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Noise, Water, Meat: A History of Voice, Sound, and Aurality in the Arts: A History of Sound in the Arts Paperback – 15 Oct 2001

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Product details

  • Paperback: 472 pages
  • Publisher: MIT Press; New Ed edition (15 Oct. 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0262611724
  • ISBN-13: 978-0262611725
  • Product Dimensions: 17.8 x 3.2 x 22.9 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 250,758 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


"Kahn's research is impressive, and his presentation is thorough and precise." - Carol J. Binkowski, Library Journal; "...a unique and important contribution to this emerging, exciting field. It is overflowing with ideas, references, and conjecture." - John Levack Drever, The Art Book

About the Author

Douglas KAHN is founding Director of Technocultural Studies at University of California at Davis. He is the author of Noise, Water, Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts (MIT Press, 1999).

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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on 1 Sept. 2006
Format: Paperback
Ignore, for a start, the subtitle. Noise Water Meat would be a thorough failure as a history of sound in the arts, if that were what it really tried to be. It's primarily a history of the modernist avant-garde, up to the end of the 1950s. As such, it reflects a period where, with the exception of cinema, sound art had yet to become distinguishable from music, and still awaited release from the fourth dimension into the first three.

It's difficult at times not to become impatient with a book that, for example, considers John Cage's water music to be more interesting than (say) that of Annea Lockwood, or for which the boundaries of a discussion on 'impossible inaudible' sounds are essentially limited to Cage's early years. Kahn, a professor of media arts in Australia, acts here primarily as a historian, so his focus on dead white males is perhaps inevitable. Nonetheless, the whole book is tremendously relevant to more recent developments, and it's regrettable that connections with the last few decades are never really made.

There's one other obstacle to negotiate. Kahn's fellow academics may well feel that his prose is a "delight to read", but I imagine that most readers will find his ongoing desire to break the three-digit word count in his sentences more of a turn off. One day, we can hope, post-modernists, post-structuralists and all the other cultural studies post-literates, will summon up the energy to actually learn how to write in an accessible, intelligible way. In the mean time, Kahn's prose remains unnecessarily obtuse.

The book's limitations are unfortunate, because Noise Water Meat is a provocative, enlightening and expansive foray into an arena that demands better than many writers have previously offered.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 10 reviews
19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
Fascinating, with a brilliant critique of Cage 26 Aug. 2001
By Autonomeus - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
Kahn's text sprawls over 358 pages, and is filled with innovative insights into the auditory component of the 20th century avant-garde. I found the most brilliant section to be his critique of John Cage. Cage created music with the aim of "quieting the mind, to open it to divine influence." Kahn is the first to articulate what I have felt, that Cage, the zen anarchist, is just as manipulative with this goal as any tonal symphonic architect! As Kahn puts in,

"...Cagean silence...has silenced other things, as it dwells at the problematic edge of audibility and attempts to hear the world of sound without hearing aspects of the world in a sound" (p. 4) Kahn turns on its head Cage's stated aim of "just letting sound be," speaking rather of "Cage's dominion of all sound and always sound," a project to turn all sound into music! (p. 197)

Much of the rest of the book, the sections on "Water Flows and Flux" and "Meat Voices," is a wandering chronicle of various avant forms, and Kahn has fun with organic analogies. But it's a fascinating trip through little-known terrain, and Kahn is a fearless and creative guide!

(verified library loan)
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
A new voice for the silent spots in audio-theories 10 July 2006
By Andreas Halskov - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
If at times overly academic, Douglas Kahn's seminal work "Noise, Water Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts" should be required reading for any course related to sound and such audio-visual domains as film and television.

In his book Kahn adresses the historical changes (or, development?) in noise abatement, looking at noise as a cultural, musiological and essentially political phenomenon (with an apparent inspiration from Jacques Attali). Accompanying the different types of noise abatement in Western modernity (as voiced e.g. by Arthur Schopenhauer), are also - as Kahn illustrates - different experiments into the use of noise, whether defined as a strictly musical or cultural phenomenon. In music we thus find such experimental composers as John Cage and Pierre Schaeffer (exploring different types of musique concrète), in film we find early auteurs as Dziga Vertov, Sergei Eisenstein and Grigori Alexandrov (through the use of natural sounds, asynchronism and different sonic counterpoints). Even in other - less obviously sonic - arts may we find otherwise elaborate experiments with sounds and noise(s). Take for example the vivid attempts at breaking the rigid rules of communication and narration through distinctly phonetical, verbo-literary experiments in the works of James Joyce and William Burroughs - or the creative disruption of the organic line in the paintings of say Gerhard Richter.

Further examples could be found ad nauseum, and Douglas Kahn goes to great length in his interesting and well-documented explorations. Noise IS a part of the arts as much as our close environment, whether we register or hope to reject it.

