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Serious Racket 

The intersection of art and decibels

Wednesday, Mar 13 2002
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ALTHOUGH LATELY I'VE BEEN tending more toward Thomas Mapfumo and the Tallis Scholars, there was a time when I had to listen to Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music at least once a day to ease my troubled mind. I even had it on 8-track. MMM, the 1975 double album of dense, assaultive electronic noise that rang the death knell for Lou's career as a glam-rock star, constituted what remains -- artistically -- the greatest fuck-you to the rock-music industry ever, and acted as the cornerstone for a subgenre of pop music that is so conventionally unlistenable that it has managed to avoid absorption into the mainstream -- in its purist form at least, a form with a substantial overlap in the visual arts and roots dating back to Italian Futurist Luigi Russolo's 1913 manifesto "The Art of Noises."

In its impure state, the influence of Noise music could be said to encompass bands from the Jesus and Mary Chain to My Bloody Valentine to Nine Inch Nails to Radiohead. All Tomorrow's Parties curators Sonic Youth occupy a unique and unusually wide bandwidth of the noise spectrum, having started as droning racketeers in the post-no-wave New York scene of the early '80s, assailed the charts with such palatable fare as 1990's Goo, and brought David Geffen to Nirvana -- all the while maintaining their cacophonic credibility with regular forays into the amorphous underworld of not-organized sound, such as 1998's breathtakingly random Silver Session (For Jason Knuth) CD, Lee Ranaldo's solo noise-loop groove fest From Here š Infinity, and the series of experimental discs on SYR leading up to the name-checking tour de force Goodbye Twentieth Century. Many of said checked names are firmly intertwined with the world of historically significant Western "serious" music -- John Cage, Pauline Oliveros, Steve Reich and Christian Wolff, as well as avant-garde compositionally oriented Fluxus sound artists George Maciunus and Yoko Ono.

Ono is another important early link. After the Beatles' "Revolution No. 9," my first exposure to her music was when I mistook her Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band album for John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, and, instead of the angst-ridden folk rock of "Working Class Hero," found myself listening to "Greenfield Morning I Pushed an Empty Baby Carriage All Over the City"'s layers of modal warbling, droning sitar (courtesy G. Harrison), bird calls and percussion. She had worked in NYC with Cage, David Tudor and Ornette Coleman, as well as LaMonte Young -- whose collectively composed Pythagorean drone chamber works were one of the roots of . . . the Velvet Underground. To top it all, Ono hails from Japan, which, with the possible exception of Austria, remains the only country to embrace noise on a sweeping cultural level, having given birth to such atonal phenomena as Merzbow and Boredoms, both of whom are appearing on Day 3's bill of ATP, alongside L.A./Detroit art damagistes Destroy All Monsters and Young protégé Tony Conrad.

After the emergence of noise as a legitimate record-collecting category in the late '80s, a remarkable amount of archival material has been brought forth, including substantial contributions from these last two. DAM first became demifamous as a late-'70s Detroit punk band featuring ex-Stooges guitarist Ron Asheton and prototypical punk chick Niagara on vocals. In their first, pre-punk incarnation, DAM had been a loosey-goosey, we-don't-need-no-steenkin-chord-progressions improvisational collective, who matched their sonic experimentation with an early collagist zine.

When founding members Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw headed out West for art-world glory, the band metamorphosed into its more ordered incarnation. In the mid-'90s, Kelley used the accumulated cultural cachet of his art career to orchestrate the release of three CDs' worth of scrappy home recordings from circa 1975. These lo-fi documents, ranging from garage-band parodies of the MC5 to Sun Ra­inspired freak-outs, retroactively established the original lineup of Kelley, Shaw, Niagara and filmmaker Carey Loren as an ä PG. 38 important presence in the history of noise, and the re-formed group has performed annually and released several live CDs -- keeping noise-fan interest high while avoiding assimilation into the somewhat genteel world of academic sound art.

