? Are their narratives a help, a hindrance, or are they already established as formal and discursive elements?

Heroes of the noise aesthetic

At the center of the 20th century, and of that era’s provocation, we find, again, John Cage’s “silent piece” “4′33″.” Which, incidentally, is not an act of silence, but rather one of being silent. And even the score’s repeated imperative – a triple “tacet” – in the Edition Peters version [2] only applies to the musicians, not to the public. A piece absolutely fitting within the classical work tradition, then, with score, performers, and public, and the clear instruction to actively remain silent. The performance by David Tudor, expressly named as exemplary by Cage, saw the pianist open the piano’s lid in order to draw the audience’s attention. This calculated break with the listener’s expectations was once exciting, as it served to thematize the relationship between the notated piece and its interpretation through “performers” or sensitize the ears for the sounds of a concert. That was 1952, so more than half a century ago. Even today, the false respect shown to this compositional feat entices students to hold regular performances of it in their seminars, where they confuse the obtrusive sounds of the video projector’s fan (since, inveitably during “4′33″,” the PowerPoint presentation on silence in 20th-century composition continues to run) for silence or irritating ambient noise. If, during the work’s reception, the attention paid toward its intentional (and at times supposed) silence drops away, background noise immediately steps in to take its place.

A further narrative is formed around the definitive formal claims made for serial composition and its calculations, this time by Iannis Xenakis, who used statistical laws as the basis for building clusters of tone and noise. Here, in contrast to Cage, less self-effacing and with more creative drive, more or less statistically determined layerings and noise become composed music. By way of explanation, Michael Serres offers a somewhat familiar version of its ontological basis: “Xenakis […] eradicates the signal and composes the noise. He allows us to hear the universalia rerum, the naked voice of those things in the universe.” [3]

If we are to discover the relevance of “background noise” [4] after soundscapes and sound architecture, then, do we need to take another look at those examples of the “emancipation of noise” – the noise intoners (“Intonarumori”) of the Italian Futurists, Edgar Varèse’s sirens, the “Constructions in Metal” and prepared piano in Cage’s early pieces, the rhythmically pulsing railway sleepers in Pierre Schaeffer’s “Étude aux chemins de fer,” the breathing and valve noises of Albert Ayler’s saxophone (the musique concrète instrumentale of jazz) – that the 20th century produced? The last epoch of noise lies directly behind us, situated before a broad historical horizon; questions of noise, sound, silence, and being silent, it seems, have already been fully explored. But the perspective at the beginning of the 21st century is a changed one. New historical narratives compete with each other, differences within the themes and concerns of the heroic epoch of noise emerge – and perhaps there are some strange things to be discovered along the way.

Origin, emancipation, liberation

The book “das rauschen” (Noise), published in 1995 on the occasion of the Steirischer Herbst festival in Graz, already addressed most of the relevant questions, chronicling, in the manner of the time, the field’s origin myths, and its narratives of emancipation and liberation. [5] It covers everything relating to sound and noise, from the formation of the universe, via media noise and communication theory’s ideas on interference, all the way to sonic art. Let’s start with the big bang: “The noise of the world has accompanied man since his cosmic birth in the macrocosm of the galaxies, and it accompanies him as the sound of life in the microcosm of his individual existence.” [6] It is myths such as these that form the starting point both for teleologies rooted in the natural sciences and for speculative cultural theories of noise and silence.

From these origins, following the emancipation of the dissonant and animated by the breaking open of the soundscape brought about by the age of industry, the dawn of the 20th century saw the rise of noise as already outlined above, in the sense of both the conquering of new sonic worlds and as a reaction to industrialization and the new power of complex algorithms. A short time later, things got serious, and the liberation was carried out: “It was the principle of noise alone that reacted to the technological transformation of music.” [7] Alongside those works of the classical avant garde already mentioned, this proposition was confirmed by a largely overlooked discovery that managed, almost by accident, to implement the new media-aesthetic positioning of signal and interference that would only emerge several decades later within discourse. Unnoticed by the great theorists of noise and interference, and almost in tandem with the epochal works of Cage, Stockhausen, and Xenakis, the interference noises generated by media circuits were instrumentalized and made practical for everyday use. From 1959 onward, the internal noises of the tube circuit were amplified and transformed into a usable signal, as “maracas,” “brush,” and “cymbal” noises in the Wurlitzer Sideman, one of the first drum machines. [8] This seemingly trivial process, while of little use to romantic fantasies of origin, does however make it unmistakably clear that the relationship of signal to interference is not technically defined, but rather the object of a simple decision made beyond any technical determination.

