The Poetics of Noise from Dada to Punk

The Poetics of Noise from Dada to Punk
by John Melillo

Bloomsbury Academic, New York, NY, 2021
208 pp. Trade, $72.00
ISBN: 9781501359910.

Reviewed by
Brian Reffin Smith
January 2021

It’s hard to imagine what your fully paid-up Dadaist would be doing today, noise-wise. Anyone with a computer or iPad and a MIDI keyboard can access and change the parameters of millions of playable noises, melodic or not, from fingernails on a contrabass to underwater trumpets, from Bartok Pizzicato to a burnt piano, from German swearwords with variable attack and decay to an orchestra of railway station sounds, both ambient and provoked, playable in major, minor and more exotic scales. I suppose the she or he would be doing something else. Words, phrases or syllables can be whispered, screamed or sung, Persian melodies mixed with Hollywood choirs and monks singing backwards in virtual reverberation setups ranging from outer space to Abbey Road Number 1 Studio or an anechoic chamber, poetry is written on substrates of any and all philosophies and atrocities but this is hardly revolutionary now. The cultural and theoretical distinctions between noise and music are well and truly demolished. I’ve stayed in the so-called ‘dead-room’ of Berlin’s Technische Universität, and it’s true what they say, there’s lots of noise coming from inside you. From kitchen implements to the gut, from Mars to intracellular variations in plants, the sources of sound or noise have just about been explored. Or have they?

The theoretical apparatus that surrounds and interpenetrates the poetics of sound and noise here gets a thorough work-out, as the comings and goings of noise and sound figures, from a background of sound and noise, are disentangled. It can be difficult going. It is also, paradoxically, quite visceral. The point to hold onto is the constant flux between acoustic figure and ground and the contradictory differentiations between noise and sound: on the one hand to show how such-and-such is different to its noisy background, or must change language, poetry or sound just to escape from a hell of noise; on the other, to show that it’s all just/not just noise anyway.

Are these forms important on a day to day basis, though? Does a poetics of sounds need to refer to their origins? Is hearing a rapid tap-tap-tap the same as hearing a woodpecker, and is the rat-a-tat-tat of the machine gun the actual, overwhelming fear of the bullet? Many would still ask “What is a sound, what is noise?” For those not of the North American university department of English cognoscenti an equally difficult question is “What is, or are, ‘the poetics’ in this case?” But whilst there are books whose opacity and/or nonsense is egregious, this reviewer finds that there are many more that simply make you do more homework than usual, which is then rewarded. The Poetics of Noise from Dada to Punk is one such although it contains sentences such as “Rather than defining and defending a particular vibrational ontology, phenomenological objectification, or teleological hermeneutic, this book describes material and cultural frames that parse the flowing matrix of sound”. Good chess players can easily remember the position of every piece on the board because they are ‘chunking’, seeing a few simple structures where a novice might only see the individual bits, and doubtless there are those to whom the above quote makes immediate, obvious sense. For me it was something to be left in suspension hoping for later expansion and elucidation.

Actually, if you do, you are rewarded: this is a very interesting book. And I now see that the above quote means the author is not concerned with, for example, bird or sound per se but rather in the conditions of our perception and theorising about such stuff, and then beyond that to incorporate or find such theory in the works themselves. The philosopher Roger Scruton argued that the nature of sounds is fully determined by how a normal hearer hears them but from Dada to punk and most points in between, creative people have said “boll*cks” to that and slammed sound, noise, the perceived, the perceiver and all the surrounding theory into one often useful, sometimes glorious gestalt. The ‘poetics’ here is about the alleged self-framing of poetry thrusting itself into the theory and practice of sound studies. “I read poetry ... not through but as sound theory and noise theory”, writes John Melillo in his introduction. Again, we hope that the differences and identities between sound theory and noise theory will be elucidated, and what he means by ‘noise and noise music’ as well as his use of many other sometimes rather poetic juxtapositions.

