Dissonance, Sex and Noise:
(Re)Building (Hi)Stories of Electroacoustic Music

Miguel Álvarez Fernández



This article presents a reflection on some ideological problems that surround the creation of a history of electroacoustic music. The analysis of the role and evolution of a musical concept through the history of a musical tradition can show the strategies used in the creation of a historical narration. As an example of these rhetorical devices, the article briefly tracks the presence of dissonance and noise in diverse musical traditions through the last century. Thus, two parallel historical narrations are presented. Some apparent differences between them are questioned when the concepts of dissonance and noise are regarded as 'the other' for each respective musical tradition. An analogy connecting music and sex (as different ways for contacting 'the other') is also discussed. The concept of 'the other', standing for what is and must be usually hidden and repressed, works as a limit for the identity of any ideological construction, including the Western subject. The analysis of 'the other' and how it is repressed or emancipated can therefore reveal important aspects of the identity of a musical tradition.


Thinking about the history of electroacoustic music demands the definitions of the concepts of history and electroacoustic music. The former would exceed the purposes of this article, but some reflections on this issue will be pointed out. Regarding the latter, such a definition involves not only an idea of technology but also (and as far as we do not include this into the concept of technology) an aesthetical approach to music. Then by analysing the history of each of these ideas about technology [1], or the history of each of these aesthetical approaches to music, we can find different histories of electroacoustic music.
It is possible to trace one history of electroacoustic music through the analysis of the role played by dissonance in its development. We can also use the concept of noise as a guide through the evolution of the music that makes use of electroacoustic technologies. Two different histories may appear, with their own different pasts. And from each of these pasts, we may be able to foresee even more diverse futures.


One of these histories roots itself in the middle of the last century, with its center at the WDR studios in Cologne. Names such as Robert Beyer, Herbert Eimert, Werner Meyer-Eppler or Karlheinz Stockhausen appear at the beginning of this history. Of course, we could track at least part of its origins in Paris during the previous years, but that period can be also thought of as only the preparation of what was going to be born in Germany some time later.

Part of this history of electroacoustic music, as it was explained before, is constituted by the history of the aesthetical approach to music present in the work of the aforementioned. This particular approach is strongly associated to serialism, and we can find a very good testimony of the close relationship between serialist thought and these early electroacoustic practices in the first number of die Reihe journal [2].

Serialism was not only an aesthetical approach to electroacoustic music. It had begun in the domain of what we could name today as composition with 'traditional' instruments. Since 1948, it had its center at the Summer Courses of Darmstadt (where most of the authors mentioned before met each other), and it nurtured many instrumental pieces and musical thoughts.

There is one aspect of the serialist approach to composition, and to music in general, that gains special importance for the purposes of this article. It has to do with the relationship between new music and history. For the most representative composers of this movement, new music was somehow detached from history. The serial procedures permitted one to compose following completely different rules than the ones that constituted tonality (which, by the way, could only be considered as a system after the appearance of serialism). And tonality was, according to this history, the core of the Western classical tradition. From this point of view, serial music could be easily seen as something "out of history" or, if we prefer, a new "zero point" in history.

From our growing historical perspective we cannot avoid questioning these ideas. Strong connections bind the serial approach to music with previous musical practices. Serialism, through its extreme interpretation of some aspects of Webern's work, not only inherited many ideas about music from the Second Viennese School, but also many elements that Webern, Berg and Schoenberg themselves had received from their tradition. Between these assumptions we can underline, for example, a strong influence of the idea of absolute music [3], or a characteristic understanding of the idea of progress in art.

The idea of progress involved in the notion of music that these first electroacoustic composers took over was closely associated with the concept of dissonance, as it has been developed by Adorno [4]. According to him, what modern music offers is not sensuous pleasure but dissonance, caused by the convergence of the immanent dynamic of art and the external reality, or by the inclusion of the non-integratable in the process of artistic integration. For Adorno and for his musical tradition, dissonance, as an expression of negativity, plays the role of 'the other'. It represents the empirical 'other', strange to the concept of (absolute) music. Modern music, to avoid being fetishized, constantly negates its artistic confine and maintains the mobility between itself and this empirical 'other'.

