Noise is a potent force that is both threatening and prevalent. It occasionally "gdissipates" and ceases to be noise but as a historical and cultural construct, it has no choice but to resurface and continue its course against its silencer. It is the resulting intersecting trajectories of noise and power in music that Paul Hegarty explores in Noise/Music: A History. In thirteen engaging chapters, the author discusses a century of experimentation, beginning with the Futurists and ending somewhere near the sonic excesses of Merzbow and the incessant plunders of John Oswald.


Noise then is something we are forced to react to, and this reaction, certainly for humans, is a judgment, even if only physical,"writes Hegarty as he introduces the theoretical framework of the book. In this fist chapter, the author necessarily borrows from, but also engages with, Jacques Attali's Noise: The Political Economy of Music. He also relies on giants such as Kant, Hegel and Artaud as he situates noise within larger discourses of power. The order vs. disorder paradigm is a useful one here and Hegarty uses it effectively.


Noise and technology have become nearly inseparable since the industrial revolution. Noise/Music thus focuses on developments in technology but without falling prey to technological determinism. Hegarty explores early landmark exchanges and approaches (Fluxus, musique brut and musique concrete) as he entrenches technology into human activities.

Noise may permeate all activities but this does not facilitate its acceptance (especially in music). Hegarty makes that clear when he notes that even Theodor Adorno was "caught in an incapacity to see new technologies, whether machinic, conceptual or performative, as ever being able to supersede the musical technology laid out in the form of orchestral music."


Free jazz is neither orchestral music nor noise per se but it occupies a central place in Hegarty's narrative. The author pertinently discusses the larger socio-political context within which free jazz exploded. He offers a balanced analysis, recognizing the paradoxes inherent in the process of delimiting music such as free jazz and improv into rigid genres. Fire music and other variants of free jazz represent "gattacks on musical conventions" but also a forward surge toward Georges Bataille's "miraculous realm of unknowing." Noise is in the political but also in the "freeness" of the music, Hegarty tells us.


It is also present in rock, prog, industrial and punk music. "Freeness" and amplification create surplus sound and facilitate the expansion of conventional rock structures (i.e. Cream, The Grateful Dead and Hendrix). Noise is in the machinery rock and prog musicians use to indulge in excesses. It is in the transgressive potential of industrial music.

It is in punk music and efforts to destroy narratives of virtuosity. What Hegarty presents here, is "a repositioning of punk as a quantitative moment in noise, where the scale of ineptness made it audible noise." Ineptness is presented not as criticism but as a means to reappropriate a term used to describe punk as a genre. Attali necessarily resurfaces in these pages since it is difficult to talk about power and control without considering the political economy of music.


Noise/Music includes chapters that deal with various aspects of sound art, pluderphonics and listening. But clearly, the bulk of the book and culminating arguments reside in the chapters that deal with Japan and Merzbow. In those two chapters, Hegarty returns to the concept of excess which he sees as a predominant characteristic of Japanese noise music. He writes, "there is, if you like, more noise in Japanese noise music, whether in terms of volume, distortion, non-musicality, non-musical elements, music against music and meaning.” What Hegarty describes is a post-Japrock world where noise reigns supreme.

And then there is Merzbow. The latter, the author insists, best incarnates excess. "Merzbow music is all residue, all noise."

Hegarty, therefore, makes a compelling argument when he writes that "noise music acquires a sense (whether wanted or not) in the wake of industrial music and Japanese noise music - i.e. from the late 1970s onwards."

Noise/Music is dense with information and engaging insights. There is a chance that Hegarty's insistence on saturating the pages of the book with uncertain, yet stimulating, connections (Bataille's transgression & Throbbing Gristle / Gilles Deleuze's repetition & Neu) will disorient readers unwilling to confront noise in the written form. They should know that Noise/Music is not a guide to modern music. It is not a history of noise music. But it is a great read if you don't mind it when the meters are in the red.


Paul Hegarty is Lecturer in Philosophy and Visual Culture at University College Cork, Ireland, and he is author of books on Bataille and Baudrillard. He jointly runs the experimental record label dotdotdotmusic and occasionally performs in the noise band Safe.

Follow this link for a selection of talks and papers written by Paul Hegarty.

Excerpts from the Safe with Dennis Cooper release below:

Video of Paul Hegarty

Paul Hegarty (the noise band Safe and La Société des Amis du Crime)

About Paul Hegarty

Profile and Works (Wikipedia).

Book written by Paul Hegarty