A Noisenik’s Blues

i am a cursed man.

Prologue: I grew up with this soundtrack outside my bedroom window in a Sacramento suburb. Nearly every night, I’d hear patches of lawn sprinklers hissing whenever overgrown grass blocked the water, freeway traffic droning away, mockingbirds hollering at the stars, and the gangsta rap that would smother the air with bass fired through the cars of teenage boys sprinting pass my street’s stop sign. I never considered such juxtapositions to be noise pollution, and I’d typically fall asleep not long after hearing it.

Scene 1: Sometime in 1994, I come across a one-minute film on MTV that would change my outlook on what music is. On scratched and dithered 8mm film, Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo describes where his extraterrestrial guitar noise that I loved so much had come from: The streets of New York. Scenes of people recording the noises of subway trains, jetliners taking off and workers cutting plywood are interjected as he speaks. Ranaldo tells the viewer to open their windows and listen to the “symphony” that has always been there. He later recalls being fascinated by the rhythms of his bedroom’s electric fan as it rhythmically swayed back and forth. It is the first time I see a direct connection between instrumental music and everyday life, long before I hear about John Cage’s piece for four minutes and 33 seconds of silence or read Luigi Russolo’s call to translate the industrial world’s banal clamor into music. I then recognized that music is nothing more than noises organized for a pleasurable effect. In short, I paid more attention to sounds that seemed “cool.”

Scene 2: Bored with nothing to do, I peered up and saw something familiar in Jack Dangers’ hands. The Meat Beat Manifesto mastermind was cleaning up after the sound-check for the psychedelic music video spectacle of his Tino Corp. project (i.e. a videoclip of someone’s feet walking in sync to live breakbeats) at San Francisco’s Mezzanine club. I recognize that he is holding a copy of Karlheniz Stockhausen’s 1960 electro-acoustic milestone Kontake—kept in the sleeve of the same edition that I played for study on a nearly dead turntable at San Francisco State University’s library. The piece itself is a sprawling, kosmik noise masterpiece as it sends ringing, wailing and garbled electronic noises flying through the air amid roiling percussion and piano parts that make the instrument seemingly trying to orient itself through the discord. One could hear traces of the electronic music that would follow for decades to come. I tell Dangers that I dig the record he is holding, expecting to hear him connect his previous experiments with vintage academic electronica with Stockhausen. “Well, it’s good to scratch with,” he replies before walking away. I leave to get a drink.

Scene 3: I discover a rare, tattered one-dollar copy of a record with orchestral performances of Edgard Varese songs at my junior college’s library sale. The LP had the original recording of “Poem Electronique,” his slapstick tape collage of machinery, primitive electronic ziltches and the eeriest operatic rehearsals. It is arguably the sound of the future as blared across 400 speakers during its premier at the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels. I showed my supervisor at the library my new trophy that night, and explained its historical relevance and how it marked the then-virgin wilderness of electronic music. “Oh, that’s interesting for that kind of music,” she deadpanned before shifting her eyes to a stack of books that need to be checked in. I then notice all of the splotches of torn off paper, coffee stains and scuffs on the record’s sleeve, and wonder about the record’s lost collector’s value.

So we have these scenes of classic experimental electronic noise music being reduced to either something that merely sounds cool or is cult fodder.

I’ve spent many late nights thinking about, reviewing and documenting what is normally deemed as “experimental music,” “noise,” or “sound art.” Such art ultimately drew me into journalism and music criticism. To support myself and to stay in the arena, I took up a day job of reporting on a Sacramento area community’s schools, crimes and parks ‘n’ recreation for a newspaper—in short, life on another planet away from the realms of the music I cover. What keeps me going are hearing so many ideas of what music could be, or how sound itself could be manipulated into forms alien to my ear. I want to witness firsthand how the music is an endless sequel, and have conventions that are always temporary and move onto to something else if creative exhaustion sets in. My energies are also always refueled by what ideas cracked through the concrete decades before and left remnants in today’s mainstream music. Avant-turntablist Christian Marclay said it best when he told me during a Punk Planet interview that he views a record not as a finished product, but the possible beginning of a new chain of events. This is the same man who released Record Without a Cover, which is exactly what it is—a record of thrift store Musak-cal fluff scraped into the kitchen, which is all meant to be naturally damaged by accident and thus adding to the sound. Music that challenges listeners and offers no easy answers or even answers at all about what it is about has long engrossed me and keeps my fingers on the keyboard to introduce it to as many people as possible.

