By Arvo Zylo
The sound man looks nervous and angry as he shakes his head. He’s red-faced and gazing down at a tangled pile of guitar cables drenched in a puddle on the floor. A man in a furry lizard costume is in the back of the room, freaking out with his guitar; another man is up front in a white Eskimo coat that’s smeared brown with blood. He’s peeking out from under his hood, messing around in a suitcase full of electronics. A woman runs around with the skin of a pig’s head over her face, smacking people across the kisser with meat. Blood flies everywhere. Another guy in a bloody white shirt is kneeling, bouncing a cymbal off of the floor over and over. He looks like he’s in his own little world. A man in a makeshift leather executioner’s outfit is swinging a bullwhip at me. It smells like a slaughterhouse. This is Cock E.S.P., and this is one extraordinary example of a noise performance.
The first noise ensemble in Chicago was probably Burden of Friendship, in the early to mid-eighties. Burden of Friendship would perform at Unarco, an old abandoned steel factory in Evanston, where there were, according to front man Scott Marshall, “enormous decrepit steel tanks [and] all kinds of lengths of pipe” that made the entire factory seem like “one giant instrument.” The ensemble would bleed from huge gashes in the middle of some shows. One time they smashed lit fluorescent light bulbs across Marshall’s back, which makes a fantastic fifties UFO sound, by the way.
Burden of Friendship threw all-night noise parties called Voidwatches at the radio stations they worked at—mostly WZRD, out of Northeastern Illinois University, but also at Northwestern University’s WNUR. They used live fireworks, knocked over file cabinets and made, as Marshall describes it, “other general destruction (busted linoleum flooring, holes in the ceiling).” The radio waves carried the sounds of these nights of mayhem, of a dozen drug-addled miscreants alternating between making noise and manning a soundboard.
Members of the group, many of them DJs at WZRD, included Bill Meehan of Research Defense Squad, Doug Brown (the late “Little Dougie”), Robert St. Clair, James Koehnline, Paul Rosen and Mark Giangrande. According to member Scott Marshall, these early-eighties Voidwatches inspired a generation of noisers, including Daniel Burke (also a WZRD DJ at one point, and the man behind the legendary Illusion of Safety industrial noise outfit), Michael Krause (who later became a longtime DJ at WZRD and also plays under “Death Factory”) and former Sonic Youth member Jim O’Rourke, who has produced records by artists including U.S. Maple, Faust, The Red Krayola and Wilco.
Many music fans know of noise music at least peripherally. They know that Sonic Youth did it sometimes between songs and often had noise bands open for them. Some know about Lou Reed’s “Metal Machine Music” or The Beatles’ “Revolution 9.” Plus, noisy elements are used in music, and musical elements are used in noise. The lines between the two are blurry. Artists like Derek Rogers, Andrew Quitter, Wilt and Jonathan Canady tread the line between noise and music—they’d fit nicely into a playlist alongside Brian Eno, Ennio Morricone or Tangerine Dream.
A lot of people consider noise music as a direction that somebody takes before becoming a musician, failing at becoming one or as a side project for letting loose. But for others, noise is the end and the means. For them, noise isn’t a type of music—it’s something else.
It’s impossible to put a finger on what defines noise. I spoke to more than a hundred people about what noise meant to them, and everyone had their own perspective. Some people believe all forms of sound can be music, and see the definition of noise as something that changes through time and with location, as it relates to music. Beethoven’s original ending to his symphony “The Great Fugue” was rejected by critics and seen as appallingly repellent—in context, even a symphony by Beethoven could be considered noise. Jazz and rock ’n‘ roll were initially considered “just” noise, and John Cage’s classic “4’33” (the performer sits in silence in front of the piano, only turning the pages of sheet music) agitated crowds and made them think about what made something music.
Noise isn’t necessarily limited to sound, either. Many noise pieces—like “4’33”—involve a performative aspect, and recordings themselves can be a tactile or visual experience. Chicago noise artist Joe Grimm uses modified 16mm projectors in conjunction with fan propellers to create rhythmic color swatches that he then runs through audio effects that are sensitive to the changing of light. It sounds like a conveyor belt about to go off at the hinges, but the colors change and pitches shift in tandem with each other. It’s not uncommon to see noise recordings released on floppy disk, minicassettes or 8-track cartridges. Lathe-cut records might be pressed on cardboard, discarded CDs, ice cream containers, fiberglass or even, in one case, on concrete. Releases may come bundled in leaves, taped to a block of concrete, wedged between rusted metal, dipped in latex, sewn into cage-like frames—or sealed inside an airtight bag with a dead rat.
