A symphony of the sounds that surround everyday life

David Toop's exhibition devoted to the art of noise is one of the most playful and questioning shows for ages, says award-winning novelist Jeff Noon
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The Independent Online

Music is a property of air. We breathe it in. At home, at work, on the way to work, alone, in crowds of several thousands. I woke up in this morning, turned my radio on. Desiring, craving. I'm just a junkie for your love. And underneath music, hidden by it, creating it, lies noise. The base element. As I'm writing these words, I can hear a guitar, a powered-up electric guitar dragged along rough ground by a truck.

Music is a property of air. We breathe it in. At home, at work, on the way to work, alone, in crowds of several thousands. I woke up in this morning, turned my radio on. Desiring, craving. I'm just a junkie for your love. And underneath music, hidden by it, creating it, lies noise. The base element. As I'm writing these words, I can hear a guitar, a powered-up electric guitar dragged along rough ground by a truck.

The recording is part of the "Sonic Boom" exhibition, which brings together over 30 artists and musicians, turning the Hayward Gallery into a temple of sound and vision: robots playing drums, a bicycle turning a glass record, toys making a fearsome racket. Machines with diseases, creating music. And what is music, and what is noise? Is there some strange ill-defined area in between the two, and what happens when we force ourselves to listen, closely, deeply, to the sounds that come from that region? Curator David Toop understands these questions, and he leads us gently into the exhibition by means of his own Decompression Tunnel, a corridor of music, known and unknown. The liquid presence.

And we're through. Paul Burwell's If you were born in '33, you would be have been '45 in '78 is the junk bicycle phonograph, shrieking. Nearby, hanging from the ceiling, Max Eastley's Architecture 1: Kinetic is a thin strip of golden metal, vibrating, humming with electric ghosts. Around the corner, the animated figure of Stephen von Huene's Extended Schwitters intones a series of mutated human sounds, a Dada song. All three of these pieces bleed into each other. Before visiting the exhibition I was walking around the HMV superstore, enjoying those spaces where the music played by the different departments created areas of dissolve: blues with easy listening; rock with dance. This is how we live now, expertly gliding these soft grey zones, and "Sonic Boom" allows the same experience, intensified. The continuum of noise interacts with the usually whispered atmosphere of the gallery, turning it into a more physical place, and people respond accordingly, talking, enjoying themselves, and getting as close as possible to the work.

Against this shared experience, some artists have opted to isolate their works in controlled environments, walled-off areas such as Paul Schütze's extraordinary Third Site, a musical and visual embodiment of the thermal baths in Vals, Switzerland, which conjures up the spirit of locality without any need of photographs or blueprints. Brian Eno's Civic Recovery Centre Proposal (Quiet Club) is a black box filled with calm self-generating music and graphics, slowly mutating over time into a new configuration. Transportation devices, spiritual balm. Some pieces are more disturbing. The Collector by Scanner and Katarina Matiasek captures hundreds of butterfly images, the music at times a hammer to their miserable fate, and at other times, a song to resurrected flight. Disinformation's Artificial Lightning photographs our shadows, giving them a slow fade on the wall, with each flash of the camera triggering a burst of electrostatic sound. People are fascinated by this work; it brings a shiver, a sudden recognition of death, perhaps, as though we have seen, and heard, our own ghost.

One piece is virtually silent; Lee Ranaldo's HWY SONG, an old acoustic guitar with a television screen in the soundbox, a highway unrolling. The lost song of the lonely road of myth. Staring at this work one longs, suddenly, for a blast of Hank Williams, say, or even Bruce Springsteen, or Ranaldo's own group, Sonic Youth, going through one of their detuned guitar pile-ups; just something to link us back to the real world, an admittance of popular culture. And then, we experience Christian Marclay's amazing film Guitar Drag, where we find the missing soundtrack. The loudest of the exhibits, and also the most distressing, this guitar is, we feel, being dragged to its death. A dusty, stony road in Texas. Painful images come to mind: the lynching of black men in the American deep South; the appropriation of black music by white culture. And we see just what Jimi Hendrix was doing, destroying the "Star-Spangled Banner" with feedback. The piece turns Renaldo's silent road guitar inside out, a remarkable convergence of meanings.

There are other such mirrorings: Philip Jeck's Off the Record answers the opening tunnel with a wall of car-boot sale record players, stretching floor to ceiling, each fitted with scratched and dusty records, locked in grooves. Invisible DJs, playing the detritus of cheap pop music, human voices, glimpses of melody. The ghost is broken, but dancing.

Christina Kubisch's Oasis 2000: Music for a Concrete Jungle takes place on the outside balcony of the gallery; personal headphones place the sounds of nature, birds, crickets, babbling brooks directly inside our skulls as we look out over London's iridescent, urban beauty. The night air alive with rapture. And in a world where groups such as Steps and moulded boy bands exhibit a mechanisation of the soul far less human than a true machine music, "Sonic Boom" is to be welcomed.

'Sonic Boom: The Art of Sound': Hayward Gallery, SE1 (020 7261 0127), 27 April to 18 June. 'Needle In The Groove', Jeff Noon's latest novel, is published by Anchor on 11 May

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