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Sound and Beyond 

The music of art, the art of music

Wednesday, Jul 17 2002

The history of modern art is littered with grand attempts to summarily dismiss the boundaries separating Art and Life -- all of which inevitably fail due to lack of widespread comprehension and acceptance. A more successful and contemporary approach is to pick a particular niche of culture -- narrative filmmaking, say -- and persistently whittle away at its conventions until you can’t tell where the corporate directed-by-committee movie ends and the visionary auteurism begins. Of course, assaulting the battlements of commercial popular culture provokes the greatest resistance, and it‘s usually more productive to blur the boundaries of forms that nobody on the outside really pays much attention to. New Music, for example.

A couple of years ago at Angels Gate Park in San Pedro, CalArts grad and Whitney vet Cindy Bernard began drawing names out of a hat to form a series of improvisational trios. Among the names were classically trained sight-readers, visual artists, downtown noise scenesters, punk vets and Los Angeles Free Music Society (LAFMS) alumni, and the groups that resulted led to a regular experimental performance series called ”Sound“ at a Pedro coffeehouse. In the summer of 2000, ”Sound“ moved to the considerably more prestigious MAK Schindler House on King’s Road in West Hollywood.

Over two years, the series has evolved from a continuation of the local artimprov coffeehouse bookings into an internationally known showcase for improvisational music, and the local stopover for new-music stars like Pauline Oliveros and Glenn Branca. A few weeks ago, ”Sound“ had to turn away many dozens from the door of James Tenney‘s performance of John Cage’s ”Sonatas and Interludes.“ The weekend before, ”Sound“ (www.sassas.org) celebrated the release of a two-CD collection of live performances culled from three years of recordings. Alternating dense, burbling accumulations of tape loops, musical saws and rickety analog synths with spooky, meandering solo instrumental improvs, the discs possess unusual dynamics and an organic inclusiveness that manages to locate deep-listening guru Oliveros in the same world with perpetual Germ Don Bolles without cracking.

The borderlines among sound art, experimental music and contemporary composition used to be clearer, policed by mutual disdain. Sharing the same tiny ghetto in the rear-corner record store bins and 2-to-5-a.m. airwaves, the practitioners of these various strains of what a friend once summarized colorfully as ”unlistenable, self-indulgent crap“ gradually began to realize that they were playing to the same audience. In particular, the classical-music world firmly rebuffed the avant-garde electronics of Cage, Stockhausen, Reich, et al., only grudgingly according them a piece of the action when they began scoring for traditional chamber groups. Others who persisted in making unparsable rackets found themselves welcomed and understood by a fringe community of artists, writers and post--New Thing, post-psychedelic, post-punk DIY musicians. In the last few years, thanks in no small part to the Internet and the widespread availability of almost anything that‘s ever been recorded, there has been an enormous upsurge of popular interest in this former backwater, as evidenced by the success of the Sonic Youth--curated All Tomorrow’s Parties at UCLA.

While the next ATP, set to be curated by Matt Groening, remains a cipher (Let‘s see -- Danny Elfman and . . . um . . .), there’s already a buzz building over the recently announced ”Turnament“ event set to be part of UCLA Performing Arts‘ November lineup. Curated by David Cotner, noise artist and Webmaster of the Hertz-lion.com clearinghouse of experimental-music information, the two-night event is an abbreviated Who’s Who of experimental vinyl collagists ranging from Plunderphonics tycoon John Oswald, to Grand Wizzard Theodor (undisputed inventor of scratching), to missing link Boyd Rice, who seems to be more famous for teasing televangelist Bob Larson than for the influential industrial records he produced as Non. Many of the participants -- like the retro-tech pranksters at Videovinyl™, who invented and marketed a wonky, instantly obsolete analog-video medium -- are virtual unknowns outside the art world.

More than 250 virtual unknowns -- Jim Shaw and Bruce Yonemoto are probably the most famous contributors -- participated in a project that finally had its L.A. debut in the project room of Rosamund Felsen Gallery last month. Steven Hull‘s ”Song Poems“ project, many years in the making, took the names-from-a-hat strategy to mind-boggling extremes, mixing and matching artists and musicians to produce an overwhelming, kaleidoscopic array of recordings, videos, package designs and posters, and even some custom lounge furniture from which to brave the bombardment. Hull, whose paintings inspired me to coin the term ”Godawfulism,“ shows another side here, as fecund facilitator of improbable hybrids. Although the show closed July 6, copies of the recordings and videos are available through the gallery to anyone who wants to sift through the material in the comfort of his own home.

Between the recent past and the far future of November there are innumerable sound-art events scheduled. Bernard’s ”Sound“ project will be promoting ”SoundCd No. 1“ with a concert at Amoeba Music next Thursday, July 25, featuring the inevitable Nels Cline and a gaggle of local improvisers playing real good for free. The following Saturday, ”Sound“‘s next official concert offers a site-specific multimedia improvisational environment designed for the Schindler House by LAFMS’s Joe Potts and collaborators. The weekend after that sees the return of Brandon LaBelle‘s Beyond Music Festival to Beyond Baroque. Kicking off with a one-night free event at Art Center featuring Fluxus glitch pioneer Yasunao Tone and 1999 World Trade Center audio-artist-in-residence Stephen Vitiello, this year’s three-day event continues to tread a fine line between electroacoustic field recordings and electronic noise with regulars like sound-light-architecture-audience interrogator Achim Wollscheid and ex--Crawling With Tarts ”Surface Noise Opera“ turntablist Michael Gendreau, as well as local faves like Julie Adler and Spastic Colon.

One of the side effects of the continuing legitimization of experimental music is its sudden appearance as a cutting-edge topic of discourse in academe. Over the past few years, universities have begun to publish learned volumes, hire professors, sponsor conferences and create whole departments devoted partially or entirely to noisemaking. One such conference, scheduled simultaneously and titled similarly to LaBelle‘s festival, is taking place at UC Santa Barbara. ”Beyond Noise,“ organized by the Center for Research in Electronic Art Technology (CREATE), an interdisciplinary subdepartment of UCSB’s music school, will address noise in its literal form -- in two nights of concerts by Ron Kuivila, Mark Trayle and others -- as well as through the presentation of academic papers, a workshop led by SuperCollider audio-program author James McCartney and a keynote address by Jacques Attali, whose 1985 book, Noise: The Political Economy of Music, cast modernist dissonance in an explicitly political light.

This sudden interest is due, to a certain extent, to academia‘s need for new buzzworthy material every couple of years, but is also indicative of the tremendous influx of excluded subversive creative activity that is being piggybacked into the Ivory Tower under the umbrella of digital arts. Whether this admixture turns out to be a Trojan horse that topples the lofty fortress of academic music, or merely the latest subcultural blip to be absorbed and disarmed by the guardians of official culture, is, in all probability, another question that needs to be whittled away. Less than a year ago, just before the WTC attack, Gary Todd, founder of CorticalOrgan of Corti Records, organizer of the enormously ambitious 1998 experimental-music fest ”Beyond the Pink“ (What’s with Beyond?) and key figure in the LAFMS revival, landed on his head off a third-story balcony, and was long listed in critical condition at UCLA. Many feared the worst, and some took the tragedy as a portent of the end of the Los Angeles experimental scene. But Todd emerged from his coma, and has been very gradually improving. The high energy and DIY spirit that characterize the Cortical Foundation continue to be the guiding principles of L.A.‘s incremental assaults on the borders between life and art. Which, against (or beyond) all expectations, are proliferating wildly. Go out and dig. Get your ears dirty.

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