I don't like nasty language any more than the next nice Midwestern girl, but there's a dirty swear word that just can't be avoided in this article. When the subject is the Alameda-based “Women Take Back the Noise” — a comp album and festival devoted to ladies' contributions to harsh noise and experimental sound art — I'll have to throw around the f-word, so those with delicate sensibilities be warned.
The project, curated by electronic musician Ninah Pixie, is a globe-spanning survey that has taken three years to culminate in a three-disk CD set and a three-day festival at 21 Grand. Prepared for foul language, I meet with Pixie in her cozy Alameda bungalow. Far from being the surly art chick I was expecting, she lived up to her adopted surname; she's a cheerful and effusive Santa Cruz hippie-type who happens to have an ear for the finer variegations of abstract, brutal electronic chaos. She hands me a beer and we walk into the little studio behind her house.
Among amassed towers of odd electronics, worn throw rugs, and a cloud of Nag Champa smoke, we talk around and about the dirty word. “I've always wanted to do a collection of music by women,” Pixie says. “But you don't want people to think you're taking some big political stance. You know,” and she lets out a sarcastically burly growl: “Here we come!”
It's hard to stifle an eye-roll at the title “Women Take Back the Noise,” and it's difficult to assume anything but a big political stance for a project titled as such. Though the phrase is an homage to the title of a one-off 1992 performance by the female members of the Big City Orchestra (a long-lived, loose collective of avant-garde Bay Area musicians of which Pixie is now a member), it evokes the well-known “Take Back the Night” anti-violence rallies, which had their '70s American beginnings right here in the Tenderloin. And now we must introduce the f-word. “Feminism”: a cringe, a worldview that a generation or two has learned to avoid as distasteful and outmoded.
But dirty word or no, Pixie's project is a feminist undertaking. And that's what makes things complicated. The idea of feminism has become so fragmented and contentious from years of internal disappointment and external denigration that anyone who tries to make a statement about girls doing something can look forward to both grounded and ridiculous complaints from all sides.
When Pixie put out a widely dispersed Internet call for submissions for this festival, the negative reaction was, she says, “very instantaneous. Surprisingly enough, the first [complaint] was from a woman [musician], and it became this huge flame war … Was I trying to exploit women who did this? Was I trying to label people? How could I say noise was a gender thing? She had some valid points, but she wasn't really reading [correctly into the project]. I'm coming from a celebratory standpoint, not an antagonistic one. We are trying to showcase that there are these women doing this heavy stuff.”
And ladies doing heavy stuff is exactly what comes across in the comp, released in a limited edition of 1,000, each set equipped with a painstakingly handcrafted noise generator made from a jacked circuit board, a fabric flower, and a Christmas tree spike. When manipulated by your wet finger, it makes a deeply obnoxious electronic gurgle and is fucking addictive to play with. (You can also plug it into an amp and annoy everyone in a two-apartment radius).
“Noise,” like “feminism,” or the Democratic Party, doesn't have a stong, defining message. It's a nebula of singular but vaguely related pursuits; under one umbrella “noise” gathers practitioners of totally face-scathing sonic mayhem; gentle, free-form acoustic wranglers; field-recorders; sound-collagists; oddball composers; feedback-soaked horror-pop groups … the list of permutations continues, but all share a proclivity for unstructured sound, for unfettering music from the normal confines of songcraft.
Pixie curated each disk of Women Take Back around a theme, and each night of this weekend's festivities corresponds to one of the vibes, with four or five artists representing their genre. The first disk, “Orgonauta,” collects the dreamier, quieter submissions; which is not to say it's soothing. Many songs are made from plain acoustic sounds, but the strings and vocals are electronically drawn and distended into haunting shapes, like the wintry panorama of Wisteriax's “Lucid Interval,” which sounds like an arctic ice floe groaning as it melts. Michiko Kawagoe, a Japanese musician who will play on Friday, contributes a creepy vocoder hymn, “Propagation,” in which rounds of electronically modified voices stutter, enter into dignified note-holding patterns, and are whirred back into glitchy, broken rhythms again.
“Vociferous,” which corresponds to Sunday's lineup, is devoted to the harshest sounds Women Take Back collected. Though all are thoroughly unpleasant, unfortunately most adhere to an identical, knob-twiddling electro-obnoxo code; squalling chaos is fun in small doses. None of Sunday's performers turned in very promising tracks, but New Zealand's Gydja (“Bird-of-Prey-Mother”) has a frightening standout piece, erratically combining the fist-pumping low-end JUH-juh-juh of recent Wolf Eyes with a few giant-larva guitar flops, and shattered feedback that piles up and glitters like broken glass.
Saturday's theme is “Scheherazade,” and like its namesake disk from the comp, the programs shoots for the dramatic terrain between pleasurably listenable and outright harshness. Fari Bradley, an English musician who'll play Saturday, contributes the ambiguously unsettling “Comment”; lots of songs on this comp are louder and/or more obnoxious, but none makes a clearer statement than Bradley. She samples someone saying matter-of-factly, “We all do it, every woman does it — we all bleed. Women bleed, let's not be squeamish about it” over sludgy tropical sounds, the whine of sirens, foreign children's voices, and persistently buzzing flies. The track is subtle, unsettling, and taboo-icky in all the best ways. “I like speaking the unspoken,” Bradley says via e-mail from the U.K. “In the name of a good outcome, that is, not for the sake of it.” Take Back the Noise is operating in the same spirit; there's a world of ladies out there making joyously bizarre music: Let's not be squeamish about it.