On noise and Second Square to None

A piece I wrote for the online version of the now defunct Analogue Magazine.

The number of venues for experimental music in Dublin has always been limited, and with the demise of what once were regular Lazybird events in the International recently, it became more limited still. Celebrating their first birthday on the 20th of December, the Second Square to None collective – who run monthly events in Twisted Pepper – aim to plug that gap by providing a forum for experimental and noise music – as well as ambient, downbeat, and electronica – in the city. To my mind, probably SSTN’s most exciting function lies in its offering a space for genres of sound that would otherwise languish unheard on the Dublin scene – one of those being noise.

Noise music’s first manifesto came from Luigi Russolo in 1913, who argued that, ‘The limited circle of pure sounds [as produced by orchestral and other traditional instruments] must be broken, and the infinite variety of ‘noise-sound’ conquered.’ This ‘infinite variety’ was explored in the twentieth century by artists from John Cage to Lou Reed to Merzbow (and many many more in-between), but as the twentieth century bled into the twenty-first, and computers became ubiquitous, the ‘infinite variety’ has morphed into something more like ‘infinity squared’. Not that the genre was growing tired, in need of a shot in the arm, as it were, but the ubiquity of both the hard and software needed to mangle and mash audio meant that more and more artists began to play around at the boundaries of sound.

‘Noise music’ is a term that, while not quite defying explanation, certainly makes it difficult. The frequent ducking into parantheses and juxtaposition of binaries in essays on the subject suggests that the same inability to describe the sublime that has plagued theorists for decades (not that that’s ever stopped them) inheres to theories of noise too. As an example: ‘If noise is process, is always a becoming-noise – or, alternatively, (not) coming into (not) being as noise, this exclusion (what we take to be in the exclusion) is undone when noise ‘is’ as noise is the coming undone of noise/organised sound.’ Which is a terribly erudite way of saying ‘Jesus, I dunno.’

This difficulty in describing, or explaining, in a broad sense, what noise artists do was apparent when I sat down with noise duo FYED last week and made the mistake of opening the interview with the question: ‘So, what is it that ye do?’ The pause that follows is fully fifteen seconds long, according to my recorder, and then Ed, in answering the question, dodges it entirely.

FYED are Ed Devane (founder member of the Second Square to None collective) and Fyodor, or Fionn Wallace, militant noise-merchant and one time drummer with the now defunct John and Mary Trilogy. As Ed Devane, Ed makes ‘a lot of dancefloor music’, but for Second Square to None, and as half of FYED, he welcomes the chance to play with abstract, noisey (sic) improvisation: ‘To improvise droney noisescape stuff is a welcome change from that, ‘cos that stuff is very unspontaneous.’

Noise music need not necessarily be improvised, but improvisation lies at the heart of much of it. There is a sense that, in rehearsing and recording, the anarchic, experimental impulse that lies behind it is lost, or at the very least tamed. For this reason, the flowering of noise music throughout the noughties can be seen both as a function of hardware ubiquity, as aforementioned, and the power of the internet to allow links between local scenes to expand exponentially, meaning the potential for live collaboration, and the experimentation that goes with that, has mushroomed. As Marc Masters writes on Pitchfork: ‘Often improvisational and rarely repeatable, noise depends on live performance, and local venues and communities remain its most fertile audio labs.’

Which is where Second Square to None comes in. It offers both the venue (The Twisted Pepper) and the social hub (both online at secondsquaretonone.com and in the real world) for experimental/noise artists to come together. There’s no such thing as a ‘typical’ noise artist, but Ed’s comment that, ‘We’re using machines in a way that they’re not really meant to be used,’ is instructive. From Sonic Youth through My Bloody Valentine through Merzbow right up to Animal Collective, a fundamental guiding premise of noise music is that, first, anything can be an ‘instrument’, and second, any ‘instrument’ can be used any damn well way you please. This can have its pitfalls, as Fionn says, ‘With the noisier stuff it’s hard to know who’s making what sounds…sometimes we don’t know.’ Ed continues: ‘Yeah, sometimes like there’ll be feedback noise and I’ll be like (to Fionn) ‘Make it stop!’ and then I’ll realise it’s me who’s making the sound.’

Similarly, Ed goes on, ‘(At our first gig) there was this buzz that was going all the way through that was a dodgy cable going bzzzzzz. And nobody could tell we weren’t making it. They were like, “That’s good, I guess.”’ Which leads to a possible charge against noise music: if only the initiated could possibly understand it, and, equally, if not even the artists know what’s going on, then what’s the point?

To which charges I would point to what some writers have called the ‘ecstatic’ effect of noise music. All music has an ‘effect’, or, rather, is affecting. We need not be connoiseurs to be moved by (some would say manipulated by) a John Williams piece. Similarly, one need not be a conoisseur to be moved by a noisescape. The difference, perhaps, is that the movement may be toward the commonly understood form of ecstasy (joyous, literally ecstatic) or toward a darker, more unsettling kind, or even some combination of the two. Use of the word ‘sublime’ is dangerous (not least because it makes one think of a campy woman describing a cocktail), but we’ll take our chances here and quote Torben Sangild: ‘One of the reasons for the ecstatic effect of noise is its sublime character. The sublime is that which exceeds the limits of the senses, perceived as chaos or vastness. Despite our ability to put these words to it, the sublime goes beyond making sense – we never really understand it. The complexity of noise (in the acoustic sense) overloads the ears and the nervous system and is perceived as an amorphous mass, incomprehensible yet stirring. The delight of the sublime is the satisfaction of confronting the unfathomable.’

The magic of noise music is that it does not dictate a direction for our feelings – it doesn’t seek to make us happy, or sad, or excited, or anything else. It’s non-manipulative of our emotions. Because of this open ended nature, you don’t need to ‘understand’ what’s going on; to clock that there’s a broken cable creating a buzzy noise is fine if you do, but if you’re busily getting lost in the noisescape and don’t notice, that’s fair enough too.

Many people hear the phrase ‘noise music’ and shy away. Its Greek root is the word ‘nausea’, after all. But there’s nothing in the noise handbook that says it has to make you sick, or uncomfortable; nor does it have to break your ears. Ed points out something that did indeed put me off noise music for a long time: ‘That’s something that I’ve read a good few times, that noise..it’s this big macho thing, y’know, “I’m so hard I’m gonna go deaf in the next year or so.”’ He goes on: ‘That’s a load of bollocks really…that’s pointless.’

Which probably explains why I’ve yet to be to a Second Square to None event (all of which are in part curated by Ed) that makes my ears or my nose bleed. Post-gig tinnitus has been thin on the ground. The noise – by artists like Ventolyn & Becotyde, Push Move Click, Keith Lindsay, Fyed, Boys of Summer, Uninerves, Magnetize and more – may be noisy, it may be loud, but it’s not macho posturing or undifferentiated aggression. And it does take you off to wide open spaces in your head. Plans are afoot to fill the dancefloor of Twisted Pepper with Buddha Bags for the next Second Square to None in mid-December so people can sit back, close their eyes, and float away, transported to (or at least near) that place, the sublime.

Image: M J M