Almost simultaneously, and with just as little connection to the prevalent narratives around noise at the time, the mid-1950s saw a further curious development in the transposition of media-generated useable signals and background noise, this time in the Lacanian mode of projected desire and in light of the gender relations of the time. In a satirical radio play, Heinrich Böll created the character of a radio station employee who, frustrated by the absurd content of the station’s broadcasts – in technical terms, the signals – begins to collect snippets of audio tape that contain recordings of silence. These are in no way blank media, but contain breathing noises, recording hiss, and the background noise of the recordings’ locations, all serving as sites of projection for both the play’s protagonist and its audience. Dr. Murke, an employee of Westdeutscher Rundfunk, develops an obsession with media silence that eventually spills over into his private life when, in the background the sound of a small recording device lets “a beautiful blonde girl” individually “silence” a few minutes of tape. [9]

Paradoxically, just as it had transformed itself from a technical scourge to an artefact with multiple applications, in the course of digitalization (in the consumer field by 1983 at the latest, the year of the compact disc’s introduction), noise then disappeared from media, step by step. Digital code knows no noise. Its technical semiosis, its relationship to storage media, is defined not by physical analogy, but by agreement. Noise is generated only at the interface with the analog world, at the edges of the grid that organizes the world along digital lines. Transfer and storage are literally freed from noise, and copy and original made indistinguishable: “The term noise is now only suited to the reconstruction of analog reminiscences in the digital music business.” [10] Here, the further transformation of noise to material and a distancing in the sense of scientific methodology can already be seen.

Cultural-industrial sonic engineering

When, at the end of the ’90s, the German jazz trumpeter Till Brönner (yes, the one Barack Obama chose to play at his goodbye dinner in Berlin in 2016) recorded his album “Love,” the tones he produced on his French horn and trumpet seemed to be largely comprised of air, or, more exactly, of breathing sounds. In contrast to Albert Ayler, who experimented with such noises as part of an expressive strategy, with Brönner, breathing sounds become a personal trademark. Miles Davis’s use of many various dampeners to modify his trumpet playing, or the airy Cool Jazz approach of Chet Baker – later reduced at times to a whisper through the physical consequences of his heroin addiction –provide a set of reference points from which a player can then help themselves. With Brönner, the noise serves less to provide a punctuated differentiation in the name of musical expression – its prominence in recordings is also sometimes enhanced through the use of compression [11] –than it does to construct a brand. In Brönner’s new sound, the playing of Ayler, Davis, and Baker, and jazz’s culture of noise, are domesticated and reduced to a sound effect. This reference was thoroughly exploited in his next album, “Chattin’ with Chet” (2000), which expanded the borders of mainstream jazz with virtuosity, incorporating elements into its background that echo DJ culture, such as scratch-phrases and sequenced synthesizer sounds (in “You Don’t Know What Love Is”). The breathing sound comprises one element within this ensemble, and thus stands as the tribute to Chet Baker’s sound.

Max Neuhaus 1985 um 2 Uhr morgens im Verbindungstunnel Montparnasse bei der Arbeit an einer Klanginstallation für die RATP/ Max Neuhaus 1985 at 2 a.m. in the connecting tunnel Montparnasse working on a sound installation for the RATP

Max Neuhaus 1985 um 2 Uhr morgens im Verbindungstunnel Montparnasse bei der Arbeit an einer Klanginstallation für die RATP/ Max Neuhaus 1985 at 2 a.m. in the connecting tunnel Montparnasse working on a sound installation for the RATP

The seemingly intrinsic hi-fi logic of the recording cleaned of noise is passé here, with interference serving instead as a marker for the authentic individualism of the player’s practice. This is equally true of vinyl crackle within DJ culture, breathing noises in vocals, or noise elements incorporated within feedback devices and samplers. The point here is no longer the discovery of new sonic universes; noise is by now a self-evident element of studio techniques and technology, suitable for use within the most diverse contexts and long established in the mainstream of the culture industry.

