February Discussion Recap: Noise, by Jacques Attali

Pieter Bruegel the Elder's Fight between Lent and Carnival

Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Fight between Lent and Carnival

Last week, our sound studies group met to discuss Jacques Attali’s Noise. For over an hour we discussed the central claims of Attali’s textits implications on sound studies, and the many ways it still resonates today.

First, we defined what Attali means by noise.  He argues that noise is violence: it disturbs, creates disconnects, and brings disorder in music and, more generally, daily life. (Think of a phone call interrupted by static, for instance). Noise has a special relationship with music, which Attali claims is ordered and harmonic. For such ordered music to exist, chaotic noise must be repressed, if not eliminated. In this way, the “code of music simulates the accepted rule of society” (29): music creates harmony by marginalizing unpleasant noises, just as society retains order by squashing subversion.

We then noted how Attali constructs a developmental narrative of music featuring four stages: ritual sacrifice, which makes people forget the general violence of their society; representation, which makes people believe in the harmony of the world; repetition, which silences people by mass-producing a deafening music that censors undesirable other noises; and composition, which has not yet occurred, but if it does it will be an entirely non-commercial art, where composers make self-communicative art.

Many of us revealed our trouble comprehending Attali’s first stage — the ritual sacrifice — where he identifies music’s original function as a simulacrum of death. To clarify Attali’s argument, we brought many other texts into the conversation: Matt saw Attali tacitly conversing with Georges Bataille’s Eroticism, Ian suggested a corollary to the scholarship of Susan Stewart, Andrew discussed phenomenological approaches to sound, and I mentioned Attali’s reference to René Girard.  Offering a concrete example of Attali’s abstract theory, Andrew described his experience on a subway, when a man projected music from his iPhone (essentially using his phone like a boombox). By projecting sounds in a public space, that person carried out a kind of sonic violence on those around him. The man couldn’t actually enact physically or bodily this violence; music serves as a simulacrum of violence.

To explain music as the simulacrum of murder in another way: society creates order by eliminating, and yes, murdering dissenters. Music performs a similar role: it creates an aural “harmony” by suppressing noise.  Just as society eliminates dissidents to create order, so music eliminates dissonance to do the same. But just as dissent cannot be utterly destroyed in society, so noise cannot be totally suppressed in music. It lingers in the outskirts, audible to the perceptive ear.

This noise — the voice of dissent and disorder — threatens to uproot the existing social/musical order. If this contained noise escapes its circumscribed boundaries, it literally (on the musical level) and figuratively (on the social level) brings an end to harmony. For this reason, Attali says noise foresees the end of an existing social order and a rise of a new one. As he concisely claims, “music is prophecy” (11). Andrew helped elucidate Attali’s claim, noting that because music does not operate under a signifying system (i.e. a note does not have a signifier/signified; its meaning is decidedly ambiguous), it can access ideas that take longer to manifest in verbal language. As Attali explains, music’s “styles and economic organization are ahead of the rest of society because it explores, much faster than material reality can, the entire range of possibilities in a given code” (11). These arguments raised interesting questions about specific compositions foreseeing a specific historical moment: does the Rite of Spring, for instance, anticipate the outbreak of World War I?  Sharon raised this question, which surely warrants further thought.

We also noted that Attali attacks contemporary theories, like Marxism, for relying too heavily on language, whether that be a mathematical or linguistic one. He voices this critique of modern theories very clearly in his opening pages; since “no theorizing accomplished through language or mathematics can suffice any longer,” Attali instead proposes that we focus on “music, the organization of noise” (4).  However, many of us noted that despite rejecting incomplete modern theories, Attali nevertheless fundamentally relies on a Marxist methodology. Dan and Matt both suggested that this book is more about politics than sound (whether that be music or noise).

Matt voiced another critique of Attali, who first states that there can be no genealogy of music and then, as Matt nicely put it, “gives one anyway.” Other critiques worth mentioning were Ian’s point about the looseness with which Attali uses the word “bourgeoisie” and Matt’s and Dan’s complaint that Attali over-generalized when surveying music. We asked if his possible historical-musicological oversights diminish the value of his argument, and we had a range of answers. (I think he’s being more provocative than definitive in an attempt to spark a conversation about sound).

Ian related Attali’s discussion about reproduction to my blog post on Benjamin (thanks, Ian!). This led to a discussion about Attali’s fear of technology, and Matt commented on Attali’s dislike of imitation, which removes the presence of the musician. Sharon underlined Attali’s claim that in the age of reproduction, we begin to stockpile music — the collection of music becomes the priority. Dan mentioned that Attali mourns that we live in an age where we purchase more than we can hear; the growth of our collections outpace the rate we listen to music. These issues are all the more relevant in the digital age, where we have at our disposal — or in our stockpile — innumerable songs. In fact, Sharon points out that Attali appears to predict the proliferation of websites like Spotify and Youtube (see pg 135). Because music is prophetic, perhaps so too are its critics.

We ended by noting that once noise becomes culturally intelligible, it is no longer noise – it’s a part of the system. Yet, one wonders, who determines what’s noise and what isn’t? Heavy metal or rap sounds like noise to some, music to others. As Attali is quick to point out, noise — even the mere naming of something as noise — is a political action. What are the contemporary politics of noise? Who’s deciding what is and is not noise?

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