Sound and Not
“Every something is an echo of nothing” – John Cage
I. Noise, Quiet
My relationship to noise is simple: I want it. I would eat my television were I certain it would constantly play police procedurals in my guts and cause nausea. I’ve held guitars in performance and rubbed their coiled strings against my face to yawp at tiny audiences in blood. There is no sound I won’t consume if pressed to its vilest, most human extent. I am concerned with energy and sound, transmission to an overwhelmed head. When I was young I didn’t care its origin, its context, I’d listen as easily to southern rappers entirely removed from my situation but loud, abrasive, angry, as I would Norwegian metal performed behind sheepheads wearing gauntlets stuck with nails. What matters goes beyond lyric, instrument, intellect even. I would sit in my room attempting to recreate the basement experience nodding alone. I would sit in my apartment in Minneapolis in darkness listening to Faure, Satie, Scott Walker loud and beyond comprehension, the windows pulled open in Winter and unafraid of neighbors. I would pace my apartment in Chicago listening to Cybotron or Patti Smith’s Horses and driving fisted hand into my head. I want only to be transported to a place of care so immense, so concerned it shifts to carelessness. I drive and everything is loud, manic. Les Rallizes Denudes and guitars that feel like walls of amplified strings leant into by mindblown San Francisco dropouts monitored by Hells Angels at the end of the world. It matters. The first beaten drum of old to the electrified machine and an infuriated Pharmakon playing in a museum of confused, lost, worshipful bodies.
When I discovered an anechoic chamber existed not one and one half hour from where I once lived, I seemed to drop everything and attempt a visit. I was never given entry. Anechoic chambers are supposedly the quietest places on earth. Musicians and others have explored them. It was said that staying for much longer than half an hour tended to result in a kind of madness: you heard your blood run, your heart beat, you felt all too familiar with sounds the body makes, twitches and utterances that, consumed in such isolation, pressed one’s sanity.
I think I wanted to visit from a sense of thrill. I was older and my time spent in sweltering basements amid screams had slowed. The gatekeepers at this sound laboratory were strict, and I had no viable reason for visiting beyond a minor, curious writing endeavor. I wanted to explore the presence of extreme sound, and extreme silence, and its effect on the listener.
Growing up, my first interest in sounds of any sort began with aggressive screams and more. I didn’t process the information of being all that well, so I tended to seek out solitudes and yell into pillows or shout out nonsequiturs as a kind of release.
When I was thirteen or so, a friend introduced me to strains of punk rock that seemed to extend that youthful impulse and give it shape. I listened to the Misfits, or Black Sabbath, or contemporary hardcore bands who’d sing about misery, depression, relationships, with swelling, abrasive instrumentation and things would feel OK. I never did well in school. I did poorly, and my desire was always to leave. Seated in the bus, then, caught between a home of virtual, pallid loneliness in my father’s basement, and school where I found nothing to grab, extremes of sound seemed an instant transport to another life, some better place where existence moved, gestured, was angry.
I remember the first concert I attended in a basement. A local skinhead fellow named N. held shows at his mother’s home. My brother had encouraged me to come and I tend to lose sight of what happened. A roomful of heads, angry, gesturing bodies clad in leather and sewn together: I try and fail to see things during in clear terms, there are the lonesome nights before and noise, and a sense of coherent freedom after—anything within is bound up in the image, the smell, the feel of sweat on forehead or a microphone shoved into my face, gripped and smashed to cut my skin.
In Penelope Spheeris’ The Decline of Western Civilization local punks from California are interviewed at the beginning and throughout, offering attempts to encapsulate the sprawl of their scene in language. What’s interesting is it’s easier to hate them than listen to what they have to say. Some things, when plucked from context, become their caricature, evade the trappings of language because their appeal is the eating of language. I watched it as a teenager on my father’s couch, a VHS having been brought over by an older, better-informed friend. I remember seeing this and Suburbia and the films of a bygone, still dying era, knowing I’d come to something perhaps too late.
II. Louder, Braining
At times, I took drugs, or drank. I remember hoveled bodies on staircases into basements offering up half-full bottles of cheap whiskey, a permission then to get lost in that side of things. William Burroughs and the imagery’s occasional encouragement toward junk, mindlessness pushed, the sound asking after its chemical augment.
