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Exile as Noise — Noise as Exile

To be in exile to be displaced from one’s country of origin and upbringing to be an immigrant — the experience of over 185 million people in the world, on a conservative estimate — is a wrench perhaps comparable in impact to that of war, long-term hunger or imprisonment.

For me to be in exile, to be an immigrant is like being NOISE in musical context.

Instead of a person creatively carrying over meanings, across accepted borders of sense, a person is here bodily pushed over borders by forces beyond his or her control.

In NOISE MUSIC performances aural elements are sprinting toward each other from opposite far ends of the aural space and are colliding in a direct, violent impact. This sound of crashing aural elements is NOISE MUSIC. While sound connotes nothing more than the sense-data of hearing, NOISE MUSIC, from the Latin nausea, suggests an unpleasant disturbance, confusion, or interference baldly lacking any musical quality and that in sociological terms for me is EXILE.

Creating this sense of feeling alien and out of place, a widespread unease sometimes deepening into despair, is built-in the experience of modernity. Marx, found the root of alienation in the labour process. The acute critic of the first modern mass democracy, Thoreau, postulated that most people live lives of quiet desperation, but the sentiment is most often articulated by and about intellectuals, from Nietzsche to Sartre to Said.

NOISE MUSIC generates straightaway auditory disturbance, panic and fear, we hear something like the squeal of a dentist’s suction straw, the collision of helicopters, or the thermonuclear roar of the sun’s core. It sounds as if the machines of music have begun to digest the earth, and we listen to the garbage disposal run as nature is ground in technology’s gizzard. And this fear is similar to the usual reaction to the “other”, to the immigrant.

“The metaphor, ‘all modern thinkers are exiles’, might tend rather to conceal the brute fact of bodies not only psychically but physically in exile, and the new ways of feeling, thinking, and living that this brings; to elide the experience of working and downtrodden people. The metaphor is of Jewish/Christian origin, evoking the expulsion from Eden; but “what is truly horrendous: that exile is irremediably secular and unbearably historical; that it is produced by human beings for other human beings” (Said 1984a, 160).

One cannot listen to an entire composition without suffering effects: muscles twitch, nerves fray, the heart races, and cognition hits a wall. Unlike artists who pride themselves on rupturing ear drums with low frequencies at high volumes, or who induce fear and disgust through extended samples of a rape beneath viscous hardcore NOISE MUSIC is not attacking our physical or moral limits. Instead, it presents the simple horror of extreme complexity. Here music is sacrificed to the art of aural agitation.

“Most people are principally aware of one culture, one setting, one home; exiles are aware of at least two, and this plurality of vision gives rise to an awareness of simultaneous dimensions, an awareness that — to borrow a phrase from music — is contrapuntal. For an exile, habits of life, expression, or activity in the new environment inevitably occur against the memory of these things in another environment. Thus both the new and the old environment are vivid, actual, occurring together contrapuntally. ... There is a unique pleasure in this sort of apprehension” (Said 1984b, 35).

How can we make sense of this situation? Why must music now risk its own identity in order to strike a critical chord with its culture? What social and æsthetic forces are at work behind the back of this seemingly anti-social and anti-æsthetic phenomenon? Does the “unlistenability” of NOISE MUSIC mark a kinship with the now distant and inaudible shock of the avant-garde music? Is dissonance even possible in our age, and what does dissonance, in its achievement or failure, press us to confront? Just as the music of Jimi Hendrix and the Sex Pistols that once resembled alternative forms of life now find homes in soft-drink and car commercials, will these unbearable NOISE MUSIC also take root in the status quo? Have they already?

“The pattern that sets the course for the intellectual as outsider is best exemplified by the condition of exile, the state of never being fully adjusted, always feeling outside the chatty, familiar world inhabited by natives … Exile for the intellectual in this metaphysical sense is restlessness, movement, constantly being unsettled, and unsettling others. You cannot go back to some earlier and perhaps more stable condition of being at home; and, alas, you can never fully arrive, be at one in your new home or situation” (Said 1994, 39).

NOISE MUSIC could only become meaningful and articulate at a time when thought and language have become somehow inarticulate. As T.W. Adorno stipulates, we live in an abstract and instrumental world, where each object we encounter holds meaning only as 1) a representative of the class to which it belongs and 2) a tool for our use. Much of the veracity of Adorno’s theory of art lies in its ability to explain the cultural tension played out in the conflicting responses to NOISE MUSIC.

“The exile knows that in a secular and contingent world, homes are always provisional. Borders and barriers, which enclose us within the safety of familiar territory, can also become prisons, and are often defended beyond reason or necessity. Exiles cross borders, break barriers of thought and experience” (Said 1984a, 170).

As soon as we encounter NOISE MUSIC, we are engaged in a struggle to make some sense of what we hear. Unable to categorize the stimulus within any known musical genre, incapable of interpreting or recognizing sounds, and generally bereft of aesthetic orientation, the work commands our full attention. With our ear tuned and focused to hunt out some structure and reason in the work, micrologics emerge, and like Schoenberg and Berg’s rigid expressionistic compositions under the twelve tone system, the work’s elaborate and exact structure is not readily apparent. Sometimes NOISE MUSIC breaks for a few seconds, as if the blinds to the horror were closed for a moment, to reveal the tinkling of wind chimes. Like the vertical zips in Barnett Newman’s otherwise monochrome paintings that mark the very origins of the universe, such a quiet landmark amidst this otherwise undifferentiated sonic topography becomes a potential site for infinite meaning. We’re intrigued: if there’s some form, there must be more. Reconciliation, it would seem, must follow somewhere in the wake of structure.

