I’ve started reading Jacques Attali’s Noise: The Political Economy of Music, a book I’m pretty sure I partly read while at university and which I’ve been meaning to get back to for years but never did.

Thankfully research for the book brought me back to it and at an ideal time too. There’s much in Attali’s writings that’s prophetic to the world we live in, especially in terms of how music is controlled, consumed and produced. Noise was published in 1977 and yet speaks very much of the past 30 years of recorded music and technological evolutions.

Of particular interest to me so far is a passage in the second chapter, titled Sacrificing, with regards to how musical codes have transitioned since the antiquity. On page 34, Attali says (emphasis mine):

Subversion in musical production opposes a new syntax to the existing syntax, from the point of view of which it is noise. Transitions of this kind have been occuring in music since antiquity and have led to the creation of new codes within changing networks. Thus the transition from the Greek and medieval scales to the tempered and modern scales can be interpreted as aggression against the dominant code by noise destined to become a new dominant code. Actually, this process of aggression can only succeed if the existing code has already become weak through use.

Upon reading this it struck me that, in reference to the emphasised sentences, musical practices such as dub and sampling – long considered noisy and meaningless by the establishment – have in effect become the new dominant codes in the 21st century in much the same way Attali explains. Going a little further, you could see jazz as taking over rock as another example of noise supplementing the dominant code to become a code itself, especially in terms of how jazz has influenced hip hop production practices from sampling to scratching. Or again, perhaps this is all a case of African musical traditions supplementing Western traditions, which can help explain how the beat, rhythm, has come to be such a defining element of modern music production and consumption.

Modern scales are in still in use but from pop to underground dance music the traditional codes of making music have been subverted by sampling and dub practices and aesthetics. The two are often combined.

A little later Attali puts it that:

Each network pushes its organisation to the extreme, to the point where it creates the internal conditions for its own rupture, its own noises. What is noise to the old order is harmony to the new.

I’ve not had time to properly look into whether or not this idea has been expressed before, or if anyone else has written on how sampling and/or dub acts like the code breaking noises Attali refers to – though I did find a discussion with Spooky on the ramifications of Attali’s thinking. So please let me know if that’s the case and point me to any books/papers/articles of relevance.

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