The No-Age of Music

Jason Gibbs

Even for practitioners of No-Age Music, it is difficult to get a handle on what the genre is about. One obvious angle is that it is what 'no wave' is to 'new wave' -- an industrial strength counterpart to new age. This leads to another difficulty: ascertaining what 'new age' music is. One resonant evocation of this musical genre appeared in the Doonesbury comic strip. In one vignette the character 'Boopsie,' a woman who obviously enjoys this music, vacuously describes a relaxing, warm bath of soothing sounds -- a pleasant, enveloping sound-environment without too many distracting details. In another installment of the cartoon, two characters are having a conversation. One of the characters, asking what new age music is, receives the unexpected response that he has been listening to it for quite some time during the course of their conversation. The listener is not even aware that there is any music at all -- only a sort of sonic wallpaper, or 'furniture music.'

The no-age analogy to a warm bath must be a cold shower or even a water cannon. 'Furniture music' by now has a checkered past, beginning with Eric Satie's original conception, continuing with John Cage's silent composition (4'33''), and championed relatively recently by Brian Eno in his 'ambient' works (music accepted happily by many into the new age canon). A no-age musician views Cage's approach most sympathetically. For Cage silences are valued not for their lack of sound, but for the sounds they reveal. Silence does not actually exist, there is always some sound -- if nothing else the functioning of the human body's neural and circulatory system. He stresses acceptance of the beauty of the purposeless of our surroundings. New age environmental recordings of nature run counter to this Cageian notion. They present a romanticization of the environment - the sea (gulls and surf), the jungle, forest birdies and waterfalls, all untouched by civilization. One of the great fallacies of western culture is the belief that society is somehow set outside of nature. In reality most soundscapes are touched by man and technology - first, by the mere presence of a sound engineer with a microphone, but more directly through the ever-present sounds of machines and amplification. In the privacy and solitude of the most remote spaces the listener will usually hear traces of human machinery -- the sound of cars on a rural road several miles away or of an airplane overhead. Late at night in any populated area, while the decibel level is substantially lower, the sounds of far-off cars, and air conditioners still produce a hum to drown out the ringing in our ears.

The no-age is concerned with a rendering of this environment -- the noises of both "nature" and technology. These sounds are often available as sound effects (a different, but curiously direct subterfuge of the actual environmental soundspace) -- and the ever-present beat and babble of the 'consciousness industry.' The admittedly broad aim of no-age music is the exploration of the sonic profile of the world's sounding objects, both real and fantastic. In no-age music, the interrelationship of both natural and 'unnatural' sounds is stressed with an emphasis upon the disquieting results of this juxtaposition.

Steve Knopoff and I began collaborating in the fall of 1986, producing at first a number of instrumental duets (for our principal instruments, trombone and bassoon respectively). These pieces are non-thematic and predominantly improvisational. Each stake out a single sonic scenario. The result is a fluctuating interrelation of our individual parts; in each duet we each play a single role that interacts with the counterpart's role. This way of thinking begins with the realization that what is conveyed by an instrument is the quality of its sound, style, or phrasing, irrespective of the particular musical details that it may be playing. Our subsequent explorations are concerned with finding ways of improvising interactively and with the creation of a context for this activity. We have attempted, rather than be concerned with the development of thematic, or harmonic organization, to explore the acoustic potentialities of our instruments (through timbral variation, physical deconstruction, multiphonics etc.)

Working in this manner, we found ourselves only performing comparatively short, direct compositions. In developing extended musical forms, rather than stretch out single musical ideas, we lengthened our collaborative compositions through the creation of aural scenarios: sonic contexts framed by prerecorded sounds of various kinds. Our first extended work, Music in American Life: Theory and Critique, was a multi-media presentation utilizing video, slides, live electronics, and tapes. One frequent use of the tape-recorded sounds was to create aural illusions. For instance, this composition opened with a recording of a crowd milling about at a concert intermission (this piece opened the second half of a concert). At other times, we performed alongside recordings of ourselves in order to obscure the relation between the live and prerecorded sound making the origin of the music unclear. In the final sequence of the piece, the microphone levels for instruments were gradually increased as our playing faded away amplifying the resonances of the room while the sounds of our instruments fade away.

