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Adventures in Noise

Our music critic navigates the world of avant-garde electronic music and lives to tell about it.

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When a friend asked me if I wanted to attend the AMPLIFY electronic music festival in New York City, I thought it was going to be a bunch of people making music on their laptops, which can sound really amazing but look really boring. The first laptop show I ever witnessed put a bad taste in my mouth, but I've since found that listening to an album of iBook music is a completely different story than watching someone hitting buttons on stage. I was assured, though, that this would be a relatively laptop-free environment.

AMPLIFY is sponsored by Erstwhile Records, a label that releases records of extreme minimalism by many of the artists appearing at the festival this year. The basic premise involves artists from all over the world paired together in different combinations to improvise with each other in 30-45 minute sets on their respective "instruments," which range from laptops to bass drums to mixing boards that don't have anything plugged into them. The aesthetic involved asks an audience to observe the performances without the concept of "songs," which can be a bit of a challenge, at least to me on certain occasions.

Actually, it turns out it wasn't that hard to absorb. Having few expectations for what I was going to see helped a lot--I was able to experience the fest with minimum bias or context. I tried to appreciate most of the music at face value and view the scene objectively, which helped me make distinctions for myself as to what was absurd and what was genius. Too often those values get jumbled together when things too confusing to interpret are automatically revered.

Night 1: When we got to the club, it was a lot smaller than I imagined. It could hold maybe 150 people if none of them moved, and the stage was pretty cramped. On a ledge above the bar, a Japanese man perched over some turntables and blinking things, creating the "live ambience" promised in the festival schedule--he was churning out lots of droning, crunching, piercing sounds while people milled about waiting for the skronk und drang to begin.

The first performance started with four people on stage: a goateed beatnik-looking guy with an alto sax; a frumpy trumpet player; a clean-cut, black-T-shirt-tucked-into-jeans man standing over a bass drum (which has been turned on its side and placed on a metal frame); and a visibly distraught, very small Japanese woman in a red silk robe sitting in the middle of the stage holding her knees up to her chin. She'd be providing interpretive dance for what was about to happen. Don't laugh yet.

Greg Kelley, the trumpeter, started the festivities by blowing into his horn while scraping the side of it with a square piece of tin, the improvisational equivalent of nails on a chalkboard. He of the goatee, Bhob Rainey, made intermittent squawking with his sax, sometimes literally gagging himself by forcing the mouthpiece down his throat. Le Quan Ninh (France) scraped a cymbal across the top of his bass drum, which eventually caused a terrifying shriek. After about 10 minutes, Yukiko Nakumura (also from France), the dancer, began to sway back and forth, still sitting down. Tears started to streak down her face, and soon she was writhing on her back, exposing her skinny, naked body under the robe. The din grew louder as Nakumura stared, upside-down, into the crowd, challenging us, then crawled on her hands and knees off the stage and through the aisle of chairs that had been set up--directly toward me. If you've seen either version (Japanese or American) of The Ring, you can imagine how frightening and disorienting it would be to have a figure crawl toward you with its long black hair down in front of its face while intermittent bursts of chaotic noise assault you. Throughout the nearly hour-long performance, Nakumura weaved through the bewildered crowd, occasionally screaming and slapping the floor. As she worked her way back to the stage she stopped in front of me again and stroked both my companion's thigh and the feet of the woman next to me. Then the performance ended.

I found it difficult deciding which internal voice to listen to after this set. The histrionic nature of the performance was hard to take seriously, and the words "interpretive dance" in this context always end up impaled by my inner cynic, who was poised with poisonous commentary at the first onstage writhe. But there was also an appreciation for the performance that I couldn't explain--my mind was reeling, but I didn't want to come to any opinionated conclusions without first digesting what had happened.