We, in van, once attended a concert held in a museum. Two bands performed: a Japanese group called Boris who’d primarily released and performed extremely heavy, droning compositions, while also recording oddly poppy sounds, or odes to a vile, encrusted sound begun by UK bands like Discharge, and warped and coated in oil and muck by Japanese groups like GISM, or Confuse. The other, SUNN O))), had mastered an a-percussive drone that felt closer to burying your head in sand and listening to reverberations of your screams than typical “songs”. They wore robes when they performed, typically just two guitarists but occasionally bringing in vocalists like Attila Csihar of the black metal extremists Mayhem, and others. Boris and SUNN O)))—the latter’s name a reference to amplifiers, heliocentrism, heft—had released an album together in turn, dubbed Altar, and really the impetus in either of their works did seem bound up in spirituality: circles of chanting, sweating bodies looking ever inward toward simultaneous void and scream.
Then we’d taken drugs, but I’m unconvinced it mattered. We sat in an auditorium stoned and anxious, my friends and I not saying anything but staring ahead awaiting. Six sets of doubly-stacked amplifiers had been arranged on stage in a sort of halo. Before anyone came out the room was awash in feedback, their machines turned on before held apparently to wipe our minds clean of any influence. Over time six individuals from either outfit made their way to the center of the room, one seated at his drums, his back to us, making long building waves on a massive gong in light.
A non-space, then, between the destructive impulses of circulating bodies screaming lyrics, and placid visitors faced with the hypnotic press of image-less film. I remember the drummer leaving his set when all was noise, a Japanese musician whose context I couldn’t possibly have understood. In black robe, he grabbed a microphone from the floor and began to crawl across the audience, their seats, their armrests, their supportive hands, confused, passive chests, and began to scream. This was the horror of being a human animal bound up in its refutation, pure anger and light set to long, heaving, bouldered notes of guitars and swelling, a priest of mud howling up above it in feral, religious terror. I witness it in retrospect and think of sleep, of quiet, of so much hell and confusion; the only response is to crawl upon the floor and worship death.
Leaving there, my friends and I we couldn’t speak. I’ve found the same tendency in therapy. Either you’ve spoken so fundamentally to what ails you there’s nothing left, or you’ve found in the seated other a companion in every sense, so everything is dull.
Once I had the pleasure of taking a seminar blurring the lines between Joy Division, the life of Ian Curtis, and various strains of social theory. I’d been overwhelmed and making edits to a manuscript each night. I’d return home from full days only to walk back to the library to spend hours revising, listening to music, revising. Music is a composed thing. Is it Gass who talks of writing written by the mouth for the ear? A sea of botched quotes pointing in countless directions creating a crude, collage of self I’m still uncomfortable with. Walter Pater said that all art aspires toward the condition of music. Nietzsche said something similar, maybe: that everything pales compared with pure sound.
I think of the spare composition of Joy Division’s music, the body of Ian Curtis discovered hung in kitchen when the frenetic pulse of Manchester’s scene brought no final promise. Befriending Genesis Breyer P-Orridge then and moving toward a purer, more entire art. Throbbing Gristle and noise compositions uncomposed, unadorned, useless in terms of convention but all there is when seen as John Cage’s reduction, that all music is made of sound and silence, that’s it.
Perhaps we’d all just prefer to be musicians. I don’t know. I think of John Cooper Clarke and Patti Smith, punk poets who somehow found the middle. There isn’t one for me. Music is a conduit. I wrote and revised everything under its influence. I wrote in my second novel about writing for its narrator as non-painting. Witnessing Jackson Pollock the first time brought such feeling and all he’d hoped was to transmit that in words.
I wrote a great deal in that seminar about suicide, depression, absence. People often draw strict lines between the feeling of certain sounds and “sad music”. The sadness is pulled from me. My gut, a sad thing, finds its counterpart in that depressive, occasionally screaming mood.
I think of Ian Curtis dancing in a new way, gesturing almost as if he wanted to escape his body. This pale, Bowie-worshiping youth, a father already and dead at only 23.
