Showing posts with label electronic music. Show all posts
Showing posts with label electronic music. Show all posts

Sunday, July 6, 2008

The Art of Noise

Introduced to the rock world at the Monterey Pop Festival, held June 16-18 1967, the Moog synthesizer was the most sophisticated and expensive noisemaking machine ever invented. Although seldom considered as a noisemaker, that is more or less how the synthesizer was initially perceived, given its first uses in popular music were weird and unusual sounds. There were various noisemaking machines introduced earlier, of course: Bebe and Louis Barron, for instance, were accomplished at using electronic noisemaking devices, creating the unearthly sounds—i.e., noises—used on the soundtrack to MGM’s SF classic Forbidden Planet (1956). But even before them, Spike Jones fired guns and banged pots and pans (among other things) when he set out to “murder the classics.” Other accomplished noisemakers include John Cage, Harry Partch, Frank Zappa’s beloved Edgar Varèse (pictured), Sun Ra, Yoko Ono, and of course Lou Reed, whose Metal Machine Music (1975) would have been inconceivable without these earlier composers preparing the way.

Hence the Moog synthesizer can be considered as simply another means of making noise, albeit a highly sophisticated one, and all noisemaking ritual has its anthropological roots in the charivari. According to, charivari is defined as, "A mock serenade (e.g. for newlyweds) of loud, discordant noises using pots and pans, cowbells, guns and other noisemakers; by extension, any cacophony of out-of-tune noises." The word is French, from the Old French for “hubbub,” perhaps from Late Latin carībaria, headache, from Greek karēbariā: karē, head + barus, heavy.

Here’s what Claude Lévi-Strauss, in his essay “Divertissement on a Folk Theme” (from The Raw and the Cooked, University of Chicago Press, 1969), says about the charivari:

The Encyclopédie compiled by Diderot and d’Alembert defines “charivari” as follows:

The word . . . means and conveys the derisive noise made at night with pans, cauldrons, basins, etc., in front of the houses of people who are marrying for the second or third time or are marrying someone of a very different age from themselves. (288)

One can see from Levi-Strauss’s definition the origin of the meaning of charivari (in American English, shivaree) as "mock serenade": if the serenade celebrates romantic love, the charivari satirizes it.

The recent re-issue on CD of Mort Garson and Jacques Wilson’s charivari, The Wozard of Iz (original release: 1968), subtitled “An Electronic Odyssey” and produced by electronic music pioneer Bernie Krause, is a good illustration of the early uses of the Moog synthesizer. A media satire using The Wizard of Oz to structure the heroine's journey to the "Upset Strip," The Wozard of Iz is badly dated by virtue of its (heavy) use of late 60s slang and for being too obviously created for juvenile audiences (nothing about it is in the least way subtle), but it is interesting nonetheless as an illustration of how the synthesizer was perceived as nothing more, early on in its history, as a novelty. Most certainly it was Wendy Carlos’ Switched-On Bach, released a couple of months after The Wozard of Iz in 1968, that first gave the synthesizer musical credibility, demonstrating to a skeptical audience that the synthesizer was something much other than an expensive toy.

I made the observation in an earlier post that early on in its history any unconventional or radically new knowledge is at first perceived to be a bad joke--Freud's theory of psychoanalysis, for instance, and Darwin's theory of human beings evolving from monkeys were, in fact, both considered bad jokes. I suggested that popular music's appropriation of the "psychedelic experience" was initially perceived as a bad joke: the first albums containing the word "psychedelic," such as the Blues Magoos' "Psychedelic Lollipop," used the word in a joking way. The idea of the joke permeates early albums claiming to be psychedelic, for instance, Friar Tuck and His Psychedelic Guitar (1967), The Animated Egg (1967), Hal Blaine's Psychedelic Percussion (1967), and so on. The Wozard of Iz illustrates the same idea: like these other, aforementioned records, it sold poorly, because it lacked both credibility and substance, and was just so much noisemaking. Conversely, Wendy Carlos' Switched-On Bach sold well because it was straight. Unlike Spike Jones, who set out to "murder the classics," Switched-On Bach approached the music with the utmost seriousness, as high art, and the role of the synthesizer as a noisemaking toy was minimized, if not absent altogether. In other words, Wendy Carlos set out to do anything but perform a charivari.