Dissonance was 'the other' for classical Western music, and so it was for the electroacoustic music that, as we have seen, followed a particular branch of that tradition. This process took place in a historical moment when dissonance was already 'emancipated', but this fact did not affect dissonance's important role. The dialectic relationship between consonance and dissonance inherited by the serial music composed for traditional instruments was merely transposed to the music composed with electronic media.

The decades that followed the appearance of this new music constitute a period that, borrowing the expression from Georgina Born, we could designate as "the institutionalization of the musical avant-garde". The main aspects of the musical thought in question extended, during the second half of the last century, to some of the most important centers of music education and research in Europe and the United States [5].

As a result, the value of dissonance as 'the other' in the growing context of electroacoustic post-serial music was strongly diminished, as Adorno himself pointed out [6]. This phenomenon could be understood as an intrinsic transformation operated in this particular musical tendency, or as the result of a general historical process. Following the second, adornian interpretation, this process would have increased 'culture industry's' capacity for making us understand everything (including 'the other' in the form of dissonance) as a commodity.

3. SEX

Music (and art in general) can be regarded as a medium between ourselves and 'the other' (or, if we prefer, 'our other'). Sex can also be considered, in a similar way, as another access to 'the other' or 'our other'. This 'other' perhaps has found its best conceptualization through the Freudian notions of unconscious and subconscious, and it is remarkable that these ideas were born in the same Vienna-fin-de-siècle where Schoenberg radically transformed the concept of dissonance.

Following this conception, both in sex and music 'the other' would represent what is and must remain hidden, unknown and alien to our world, to ourselves. And in both cases our different ways to approach to 'the other' evoke words like repression, domination or tolerance [7]. Coming back to Freud, this 'other' can always reveal itself through the error, the lapsus. Searching for what 'error' means in the context of a specific musical practice can thus help to uncover this music's 'other'.

It is even possible to establish an analogy about how changes in our conception of 'the other' tend to happen in the domains of sex and music. In this regard, we can remember how Spanish composer Agustín González Acilu (born in 1929) describes the transformation that his sensibility experimented when his traditional music background (deeply rooted in tonality) was firstly confronted to the composition of atonal music. He describes this process as a change in his "auditory morals" ("moral auditiva") [8], and compares his increasing tolerance to the phenomenon of dissonance with the acceptance that Spanish society was meanwhile beginning to show for the bikini swimsuit. It is also interesting to note the strong presence of the idea of progress both in the thought of the musicians that expanded the concept of dissonance and in the social acceptance of different sexual behaviours (usually regarded as a matter of 'social progress').


Tracking the presence of noise in different musical manifestations could lead us to another possible history of electroacoustic music. Again, the starting point of this history is movable, though the beginning of the last century seems like a good possibility. Parallel to the conception of Schoenberg's musical revolution, some of the earliest electroacoustic devices (such as radio, phonographs or the first technical attempts of introducing sound in cinema) started to spread. Many composers (dissonant or not!) remained deaf to the implications of these new technologies on the ideas of sound and music, but for many artists (not necessarily musicians) they represented a turning point in the histories of sound and music.

The concept of noise was specially affected by the artistic use of these technologies. Maybe we could borrow the idea of 'emancipation' in order to describe what happened to noise through the work of the Futurists (mainly after Russolo's 'Art of Noises'), or composers like Varèse or Cowell. But the presence of noise in music does not describe a straight line (like the one that the history of dissonance tended to draw). Its evolution not only passes through the names of composers, but it also crosses the work of (sound) poets and inventors (as Schoenberg would define John Cage). Noise occupies as well a very important place in the field of popular music, through its different shapes (blues, jazz, rock & roll, rock…), each one of them presenting a more or less direct connection with the classical Western musical tradition.

In the last decades, and thanks to the increasing access to computer technology and audio production tools, new forms of popular music (such as techno, house, ambient…) have appeared. It is difficult to find many features shared by all these different forms of music, but we can affirm that dissonance has not played the same role in them as it did in the tradition of Western classical music. In a certain way, noise substituted dissonance in its relationship with music. And, from this point of view, the tolerance to dissonance that contemporary classical music has progressively developed would be comparable to the increasing acceptance of distorted guitars and grainy voices [9] showed by popular music.