I’ll take noise to mean something that is generally perceived as “too much information.” It may be because the sounds are jarring and foreign to the listener, cacophonous or unorganized. It could be because of sustained frequencies of distortion and feedback, loudness or sheer strangeness. A metal band might be loud, but the organized changes, choruses, breakdowns and shortness of the songs give the audience a break and a generally smoother ride.
As Brooklyn-based Billy Gomberg—of Fraufraulein and Delicate Sen—puts it, noise is “the overwhelming materiality of sound.” That phrase captures well what many noise artists do, like GX Jupitter-Larsen recording the sound of a live microphone slowly being ground down into dust, Canadian artist The Rita recording scuba-diving expeditions and skateboard escapades or the head of the Chicago sound space Enemy Jason Soliday, performing as part of the noise unit Magic Missile, using blinding lights and electronic drones for a handful of minutes until a fuse blows.
Clayton Counts sees noise as reaching further into human expressiveness than music. Counts is a former Chicago resident and current director of the online project Bull of Heaven, which has released thousands of recordings, some of which are over a year long in duration. Counts sees noise as reaching further than music can. Counts makes noise, he says, because “I want to be able to relate to human expressiveness on a deeper level; get beyond the surface ideas, the ego, pretenses, what have you, and way down into the id of music.”
Most people who turn to noise do so because they find something in it they couldn’t find in music. Andy Ortmann, the head of Nihilist Records, found noise when he realized he could truly exhibit the “unbridled nihilism” that he originally aimed to display through music. As industrial noise genre innovator Boyd Rice puts it, punk tried to achieve this, but really it was only rehashing the same chords from the 1955 rock standard “Louie Louie.” It was still catering to an emotional backdrop. Noise catered to a different part of the brain, resulting in something more reptilian.
There’s something about noise that appeals to our latent, deep-down, repressed selves. Noise awakens our animal selves. Patrick McCarthy of the duo Roth Mobot, who used to work at the Experimental Sound Studio and currently heads workshops on circuit bending, notes that MRI and CAT scans show that music lights up the entire brain. Noise, he says, “stimulates the listener’s ‘lizard brain’ and puts the listener in touch with the sounds and warnings of more primordial elements—fire, thunder, growls…” Noise, which often uses sounds that make some people feel panicky or nervous, appeals to our more instinctual selves. When people first listen to noise, they often feel something like the sympathetic system’s “fight-or-flight” response.
But once you get used to it, noise can help you to find a clearing in the mind, to reach a meditative state. When you have no idea what’s coming next, as Chicago art writer and editor Amelia Ishmael puts it, you become “hyper present.” It’s a state of active listening, one you can’t reach with music and the expectations that come with it.
Loosely interpreted, the philosophy behind noise is one of getting to the point or cutting the bullshit. Assumptions about audio are trimmed down, leaving rawness and perhaps even purity of expression. Others aim to take human influence out entirely. And there’s certainly a penchant for abstraction.
Noise’s roots go back to the turn of the century, beginning in 1913, when Italian painter and composer Luigi Russolo wrote a manifesto, “The Art of Noises,” in which he described a future where people would no longer be interested in the “sweetness of sounds” of structured music. Unsurprisingly, Russolo’s noise orchestras and noise devices were met with outrage, violence and destruction. As technology developed throughout the twentieth century, more people began experimenting with sound in new ways. In the thirties, Pierre Schaeffer was the first to use sampling techniques in recordings. He played records backward and at the wrong speed, and he manipulated the surface play area. In the hopes of disguising his stuttering, Alvin Lucier recorded narrations on a tape recorder, then recorded the sound of himself playing that recording over and over until they became an inarticulate echo. And around the same time, Iannis Xenakis, who pioneered mathematical processes and computer integration in music, used grinding metal and heavily manipulated voice in his recordings.
It was in the sixties that significant numbers of people began making the kinds of self-consciously “noisy” compositions noise artists make today. The first harsh noise artist might have been Robert Ashley. His 1964 piece “The Wolfman” was regarded as “a threat to a person’s health” because of its shrillness. Ashley practiced automatic writing and whispering, in which the words produced are thought to come from the practitioner’s subconscious, in order to see if something new would come up or to see if somebody might be a psychic medium. For the recording “Purposeful Lady, Slow Afternoon,” he asked women to speak of something immoral without any subjective attachment to what they described. In the recording, someone describes a lurid rape scene over the sound of church bells. Ashley’s work exhibited shrill sounds, paranormal leanings and graphic violence, all of which would become regular bedfellows with noise.
