Sonic-Youth

Top 10 Most Sonically Influential Artists

I have been thinking a lot about sound recently as I look to start experimenting more with music. I have no preconception of what the outcome may be, but i am keen to dowse myself in experimental approaches that push sound barriers. For years i’ve been interested in creating ‘walls of sound’ in my current band – developing a guitar sound that is now based on a oceans of lush reverb, delay, fuzz, distortion and home-made tunings. This isn’t enough now though. I want more, so I’ve decided to write a blog post that goes back to the inventors and pioneers of ideas based on experimenting with sonics. Here are my top 10 most sonically influential artists:

10. Elizabeth Fraser / Robin Guthrie (Cocteau Twins)

Elizabeth Fraser = “The voice of God”, apparently. She created layers of magical textures with her voice using a technique called glosolalia (kind of like speaking in tongues). With her ability to evoke Medusa-like curiousity (part in thanks to piercing blue eyes), her voice breaks barriers that most vocalists never even think of – non-words, trills, subtle shrieks, huge vocal range and a sound that is akin to trying to describe all wines in a wine shop as one entity. Robin Guthrie created chorus and reverb soaked sounds with his guitar, admitting he needed to cover up his technical incapabilities…this ‘technical incapability’ lead to influence over bands such as M83, Memory Tapes, School of Seven Bells and Com Truise.

 

9. Boredoms

Boredoms aren’t so commonly known for sonic experimentation – largely they do it like any other (Japanese) noise rock band. But there is something more visual here. 77 drummers? 88 Drummers? 6 drummers? Guitar necks on posts with a crazed man bashing them with a massive stick? Yeah. Boredoms show you their sonic secrets with a ritual-esque tribal influence. This goes right back to the roots of music, for reasons of a noise induced statement of intent (read up on Hanatarash), and pushes it ahead of even our time. The tribal aspect is reminiscence of the community spirit behind water drumming.

 

8. Sun Ra

Staying ahead of our time, Sun Ra was arguably the most sonically advanced jazz musician – he was from Saturn after all, describing everyone as an instrument playing a great part in the Arketsra of the cosmos.

 

7. Thurston Moore / Lee Ronaldo (Sonic Youth)

Sonic Youth take Dionysian dissonance and give it a rendering of glorious amped up screeching. Thurston Moore and Lee Ronaldo learnt the art of noise making under the mentorship of  Glenn Branca at the start of the NY noise scene. Since the 80s, they have been playing around with experimental guitar tunings, distortion, white noise and clashing chords and being massively successful with it. Daydream Nation is probably the best album ever made.

 

6. Damo Suzuki (Can)

Here we are looking at a legend who has taken his busking through to psychedelic improv singing and then further to play with musicians all over the world (who he calls ‘sound carriers’). He howls, growls and groans his way through music he hasn’t yet heard, often sounding like an undiscovered creature from the depths of a cave (when TEA booked him for the LV21 last year, these were sounds from the depths of a foghorn). In Can, he was famed for playing with his voice and giving the band it’s edge over the rest of psychedelia and being part of the rise of Krautrock.

 

5. BBC Radiophonic Workshop

BBC Radiophonic Workshop played around with sounds to a scientific extreme – which is apt as they created a sound effect library largely famed for sci-fi programmes. I don’t really need to say to much about them as it’s all in the documentary below.

 

4. Kevin Shields (My Bloody Valentine)

Kevin Shields is notorious for nearly making Creation Records bankrupt. The reason being that he kept getting rid of producers and spending several years in the studio because the sound of Loveless wasn’t how he imagined it. Eventually it got released and pioneered shoegaze music. It’s an album full of guitar textures and layers which, even to this day, guitar geeks argue about how My Bloody Valentine created their sound. I recently read an interview in which Shields said he simply turned up his amps really loud so they distorted themselves without the use of any effects (note to copy cat guitarists: that £1,000 pedal board was a waste of money). One thing for sure is that constantly holding the tremelo arm while playing is one of the most interesting ‘natural’ sonic interventions when it comes to playing guitar.

 

3. Glenn Branca

In the late 70s, New York was fronting a new movement  - No-Wave. It incorporated music, performance art and film. Branca was at the forefront of it with his focus on musical texture instead of melody and using repetition to create something that was the catalyst for a growth in experimental bands in the late 70s and early 80s including Sonic Youth, Swans and The Fall.

 

2. Phil Spector

Phil Spector created the ‘Wall of Sound’ method of recording (doubling and layering instruments for a fuller sound). One of the first ‘wall of sound’ recordings was for The Crystals’ ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’. He also famously worked on The Beatles’ Let It Be album.

