From Beat to Noise

Research Objectives
This research seeks to explore the constructive dimension of noise in contemporary
musical practices. Music is generally viewed as an ordered arrangement of sounds pleasing to
the ear, and noise as its opposite: chaotic, ugly, parasitic, aggressive, sometimes even
deafening; a belief currently shared by engineers and companies developing devices to
suppress or reduce noise in our daily environment. In some musical contexts, noise acts as a
tool to express resistance to predominant cultural values, to society, or to socio-economic
structures (including those of the music industry); a belief notably cherished by
hardcore rock bands. Rather than viewing noise as a ‘defect’ or as a mere destructive device,
I am to study its aesthetic potential. A systematic musicological and music-analytical approach to the study of noise music has been lacking until now. It is exactly this knowledge gap that I wish to fill up.

My two main research objectives can be summarized as follows:
1) making an in-depth study of the four cases (4 composers/performers, 12 musical products)
This objective can be expressed in a number of research questions all dealing with the
transformation of beat and rhythm into sound and noise:
- (1a) how do dense rhythmical structures lead into noise textures, and what is their musical
- (1b) do sounds produced by non-pitched, micro-tonally pitched and pitched percussion
instruments impact differently upon the transition from beat/rhythm to sound/noise?
- (1c) how does music for non-pitched percussion instruments in which the rhythmical aspect
has disappeared and is entirely substituted by changes in the noise texture function?
- (1d) what is the impact of sound modifying techniques applied to acoustic non-pitched
percussion instruments?

2) understanding the constructive potential of noise in contemporary music for non-pitched
percussion in different musical practices. This objective follows from the previous one and
includes research questions such as:
- (2a) how do we proceed from the mere description to the interpretation of noisy musical
events in this repertoire, or from the phenomenological to the functional and formal level of
- (2b) can we create a typology of noise music, resulting from the categorization of its sonic
- (2c) can we conceive a model for the interpretation of noise percussion music that is generic
and at the same time sufficiently flexible to accommodate different subgenres of noise music,
including noise music for other instruments (acoustic and electronic)?

Underlying all objectives and questions is the desire to create synergies between new music,
experimental, improvisation and post-rock music studies.

My methodological approach is twofold: in-depth musical analysis (research objective 1) followed by theoretical conclusions (research objective 2). In view of the nature of this repertoire music analysis has to go beyond the analysis of musical scores. If scores are available at all they do not always allow the inner hearing commonly put in play by trained analysts because of the sonic structure’s density (Varèse, Xenakis), or the use of action notation instead of notation of resulting sounds (Maierhof). Consequently, the opportunity to adapt listening not only as a mode of aesthetic appreciation but also as a mode of analytical inquiry will be a necessity in this research project. Registering subtle variations
in the sonic structure through concentrated and repeated listening to recordings is the main
research strategy. In addition to aural analysis, the twelve musical products under scrutiny
will be subjected to the spectromorphological methods recently developed in the footsteps of
Pierre Schaeffer. Finally, techniques to translate sounds into visual images such as
spectrographs and acousmographic representations will be put to the test to see whether they
are useful in disclosing the aesthetic potential of noise that would otherwise remain unnoticed
in the twelve selected musical products. Three of those do have a more or less traditional
score, which will be treated with all the restrictions expressed above and with the same
attitude as the alternative forms of visualization just described: score analysis and visual
methods will not replace aural techniques, but they can clarify some aspects of it.

Case Studies
Edgard Varèse represents the transition from beat-oriented rhythmic thinking to the composition of sound textures as primary musical function of (non-pitched) percussion instruments (research question 1a). Two compositions are selected for the present purpose, Amériques (25’, 1918-21) and Ionisation (7’, 1929-31). Amériques shows a gradual shifting from beat and rhythm to sound and noise production as
principal function of the percussion. Dense polyphonic sections for winds and percussion
alternate with passages in which the percussion section (including factory sirens that are
technically speaking no percussion instruments) builds and modifies noisy sound textures of
extremely high loudness degrees. Ionisation is if not the first then certainly the most
paradigmatic example of a composition for percussion ensemble, in this case, 13
percussionists. Its analysis will allow to study how rhythmic cells relate to the composition of
sound textures and how the use of non-pitched (bass drums, snare drum, wood blocks,
cymbals), pitched (piano, chimes) and sliding-pitch instruments (sirens, lion’s roar) affects
this relationship. Thanks to the analysis of these two musical products, the first step towards a
better understanding of the musical function of noise as produced by non-pitched percussion
will be taken. Iannis Xenakis represents the next level of noise music produced by percussion.
Here the focus is on the impact of non-pitched, microtonally-pitched and pitched percussion
instruments on the transition from beat/rhythm to sound/noise (research question 1b). That is
why Xenakis’ two works for percussion solo Psappha (1975) and Rebonds (1987-89) will
only be cursory dealt with, since timbre and sound merely serve to clarify rhythmic structures
in these works. In contrast, Pleïades for six percussionists (43’, 1978) serves our purposes to
perfection, since its four movements almost read like an experimental test setup for this
research question, promising a better understanding of the transformation from beat to noise
as led by percussion instruments in a wide range of pitch gradations. A third case takes the
central research question one step further in that it studies percussion music in which beat and
rhythm have almost completely disappeared, clearing the way for ‘autonomous’ sound and
noise composition (research question 1c). The German composer Michael Maierhof
systematically investigates this situation in large work series such as Splitting, Untergrund
and Specific Objects. The works from these series for non-pitched percussion, including everyday objects in addition to common percussion instruments, are selected for this project.
The fourth case broadens the spectrum from classical avant-garde and experimental music to
improvisation, free jazz and post-rock. The American drummer Chris Corsano starts from the
traditional setup of the drum kit consisting of non-pitched percussion only but intensifies its
basic noise sound by augmenting the kit with various re-purposed objects such as attached
strings across drums and objects in metal, wood or plastic. This is especially the case in his 2
solo albums The Young Cricketer (CDR 40‘, Hot Cars Warp Records 10, 2006) and Cut (CD
43‘, HCWR 15, 2012) which I will analyse in this project. Corsano often uses bows instead
of drum sticks, and if sticks are used they mostly produce a continuous, rolling sound, thus
highlighting the transition from beat/rhythm to sound/noise. The recent LP Star-Spangled
(45‘, HCWR 17, 2016) will be added to the analytical portfolio to study changes in
noise production between solo work and ensemble improvisation, in this case performances
with alto-saxophonists Mette Rasmussen and Paul Flaherty. The study of this album will
allow to answer the question if and how patterns of noise guide or direct improvisation tactics
in ensemble performances.

After the thorough musical analysis of the four individual cases the comparative study of the
results aims at arriving at a more general level of understanding of the constructive potential
of noise in contemporary percussion music (research question 2). Although it is hard to
predict the exact components of such an interpretation model at this stage, the interaction
between the following elements should guide the transition from description to interpretation
and from the phenomenological to the functional level of understanding (research question

- loudness degree;
- register;
- the number of layers and their mutual relationship;
- spectral content (the ‘grain’ of the sounds);
- the noise sounds’ associative intents or effects of an extra-musical nature;
- temporality including aspects such as beat or its absence, stasis (drones) or process (patterns,

It is important to explore the interdependency of these elements in view of a better
understanding of noise as a musical phenomenon. It should be possible to create a typology of
noise music (research question 2b) and a tool for its interpretation (research question 2c)
along these lines.