Next up was the "world premiere" of the improvisational union between Keith Rowe (Britain) and Gunter Muller (Germany). Rowe is a 30-year veteran of such performances, having cut his teeth in the '60s experimental group AMM. He's credited as playing "tabletop guitar and electronics," meaning he sits in front of a table on which a guitar lies flat, plugged into a huge array of effects pedals and a transistor radio. Arranged beside the tangled mess of wires were handheld electric fans, metal springs, files and other objects that he literally plays the guitar with. But this was not conventional guitar playing. Rowe used two different volume pedals, each corresponding to a different guitar amp, to fade in/out the groans, squeals, and hisses sculpted by banging, tapping, scraping, and bending the guitar's strings. When Rowe passed a headphone attached to the radio over the pickups of the guitar, the FM signal came through the amps, literally adding live commentary to his mélange of sounds.

Muller had less stuff but more sonic range. The floor tom of a drum kit sat on one side of him and a cymbal on a stand on the other. On the table before him was an iPod (the new Macintosh portable mp3 player), two flat microphones, a small mixer, two equalizer pedals (which have adjustable frequency EQ settings that change the shape of an electronic signal) and two pedals that loop the sounds they receive. Using frosting knives, steel wool, mallets and a violin bow, Muller generated sounds from the cymbal, the drum, and the air itself, processing these sounds through his menu of electronics.

Rowe and Muller started slowly, leaving lots of room between each blip and bloop and scrape and chirp, and over the course of their 45-minute set they deliberately and calculatedly built a massive wall of sound. This is improv, so they play off one another's contributions like a musical chess game, ending when they both feel it's time. This is colorful, conscientious noise, random only in the sense of meter, because both these men know how to manipulate their sounds accurately. Amazing.

Unfortunately, the remainder of the first evening didn't carry the same weight. After Rowe and Muller came the union of Tim Barnes, a percussionist with America's worst mushroom haircut, and I-Sound, a dreadlocked, extremely bored looking guy behind a laptop. Barnes had a drum kit set up conventionally, but he didn't play it that way at all, opting instead to cover each drum with a shirt, lay cymbals down on the shirt, and tap on the whole thing with other little cymbals or brushes. He came across like a pretentious asshole. I-Sound stared at his computer screen and made pointless bursts of noise, never really seeming like he gave a shit about us, his noises or Barnes. He's the epitome of why I would rather listen to laptop music than watch it. This duo spawned the urge to throw my $6 drink at the performers just to stop the flow of NOTHING INTERESTING HAPPENING.

The last set of the night came from Keith Rowe again, this time with Toshimaru Nakumara (Japan), who plays the "no-input mixing board" according to the program. From what I understand, this is simply a mixing board plugged into itself. Nakumara looped the board's internal frequencies with some sort of effects pedal, and the result didn't sound like anything more than a hum that varies in pitch. Sometimes the hum reached the pitch of a dog whistle, which is nothing short of unbelievably fucking annoying. For me, Rowe's performance didn't reach the same heights it did earlier, but I suppose it wasn't supposed to, given his partner. How do you accompany the sound of really quiet static?

Night 2: Having had to stand or sit on the cold cement floor the night before, we got to the club early and managed to score some front row seats. First up was another world premiere, this time between Rowe and Le Quan Ninh. Placing a cymbal face down on his bass drum, Ninh began to bang on it with his arsenal of pine cones and sticks. After a while he picked up a crudely made hunting bow and drew it across another cymbal in his hand, which emits an unsettling shriek. Rowe countered the intensity of his partner for a while, letting Ninh lead the dynamics until they both came to their climactic finale: After peppering his contributions with distorted samples of Mr. Ed talking, Rowe repeatedly depressed the whammy bar on his guitar (which loosens the tension of the strings on the neck, lowering their pitch) as Ninh battered his cymbals, both artists replicating the yawning sound of an air raid. They droned on for several minutes and slowly puttered to a gentle ending. This set marked the first time I could actually feel the artists playing off each other. Either I was getting used to the way this kind of thing works or they were just especially well-matched. I think it was the latter.

