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The Shape of Noise to Come

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Iannis Xenakis

La legende d'Eer (The Legend of Er)

(Montaigne)

By Jim Dorling

They say the squeaky wheel gets the oil, but that only goes so far in explaining the surges of interest over the last two decades in a rock subgenre variously known as noise, hard noise, industrial noise, power electronics, and no wave. Its rise was propelled most recently by Japan's Boredoms, whose squall of funk, metal, and shriek emerged from the scene and landed them on the main stage of Lollapalooza two years back. Now that the shouting is over, the used CD bins are starting to fill up with 77-minute jags of feedback and screaming. But the void in rock music that ushered in noise hasn't gone away; it's only gotten bigger, and noise keeps getting noisier in an attempt to fill it. Earlier this year, into this gaping hole fell Iannis Xenakis's The Legend of Er.

Xenakis, one of the key figures in postwar music, isn't a rock musician; he's a Greek composer, architect, and mathematician who uses the same sort of complex geometrical figures (think 3-D Spirograph designs) to create his musical scores as he does his architecture. His Legend of Er, an eight-channel electroacoustic tape piece realized in 1977 (experimental electronic compositions are always said to be "realized" rather than recorded), combines manipulated found sounds, or musique concrete, with tracks generated by a computer specifically designed for his musical purposes. It had never been released commercially before because Xenakis was reluctant to authorize a stereo mix of the octophonic work.

The title comes from the last pages of Plato's Republic: Er was a man slain in battle who returned to life after ten days in the underworld, a theme unintentionally echoed in the rebirth of Xenakis's work as a commercial recording. Eighteen years after he first presented The Legend of Er in the Paris Diatope--the building he designed for its "performance"--it has finally emerged from academia, cicadalike, with the cry of 1,000 wailing buzz saws.

Academic musicologists long ago passed their judgment on Er, the consensus being that it represents a breathtaking high point in the short history of electronic music. But now on CD it's bound to be held up against the extreme noise experimentation of such avant-rock units as Japan's Merzbow and New York's Borbetomagus. Xenakis's earliest major work predates these groups by almost two decades, but his influence on them has been limited by his academicism.

Noise was born in 1975, when Lou Reed interrupted his successful post-Velvet Underground career to release Metal Machine Music on RCA, a double album of nothing but squealing feedback received by most of his listeners as a prank or a sick joke. He never did anything like it again, but it inspired a rash of variations on the theme. By the time Xenakis premiered Er, pioneer noise bands Hijokaidan, Borbetomagus, Whitehouse, and Merzbow were just beginning their long careers. All of them are still productive, and between them and their imitators they've commercially released hundreds of hours of extreme electronic throb.

After the first audition of The Legend of Er the whole noise genre starts to sound like refrigerator hum. More than anything else in the world of academic electronic music, The Legend of Er is composed of the intense, almost painful levels of sound found in industrial noise. You could easily mistake any 20-second sample for the work of any of a number of noise bands. You couldn't, however, mistake the entire 46-minute piece for any of them--no noise band has ever produced a dynamic, structured piece of this length and intensity. The Legend of Er is to noise as Dante, on his tour of hell, is to the sinners he sees engulfed in flames: They're in the same realm, but like Dante, Xenakis charts his course, while Borbetomagus, Merzbow, and Hijokaidan wallow in the pits.

This is not to say that artists working within the noise genre have never produced lengthy compositions that develop structurally. The German industrial group Swimming Behavior of the Human Infant (S.B.O.T.H.I.) produced a long piece called "31122" on its eponymous first recording (Selektion, 1985) that slowly builds thin crackly sounds into repeated slow assaults that suggest the formation of a coda, then pulls the rug out from under us, stopping dead. Merzbow's Music for Bondage Performance (Extreme, 1991) contains several uncharacteristically subdued crystalline structures that suggest Xenakis's earlier electroacoustic works. Many of the better noise groups have occasionally produced beautiful, sparse, ambient works in which a more traditional, linear approach to composition is possible. But they're working at cross purposes: the closer they come to filling in the entire spectrum of audible sound, the fewer compositional options remain open.

The Legend of Er, more than other, quieter academic masterpieces of electronic music (such as Karlheinz Stockhausen's Hymnen or Bernard Parmegiani's La Creation du Monde), beats noise on its own terms, creating a dense, intense work that takes us somewhere and brings us back. It demonstrates that there is a direction for an electronic music that has totally abandoned all traditional musical structures--using audio technology to generate massive architectonic structures that engulf the listener, a form that has more in common with the visual special effects of Douglas Trumbull (2001, Blade Runner) than with any traditional music.

I can think of only one piece by a noise group that succeeds on the level of The Legend of Er: My Cock's on Fire (Long Version) by Whitehouse, the most controversial and least respected of the major noise bands. Except for the screamed obscenities that begin and end this "tune," it is an uncharacteristically (and possibly unintentionally) beautiful work by a group normally obsessed with the infliction of sonic pain--although even their more piercing pieces have a certain economy and elegance you don't often find in noise, possibly because the members of Whitehouse don't fancy themselves improvisers. Sometimes it is preferable to be tortured than to be improvised to, because at least in torture there is a certain discipline.

The last 15 minutes of The Legend of Er and the middle section of My Cock's on Fire both begin by suffusing the audible spectrum with layers of bass-heavy oscillations that suggest heavy machinery. Instead of attempting to develop a linear structure or the rapid, agitated indigestion common in distorted electric guitar noise, they slowly increase and decrease the rate of various oscillations, creating moire patterns that begin to break far below or above the listener. They build ephemeral architectural forms that seem to stretch beyond the walls of the room, turning slowly like enormous gyroscopes. The effect is of being in a sonic Omnimax; the music is not just loud but huge, producing palpable forms that dwarf the listener. Though the Xenakis piece does so on a much larger scale and with a more substantial palette, both of these pieces demonstrate that metal machine music can do more than create a ringing in the ears--it can be, as Milan Kundera once called Xenakis's work, music "beyond the history of music."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): album cover.

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