This phenomenon is especially clear in some forms of popular music that have built an aesthetic approach from their link with noise. Glitch, post-digital, or simply noise are some terms coined for practices and styles of music that use a technology inherited from what was used in Cologne during the fifties. And, as Kim Cascone expressed in a well known article devoted to the "Aesthetics of Failure", "(…) more specifically, it is from the 'failure' of digital technology that this new work has emerged: glitches, bugs, application errors, system crashes, clipping, aliasing, distortion, quantization noise, and even the noise floor of computer sound cards are the raw materials composers seek to incorporate into their music" [10]. While in Western classical music the error produced dissonance, in post-digital music the error generates noise.

The error, the musical lapsus, is a common way for 'the other' to emerge. And noise appears as 'the other' all through the history of these musical practices. Following Freud's theories, the lapsus linguae can guide us to the unconscious [11]. Masami Akita, an artist whose background comes mainly from popular music, expresses his view about the relationship between music and noise in a brief sentence: "Noise is the unconsciousness [sic] of music" [12].

As it was shown before, some strategies of approaching 'the other' are shared by sex (understood as a Western cultural production) and the musical tradition that takes dissonance as its 'other'. But we can find very similar means for referring to 'the other' through the history that tracks the presence of noise in music. Henry Cowell evokes in these words a common strategy, repression: "Although existing in all music, the noise-element has been to music as sex to humanity, essential to its existence, but impolite to mention" [13].

Repression is a characteristic way of approaching 'the other' in our culture. As Jacques Attali wrote, "Not an essential myth which does not call upon the musician as a protection against the noise, perceived everywhere as a threat from which it is necessary to be protected. Not a myth which does not describe the music like the shaping, the domestication, the ritualisation of the noise (…)" [14]. Even the visionary Russolo, in his "Art of noises", shows his desire of disciplining noises, assigning pitches to them and, by so, making them fit into a norm: "We want to give pitches to these diverse noises, regulating them harmonically and rhythmically" [15]. Murray Schafer also tells us about the repressive attitude of our musical tradition when he writes that "Noises are the sounds we have learned to ignore" [16].

As another example, the desire for reaching newer limits or extreme aspects of 'the other' can also be found in different sexual and musical practices. In the interview quoted before, Akita refers to Merzbow (his own recording name) in the following terms: "If music was sex, Merzbow would be pornography" [17]. Pornography, by showing what is usually hidden, represents a form of transgression. In this sense, its evolution can be described as a constant search for new limits, a conquest of uncharted territories. These are not very different goals than the ones pursued in the works of Merzbow, nor in Schoenberg's compositions.


'The other' always represents a focus for our fears and a menace to our identity. Being one of the limits of this identity, 'the other' is indispensable in order to define it (the Latin word definire reveals this aspect). We can therefore define a musical tradition by describing its 'other'. Concepts such as dissonance or noise have played this role in different Western musical practices. An analysis of the different strategies implied in the relationships between these traditions and their 'others' shows similarities that transcend categories like high/low culture and help to redefine concepts such as 'progress', 'emancipation' or 'transgression'.

These different ways of approaching 'the other' not only appear in different musical traditions, but also in other cultural productions like our conceptions about sex. Probably repression is the most common mechanism that mediates between us and our 'other', just like between a musical tradition an its 'other.' From this point of view, when this ordinary practice of repression fails, in the form of an error, 'the other' appears. So the concept of error can be useful to distinguish which elements are considered manifestations of 'the other' for a particular subject or tradition.

Dissonance and noise have been constantly repressed and expressed through processes that constitute the histories of two different musical traditions. It is possible to identify in both traditions moments in which 'the other' is not repressed but integrated. This process of integration normally implies depriving 'the other' of all its particularities, or annihilating all the conditions of possibility for 'the other' to exist.

As a result of such a process, dissonance stops being 'dissonant' (as happens in serial music), and noise cannot be 'noisy' anymore (as is clear when listening to some of the new musical styles mentioned before). This may be understood as a possible end for the different histories previously presented, or as a starting point for new histories that wait to be told.


