the magazine of the columbia daily spectator
May 1 2013
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Missed the Cliterary Open Mic? Check out the highlights here
March 29 2013
Sex & Low Beach
At first, there is nothing but silence—an unsettling sense of quiet, the calm before the storm. And then, slowly but surely, the madness begins to take hold. An undulating stream of noise creeps in—a mechanical tide, swarming my eardrums and retreating, again and again. And then come the screams—laser-sharp bursts of industrial noise, piercing the drone and opening a void from which more noise may enter. A strange sense of panic sets in—a claustrophobic madness, fed by the unrelenting churning of piston-esque drums and high-frequency explosions. And then, after what feels like an eternity—but is actually just nine minutes and 34 seconds later—I’m back in my tiny bed in Plimpton, beads of sweat on my brow, and I feel like I’ve come out of a wormhole.
There’s a name for this feeling. It’s called “Warm Embrace of Steam,” the opening track on Fascist Starship, the 2006 debut from Brooklyn experimentalists, OPPONENTS. The title of the song is in some ways a misnomer: the frequencies are more abrasive than embracing. The track brings to mind the soundscape of an old factory, abandoned by humans and reclaimed by machines. If you played this at your standard EC bender, people would probably wince, look at each other incredulously, finish their drinks, and head for the door. It’s no Skrillex, that’s for sure. And while the sounds may not appear to have meaning, I learn from a chat with OPPONENTS on a windy Friday afternoon that there is an incredible amount of thought behind the recording.
Joshua Slusher, one part of the triad, tells me what he strives for in his artistic efforts. “The main focus for me—not just in the music, but even in things like the cover art—are these juxtapositions of beauty,” he says. “Setting something raw like nature next to hyper-industrial civilization and seeing them collide—the transcendental against raw, harsh reality.” It’s the sonic equivalent of a big bang, and you probably would have missed out if you weren’t looking carefully enough.
Nowadays, our generation has an unprecedented degree of instant access to practically all of the world’s music. Between Spotify, SoundCloud, and the curated selections of internet tastemakers, there’s no genre left untouched, and in an artistic hub like New York, it’s pretty easy to engage in the “scene”—the metal community at the Acheron, the indie obsessives at the Cameo gallery, or the big-time spectacle of Madison Square Garden. And yet, there is another side to New York City’s musical identity—the id to our pop-obsessed ego, a scene often marginalized because of its inaccessibility. Drone, dark ambient, noise, no wave—they all comprise a larger experimental movement that has been part of the musical culture for decades. It knows no rules, laws, or boundaries—instrumental or otherwise—and it’s everywhere.
To define “experimental” is a challenge in and of itself: “experimental” encompasses so many styles, instruments and genres, and it is different for every listener. For the purposes of simplicity, however, “experimental” is used as a descriptor for anything outside the norms of contemporary music or for sounds we simply don’t understand. Traditionally, experimental music has stayed well out of the public spotlight, at least from a commercial standpoint. Although touchstone figures like Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, and Can all hold coveted places in the hearts of critics and fans alike, they only enjoyed modest commercial success during their heydays in the ’60s and ’70s. More recently, high-profile alternative artists like Bjork and Animal Collective incorporated experimental elements such as drone and non-traditional instrumental patterns into their music, resulting in a more populist awareness of the movement. Nevertheless, the avant-garde side of music has remained, for the most part, buried in the murky depths of our cultural consciousness.
But as Columbia junior and WKCR program director Eric Ingram explains, a lot of that has to do with external factors. “The forces that determine pop music do not exist within music. They exist within economics and psychology,” Ingram argues. “The reason pop songs are three minutes long have nothing to do with the pop music itself. It has to do with what could fit on a 78 RPM disc. So a lot of what we call experimental music are those types which strive to be expressions of music in musical terms that are not bound by conventions like time signature or key.”
New York’s experimental heritage is also undeniably nebulous. Over the past fifty years, the city’s avant-garde scene has been in constant flux, with regards to form, function, and location. One could posit that the scene began in the ’20s and ’30s, when jazz began to emerge as a key movement, and improvisation began to embed itself into the fabric of modern music. But most of the key rudiments of the city’s current scene emerged in the ’70s and early ’80s, in a sort of Bohemian Renaissance called the downtown music movement—named for the lower half of Manhattan where artists lived, worked, and collaborated.
