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In Defense of Terrible Sound


Last night I was invited over to a friends rooftop. He mentioned that one of his neighbors was going to play “a cello and objects” -which is exactly my shit-
since i haven’t seen anyone perform in 7 months, and performing as a concept seems distant and tinged with anxiety and danger, i felt like i was going to tear up just looking at his text.
the suggested scenario sounded pretty safe by hellscape standards, huge roof, independent access, low chance of being trapped inside with unmasked strangers. haven’t seen my friends much or enough (which is itself a separate problem). So I go.

Hilariously, there was no cello to be found. Instead of a muted evening where i dip my toes back into being at a show again, it was a full on party. there was a queer black dance artist dressed all in purple announced on the mic that this was his first show, who proceeded to explode, crooning and voguing sharply, backed by his prince/gaga hybrid music, pumped out of an open Ableton session, visible on a laptop on the ground, played through a single bass amp. i couldn’t help but check the session out of the corner of my eye, spying blocks of sound about to hit us, all black rectangles filling the tracks to clipping, they looked like train cars in a railyard. The sound was completely blown out, as were his vocals coming out of another amp. just absolutely blasted to shit. the roof was on the same level as the elevated J train, which added a layer of mechanized thunder every 15 minutes or so. the tar parer roof top under his feet while he danced lent a rough scrape to his footwork.
It was fucking glorious.
It was terrible terrible sound, but i submit that it could considered only in the abstract. i remember thinking “thank god its all blown out and crazy, i need this crazy” which is ironic since at home contemplating leaving my house, i was sure that careful electroacoustic cello drones were what i needed. no, apparently what i needed was gay punky soul dance music blown out so hard that it was technically just sheets of noise music.

I might be easy to see why I would love and accept this only technically terrible sonic experience, here in the after times of the pandemic where notions of taste and preference and quality take a back seat to having any experience at all except an anxious online one; one where we perpetually act out our remembrance of a modern dream life we thought was acceptable-to-good-I-guess; with its all consuming experience and infinite culture.
But I also realize that I have always been like this. Even when the band is good and I like them but the sound system and engineering is terrible I take pleasure in the experience of dissonance between those two feelings (the “this is good/ this is bad”, the instantaneous and the delayed infinite tabulation and accounting of all experiences that we are all apparently supposed to constantly engage with) (would you have a moment to take a quick survey?) when the band is bad and the live engineering it is even better in its terror and terribleness, each questionable key change crystalline, the fucked relationship between the band members is rendered audible. its a thing of gross beauty.
Even when, if you asked me, I would not be able to say anything was “good” exactly, or that i personally “liked” the “music”, I find it hard to dislike the actual sonic environment of a live performance. If I can’t get into the purported reason we are all in the room in the first place, “the musician musicing”, the output, there is always another phantom sonic quality that haunts me, some sublime aspect of the experience of listening with others that compels me. The pentagonal relationship between the sound maker, their equipment, the audience, the amplification system, and myself, births a phenomenological sound world that never fails to compel me. I’ve long felt that this to be a sort of dirty secret, since i’ve had a long run playing in bands and performing in all kinds of spaces with all kinds of people who probably think of them selves as musicians; that on some deep level, I don’t care if the sound is bad. Worse yet, that I am intrigued by it, moved by it, and might seek it out instinctively. That i’m a simple pervert into the very phenomena of sound, that i have a nearly non-advantageous non-cochlear interest in sound. Ah shit, fuck, sorry, I’m a sound artist, bleeeecccc.

I don’t really mean to harsh the legendary mellow affect of music, which, despite how any heady weirdo might hypothesize it thus, indisputably slaps.
but I’ve found that music is always about a particular focus and attention, and about the prioritization of certain aspects of sound over others. It’s about simultaneously giving a fuck in one sense and not giving a fuck in another sense, gloriously so. If you expand outside these realms, or expand at inappropriate times, you quickly get into non-musical territory. This is perhaps less glorious, but it is an infinite corridor of psychedelic fecundity, thankfully.

In a helpful way, an article called Musicophobia, or sound art and the demands of art theory, Brian Kane lays out the differences between the philosophical approaches to sound art expressed in two seminal texts of sound art philosophy, Kim Seth-Cohen’s In the Blink Of an Ear and Salome Voegelin’s Listening to Noise and Silence; these two works go far to illuminate the dark trench of possibilities for use and enjoyment of terrible horrible sound situations that you should maybe never expose yourself to, because who wants to be bummed out by how terrible and scintillating everything is? (its me, I do).

