International Noise Conference - Melbourne edition non-review and polemic

The inaugural Melbourne edition of the International Noise Conference was not your ordinary noise gig. Rather than the standard pub format of “30 minute performance – break between set up – then repeat”, this was a near-constant succession of concise noise performances performed back-to-back, rotating between two performance rooms. The near-constant, no-breaks, frequency of noise music, along with the event’s free entry, gave the atmosphere a flavour that reminded me more of an informal house show; audience response was nearly always positive and often euphoric, and the lack of raised stages also contributed to an intimacy between performers and audience. This closeness was especially apparent in the smaller “no PA” area (amp stacks were used instead) – a lounge room-sized area where the audience crushed in and at times crowded around performers.

I did not see every one of the 30 or so acts, (I slipped out for a meal for about an hour around 6pm, then left before seeing any of the international acts besides Leslie Keffer as I found that too much noise could, indeed, be enough), but even though I saw/heard most of the local performers it seems redundant to write here anything like a traditional review that goes through the line-up with descriptions and comments. What I found enjoyable and interesting about the day was the overall impression this barrage of noise had on me (making me think even more firmly that contemporary noise is much more about quantity than quality), and how various differing circumstances about this show affected my expectations and perceptions of performances that, in the usual pub gig format, would probably have left me bored.

The day did have its musical/sonic highlights that I would’ve enjoyed in any setting; chief among these being Sean Baxter’s floor tom performance. For those who haven’t seen Baxter perform this before, it consists of a floor tom close-mic’d through the PA creating bottom-end feedback who’s pitch is altered by Baxter pressing objects onto the drum skin and adjusting the drum’s tension with tuning keys. The reflective surfaces in KIPL provided by the concrete floors created a massive sonic effect that you experienced physically almost as much as aurally. When Baxter began I was talking to Peter James in the No PA room (Baxter was performing in the PA room); the wave of bottom-end feedback was like a filter on Peter’s voice, cutting out frequencies so it sounded like it was being digitally altered. This, along with the vibration of the drum skin created by the feedback demonstrated visually when Baxter placed small chopstick-sized drum sticks on the drum that then proceeded to dance around of their own accord, made the performance a multi-sensory demonstration of the physical elements of sound.

But performances like this were the exception rather than the rule – more than half of the performers adopted what has (at least in Melbourne) become the standard noise set-up: a string of effects pedals usually processing some sort of primitive sound source. The sound sources could be anything from voice/microphone, analogue phones, tape loops, keyboards, occasional guitars, and on several occasions mic’d pieces of metal junk. I admit that such set-up’s often bore me as a punter, but on this day it was almost as if we were witnessing a scientific study of noise performance, where trends and common approaches became apparent (our theoretical scientists probably would’ve also been interested in the fact that every second person seemed to be recording performances with their own digital audio or video device).

This sample of noise performance may have also been restricted due to the event’s banning of laptops, but I think that the use of analogue gear and effects pedals with a primitive sound source you can bash on gives the performer a chance to display a physicality in noise generation that generally isn’t available to laptop-performers. Probably the most transcendent noise performance I’ve ever witnessed was performed on laptops alone (Merzbow), but I think this current noise scene (localised or not, I’m not sure) has transcended even he. The Melbourne edition of the International Noise Conference demonstrated that the current oeuvre of noise values brevity, physicality and low-tech instrumentation.

Claire Furchick (who’s performance I unfortunately missed), who had also been to the Sydney edition of the event the previous night, mentioned to me that she noticed a real difference in noise performed by men and women. I saw several female performers, including Oranj Punjabi, Bleach Boys and Leslie Keffer, and think she has something here. The former two’s performances, although using basically the standard noise set-up described above, seemed more restrained and certainly less urgent/desperate, which was a welcome change of pace on the day. I again regretted not being able to attend the Ladyz In Noyz Showcase that was on earlier this year, and I wondered if there is a generalised-yet-identifiable difference in approach to noise performance aligned with gender. Leslie Keffer was a marked deviation from other performances, using beats and encouraging several audience members to turn KIPL into a dance floor, which was again a welcome change of pace, even though I remained a flat-footed wallflower.

Massive kudos to the Sabbatical team for putting this on. And now...


So what does all this mean for what noise may or may not be in Melbourne 2011?

Noise should be:
- Free: paying for entry to noise gigs or noise CDs/tapes gives the problematic expectation that some noise has some measurable value, which is wrong because noise is
- Low tech/low quality: ‘high quality’ noise is now an oxymoron. If noise is high quality, it is no longer noise. For this reason, noise should be
- Brief: the impact of low-quality noise is lost if it goes on for more than 10 or 15 minutes. Heil Spirits’ performances was memorable in that it lasted about 3 minutes. The audience demanded an encore (Sabbatical’s Leith Thomas noting that Heil Spirits ahd finished before his set was even due to start), which lasted about another 90 seconds. But this doesn’t mean noise can’t be
- High Quantity: writing in Noise: the political economy of music, Attali identified the third stage of music as ‘repeating’. This can be applied to noise music – noise must be repeated not only by the individual performer, but by every noise performer. This is a characteristic of noise music. If it differs markedly, it is not noise.

