Noise: when instruments and skills are irrelevant to the Music Revolution

In a couple of weeks I’ll be performing at the St. Louis Noisefest (here’s the facebook event) at the Lemp Neighborhood Arts Center. It’s been over ten years since I last played there (see pic below) and I’d been invited to play the festival on a couple of occasions in the past though I wasn’t able to commit for various reasons.

Jon Silpayamanant, aka Noiseman433, playing a set at the Lemp Neighborhood Arts Center in St. Louis, MO during the Rotten Piece 2003. May 09, 2003. photo by Carol Kelly
Jon Silpayamanant, aka Noiseman433, playing a set at the Lemp Neighborhood Arts Center in St. Louis, MO during the Rotten Piece 2003. May 09, 2003. photo by Carol Kelly

I’d mentioned briefly my foray into noise in my post about my alma mater and its new 21st Century Musician Initiative, but didn’t say much about all the activities I had done during that exploratory period. By the time I had graduated with a degree in music performance I was well on the road to “quitting” music. My last “official” cello performance was in 1996 (I would pick up the cello on three occasions from 1996-2003) and wouldn’t be regularly playing it again until I joined il Troubadore in 2004.

In 1997 I’d finally discovered Merzbow and Noisemusic after a couple of years of exploring the experimental/avant garde side of classical music.

Rather than give a summary of the history of noise music and this underground experimental musical culture I’ll relate a conversation I had with Peter Sachon–a wonderfully versatile cellist who works in several genres. The discussion centered around whether there was more creativity in pop music than classical music (a ridiculous debate, really) and he couldn’t quite believe that there might be a group of musicians who might loathe pop music as much as it does classical music. Here’s the relevant excerpted exchange

JON: I’d probably not have nearly as much of a problem with the idea that pop music is generally much more innovative than classical music if it weren’t for the fact that there exists, and has existed for decades a scattered global movement of non-academic experimental musicians that could care less about Classical music, and have no ties to it, but absolutely hate the idea of what pop music stands for in terms of relative lack of creativity. Hell, they even rail on Merzbow now for getting all “semi-popular” which really amuses me to no end. (comment permalink)

PETER: I don’t know who these non-academic experimental musicians are, but I think some of them have a band called Radiohead. The only people who can’t stand what “pop music stands for” are classical musicians. We must change the classical industry’s artistic snobbery. It holds us all back. (comment permalink)

JON: Non-Academic Experimental Musicians Having been involved with the international experimental music and noise scene since the 90s I’ve had the good fortune of understanding how these non-classical trained and generally pop music loathing folks feel about the music industry in general. Take the noise sub-genre in particular (since those were the circles I was primarily performing and touring with) since it had it’s beginnings right around the time that the pop music industry went global, as it were, in the late 70s early 80s. Most of those folks were nearly always creating their work in opposition to pop music. Half of the aesthetic was to create a musical sound and culture that was implicitly not commodifiable (and yes, I understand that’s a false dichotomy as well, but indulge me). Much of the subject matter, “band names” (e.g. Pop Culture Rape Victim, Premature Ejaculation, Gerogerigegege), appropriation of sound was technically illegal as the artists commonly explored and exploited taboo subjects and flaunted their abuse of copyrights. At the same time they would scoff at anyone who would tie in their sound aesthetic with figures like Luigi Russolo, John Cage, George Antheil and other figures in th academic avant garde. That’s just one subgenre of this worldwide community (I use “community” very loosely) of musicians. (comment permalink)

I think it’s telling that Peter references Radiohead as a “non-academic experimental musician” –I remember, while I was still heavily involved in that noise scene, when some folks (usually on the fringe of the scene) brought the band up as something new and fresh and “way out there” and most of the experimental folks thought it was pretty run-of-the-mill pop smack.

Back in the late 70s and early 80s with bands like The Haters (US), Whitehouse (UK), early Einsturzende Neubauten (Germany), and the aforementioned Merzbow (Japan) we had the beginnings of what would eventually evolve into an international noise music scene. The movement, if it can be called one, was able to evolve due to new technologies which helped to propel pop music into an international phenomenon. Home recording became ubiquitous which meant that anyone could create a demo tape which could be sent to labels, but more importantly it also create an underground tape trading network. This was one of the ways that these artists started discovering each other since there was no way one of these acts would be featured on growing music video broadcasts such as MTV.

Part of the reason is by (either conscious or unconscious) design–the majority of proponents in the movement were radically anti-pop. Their instruments of choice were effects rackmounts, stompboxes, and found or circuit-bent sound sources–the idea was that the musical instrument (such as electric guitars. basses, and drums) got in the way of the musical expression. Some of the acts also used (illegally) sampled sounds as sources, or titled their acts and releases with names that are still taboo in any polite market.