Our next extended work Music in American Life: Music in the Workplace was more allegorical, taking as its point of departure a variety of connections between 'music' and 'work', i.e., the musical work, music as work, and music for work, or even music for working out -- peppy arrangements of contemporary pop fare juxtaposed with the sounds of exercise equipment. The most developed program of background music for the workplace is muzak, a commercial enterprise based upon the presumed ability of music to effect the listener's emotional level, thus increasing the productivity or consumption of the worker or shopper, respectively. The music should be cheerful, not interesting enough to demand attention, and usually uses instrumental tracks since words are too distracting. In the workplace, these selections are arranged across the work day in varying levels of intensity according to the 'stimulus response curve' that counteracts worker fatigue or restlessness and helps increase production and profits.

Throughout Music in the Workplace, there are muzak selections (sometimes several at once) organized according to a simulated stimulus response curve. We achieve our intensity by manipulating our aural wallpaper. The high point on the curve we referred to as the 'industrial' section (another expression of the workplace) where we tangled together distorted muzak and factory sounds. The concept of music as work was illustrated through sounds of Steve and I playing etudes and scales -- the work of concert musicians -- and through the use of the sounds of musical instruction (through a tedious sound effect recording of piano lessons) and of repetitive musical figures to connote the repetitiveness of a work routine (a musical assembly line). Throughout this performance we projected images, on slides, of work and of workers as well as of imagery of nature and leisure depicting the lurking potential for escape from the quotidian that background music offers but cannot accomplish. Other prerecorded work imagery includes dentist office sounds (muzak is a frequent inhabitant of the dentist office) and of sounds of a number of work settings (ranging from factories to computers).

The most recent Gibbs / Knopoff production was a radio performance entitled Culture in the Airwaves. This presentation was a radio piece about radio - the thread of the composition consisted of backing tapes of sounds plucked from the airwaves - from three minute songs and glib talk show hosts to extended montages from all across the radio dial.

Radio is an ideal no-age device. Interspersed throughout the static of the radio band are broadcast signals arriving at the receiver in varying states of fidelity -- Glen Campbell's voice will also sound differently depending on whether he is broadcast across FM or AM or on shortwave. Additionally, in urban areas with their greater airwave saturation, there are numerous possibilities for cross-frequencies - two or more stations coming in on the same frequency, creating a higher overall level of distortion. While it is easy (and even justified) to rail against the lameness or sameness of much of the programming that your radio emits, it is nonetheless possible to haul in a wide variety of music, talk, and noise. Radio consists of many simultaneously broadcast signals; radio time is no-age time with constant and variable interacting cycles of information. There are sounds on the radio that happen all the time, for instance, the Canadian time channel on the shortwave band that continuously and eternally beeps the seconds away. There are also sounds that happen some of the time, with greater or lesser frequency or regularity. Some of these sound are periodic: for instance, network news on the hour or half hour on the radio have signature themes that last perhaps three seconds. Other sounds occur sporadically with greater or lesser frequency. It is easy to imagine that some dinosaur rock track like "Stairway to Heaven" is being broadcast from some point on the globe at every moment of every day. Additional examples of sounds that recur irregularly are commercials. While recorded songs can be broadcast forever, commercials have a limited shelf-life. The other temporal possibility in radio is to hear a sound event that only happens once and is never repeated. Since nearly all music heard across the airwaves is prerecorded, such events occur most often on talk or news formats, or else during "spontaneous" ad-libs made by D.J.'s. Free-form college or community radio stations are probably the greatest hope for these unique moments.

An important technique employed in Culture in the Airwaves is pause-button editing. This low budget (and low-tech) method of audio editing utilizes the pause button on a cassette recorder to control the length of audio signal being recorded. Since the cassette recorder operates at a very slow tape speed, this method of editing is imprecise and produces fragmented rhythms. When the radio is used as a sound source the signal is continuous, and often organized into programmed durations (song length, show length, jingle length, commercial length). This editing technique permits the acceleration of these events, by removing sections of them, creating new juxtapositions within the event. This technique also permits cross between simultaneous programming on a variety of radio stations. In Culture in the Airwaves, programming from a variety of times and frequencies comes together in this manner as well as through the use multi-track recording. Pause-button technique allows varying amounts and rates of the sound source to emerge on the final cassette ranging from extended segments left intact to the dreaded technique of hyper-pause, where, on a well-adjusted cassette recorder the rapidity of pausing allows the sound's texture or timbre to remain while it becomes accelerated and otherwise mangled. Distortion is part of the game of any no-age project and the irregularities arising from this technique complement the distortions of the radio signals coming through distant airwaves.

Ultimately all of this preparation and hypothesization leaves us with a starting point for our improvisation. These pre-recordings provide a sonic environment within which to perform. This article probably hasn't answer the burning question of what is no-age music, but has only thrown out ideas about how it could be happening right now.