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The Fraternal Disorder of Noise

by Ben Portis

(delivered at the Guelph Jazz Festival Colloquium, Sept. 8, 1999)


This is a report on the No Music Festival,

a new noise-based formulation of the radical-music

festival which has run in two annual editions since 1998 in

nearby London, Ontario. Before heading into an artistic

consideration of No Music, it is important to say something about

the nature of this festival's accomplishment. Even disregarding

the critical reception to No Music-- and the critical response

has been emphatic and exhilarated -- the festival has been a huge

success, measured along the less definable terms of locality.

London is prosperous, sophisticated, and discriminating, a

cautious city in which it has been famously difficult to foster

support for the unproven, especially in the arts. Improbably,

the No Music Festival has managed to puncture this conservatism.

It attracts a primarily local audience in impressive numbers,

especially given the suspicions attached to noise and its

underground status virtually everywhere. No Music has not only

cultivated its own identity and specificity, but furthermore

everyone in attendance has grasped that the aberrant, nefarious,

and splintered forms of noise undergo an onsite reconstruction at

the festival, to be seen anew as creative, conversant, and deeply

expressive of human feeling.

The grassroots topology of the No Music Festival developed

as organically and is as deeply imbedded in its (unlikely) host

community as is its centerpiece group, the Nihilist Spasm Band.

The band formed in 1965 in a flourishing visual-arts-dominated

cultural enclave within London. For most of its existence it has

been regarded as an eccentric artists' repudiation of musical

conventions. This perception has been underscored by the

conspicuous presence of important artists within its membership,

notably Greg Curnoe, Murray Favro, and John Boyle. The

reputations of these individuals in the field of Canadian

painting and sculpture miscast them as leaders within the NSB and

also distorted the centrality of the Spasm Band within the

creative lives of all of its members, for whom it was assumed to

be a side project or an avocation (in either case a misreading of


Since the mid-90's, the prejudices which adhered to the NSB

began to fall away. In 1992, the unexpected death of Curnoe, its

most visible and charismatic member, led to a surprise non-event:

the continued activity of the band. Just prior to this, the NSB

had been contacted by Alchemy Records of Osaka, Japan, which

perceived in the Spasm Band's three obscure early LPs of 1968,

1978 and 1985, precursors to the ardent Japanese noise subculture

promoted by the label. Alchemy eventually re-released all of the

historic NSB records and added three CDs of new material to the

discography. Timely and effective distribution of these records

put the band before a worldwide audience of new listeners, which

included musicians. In 1997, the NSB gave its first performances

in the USA and Japan. Yet, as the band was being discovered and

celebrated around the world, its anachronistic reputation as

amateurs persisted in London and Southern Ontario.

The No Music Festival was conceived in 1997 to rehabilitate

and reconcile the band to its beloved hometown. It was also

intended to reciprocate the artistic forays the NSB had taken to

such locales as Tokyo, Osaka, Chicago, and New York and introduce

representative musicians and anti-musicians from those cities on

the NSB's own turf. Most importantly, the festival symbolically

synthesized a coherence and exchange within the highly disparate

and various realm of practice loosely termed noise. Every

participant was pushed out of his own biases and isolations. The

prejudices surrounding noise -- deviant, anti-social, negative,

monolithic -- were refuted and reversed. Noise was demonstrated

to be an intensively creative field which called upon new musical

skills and demanded new modes of listening. Noise showed itself

to be a mode of sustenance. As NSB-member John Boyle observed:

"In a sense the No Music Festival was post-nihilistic because it

was totally constructive, forging a new sonic language from the

rubble of the old order. Best of all, the collaborative

intensity was so much fun for the participants that the usual

barriers of communication -- showmanship, posturing, musical

biases, even the space between the performers and the audience –

completely disappeared".

What are we referring to here as noise? There are several

features to noise music that would seem to be requisite, except

when they are not. Amplification has become a pervasive fact in

the modern presentation of music. It is an obvious precondition.

For noise artists the amplifier (and the several intermediary

pedals and effects between note and noise) cease to be agents of

transmission, but rather a total instrument system. Distortion

and feedback are developed into an extreme force which the

confronts the musician himself (and his fellow performers) as

much as the listener. (Exceptions swiftly arise: each edition of

No Music included performers -- Van's Peppy Syncopators in 1998,

Fred Van Hove/Ken Vandermark in 1999 -- who utilized the immediate

acoustic opportunities of the Aeolian Hall venue, which

customarily houses a chamber music society.) Noise also can be

said to essentialize elements of hard rock, removing the song

base, the rhythms, the patterns, the integration, and the method.

That naked sound might receive a spontaneous ensemble treatment,

associated with jazz and improvised music, while jettisoning

tradition, individuation, and chordal and metric substructures.

However, the Nihilist Spasm Band (whose members in 1965 were

already well-acquainted with the burgeoning free jazz of Ayler,

Shepp, and company) confounded any analogies between its music

and "new thing" jazz made for the sake of categorization.

Perhaps it is best to proceed with a statement as to what noise

clearly is not. Noise is not silence! (But it can be quiet.)

