November 28, 2016

Noise as a Maker Practice

By Guest Author Peter J. Woods, doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and recent Project Zero Artist-in-Residence

In a former life, I spent a number of years working as a high school math teacher during the day and as a touring noise musician during the weekends, winter breaks, and summers. Amidst these travels, I started to notice that the communities of do-it-yourself (DIY) musicians I worked with accomplished a number of goals I held as a teacher: cultivating a wide array of music skills and knowledge, building character, and, most prominently, developing agency (what the Agency by Design project describes as the benefits associated with maker-centered learning). I started to wonder “what was it about DIY music communities generally, and noise music specifically, that led to these outcomes? And how can existing arts programs utilize these affordances?” Attempting to answer these questions occupied my time as a Project Zero Artist-in-Residence where I used the Agency by Design framework for maker-centered learning as a springboard for my work.

Now before going any further, I should probably describe noise music. After countless circular conversations, I have found that the best way to explain noise to those who have not heard the genre is to just have people listen to it. So go ahead and give it a listen by clicking here.

The video you just watched shows Merzbow, one of the first and most prolific artists in the genre, performing live in his home country of Japan. A couple of questions may emerge after hearing this type of music for the first time, such as “Why would anyone want to listen to this?” and “Why did AbD put this on their blog?” While I may not be able to sufficiently answer the first question for everyone, an answer to the second one reveals itself when viewing noise music through a maker lens.

From a maker-centered perspective, noise music may be viewed as a maker-friendly arts genre because of its disregard for traditional instrumentation and musical elements such as melody or rhythm. Specifically, because noise compositions do not necessitate specific notes or rhythms, the definition of what counts as a “playable” instrument widens significantly. A quick tour through Instructables provides a plethora of ways to create the tools used to create noise. Contact Mics, Circuit Bending, Homemade Synthesizers, and a host of other noise-making devices make appearances on the site. And while some noise musicians do occasionally use familiar instruments to create noise, they inevitably utilize highly inventive techniques in their practice. Or, avoiding all of this, an artist can always just grab stuff from around the house.

But even going beyond the genre’s inclusive approach to instrumentation, noise also invites performers to conceptualize music with a maker-centered attitude. Looking closely at Agency by Design’s definition of Maker Empowerment for guidance, a peculiar idea emerges: maker empowerment does not necessarily have to come from making something. Sure, “building, tinkering, re/designing, [and] hacking” are all prevalent within makerspaces and easily accomplished through the creation of physical and digital artifacts, but there are also ways to do all of these thing within abstract systems and ethereal concepts.

Crank Sturgeon performing with what appears to be a violin, two rocks, a mixer, and amplified table. (Photo by Klaus-Peter. Image used with permission.)

Crank Sturgeon performing with what appears to be a violin, two rocks, a mixer, and amplified table. (Photo by Klaus-Peter. Image used with permission.)

Consider this piece by PCRV (aka Matt Taggart). In this performance, Taggart hacks foundational understandings of composition (the piece ends when a buzzer goes off, not when all of the notes are played), redesigns the role of the performing artist (Taggart is here to accomplish a specific task with its own intrinsic goal, not “perform” for the audience), and tinker with what qualifies as “playing music” (the majority of the sound coming residually from the folding of origami boxes as opposed to intentional, sound making gestures). All of this within one piece.

This expanded approach to making begs the question: what comes next? Which other artistic mediums allow for making in the abstract? How can educators allow for tinkering and redesigning of systems and concepts in other subjects? And what does the landscape look like after makers act on their “inclination and capacity to shape one’s world?”

So why did AbD put this on their blog? While I can’t speak for the Agency by Design research team, I can take a guess. In their article “The Maker Movement in Education,” Erica Halverson and Kim Sheridan note that “making can… challenge our understanding of what counts as a legitimate learning activity” while certain practices within the maker movement broaden “our understanding of what counts as making.” Expanding the horizon of both maker practices and legitimate learning activities means that educators, both formal and informal, have access to a growing selection of tools to engage a wider spectrum of learners. However, realizing the full potential of this work means exploring as many avenues as possible, including those that seem a bit bizarre. In their forthcoming book, the Agency by Design research team likewise present an expansive view of making “to develop the most porous boundaries possible” when considering what counts as “making,” and to be most inclusive of all those who may be considered makers.

Look around you and think about the practices you engage in. Where are the boundaries you can challenge? And where will you find the next untapped maker experience?

Peter J. Woods is a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a recent Project Zero Artist-in-Residence. Outside of his academic work, Woods is a touring DIY musician and head of the FTAM Productions record label.

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