I had to have an MRI done a few weeks ago, and after hearing various horror stories about the process I was relieved to find the reality far less traumatic then any myths had led me to believe. Somehow or other I had come to the impression that you were shut up in a coffin shaped box for something like 45 minutes and bombarded with sonic waves that left you feeling like you had intimate relations with a jack hammer. Thankfully the coffin turned out to be merely a larger version of a CT scan machine – sort of like a deep donut instead of a skinny one – which you were slid into until the area of your body requiring examination was completely inside.
As far as the so-called aural assault that was supposedly part of the experience, it too was nowhere near what I had been led to believe. In my case it involved a series of three scans about four minutes in length and of differing frequency and intensity. While the first two waves of sound were seemingly formless noise, I couldn’t help noticing the third wave bore striking similarities to some of what is referred to as industrial music. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if it didn’t show up in some DJ’s mix on a dance floor periodically. All of which naturally led me down paths I really don’t like going, mainly when is something music and when is it noise? Could these sound patterns being used to offer up an image of my inner workings be considered music, and if it wasn’t, why was something similar in sound considered music and not noise?
I’m sure most of us have had the experience of being told by somebody of an older generation that what we’re listening to isn’t music, but only so much noise. That highly subjective opinion hasn’t been based on anything other than that person’s individual taste and I’m sure has been said down the ages about everything from swing to thrash metal by those who have had their delicate sensibilities offended by something being played at a decibel level higher than they prefer. However, if looked at objectively, a string quartet playing Mozart and two guitars, bass and drums playing an Anthrax tune have more in common than either of their respective listeners would admit. While they may not sound much alike, each is playing a piece of music that follows the recognizable patter of rhythm and tune combining to form a song.
It’s when we start looking at some contemporary compositions or avant-garde jazz the argument “this isn’t music, it’s noise” might be considered to have some legs to stand on. Most of these pieces have no real discernible rhythm and just try to find any sort of tune to hum along to! It’s not going to happen.
So why should we consider them music? One word, intent. Unlike the MRI or any piece of machinery that produces noise, a mind has gone through the process of deciding what and why specific sounds are to be used or has created the framework for the sounds to exist in. While there may be some elements of randomness in a piece’s generation, the sound is not being produced incidentally but deliberately. A machine does not decide to make a particular noise, it does so as an ancillary result of carrying out its function or, as in the case of a MRI, as part of its function.
Much as the way we appreciate abstract art utilizing different standards than we would employ for figurative works, avant-garde jazz and other forms of contemporary composition require their listeners to open their minds to new possibilities. A perfect example of this is the latest project from composer and coronet player Rob Mazurek’s Exploding Star Orchestra. Stars Have Shapes, recently released on Delmark Records, combines musicians, found sounds and electronics in the creation of the four pieces found on the CD.