Avant-garde artist and minimalist La Monte Young contributed in the sixties as well to the development of the genre with his musical group, “Theatre of Eternal Music” performing drone pieces often more than two hours long that used singing bowls and bowed cymbals. Later on, Young made compositions from several layers of him scraping chairs against a floor.
In the sixties and early seventies, noise was regarded as electronic music or musique concrete, or the recording of nonmusical elements in order to render their sounds unrecognizable. But as disco and funk started using electronic music, the noise scene largely shifted to industrial noise. By the eighties, German industrial bands like Einsturzende Neubauten and SPK were using musique concrete techniques; as was the British industrial-cum-New Wave band Cabaret Voltaire. Some artists turned to punk as an outlet for transgressive expression, while others rejected it.
It was during the eighties that noise went from being a more academic experiment based in theory to a post-industrial pursuit in which sampling or performing with various machines—occasionally including concrete mixers and jackhammers—was part of the appeal. Sampling and loop-based compositions became more accessible. English music and visual arts group Throbbing Gristle, which was founded in 1975 and centered around the artist Genesis P-Orridge, coined the term “industrial music” and started the Industrial Records label. TG made plenty of music, but they also integrated Genesis P-Orridge’s personal take on cut up method, where they would juxtapose diametric philosophical opposites together in audio. Their work included a focus on pornography, violence and Nazi imagery.
The rhetoric noise people use is often one of breaking free of convention and charting new territory, but the reality is that there are plenty of expectations and limits. According to longtime Chicago noise artist Karl Paloucek, formerly of Shrilltower and Boy Dirt Car, among others, rules and restrictions were coming into play by the early eighties. “The rules were nebulous, but they were there, and pretty soon, it all began to look just as uniform as any other genre, with rare exception. Things like power electronics [noise with vocals, often dictations about negative scenarios] and extreme imagery were pretty much inseparable, and if you saw one, you had to expect the other. And over time, things have only become more rigidly defined, within a certain latitude.”
Paloucek cites all the electronic equipment that’s at the center of most noise groups. “Tabletops full of electronic gear were never really the point, to my thinking, but they long ago became the bass, drums and guitar of [noise]. Frankly, I love it when I see somebody doing noise in a way that involves something other than one hundred yards of patch cables.”
Noise represents a limitless palette, a world of possibility, a negation of form; but it does have its trappings. Many noise shows exploit novelty and presuppose rebellion, when they’re actually just showing off a bunch of gear or preaching perversions to the converted. But innovation continues, and sincerity and inspiration peek out from ineffectual posturing. A woman who goes by the name Kevin Shields has a junk-yard gear shift console she constantly cranks as she applies effects, creating sharp, rhythmic sinews that build pressure, sounding both synthetic and organic.
In 2003, French Canadian Jean Francois LaPorte sat at a small portable desk he had made, adjusting the gauges of an air compressor. Six pipes extended from the center to the corners of the room, their fanning ends covered with balloon material. As he adjusted the gauges, at first I only heard a slight hissing by my right ear, but over the course of the half-hour-long performance, the ripping became volatile, and at moments I felt like the air was coming out of my ears, but in surround sound. Noise can be loud and practically silent at the same time.
In an interview from the nineties, Japanese noise artist Masami Akita, who founded the first noise label in 1982 and is considered one of the most important people in noise, describes noise as “the unconscious of music.” He says he makes so much noise—he has hundreds of releases—because it creates a type of artificial silence to combat the loudness of Tokyo.
Noise is unavoidable, but creating, crafting and choosing to listen to it can be a form of therapy. Perhaps that’s why so many people who attend noise shows are actively involved in noise themselves—they want to be part of the process, they want to create their own noises. Richard Syska (his stage name is “Animal Talking School”), a former DJ at WZRD and former co-owner of the now-defunct experimental venue Nervous Center, puts it eloquently: “Whether you live in the country or the city, noise is a constant inescapable part of our natural environment. Even the deaf experience noise through unwanted or unnoticed vibration. It is ubiquitous… So in a way I see noise music as a way of controlling and reshaping our environment. An elevation of the unwanted or mundane everyday to the point of transcendence. And there is the challenge, in an environment that is saturated with noise, how do you create a novel and exciting experience?”
Noise isn’t a selling point as much as it is a boiling point. Noise is a blank slate. It’s the metadata of the creative impulse, or a crass imposition upon our creativity. It’s both an intrusion and a means of escape. In the words of noise artist Jonathan Enrique Barajas, of the groups I Am Foresight and OKTO Media, “It is equally primitive and evolved in philosophy; equally pre-human and post-industrial. Noise is there when you need it.”
