Review in Harsh Media by Harold Schellinx

“… one day there will be no music,
just possibilities.”

(N. & C. – p. 164)

Noise & Capitalism

november 04, 2010.

You will agree that this is quite some pair. Intended – in this particular context – as the denotation of two categories supposedly in dialectical opposition (the and should of course rather be read as a versus), it is the title of a bundle of essays published somewhat over a year ago by the prolific audiolab division of Arteleku, a contemporary art center in Donostia-San Sebastián, the capital of the province of Gipuzkoa, in the Basque Country, Spain.

In full accordance with what appears to be the philosophy and position of the editors (Mattin, Anthony Iles) as well as with the tendency of most of the volume’s contributions, the almost 200 pages (designed in careful black & white that looks and breaths the style and solemnity of academia, but with a little arty touch, like a wink of an eye) are available as a free pdf download at the Arteleku’s website. Writing this blog-entry moreover should earn me a paper copy of the book. Interesting idea, to let reviewers have a physical copy only after their review has been published :-) … Arteleku offers an even more general possibility for exchange. Indeed, anyone engaged in some sort of artistic activity, is invited to send a sample of her/his work to Arteleku and get a hard copy of the book in return. The material sent will become part of Arteleku’s public library.


Noise & Capitalism is a collection of essays by a subtle mélange of leftwing/(neo-)marxist academics, writers & musicians. Each, with her or his own twist, makers of and/or otherwise passionate about noise music. And not satisfied with the fact that the society in which they live, work and create continues to be (even after so many years of worldwide subversive praxis) firmly designed along capitalist lines. Some what less, some what more, some like this and some like that; but all contributors do let us know that at least part of their ambition is to kick and middle-finger established values and practices. Artistically and socially.

But what is ‘noise’? And how does it relate to ‘capitalism’?

Wading through the bundle’s articles (that come with many a chain of long and twisted sentences, crammed with socio-philo-economical jargon and, for broader theoretical perspective, leaning on and borrowing from the usual suspects – Marx, Debord, DeLeuze…) did get me but little further in obtaining an idea more precise than the one that made me download the book in the first place: ‘noise’, as in the designation of a certain (non-)genre or (non-)style that over the past forty years or so has become a firmly rooted mode of expression within the global network of factions of practitioners and producers of improvised/experimental non-academic musical idioms, that may subtly differ from continent to continent, from state to state and from one metropolitan area to the other, but that are all part of a clearly-and-as-such recognizable (though maybe not easily definable) tao.

The word ‘noise’ occurs explicitly on 73 of the book’s pages, and you will find that almost all occurrences of the term are part of but 7 of the 12 papers. The others concentrate on ‘free improvisation’. And on issues of copyright, documentation and distribution of (sounding) results of these ‘free’ practices. The collection is a somewhat curious mix, of journalism, science/scientism, credo and manifesto, that makes for interesting but pretty tough reading.

Of course ‘noise’ is part of the vocabulary used in Anthony Iles’ Introduction, where noise encompasses that which locates itself self-reflexively at the limit of what can be accepted as music or as musical performance. Nina Power, in a short case-study annex review, suggests that, whereas men are the past of machines (Sartre), women will be the future of noise: [n]o longer will the machines dream through women, but will instead be built by them. They will be used not to mimic the impotent howl of aggression in a hostile world, but to reconfigure the very matrix of noise itself (italics are mine).

Csaba Toth, professor and chair of the History Department at Carlow University in Pittsburgh, where he co-teaches the seminar Electronic Culture/Experimental Music, contributes a paper with the promising title Noise Theory (in which each occurrence of the term is written with a capital N, as in Noise). Noise performance, in Csaba’s view, exercises a culturally coded and politically specific critique of late capitalism, and offers tools for undoing its seemingly incontestable hegemony. Though, given that Noise performance operates in the shadow of recontainment by the very commodity structures it intends to challenge, it remains unclear how exactly a such undoing will come about, Csaba gives us hope: resistance to such commodification continues to occur[:] Noise has become a transnational global cultural form capable of mobilizing diverse constituencies. Towards the end of his paper Csaba concludes that Noise is pre-linguistic and pre-subjective. The noise of heavy machinery and the powerful sonic onslaught of a Macintosh PowerBook are acts that actively foreground their materiality and disrupt meaning. Finally, taking a cue from Lacan via Robert Fink, he claims that digital Noise is not ‘the negation of desire, but a powerful and totalizing metastasis [of desire].’