And this does sound reasonable: “Close listeners to noise - ranging from the barest sense perception to the most technologically advanced mediation - attend neither to ‘sound itself’ nor to ‘noise itself’ but rather to the culturally encoded relationships between the transmission and reception of sound”. At least if you append “or something like that”. The power of poetic experiment is, writes Melillo, “to connect listening and making in ways that discover the limits of those relationships - and the motivations and powers within them”. It’s not, for me, a given that that is what we do, but rather that it’s clearly interesting and probably useful to consider it. Isn’t theorising about listening and making, looking and making, central to, certainly important for, much of our creativity?

What I like about this book is its apparent refusal to distinguish between sound/noise located (by someone or something) inside and outside boundaries that are at best fuzzy and variable. Framework, contents and theory become (poetically and practically) almost interchangeable. As Captain Beefheart said, “It’s all one radiator.” The six chronologically ordered chapters range from First World War poetry to sound art and noise music via jazz and  sound engineering. Melillo sees them as being haunted by two different “noise regimes” that emerged in the 20th century: Russolo’s modernist insistence on including noise as revolutionary sound, yet somehow to be tamed to enable this, and Cage’s lack of control, letting sounds be themselves. The author disagrees with Michel Serres’ apparent view that making something of noise is an impossibility because it then leaves the noise behind, becoming other than noise. He suggests rather that musicians and poets “render noise as an artifact of listening”. In other words, again, all the components of the system become... not exactly interchangeable, but part of each other. I get the feeling that he’d be quite happy if all the categories didn’t exist, though they have to be named, spotted and questioned in order to be heard along different dimensions, from a meta-level, whence they become one. The chapters portray artists’ work with and against the above noise regimes, roughly split between the first and second three chapters.

Some glimpses: soldiers surrounded by unbearable noise uttering repetitions of prayers, poems or rote phrases as “homeopathic” antidote to it. And actual poetry’s form falling apart. Then jazz and modernist poetry explore the randomness of such selection, pushing the increasingly nebulous boundaries to incorporate nonsense, abstraction and “noise”. Still later, noise is everywhere in the arts, “dedifferentiated”. The book as a whole celebrates this refusal to differentiate and it is in that refusal that its riches lie. For this reviewer, it isn’t just that we question old boundaries between noise and sound, but that such questioning itself becomes the art, the music, the poetry. Cf, of course, conceptual art.

The chapters are rather less dense than the introduction and are a sudden release from theory per se. It’s almost as if the author felt, unnecessarily, that he had to justify the book to a stern committee of North American lit-theory academics and having done so could enjoy himself.

The first discusses the way the noise of the battlefields was used, even by its dreamed of absence, rather than portrayed or ‘communicated’. Shell-shocked shards of alliteration, harsh consonants, the legs of iambic pentameter intact but a foot missing. Noise figured on a background of noise. “In the gap between communication and experience, only an affective, even automatic response can emerge.” Words are not for communication. Where the Italian Futurists heard expansion, the First World War poets heard collapse, and resonated with it.

From bodies in the trenches to our bodies ... and the ‘rationality’, especially in language, that the noisists wanted to break down or erase in the Zurich of Lenin and Joyce. Rational language was itself mere noise, or ‘nothing’. “Everyone dances to [their] own personal boomboom” wrote Tristan Zara in the 1918 Dada Manifesto. In the chapter on Dada Bruitism and the Body, the author describes how rhythm and performance emphasised the body and the event over permanent, rational text, mouth over thought in a very eclectic context. In Emmy Hennings’ wonderfully thin and “shrill” (sic: as it was described of course) anti-female-singer performances or in the essence, not the description, of a tramcar’s sounds and in the simultaneous uttering and roaring of poems by three or more people, noise and the body producing it render normal language, poetry, art and music part of the noisy whole, which Dada exposed and in ‘othering’ it, made it again all one noisy, rumbling radiator.

Then come the linking voyages of the syllable “da” from poetry towards song and then back to poetry with The Waste Land. Dada became a brand. But it already was one, a Swiss hair tonic. “Da” is of course a very rich sound with a host of meanings and connotations perhaps paradoxically pointing up its ubiquity as a parasitical nothingness, or an index of it. It must also have had different resonances with those familiar or not with the Slavic word for “yes”. Melillo uses the 1922 hit “That Da-Da Strain” by Mamie Medina and Edgar Dowell as a bridge from “nonsense song” to a Black breakaway from the confinements of white language. It’s not blues either, though in its own words the “writing of a freaky brain... cures all kinds of blues you got”, perhaps because it’s a celebration of joyful noise-making. There’s not a sad word in it. Insanity, craziness, lunacy and a reeling brain are seen as quite positive. Mamie Smith’s seminal recording is easily found online.