Gunter Muller showed up again next, this time with Rainey and Kelley, who both pulled virtually the same tricks out of their respective bags. Kelley muffled his trumpet with different pieces of metal to create harsh, biting sounds (if this guy is an "artist," then can my best friend from eighth grade get a grant for making fart sounds with his armpit?) while Rainey again removed the mouthpiece from his sax, pressed the other end against his inner thigh, and breathed through the hole, simulating a chicken clucking. They reminded me of Muppets. Muller tried to synthesize the collaboration as he clenched his frosting knife between his microphones and drew his own violin bow across the metal, sending low ominous tones through his chain of effects. But it didn't really seem like the Muppets were paying much attention to Muller, which rendered the collaboration more than a little boring.

Then came Tim Barnes again, this time with Toshimaru Nakumara and Tetzu Akiyama on acoustic guitar. I wasn't thrilled about having to sit through the first two guys again, but Akiyama actually held the guitar in his hands like he was going to strum it, and it was plugged into an amp, so I thought he might add some spice to the bland soup of mediocrity. Wrong. Barnes acted like the overpraised underachiever he came across as the previous night, Nakumura sat quietly and made my ears hurt, and Akiyama busted out with the most ridiculous display of guitar playing I've seen since Rick Nielsen and his five-necked guitar at the Cat's Cradle a couple years ago. This guy was plucking strings at random while he detuned them, tapping the guitar body with rocks and a ball of fucking masking tape!, and using an honest-to-god throwing star tucked under the strings to make the most pointless noise of the festival. On top of all this, he embellished every move he made with a definitive sweep of his arm, like he was really doing something that we should have been shitting our pants for. He was definitely not listening to anyone else on stage besides himself. Plus, he wore some dumb-ass orange-tinted Terminator sunglasses.

I'm willing to accept that there isn't a "proper" way to play a guitar--Keith Rowe proved this with a vengeance--but I have little patience for someone who is not only ignoring the people he's supposed to be improvising with but additionally fancies himself worth $20 a ticket. Add to this Barnes' shittake-headed ass also ignoring everyone but himself, and you've got a big ol' waste of an hour of my time. Nakumura's time, too, apparently--he tries to end this set several times, looking toward his oblivious companions to see if they sense this, but they're too busy jerking off.

The final set of the festival came from Muller and Le Quan Ninh, with another naked dance from Yukiko Nakumura. This performance was incredible. Ninh started off by drawing his violin bow across the edge of his bass drum while spinning several metallic bowls across the top skin. This resulted in a constant thunderous ringing, emphasized by the rocks that Ninh dropped in the spinning bowls to deepen the rattle. Muller looped several drones created from drawing his own bow across his cymbal and forcing his mics to feed back from the cymbal swells. As they started, Nakumura shed her clothes and stood like a statue between Muller and Ninh's setups. She remains still for almost 20 minutes, and when her face is again wet with tears she sloooowly bent her knees and brought herself to the ground in a ball, all with unbelievable muscle control. There was nothing erotic about this, at least for me. It was slightly unnerving, but it also was an intensely moving juxtaposition of human emotion/flesh/fluids and mechanical mayhem. The sounds Muller and Ninh created got louder and louder, screaming, churning, roaring, while Nakumura channeled the intensity in the air to exorcise her own personal demons. It was damn good.

So, adventurous reader, what did I learn this weekend? First, you gotta have expensive taste to attend these kinds of soirees; three drinks will cost you upward of $16. Second, some people, namely a certain trumpet player, drummer, and guitar accessorizer, need to be informed of their greatness with less frequency. Third, air makes some crazy sounds if you play it right. Fourth, there is a man who rides the subway from Manhattan to Brooklyn at night who smells like popcorn, reads weightlifting magazines while shoving peanuts into his mouth, and carries a gallon jug of dark fluid. But most of all, I learned that while I never want to listen to this sort of improvised music, actually witnessing it is completely worth getting lost for three hours trying to get out of New York. EndBlock

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