Kyle Gann, a music critic for the Village Voice, asserts that downtown music was born in 1961, when Yoko Ono began holding noise concerts in her loft at 112 Chambers St.. He also cites the influence of composer John Cage, who advocated for alternatives to the European-influenced, serialist styling of classical music at the time. In the quarter-century that followed, a previously undefinable type of anti-pop music had blossomed into a plethora of sub-sets.
There were minimalists, who toned down the bombast in favor of a leaner, more potent approach—chief among them Philip Glass and Steve Reich, who cut their teeth at the legendary art space that came to be known as the Kitchen. There were improvisational, free-jazz musicians such as John Zorn, who expanded on the stylings of Miles Davis and John Coltrane to create a frenzied, ever-changing sound. And, most famously, there were art rockers—comprising an entire sub-genre in and of themselves—running the gamut from the fuzzy guitar-pop of the Velvet Underground to the leaden brutality of Swans.
How did New York come to be such a hub for left-of-center movements? It’s a perennial question for which there may be no definitive answer. A simple hypothesis is that New York is a huge city, one that has historically attracted artists of all types. Get any large number of artists and cram them into a packed urban space, and they’re bound to form their own factions, many of them in opposition to the status quo. Of course, this didn’t necessarily mean that it was easy to make a living. In fact, the “starving artist” mentality was a very real thing.
“In the ’60s and ’70s, it [New York] was where you went if you wanted to sustain yourself—well, barely sustain yourself—while still being able to pursue experimental art,” Ingram says. “A lot of the minimalism guys, they were all taxi drivers.”
The glory days of downtown music were accompanied by flourishing new venues, such as the aforementioned Kitchen, Roulette, and the Knitting Factory, just to name a few. The most important, however, did not emerge until 1998: Tonic, a former kosher winery converted to a performance space for the purpose of supporting avant garde and experimental artists. Zorn himself supplied the two-month block of programming that caused the venue to become legendary in a matter of weeks. In addition, Tonic hosted concerts with the likes of Sonic Youth, Cat Power, and even Ono herself. With its rugged walls and small size, Tonic came to embody physically the legacy of the downtown movement—a place far from the corporate din of Madison Square Garden, where artists and their acolytes could engage in the most intimate of musical conversations.
But as with all musical movements, change was inevitable. As the experimentally-indebted genres of new wave, punk, and alternative rock lost their grip on the Billboard charts, popular interest began to shift its attention to more traditional pop and R&B. Meanwhile, the looming presence of corporate music, once confined to uptown conservatories and record companies, continued to grow in tandem with the gentrification of the Lower East Side. The Knitting Factory switched hands in 2004, expanding into a brand; there are now six Knitting Factories across the nation, hosting acts like Avenged Sevenfold and Mickey Avalon—a far cry from earlier Knitting Factory headliners, which included influential free jazz pianist Cecil Taylor and spoken-word fusion artist Gil Scott Heron. As high-rise condominiums began to spring up around Tonic, astronomical increases in rent and the shuttering of the club’s downstairs bar forced the venue to close in 2007. Zorn was able to find a successor in The Stone, a new artists’ space on the corner of Avenue C and 2nd Street, but by and large, Manhattan is no longer the bastion for experimentalism that it had been for decades.
But before John Cage rolls over in his grave, let’s shift our focus from the supposed death of the scene stated above to its rebirth. Because, modest as it may seem, there’s a burgeoning avant-garde community in Gotham. It’s not quite the easily-defined bloc that it used to be, but it’s even wider-reaching: from Brooklyn to Far Rockaway, and even Morningside Heights.
There’s Northern Spy is a Brooklyn-based independent record label devoted entirely to “musicians who are tenacious, forward-thinking, and making devil-be-damned fine music, while finding substance in the disparate worlds of free improvisation and popular music.” It’s an operation founded by former staff members of ESP-Disk—one of the most prominent labels associated with the downtown scene, and one of the city’s biggest exporters of free jazz and underground rock. In a recent email, Adam Downey, Northern Spy’s vice-president, expands on how the label came to be:“We were inspired by the documentary style of the label, putting out records by what was happening at that moment and time. So, after a falling out with the owner of ESP, Tom & I founded Northern Spy Records to continue doing the same thing we were doing before. Our first releases were working with artists with whom we had already built relationships—Arrington De Dionyso, Rhys Chatham.”
