Tuesday, July 1, 2008

In Praise of Noise

The Amazon.com reviewers of Portishead's latest album, Third, have collectively given it a rating of 4 out of 5 stars, which seems fair enough. Four is an average over 137 "customer reviews" as of this writing, so it involves a strong plurality of fours and fives (94) balanced by 29 ones and twos and 14 threes.

The negative reviewers circle around a common complaint: dissonance and noise. Here's reviewer "Wronghead":

If you hate yourself, buy this album. It's cheaper than buying two angry monkeys and recording them fighting each-other with power tools in your closet.
Certainly the album is the cheaper of the presented options: I would defy anyone to show me a price list demonstrating that even a single angry monkey, let alone two of them, would cost less than the $9 Amazon charges for the MP3 download or $10 for the CD. Factor in the price of the second angry monkey, the price of the power tools, the stiff fines for animal cruelty, and the expense of the inevitable damage to the closet, and you're well past $10. Please. Anyone suggesting the contrary would be guilty of the sort of excessive, unhinged, irresponsible slinging of opinion that preoccupies web scold Andrew Keen, who sees the death of culture in the web's permissiveness and anonymity.

Which brings us back to dissonance and noise. I would simply say that those who find too much dissonance and noise in this Portishead recording reveal that they have too little dissonance and noise in their musical diet. At least since Beethoven, new music has been dismissed as "monkeys with power tools" or the like, and the history of western music can be seen as a gradual conversion of dissonance to consonance and noise to music. That's not to say that any piece of noise deserves a hearing (let alone a $9 download), but musically gifted people can expand our idea of what counts as music, and I think Portishead has given us a marvelous example with Third.

[edited to make more sense.]


Laura said...

Stop the math!!! I can't process the numbers, I tell you!!!

What am I to believe after "Wronghead's" comment? Even Beethoven gets too noisy for me at times. I have two kids; therefore, I already have enough dissonance and noise. However, I'll give it a listen. First let me put my power tools away.

Ezekiah said...

Wait, it seems like you're critiquing the comment as though it says: "It's cheaper *TO* buy 2 monkeys" when in fact what you put up says: "It's cheaper *THAN* buying 2 monkeys"

Have a good day!

Dale said...

Ezekiah, when you're right you're right, and you're right. I've edited the post but I'll leave your comment here as an enduring monument to my lapse.


Martin R. said...

Well “Wronghead” claims that buying this album is cheaper than the two angry monkey thing but does he really know what he’s talking about? I tried this out and purchased two angry monkeys. When I handed them the power tools they were so clearly delighted that all semblance of anger dissipated instantly. They then set to work on my closet and covered it in fretwork patterns of such exquisite intricacy that my closet is now valued at over £2,000 more than I originally paid for it. On selling said closet, the profit will not only cover the initial outlay for the monkeys and the power tools but will also allow me to purchase the entire Portishead back catalogue twice and still leave enough change to buy a replacement closet. So where’s Wronghead’s oh so witty review now I ask you? Hold on, sorry, wait a minute…sorry I bought chimps and they’re apes not monkeys, right? Damn, ignore everything I’ve just said. A schoolboy error of the most basic kind there. I’m completely embarrassed.

Dale said...

Martin, we all stand in awe of your follow-through on this. I was content to leave it all in the abstract, but as the saying goes, one good experiment is worth a thousand hypotheticals. Given your result, I am tempted to change the post back to its original state, but I think I'll allow these comments to tell the full story.

And Laura, your point is well-taken. I'll try to avoid the high math for at least a few more posts.