In his Notes Towards ‘War at the Membrane’, Howard Slater, a London-based writer, researcher and trainee counselor, takes this one step further: Under the onslaught of noise the human essence dissolves into an (alienating) diffusion of potential becomings whereby identity can be revealed as a fabrication, as the foreclosing product of endocolonisation.

Maybe then there is no such (one) thing as ‘noise’? Ray Brassier, Associate Professor of Philosophy at the American University of Beirut, opens his Genre is Obsolete observing that ‘noise’ has become the expedient moniker for a motley array of sonic practices – academic, artistic, counter-cultural – with little in common besides their perceived recalcitrance with respect to the conventions governing classical and popular musics[:] it has become a generic label for anything deemed to subvert established genre. [... T]he functioning of the term, then, equivocates between nominal anomaly and conceptual interference, [...] though ‘noise’ is neither more nor less inherently subversive than any other commodifiable musical genre[:] the categories invoked in order to decipher its political potency cannot be construed as inherently ‘critical’ while they remain fatally freighted with neo-romantic clichés about the transformative power of aesthetic experience.

I found Ben Watson‘s contribution Noise as Permanent Revolution or, Why Culture is a Sow Which Devours its Own Farrow to be one of the better reads in the book. He observes that the sometime experience of ‘noise music’ as an ‘unflinching barrage’ [...] has more in common with Beethoven’s Große Fuge (1825) than it has with many of the more obvious and contemporary references. Ben also points out that a whole lot of the ‘noise’ indeed is little more than sonic wallpaper, a safe & trendy pose of ‘subversion’, devoid of merit or interest.
As already hinted at above, much of the writing in Noise & Capitalism is about free improvisation. Thus there is Bruce Russell (an improvised sound worker from New Zealand with a life-long engagement in critical theory), who writes Towards a Social Ontology of Improvised Sound Work. Using situationist theory as a uniquely powerful tool for the criticism of culture under the rule of the commodity, Bruce categorizes improvised sound work as one of the key areas of inter-generic hybridity in contemporary music.
There is also Edwin Prévost, percussionist and founding member of AMM (seminal to the development of free improvisation as a practice), whose earlier writings on the subject are extensively cited by some of the other contributing essayists, and who himself contributed an article entitled Free Improvisation in Music and Capitalism: Resisting Authority and the Cults of Scientism and Celebrity. Edwin points out that in some sense the musics under consideration exist precisely because of the socio-economic strictures of a capitalist culture (italics are mine). Moreover, as French musician and researcher Matthieu Saladin points out in his paper, Points of Resistance and Criticism in Free Improvisation: Remarks on a Musical Practice and Some Economic Transformations, the profound mutations carried out by capitalism from the second half of the 1970s (which allowed its redeployment in the following decade) seem to have mainly been brought about by employers’ organizations taking into consideration the demands [for more freedom and individual autonomy] that stemmed from artistic criticism[, refusing] control by hierarchy and the planning of tasks.
It therefore is no wonder, really, that one of the editors (Mattin) and one of the philosopher-contributors (Ray Brassier) – not in the book, but in a related context – arrive at the conclusion that in this day and age, indeed, the “free improviser provides a model of the ultimate capitalist”

To cut things short: the relation between non-academic experimental musics (in their guises of ‘noise’ and ‘free improvisation’ and whatever else one would like to call it) and the social structures of which they (willy-nilly) are inseparable parts, is a devious one. It is complicated and it’s tricky. The more so because these structures, along with the musics and the manifold motivations and interests of their creators, are of course far from static. They are caught in a flux, with everchanging positions and depths of entanglement. Undoing the knot as it existed at some given past moment in time without damaging the constituents would already be a daunting task, and I have yet to encounter an author able (and willing) to take on this task in a balanced and coherent manner. It will take quite some breath, to come up with a vision that would be approximately complete. For now most of the writings on the subject (also the academic ones) lack distance and overview. Together they add up to little more than a series of afterthoughts, as so many pieces of an image seen in a broken mirror glass.

On the other hand, it of course is a bit of a cheap rhetorical & redactional trick on my side to run you through these 200 pages by means of a collage of ‘one-liners’: a parade of emperors stripped from their clothes. I did so, because (primo) I find the little emperors worthwhile to keep for my own reference and (secundo) because I think they will give you at least a hint of what Noise & Capitalism wants to be about. I doubt that other than the couple of viewers for which reading (and writing) these kind of papers is (part of) their job, few will ever find the courage to delve any deeper. And I will not urge you to. For it may learn you a bit about some things, I’m afraid though that it will learn you little (new) about the music. Except (and that, mind you, is no little achievement) that the music matters. In their persistent stubbornness, the unti(r)ed pursuers of experiments in the far outskirts of our cultural landscape continue to push borders. And they push these borders in public, however small the attention is that their efforts will get, because (citing Ben Watson’s paper) the burning intent and beating heart of every ‘genre’ is proselytising and avid, believing it can burst into universality and reach all ears. It is there, at (h)ear point, that ‘mainstream’ in hindsight continues to pick its lot of the raw diamonds that through the efforts of these pioneers came rising to the surface. And the ‘capitalist beast’ will step in, to cut and polish them, make them glitter, market them, and sell.

