The Thunder Sheet, the Zither, and the Mousepad
White Out with Ikue Mori at the Stone
I’m not deaf yet, but I’m working on it. Having attended “Oceans of Noise,” a segment of the Unsound Festival at Littlefield in Brooklyn this spring, my expectations were set by White Out with Ikue Mori, a trio participating in the Stone’s summer No Fun Fest, curated by Unsound organizer and musician Carlos Giffoni.
The concept of “noise and its dis-/malcontents” is inherently appealing theoretically for the same reasons that humans seek variety and exotic food: You might have vivid dreams, your brain might be shaken into new directions, you will become dull if you don’t experience everything possible as soon as possible, etc. In theory, all of the above are true, and noise includes another bonus: Experimentalism inheres in human nature. We are inquisitive, curious creatures unable not to try new things. And so, along with those of our unsung ancestors who tasted Amanita phalloides (and died) were those who nibbled on A. muscaria, giving us both urolagnic, hallucinogenic rituals and the Super Mario Bros.’ favicon fungi.
In practice, noise is more complex. It can be physical in the sense of exemplifying advanced sonic concepts (such as texturing and auditory illusions); it can be so in the sense of exerting both atmospheric and tympanal (as in eardrum) pressure. It can also be beautiful in the sense that music emotionally affects us in whatever form. And so a trio whose instruments include a ring of graduated bells, a Tibetan singing bowl, a doumbek (goblet drum), a sizzle strip (a spring of steel band), a nameless spiral chime, and a zither promises humanity in a genre most associated with affectless computer-generated gimmicks.
Despite its potential, White Out delivered mostly conventional loud—if likeable—noise, even if it barely clipped the Stone’s JBL EON speakers, or the one attached to Ikue Mori’s laptop and her tiny board of twizzled knobs. The trio’s driving 50-minute set, comprising two untitled improvisations, had much to recommend it, especially Lin Culbertson’s breathy sublinguistic vocals and Tom Surgal’s percussive inclusions—drum rim brushings, thunder sheet wub-a-wubbings, and Cambodian shells laid out and shaken on his snare drum’s surface skin. In the second piece, Surgal went into “the zone,” the place where analog drumming transcends conventionality, occurs at supernatural speed (Surgal thus transmigrating to a multi-armed-and-drumsticked incarnation), and entirely commands cerebellar attention. Culbertson’s zitherings were likewise novelish: The sweep, the wooden mallets and the flipping pegs; and the modulations and distortions she achieved with her Korg KAOSS pad were, to revert to sci-fi metaphor, otherworldly. Ikue’s contribution was intentionally minimal—in the aesthetic sense, confined to sharp electronic chirpings and a continuo of acid noise. While the value of Ikue’s augmenting texture might be subject to debate, her contributory instrumental presence was undeniable.
White Out’s—and noise music’s—intellectual and acoustical one-dimensionality has a notable analogue in modern literature. In 1971, Eden Eden Eden, a pornographic 163-page run-on sentence by the French author Pierre Guyotat, was published to a governmental ban and critical acclaim. Guyotat claimed inspiration from Igor Stravinsky, and said he strove to use language to create a kind of literary music. Unfortunately, Eden Eden Eden failed on its own terms by failing to demonstrate music’s defining quality: dynamic range. While this criticism was originally—and legitimately—leveled against minimalism, it needn’t be against noise, which, unlike minimalist music, can theoretically incorporate infinite dynamics. That so much noise music is relentlessly mono-tempoic and mono-maxi-decibelic (except at the mandatory wind-down clichéd end) represents a huge missed opportunity for noise musicians. In a universe in which the entire forest must always be falling, the sounds of standing trees don’t matter.
Noise’s off-the-charts position in the “loudness race” presents another conundrum: the counterintuitive concept that a musician would put her or his hearing at risk. Although this territory has been well covered during the rock music era, rock’s Neanderthal simplicity could easily excuse the need for nuance. In the case of avant-garde music, it would seem that a composer or performer, especially of spontaneous music, would want to have maximum auditory awareness and facility to maximize dynamic distinction. Despite noise’s philosophical roots in non-musical absurdity, noise also has a promising branch that laudably wishes to explore the territory ahead, which will be difficult to do if the noise is “whited out.” Subway platform, emergency-vehicle siren, and earbud MP3 pollution notwithstanding, details in music count.
Another aspect of noise that reflects the seductive power of electronic tools is its solo and small-group performance. Here, White Out has real, latent potential: that through expanded instrumental complements (i.e., real people, playing together), it can achieve a new orchestral sound.
Times change: What was mainstream 200 years ago sounds antiquated now, and what was foreign 40 years ago (think Bitches Brew) sounds mainstream today. Whether or not noise concerts will be performed in Carnegie Hall in 2100 for hearing-aided hipsters, as was work by Philip Glass less than a year ago, noise merits listening. That will only occur when the volume controls are set to tolerable levels, at which point noise musicians might reach the wider audiences their pioneering innovations deserve.