Monday, March 2, 2009

Noise and Failure: Collaborative Performances at Paris London (Brooklyn)

Noise is not for most people. It's a challenging form of music and involves, by definition, intrusive sounds that one resists instinctively. One way to come to an understanding of the genre is through the live setting, where, as with a rock show, there is a bodily confrontation with the performer and their visceral squall. The live form of noise raises many ambiguities because the goals of the performers are not always clear: sometimes they seem confrontational, sometimes indifferent. So, what makes the live performance good or bad? I find myself considering this while taking in a collaborative, improvisational noise show in Brooklyn this past weekend.

The show, at Paris London, an artist's-studio-turned-performance-venue at 285 Kent Avenue, features two ad-libbed sets by six very talented artists and musicians. Held on the ominous night of Friday the thirteenth, the performance also doubles as an art opening, with large, day-glow colored paintings hanging salon-style on the walls.

This first spectacle of the night is a duo comprised of Josh Anzano, of the psychedelic rock group Titan, and Michael Berdan, the vocalist for Drunkdriver and Whip and the Body. Not unlike Grey Wolves at his most deconstructed, or the recent output of Domminick Fernow's Prurient, their noise derives most of its impact from the tension between an oppressive cacophony and the sound of the human voice struggling beneath it. Berdan's presence is reminiscent of Fernow’s: both are power-electronics vocalists who convulse and come unhinged during their performances, as if driven by some personal wellspring of emotion. This is an engaging sight, and goes some way toward enlivening the music.

The second act is a collaboration between artist Emma Hedditch, Marcia Bassett (Hototogisu, Double Leopards, GHQ), Mattin (Billy Bao), and multimedia artist and double bass player Margarita Garcia. Bassett plucks an eerie ambiance out of her guitar strings while Garcia bows her electrified double bass, generating both ethereal tones and brittle, distorted slabs of sound. At one point in the set, Hedditch grabs someone's sweater and gently wraps it around an audience member's head. In response, Mattin takes his laptop, which has only been generating noise through its own microphone up until now, and places it over another audience member's face.

In the back of my mind, I am recollecting stories I've heard about previous performances by Mattin that were far more confrontational and terrifying, actions in which he chased audience members with laptops, snapping them open and closed like ravenous Pac-Men. Those stories have an aura of fear about them, a feeling similar to the exhilaration of a roller coaster. I feel a crucial part of the live of the live presence of extreme music is the power to instill that sensation. In this performance, there is never the feeling that anyone in the room could be threatened at any time, because the performers only target the people in the room who are most visible. This reinforces the roles of audience and performer rather than disturb them, which I take issue with. It seems to me that another crucial part of the visceral noise experience is to have your physical comfort as an audience member challenged.

The show leads me to appreciate the relationship between the genre of noise music and performance. Improvisational performance is the careful navigation of a given environment and its inhabitants just as noise music is a careful navigation of music's antithesis. Both activities require intuition and a willingness to take risks. This is why I feel the best noise shows must deal with issues of performance. Beyond this mandate, there is not much else that can be clearly marked as right or wrong because failure and success are beside the point. It's the experiment and the experience that matters.

Words: Alessandro Keegan
Photo: Alessandro Keegan

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