Personally, I find this process fascinating. More than this: it actually serves the music, not in the least because it entices those that have chosen to pioneer and work in the bare fields and trenches to move on and dig even deeper.

Which, finally, brings me to the upshot of all that went before.

Part of it is a CDR (and – soon to be – free download) by noish~ (moniker of Oscar Martin) that has appeared as the 15th release in the Free Software Series, promoting experimental works that were realized using n en c free software.
Being a digital file, the pdf version of Noise & Capitalism at heart is nothing but a mass of 0′s and a 1′s, which – with suitable tools – can be materialized in whatever form one chooses. Oscar Martin choose to let his free software read Noise & Capitalism‘s pdf as an audio file.
When doing so, at least in theory, anything could happen. Interpreted as sound, sequences of digits encoding the text might correspond to sequences of digits of some encoding of a hypothetical audio recording of the voice of Karl Marx himself.
In practice, though, I guess that chances that a certain decoding will make such a thing happen are as slim as the chance that a randomly generated sequence of letters and spaces turns out to be the same as the first chapter of Graham Greene’s The Human Factor.

What it does – in both cases – bring on, is a glorious heap of noise.


I like the idea of transcoding. It is a means to perform ‘cultural hacks’ which is easy to use and accessible, but at the same time remains highly abstract. And I like even better the conceptual twist of thus ‘hacking’ precisely this Arteleku book, and make it come out as (technological) noise. (The fact that whatever other pdf encoded document is very likely to transcode into a similar type of audio, is beside the point.)

The resulting sound piece – “noise&capitalim.txt >> /dev/dsp” – lasts somewhat over 26 minutes and – as far as I am concerned – stands out as a highly enjoyable and varied sonic metaphor for the text from which it is derived. (No, I do not think that the ‘s’ missing in ‘capitalim’ is intentional.) The piece is composed: like the ideas and words in the book, the raw noise that resulted from the raw data has been subjected to a transformational and editing process, that you find schematized in the picture above.
In his review of the piece on the furthernoise website, Derek Morton provides a detailed log of his personal listening journey. Here is my rendition of Derek’s impressions:

00:00-00:32 * Ear prickling stereophonic grit
00:33-01:30 * 3 to 4 timbres of static interspersed with feedback
01:30-02:25 * White noise floods the mix; track now raging loud
02:26-03:10 * Circuit bendy type bleeps and noise
03:11-05:40 * Noise swell followed by erupting random deeper bass tones; watch the speaker cones dance
05:40-08:33 * Random waved shaped tone blips doing ‘sample & hold’ dance
08:33-09:15 * Waves of granulized sound swing back and forth like pendulum
09:15-10:53 * Motor-like noise with distant subtle drone
09:15-12:22 * Soothing static wiggles into recognizable patterns with rising 60 Hz hum
12:23-15:50 * RF interface, loud rumbles and sine tones fighting for the spotlight; flavors of white noise mixed and panned around
15:51-19:06 * Thinning out, noise subsides to a skittering electronic voice which eventually evolves into rapid fire machine gun serenade
19:07-20:43 * Valley of BUFFER OVERRIDE
20:44-24:13 * Resonating metallic sound undulates amidst dense forest of harsh scraping static
24:13-26:11 * The slithering digital beast makes its way back to its cage.

[logged by: Derek Morton (]

The combination of the textual and the sonic version of Noise & Capitalism actual confirmed my conviction that here and now (in this badly capitalist world) we need not worry about the music’s future. I deeply believe in a ‘music’ doing very well also without us reflecting upon it, without us scheming and plotting to have it run a certain course rather than another. Though admittedly there may be limits to what we are able to imagine, the music – such is my profound conviction – will take care of itself, in whatever future context one may envision. All that it needs are dedicated individuals, and a society that allows them unrestricted freedom of speech and access to the means to express themselves in whatever way they seem fit.

As long as these basic conditions are met, the music will continue to thrive.
There will be ups, and there will be downs. Of course.
I never said it would be easy.

Is there any reason why it should?

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