The difference between understanding and non-understanding is as fine as a hair, finer, the difference between China and Neptune. No matter how far out of whack I get, the ratio remains the same; it has nothing to do with clarity, precision, et cetera. (The et cetera is important!)
—Henry Miller, Black Spring
I have been going to noise shows for about a year. Some people wouldn’t call what’s played there music. It lacks rhythm, harmony, melody; it is often unsettlingly chaotic. As with spicy food, violent film, and living in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco (known for crack cocaine and latex), I had to toughen myself to noise. Yet tolerance to hot sauce brings a wave of pleasure that surmounts the pain. Violence on film lets me confront the fear of pain and death. And walking through the Tenderloin, I can appreciate the sparkling, phlegm-covered beauty of the sidewalks. What do I get from noise? It takes the underbelly out of music: gurgling and hissing, unfiltered information, hidden tonalities, miscellany. It presents the entrails.
If meaning is the appropriation of stimuli to produce a coherent idea, noise is the leftover parts, the waste. Much as a child without dolls can make her own toys out of sticks and debris, noise affords the freedom to play with tape recorders, re-circuited devices, samplers, half-broken instruments, saws, frying pans, synthesizers, screaming skull toys, tape measures, tea kettles, amplified objects, Mr. Potatoheads and other rejected effluvia to produce random sounds, sounds that cannot be easily commodified or reproduced.
Like gypsies or adherents to an esoteric cult, the noise community evades the mainstream. I discover this for myself on a Saturday afternoon, when I go to ArtSF, a gallery loft in an industrial complex in the Mission district. A cryptic and crudely produced flyer reads “Godwaffle” and gives the gate’s entrance code. I press the code, it buzzes, and I walk across the courtyard, passing some trucks and a landing flat. I then find another flyer that directs me up a set of stairs. Sound reverberates dully from above.
The sixth floor opens up into a well-lit, elegant loft with low ceilings and a crowd of maybe 150. A woman presses vegan pancake batter into waffle presses. This is Godwaffle Noise Pancakes, an ongoing of series of shows that has been happening for a decade. I get a pancake, which is way too syrup-soppy and thick for my little plastic fork. “How am I supposed to eat this thing?” I ask David Lim, noise artist Tralphaz and co-founder of the Bay Area booking collective Club Sandwich.
“It’s a noise show,” he says. “Use your imagination.”
Jorge Boehringer, who plays under the name Core of the Coalman, is one of the performers today. There is refinement in how he bows his viola, likewise in the way he stands before the vast loft windows and the pastel San Francisco cityscape. Cutting through this elegance, though, is the absurdity of the cheap black beard and wig he wears. The two mixers, effects pedals, and looper wrench the scene into modernity, until I am unable to decipher any coherent message.
Then, he starts making noise. The viola becomes manipulated by the pedals and mixers to unleash a cacophony of vibrations, some grinding, others sonorous—a wave of echoes and grit. There is no coherent melody or rhythm, but rather a drone part industrial, part majestic, a drone that is random and disorienting. He seems to have captured leftover sounds that often resonate within the background of one’s perception. I imagine myself in a traffic tunnel, were I to actually listen to the sounds of that traffic tunnel instead of just passing through it. Yet this is only my interpretation. The noise is an inkblot test, were you to find it in the gutter and not a psychologist’s office.
Noise forces me to have an opinion; I am left without straightforward lyrics, or a message, or a melody. I am mapless in a new terrain. Consider how the schizophrenic brain receives information without sorting it into meaningful images or sounds and so becomes overcome by a surplus of stimuli.
Yet isn’t such bombardment typical of the stimuli-saturated modern world? I hear sounds every waking second, sounds that I cannot escape. If Boehringer’s performance was like the sound of traffic tunnel, by enduring the confrontation voluntarily, I can perhaps succumb to the bombardment—or even more radically, to embrace it.
Joke Lanz, aka Sudden Infant, plays next. He is on tour from Berlin. Crude stick-figure tattoos and scars track his arms. He is middle-aged, thin, mostly bald, and bears a deeply disturbed yet sickly jovial countenance. He has set up two samplers, three effects pedals, and a low-fi microphone. The person next to me says that “he can be a little disorienting.” Ready or not, here he comes.
He holds the tiny microphone inside his mouth and groans into it, creating sounds like boom, siren, shatter, growl, screech and tremble, sounds often associated with noise pollution, yet here they are recycled to evoke within me extreme, dark reactions. Because I cannot see the microphone, this formerly innocuous sound-amplifying tool becomes a little creepy. You see, it almost seems as though the wire is coming out of his mouth, as though he is attached to it or it to him. The microphone becomes a part the performance, rather than merely serving its prescribed function to amplify sound. By going into his mouth—that is, by turning invisible—it becomes present to me for the first time.
What else do I ignore or take for granted? This simple trick of Lanz’s alerts me to the fact that my life is so full of stuff that I don’t even notice it anymore. Could such a bloated reality account for anxiety, ennui, tedium, grind? Lanz’s guttural vocal flutters are like ghost voices in a horror movie. His facial expressions mimic the emotive qualities of the effects, vaudevillian expressions of dread, laughter, and pain. I experience a spectrum of reactions: dismissal, anger, frustration, the desire to leave.
