We all know who Sufjan Stevens.
Most heard "Michigan."
More will probably hear "Illinois."
But this... this is probably something you didn't know.
And yes, these two know each other.
A. I think mall-culture and television and Simon & Garfunkel are environments for a special kind of noise. Sure, there is organized commerce and bad music at the mall, but consider the constant din of shuffling shoes and gossip, conversation, children screaming, dads groaning, sneaker soles squealing on varnished floors. It's a noisy place. Television is noisy as well, especially channel surfing, static, bad reception, mixed with the noise of the living room, music videos. It's a mash-up, in different keys, using different tones. Many of the performances on old Simon & Garfunkel records have intonation problems. This is widely known. For popular folk music, it suffers greatly from being out of tune. I think Art Garfunkel's performance on Bridge Over Troubled Waters is transcendent partly because it fumbles desperately for the pitch. Listen carefully here, I'm not kidding. My point: even these environments of popular culture celebrate their own kind of disorder; I think John Cage would have made field recordings in the mall.
In terms of my own writing, I don't think it's entirely necessary to qualify distinctions between what is noisy and what sounds nice. Sometimes the best way to understand noise is to concentrate on the organization of noise through conventional musical systems. The 12-tone scale is really just one prevailing method for organizing dissonance, in terms of sine and cosine, the laws of physics. Because all sound is particle waves, it almost always can be reduced and/or explained through similar systems, using the same laws of physics. In this respect, I sometimes have a hard time distinguishing between what is commonly termed "cacophony" and what is often maligned as Western "equal temperament." Maybe you could explain it in terms of moderation or variation. Indian ragas use different tones in a different scale, sometimes pentatonic or hexatonic, depending on the method, but they are no more or less noisy. In fact, ragas are often meditative. Atonal music, while sounding flustered and muddy to our ears, is still reasonably tame, in that it can easily be charted on staff paper. But why is feedback and computer static considered noisy when even its tones and rhythms can fall under a particular chart, if not on Western notation, then at least using the visual representation of sound waves? To me, all sound, whether tonal or noisy, is demystified by its conventional and observable nature. Light, on the other hand, is the enigma to be reckoned with. Is it a particle or a wave?
Ok, so maybe the crux of the issue lies not in my novice assessment of music theory, but in my decision to produce music that is easily approachable, listen-able, and immediately satisfying. I'll be the first to admit I've fallen under this category, of gorgeous, gratifying, symphonic songwriting. It's a crutch. So why haven't I invested suitable time and space for noise and improvisation? The truth is, I have. For every ten songwriting sessions I coordinate (with guitars tuned, microphones carefully angled, ear tuned to middle C, instruments warmed and resting), I often instigate a freak-out session as well, in which drum heads are thrown about, amps are buzzing, guitar strings are bent and de-tuned, in which curtain rods and swivel chairs and cloth napkins are solicited for instrumentation, in which the singing is unevenly pitched, in which agitated monkey yelps and hand claps on pants and finger snaps and uncertain whistling takes center stage. Much of this is done in private, behind closed doors, with close friends, in isolation, sometimes on tape, sometimes just for fun. I have hours of this noise transferred to my computer. One session has me klutzing with the abominable trumpet, my friend Joe hammering drumsticks on the battered banjo, my other friend Matt making chicken noises with his pick-ups. It's wonderful and terrible. In one session, at a rehearsal space on Ludlow street, we were kicked out for playing too loud, for too long, intoxicated, smoking cigarettes, breaking things, beating our heads, all the clang and clatter of youth ushering insurmountable meaning to our musical mess. We had a brief confrontation with Simone, the owner: "Last time you come here," he waved a finger at us. "Get out now." If you really want to hear the result, send a self-addressed stamped envelope. I can assure you, you will be disappointed. But it stands as secret proof, however detrimental, to the fact that I consistently invest serious time and energy in the superstitions of disorder, in improvisation, in noise, in not knowing what note to play next, in savoring the unexpected, in yielding to the unnatural sounds of an unnatural instrument: the window pane, the light shade, the air conditioner, the enamel of my teeth. I have great respect and awe for the element of surprise. I love noise. I just don't feel the need to share this love with the public. It's my own private love, the love of doorbells and jackhammers and bus engines and plastic bags caught in trees. It's not X-rated, it's not unlawful, but for now, for my own particular reasons, I'd like to keep this love under covers.
-- Michael Kaufmann (1 July, 2005)