Kane outlines the contradictory nature of Seth-Cohen and Voegelin’s conceptions of what they call sound-in-itself that I find helpful in parsing out comprehensive benefits of never-ideal sonic environments and where the *pleasure* is coming from.

Voegelin advocates for a perceptual based consideration and Kim-Cohen focuses on a conceptual experience. he makes several comparisons between them

First, Kim-Cohen and Voegelin utterly disagree about the value of “sounds-in-themselves.” For Voegelin, sound art requires a mode of listening whose aim is directed to sounds-themselves and not to language, context, history, genre, category and such; for Kim-Cohen, sound art is a practice that inhabits the “extramusical,” that investigates relationships, institutions, context, sociality, and history; it eschews sounds-in-themselves as a rejection the metaphysics of presence.

Second, for Voegelin sound art is fundamentally perceptual; whereas for Kim-Cohen it is conceptual. Where Voegelin uses the phenomenological reduction as a method for focusing attention on the sound itself, Kim-Cohen critiques the phenomenological reduction as “bracketing out all information that might shade our auditory experience with signification, with historical contingency, with social import.” (13) Insofar as both Voegelin and Kim-Cohen understand phenomenology as a perceptual endeavor—a problematic characterization of the phenomenological project from point of view of the history of philosophy—their theories differ about the value of this endeavor. If we take phenomenology to be primarily to be about “the primacy of perception,” then Kim-Cohen’s disapprobation and Voegelin’s approbation both follow.

I think that during a show with terrible sound and non-ideal-conditions there are ways of enjoying it that can come from these two directions, even if one doesn’t regularly articulate show-going experience with sound art philosophy. One’s experience of ‘sound-in-itself’ in a live performance environment within the distinctly ad-hoc tradition flows from either a suspension or confrontation with context. To better enjoy the passion and delight of the performer we perceptually ignore the sonically dominating passing train, or we add the train into the experience to situate ourselves in the city that we love. We strain to hear the arraignment and lock onto any shred of funk we can discern through the blown-out, too hot signal, which is emanating from a amplifier that was designed to favor bass notes. We add and subtract contextual sonic information as we perceive it. The Kim-Cohen reading of the rooftop show would perhaps be to factor in the knowledge of that this is the performers first show, that this is the first show in half a year for many in the audience during a global pandemic/corruption disaster, that there is a human tendency, when you want things to be LOUD, to TURN ALL THE TRACKS UP as loud as you can, and then TURN UP the computer volume to the MAX, and then turn up the AMP to the loudest setting. The music isn’t what you are listening to, the whole show is what you are experiencing.
The difference is that for the average show goer, this experience is a result of the music directly, it is the reason that this experience is had. The audience owes the totality of the experience, and subsequently the totality of the possible perceptual field, to the musician and their efforts. “that show was crazy” that night might not technically have had anything to do directly with the sound of the music that night, but was born out of the social probabilities engendered by the musician’s music, and what can happen in the context of, or mere proximity to, the music (its called the ‘vibe’, this is why vibe is often a technical term).

For Kim-Cohen, sound art is an act of reading, of making legible a set of social, institutional, and historical traces. Sonic materiality or perceptual evidence is never the proper content of sound art.