Kahn's pioneer-footsteps, thus, leave a vivid trail for others to follow, for in his book - if nothing else - he has shown how different sonic experiments (and, more specifically, different types of noise) are all around us. Instead of conservative strategies of silencing and abatement, we should listen!
8 of 11 people found the following review helpful
An astonishing history of art 10 Aug. 2001
By Ken Friedman - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
This astonishing history of twentieth century art offers a deep and profound view of intermedia and multimedia through the aspect of sound. Kahn's narrative is beautifully written and well researched. He supports the text with a wealth of documentary sources that permit further research. This book is a seminal contribution to research in intermedia, multimedia, and media studies. KF
Book review published in Design Research News, Volume 6, Number 8, Aug 2001 ISSN 1473-3862.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
I love it and I highly recommend it to anyone interested ... 9 July 2014
By Joseph Hoffman - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
I love it and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the art of sound... or how sound has been used as art... or the philosophy of sound. It is a sound read. As mentioned before, do not read if this is your first rodeo, however, if this is your second rodeo... you should be just fine. Seriously though, not an easy read but a worth while read. Very smart. Lots of insight.
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Zang Tumb Tumb 16 Aug. 2008
By Etienne ROLLAND-PIEGUE - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Whereas our present technology upheaval is driven by the computer, about eighty years ago it was driven by audiophonic technologies: radio was new on the scene; film and animated cartoons were moving to sound; dramatic improvements were occurring in phonography, microphony, and other audiophonic technology; and the prospect of television was in the air. But artists were slow to take advantage of the possibilities opened by these new media; and radio art, audio art, asynchronous sound film, and soundscape experimentation based on recording technologies were postponed for decades. The discontinuity of these artistic traditions stands as a historical lesson that, even though the technological and conceptual requirements exist and have generated sporadic material realization, these requirements are still insufficient for maturation into an artistic practice.

Music was especially successful in protecting its own domain from new media and consistently refused to incorporate the imitative sound associated with phonography. The line which separated music from noise, which took a new meaning when audio equipment began to chart sound curves and separate them from background noise, was well guarded and seldom crossed. Even the musical avant-garde, which emphatically crossed that line as symbolized by Pierre Schaeffer's musique concrete and John Cage's experimentation with silence, retained some of the conventions of high musical culture and silenced other sounds that also claimed for attention. Nevertheless, the mere existence of the phonograph, its ability to hold any one sound in time and keep all sounds in mind, produced a new status for hearing.

Douglas Kahn, an art critic and academic, starts from the postulate that "none of the art is entirely mute, many are unusually soundful despite their apparent silence, and the traditionally auditive arts grow to sounds quite different when included in an array of auditive practices." The auditive practices that he explores, some soundful in themselves, others contingent on ideas of sound, are associated with the names of of persons or movements that have become largely recognized as precursors to a range of artistic activities: Luigi Russolo, the Dadaists, Dziga Vertov and Sergei Eisenstein, Antonin Artaud, John Cage, William Burrough and other Beats, the musique concrete composers, artists associated with Fluxus, and others. In sum, he offers an interdisciplinary history and theory of sound within the avant-garde and experimental arts from the early twentieth century to the 1960s.

The story starts with Luigi Russolo's founding text, The Art of Noise, published in 1913 and already resonating with the sounds of war. As this Futurist manifesto proclaimed, "we find far more enjoyment in the combination of the noises of trams, backfiring motors, carriages and bawling crowds than in rehearsing, for example, the Eroica or the Pastoral." Although Marinetti's onomatopoeic reportage of the battle of Adrianople opened the way for soundful practices associated with the term bruitism, they also attracted savage criticism such as the following indictment by a Russian avant-garde artist: "the Italian 'amateurish' Futurists, with their endless ra ta ta ra ta ta, are like Maeterlinck's heroines who think that 'door' repeated a hundred times opens up to revelation."

At about the same time, the Dadaist movement, endlessly debating the Cabaret Voltaire of Zurich, also left a legacy of artistic revolution which included sound practices: noise music, noise making, and even sound poetry and other forms of bruitism. On the other hand, the Surrealist movement that took on after World War I was singularly silent, and Andre Breton's antipathy toward music seems to have blocked other artists to explore sound other than through printed words and composed images: Man Ray's playful, punning image of a woman's nude torso with the twin sound holes of a cello painted on her back, or Bunuel's grand piano with dead donkeys draped across the strings in his film Un chien andalou,, were already testimonies that music could shout for attention while staying silent.

John Cage appears throughout the book and is the subject of much attention and critique. As the author notes, many people have heard the world differently because of his efforts, yet they may not have heard all he had hoped to hear, for he wanted to hear all. With regard to the line separating sound and musical sound, Cage played a unique role in that he took the avant-garde strategy to its logical conclusion. 4'33'', his silence piece, extended the field of materiality to all the non-intentional sounds surrounding the performance, including the sound of the growing agitation of certain audience members. Yet Cage's silence, the author remarks, "was dependent from the very beginning on silencing", as it reproduced the mandate to be silent during a concert, when even a clearing of one's throat or murmuring is considered as a breach of decorum. For Douglas Kahn, Cage's silence constitutes a silencing of the social, the political and ecological, and these are the dimensions in sound and music that his text seeks to reinstate.

What I particularly liked in the book are the vignettes into the life of the avant-garde, some of which contradict commonly held beliefs and images. For instance, Pierre Schaeffer, the founder in 1948 of musique concrete, confessed toward the end of his life that "it took me forty years to conclude that nothing is possible outside DoReMi... In other words, I wasted my life." Or Andy Warhol, showing to art dealer Ivan Karp his first paintings where pop icons and cartoon figures were covered by splashing and dripping, justified his gesture by saying: "You have to do that. You must drip! It means that you are an artist if you drip!" Eventually, the art dealer convinced him to renounce the dripping, to which Warhol responded: "That's just wonderful you should say that, because I don't think I wanna drip."
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