 

1. Luigi Russolo

In 1913, Luigi Russolo wrote a futurist manifesto called The Art of Noises (L’arte dei Rumori), in which he proposes a new approach to music. Although largely unknown to music fans these days, this manifesto arguably spawned the birth of using everyday noise as a form of music. Here it is:

Dear Balilla Pratella, great Futurist composer,In Rome, in the Costanzi Theatre, packed to capacity, while I was listening to the orchestral performance of your overwhelming Futurist music, with my Futurist friends, Marinetti, Boccioni, Carrà, Balla, Soffici, Papini and Cavacchioli, a new art came into my mind which only you can create, the Art of Noises, the logical consequence of your marvelous innovations.

Ancient life was all silence. In the nineteenth century, with the invention of the machine, Noise was born. Today, Noise triumphs and reigns supreme over the sensibility of men. For many centuries life went by in silence, or at most in muted tones. The strongest noises which interrupted this silence were not intense or prolonged or varied. If we overlook such exceptional movements as earthquakes, hurricanes, storms, avalanches and waterfalls, nature is silent.

Amidst this dearth of noises, the first sounds that man drew from a pieced reed or streched string were regarded with amazement as new and marvelous things. Primitive races attributed sound to the gods; it was considered sacred and reserved for priests, who used it to enrich the mystery of their rites.

And so was born the concept of sound as a thing in itself, distinct and independent of life, and the result was music, a fantastic world superimposed on the real one, an inviolatable and sacred world. It is easy to understand how such a concept of music resulted inevitable in the hindering of its progress by comparison with the other arts. The Greeks themselves, with their musical theories calculated mathematically by Pythagoras and according to which only a few consonant intervals could be used, limited the field of music considerably, rendering harmony, of which they were unaware, impossible.

The Middle Ages, with the development and modification of the Greek tetrachordal system, with the Gregorian chant and popular songs, enriched the art of music, but continued to consider sound in its development in time, a restricted notion, but one which lasted many centuries, and which still can be found in the Flemish contrapuntalists’ most complicated polyphonies.

The chord did not exist, the development of the various parts was not subornated to the chord that these parts put together could produce; the conception of the parts was horizontal not vertical. The desire, search, and taste for a simultaneous union of different sounds, that is for the chord (complex sound), were gradually made manifest, passing from the consonant perfect chord with a few passing dissonances, to the complicated and persistent dissonances that characterize contemporary music.

At first the art of music sought purity, limpidity and sweetness of sound. Then different sounds were amalgamated, care being taken, however, to caress the ear with gentle harmonies. Today music, as it becomes continually more complicated, strives to amalgamate the most dissonant, strange and harsh sounds. In this way we come ever closer to noise-sound.

This musical evolution is paralleled by the multipication of machines, which collaborate with man on every front. Not only in the roaring atmosphere of major cities, but in the country too, which until yesterday was totally silent, the machine today has created such a variety and rivalry of noises that pure sound, in its exiguity and monotony, no longer arouses any feeling.

To excite and exalt our sensibilities, music developed towards the most complex polyphony and the maximum variety, seeking the most complicated successions of dissonant chords and vaguely preparing the creation of musical noise. This evolution towards “noise sound” was not possible before now. The ear of an eighteenth-century man could never have endured the discordant intensity of certain chords produced by our orchestras (whose members have trebled in number since then). To our ears, on the other hand, they sound pleasant, since our hearing has already been educated by modern life, so teeming with variegated noises. But our ears are not satisfied merely with this, and demand an abundance of acoustic emotions.

On the other hand, musical sound is too limited in its qualitative variety of tones. The most complex orchestras boil down to four or five types of instrument, varying in timber: instruments played by bow or plucking, by blowing into metal or wood, and by percussion. And so modern music goes round in this small circle, struggling in vain to create new ranges of tones.

This limited circle of pure sounds must be broken, and the infinite variety of “noise-sound” conquered.

Besides, everyone will acknowledge that all musical sound carries with it a development of sensations that are already familiar and exhausted, and which predispose the listener to boredom in spite of the efforts of all the innovatory musicians. We Futurists have deeply loved and enjoyed the harmonies of the great masters. For many years Beethoven and Wagner shook our nerves and hearts. Now we are satiated and we find far more enjoyment in the combination of the noises of trams, backfiring motors, carriages and bawling crowds than in rehearsing, for example, the “Eroica” or the “Pastoral”.

We cannot see that enormous apparatus of force that the modern orchestra represents without feeling the most profound and total disillusion at the paltry acoustic results. Do you know of any sight more ridiculous than that of twenty men furiously bent on the redoubling the mewing of a violin? All this will naturally make the music-lovers scream, and will perhaps enliven the sleepy atmosphere of concert halls. Let us now, as Futurists, enter one of these hospitals for anaemic sounds. There: the first bar brings the boredom of familiarity to your ear and anticipates the boredom of the bar to follow. Let us relish, from bar to bar, two or three varieties of genuine boredom, waiting all the while for the extraordinary sensation that never comes.

