Ben Frost's "By the Throat" and a Brief History of Noise

EDITOR’S NOTE: We’re pleased to introduce Steen Comer, a writer, video artist, art coder, and all-purpose memetic engineer. He is currently in the Bay Area, geographically speaking, although he frequently makes trips to parallel universes for research purposes. Steen is easily found by looking just about anywhere for “mediapathic”.  

Depending on your personal experience, the idea of “noise music” could be considered a contradiction in terms. Within what we winkingly refer to as “The Western Musical Tradition”, “noise” is considered something to be avoided, something that detracts from the experience of the music as the artist intended. But readers of Coilhouse know that this is an idea as outdated as the notion that “the artist” is a monolithic Wagner working in a vacuum. We no longer listen to music in opera houses with perfectly tuned acoustics, we listen in crappy white earbuds that we have cranked up to try to cover the traffic noise.

And, in fact, we never did have the perfectly tuned theatre; that was always a Platonic ideal of acoustic experience; it never really existed. Artists like Cage and Stockhausen knew this, of course, and intentionally and explicitly dealt with it. Industrial music, of course, took this idea and ran with it, as a part of its program of total deconstruction of control systems. Many reading this will have at least attempted to listen to music by Einstürzende Neubauten, often considered the godfathers of industrial noise. If that song happened to be “Let’s do it a Dada” off of Alles Wieder Offen, you heard Blixa extend a friendly nod to “Signore Russolo”.

Luigi Russolo’s Intonarumori.

That would be Luigi Russolo, who wrote a Futurist manifesto that suggested using elements of the urban landscape in music, including “Screeching, Creaking, Rustling, Buzzing, Crackling, Scraping….” This was in 1913. The thread is long and tangled, and continues to this day.

Beyond the world of music, though, there’s a growing awareness of error as form. The Glitch Art movement is most obvious example of this, where artists are using procedural techniques to add intentional errors to images and video. Generally the results look kind of 8 bit and pixelated, because, well, most digital art is made of pixels…

Though some interesting work has been done with modifying vector artwork and 3d objects as well, and in the realm of video the idea of Datamoshing, intentionally adding or removing motion keyframs to video, hit the mainstream awareness when Kanye West and Chairlift released music videos more or less simultaneously using this technique, and has become so ubiquitous that the current state of that medium is likely best expressed by this:

But we’ve always used error as an often unintentional indicator of context and signifier of data outside the supposed content. Just as a baroque frame on a painting contextualizes it in a way which is sometimes at odds with the content, adding a sepiatone filter to any image immediately conjures associations with archaic settings. Instagram is a good example of this: changing the palette of an image to match those of a 1970s polaroid adds a subconscious air of authenticity to it because of our associations built (somehow) on hundreds of badly lit wood paneled basements. But the colors of those old polaroids are the way they are because of the chemical and optical limitations of that medium. They look the way they do not as a result of aesthetic choices, but because Edwin Land had to make technical compromises to answer his daughter’s question “Why can’t I see it now?” They don’t present an accurate representation of what the eye actually sees. (This is also why we tend to imagine everyone in the 1920s walking at double speed.)

And, going back to sound, the line between timbre and noise has always been a fine, if not completely arbitrary one. Dylan going electric in 1965 is a striking example of this (and as a side note, “Electric Dylan Controversy”, the name of the Wikipedia article on this, would make an excelent if somewhat stylistically limiting band name). In 1965 adding distortion to a guitar was a radical act. Today, in somc contexts, removing distortion where it is expected becomes just as radical.

Which brings us to Ben Frost, one of the most interesting artists currently working with noise. The video at the top there is one representative piece, “Killshot”, off of the album By the Throat. The track opens with a sprinkling of textural elements, then slowly explodes into an avalanche of pure, unrestricted terror. Just when you think this is going to be a Merzbow-like blast of nihilism, the noise cuts out with the drop of a kick almost too subsonic to hear, then builds back up. Then it happens again, and you realize that silences are being used to create a rhythm.

This, by the way, is a production technique known as “ducking.” It’s the same thing you hear when the vocals of a song get quieter when the beat kicks in. In modern music production compression is used to make everything an approximately equivalent level, which has the side effect, if it’s done poorly, of radically shifting the percieved volume of the song when something comes in that is loud in terms of actual volume, but subjectively quiet, like most low bass tones. So, what Frost is doing here is not only using white noise as a textural element. On another level, he is using ducking, which is normally a mistake, as a rhythmic element. He is taking an error and pushing it to the point of intentionality. Not just the usual noise-as-music, but a more conceptual breaking of something to make something new.

If you stick with the track, eventually you hear quiet pianos and tinkling acoustics winding their way around the noise. Here is another strictly modern thing; the idea of being able to hear an acoustic piano or the creak of boards over a swirling maelstrom of electric noise is unnatural. It plays with a displacement, it’s a frission that’s related to a subconscious fear of the unknown, as though the laws of physics have been rescinded in some very specific and spectral way.

And the entire album is like this. Elements that shouldn’t go together, do. Huge waves of static are punctuated with what could be the shuffling of bare feet on a wooden floor. On one track, the growls of a wolf in one channel are perfectly matched with the low rumble of a distorted guitar in the other. This is sound as sculpture, the building of spaces that could not otherwise exist, using techniques that could only come from modern technology, yet sound wholly organic. What Frost is doing is refusing the confines of the Platonic Opera House as the impossibility it is, and building his own space, out of waves and wires and wolve’s howls. Acoustics as fiction.

And the best part: this is just one album, by one guy. Imagine how many others are out there, of the generation who never believed in the idealized sonic space of western music in the first place, raised on the sounds of the city, for whom birdsong is an anomaly. In their basements, using the new tools that the leveling of the technological playing field has given them to create sonic landscapes we can’t even conceive of yet. The future of noise is bright, if you are lucky enough to be able to hear it as music.

7 Responses to “Ben Frost's "By the Throat" and a Brief History of Noise”

  1. arouke Says:


  2. Jeffrey Wengrofsky Says:

    Thank you for this inspired overview. I do, however, have some reservations: our author confuses one strain within “western music” for its whole, thus omitting many important figures who have contributed to broadening its musical palate (like Ives and Schoenberg), and in the process does not recognize that Cage, Stockhausen, and Russolo were just as “western” as Wagner.

    “…beauty in music is too often confused with something that lets the ears lie back in an easy chair.” — Charles Ives, 1920

  3. Meredith Yayanos Says:

    Jeff, you don’t think the “winkingly refer to” line preceding that (obviously tongue-in-cheek) label makes it pretty clear that he’s taking the piss out of the more staunchly standardized generalization? Something tells me Steen’s not confused at all, on that count! :D

  4. Meredith Yayanos Says:

    Full disclosure: Steen originally had sarcastic “air quote” style quotation marks around the phrase “the western musical tradition”, in smallcaps, and I made the editorial choice to capitalize the phrase and nix the air quotes. I have now reinstated the air quotes to accompany the stuffy title so that the sarcasm is now (hopefully) even more obvious than it already was. Cheers!

  5. bunny Says:

    Fascinating, my experience with noise is sadly limited to those in the 70s and 80s who played with it for a very narrow subculture.

    very much enjoyed

  6. rickie Says:

    very much enjoying these tracks! thank you so much, steen!

  7. Multch Says:

    Half the images/videos in here are invisible to me : (