Performers at the first 1998 No Music Festival, in addition

to the NSB, included Thurston Moore and Alan Licht from New York;

Terri Kapsalis, John Corbett, and Hal Rammel (together known as

Van’s Peppy Syncopators) from the Chicago-Milwaukee axis; Knurl

from Toronto; and Aya Ohnishi, Junko, and Jojo Hiroshige from

Osaka. (Besides being a guitarist, Jojo is president of Alchemy

Records.) The festival was intended as a one-off, but it proved

so inspiring that everyone immediately agreed that it must be

done again. Fortunately, Tim Glasgow and Jason Bellchamber had

the foresight to record every note of the festival performances.

Doubly fortunate, those recordings turned out well and confirmed

what everyone suspected. The complete festival recordings were

independently released on the tiny London label, Entartete Kunst.

The never-quite-titled 6-CD box set has become a second-

generation phenomenon, reaching well beyond the brevity of the

original event. Over the past six months, it has been championed

by music critics around the world, both as a thing in itself and

for indicating, more so than the Spasm Band's own releases, the

persisting relevance of the NSB.

Repeated listening to those recordings reveals dynamics

overlooked at the original moment. Having worked with the NSB

over an extended period, having heard at close range the elements

of its anti-music, had eased me into a premature assumption of

getting the Spasm Band. During No Music, the apparent

familiarity of the NSB's own concert seemed to be the part of the

festival which conformed most with my expectations. Eventually

and not so long ago I sat down with it again. Of course, there

much that I had come to know well: the faltering pedagogic

sonority of Bill Exley's pronouncements and recitations; the

signature footfall of Hugh McIntyre (as truly a "walking" bass

sound as can be imagined); the scraping glide of Art Pratten's

bow upon a violin reinvented and electrified with guitar strings

and pickups; the buggy, red-in-the-face reverb of John Boyle's

amplified kazoos; and so on. These are simple identifications,

the handiest cues picked out of the collective hubbub of the

band’s performance. What fixity might be found in this din

results more from its ongoing conversation, within which points

are frequently restated. Over the years, the NSB has adopted

certain habits and a self-styled internal etiquette (which can be

as undecorous as parliamentary procedure) to facilitate

everyone's close listening to one another.

Midway through its festival concert, the Spasm Band began to

rotate its members out to create space onstage for guest players.

Welcomed first was Thurston Moore, a courteous gesture extended

to a fellow noisician. In the recording, however, one discovers

a jarring additive which was absent only moments earlier, the

expertise and mastery of the guest. Although Moore's playing

betrayed neither ego nor stylistic predilection, it nonetheless

disrupted the code of conversation. In response, the playing of

those Spasm Band members left onstage (Boyle on kazoo, Favro on

guitar, Pratten on violin, and John Clement on drums) swelled to

a furious level, swarmed all over Moore and, in a very curious

fashion, forced the discussion to proceed on equal terms. In a

remarkable instant, the NSB met the sudden introduction of skill

with a brazen display of its own musical powers, exhibition of

which is not usually important to the scheme of things.

Again and again, NSB members speak of naivete as their point

of grace, as a singular quality which never fails to sustain their

interest. This is a difficult claim to apprehend but the one

which is probably at the heart of the Spasm Band's stance of

refusal. Innocence lost is irretrievable. Perhaps the ultimate

noise is a baby’s cry. It shatters even the busiest moment like

nothing else. The cry is raw personality and so to is the

playing of the Nihilist Spasm Band. Its perennial quest for

ignorant, undisciplined sound is its hallmark and the probable

reason for the great wake of offense which has trailed the band's

long and oblivious history. Naiveté has no flourish. The band's

adoption of various instruments has served foremost the direct

needs of its constituent personalities. Through the crudest of

sound, the relatively unmediated expression of experience,

feeling, and imagination is another basic quality of noise music.

After the overt guitarism of the 1998 festival, the second

edition of No Music moved onto a broader instrumental plain:

Michael Snow played piano, Fender Rhodes, and CAT synthesizer;

Fred Van Hove played pipe organ, accordion, and piano; Ken

Vandermark played tenor saxophone and clarinet; Borbetomagus’s

Jim Sauter and Don Dietrich played a variety of amplified

saxophones; and Jim O'Rourke played his Powerbook. Guitarists

(and drummers) still remained in abundance: Alan Licht; Jason

Bellchamber; Unclean Wiener's Galen Curnoe and Shawn Bristow;

Eric Chenaux; Kurt Newman; Donald Miller; and Jon Borges, a 14-

year-old from Tulare, California making his first public

appearance anywhere. The NSB bridged the two realms of non-rock

and non-jazz grouping. Despite the inclusion of artists who

epitomize contemporary musicianship and virtuosity, such as Van

Hove and Vandermark, the performances (especially the late-night

sessions, where participants struck up impromptu configurations

for a single short improvisation) were often wooly affairs,

skirting the inner edge of entropy. In this respect everyone

moved closer to the emotive compulsion of noise.

The "politics" of the No Music Festival has been an openly

pursued agreement to disagree and a suspension of hierarchy.

This is quite idealistic and difficult to imagine without the

musicians at its core, the Nihilist Spasm Band, whose artistic

outpost implies a code of civility within the band and into its

community. The No Music CDs are so affirming because they

capture a living activity rather than a "live" energy. They

reveal creativity conducted in the civic sphere and propose noise

as a good thing offering both personal pleasure and mutual