The metaphor of intellectual as exile remains highly ambiguous. On the one hand, the chosen identity of outsider suggests a welcome break with conformity: ‘to stand away from “home” in order to look at it with the exile’s “detachment” is a particular instance of what Brecht calls the “estrangement effect”, of seeing all as strange unless sanctioned by reasoned values. This involves seeing things not simply as they are, but “as they have come to be that way: contingent, not inevitable … the result of a series of historical choices made by human beings.” And indeed Said’s insistence that by a creative use of displaced personhood the intellectual can become a well-informed critic in the borderlands between the poorer and richer sections of the world, on “both sides of the imperial divide”, seems to me rather Brechtian and right. In that case, forced displacement becomes “a model for the intellectual who is tempted, and even beset and overwhelmed, by the rewards of accommodation, yea-saying, settling in.” (Said 1984a, 170; 1993b; 1993a, xxvii)

The most disturbing aspect of NOISE MUSIC must be its technical perfection. Despite the prima facie appearance of chaos, NOISE MUSIC abides by the strictest ordering principles. When a NOISE MUSIC fragment takes hold of musical form or trope, they are compulsively consistent. With the amplifiers’ whole power and register NOISE MUSIC pieces fit together like a massive mechanical contraption that does not accomplish anything. “We have an exactly calculated and efficient piece serving no end, and thus we see the image of modern life: the increasing efficiency of instrumental rationality without a meaningful end in sight.” Thus NOISE MUSIC exemplify Thoreau’s description of the industrial revolution as “an improved means to an unimproved end (Thoreau).

“Exile, far from being the fate of nearly forgotten unfortunates … becomes something closer to a norm, an experience of crossing boundaries and charting new territories in defiance of the classical canonic enclosures, however much its loss and sadness should be acknowledged and registered” (Said 1993a, 317).

Our attention funnels into the work’s singular moments, and once we realize the NOISE MUSIC is not here to fulfill a macro-structural objective, it becomes something that is an end-in-itself. Instead of singular NOISE existing for the abstract achievements of the whole, the whole is composed to throw us back onto the horns of the NOISE. Now quite unlike Beethoven, whose dissonance always serves a higher abstract order, here the very material of composition steals the show. The singular, particular, and visceral NOISE fully consumes us. Every NOISE in the music takes on a specific meaning, and no clear hierarchy exists between them. Each NOISE in the music, just as each of Adorno’s sentences in Aesthetic Theory, is equally close to the center. Yet equality does not slip into interchangeability, for each NOISE in the music remains painfully particular. Thus we find a possible exemption to Adorno’s claim that the “history of music at least since Haydn is the history of fungibility: that nothing is in-itself and that everything is only in relation to the whole.”

“Liberation as an intellectual mission, born in the resistance and opposition to the confinements and ravages of imperialism, has now shifted from the settled, established, and domesticated dynamics of culture to its unhoused, decentered, and exilic energies, energies whose incarnation is today the migrant, and whose consciousness is that of the intellectual and the artist in exile, the political figure between domains, between forms, between homes, and between languages” (ibid, 332–3).

The “critical power of art” (in this case NOISE MUSIC) is a somatic experience that “hits you in the gut” and “resists predatory reason, precisely because it can’t be stomached, gobbled up by the mind. … If experience leaves a non-digestible residue that won’t go away, … that is food for critical cognition.” (Buck-Morss, 38).

“Those who find their homeland sweet are still tender beginners; those to whom every soil is as their native one are already strong; but those who are perfect are the ones to whom the entire world is as a foreign land” (Hugo of St. Victor 1097–1141).

“Philosophy says what art cannot say, although it is art alone which is able to say it; by not saying it.” (Adorno, 244; see also Bernstein, 244).


Adorno, Theodor. Aesthetic Theory. Trans. C. Lenhardt. London: Routledge, 1984.

Bernstein, J.M. The Fate of Art: Aesthetic Alienation from Kant to Derrida and Adorno. Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991.

Buck-Morss, Susan. “Aesthetics After the End of Art: Interview with Grant Kester.” Art Journal 56 (1997).

Said, Edward. “Reflections on Exile.” Granta 13 (1984). Reprinted in Reflections on Exile and Other Essays (Cambridge, MA), 2000.

_____. “The Mind of Winter: Reflections on Life in Exile,” Harper’s Magazine 269 (September, 1984), pp. 49–55.

_____. Culture and Imperialism. New York, 1993.

_____. “Intellectual Exile: Expatriates and Marginals.” Grand Street 12.3 (1993), pp. 122–4.

_____. Representations of the Intellectual: The 1993 Reith Lectures. New York: Pantheon Books, 1994.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. Boston: Beacon Press, 1997.

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