There follows a consideration of T. S. Eliot’s “DA”, the voice of drum or thunder though he was no fan of Dada. Melillo doesn’t let “Da” get away from its disruptive business, however and sheds new light on Eliot’s usage.

These first three chapters serve as a basis for the second half of the book, the more late- or post-modern context. Cage’s silence or embracing of all sound rather than Russolo’s Futurist “Art of Noises”. But both are in contrast to noise becoming everywhere, generated from everything anyway. The poets and musicians the author now considers employ, he asserts, the use of noise as containing its own resistance to noise, to itself. Frank Sinatra, McLuhan, Elvis and especially Charles Olson are adduced. Noise is not outside but in us and everywhere, dedifferentiated. In ‘Projective Versification, Sound Recording and Technologizing the Body, John Melillo writes of the intertwining of two different mid-century poetic projects: rock ’n’ roll and experimental verse. Both defamiliarise the emergence of poetry into time and space, as audio recordings which could become just part of the acoustic field, by emphasising the disruptive capacity of vocal distortions and tape or record artifacts. The noise gets important again as a resistance to “domestication”. Less responsible subjectivity, more an enveloping force. A musical or poetic space was not occupied by the usual stuff, but the screams and whines of guitars, the distortions of voice, made their own space. The whole book can seem, and why not, a celebration of the power of noise-as-resistance to make its own conditions and frameworks, not least for criticism. “The desire for noise”, writes the author, “is a desire to await something other than what we are”.

The penultimate chapter begins with Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, an hour of guitar feedback that Reed called “‘real’ rock about ‘real’ things”. Here again you get one of Melillo’s frequent use of antithesis verging on oxymoron that can however often be unpacked. The record produces “a figure of noises as a resistance to - and confirmation of” a demand for negative or positive reaction. He means that the “reality” is unstable, provisional, I suppose uncollapsed. You can have your noise-cake and reject it too. Over-egging is optional. Noise in New York in the 60s and 70s, the birth of punk at least there, produced “a new valuation of noise as a chaotic, fragile and temporary utopia”. The Fugs, “Fuck you” magazine and Patti Smith appear. The chapter ends with the Language School poet Robert Grenier’s refusal: “I HATE SPEECH”. From the First World War poets to punk and beyond, the various ideas of noise create and remake their own categories and definitions, their fluid and often contradictory “acoustemologies”. But the possibility of contradiction and dramatic reversals of what is in(side) and what is out(side) are the point, I think. Before, everyone “knew” what noise was and wasn’t. Now we see that it’s far less clear, and far richer, than that.

Finally, the author locates the preceding questions and examples in a series of artists’ sound experiments. The sound traces disappear, the power of the utterance is “dispossessed” and the sound of that dispossession - noise - produces a new aesthetic and conceptual force. “Listening to and writing noise uncovers not just forms of violence, exclusion, and loss but also other ways of articulating collectivity and other ways of knowing our environments, languages and lives.”

There are over 300 references and a pretty good index (though one might search it in vain for certain British phenomena such as Bob Cobbing the sound poet, or the notorious Portsmouth Sinfonia whose players, including your reviewer, succeeded in releasing the noisy unexpected from much loved classics) and dense as the book is, it’s a provocative inspiration to consider and reconsider what a holistic approach to noise and ‘noise’ might be.

The book is by no means a philosophy of sound, noise or sound/noise, but rather an exegesis and hermeneutics of sound-making work (which is what he considers poetry to be) and the important noise(s) thus revealed. It also contains a dose of exegesis' opposite eisegesis, a drawing-in rather than out, of deeply subjective, if zeitgeisty, opinion from certain areas of academia. That is not meant as derogatory, it’s just really interesting. This reviewer will think differently now of some of the sounds he and others make. The rest is/not noise.