IASPM-US Interview Series: Joanna Demers, “Listening through the Noise”

by Victor Szabo on October 19, 2015

Joanna DemersListening through the Noise









Synopsis and interview by John Melillo.

Listening through the Noise: The Aesthetics of Experimental Electronic Music (Oxford, 2010) by Joanna Demers argues for a sweeping aesthetic theory of electronic music. For Demers, electronic music foreshadows the end of Western art music as we know it: this music remakes the rules, rituals and expectations that structure listening and performance. By drawing together genres—from musique concrète to EDM to noise music—that are usually separated by different institutions, traditions, and histories, Demers weaves together a set of concerns about the function of meaning in relation to music. She takes up three conceptions of the meaningfulness of sound—as “sign,” “object,” and “situation”—in order to show the ways in which electronic music complicates the prescriptive and self-prescriptive strictures that bind its generic divisions. In place of a prescribed listening that defines “sound objects” outside of all causality or reference, or a readerly listening imagined as an extension utterance, Demers argues for a theory of “aesthetic listening” that renegotiates the frames by which we imagine and understand music. Aesthetic listening recognizes the status of organized sounds as different from everyday sounds and yet it also recognizes the intermittency, incongruency, and irrationality of our various ways of listening. Aesthetic listening revels in what Demers calls “the absence of the musical frame.” Listening through the noise, listening in the breach, suggests a listening bound not by structure and sign but by free play, a special kind of play conditioned by electronic music’s plurality of calls and responses.

John Melillo: What initially brought you to this project? What composers / musicians helped to spark it? Was there a moment of listening confusion or clarity that helped you to begin?

Joanna Demers: I came upon the record label 12k, which specializes in minimalist and (often) very quiet, elegant music. I also found some recent collaborations between Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto. It was easy to fall in love with this music. One recording led to another, and soon I had a whole galaxy of music that, for me, was beguiling and mysterious.

JM: What work in the field of electronic music do you love? Are those loves mapped into the book? Or is there work that captures you or mystifies you that you had to leave out?

JD: I love all of the music I discuss in the book. In some cases, that love is passionate; at other times, it’s more love from afar, but love just the same. Noise was an issue that so many scholars had already treated so eloquently, so I wasn’t intending on treading on that ground. But the work of Basinski and Fennesz and others was so poignant that it seemed possible to add to that tidal wave, however meekly.

I tried a bit to discuss drone music in LTN (Radigue, O’Rourke, Niblock), but it was a tricky thing, to talk about music that requires so few words to “describe.” I’ve since returned to drone music in my forthcoming book (Drone and Apocalypse: An Exhibit Catalog for the End of the World, appearing in December 2015 with Zero Books), but it took a few years to develop a means of approaching it.

JM: When I think of “the drone” in music, I also think of “the drone” in general (nearly inaudible sounds like air handling systems or fluorescent lights). What’s your sense of how listening has shifted in relation to these ubiquitous sounds?

JD: There’s certainly something to be said for the idea that “we’re all overwhelmed with ambient sound and noise.” This argument often segues into a second argument, that “we’ve lost our ability to concentrate on large-scale form, development, etc.” So, our technology has drowned us with utilitarian or unaesthetic sound, and has also dumbed us down. And yet, there never seems to have been greater demand for long works (of music, yes, but also cinema/film) that are difficult and ultimately rewarding. So, I guess I’d answer your question by saying that the ubiquitous sounds around us are bringing out the best in us!

JM: Why is drone so closely related to apocalypse?

JD: There are many topical associations between drone and apocalypse: in terms of album titles, there are Radigue’s Trilogie de la mort, Tim Hecker’s Ravedeath, 1972, Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops. Hollywood horror films train us to expect something scary when there’s a low drone in the soundtrack.

But in terms of the sound and structure of drone music, there are indications of apocalypse. The works I discuss in LTN posit a timelessness, a sense that they could continue indefinitely. This is something that the band Low made explicit in their 2013 performance of their 1996 track “Do You Know How To Waltz?”, which they turned into a thirty-minute noise drone. Everything aligned in that performance: the song lyrics (which refer to one last time “to pay the debt”), the fatigue of the musicians, their frustration that some audience members seemed bored or distracted. Low’s lead singer, Alan Sparhawk, ended the performance by yelling in his microphone, “Drone, not drones.” So, we have a confluence of ending, noise, collapse, weapons of mass destruction….

JM: In Listening Through the Noise, you talk a lot about the value of imagining an entire field of inquiry—electronic music—rather than writing a simple historical or musicological account of this music. What possibilities and pitfalls does such an approach grant aspiring writers of music criticism?

JD: It’s easier now than it was, say, a decade ago to write something other than a straightforward history. There are so many wonderful writers on music out there, operating both within and outside musicology, and I think their success speaks to this. That said, there is clearly plenty of room for straightforward histories too, again, written by both musicologists and journalists, historians, and the like.

JM: How does your new project on drone, which registers this possibility for critical and creative writing to merge, deal with these issues of theoretical expansiveness versus the reading / close listening of minute details?

JD: My goal with Drone and the Apocalypse was to buttress every claim, theory, or speculation with something grounded in the “music itself.” I don’t mean that in a reactionary way, just that it’s essential for me to make theory and musical phenomena sit next to each other at the table, so to speak.

