BY Philip Sherburne in Frieze | 10 OCT 01
Featured in
Issue 62

The Art of Noise

Under the skin of 'phonography'

BY Philip Sherburne in Frieze | 10 OCT 01

Electronic music's synthetic nature is one of its most commonly noted features, by fans and detractors alike. Critics in the latter camp single out analogue tone generation and digital rendering as second-rate reproduction, a degraded form of imitation that will never live up to the 'warmth' and 'spirit' of 'real' instruments (if nothing else, the digital revolution has left us with enough scare-quotes to tide us over until the next representational upheaval). Advocates turn reductionism into a virtue, with artists adopting monikers such as 'snd' (an audio file extension) or naming songs with titles like '!/ 1346' by Mikael Stavöstrand. Most electronic music has relied on one of two methodologies: either the crate-digging process of cultural recycling typified by Hip Hop, or the hermetically produced purism of hard-disk jockeys like Noto and Kim Cascone, who allow no tone that did not spring from a digital virgin birth. But in the last couple of years an unexpected crack has appeared in the pristine surfaces of the genre's walls, allowing a teasing glimpse of what, for lack of a better term, we might call 'the real'.

San Francisco's Matmos - a duo comprising Drew Daniel and M. C. Schmidt - have collected plenty of press this year thanks to their extensive use of 'real world' samples on their album A Chance to Cut Is a Chance to Cure (2001). In keeping with the surgical imagery of the title, the pair employ a staggering array of sound sources far beyond the range of banal sampling or conventional instruments. The main ones are field recordings of liposuction, rhinoplasty and electro-epidermal conductivity readings during acupuncture. Others, like the bowing of a rat's cage in a piece dedicated to the passing of their pet, link directly back to John Cage's advocacy of everyday objects as musical instruments. But their more outlandish audio adventures suggest a new or at least rediscovered mode for electronic music: one centred on a fundamentally documentary impulse.

Of course, sound collage itself dates back to musique concrète and Pierre Schaeffer's earliest experiments in melding urban found-sounds the audio equivalent of Dziga Vertov's Man With a Movie Camera (1929). Sonic representation has often been regarded as suspect; even Schaeffer, reports Douglas Kahn in Noise, Water, Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts (1999), wrote off his life's work as 'sound-works, sound-structures, but not music'. However, Matmos (who even on their first release spurned preset synthesizer tones in favour of amplified samples of crayfish neural tissues) have merged straight documentary sources with a finely honed ear for genre. So what you hear, at least on first listen, is not so much the icky sucking and squelching that they recorded in the operating room, but a cleverly constructed album that takes the rhythmic and textural conventions of contemporary post-Techno and pushes them forward, both on their own terms (the click, the syncopated off-beat) and also in a way that contemporaries like Funkstorung or Kid606 never expected, folding the 'closed' world of genre back into the infinite realm of sound as a cultural element. It is a profound representational move largely because it draws attention to what is apparent but not in the recordings only in the liner notes. This is highlighted in the introduction to the jack-your-body Funk of 'Spondee', in which a series of words such as 'raincoat', 'hot-dog' and 'oatmeal', sampled from speech-therapy recordings, are paired with sounds somehow suggestive of their idea. A post-Saussurean lesson on the slippage of the signifier, it makes clear the tenuous link between sound and essence: 'railroad' is paired with the ding-dong of a crossing bell, but 'pancake' is matched with the hissing of gas, while 'eardrum' jumps straight into a drum-roll, announcing a punchline for grad students everywhere: metaphor is metonymy, metonymy is metaphor. So let's get funky.

Beyond the pranksterism of Matmos, comparatively straight documentary sound is on the rise, towards both political and impressionistic ends. Christopher DeLaurenti took a portable DAT recorder into the heart of Seattle's anti-WTO riots, emerging with an audio document that captured a side of the chaos that photographs failed to record. Francisco Lopez, renowned for testing the limits of audibility, furthers his exploration of 'pure' sound in deftly edited recordings of a rainforest's wall of sound, eschewing documentary factualism in favour of a kind of essential noise. Chris Watson has taken his shotgun and contact mics as far afield as Costa Rica and Kenya, recording events from the natural world, both banal (beetles in a cottage bedroom) and otherworldly (vultures feeding on a zebra carcass, recorded from within the carcass). There's even a website and mailing list dedicated to the practice of 'phonography' (, which recently produced a CD compilation of list-members' submissions, ranging from Chris Knapp's 'Koi Feeding' to Marcelo Radulovich's 'Escalator at the San Diego Zoo'. In phonography, sonic fullness leads to a sense of sonic fulfilment in a rebuttal to the visual prejudice of our culture, that sound alone carries a kind of information that is sufficient unto itself, without ocular complement.

If anyone has reconciled the documentary impulse with the musical, however, it's Matthew Herbert. Known for years in House music circles as an unconventional producer, Herbert's first album under his Doctor Rockit alias,The Music of Sound (1996), proved that wine glasses, cutlery and furniture could be as funky as any 808. His 1998 album Around the House pushed his representational agenda forward, turning samples from domestic life into poignant musings on the private sphere. While this album only hinted at a politics of the personal, Bodily Functions (2001) goes full-on, taking bits and pieces of everyday life from the rattling of objects in singer/partner Dani Siciliano's bag, to recordings of bodily functions collected from fans around the world and fusing them seamlessly into a collection of songs that tackle the big issues: community, commercialism, the failures of corporate capitalism, the relationship of the individual to the State, the problem of identity within a romantic relationship. He addresses these issues not merely lyrically, but in the very fabric of the songs. In his live performances he asks the audience to sing a note, records it, and turns that snapshot into an on-the-fly example of utopian potential.

Never, it seems, have form and content intertwined so tightly. Herbert claims his politics a radical, if common-sense, anti-corporatism informed by books such as No Logo (2000) and Fast Food Nation (2001) is not overtly present in his music ('I'm not writing songs like "I wish there wasn't a Starbucks on every corner"'). But in contrast to the primacy of the lyric in contemporary Pop music, Herbert's politics are deeply embedded in sonics. His next album, under his Radioboy moniker, will feature one track constructed entirely from recordings of London's May Day protests; another manufactured solely from the sound of McDonalds' packaging; another utilizing only Rupert Murdoch-owned newspapers. Herbert's own frustration is not unfamiliar to many Left-leaning musicians: 'Music is the soundtrack to everyone's life, continually you get in a cab, or in a shop, or on the Tube, and there's music everywhere ... it's not challenging any more.' But artists like Matmos, Herbert and an army of phonographers are tipping the scales: instead of music overtaking everyday life, they're letting the life back into music, one heartbeat at a time.