A further and more contemporary application of the sonic urgrund by the culture industry is the drone, a low-frequency and usually (depending on the context) noise-like sound plain that constitutes a constant presence in surround-sound setups and public address systems. The drone serves to emotionalize the atmosphere, for example as a low-frequency “enhancement” in “The Lord of the Rings” and other blockbuster tales of war, or as a wall of low bass used to whip up excitement among the crowd in the Allianz Arena before the kick-off of an FC Bayern Munich game. [12]

This represents a commercialization of what Steven Goodman describes in “Sonic Warfare” and Christopher Cox terms “sonic materialism.” [13] Beyond any sonic experimentation and “organized sound” (Varèse), control is assumed by the new narrative of the urgrund, the “ontology of vibrational force” (Goodman). The tonal research of noise’s “emancipation” is replaced by a dominance of control over the unconscious and the environmental, in which there is no longer any place for silence or being silent. That which still constituted experimentation and artistic research within the continuous tones of La Monte Young’s psychedelic installations or the atmospheric drones of Max Neuhaus’s works in public space, or which served to create new experiential worlds as a community-building and sensuous swimming pool of bass in dubstep and Hyperdub, is here a calculating and calculated computation of sound designers and event managers.

This field, too, shows the repeatedly invoked rise of interference to the center of communication; the atmosphere itself, increasingly noise-like, determines the wider conditions beyond it: within the spheres of power (of war, desire, film, football, terrorist threat, etc.), we are one. These applications, however, no longer fit within sonic universalism’s naive ideas of mystical origins or those grand narratives of liberation that accompanied the language of progress and “emancipation.” On the contrary, noise’s status as material following its “liberation” is as resonance of an epoch of noise, arbitrary in its availability, and a set-piece for the culture industry of established media production. The emancipation of noise once dreamed of by the avant garde has now become a trusted element of audience expectations, its newness diminished and its references firmly anchored. At this point, one may secretly wish for the return of an Adornian theory of the progress of musical material that demands an appropriate use. Such a superficial and hierarchical application of a complex sound like that of noise would, here, surely be understood as an unacceptable act of violence against the “tendency of material.”

Chris Salter, „N-Polytope: Behaviours in Light and Sound After Iannis Xenakis“, ZKM Zentrum für Kunst und Medien, Karlsruhe, 2012/2017

Chris Salter, „N-Polytope: Behaviours in Light and Sound After Iannis Xenakis“, ZKM Zentrum für Kunst und Medien, Karlsruhe, 2012/2017

Sonic agents in dynamic space-time

Which doesn’t mean that there are no more exciting discoveries, narratives, and experiments to be made. The point here instead lies precisely in revisiting those ontological, musical-aesthetical, and media-theoretical fundamentals that informed earlier narratives. Not in order to repeat them or elevate them, with false respect, to the level of standards, but rather in order to identify their problems and potentials, understand their commonalities and differences, and trace their development.

Put very briefly, current expanded analytical-scientific and artistic research in the field of sound is characterized by historical consciousness, a dynamization of the sound-space relation, and deepened technical-sensorial engineering, from GPS and networked monitoring stations, to computerized imaging techniques and an increased sensitivity to the trusted narrative of “deep listening.”

In addition comes the use of the term “noise,” virulent throughout much discourse of the last third of the 20th century, that resulted from the reappraisal of interference and noise outlined above and which aims to make suitable for theory that which at first glance appears inaccessible, irrational, and unknowable. [14] At the same time, it serves – also in the self-perception of those involved – as a label for a sound practice beyond the established boundaries of high culture (as “Black Noise” in hip-hop, for example [15] ), and so accordingly opens up previously neglected and suppressed sonic and cultural fields. The new appreciation of noise is a legacy of the provocations of the 20th-century avant garde; it breaks through the established hierarchy of the senses and the artefacts assigned to them, the false luster of the pure tones of an equally elitist and commercialized Western culture, and becomes an act of criticism against the established regimes.

