Noise noise noise: making music, not war

As I write this blog I’m listening to Orlande De Lassus’ Penitential Psalms, played by the Hilliard Ensemble. Beautiful devotional sixteenth-century music which is pouring out of the hi-fi in my flat and … well, er, hang on a minute. You’re quite possibly already thinking - “What’s this pompous fool going on about? What do I care which supposedly impressive bit of classical music he’s listening to?”

And I don’t exactly blame you. Reading about people’s listening habits is often distinctly uninteresting. And hearing people rave about stuff like De Lassus, hmm …

Fine. Except, this passage from a letter in the Times the other day got me thinking: “In a world of endless noise, the special, rarefied, even spiritual atmosphere of a classical concert is its great asset.”

Isn’t that typical of how many people talk about “classical” music and understand it? If I write even a few words about De Lassus I risk coming across as pretentious or at least a certain kind of music lover - one who hates noise perhaps. (Never mind the fact that I recently picked up the De Lassus double-LP for the princely sum of £1 at a second-hand record sale. Along with a few singles by Jack Radics, Tippa Irie and Lee Perry, seeing as you ask …). According to the liner notes to the Hilliard Ensemble box set, the Penitential Psalms “form one of the great peaks of the world’s music” and who am I to disagree?

Except, I thoroughly enjoy noisy music as well, the noisier the better. Which is superior - the undeniable beauty and grandeur of (say) Bach’s Cantatas or the awe-inspiring grindcore histrionics of fellow German musicians Afterlife Kids? Answer: they’re both good. (I saw Afterlife Kids play the other day and can vouch for their power and intensity). No, this old-fashioned loud/quiet, turn-that-racket-down-I-can’t-hear-myself-think attitude is boring, redundant and misses the point. So-called classical music can be plenty loud, discordant and atonal, and some of the greatest so-called pop/rock music has an ethereal beauty that ought to have classicists swooning (think of obvious outfits like the Velvet Underground, the Cocteau Twins and Low, and less obvious ones like Felt, Herman Düne, David Thomas Broughton, Austin Leonard Jones or Chris Zabriskie; not to mention hundreds of reggae tunes, masses of delta blues, jazz, “spooked” country like Bonnie Prince Billy, and …blah blah blah). 

So, it’s never Beethoven or Buzzcocks, but always … well, both. It was nice, for instance, to hear the artist-director Steve McQueen on Desert Island Discs recently choosing Glenn Gould playing Bach as well as picking stuff by Tricky and the Specials. Similarly, it’s encouraging to read that Alex Ross, the author of an acclaimed study of 20th-century classical music (The Rest Is Noise), also appreciates the art-punk of Pere Ubu and Sonic Youth alongside Debussy and Ligeti. And again it’s good that Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood (£) is apparently able to compose classical music that’s not summarily dismissed by reviewers as inferior because it’s from a “pop musician”.

Anyway, that’s my basic pitch: classical music is just good music (when it’s good), much like dub reggae or The Fall’s Hex Enduction Hour is good music (the Fall LP actually features a song called The Classical so … I must be right). And leaving aside its stuffed-shirt image, classical music obviously exists outside the pages of Gramophone magazine and the Barbican concert hall. Take Omar Sa’ad, the Druze viola player from northern Israel. An 18-year-old conscientious objector who’s served seven separate prison terms for refusing to fight in the Israeli army (“How could I carry a gun rather than my viola?” is how he puts it), Sa’ad’s is a lively example of how classical music can also be protest music (check out his short ongoing tour as part of the Galilee Quartet).

“The rest is silence”, Hamlet famously says before his death near the end of Shakespeare’s play, and though the aggrieved correspondent to the Times would like to oppose classical music and “noise”, I think they’re part of the same thing, music. Instead, it’s silence and death that’s the opposite of music. Shortly before his final words, Hamlet asks “What warlike noise is this”? Death and destruction in Gaza perhaps.

So give me the extreme noise pleasure of screamo or breakcore rather than the screech and whine of mortar shells or drone-launched missiles any day. And … please! Let me listen to my £1 copy of De Lassus in peace!

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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