It becomes clearer to me why these performances are under the radar. When the Italian Futurist Luigi Russolo attempted a noise performance in 1914, a mob fight ensued. It is only through an intellectual process that I can battle through such discomfort. In Sound, Noise, Varèse, Boulez, experimental composer and essayist Morton Feldman writes that “on the one hand sound is comprehensible in that it evokes a sentiment, though the sentiment itself may be incomprehensible and far-reaching. But it is noise that we really understand. It is only noise which we secretly want, because the greatest truth usually lies behind the greatest resistance.”
We have been thrust into surfeit of noises, perspectives, sights, smells, enticements, distractions, upending any ideology that could make sense of it all. The excess imposes itself on us, the onslaught inflicting us with a perpetual vertigo. Information, food, sex, advertising, the homeless, books, take-out boxes, web portals, ideas, ideas about ideas: the influx becomes too much, and senses go numb. Lanz’s perfomance seems an apt enough reaction—that of throwing one’s head back and laughing, perhaps insanely, into the throat of such chaos.
I ask someone where to throw away my half-eaten pancake after the show. She says to put it back on the table, because someone might want it. “That might seem weird,” she says, “But a lot of us dumpster dive.” Dumpster diving is the practice of food-salvaging from grocery stores, bagel shops, restaurants, et cetera. The et cetera is important, proclaims Henry Miller. Usually associated with fringe anarchist movements, dumpster diving presents the idea that the et cetera can be reabsorbed into sustenance. And to crudely analogize, noise does to sound what dumpster diving does to food.
“You can dumpster dive resources from universities and other establishments,” Boehringer tells me. “The dumpster diving for bread becomes sharing the resources that are being horded by the institutions. We have the opportunity not only to explore chaos but to infiltrate state institutions for a broader diversity of use.” As an example, he says that “sampling sounds outside of original involvement is a form of recycling sound.” He speaks of the trash-to-treasure transformation. “People are circuit bending things. They are using seemingly obsolete music, just like day-old bread is not obsolete. People are looking into obscure history and places in nature for structural inspiration. The noise tradition has a lot to do with chaotic sound situations. And a lot of American experiment musicians are anarchists who operate on other levels where they’re bleeding consumer culture—dumpster diving on a lot different levels.”
Noise has traditionally possessed a political undercurrent, affirms Aaron Warren of the popular experimental Brooklyn band Black Dice. “I understand the origin of a lot of the Japanese noise in the 1980s was a protest against the amount of stuff that was available or the amount of consumer goods,” he says. “It’s kind of this nihilist rejection of what most people would consider valuable culture, and making trash instead.”
What makes this movement inherently political? It rebels against industrialization, enlightenment, empiricism and a thousand other twenty-dollar-words. Even its rebellion is directionless, as Warren supports. “I’ve been drawn towards different kinds of nihilist music and that’s why initially, I was thinking noise was the ultimate expression. But that’s not always the intention. There are also performances where people are reveling in excess and this extremism and expressing it in this chaotic, formless way.”
He mentions watching YouTube videos of the Japanese noise outfit Hanatarash, whose performances incorporated such acts as mauling a dead cat with a machete and even gross self-mutilation with an electrical saw. “There’s this crazy dude throwing things around on stage,” Warren says. “It’s kind of scary but also funny, and totally absurd. It’s an interesting expression of embracing that excess and being messy and fucking around that’s sort of playful.”
If you consider such violence offensive, spend some time on Flickr. Look at how guerrilla and citizen photojournalism has provided access into horrors so excessive within the modern world that fifty thousand people can die in an earthquake in China, and we can read about it on the internet over a bowl of corn flakes. Those 50,000 dead are forgotten on the subway ride to work. Because of the constant inundation of noise, chaos, violence, et cetera, we must work harder to care or to feel anything.
Russolo predicts this in his 1913 manifesto, The Art of Noises. “The machine today has created such a variety and rivalry of noises,” he writes, “that pure sound, in its exiguity and monotony, no longer arouses any feeling.”
Sean Brooks of the Portland indie band Minmae mentions Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the trader turned author who wrote Fooled by Randomness. Taleb “talks about the distinction between information and noise. Noise is defined by not being information—by not have meaning or purpose, generally speaking. Static on your television is noise. It’s just random impulses. Whereas watching something on television is meaning on some sense because it’s representation on the screen.”
Taleb, whose The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable topped the bestseller list in 2007, told Forbes, “We truly live under the illusion of order believing that planning and forecasting are possible. We are scared of the random, yet we live from its fruits. We are so scared of the random that we create disciplines that try to make sense of the past—but we ultimately fail to understand it, just as we fail to see the future.”
Randomness is terrifying because it has not yet been harnessed into a meaningful structure. It cannot be controlled. And if Feldman is right, if “the greatest truth usually lies behind the greatest resistance,” then perhaps my own resistance to noise could be a reflection of the fact that I fear the truth of my own life’s futility. No more is the silence of the woods: I am only one Google Images search away from the brutality of waterboarding, factory farming, acid-singed faces, children living in trash, children hacked to pieces by war. Yet by journeying deeper into what many would deem a trivial or stupid subculture, by venturing into noise, I can become okay with my status as a speck in the great and forever unfolding surplus of humanity.
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