Northern Spy’s catalog is more expansive, with artists running the gamut from hypnotic acoustic rock (Chris Forsyth) to feverish Hillbilly folk (Arrington de Dionyso), to caustic noise rock (Zs). As Downey explains, there is no definitive sound or genre for which the label strives. For the two years that Northern Spy has been in existence, intuition has been a chief guiding force.
“We've tried to avoid genres,” Downey writes. “A lot of our artists are hyper aware of the limiting nature of a genre. We look for acts that sound original to us. It's more of a feeling than a specific set of guidelines.”
Another key roster of modern, noise-leaning experimental artists are those signed to ugEXPLODE Records. The label is the brainchild of multi-instrumentalist Weasel Walter, best known for his work with the Flying Luttenbachers—a now-disbanded group that blended elements of harsh noise and dissonance with frantic punk rhythms and jazzy improvisation. Now, as the founder and head honcho of ugEXPLODE, Walter helps to produce, master, and release recordings for dozens of noise-leaning musicians, often collaborating with the artists themselves. When I asked him about the challenges of accessibility within the confines of mainstream culture, he answered that aesthetic tastes are largely dependent on how we define ourselves.
“Most people are looking for recognition of form and/or personal resonance from art,” he writes via email. “We tend to project ourselves and our desires onto much of what we like culturally. We want to see ourselves in it. If we cannot discern the form or it does not resonate with us, we want nothing to do with it and look for that which does.” Unlike your typical label executive, Walter’s goal is not to convert Nickelback fans or to buy an entire block of McMansions, but rather to continue to make art that’s genuine, intuitive, and sophisticated.
“I do the best I can with what I've got, and I don't apologize about it,” Walter asserts. “My art is based on striving and ingenuity as well as a contempt for conformity. I'm sure it will continue to be that way long into the future.”
A 30 minute drive west of downtown New York takes you to the Queens neighborhood of Far Rockaway, the so-called “ground zero” of the subprime mortgage crisis. There used to be hundreds upon hundreds of cheery bungalows dotting the coastline, but over the past decade, nearly all of them have metamorphosed into lonely ruins of stucco and sandalwood. But it is here, in this sad little summer town, that the city’s most surprising—and promising —counter-culture has sprouted. Just a little way down a quiet suburban street, a group of New Yorkers have transformed the residence at 1034 Bay 25th St. into the Red Light District, a bona fide D.I.Y. paradise that regularly hosts shows and gatherings for the city’s “other”-obsessed. Conceptually and artistically, it’s not too far off from Ono’s apartment-cum-concert hall. Consider it a suburban cousin.
For the past four years, the Red Light District has served as host to one of the most respected experimental music festivals in the city: the Burning Fleshtival, a two-day, $20 extravaganza. Last year’s Fleshtival featured more than two dozen bands, eight DJs and several film screenings. When attendees weren’t checking out up-and-coming noise, dark ambient, experimental, and metal acts, they could cook up burgers and camp out in the backyard.
The aforementioned scenes may be blossoming in places far from the calm of Morningside Heights, but Columbia is still very much involved. WKCR and WBAR both broadcast experimental music to the tri-state area and beyond, and the former has played host to many of the artists mentioned in this article, including Walter, Cage, and Zorn. But there aren’t just acolytes in our midst—there are established artists, as well. One is GS senior Josh Faber, a jovial, blue-haired guy who—when he isn’t earning his double degree in physics and math or working as WBAR’s punk music director—is hard at work creating music on everything from an ancient desktop computer to a guitar. His most well-known musical exploits were those as the guitarist for punk band FreeDoom, one of the most respected acts in the New Jersey punk scene. But, as Faber explains, he has always been in love with noise, and more specifically, noise’s ability to affect the human consciousness powerfully.
“The amazing thing about noise is that it’s not tied with any one concept— it means something different for everyone,” he says. “We attach a certain set of expectations with a guitar—the story of the lone guitar player, or the kid in a punk band. But there’s something really beautiful about sheer sound, and how it can affect people so profoundly.”
