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Noise Music

7 November 2010

The Futurists

In 1909, Marinetti published The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism, thus starting the movement. Futurists were inspired by the glory of war, the beauty of industry and especially the beauty of speed. They felt that industrialisation and their movement meant the end of polite art and polite society.

Russolo wrote The Art of Noises in 1913, which is also printed in Audio Culture. This was a manifesto for noise-based music, which he felt was a natural progression of music, given the changing sonic landscape of urban areas. He wrote, “today, noise is triumphant and reigns sovereign over the sensibility of men.”

In order to create noise music, he invented noise machines, called Intonarumori, which he thought would replace orchestras.

We listened to Il Risveglio Di Una Città by Russolo.

Because of the hundred year anniversary of Futurism, Luciano Chessa recreated several Intonarumori and put on some concerts with historic pieces and new compositions by current composers. We watched a short video of the noise machines:

Luciano Chessa and his remake of Luigi Russolo’s Intonarumori. from bart woodstrup on Vimeo.

We listened to a recording of a new piece by John Butcher, which is not yet published.


In 1948, Pierre Schaeffer returned to the idea of noise in music and created several montages of non-musical sounds, which he called “Musique Concrete”. He felt that the ability to record and manipulate tape increased the palette of sounds available to composers. In contrast to the ideas of the Futurists, his music was polite and academic. We listened to Etude Violette from Cinq Etudes de Bruits (Five Noise Studies).

John Cage also engaged noise, from a more radical direction. When asked to define “noise,” it’s often placed in binary opposition to musical sounds. Noise is unwanted, possibly harmful sounds of human origin. After industrialisation, this came to be associated with factories, machines and technology, which is how the Futurists and Schaeffer saw it. Cage, though called into question the idea of any sounds existing in binary opposition to music. When he wrote 4’33”, the noise became the music; thus asserting that there is no such thing as noise, it’s all music.

Industrial Music

Early industrial music was heavily influenced by William S Burroughs, a poet in the 1960’s who did cut-up pieces. He would take news articles, cut out sentences and then read them back in a random order. He did this same technique with tape.

His writings also had strange, sexual, brutal images, which also appealed to the industrial bands, who tried to be shocking.

In London, 1975, the band throbbing Gristle formed. Two of the band members, Genesis P-Orridge and Cosey Fanni Tutti were lovers and had previously been in a performance art group together, called COUM. Throbbing Gristle also had two other members who, amongst playing other things, also manipulated tape: Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson and Chris Carter.

Tutti had previously worked in porn, so they did one event that used her pictures. Another time, they did an art exhibit of used tampons and soiled nappies. They used Nazi images and did extreme things on stage, in an effort to shock. They did this to represent the alienation and despair some people felt as a result of Thatcher’s policies. P-Orridge wrote

it’s basically about the post-breakdown of civilization. You know, you walk down the street and there’s a lot of ruined factories and bits of old newspapers with stories about pornography and page three pinups, blowing down the street and you turn a corner past the dead dog and you see old dustbins. And then over the ruined factory there’s a funny noise. (in Ford Wreckers, 6.28 quoted in Hegarty p 108-9)

P-Orridge may have been drawn to making shocking art because s/he was already considered shocking by society. By being intentionally shocking, s/he’s able to take control of the situation.

We listened to Slug Bait 2.

Another industrial band from London, formed in 1978 is Nurse With Wound. They were influenced by jazz, Krautrock and Throbbing Gristle. We listened to Darkness Fish, which is not on Spotify.

Japanese Noise

Merzbow is the king of Noise music. He formed a record label in 1979, in Japan. His music, and the Japanese scene in general is not angry like Throbbing Gristle. However, like them, he uses images of pornography, ritualised eroticism, etc. We listened to SCUM-Steel Cum 7″ – side A,which you can download from

(All the above heavily informed by Noise / Music: A History by Paul Hegarty, which is highly recommended.)


Closely related to noise is glitch music. The band Oval, for example, put stickers on CDs to make them skip. Ryoji Ikeda is a Japanese glitch artist who lives in Paris. We listened to Test Pattern #0101, which has a lot of high frequencies.

Another glitch artist is Terre Thaemlitz, from New York City. His music is heavily informed by gender theory. He considers himself to be non-essentialist transgender. We listened to There Was A Girl/There Was A boy.INTERSEx from his album Interstices, which is heavily informed by gender theory. In this track, he applies glitch techniques to text.

Current Noise

Survival Research Labs is an art group from San Francisco that does dangerous exhibits in which the audience could be injured. They have robots that fight and shoot out fire. Things with fast-moving, heavy objects. The point is to violate Health and Safety. We listened to a noise track they did, October 24, 1992 Graz, Austria.

Blectum From Blechdom was a hard to classify electronic band from Oakland, California. Both members were graduates of Mills College. They made music using toys and noise sounds and were generally very odd, although were also cute in that they would dress up in costumes and jump up and down in an excited way. They got to be popular in Japan. We listened to a couple fo tracks from their album The Messe Jesse Fiesta.

Women Take Back the Noise was a set of compilation CDs containing noise music made by women. They did this project to promote music by women and combat institutionalised sexism in the noise scene. The packaging of the product addresses issues of femininity and masculinity. Noise is often considered a very masculine genre, so they put pictures of flowers on the CDs. The package has on it a circuit bent noise-maker, which is controlled by touching a metal spike embedded in a fabric flower. In this way, they challenge gendered notions of what is noise music and who can make it.

From that compilation, we listened to Ming by Khate, Cracked Mandible by Insect Deli and They Look As Innocent As Newborn Lambs. The Sick Fucks. by Fe-Mail.

Finally, we listened to Isis by Venison Whirled, which is Lisa Cameron of Texas. She gets the name from a shop called Venison World, where you bring in a deer that you’ve killed and they butcher it for you.

How to Make Noise

A lot of noise sounds are things going wrong in electronics, so one technique is to use zero-input mixers. This is when you get a mixer, plug nothing in it and then crank it way up to get the line noise of running an electronic device. Abusing microphones is a good way to get noise. Feedback and peaking are both good noise sources. Contact mics are also very useful. You can attach them directly to machines, like clothes washers or motors or attach them to pieces of metal and then saw or drill the metal.

Data Bending

There’s a technique called data bending where you put an audio header on non-audio files. You can do this with SoundHack. Under the File menu, select “Open Any . . .” and open a file. Then, under the Hack men, select “Header Change.” Pick how many channels you want and then then pick an encoding. Most AIFFs and WAVs are 16 bit linear, but you can try out other encodings to see how the sound changes. Click “Save Info.” This should cause any changes to your original file. In order to save your changes, go to the File menu and Select “Save a Copy.” There, you can pick the format that you want to save as. This does need to match the header you picked. You will need to edit the file name so that it ends in .wav or .aiff or whatever is appropriate to the format that you choose. SoundHack is slightly flaky, so you may need to save the file before you can listen to it. Different types of files will have different sounds, so try a lot out. Photoshop files, I think, are very nice.

From → electronica

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