[1] As Jonathan Sterne does in The Audible Past. Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction. Duke University Press, Durham, 2003.
[2] Eimert, H., Boulez, P., Stockhausen, K., Meyer-Eppler, W. and others, die Reihe, I (English version), Theodor Presser, London, 1958.
[3] Cf. Dahlhaus, C. La idea de la música absoluta (translation by Ramón Barce), Idea Books, Barcelona, 1999.
[4] And discussed in Álvarez Fernández, M. "Disonancia y emancipación: comodidad en/de algunas estéticas musicales del siglo XX", available at http://www.tallersonoro.com/espaciosonoro/04/Articulo1.htm.
[5] Remarkable manifestations of these issues can be found in Born, G. Rationalizing Culture. IRCAM, Boulez and the Institutionalization of the Musical Avant-Garde. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1995, and Holztman, S. Digital Mantras. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA., 1994, the latter representing a great summary of the implications of structuralism in electroacoustic music. Maybe we can also observe this phenomenon as an inheritance from the desires expressed by Schoenberg when declaring that his discovery of the twelve-tone composition method would "ensure the supremacy of German music for the next hundred years" (cf. Stuckenschmidt, H. H. Schönberg. Vida, contexto, obra. Alianza, Madrid, 1991, p. 234).
[6] Cf. Stockhausen, K. and R. Maconie Stockhausen on Music. Marion Boyars, London - New York, 1989, p. 36.
[7] Tolerance, as a concept that we can only apply to 'the other', can be understood as just the other side of the same coin represented by repression or domination.
[8] Cureses, M. Agustín González Acilu. La estética de la tensión. ICCMU, Madrid, 2001, p. 42.
[9] The reference to Barthes and the genotext also appears in Reynolds, S. "Noise", in Audio Culture. Readings in Modern Music (C. Cox and D. Warner, eds.), pp. 55-58. Continuum, New York, 2004, p. 58: "Maybe we should listen out for the noise in the voices of Kristin Hersh, Tim Buckley, Prince, Michael Jackson".
[10] Cascone, Kim "The Aesthetics of Failure: 'Post-Digital' Tendencies in Contemporary Computer Music", Computer Music Journal, vol. 24, no. 4, pp. 12-18, Winter 2000, p. 13.
[11] Freud, S. Psychopathology of Everyday Life W. W. Norton, New York, 1989.
[12] Akita, M., "The Beauty of Noise: An Interview with Masami Akita of Merzbow", in Audio Culture. Readings in Modern Music (C. Cox and D. Warner, eds.), pp. 59-61. Continuum, New York, 2004, p. 60.
[13] Cowell, H. "The Joys of Noise", in Audio Culture. Readings in Modern Music (C. Cox and D. Warner, eds.), pp. 22- 24 Continuum, New York, 2004, p. 23.
[14] Attali, J. Bruits. Fayard, Paris, 2001, p. 28.
[15] Russolo, L. L'Arte dei rumori. Edizioni Futuriste di "Poesia", Milano, 1916, p. 14.
[16] Schafer, R. M. The Soundscape. Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World. Destiny Books, Rochester 1994, p. 4.
[17] Cf. Akita, M., "The Beauty of Noise: An Interview with Masami Akita of Merzbow", in Audio Culture. Readings in Modern Music (C. Cox and D. Warner, eds.), pp. 59-61. Continuum, New York, 2004, p. 60.



This paper has been previously published in the Proceedings of the International Computer Music Conference, ICMC 2005, Barcelona, Spain, September 5-9 2005. 



Miguel Álvarez Fernández (Madrid, Spain, 1979) is a composer, musicologist and curator of sound art projects. He studied composition at the San Lorenzo de El Escorial's Conservatory, and musicology at the Universidad de Oviedo (Spain), where he is currently a Ph.D. candidate under the supervision of Dra. Marta Cureses. His dissertation concerns the connections between voice and electroacoustic media. He also holds a degree in Law, obtained from the Universidad Complutense, Madrid. His compositions and sound installations have been presented in different concerts and festivals in Spain, France and Germany. Between 2002 and 2005 he was composer in residence at the Residencia de Estudiantes Foundation (Madrid). In 2005 he curated, in collaboration wih María Bella, the public art project 'Itinerarios del sonido' . Currently he lives between Madrid and Berlin, where he develops, together with a group of artists, scientists and designers, a series of sound installations called 'DissoNoiSex', devoted to the artistic exploration of some issues presented in this article. For more information, please visit www.miguelalvarez.es.tt.











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