Getting Started with Noise
NON—“Blood & Flame”
A 1986 masterpiece made by Boyd Rice, the first artist signed to Mute Records in 1980. “Blood & Flame” amalgamates source material like backwards Wagner, jets taking off and the sound of piano strings vibrating wildly from huge amplifiers placed underneath them. Rice carves granite out of these crazy little machine ditties of lava, grit and magic. The album was made using piles and piles of primitive tape recorders to do makeshift tape splicing without a mixer or a 4-track. I wouldn’t have been able to recognize most of the sounds on this record—the only reason I know this about “the instruments” is because I read it in an interview, or heard him say it.
Desmond Leslie—“Music of The Future”
“Music of the Future” was made inside a castle in the 1950s by Desmond Leslie. Leslie, a Spitfire pilot, wrote the first book on flying saucers and fancied himself a filmmaker for some time. During the making of the film “The Day The Sky Fell In,” Leslie, realizing the film had reached its budget, decided to finish making the soundtrack to the film himself. Leslie had no prior musical experience, but, in a much more lighthearted take than you’d expect from somebody in his position, he created a wacky, sci-fi conception of experimental electronic music that uses primitive, complicated, heaping electronics. This album sat on acetate for over forty years before some bona fide saint at the British label Trunk Records released it. Tape loops of buzzing bees, pitch shifted car engines, mattress springs and broken pianos wriggle around heavy waves of reverb. It’s quite musical actually, but it’s a good, fun-loving introduction to the concept of musique concrete and electroacoustic music. Plus, don’t you want to hear, as the liner notes put it, “a descent into hell by electric elevator while ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggidy beasties fill the lift-shaft with their own ideas of what is suitable to welcome a new arrival?”
The first in a series curated by Paul Lemos of Controlled Bleeding, this 1985 album is a collection of a wide array of sounds, often primal and gritty. Sex noises, moaning, metal grinding, the slowed-down sound of a road-weary and rustic tugboat. My favorite is by Vivenza, whose psycho acoustic recordings sound like loop-based layers of factory machines. People still argue as to whether he actually recorded factory sounds or if he replicated them. Jarboe does several stereo layers of chanting and screaming that eventually lead up to five seconds of piercing feedback. P16D4 does a loop of a synthetic effect phrase that ends up sounding like missiles being launched one after the other, from left ear to right, over and over, while radio transmissions and doom-laden humming peak out threateningly from around the corner. Maybe Mental takes a sample of a drill bit going into an unfortunate guitar pickup while feedback of both the low and and high frequency variety permeate the outer regions of the mix. In the background—well, I’m not sure if it’s screaming or scrap metal getting smashed. There’s a lot of feedback on this album, but what’s notable is the recurring of radio, delay, reverb, tape machines and synthesizers to create a snarling attack-mode sound that is normally only executed with a lot of distortion. Not pure noise, but when it’s good, it’s really good.
Hans Grüsel’s Krankenkabinet—“Blaue Blooded Türen”
“Hans” is supposedly a German synth wizard who moved to San Francisco in the seventies because of his fascination with “the explosive psychedelic cardboard scene.” His “Krankenkabinet” turns out to be an entourage of puppet-looking people straight out of a Ray Harryhausen animation, only they have something like gingerbread houses on their heads. Sometimes they do covers of songs like “Me & Mein Shadow” or “Tea Fur Two,” but on the 2008 “Blaue Blooded Turen” they have released a synth noise indigestion release, with three parts: “Storm Und Drang,” “Blooded Door” and a soundtrack to Dallas Bower’s “Alice In Wonderland.” Occasionally a jangled fiddle comes in over the burps and farts of dying sirens. It’s followed by climactic choo choo trains, fake crickets, still-born circuses, epic blips and bloops or just plain creakiness.
This is the sound of “Speaker Constructions.” Scott Konzelmann, aka CHOP SHOP, first active in the mid-eighties, recorded machine sounds and various kinds of immovable static onto cheap reel-to-reel decks, broadcasting them through speakers he’d made with pieces of old furnaces and scrap metal. He tried to capture the rattling and humming of stressed speaker cones, rather than avoid it—he embraced the audio residue. He expressed this concept both as sound installations in art galleries as well as through performances at underground noise shows. On this 2008 release, Konzelmann finds old reels from his early days soiled from water damage. Rather than restoring them with hiss removal or careful editing, various kinds of decay and quality loss are upheld as rewards. The result is a crude, steamy sound that is both lively and coldly unemotional.