JM: Now, a few years after the book, have you questioned or rethought your taxonomic methodology in Listening Through the Noise? Has any work (musical or critical) made you return to your system of distinctions in electronic music?

JD: I’m glad that I took the time to address taxonomy in electronic music. And I’m also glad to move on to other types of projects, and of writing. I am very excited about some recent work (by Eugene Thacker, Reza Negarestani, Tim Mulgan) that argues for the potential of critical writing to function as creative work. So that’s where I’m focusing my energies these days. I’m still addressing music, but through unlikely, mad, and determined forays into history and philosophy.

JM: In LTN, you talk a lot about Schaeffer’s idealized “bracketing” of the sound object, and I loved a quote from the sound artist Francisco López that discusses this kind of listening not as an end in itself but as a “confrontation with the relational frameworks that blur our experience of the essential.” It seems that that’s a real argument for a deep, estranging listening that makes possible a revolutionary act of the senses. What’s your sense of the political in relation to the aesthetic acts / choices that you’ve outlined in LTN?

JD: Reduced listening can sound like a political ideology, can’t it? In the best way: it calls us to set aside prejudice and preconceived ideas. And that makes sense, given that adherents to and practitioners of reduced listening are often also committed to some politics of liberation. It will be interesting to see how this political impulse runs up against supposedly predetermined biological considerations, that we are apparently hard-wired to listen with attention toward identity and provenance. It seems like electronic music is sometimes fighting a battle against our animal nature.

JM: Nowadays there is a proliferation of popular / rock / indie / underground (so much genre terminology!) bands that take a lot of their direction from electronic music (this runs the gamut, of course, from massive groups like Radiohead to smaller groups like Animal Collective and even one-person outfits like U.S. Girls). What do you think about electronic music’s ability to hybridize with other genres?

JD: This is as much a testament to the relevance of electronic music as it is of popular music, however we want to define it. Genre in popular music has become the new variable, something one can manipulate the way that we used to add “instruments” or “rhythms” thanks to presets on synthesizers. And this is a wonderful thing, as far as I’m concerned. Electronic music is now like air; it’s ubiquitous, to the point where we don’t really hear it as a genre the way we might have, even ten years ago.

JM: And, relatedly, what is electronic music’s relationship with voice, singing and spoken language? I ask because it seems like your argument in the book that electronic music opens up a new kind of aesthetic listening also relates to the way that we might listen to lyrics. And yet at the same time, the lyric—or just the human voice—becomes this point of interest / focus that sets up the very distinctions of figure / ground that electronic music, by breaking frames, often erases.

JD: Yes, this is a great point. And it seems amplified when you have recent works, supposedly pop works, where the voice is present but obscured in the texture. The voice seems ever more present, relevant, and yet contestable.

JM: Also, as the sounds that electric guitars make become more and more distant from the tradition of acoustic guitar music (particularly with the help of the slew of pedals many guitarists have at their disposal), do you think that another language or aesthetic is developing? I think of “noise” musicians like Keith Rowe or Otomo Yoshihide, who play with feedback and “prepared” instruments to create some very strange, beautiful (?), difficult sounds… but I also think of the guitar playing in bands like The Fall…

JD: I agree that electric guitar aesthetics are developing, and branching off from any vestigial attachment to the acoustic guitar. This has been a long time coming; we have all the noise acts from the past twenty years, all the post-rock acts, etc. I find it delightful, too, since there was a brief moment around fifteen years ago when some folks (not guitarists!) were saying that the guitar had reached its zenith and was on the decline, that turntablism was the future. That’s not to say that turntablism is on its way out—not at all!—but they’ve become parallel regimes.

JM: In literary studies, there is a lot of discussion about “lyric theory,” and a lot of that conversation depends on questions of genre and its relation to meaning. It seems to me that your book is not only a theoretical—even experimental—investigation but also a study in the uses of genre as a critical tool. What is the value of delimiting genres and making these distinctions that people often want to disrupt?

JD: I’ll be working on this in my next book! It’s a wonderful question, and I’m sorting it out, but you’re right: we’re at a point where musicians want to undercut cemented genre distinctions, but they’re still working with those distinctions, even if ironically.

JM: What is your perfect listening situation? What spaces and times make your own listening through noise possible?

JD: I’m less picky than I should be. Fancy headphones or home speakers are great, of course. Driving with my below-average car stereo. I like replaying music in my mind while I’m swimming.

JM: What are you listening to these days?

JD: Always Basinski and Celer! New, strange, wonderful drone or noise works by Marsen Jules, M. Geddes Gengras, Imaginary Softwoods, Thomas Koner. And some British pop classics: Pulp, The Fall, The Wedding Present.


Joanna Demers is associate professor and chair of musicology at USC’s Thornton School of Music. Her two other books are Drone and Apocalypse: An Exhibit Catalog for the End of the World (Zero Books), and Steal This Music: How Intellectual Property Law Affects Musical Creativity (University of Georgia). Her articles have appeared in the Journal for Popular Music Studies, Popular Music, and Organised Sound. Her next book is entitled Musical Fictions: Conditions for the Possibility of Contemporary Popular Music.

John Melillo is an assistant professor in the English Department at the University of Arizona. His book project, Outside In: Noisescapes from Dada to Punk, examines the influence of noise on poetry and poetics during the twentieth century. He has published work on empathy in sound poetry, folk-song utopianism, and the post-punk band DNA. John performs music as Algae & Tentacles.

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