The art of noise
The Bay Area is a hotbed for musicians who experiment with tape collage, insect noise, amplified toothbrushes, industrial waste -- even the kitchen sink
by Mike Rowell
In a barn-like performance space at Paradigm Studios in Oakland, A Limbic System is playing in the center of the audience. Several band members are rhythmically banging and clanging on a veritable scrap yard of metal, including springs, bells and sawed-off nitrous tanks. In the midst of this din, Limbic System member Homo Phlegm is brushing his teeth.
But he's not using just any toothbrush. Phlegm's giving his pearly whites a thorough scrubbing with a brush attached to a contact microphone, with the sound distorted, run through a series of effects and heavily amplified. The resultant unholy noise is grating, bewildering and hysterical. "When you make sounds and people don't know what they are," Phlegm later says of his unorthodox brushing technique, "it makes them think."
A Limbic System is one of several projects by a loose collective of Oakland-based noise artists; other configurations include Confusion in a Jar and Warm Phlegm. Their music varies from soundtracks for nonexistent films to out-there improvisation to flat-out noise. They market their music through do-it-yourself home tape labels. They're a small segment of a larger community of Bay Area sound manipulators who have been tirelessly recording their offbeat musical visions for years, using all manner of instruments, effects, found sounds, samplers, modified household objects, tape loops and anything else at hand, including, no doubt, the kitchen sink.
While some perform live, many never go beyond the anonymity of a four-track recorder in their living room. Most are denizens of a worldwide cassette-trading subculture that traces its musical and conceptual roots back to the works of Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire, Nurse With Wound, Zoviet France and a host of other industrial/experimental artists.
The parameters of this genre are blurry, often bordering on improvcore, New Age, even performance art. Sounds vary widely, from all-consuming noise to near silence, with everything imaginable -- and unimaginable -- in between. Sometimes it sounds like a brooding film score or jazz in a blender. But it might also bear resemblance to several records skipping simultaneously, a bad wreck at the Indy 500 or what a bug in an electric motor would hear. Vocals and standard musical structures are scarce. Moods are communicated more often than melodies. The only rule of the game is that there aren't any rules. Sound itself is of the essence, whether it's tape collages, tranquil tones or unrelenting, crushing cacophony.
Label it what you will: industrial, post-industrial, avant-garde, difficult noise. Experimental perhaps best describes the material's hit-or-miss quality: The music's DIY nature leads to a fair number of ill-conceived, poorly recorded audio abominations. But just as often experimental music can be mesmerizing, engrossing, narcotic. "You worry less that something's going to work," Brook Hinton, a veteran of the local experimental music community, says. "The point is that it has to be tried."
Even those involved aren't sure what to call their sonic creations. "We've been watching a lot of adjectives that we thought described us being used to describe other things," Hinton reflects. "It's a difficult thing to define. I call it 'post music.'" John Gullak, whose "No Other Radio Network" show on KPFA highlights local experimental musicians, jokingly tags it "actual music," because a fellow DJ once got a phone call from a listener who wanted to know when he was going to play some actual music.
Historically, the Bay Area has been a fertile breeding ground for experimental music, with such artists as Monte Cazazza, Z'ev, Rhythm and Noise, and Negativland.
Wakened by Silence, a two-tape compilation released in 1991 by San Francisco's Charnel House Productions, proves that the region continues to be hotbed of boundary-pushing music. Featuring 26 local artists, the compilations offers sonic textures including Windowpain Industries' Durutti Column-like dreamscapes, Allegory Chapel Ltd.'s rendition of a subway in hell, Chemical Playbox's potpourri of found sounds and the repetitive, mind-numbing white noise of the Haters. According to compendium assembler Mason Jones, he put Wakened by Silence together in part to document the area's vibrant but often low-profile experimental community. "Any city that can pull together two hours of stuff without too much effort is clearly pretty active," Jones says.
One of the artists on Wakened by Silence, the Oakland-based Crawling With Tarts, illustrates the span of experimental music. Since 1983, Mic Gendreau and Suzanne Dycus, the core of CWT, have released more than 20 cassettes, on their own ASP label and others. The recordings range from musique concrete collages, to quirky improv on homemade instruments, to more conventionally instrumented song structures, often featuring Suzanne's airy, wistful vocals. CWT's open-ended creative method leads them to some unusual instruments and sound sources. Gendreau once placed a contact microphone near a spider's web and taped the sound of a trapped fly, which he described as "an accelerating buzz. (They later used this sound during an "Insect Concert" at the Oakland Museum.)
Although both Gendreau and Dycus are able to competently play several conventional instruments, they often de-tune instruments or intentionally avoid them, instead opting to create musical devices with electric motors, palm frond, window weights and other found objects. "I don't buy very many instruments," Gendreau explains. "We live in West Oakland; you'd be surprised what you can find in the street."
Experimental music thrives in recorded form, on homemade tapes and on local labels like Charnel House, Subterranean and Silent Records. In the past, such venues as Club Foot and 455 10th Street specialized in giving Bay Area experimental musicians a live outlet. These days, no one club gives these artists precedence, although some, like the Heinz Afterworld Lounge and the Kennel Club, host the occasional experimental lineup.
Lower Haight's Auricular Records also regularly showcases experimental musicians. For nearly three years, owner/operator Alan Herrick has hosted in-store performances, providing local musicians with a focal point and forum for experimentation. At one recent Auricular performance, Brook Hinton manipulated the sound of two tea kettles whistling. At another, dAS from Big City Orchestra used the sound of the cash register to create a dense drone of layered delay loops.
In addition to serving as a hub for the experimental community, Auricular Records publishes a small catalog of local musicians, and a monthly audio magazine featuring artists from the Bay Area and elsewhere. Herrick has a personal interest in promoting the local experimental community, having worked with a number of local artists, including his own project, Nux Vomica. "It's a rather incestuous crowd of people," he says. "We swap members all the time."
What the future hold for the Bay Area experimental music scene depends on whom you talk to. The cassette culture upon which it was built is ailing; several artists report a substantial drop in the number of tapes they are selling. People cite various causes of this decline: the recession, the demise of review-zines like Factsheet Five, the loss of interest from aficionados who move on to other things as experimental techniques are absorbed into more mainstream forms of music, the rise of the CD.
Monte Cazazza, who has been involved in experimental music since his collaborations with Throbbing Gristle and Factrix in the late '70s, and who reputedly coined the term "industrial music," says experimental music is in a "semi-stagnant period." "In some ways, the new technology is making it easier to record high-quality product, but harder to distribute it," Cazazza says. "Before, it was a lot more democratic: If you wanted to put a single out, you just scraped the money together. Now you have to put out a CD."
But Cazazza, who has just released his first CD, The Worst of Monte Cazazza, adds that he foresees a resurgence of experimental music. "I think it's the lull before the storm," he says. "There's a lot of interesting stuff going on, but it's hard to find out about. I think the potential is there for a huge explosion."
Silent Records President Kim Cascone, who started the San Francisco label five years ago as a vehicle for his own experimental project, PGR, has expanded the label into a distributorship specializing in experimental music from around the globe. Recently, Cascone began distributing techno. He predicts that the rise of dance music like techno, and the "ambient music rooms" at raves, may actually be a boon for other forms of experimental sound. "The people who are going to raves and are interested in techno are also branching out and developing an interest in ambient and industrial music," Cascone says. "There's a whole new generation of people out there who are only now discovering experimental music."
Typed by Cheryl Vega 6-3-95