Even if there is a bit of dissonance in the social and conceptual dimensions of a show; where the arts are not supported by society (at least in the states), and that performers ‘feed’ off the strengths of the audience as they perform as one (by being particularly large, or enthusiastic, or intimate); how ‘good’ or ‘bad’ the sound, and how the show went, is considered despite the context by accepting all this “extramusical” information.
In contrast, a Voegelin reading of gross pleasure in the non-ideal sonic characteristics of the show would eschew all of this contextual information and focus on the careful perceptual balance between all the rare elements that came together to make my experience. one could parse this by having to identify and add all the different elements together that result in the particular sonic character of the sensuous experience. Even without knowing what we are hearing, we can hear the pandemic in a nearly imperceptible tonal quality in the susurrus of the attendees, there must be a distinct sonic character of a group of people who have come together to experience performed music after a disaster, and this sonic character is layered over with the delicious perceptual dissonance between performed music that was definitely composed and arraigned to be smooth and funky, but is so blown out that it looses any of this, (but only theoretically) and communicating rawness, excitement and ebullience instead. These sounds come at the same time as the tar paper roof communicates the sound of furious movement, as does the train; but movements that seem to come just when they need to, as if the artist timed the train to come by and wore shows that would sound this way, the rhythmic qualities of these movements meld with and contrast the composed music, and their consistency and overwhelmingness, their pure incontrovertibleness within the listening moment, echo the blown out sound reproduction and performance, (something that could easily be fixed with a few tweaks to the amplifier set up, but isn’t fixed, because the totality of the sonic experience isn’t necessarily a problem to be solved once theres hearing to do, in the moment, once the show starts.) Kane analyses Voegelin:

It is desirable for a listener to suspend aspects of sounds that concern genre, category, art historical context and purpose. The desideratum is a mode of listening that is utterly present, fixed on the perception of “the material heard”

to be utterly present in this amazing mulch bin of sound with these interesting strangers makes each sound heard amazing as a rarity, a unique juxtaposing of elements that each lend a particular quality and timing that cannot be repeated. (I’ve been to ‘music shows’ where the point is to blow everything out, and man, nothing beats the cacophony and chaos blow out of someone who perhaps would have wanted that to happen.)
there is a perceptual melding that occurs with all these elements and I feel like this makes any purportedly negative quality that any sound could individually have by technical metric rendered null. to listen in this way, i feel like it also renders opinions about ‘what happened’ and ‘how it went’ somewhat moot, the sound of it was what happened, everything that sounded, both what we don’t know we heard and what we remember hearing, it takes this all into account. Its ok to not want to do that, because ultimately people came together in the reciprocal tradition of live music performance and I’m sure everyone would say “we are musicians”.
Kane makes the point that these writers and sound artists are operating from a standpoint traditional to them that is anti-music; its called extra-musical in Seth-Cohens book, and Kane calls it ‘Musicophobia’, but even without getting into the particulars of his and their argument, i think that this is true and a bit unfortunate. Music is definitely an other-ed category with respect to the listening practices i’m drawing out above. Even I cant help but feel like i’m shitting on the performer who i loved by writing so much about how his sound was abjectly terrible. (“dude your show sounded like shit it was beautiful and amazing!”) Music and sound art are at odds for a reason; Music requires for itself a bit of reverence and deference, to listen to it in other ways risks disrespecting it. society gives the majority of musicians so little to work with that i feel like im in church when i get the chance to hear the first fragile shows of an artist who has dared to ply feeling into sound publicly. Music also colloquially demands to be taken out of its context, so that it can be for all people and remain ‘unrestrained’ and socially useful (and exploitable). Sound art demands that it have traceable techniques, sonic philosophy demands that the work of experience be shown, so it can either be conceptually explored as perceptual experience or objective affect. Sound-art listening practices demand a type of coherence that is attractive, it is refined, it seeks to explain the what and the how of experience, a careful process that music will not often stand for in its ecstatic utilitarianism.

Kane quotes Voegelin, and is unconvinced by her assertion that she really means

“the issue here is not a distinction between music and sound art, but how both of them are listened to…,”

Im going to run with that an say that the entirety of the the sound of this show became a kind of sound art that I love and that inspires me, a sound art that happens to contain as one of its elements a fully realized music performance and as much concurrent sound phenomena as one can perceive in the moment. (my analysis here is much more superficial than any of these writers, but i’m taking these principles and applying it to a scenario where it would be almost insulting to philosophize too much anyway) There are lots of ways that a musician and members of an audience can come away from a performance with the notion that it was ‘good’, and it is often by focusing on a few particular aspects of the show in lieu of others “the sound was terrible, but the vibe was great” “well, I didn’t like the music at all, but the performer was so into it that it was amazing” etc. Whether you’re adding context or stripping context to achieve an opinion; to do that human thing of justifying your right to your own perceptions, how exactly attention and focus is construed, and ultimately how we remember and articulate our experiences, how we render them down to language, could perhaps be called your listening practice, instead of how you thought the show went, your opinion. The question “how was the show” could become “how did you listen to the show?” or “what did you hear at the show”.

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