Purity: Sine Tones and White Noise


Another slot on Radio NZ Concert’s Upbeat show, this one on the purity – actual and approximated – of sine tones and white noise.

Sine tones and white noise do not occur in nature, though are approximated in nature; rather these are technologically produced sounds, associated with technology (think early sci-fi films) and with early days of technologically produced music; typically signifying a sterile, Spock-esque realm of machines and pure rationality:

Stockhausen, Studie I (1953)

Elektronische Musik 1952–1960, Stockhausen Complete Edition CD 3, Stockhausen-Verlag

A dry form of musical discourse, redolent more of non-human than human world; as if we’re observing physical phenomena in some kind of abstracted form via scientific apparatus (which I find powerful in itself); yet as our lives become increasingly technologized, and filled with the sounds of technology, such forms of sound have become very familiar to us, as everyday sounds, rather than futuristic or other-wordly; evident in the real-world origin of the sounds used in the following piece, which becomes evident at the end of the piece:

Satoru Wono, “Overture” from Sonata For Sine Wave And White Noise (2003)

Sonore: SON 20

As sine tones, white noise, and a whole range of other synthetic/articifical sound become familiar to us, become part of our everyday lives, they come to carry a greater emotional charge which might be associated with the functional use of such sounds; for example, white noise as a technological breakdown (TV/radio static), sine tones as the signal of death from an old school heart monitor; that such sounds have meaningful in their own right, due to such contextual associations, means they do carry an emotional charge, and composers/musicians have become inclined to make use of this; such use is strong in the following piece, where white noise and sine tones set up a coldness which is used in juxtaposition to the warmth of sound and harmony of the piano material:

Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto, “pioneer IOO” from Summv (2011)

RastarNoton: r-n 132

The interaction between artificial purity and organic physicality in that piece is extended in the next piece, which demonstrates the complexity that emerges through physical interaction of a sine tone and the physical objects used to amplify it and feed it back into this system of objects; the results are rather beautiful and much more complex than the absolute simplicity of a sine tone, but again it is the interaction of the pure/artificial and complex/physical that creates this beauty

Alvin Lucier, The Wire: III”  from Music on a Long Thin Wire (1977)

Lovely Music: LCD 1011, 1992

Music on a Long Thin Wire is constructed as follows: the wire is extended across a large room, clamped to tables at both ends. The ends of the wire are connected to the loudspeaker terminals of a power amplifier placed under one of the tables. A sine wave oscillator is connected to the amplifier. A magnet straddles the wire at one end. Wooden bridges are inserted under the wire at both ends to which contact microphones are imbedded, routed to a stereo sound system. The microphones pick up the vibrations that the wire imparts to the bridges and are sent through the playback system. By varying the frequency and loudness of the oscillator, a rich variety of slides, frequency shifts, audible beats and other sonic phenomena may be produced”

Alvin Lucier, CD liner note for Music on a Long Thin Wire 

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