Noise music, aural textures and, sound design

Recently I've had a few thoughts going around in my head about noise music, my own sound art practice and how this informs/will inform/has informed sound design in CoB and other projects I've worked on and so to solidify them I've decided to write about it here


Noise music, in the way that I use the term, is the composition of sounds and aural textures into sonic pieces that often hold a similar place to abstract visual art in that it leans into a form of unrestricted expression, freeing itself from the boundaries of genre and musical standards. A good example of noise artists would be Toshimaru Nakamura, Cut Hands or Merzbow, each have their own distinct styles of noise music and not all stay within the genre all the time (Cut Hands being a prime example). For some reason many of the artists I find inspiration from and try to emulate happen to come from Japan (Otomo Yoshihide, Sachiko M, and my main influence Toshimaru Nakamura) I find the approach from the Onkyo scene to be particularly interesting and much of the work from it is enthralling to me (consume red by ground zero is easily in my top 5 tracks of all time).



One term I mentioned above that I also feel is relevant to attempt to define is “aural textures” in the way that I use it. This is something I find very difficult to put into words, I might refer to a sound's texture as “hollow” or “metallic”. It is a combination of factors, from more measurable features of a sound like the balance/amplitude of frequencies (more high end/low end), to more abstract features like how aggressive or “crunchy” it may come across, these factors come together to form the character, or texture, of a sound. I also relate to the concept of “acousmatic sound,” where sounds are divorced from their sources, moving a listener's concept of a sound from its origin point and toward the sound itself as a lone entity. Acousmatic writing, then, is describing sounds without making reference to their sources. It’s an exercise I recommend: try describing your sonic environment without mentioning where the sounds are coming from. You quickly find you have to develop a new vocabulary and use words you might not normally use and the whole description becomes very abstract to someone who doesn’t know what sound sources you are referring to. All of this is my attempt to share my approach to “aural textures” and to try to get you to understand what I'm talking about when I talk about it.


I find it also worth mentioning, for those that don’t know already, that I am the creator and sound designer of an audio drama called Chain of Being. The fact that I am both in charge of sound and writing affords me the unique position to write sounds into existence. I begin the design process of the quality and texture of the sounds as early as possible. In some cases I will write a scene/monster/soundscape/ etc. around a sound I’ve made previously. I have also done sound design for other projects including Ghosts on a Train (another FN show you should listen to). I also create my own noise music under the name Dinas (find me on bandcamp if you want a reference for the kind of thing I find interesting and enjoy making).


4 mixers with wires connecting outputs to inputs and to each other and through a series of guitar pedals
my noise music set up, with several no input mixers chained together


The current main method I employ to make noise music is by using a method developed by the aforementioned Japanese artist Toshimaru Nakamura called no-input mixing. It essentially turns a mixing desk into an instrument. By plugging the outputs into the inputs you create a feedback loop from the internal noise of a mixer. You can then affect this using the volume, gain, EQ and any other features your mixer might have (if you have a mixer laying around I recommend you give it a go, it's truly fascinating). I have a mixer with built in effects which treat the signal even further to create a wide array of unique textures and sounds. Throughout my practice, no-input has always felt like more of a collaboration between me and the machines I use as opposed to the more predictable, top-down structure of playing a guitar or a piano where you can more or less predict the results (you strum the G string and hear G). With no-input mixing, the results are sometimes surprising and develop over time as you ‘talk’ with the mixer, offering an input and the mixer responding in turn. I have worked on my practice for a few months now adding in various inputs (vinyl, ableton beats, electromagnetic microphone etc). Each completely changes the effect and feel of each piece I make when using them. You don't necessarily need all this extra stuff though either, you can create an amazing series of textures and pieces with just a single channel on a single mixer, you can go for a more Merzbow approach and create a wall of harsh noise, or take a more relaxed and subtle approach in the spirit of Sachiko M or Nakamura himself.



There is something very cathartic about creating noise music. I find that the freedom from the restriction of musical standards creates a wellspring of creativity because I don’t have to worry about keeping a melody or rhythm. There is an incredibly visceral feeling that I get from being able to just create sounds which stand on their own and exist for the sake of themselves, their textures, emotion and composition devoid of any context. And while I make it a point to let people know how I create what I create, I feel that there is not so much a connection between the sound source and the sound as you might get with an orchestral piece. It is hard to envision the creation of these sounds as the process is so foreign and hard to imagine taking place (even to me as the creator) that it is easy to consider the sounds acousmatically: allowing you to fully immerse yourself in the aural textures. I think this is also why I enjoy listening to noise music so much. It affords me the chance to lose myself in the world of sound for a moment be it harsh or soft. I get an almost meditative benefit from sitting back and experiencing the textures of a track and I get different benefits from different types of noise but all together it allows me to forget my anxieties for a moment.


Going back to aural textures, I believe the understanding of which ones I find interesting and the effect they have on people in general can be extremely valuable for a few reasons. Knowing that certain aural textures appeal to me helps me understand why I like certain tracks and makes me seek them out in my own practice and it's led me to explore data bending and other techniques. and it's why I got into no-input mixing in the first place even if I couldn't quite place why exactly at the time. There is immense value, then, in being able to recognise certain textures and you could take this even further and relate it to the process of sound design. I've already incorporated no-input mixing into Chain of Being but even just the benefits of having a vocabulary and sense of what textural options lay before me as a sound designer means I have an easier time deciding on how something should/could sound. Combined with a better ear for sounds from creating these textures and listening to sounds acousmatically, it places you in a good position to create sounds which don't exist in the real world.


The irony of trying to catalogue textures by creating noise music which by its nature attempts to separate itself from genre and orthodox is not lost on me, but I don't try to suggest that there ought to be a universal label for every texture. I think this would be antithetical to what I mean when I talk about aural textures. I believe that it is beneficial to try and observe, in your own work and in the work that you enjoy, these textures and see which ones come up again and again and notice which ones you particularly respond to. Even if you're not a sound artist/designer, it is still an interesting perspective to have on music and sound that you find engaging. And if you are a sound artist/designer it opens up new avenues by which you can attempt to create sounds.


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