Gonçalo F. Cardoso & Ruben Pater, „A STUDY INTO 21ST CENTURY DRONE ACOUSTICS”

Gonçalo F. Cardoso & Ruben Pater, „A STUDY INTO 21ST CENTURY DRONE ACOUSTICS”

The advent of the phonographic recording made it possible for us to experience part of an “audible past.” [16] This in turn initiated a new historiography of the auditory and with it an archaeology of noise’s landscapes. In the sound archives of audio recordings and the audio tracks of moving images, both documentary and fictional sounds of all kinds are made available to us, and with them, too, the respective “background noises” of areas beyond those where our attention is directed. Here, the incidental and the forgotten can be rediscovered from today’s perspective and made part of newer narratives. Histories from earlier times can now literally “sound” different, and the forgotten noises of the drum machine and Dr. Murke’s silence can once again be made audible. Many such narratives, however, like those of the “urban past” and “ephemeral sounds,” [17] fall into the same epistemological trap as all field recordings: all records are media artefacts, and as such do not in any way capture “reality,” but rather allow the medium and its technical and cultural preformations to ring out in the form of their own media dispositif. They necessitate a media-reflexive methodology.

The new awareness shown to the audible past also extends to the work of artists. In addition to classically site-specific works like Bill Fontana’s “Soundbridge Köln/San Francisco,” in which real places are confronted with the noises of other geographical sites, are installations that layer sounds of the past in the physical presence of their respective locations. Historical thinking and technical “enhancement” also lead to new interpretations or reconceptualizations of works that were ahead of the technology of their times. Iannis Xenakis’s “Polytopes” (1971), for example, were newly conceived and staged as a network of audiovisual micro-agents in a version titled “N-Polytope” (2012), [18] the technological basis of which is poetically named “MiniBee,” conjuring associations of a swarm of tiny robot insects. The focus here is no longer on statistics or chance, but on the interweaving of automatically generated spatial spheres whose audiovisual coherences are constantly being created anew. In this way, the new relationship of sound to space, in which the static sound installations of the second half of the 20th century are expanded to allow for a dynamized experience of space through noises controlled spatially and through movement, establishes a new field of sound-cartographic methodology.

The opposite of such synthetic atmospheres are analytical approaches that deconstruct the seemingly indefinable noise landscapes of cities down to their individual dynamic elements. Technologies such as GPS, simulation, and visualization here support a dynamic cartography of “noise maps” in which temporal processes (“timing the drone,” movement, and, where needed, rhythm) are precisely integrated, with the aim of producing, for example, a “pragmatic concept of sonic agents which will be used […] to denote all active contributors to a given universe of sound – be they human or nonhuman (or hybrid). […] The concept of the drone as an active sonic agent shifts the emphasis towards the making of a sound (rather than the perception of a sound), thus partially questioning the anthropocentric perspective on the soundscape.” [19]

Such approaches contain within them a counter-narrative to the inscrutable problem of auditory atmospheres, and to the ontologies of noise’s sonic origins. Their program is one of analysis and clarification, and indeed, some demystification of the avant garde’s whisperings around noise may well do it some good. The visualization in which “travelling drones” are located in the city’s infrastructure, however, tells an old story: the metaphor of a living organism with blood clots, blood vessels, and circulation problems [20] is reminiscent of the Futurists’ metaphors of industrialization, and as such awakens the fear of a return to their ways of thinking (“the beating heart of the big city”).

Here, artistic research in the field operates at times more openly and, for all its aesthetic ambivalence, with more clarity, in the literal sense of the word: the auditory identification of unmanned missiles (in the double sense of “travelling drones”) by the “Study into 21st Century Drone Acoustics” collects “17 drone types, ranging from small consumer drones to large military drones” on a vinyl LP and richly illustrated accompanying booklet. [21] This example shows the potential of artistic research that does not exhaust itself in trusted narratives of noise, while simultaneously serving to present the vinyl LP as a medium-reflexive gesture that references both materiality and the pop music practice of the “album.”