Love to hear your comments on these (deliberately provocative) ideas here – add your comments below.


Evol Kween said…
I need to go to more live noise shows!
Andrew McIntosh said…
I think I take an opposite point of view to Clinton's conclusions about what should constitute a Noise performance. I can understand the reasons he's come to those conclusions, but I don't agree.

On the question of quality - Mikko Aspa (Freak Animal) once wrote on a forum something I found very interesting. He claimed that many punters who are into Noise have never seen/heard/felt a really excellent Noise performance, and are making their comparisons based on the kinds of local acts they are more used to. Although it raises parochial hackles, it also raises an important issue, particularly for we Australians. I have hardly seen many renowned overseas Noise artists play, but the ones I have seen - namely Merzbow and Astro - have demonstrated to me what a true mind-warp a good Noise concert can be (especially Astro). And what a real art it is. The idea being to build up a momentum, then maintain that momentum during a serious period of time. When Clinton suggests live Noise performances should be brief, he's not alone and it's probably very good advice for a lot of us who haven't had the years of experience other Noise performers have had to actually hone their craft. To make a good, decent blast of acceptable Noise; that's easy. To make an above-average set of memorable Noise; it's like music, not everyone can do it. I don't claim to, and while I enjoy many of the local Noise performers it's got to be said that many of them (and I take Clinton's point that Sean Baxter is a notable exception) just haven't got what it takes, at least not yet.

My point is that there is such a thing as quality live Noise, it is being done and can be done, but right at the moment not by many of us. I can think of exceptions like the aforementioned Mr Baxter, also Dead Boomers and Ebola Disco, although the latter tend towards shorter performances. But for myself, I'd like to see and hear a bit more ambition from those who I think have the talent to take it further.

For that reason I'd suggest that working on a full, good, and lengthy set of live material should be an imperative for aspiring Noise performers, regardless of how long they've been at it. I'd like to see Melbourne Noise artists aspire towards something greater. That's not to say there'll never be any room for short, sharp shocks of pure, filthy Noise - such things are necessary and, in many cases, are themselves quality - but not, please, to the exception of anything grander and more ambitious.

In fact, it was for the reason that the INC had such a restriction on time limits and such a pile up of artists that I withdrew from performing. The concept of just banging 'em on, one after the other, struck me as the very thing I want to get away from. Again, not saying it shouldn't be done - I've long understood the lust to glut - but I now think that a live performance should be something significant. There is, to my mind, a bit too much simple set-up-and-improvise going on, and that's what gets boring to me. Some can achieve it - I recall a wonderful set of aggressive yet cosmic synth Noise played by Mark Skelton at a house gig one time (someone else I should recommend as standing out of the crowd) - but the rest of us simply have to life our game. I don't think that's possible when it's just a matter of piling on as many as possible and treating gigs with more casualness than perhaps they should be treated.

High quality Noise does exist. Those of us who love Noise should aspire towards it.
Clinton said…
Andrew’s reply makes me think of the equality that was perceived for a long time (not just at the beginning) around punk rock – anyone could do it, it didn’t matter what your skill level was. With punk, you just had to pick up a guitar and go; now, with noise, you just pick up a bunch of effects pedals, maybe some contact mics (or make your own mics) and go. And like punk, what made it great could also be what made it boring: you get sick of sloppily played three chord music after a while, the lyrics/themes get clichéd, etc. I think what Andrew is talking about is a similar situation – some are tiring of the clichés of noise.

In essence, I agree that there are high quality noise acts (perhaps we could call them ‘Noise’ as opposed to ‘noise’), just as there were high quality punk acts; although I think Andrew’s examples could be placed in other categories/sub-categories than the type of noise I’ve described above. Dead Boomers are more power electronics, and to a lesser extent so are Ebola Disco – although their INC set reminded me of 7 Minutes of Nausea. Screwtape live over the past year has been more PE as well, although his many recordings (released free of charge, I might add) stray into varying noise-related categories including industrial, drone, PE and harsh noise. Sean Baxter’s performance I would describe more as electro-acoustic; the noise aspects were more incidental than central. In some ways, artists such as these have gone beyond noise, like Black Flag and The Fall went beyond punk and became something else.

Contemporary noise music is a really interesting phenomenon for me, in that noise by its very definition is something ‘wrong’ or unwanted. A small amount of noise is acceptable, but a legion of noise artists makes it more wrong/annoying/upsetting, thus my point about high quantity. It is difficult to resolve the idea of a ‘high quality’ noise act in a genre where the aim is to be ‘wrong’. To look at noise as an idea, it encapsulates more than harsh noise/effect pedal set-ups – locally, you could include The Donkey’s Tail and maybe The Paul Kidney Experience as well on a conceptual level.

Of course, the real concept here is to make us as listeners question what is good or bad as far as sound is concerned. Where we once asked ‘what is music?’, maybe now we should start asking ‘what is noise?’