Harsh noise

Under the right circumstances, possibly at the right time of day, listening to harsh noise can be a meditative experience; if per chance you are involved in an activity demanding mental concentration, it can even provide the kind of unemotional, unprejudiced, and unmusical background that drowns out distractions and spurs productivity. It seems counter-intuitive to use noise so, especially to those of us in developing parts of the world, where noise factors into every waking, and sleeping, moment of life: unregulated construction, chaotic modes of transport, above all the dense, omnipresent press of human beings and the veritable Tower of Babel that rises from their interactions, make us treasure the rare instants when things are calm and tranquil. To despoil those moments by listening to something like harsh noise, as entertainment no less, seems like an act of sadomasochism.

But a recent month-long stint working nights led to quite the opposite realization. Staying up through the night at first disturbs and then rewires the body’s diurnal rhythms. From the overstimulated trappings of daytime living, the individual is thrown into the almost physical stillness of night and therefore in some way must come to be psychosomatically altered. Given such a reconstitution of mind-body makeup, music that holds one’s attention during the day may conceivably lose that appeal into the small hours of the night, too. Its structure feels oppressively restricting and its emotional resonance becomes cloying; in other words, the qualities which drew one to it in the first place can now only engender indifference. This music feels out of place in the social vacuum that now envelopes the individual subject, its virtues of past now like so many distant and petty machinations incapable of piercing through to that alienated mental sanctum.

Harsh noise, however, is different in that it is not music but rather an auditory – but all too often also a surprisingly physical – experience. It does not play to the same gambits that anything remotely construable as music does; instead, it discards all putative judgement through musical tone and immerses the listener in an ocean of shifting pitches. Patterns manifest themselves in an impersonal and mechanistic fashion, as brief spikes standing out in relief against the greater wall of noise. Do they have real existence in the design of this noisescape, or are they something conjured up by an overwhelmed mind grasping, desperately hoping, for something familiar to orient itself around? In all events, what is incredibly abrasive initially slowly ascends through degrees of intensity until the listener reaches a plateau of equanimity beyond which no further heightening of sensation can happen. At this stage, the noise is no longer on the peripheries of the listener’s consciousness but has actively embedded itself into his perception of being. He has become indivisible from it, and it from him, in an intermingling as elemental as the pressure of wind beating against the eardrum and the flow of blood through the vein. By the time he reemerges out from this bath of hiss and hum, his listening palate and mental space at large are thoroughly cleansed and the purest of silences rushes in from all corners with healing motive.

On one level it feels pretentious to read such depth into noise, but as fans of metal we might be guilty of approaching it with a flawed perspective. We are innately suspicious of postmodernism and its constant realignment of historical boundaries. Noise in its harshest, most distilled form, however, stands even farther afield of those boundaries, and if used judiciously can legitimately contribute towards enhanced insight across various aspects of experience.

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