The art of noise

The idea of noise as music is perhaps less complicated than one might think, but it is also a concept which might require further explanation to the uninitiated. As a genre, noise lies at the convergence of several avant-garde traditions (particularly modern classical music and experimental/free jazz). This is music that is not music, so much so that one ongoing Canadian noise festival is simply called No Music. It is sound as art: mostly without rhythm, mostly without form, mostly at volumes that make the windows rattle. For the uninitiated, imagine this: a wall of feedback quickly changing in texture and distortion level, occasionally dropping or rising in tone. It is, for some, excruciating. For others, it is both magical and inspiring.

Sacramento’s own noise community held its seventh annual program this past weekend. The Northern California Experimental Music Festival’s opening night at Luna’s featured an evening of “harsh noise,” and the promise of that label was certainly upheld. From the performance of Tulare-based Pedestrian Deposit to the sonic attack of San Francisco’s Xome, the sound generated was harsh but also textured and interesting.

What the performances were not, though, is varied, at least not to any appreciable degree. Interestingly, Friday night’s performances displayed a heavy focus on the use of contact microphones, most often manifested in the form of a contact mic placed in a small metal box with some kind of rattling element (such as ball bearings) inside. The performer holds the metal box, swings it through the air, beats it against a tabletop, etc., and the signal then travels through a tabletop full of effects pedals. Half of the performance is the artist rattling the box, and the other half is the artist pounding on his effects pedals.

Because the majority of the evening’s performances were based on this instrumental model, the overall effect was that of the same performance repeated over and over again. Each performer was terrific, and each had his own particular noise style (and I particularly enjoyed both PCRV of Billings, Mont., and San Francisco’s Stimbox). But on the whole, one couldn’t help feeling that the avant-garde should be a bit more avant-garde. The noise was certainly present, but imagination, at least during the first evening, seemed in short supply.

If there can be any expectation for the noise community, it is that it does not (and, in fact, cannot) follow trends. But, alas, it seems as if there are strong trends even within this community. When there are so many other forms of sound available—both acoustic and electric—one wonders why some of these ultimate creators have stumbled along the creative path. Not to say that there weren’t other sources of noise present during the weekend’s festivities, but the opening night’s set wasn’t nearly as varied as it could have been. So much for the avant-garde.