This is a blog devoted to music on the edge - experimental, underground, alternative, subversive, or just plain weird - new music that tries new things, or old music that broke old rules. It's a place to discuss ideas, share discoveries, to think about what makes music interesting and challenging but still good to listen to. Join in and have your say!!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Balancing the extremes - noise and silence in music

We all need a bit of balance in our lives. But balance isn't created in the middle of the scales, it's created at the ends, and if ever I needed to learn the truth of that in music, it came for me yesterday when Hijokaidan and Morton Feldman both entered my music collection for the first time.

Hijokaidan is one of the earlier, and still one of the more extreme, Japanese Noise artists. His music is intense, ferocious, uncompromising - music with no gaps in it; music where white noise, black noise, distorted static, screeching guitars and screeching vocals, are hammered and bashed together into an insane cacophony which you would probably still hear, even with the mute button on.

His album Polar Nights Live was recorded over two January nights in Oslo in 2006. It's music that belts you between the eyes, knocks you to the ground, and leaves you winded, before its first minute is up. Yoshiyuki Hiroshige's demented guitar claws its way over the broken glass of ferociously loud hissing, sending out shards of electric light and blood in all directions, while his wife, Junko, shrieks noises that must surely leave my neighbours thinking I am torturing my dogs. It's brutal, like nuclear rain pounding on metal, falling from the black clouds that shut out the sun once the holocaust is over.

Morton Feldman is a 20th century avant-garde American composer, associate of John Cage (whose famous 4'33" changed everything we used to think about silence in music), and writer of some of the most quiet music you will ever hear. His Rothko Chapel, written in 1971 for soprano, choir, viola, celeste and percussion, moves slowly, imperceptibly, between still, static sounds, blending silence into the soft, seamless, fabric of quietness. Rhythm, melody, harmony all step into the background and instead the abstract, bare purity of quietness whispers its way through the music. There's not even the barren modal chants of Arvo Pärt here - just notes, growing unobtrusively from the silence and falling back into it again. It's music that leaves you almost afraid to breathe because you feel you might unsettle the perfect stillness of this music, music that takes you out of space and time and yet, for all its minimalism and silence, is never empty.

We so often forget to notice the power and importance of both noise and silence in music because, for the most part, music blends the two, watering one down with the other. But the music of Hijokaidan and Morton Feldman shows us that each of the elements is worthy of its own place in the limelight, and reminds us that balance is only ever possible because somone is prepared to place themselves on one end of the scales, and someone else on the other.

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