If we moved the way music honestly made us dancehalls would look like asylums. I think I’ve been searching for that most of my life. These spaces, indicated but still elusive in their vomit toward the words, are mere glimpses. A truer quiet, a meditative state where nothing worldly comes to pass.
III. My Brother, Electric
I think, and watch, often, the footage of Raphael Montañez Ortiz and feel at peace. He’ll bring out a piano, and an ax, and for however long it takes he’ll make slow chips away at the device until it becomes fully the product of his artwork. Frustration, sure. The impulse toward destruction often seems teenaged, unnecessary to the purposes of art. I don’t agree, but perhaps I’m merely envious. We see the artist destroying a piano slowly, with Buddhist manner, and all we want is to know how it feels for him. We see footage of Poly Styrene screaming and all we want is to embody this. The final act at the end of music’s tenure is its collapse, destruction, reduction to a hawk of rotgut and humans chanting in religious mania. Raphael Montañez Ortiz sees this, and preempts it, so that all to follow and precede comes to exist on a loop of fragmented, itching sound that offers context for humans made uncomfortable by living.
One weekend long after the basement shows, the drinking and all else, my brother and I had reunited in Wisconsin for a festival in an old building–at one time a courthouse–to see bands perform. I’d been so excited, and so underwhelmed, that I’d actually driven there the weekend prior–ever the idiot, ever the idiot–and called my brother only to find I’d been off by seven days, my brother at his home in Missouri and nothing to entertain me beyond a parking lot and the drive home.
I hadn’t been to see live music that I’d desperately wanted to see for some time. In particular The Body, a group we’d both come to worship—really our fandom brought us together across state lines since we no longer saw each other much. The Body is made primarily of two individuals, a drummer and guitarist, though they’ve recorded with a women’s choir, noise musicians, and others; it’s mainly them. Their guitarist tends to stand about a foot from the microphone when singing, forcing his scream into a constant struggle with surrounding noise. A note: a solo black metal musician who goes by Malefic once recorded vocals for SUNN O))), the loudest band I’d seen before The Body. Being terrified of enclosed spaces, he’d had himself briefly nailed into a casket—so the story goes—with a microphone to achieve some desired effect—The Body’s singer sounds a bit like the last screams of someone buried alive.
We spent the weekend in and out of shows, our guts in constant pulse and bubble from waves of unrelenting noise.
By the time The Body performed, we’d discussed much of our present lives and desires. The first night my brother had secured our stay with a friend of his wife’s family, and I, ever the paranoid fool, snuck out from feeling guilty and scared of strangers to sleep in my car in the Wal-Mart parking lot. We talked of this as well and I tried to explain it to my brother. There wasn’t much to say beyond excuse and rationalization, but once The Body performed it seemed to vanish.
I have not since, or prior experienced that extent of noise. It felt medical, an emergency, as though my skin were fighting for the place of my organs, my bones stirring up my nausea and spleen to terror. I closed my eyes for much of it, standing as close as I could to their equipment and letting it push through me, a room of animals, impossible to think, a circling push and growing screams, the same leather and patchwork and pinning and metals of youth grown frayed and elderly, children at home and jobs in the morning, reality and bills and the nightmare depressions and anxieties and newsreels and constant thought made to cinder in our heads as the black of night cleansed everything of worry.
My ears are comfortable when soaked thus. I see humans and feel closer when they’re lost in headphones. I see flyers and imagine the possibility of letting go, emptying one’s mind publicly as long as it will keep out. I think of connectivity, of transmission, of historical energies pushed down into the earth only to be plucked up by anxious livers drunk and pissed at having to wake up again. The bands change, always changing. The instruments change. To keep up you’d need a life, complete devotion and obsession with cataloging all the names. I do not care. I think only of the unhappy kid, the girl first hearing Bikini Kill and its resultant flame. The dissatisfied virtuoso who begins to eat the keys. This is as close as I care to come to the history of our emotion. Frustrated animals winning fights with their guitars. Brief sets performed for bands and no money and a rubbished floor to lay your open head. I once, I’m ever, returning to that noisome place.