Guilty pleasures are a uniquely human experience. You don’t like your guilty pleasure — you hate it. You hate it so much that you can’t handle the fact that you want to enjoy it, and then, when you succeed in enjoying it, you blame yourself for succumbing to such a cringey desire. The cycle goes on and on.
Surely, every person reading this sentence has a guilty pleasure; so does every employee of SWISCO. I have one of my own. While boy bands, weird foods, and bad movies top the list of common guilty pleasures, I prefer something a bit… stranger: static noise at loud volume. In three scenes, prepare to be introduced to the strange world of noise music.
The first two combinations didn’t do anything.
In some way or another, both configurations blocked a critical headphone jack and shut down the whole loop. We unplugged, re-plugged, and took a wall of pure sound to the face. The amplifiers we were wiring together began to yelp from the never-ending feedback as one amplifier overloaded the other, which in turn overloaded the first one. Now, THAT’S the stuff.
Spinning the equalizer knobs on the two amps modulated the frequency at which the speakers were screaming out, sending the speakers careening into spats of cosmic warbling and R2D2 screeches. Activating a digital overdrive setting on the first amp put the whole system into a fuzzy roar.
David and I, bandmates, fiddled with knobs and plugged in cables to change the sound as we laughed hysterically. Over earplugs, neither of us could hear the other.
What is noise?
Noise music is hard to define. Overarchingly, I would describe it as a genre that seeks to negate or question the traditional view of what is desirable in music and what is not. Some precursors to noise, like John Cage’s 4’33” (a four minute, thirty-three second piano piece with no audible notes) play with the idea that the silence in a piece of music might outweigh the tones, or that silence might compose a musical piece in its entirety.
Modern noise tends to focus on industrial noise, vocal sounds besides singing, and randomized or computer-generated sound. Noise is preferred (if not explicitly by musicians, then by the handful of fans that the genre boasts) at high volume, with little progression. Continuous drones are common, as well as music without a discernible structure.
The underlying theme, however, is that the noise musician presents sounds to the audience which the audience has never before considered to be music. By considering noise to be music for the first time, a new appreciation for the noise is gained by fans. On the other hand, some fans just like to feel the boom of a speaker as it reverberates through their body — not everyone is an avant garde artiste. Of course, some are.
In high school, Noam was possibly the most spectacularly unique person ever to walk in the front door. Noam is the guy who, for all intents and purposes, introduced me to noise. He would bring some new, bizarre style of music with him to school nearly every day.
Among his favorites was outsider music, made by people who have no musical background. I could never get into the dissonant, disappointing sounds of Jandek, a lo-fi artist who spent his career relegated to mail-order cassettes, or the peppy Sunday-school singsong of the Shaggs, whose father consulted a hand-reading and decided to withdraw his four daughters from school to pursue a band (despite the fact that they had no musical experience and were children).
But Noam introduced me to noise, and I’ve been forever grateful. I was so grateful, in fact, that it eventually got me in over my head.
From ninth to twelfth grade, I served as a member on a board that planned town library functions for teens. My crowning achievement was a six-installment local music concert series. After the first one, I was given quite a lot of input as to which acts we would allow into the show. I got to play several times, and so did my friends, girlfriends, people who did me favors, etc. When Noam asked for a fifteen minute set, I thought he was kidding.
He was not. He had a new guitar rig that someone had given him. He didn’t know how to play it, but he figured out how to make it make an interesting sound.
Deep inside me, I was envious. I wanted to wreak the kind of havoc that only an untrained musician with a microphone can wreak. Vicariously, I decided to live out my noise music fantasy through Noam. I got him fifteen minutes in front of the crowd.
When concert night came up, right before Noam’s set, he brought me his guitar for a sound check. It had four strings, and they were not tuned. I asked, basically, “what gives?” and Noam told me that he didn’t mind the missing strings.
At this point, I realized how much trouble I was in. I figured he would at least be able to make noises through an amplifier for the duration of a full set, but this was not boding well. Four strings? I refused to let him play without re-stringing, though he still requested that his guitar remain un-tuned for the performance.
I quickly re-strung his guitar, slicing my hand on the prickly point of an errant string and bleeding onto the body of his guitar — one of those tiny pinpricks that you can’t even feel. No time left to waste, I put the guitar in his hands, apologized for the blood (“That’s so metal,” he said.), and pushed him onto the stage as quickly as possible.