Meanwhile a repugnant mixture is concocted from monotonous sensations and the idiotic religious emotion of listeners buddhistically drunk with repeating for the nth time their more or less snobbish or second-hand ecstasy.

Away! Let us break out since we cannot much longer restrain our desire to create finally a new musical reality, with a generous distribution of resonant slaps in the face, discarding violins, pianos, double-basses and plainitive organs. Let us break out!

It’s no good objecting that noises are exclusively loud and disagreeable to the ear.

It seems pointless to enumerate all the graceful and delicate noises that afford pleasant sensations.

To convince ourselves of the amazing variety of noises, it is enough to think of the rumble of thunder, the whistle of the wind, the roar of a waterfall, the gurgling of a brook, the rustling of leaves, the clatter of a trotting horse as it draws into the distance, the lurching jolts of a cart on pavings, and of the generous, solemn, white breathing of a nocturnal city; of all the noises made by wild and domestic animals, and of all those that can be made by the mouth of man without resorting to speaking or singing.

Let us cross a great modern capital with our ears more alert than our eyes, and we will get enjoyment from distinguishing the eddying of water, air and gas in metal pipes, the grumbling of noises that breathe and pulse with indisputable animality, the palpitation of valves, the coming and going of pistons, the howl of mechanical saws, the jolting of a tram on its rails, the cracking of whips, the flapping of curtains and flags. We enjoy creating mental orchestrations of the crashing down of metal shop blinds, slamming doors, the hubbub and shuffling of crowds, the variety of din, from stations, railways, iron foundries, spinning wheels, printing works, electric power stations and underground railways.

Nor should the newest noises of modern war be forgotten. Recently, the poet Marinetti, in a letter from the trenches of Adrianopolis, described to me with marvelous free words the orchestra of a great battle:

“every 5 seconds siege cannons gutting space with a chord ZANG-TUMB-TUUMB mutiny of 500 echos smashing scattering it to infinity. In the center of this hateful ZANG-TUMB-TUUMB area 50square kilometers leaping bursts lacerations fists rapid fire batteries. Violence ferocity regularity this deep bass scanning the strange shrill frantic crowds of the battle Fury breathless ears eyes nostrils open! load! fire! what a joy to hear to smell completely taratatata of the machine guns screaming a breathless under the stings slaps traak-traak whips pic-pac-pum-tumb weirdness leaps 200 meters range Far far in back of the orchestra pools muddying huffing goaded oxen wagons pluff-plaff horse action flic flac zing zing shaaack laughing whinnies the tiiinkling jiiingling tramping 3 Bulgarian battalions marching croooc-craaac [slowly] Shumi Maritza or Karvavena ZANG-TUMB-TUUUMB toc-toc-toc-toc [fast] crooc-craac[slowly] crys of officers slamming about like brass plates pan here paak there BUUUM ching chaak [very fast] cha-cha-cha-cha-chaak down there up around high up look out your head beautiful! Flashing flashing flashing flashing flashing flashing footlights of the forts down there behind that smoke Shukri Pasha communicates by phone with 27 forts in Turkish in German Allo! Ibrahim! Rudolf! allo! allo! actors parts echos of prompters scenery of smoke forests applause odor of hay mud dung I no longer feel my frozen feet odor of gunsmoke odor of rot Tympani flutes clarinets everywhere low high birds chirping blessed shadows cheep-cheep-cheep green breezes flocks don-dan-don-din-baaah Orchestra madmen pommel the performers they terribly beaten playing Great din not erasing clearing up cutting off slighter noises very small scraps of echos in the theater area 300 square kilometers Rivers Maritza Tungia stretched out Rodolpi Mountains rearing heights loges boxes 2000 shrapnels waving arms exploding very white handkerchiefs full of gold srrrr-TUMB-TUMB 2000 raised grenades tearing out bursts of very black hair ZANG-srrrr-TUMB-ZANG-TUMB-TUUMB the orchestra of the noises of war swelling under a held note of silence in the high sky round golden balloon that observes the firing…”