I remember reading about early infamous Hanatarash shows and how Yamatsuka Eye (who would later collaborate with John Zorn on his game pieces) had driven a bulldozer (actually a backhoe) through the venue only to be tackled by bouncers/security before throwing his molotov cocktails. Eye was had also cut a dead cat in half with a machete during a performance and nearly sawed his leg off with a power saw during another (yes, some noise artists also used power tools as instruments).

The experiments with non-musical objects in live performance and recordings make bands like Radiohead seem as tame and old-hat (i.e. boring) as anything else coming out of the pop music world.

By the time I got involved with the community it had settled down a bit into [some] more thoughtful experimentation though there were a few acts I had the pleasure to work with that still bordered on being “dangerous.” I had already released a couple of self-produced recordings and had one live show (though not officially as Noiseman433) in the late 90s but the first live noise show I got to attend was in Cincinnati in 2001. The two headlining acts were Cock E.S.P. (from Minneapolis) and The Eugenics Council (from St. Louis).

I remember that show well–I still have video of it somewhere around here. D.N. and Rosemary Malign of the Eugenics Council gave a blistering set with vocals by Rosemary which evoked Diamanda Galas in its fury and D.N. using electronics, power tools, and flash powder and tear gas bombs. I remember laughing so hard even while my eyes were burning (D.N. is a trained chemist who made all his own pyrotechnics) while they had a video of some scat porn being projected behind them. The video below (not from the Cincy show) will give you some idea of what this look and sounded like:

Cock E.S.P. was part “Professional Wrestling” match with screaming (literally) by Elyse Perez while Emil Hagstrom and Matt Bacon smashed amplified objects (including a guitar) throughout the stage. This compliation video from that time period will give you a much better idea of what this looked like:

I would later go on to tour with both of these acts in 2003 and play a number of other shows with The Eugenics Council (later renamed Think Machine for various reasons). This video of me at the Lemp Neighborhood Arts Center was from one of those shared bills with the latter.

I came away from that short set with bloody and swollen hands–something I didn’t notice until much later since the adrenaline was still pumping. I’m much more careful about the amplified sheet metal sets now because I have come back to the cello. As I come back to this scene I see so many new names and acts and so much creative mash-ups and collaborations (keep in mind that the experimental noise scene is just one small subset of a much bigger non-academic experimental music scene) and some of my latest noise performances have included using fishtanks (video here)

Noiseman433 at the Louisville Experimental Festival on 29 June 2012. Haymarket Whiskey Bar in Louisville, Kentucky
Noiseman433 at the Louisville Experimental Festival on 29 June 2012. Haymarket Whiskey Bar in Louisville, Kentucky

amplified metal chairs

or amplified acoustic instruments like erhu (end of this video), or the cello (this video)–I’ve come full circle from when I left the cello!

The other interesting thing is that once I did come back to the cello I was working on a project called T.E.C. (Turntables, Electronics, and Cello) in 2003 which somewhat melded the experimental electronics and cello, but it was with il Troubadore I was back into the “normal” realm of music making (as normal as any act that plays Klingon Opera dressed as Klingons with Orion bellydancers can be, at least). The majority of that time from 2004 till recently has been spent playing with world musicians from many other genres and lands even while building up a repertoire of over 700 songs from several dozen countries in 50+ languages with il Troubadore.

I come back to Peter’s comments above and think how parochial his (and other crisis folks) simple Pop vs Classical dichotomy seems, especially when I’ve spent the last nearly 20 years not playing in either field. If it’s this kind of myopia that drives the “Classical Music Revolution” then maybe it’ll be better if that revolution is stillborn.  There’s a whole wide musical world (and universe) out there, folks.  Let’s get past this Western Pop/Classical debate and start exploring it!

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11 thoughts on “Noise: when instruments and skills are irrelevant to the Music Revolution

  1. Yes, so very yes!

    On a completely different blog, someone posted videos of Diego Stacco using sand and wood to create “beats” and commented on how original and interesting it was. All I could think of was all the experimental groups throughout time. Neubauten is a one of my favourite examples, but there are tons of great experimental groups out there that really dislike pop music. Most of the death, black, and thrash metal bands (that most people wouldn’t consider “pop”) really dislike “pop” music as well.

    BTW, you should meet my brother. I think you’d get along–he just started cello performance at University of Indianapolis and he’s the guy that got me into Neubauten, Merzbow, and that whole scene.

    For that matter, next time I’m in the state, we should get coffee. LOL

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  2. The problem is that there is just way too much information out there and far too many isolated things happening everywhere. What’s new to one group is old hat to another. And yeah, there are some sub-genres of what we might consider “Pop” (in that broadest of meanings) and even local bands who also dislike much of what is considered mainstream pop out there!

    I’d love to meet you and your brother when you’re in town–in fact you should send you brother my way as I’m in Indy often enough these days that we could easily meet up!

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  3. so…turns out you and my brother, Marty Chittum, met many years ago, via a Godflesh forum. And I guess he asked me after I started at DePauw if I had heard of you (it was several years after you left, and I didn’t ask Eric in my ignorance). Full circle…wow…

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