For fifteen minutes, with my blood on his instrument, Noam turned the volume up and slapped his guitar strings with a drumstick while a guitarist tried his hand at back-up drums. I loved every moment of it.
What the heck was that?
At this point, you should probably be asking yourself, Why? Just… why?
I don’t have a great answer for you, except that it was pure contrarianism. Adults told me to put on a good show, and I did, so naturally, I did as much as I could to try to mess it up. Call it a dramatic finish. It was funny. It was exciting. Most of all, it was new, and it was something I would have never before looked at as being music.
I especially liked the idea of exposing innocent concert-goers to this new way of conceptualizing music. I liked the range of reactions, from annoyance to the point of leaving, to outright hilarity, to a handful of guitar junkies who sat around appreciating the warm static coming out of Noam’s Big Muff electric fuzzbox.
For those fifteen minutes, it was as if we had invented our own genre of music and created our own movement. We were confined to a library, but we felt like giants.
A year after the shockingly well-received noise performance, I was again tasked with gathering together a lineup for yet another local concert. I took some referrals and added local bands that I was excited about, but I saved a slot for myself and some friends, including David (from the first scene).
We were, I guess, supposed to be a folk band. We rehearsed once, without drums. We knew it was going to be a really bad performance, but it was also going to be fun, thanks to the friendly crowd.
It was a few days before the show that my love of noise, and David’s, got the best of us. It started when I broke my guitar.
I had to scramble to find another one before the show, and in the process, I ended up finding two friends who had broken guitars. For the folks at home, that brings the total to three broken guitars and none in working order. Shortly after that, one of the other acts agreed to let me borrow a guitar, and I nearly forgot about the three broken ones.
David did not. He made a joke about smashing his broken guitar, which was funny, because he was playing bass and drums throughout the set. It was so funny, in fact, that we started to brainstorm how he could jump out from behind the drum kit to smash a guitar after the show. Two and two were at that point put together, and we started to plot.
The woman managing the concert was pretty horrified when we brought out the tarp.
“What do you need a tarp for?”
“Don’t worry about it,” we said, placing all our instruments and stands overtop of the tarp.
We played through the set, which went as badly as predicted. For our final song, only two guitarists and Dave (on drums) stayed in. It was our best song, by far, and we actually nailed it that night. Right at the end, in a sort of a fever pitch, Dave started wildly slamming the drums in something that barely resembled any kind of rhythm. I discerned that this was meant to be my cue.
We had been playing the entirety of the final song with broken guitars. We stepped up onto the tarp and smashed the guitars apart as people from the crowd ran up to steal broken pieces.
The other guitarist went first, lifting her guitar and dropping it onto the ground. That was a mistake, because guitars are too sturdy to break them into pieces that way. If you ever watch old videos of the Who, you’ll see that Pete Townsend typically had to drop his guitars a few times on the stage to get them to break. After a few tries, however, my bandmate managed to destroy her guitar.
I was already aware of this problem, and I was mentally prepared. I had no trouble, lifting the guitar in one motion and swinging it back down like a fairground test-your-muscle mallet in the hands of a man fiendishly craving a free cigar.
The first swing broke open the body. The second swing took off the neck of the guitar. We jumped up and down on the remains of our guitars, then wrapped up the tarp, carrying all the carnage away to prepare for the next act. This, we thought, is noise.
So, why do I enjoy this?
It’s somewhere between abstract art and primal scream therapy, you could say. I like the mischievous nature of noise — the potential to shock the audience and make them question if what they’re experiencing even qualifies as music. I like to fly in the face of convention, and I know people like to see someone do the same. Performing noise music appeases my creative side, and listening to noise music appeases my thoughtful side.
You see, the silence of 4’33”, mentioned above, makes great study music. In the concert hall, silence causes one to focus on the sounds of the audience and the limitations of the acoustics of the building. Through headphones, silence causes one to focus on the sounds of one’s own body and the sounds in the room.
Similarly, even the most fuzzy noise music can provoke thoughts. It calls to mind questions about what the source of the noise might be, why the artist may have chosen it, and what makes the noise different from, say, an unintentional noise on the subway, or the sound of a buzzing refrigerator.
Ultimately, the difference is purely subjective. It mostly depends if the sound is being presented as music — and if the sound produces interesting thoughts or valuable realizations.
Some people will never listen to static through headphones; some will never understand the appeal of the sound of construction equipment. In spite of it all, I’ll still be here, sitting at a piano, playing nothing and laughing.