We want to attune and regulate this tremendous variety of noises harmonically and rhythmically. To attune noises does not mean to detract from all their irregular movements and vibrations in time and intensity, but rather to give gradation and tone to the most strongly predominant of these vibrations.Noise in fact can be differentiated from sound only in so far as the vibrations which produce it are confused and irregular, both in time and intensity. Every noise has a tone, and sometimes also a harmony that predominates over the body of its irregular vibrations. Now, it is from this dominating characteristic tone that a practical possibility can be derived for attuning it, that is to give a certain noise not merely one tone, but a variety of tones, without losing its characteristic tone, by which I mean the one which distinguishes it. In this way any noise obtained by a rotating movement can offer an entire ascending or descending chromatic scale, if the speed of the movement is increased or decreased.Every manifestation of our life is accompanied by noise. The noise, therefore, is familiar to our ear, and has the power to conjure up life itself. Sound, alien to our life, always musical and a thing unto itself, an occasional but unnecessary element, has become to our ears what an overfamiliar face is to our eyes. Noise, however, reaching us in a confused and irregular way from the irregular confusion of our life, never entirely reveals itself to us, and keeps innumerable surprises in reserve. We are therefore certain that by selecting, coordinating and dominating all noises we will enrich men with a new and unexpected sensual pleasure.Although it is characteristic of noise to recall us brutally to real life, the art of noise must not limit itself to imitative reproduction. It will achieve its most emotive power in the acoustic enjoyment, in its own right, that the artist’s inspiration will extract from combined noises.Here are the 6 families of noises of the Futurist orchestra which we will soon set in motion mechanically:

1 2 3 4 5 6
Rumbles
Roars
Explosions
Crashes
Splashes
Booms
Whistles
Hisses
Snorts
Whispers
Murmurs
Mumbles
Grumbles
Gurgles
Screeches
Creaks
Rumbles
Buzzes
Crackles
Scrapes
Noises obtained by percussion on metal, wood, skin, stone, tarracotta, etc. Voices of animals and men:
Shouts
Screams
Groans
Shrieks
Howls
Laughs
Weezes
Sobs
In this inventory we have encapsulated the most characteristic of the fundamental noises; the others are merely the associations and combinations of these. The rhythmic movements of a noise are infinite: just as with tone there is always a predominant rhythm, but around this numerous other secondary rhythms can be felt.

Conclusions

  1. Futurist musicians must continually enlarge and enrich the field of sounds. This corresponds to a need in our sensibility. We note, in fact, in the composers of genius, a tendency towards the most complicated dissonances. As these move further and further away from pure sound, they almost achieve noise-sound. This need and this tendency cannot be satisfied except by the adding and the substitution of noises for sounds.
  2. Futurist musicians must substitute for the limited variety of tones posessed by orchestral instruments today the infinite variety of tones of noises, reproduced with appropriate mechanisms.
  3. The musician’s sensibility, liberated from facile and traditional Rhythm, must find in noises the means of extension and renewal, given that every noise offers the union of the most diverse rhythms apart from the predominant one.
  4. Since every noise contains a predominant general tone in its irregular vibrations it will be easy to obtain in the construction of instruments which imitate them a sufficiently extended variety of tones, semitones, and quarter-tones. This variety of tones will not remove the characteristic tone from each noise, but will amplify only its texture or extension.
  5. The practical difficulties in constructing these instruments are not serious. Once the mechanical principle which produces the noise has been found, its tone can be changed by following the same general laws of acoustics. If the instrument is to have a rotating movement, for instance, we will increase or decrease the speed, whereas if it is to not have rotating movement the noise-producing parts will vary in size and tautness.
  6. The new orchestra will achieve the most complex and novel aural emotions not by incorporating a succession of life-imitating noises but by manipulating fantastic juxtapositions of these varied tones and rhythms. Therefore an instrument will have to offer the possibility of tone changes and varying degrees of amplification.
  7. The variety of noises is infinite. If today, when we have perhaps a thousand different machines, we can distinguish a thousand different noises, tomorrow, as new machines multiply, we will be able to distinguish ten, twenty, or thirty thousand different noises, not merely in a simply imitative way, but to combine them according to our imagination.
  8. We therefore invite young musicians of talent to conduct a sustained observation of all noises, in order to understand the various rhythms of which they are composed, their principal and secondary tones. By comparing the various tones of noises with those of sounds, they will be convinced of the extent to which the former exceed the latter. This will afford not only an understanding, but also a taste and passion for noises. After being conquered by Futurist eyes our multiplied sensibilities will at last hear with Futurist ears. In this way the motors and machines of our industrial cities will one day be consciously attuned, so that every factory will be transformed into an intoxicating orchestra of noises.

Dear Pratella, I submit these statements to your Futurist genius, inviting your discussion. I am not a musician, I have therefore no acoustical predilictions, nor any works to defend. I am a Futurist painter using a much loved art to project my determination to renew everything. And so, bolder than a professional musician could be, unconcerned by my apparent incompetence and convinced that all rights and possibilities open up to daring, I have been able to initiate the great renewal of music by means of the Art of Noises.




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