The Sound of Noise

If you grind a live microphone to bits, or amplify a flamethrower, are you making music -- or an appalling spectacle called "noise"?

They sit motionless in their theater concert seats in neat, black clothes. Some hold their chins in their left hands. Others have their legs crossed, hands folded in laps. Periodically, they file in and out of the theater, pausing sometimes for thoughtful conversation about theories of musical composition, the role of sound in modern consumer society, the art of listening -- really, really listening.

While these first-nighters behave like the audience for a symphony, a man onstage runs radio static through an endless feedback loop to create an intolerable roar that is comparable, perhaps, to sharing a living room with a sputtering jet engine.

Other artists bang their fists wildly on flaming, gasoline-doused steel plates. Or splice cassette tape into miles of senseless chirps. Or use electronic devices to make sounds that resemble what an avalanche produces -- an unmodulated, 15-minute-long avalanche.

It is, truly, an appalling spectacle. More appalling yet, however, are the aesthetic proclamations the perpetrators of this thuggish pageant-cum-art-form deliver. They spout a rap that is as tight as a drumhead:

"This is probably one of the few genres that is pushing boundaries."
"What we're trying to do is achieve ultraharmonics."
"Listening to a tractor motor, there's a constant grind, a constant hum, and you start realizing that disparate things are comprising that sound."

These cafe intellectuals of the headbanging set are turning San Francisco into a vortex of the worldwide "musical" movement known as "noise." Performing their concerts in converted warehouses and abandoned theaters, the noisicians have taken the raucous, rebellious, irreverent spirit inherent in other avant-garde art movements to its logical extreme, defying art, religion, society, property -- even the idea of matter itself.

"For me personally, it was very much a celebration of entropy," says one noisician, speaking of a period of time in which his performances involved bashing up musical venues with crowbars and then fleeing.

Noisicians' creations have been referred to as post-punk, post-industrial, post-everything experimental music. But the fact is that many of this genre's practitioners have no truck with anything that's come before them.

"You see, I've never been all that interested in music," explains noisician GX Jupitter-Larsen.

Jupitter-Larsen is a portly man with an oversize eye-patch; an earring that lets a dime's worth of light through his earlobe; and a Vienna Bauhaus architect's bemusedly nasal conversational style. His "band," the Haters, is one of the San Francisco noise world's most famous. Their concerts consist mostly of pressing miked objects against a shop grinder. "I've always been more interested in spectacle and the dynamics of absurdity," Jupitter-Larsen offers by way of explanation.

Jupitter-Larsen is at once characteristic of and unique among noisicians. This paradox reflects the noise movement's diversity; its ranks are drawn from everywhere: horror-movie sound-effects professionals; punk-riot practical-jesters; rural Kansas farm boys; Silicon Valley technology wizards; homeless drifters; and wayward, classically trained musicians.

They are united by a quest to be original; to tickle people's fancies, then offend their sensibilities; to take the idea of creating compelling sounds away from the realm of melody and rhythm and into shifting aural moods. The result is an ill-defined sound space at once repulsive and soothing, monotonous and intriguing, awful and exciting.

"Really? It's like nothing you ever heard?" gushes one SOMA noisician, who also happens to be an engineer at a nuclear accelerator. "For a noisician, that's the most flattering thing you could possibly have said."

As is fitting his avocation as a creator of horrid, screeching drones that seem to drag on for hours, noise doyen GX Jupitter-Larsen makes his home in a grimy cubbyhole in the South of Market industrial warehouse known as Survival Research Laboratories.

SRL is a performance art cooperative famed for producing fire-breathing metal monsters the size of tractor-trailers that are programmed to battle to the death. The warehouse looks like any other sprawling machine shop, except that its drill presses, lathes, cutting tables, and welding rigs are interspersed with the occasional cooperative member's unmade bed.

Jupitter-Larsen provides "soundtracks" to SRL "shows" -- amplified grinding sounds that precede the clandestine, staged battles between SRL's backhoelike monsters.

Despite Jupitter-Larsen's connection to the SRL madness; despite his work, which consists of creating the kind of aggravating sound you'd hear if your head were being dragged behind the fender of a speeding car; despite his get-up, which consists of clinging, black, gothic garb that balloons out, Ronald McDonald-like, into scuffed Doc Marten boots -- despite this outlandish context, Jupitter-Larsen doesn't at first strike one as being of this brutish, clamorous noise world.

His manner is courteous, even decorous. He is articulate and erudite. He speaks softly in well-crafted, complete sentences, referring to principles of biochemistry and thermodynamics as he forms cohesive, convincing arguments about the meaning of his work.

"I find that the concept of entropy is quite ironic. It's the whole nature of biology, right? You have unstable molecules transferring energy to stable molecules. That's the basis of biological life as we know it. This process that creates life has a negative byproduct, and that's aging. So the one thing that life teaches us is that you can't have life without also losing it," says Jupitter-Larsen, whose rhetorical curlicues almost obscure the fact that he's actually talking about grinding up live microphones and bashing barrooms into splinters. "That's ironic, and I find irony really funny."

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