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Music and noise

Makis Solomos
mai 2011Traduction de Natalie Lithwick


1“Current research indicates that noise is one of the major irritants to French people in their daily environment”1. And yet, “as far back as ancient Rome, there were complaints about the noise of chariots on cobblestones and shouting street hawkers”2 and “in the Middle Ages as well as in Modern Times, our ancestors’ environment was often noisy”3. Whether or not noise has increased over the ages, its meaning in this context is unequivocal: the experience of nuisance. There is, however, a domain that provides a different outlook on noise: music.

2We could even venture the hypothesis that from time immemorial, musicians have taken advantage of noise. Of course, theoreticians in the past tended to exclude noise from the realm of music, and this mistrust clearly reached its peak with Helmholtzian acoustics4. But can we imagine the cult of Dionysos without aulos or percussions, without instruments that are noiseful (undetermined pitch) and/or noisy? Can we picture a medieval revel without hullabaloo? Regarding the baroque era, Michel Chion offers the following insight:

“The portion of noise that we have identified in guitar music does not, as is commonly thought, date back to contemporary music: it was already important in the 17th century and is not merely concerned with imitative music. […] Repeated notes or trills in Scarlatti’s harpsichord sonatas are indeed written so that stridulations and cracklings may be heard. […] What has veiled this component of noise to the ears – and eyes and minds – of classical musicologists is the fact that on the score, the devices used to produce it are notated with the same symbols as ‘notes’.”5

3It has ultimately been up to modern music to “liberate” noise, musically speaking that is, by recognizing its musical potential. From the emancipation of dissonance to the cluster and the neutralization of the tonal dimension (i.e. pitch); from futuristic “bruitists” to Shaeffer’s “sound objects”; from “prepared” piano to the most extraordinary modes of playing; from saturated rock guitars to the white noise of experimental electronica; from electroacoustics of the 50s to the latest research…. noise is now such an integral part of music, albeit to varying degrees, that the distinction between (musical) sound and noise is less and less effective.

4But why noise? While it may be possible to trace a linear history of noise’s emancipation, as soon as we tackle the reason behind it, things get more complex. Indeed, many explanations have been offered for the increasing emphasis on noise, and these are not all necessarily compatible.

5To begin with, one can discern a sound-conquest per se, thus to the detriment of its reduction to the notion of pitch, which had dominated for centuries. In this sense, noise is more than a new material: it constitutes a gateway to morphology, that new vision of music which Pierre Schaeffer attempted to theorize6. Simultaneously, conquering noise means challenging the timeless physics of sound and fitting sound into time: “a culture based on energy”, where “sound is no longer understood in terms of conservation, repetition, identity”, compels the composer to take an interest in the “transients of attack and extinction, dynamic profiles in constant evolution, noises, sounds with complex masses, multiphonics, grain, resonance, etc”, writes Hugues Dufourt in the first “manifesto” of spectral music7; in a different slant, Horacio Vaggione paraphrases the physicist Ilya Prigogine8 and defines sound structures as “dissipative structures of sound-energy”9.

6There is also a tradition that views noise as the inarticulate, as the amorphous par excellence. In this vein, the fascination for noise could be explained from the standpoint of research by John Cage, about whom there’s been endless elucidation: should one highlight his attacks against music (“I haven’t heard any sounds that I consider something I don’t want to hear again: the only trouble with sounds is music”, he said10) or rather grasp his inquiries as a quest for another kind of listening11? In any case, it would be wrong to think of the interest in the amorphous, i.e. noise, as renunciation. For instance, François Bayle defines noise as “leftover” which “is essentially indefinite, vast, disfigured”, and to which “is applied a continual investigation in order to extract meaning. All noise provides a clue, with the sole aim of inferring its agents and causes, of guessing, hearing, remembering, acting”12. And one could also cite the lovely text – with its explicit title: “Music and background noise” – written by Michel Serres on Xenakis’ Pithoprakta, an orchestral work where all sorts of noises dominate and in which probability calculation was used in order to compose vast noiseful masses. Xenakis, Serres tells us,

“emits strictly what is emitted on its own, without intervening, without letting the articulate intervene, without letting anything intervene. What is emitted, in the absence of screening, filtering or separating? The effect of gravel, the effect of scintillation, the noise of thermal agitation – the ensemble of background noises. What is emitted on its own when no demon intercepts, what might be heard in a world without man? Raw turbulence, the fluctuation of particles, the clash of individuals randomly spread out in time, the fluctuation of the cloud in the space charge effect. Who speaks within this cloud? No one, if need be, and surely the object, the thing in itself, the world”13.

