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A brief and incomplete history of sonic terrorism

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Image "Pendrecki notation" via WFMU

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Say what you will about her public persona (and this writer could say plenty), but it must be acknowledged that M.I.A. is always pushing the pop music envelope. She takes disparate bits of music and stitches them together into awesomely weird fabrics.

Always one to indulge in a fair amount of sirens and gunshot noises, M.I.A.’s newest album, /\/\ /\ Y /\, is an unflinching exercise in aural pummeling. The beats—if you can call them that—are a heady brew of alarms, overlapping drum kits, drill samples, and shrill chimes and squelches that recall cell phone ringtones or a dying video game system.

The way the album pushes the limits, both of what is generally accepted as “musical” and what the listener might find comfortable, places /\/\ /\ Y /\ within the history of modern music-making’s noisiest cohorts.

In that grand tradition, we present this selected overview:

1960, Threnody (for the Victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki), Krzysztof Penderecki:

Penderecki’s seminal and groundbreaking work Threnody (for the Victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki) is a tense, cacophonous, and anxiety-generating piece of music, composed for 52 strings. The score dictates such extreme measures as bowing one’s instrument along the bridge- and tailpieces, banging on the soundboard, and improvising within a screeching series of high notes. The work, initially inspired by the composer’s experiences with and reactions to the Nazi scourge of Europe, evokes a visceral unease and discomfort in the listener. The piece scared the shit out of everyone all over again when featured in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining in 1980.

1966, Come Out, Steve Reich:

Not composed of traditional instruments (or, arguably, composed at all), Reich’s breakthrough works instead rely on short tape recordings of speech, looped repeatedly and to mind-bending affect. In Come Out, a young man’s voice repeats “come out to show them” over and over, bouncing between the speaker channels and layering upon itself as Reich shortens and elongates the recorded section. The result is an echoing, densely layered “sound cave” of sorts, wherein the tape loop performs a “round” with itself (think about singing “Row Your Boat” as a child, only way more fucked up). The loops are eventually shortened and broken down so much that, by the end of the piece, all we hear are sharp, concussive sounds, endlessly repeating.

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