I distinctly remember a WBAR student showcase where Faber performed alongside recent CC alumnus Alex Klein. They were the most avant-garde act on the bill, but nobody really knew what to expect. And then, after a brief silence, Faber took a simple synth loop and tinkered with it, producing sounds that nobody knew could come from an electronic device: explosive, nail-sharp screeches, guttural wails, undulating aural whiplashes. I ask Faber about that show, and what implications it held for Columbia’s acceptance of such a style. He playfully responds, with an anecdote, about one student who, in a panic, ran out of Barnard’s Hive in the middle of the performance, exclaiming that the music sounded like her own funeral.
“I took it as a huge compliment, that my music could create such reactions in people. The Columbia community has been overwhelmingly supportive of my work, and I think it’s because they’re very open-minded, because they’re willing to take part in this experience. Columbia is definitely open to experimental music,” he says.
But even with experimental scenes cropping up all around the city, geography may soon become an irrelevant factor entirely. With the advent of sites like SoundCloud, where artists can upload their MP3s for the entire internet to hear, and the D.I.Y. distribution hub known as Bandcamp, bands like OPPONENTS can reach millions with the click of a button. And in less time than it takes to boil water, a curious audiophile can find out about Zs or Zappa on their favorite blog, do a Spotify search, and begin listening to their entire discography. But, as Walter explains, the ease with which we can glut ourselves on new tunes has its drawbacks.
“Now, many people are very spoiled because they believe they have access to everything—and since they do, they're extremely apathetic about actually concentrating on things, and really investigating certain threads in culture which aren't readily apparent,” he says. “I'm afraid the all-you-can-eat music buffet has created a lot of indigestion. Every artist is their own scene now, and nobody cares about any of it outside of their microcosmic focus.”
At the same time, these modules can be seen as a continuation of the types of values that were at the center of the downtown movement and its subsequent re-incarnations: the freedom to experiment with sounds without the bureaucracy of a label or press agent, and, more importantly, a sense of autonomy for both artist and art.
“We are in charge of not only our destiny, but our business,” Faber says of the site. “Because I have a SoundCloud, it means that the business mode is the music itself. It’s hard to hide behind a gimmick or a fancy MySpace page, to pass off fake art as real—the music speaks for itself.
“When you make a SoundCloud, you’re pitted against the whole world —against big names, like Kayo Dot, but also against, say, DJ QuAcK QuAcK from Montana or something,” he continues. “It’s not like MySpace, where you can get a record deal with some glossy photos and a tinkered-with play-count. The art is the only thing to go on.”
Despite the ongoing discussions about the implications of the unprecedented inundation of music that the Internet begat, there’s no denying it: it’s never been easier for artists to jump into the din, be they populist or peculiar. While the Red Light District, Death By Audio, and 285 Kent provide New Yorkers with the spaces associated with a veritable counter-culture, the real scene may be something greater than the city itself. It’s the whole world that’s listening now.
When I ask OPPONENTS about their future plans, there is no hesitation: they want to make music for the rest of their lives. It’s a constant, amidst a sea of changing concepts, trends, and tastes. To some, songs like “Warm Embrace of Steam” may sound unsettling, or even unlistenable—the kind of thing that makes you run out of the room, mouth agape and ears ringing. Others might hear the same song and feel connected with beauty at its rawest.
“We’re aiming for a kaleidoscope of sounds.” Slusher laughs, as if he knows that I’m looking for a cute metaphor. But that actually may be one of the best ways to describe the most indescribable of musical forms. OPPONENTS, Walter, and Faber, along with the thousands of contemporaries spread out across space, time, and location, create sound for sound’s sake: aural assemblages free from corporate influence, from which we may derive our own personal meaning—be it intense rapture or sheer terror.
And though listeners may choose to attach meaning to what they hear, it’s worth mentioning a bit of wisdom John Cage gave in a 1991 interview: “People expect listening to be more than listening.” In other words, the paradigms of byzantine complexity often assigned to experimental music are a result of our own prejudices, rather than that of the music itself. Which is why I invite you to do what I did a few weeks ago: turn off the lights, get comfortable, and let your thoughts and expectations exist anywhere else in the room—just not in between your ears. Because sometimes, there’s nothing more beautiful than the process of hearing the mechanical motion of sound waves. And there is nothing experimental about that
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