Composer | Conductor

Nothing cleans like noise!

Martín Rincón Botero



After watching Brian Archinal’s wonderful video of “splitting 4”, 16 readymades for Percussion and CD-Player (2000) by Michael Maierhof, and reading an interview with Maierhof and the pianist Sebastian Berweck originally published in “Noise in and as music” (University of Huddersfield Press, 2013), I would like to take the opportunity to discuss some of the prerogatives that seem to fill a part of the New Music scene.

One of them is the relative importance of sound in the making of what Maierhof calls non-pitch-organized music (that’s how Maierhof calls his own music, interchangeably with “noise music”). But first the question, what is non-pitch-organized music? This could be from my point of view a piece for non-pitched percussion (say, for snare drum and cymbals), for example. However, Maierhof seems to agree with “the people” that every piece that doesn’t rely on pitches is some form of “noise music”, as he states:

If one does not use pitches in music as a central category, people often describe this as Geräusch-Musik, which would be the German equivalent to noise music, my music belongs to the other category, which is usually called noise (Maierhof, 2013, p. 131).

I really doubt that “people” would claim that a piece for snare drum and cymbals should be necessarily labeled as “noise music”, unless intentional noisy “extended techniques” or electronic processing made with those two instruments are used. So the fundamental part of non-pitch-organized music can’t be said to be necessarily noise.

The term noise is however employed by Maierhof in a somewhat individual way. He works with Klangkomplexe, a concept he uses “to describe the complex qualities of non-pitch materials” (Maierhof, p. 131). These Klangkomplexe are created, among others, by building “different structured surfaces, which can be found on the backside of tiles, on glass, on metal gratings, and acrylic glass, for example” (Maierhof, p. 131-132). Based on these various ways to produce some sort of “noise” he has composed series of works among which is splitting.

If I understand correctly, Maierhof claims that a Klangkomplex is a kind of multi-layered noise, that might even include some amount of pitch. His analysis of the four layers of a sound complex in splitting 36.1, a piece for piano, sonic motor and vibrating systems (2011), might further illustrate what a sound complex is:

1. a continuous sound field resulting from the sonic motor together with the plastic cup and marbles. This sound field always changes slightly because the motor constantly moves on the string. It also includes the pitched sound elements of the motor itself;

2. the sounds of the different piano strings and their respective pitches, which are activated by the slight vibrations of the sonic motor;

3. the combination of the pitches of the keys [...] together with the triplet pulse and dynamic changes [...] and

4. a sound layer that is introduced by the single impulses of the piano hammers [...] and which are, in turn, distorted and amplified by the application of the plastic half-sphere. (Maierhof, p. 135).

Sebastian Berweck, the interviewer, wonders how does he “find” all these combinations. Maierhof answers with something that I’ve heard many times from different composers who like working with non-pitch-organized music (in which conversations I’m kind of the “old-fashioned” composer who still dares to write some boring pitches!). His answer is that he works with sound, a term glorified by this group of composers (some of them are my friends!). He says:

Noise music or music generated with sound complexes has different production procedures to pitch-organized music. Because of the complexities in the sound itself, its construction takes place more within the sound than in pitched music, where you have known material and the composition process is all about the combination of the pitches, which can be planned beforehand. In non-pitch-organized music, analyzing material and formal processes through listening is probably more important than in pitched music (Maierhof, p. 136-137).

First of all, saying that working with pitches is just finding a way of combining them is a very Milton Babbitt approach to it. Second, what does he mean with “known material”? Is material for him only notes, chords, and so on, or is he talking about motives, melodies, phrases, etc.? Notes, chords, etc., can be said to constitute some of the “basic units” of pitch-organized music, just as the “basic units” of a prepared piano are the sounds that every key produces. But it is clear that we still need a little bit more to arrive to a complete musical material. That is, a material made out of “basic units” in a musical way. This “musical way” can be rightly found through analysis of these units and their formal processes through listening. This last activity is therefore not exclusive of “noise music”.

To further illustrate the idea that also in noise music there are basic units on one hand and materials on the other, formed out of these basic units, let’s take a look at the above mentioned splitting 4:

The sounds that the cups can potentially produce on the various surfaces (which are per se a limited set) and the deep (pitched) sound of the recording (CD) are the basic units. These are the “notes” of the percussion set. The materials, however, are the gestures, motives, phrases which he composed. That means that musical materials are not really isolated sounds or pitches: they are born in the moment the composer makes something out of them!

The piece starts with a rapid circular gesture of the right hand cup, immediately answered by the CD deep sound and then by the “screechy” noise of the left hand cup. This is already a first complete musical material.

Let’s not forget that any of these gestures could be used surrounded by silence (and thus, it would seem as if they sound in “isolation”). This is however not the same as claiming that an isolated sound is the same as a complete musical material!

The development of this first material (and subsequently of the entire piece) occurs in the manner that different circle speeds in the hands are used in different sections (in some parts forming poly-rhythms), and the way the macro-pulse of the deep CD sound is used to generate expectations or articulate the phrasing, all of this often interacting with various moments of silence. We could go on and keep analyzing the whole musical discourse of this piece (what indeed makes the piece interesting!), but that would clearly exceed the scope of this text.

Up until here, there’s really nothing new under the sun. What seems to bug me is the newness that the use of noise implies for Maierhof, who felt that he “was somehow not satisfied that most composers would adopt pitch material, and that their writing is then just a question of re-arranging the pitches” (Maierhof, p. 137). This same “newness fetishism” (it’s new because it’s not pitches) seems to be the guiding criterion in some New Music concerts and festivals, at least here in Germany. Such attitude is in my opinion analogical to the position that some American composers have regarding tonality (especially to New Tonality), claiming that tonality is more natural and that it has an unchallenged rich legacy. In writing about this American attitude, James Boro in “A New Totality?” (Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 33, No. 1/2 (Winter - Summer, 1995), pp. 538-553) wittily imagines perky TV commercials with the slogan “Nothing cleans like tonality!”.

No matter how new a given isolated noise (or Klangkomplex) appears to be, it needs to be used to compose interesting musical materials (which are necessarily discursive/temporal elements as opposed to basic units, which are non-discursive/static by nature) as well as interesting pieces out of those materials! The same can be said of pitches as basic units and of any other kind of basic unit that is used as a basis for musical material. Or are we on the contrary really supposed to think that, like in Boro’s TV fantasy, “Nothing cleans like noise”? Is then noise by nature new and interesting?