7It would be mistaken to understand this “world without man” as a desert region without any subjects. Xenakis, continues Serres, is in search of music that is “universal: everyone can hear it, whatever their language, suffering and condition, their world and their birth, since this music is conditional, prior to all emission, all reception. This universal is intersubjective; it is also objective since music translates the noise of the world”14.

8Among the numerous other interpretations of the growing interest in noise, we shall conclude by citing the idea that noise is also the dirty, the ugly, the parasitic, the inevitable trait of the poor (and immigrants15). In addition, “noise’s increasing involvement in art music attests to the irruption of a repressed plebeian element and reveals the bad conscience of those in charge of symbolic power”16. This is expounded by Pierre Albert Castanet, who sees the assertion of noise as an act of social dissent17 – several years beforehand, Jacques Attali had partly developed the same argument, but in a much more ambiguous posture, which we don’t dare describe without caution18.

9Does all noise stem from dissent? If this argument wonderfully applies to early works by Lachenmann – for whom noise plays a similar role to that of dissonance seen by Adorno in Schönberg –, what can be said about certain types of music that are deafening, in other words anesthetic? And above all, harking back to the start of this editorial, what can be said about noise’s invasion in our daily life? This is why a study of music and noise should be matched by another on music and … silence. Many artists today – notably those who work on environmental music, sound landscaping or, more commonly, sound installations, as well as many composers of concert music, whether instrumental or electronic – are reinventing silence, weak sound-intensity and sometimes even “pure” (sinusoidal) sounds. We mention installations by Robin Minard19 and Claire Renard20, compositions by Pascale Criton21 and Chiyoko Szlavnics22… However, besides the fact that this themewas partly covered in another issue of Filigrane23, it would be rather difficult to oppose noise to silence. Given the question of noise’s social and political role, if noise can also be used for the sake of oppression, the same holds for silence: between prolonged exposure to very loud sounds and white soundless prison cells, it would be hard to choose a torture method. As regards our starting point: there are those who fear that noise will invade our daily life; however, the silence of the postindustrial world is no less terrifying…

10The subject explored in the current issue of Filigrane is one of the questions that appeared in the French teachers qualification exam (CAPES and agrégation) for 2008/09 – although we inversed the order of the question24. These exam topics are usually given a historical treatment. In this issue, considering our journal’s centers of interest, we decided to adopt another approach.

11Part one, consisting of five articles, suggests that there are several ways of tackling the notion of noise. One might explore its acoustic, sensorial and cognitive aspects (Philippe Lalitte). But one could also probe it from the angle of historical anthropology (Luc Charles-Dominique). A third approach involves the archeology of the notion of noise (Alessandro Arbo). The social approach (Pierre Albert Castanet), as portrayed in our introduction, is also necessary. Finally, the last approach (François Picard), while providing an ethnomusicological outlook, provides a transition to part two.

12Part two is devoted to contemporary music, and also consists of five articles. The first (by the author of these lines) focuses on two “theoreticians” of noise, Russolo et Schaeffer. The second (Marc Battier) deals with the same field, but puts forth a more general vision. The following article (Didier Guigue) delves into a work by one of the composers mentioned above, Helmut Lachenmann. The fourth article is written by an important affiliate of environmental music (Pierre Mariétan). The journal concludes (Renaud Meric) by the study of a work by Agostino Di Scipio where background noise plays a major role.