Lord knows how many similar archives exist around the world -- given that noise requires no virtuosity, no knowledge of English and only limited technology, plenty I bet. But Kelley and Shaw's art-world pull, understanding of history's mutability, and senses of humor and possibility allowed the group, based on a boxful of cassettes, to construct a cult mythology and insert it into the hipster canon. While none of their CDs is likely to go platinum, they've already achieved the art-world equivalent of a Grammy -- inclusion of a series of collaborative murals depicting their Motor City subcultural heritage (plus a collage video by Loren) in this year's Whitney Biennial. Their occasional live appearances have perpetuated the something-out-of-nothing mythology of the band's miraculous and retroactive resurrection, and their performance on Saturday promises to be no less.

TONY CONRAD IS ANOTHER MASTER revisionist, though there's far more documentation for his claim to early-'60s experimentalist consequence -- it's just that LaMonte Young won't let anybody see it. Young, originally a 1950s L.A. jazz saxophonist, moved to New York and invented minimalism, forming the Theatre of Eternal Music (sometimes a.k.a. the Dream Syndicate) to explore the possibilities of drawn-out droning improvised microtonal music. John Cale and Angus MacLise -- two of the founding members of the Velvet Underground -- were in the group, as was Conrad. Conrad's experience was one of collective composition, but after the group split apart, Young consolidated his territorial privileges by claiming sole compositional credit for what was to become a highly influential approach to both improvisational sound making and institutional composition.

But Young, an idiosyncratic perfectionist, refused to release any of the recordings made during the early '60s, and has since recorded only sporadic small editions of his later music. By the mid-'90s, Conrad, realizing that "Young wanted me to die without hearing my music," undertook a laborious four-CD re-creation of the Dream Syndicate sound, as well as unearthing an archival recording from 1965 whose release Young attempted to block. The disputed authorship of the droning layers of viola, violin, voice and percussion running through Day of Niagara became a cause célèbre in avant-rock and new-music chat rooms, and Young put up a million-page rant on the Internet defending his claim. The collateral brouhaha is significant mostly for allowing us the opportunity to experience Conrad's version of this music live.

Merzbow and Boredoms are the two most famous entities to emerge from the enormous and unlikely Japanese noise scene. There are lots of theories as to why Japan should have such an affinity for noise, ranging from genetics to Hiroshima to sudden dietary changes, but for whatever reason, in the immediate wake of punk rock there sprang up an entire subculture of raucous minimalists who finally wed the songless mixture of mulched electronic rhythms, overdriven hardware, musique concrète collage aesthetics and tinnitus-inducing feedback with rock & roll performance vernacular. Through the endorsement of Sonic Youth and John Zorn, Boredoms, whose thrashy patchwork of cartoon punk and abrasive electronics was couched in theatrically extravagant stage presence (and graphic-design presentation), garnered an enormous buzz and a now-unimaginable contract with Warner Reprise. Well, things didn't work out, and Boredoms, saved from household-name status, veered improbably into trippy danceable prog-rock pedal fests -- entirely credible, and endearing to a generation of remix-crazy club kids, but far from their chaotic roots. Live, however, they've been known to regress, so their L.A. performance might still require earplugs.

Merzbow, whose stage name derives from the one-man movement of Dada collagist and sound artist Kurt Schwitters, has also mellowed his sound in recent years -- but there's always been a thin line (about 70 decibels, I'd say) between the densest noise and the most serene ambient drone. Merzbow's output is ridiculously prolific -- in 2000 he released the 50-CD Merzbox, which traced his 20-year arc from cassette-culture cut-and-paste explorations to late-'80s noise god to '90s avant-garde institution. In spite of his recent penchant for psychedelic flourishes and less-than-gut-rattling sonic bombardment, Masami Akita has kept one foot in the purist noise camp, and if his performance as Merzbow proves less visceral, his collaboration with Soho artist Russell Haswell as Satan's Tornade is guaranteed hardcore.

The kind of legitimacy accorded to academically supported noisy composers like Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Phil Niblock and Rhys Chatham has consistently eluded the noise musicians in the art world and popular culture, in spite of the latter gang's equally elaborate if historically less secure genealogy, far vaster discography of important work, and immeasurably more vital presence in the world. In the first two cases, you can do research on your own time. For proof of the last, ATP provides an unprecedented opportunity to experience the difference for yourself.LA

Destroy All Monsters plays at UCLA's Royce Hall, Merzbow and Boredoms at Ackerman Grand Ballroom, and Tony Conrad at Kerckhoff Hall, Saturday, March 16.

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