However, you wouldn’t catch me dead playing such music for people.

I’d first be at a loss for words to let someone else know what exactly is occurring on the stereo. And then the embarrassment and the guilt kicks in when I realize that I’m nothing more than a cultist who writes for cult devotees. As said before, the two most positive remarks I get about such art is that it has aspects that are merely “cool” or only speak an obscure dialect that only members of a cult could understand. I could write another thousand words about how most of my high school friends believed that I had no taste after hearing my prized CD of Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band’s shambling and bubblegum-patched avant-boogie milestone, Trout Mask Replica.

But to prevent myself from writing this tract on my knees while I lay in a fetal position under my bed, I’ll briefly indulge on the virtues of “experimental” music.

I’ve always liked the notion that the avant-garde works in the laboratories and the test-firing ranges of pop music. Sometimes there are parallels between the two realms, other times they made the same accidental discoveries. Pop often feeds the avant-garde, which in turn has responses varying from an embrace of fresh ideas (I recall witnessing how the polyrhythms of Timbaland and Missy Elliott’s “Get Yr. Freak On” addicted scores of underground laptop-noise artists), to ironic detachment.

Composer John Cage described experimental music best when he said that mystery best defines it as “understood not as descriptive of an act to be later judged in terms of success and failure, but simply as of an act the outcome of which is unknown.” I love that part about the artist having no idea of where his or her experiments could go in affecting how people perceive what music could be. I’ve come to think about the avant-garde as speaking languages with dictionaries that get new vocabulary words everyday. It is endless adventure filled with triumphs, disasters, epiphany and exhaustion. I fondly remember being there as Miya Masaoka gently touched the leaves of a tropical plant that was wired to a computer which “played” the plant’s biofeedback through ringing sounds that changed in response to her body’s electricity—as if it was holding a conversation with her. There was the time when Pan Sonic played a shrill, emergency broadcast tone that changed in pitch whenever I turned my head. And then there was Martin Schmidt banging his head against a grand piano’s keys in the spirit of the defunct Sesame Street character Don Music during a Matmos improv piece inside San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts where the group transplanted their entire studio into a room there during their “live-in” residency. Martin still made perfect rhythmic time, you know.

Tom Wolfe wrote in his critique of postmodern art, “It’s not; ‘Seeing is Believing,’ you ninny; it’s ‘Believing is Seeing.’” As he correctly put it, the audience must first read or hear about a piece’s concept before understanding and appreciating what the hell is going on. That situation brings me back to how I fear playing experimental music for others. If I were to play Christophe Charles’ psychedelic collages of field recordings he made around the world and had set a computer to randomly sequence and play, I would have to explain his concept of “undirected” music and why he wants a machine to merely compose for him for the listener to “get it.” Otherwise, the unassuming listener would write the music off as disjointed noises of street life and factories. I’d have to explain every piece of experimental music I would play as such art never provides immediate answers. This is contrary to pop, which needs no conceptual baggage for the listener to understand its songs, except perhaps for some clever metaphors hidden here and there in the lyrics. In any Britney Spears song the listener would quickly know that she just wants to sing about sex and dancing and sex and looking pretty and sex. No mysteries there.

If others cannot understand the experimental music I’d play for them, I would not blame them. My own ideas of the music often change constantly as I would notice new sounds or meanings, or that such music fails to inspire me anymore.

I accept the curse.

By: Cameron Macdonald
Published on: 2005-12-13
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