1  Jean-Pierre Servant (ed.), Mesurer le bruit dans l’environnement. NF S 31-010, Paris, AFNOR, 2000, p. XI.

2  Alain Muzet, Le bruit, Paris, Flammarion, 1999, p. 7.

3  Jean-Pierre Gutton, Bruits et sons dans notre histoire, Paris, PUF, 2000, p. 5.

4  “The first and principal difference between various sounds experienced is that between noises and musical sounds”, writes Hermann von Helmholtz (On the Sensations of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music), its physics being founded on the timelessness of so-called “musical” sound, able to guarantee the existence of genuinely periodic sounds. This timelessness compels Helmoltz to limit his analysis to the stable part of the spectrum, thus eliminating the necessarily noiseful attack of musical instruments and voices – the bow stroke without which the violin sound is not a violin sound, the voice’s initial tonal instability without which a voice is not a voice, etc.

5  Michel Chion, Le Son, Paris, Nathan/HER, 2000, p. 179.

6  Cf. Pierre Schaeffer, Traité des objets musicaux, Paris, Seuil, 1966.

7  Hugues Dufourt, “Musique spectrale” (1979), in Hugues Dufourt, Musique, pouvoir, écriture, Paris, Klincksieck, 1991, p. 289-290.

8  Co-author with Isabelle Stengers of the book La nouvelle alliance (Paris, Gallimard, 1979), which develops the idea that modern physics has introduced time ; in his physics research, Prigogine is the author of “dissipative structure theory”.

9  Horacio Vaggione, “Composition musicale et moyens informatiques : questions d’approche”, in Makis Solomos, Antonia Soulez, Horacio, Vaggione, Formel/Informel : musique-philosophie, Paris, L’Harmattan 2003, p. 102.

10  http://www.wnyc.org/music/articles/84007.

11  Cf. Carmen Pardo, Approche de John Cage. L’écoute oblique, Paris, L’Harmattan, 2007.

12  François Bayle, Musique acousmatique. Propositions… …positions, Paris, INA-GRM/Buchet-Chastel, 1993, p. 81.

13  Michel Serres, “Musique et bruit de fond” (1968), in Michel Serres, Hermès II. L’interférence, Paris, Minuit, 1972, p. 189-190.

14  Ibid., p. 193.

15  We recall the staggering declaration on “noise and smell” made by a well-known political figure with whom the right began to poach on far-right territory : “How do you expect the French worker who works with his wife and who, together, earn around 15,000 francs, and who sees next-door in the same public housing unit, a family packed in, the father, three or four wives and twenty kids or so, and who earns 50,000 francs in social security benefits, without working of course… if you add the noise and the smell, well, the French worker in that housing unit goes crazy (Jacques Chirac, speech made on 19 June 1991).

16  Hugues Dufourt, “Préface”, in Pierre Albert Castanet, Tout est bruit pour qui a peur. Pour une histoire sociale du son sale, Paris, Michel de Maule, 1999, p. 9.

17  Cf. Pierre Albert Castanet, op. cit.

18  Cf. Jacques Attali, Bruits. Essai sur l’économie politique de la musique, Paris, P.U.F., 1977.

19  Cf. Bernd Schulz (ed.), Robin Minard. Silent Music, Stadtgalerie Saarbrücken, Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg, 1999.

20  Cf. Renard’s installation (with video-artist and designer Esa Vesmanen) La Chambre du Temps, created in Lyon in the framework of the Biennale Musiques en Scène at the Musée d’Art Contemporain, in 2006.

21  Cf. Pascale Criton, “Subjectivités et formes du temps”, Filigrane. Musique, esthétique, sciences, société n° 2, edited by Joëlle Caullier, second semester 2005, p. 119-138.

22  Cf. Chiyoko Szlavnics, “Opening Ears : the Intimacy of the Detail of Sound”, Filigrane. Musique, esthétique, sciences, société n° 4, edited by Jean-Marc Chouvel, second semester 2006, p. 37-58.

23  Traces d’invisible, Filigrane n° 2, op. cit.

24  The precise wording of the CAPES (postgraduate teaching certificate) exam question is “Bruit et musique : discriminations, interactions, influences”.


Makis Solomos, «Music and noise», Filigrane. Musique, esthétique, sciences, société. [En ligne], Numéros de la revue, Musique et bruit, mis à  jour le : 30/05/2011, URL : https://revues.mshparisnord.fr:443/filigrane/index.php?id=214.


Makis SolomosNatalie Lithwick