Translation: Ben Caton


[1]This field is outlined by, among others, the anthology: Michael Goddard/Benjamin Halligan/Paul Hegarty (eds.), Reverberations: The Philosophy, Aesthetics and Politics of Noise, New York 2012.
[2]First performance (“Woodstock Manuscript”) by David Tudor, 1952; “First Tacet Edition,” Peters No. 6777 (1960); cf. Larry J. Solomon, The Sounds of Silence: John Cage and 4′33″, 1998 (revised 2002), https://web.archive.org/web/20090620121133/http://solomonsmusic.net:80/4min33se.htm.
[3]Michel Serres, Hermes II: Interferenz [first published in French Paris 1972], Berlin 1992, p. 254.
[4]As undertaken by Brandon LaBelle, again with Cage as a starting point, in Background Noise: Perspectives on Sound Art, New York 2006.
[5]Sabine Sanio/Christian Scheib (eds.), das rauschen. Aufsätze zu einem Themenschwerpunkt im Rahmen des Festivals “Musikprotokoll ’95” im steirischen Herbst, Hofheim 1995.
[6]Max Peter Baumann, “Rauschen im Kopf,” in: Sanio/Scheib 1995, p. 28.
[7]Peter Weibel, “Geräusche, Rauschen, Schall und Klang,” in: Sanio/Scheib 1995, p. 95.
[8]See also Malte Pelleter, “Beating Time: Futuristic Histories and Past Futures of the Drum Machine,” in: Good Vibrations: A History of Electronic Musical Instruments, exh. cat., Musikinstrumenten-Museum, Berlin, 2017, pp. 43/116.
[9]Heinrich Böll, “Doktor Murkes gesammeltes Schweigen,” radio play, production & direction: Herrmann Naber, with Henning Venske as Dr. Murke, SR/SWF 1986, duration: 56′09′′, here from 42′13′′. First published as a short story in Frankfurter Heften, 1955.
[10]Stefan Heidenreich, “Rauschen, filtern, codieren: Stilbildung in Mediensystemen,” in: Sanio/Scheib 1995, p. 24.
[11]Lower breathing elements are foregrounded by raising their level in the signal.
[12]As heard before the start of play at the Champions League FC Bayern Munich vs Ajax Amsterdam game on October 2, 2018 in Munich.
[13]Steve Goodman, Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear, Cambridge, Mass. 2010; Christopher Cox, “Beyond Representation and Signification: Toward a Sonic Materialism,” in: Journal of Visual Culture, vol. 10, 2, 2011, pp. 145–61.
[14]In the financial world for example: Fischer Black, “Noise,” in: The Journal of Finance, vol. XLI, 3, 1986, pp. 529–43.
[15]Tricia Rose, Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America, Hanover/London 1994. One current work in this conceptual tradition is the “sound book” Not Your World Music: Noise in South East Asia, by Dimitri della Faille and Cedrik Fermont, which was awarded the Linz Prix Ars Electronica 2017, http://archive.aec.at/prix/showmode/55681/.
[16]Jonathan Sterne, The Audible Past, Chapel Hill 2003.
[17]Karin Bijsterveld (ed.), Soundscapes of the Urban Past: Staged Sound as Mediated Cultural Heritage, Bielefeld 2013; Monika Dommann/Boris Previšić/Marianne Sommer, “Acoustic Ephemeralities,” introduction, in: Journal of Sonic Studies, 13, 2017, https://www.researchcatalogue.net/view/323272/323273/0/0.
[18]Iannis Xenakis, “Polytope de Persépolis” (1971); Chris Salter in cooperation with Sofian Audry, Marije Baalman, Adam Basanta, Elio Bidinost, and Thomas Spier, “N-Polytope: Behaviors in Light and Sound after Iannis Xenakis,” installation, Gijon, Spain 2012; currently on show at ZKM Karlsruhe during 2018.
[19]Fritz Schlüter, “Mapping the Drone: Sonic Agents in Urban Soundscapes,” in: Petr Gibas/Karolína Pauknerová/Marco Stella et al. (eds.), Non-humans in Social Science: Animals, Spaces, Things, Červený Kostelec 2011, pp. 117–36.
[20]Pedro Cruz/Penousal Machado, “Visualizing the Circulatory Problems of Lisbon,” poster proceedings, SIGGRAPH 2011, Vancouver 2011.
[21]Gonçalo F. Cardoso/Ruben Pater, “A Study into 21st Century Drone Acoustics,” vinyl LP, Discrepant 2016, http://droneacoustics.org/.