Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating. — John Cage.
On Saturday, Eugene’s WOW Hall will tremble, throb, and reverberate with the tweeter-searing, woofer-warping sounds of Noise Fest 2018. The festival, which resurrects itself every year or so, is a day of genre-stretching, noise-based performances that run the gamut from glitch (technology pushed to its limits) to noise pop, No Wave to industrial and post-digital “organized sound” (Edgar Varèse’s definition of his music).
The festival is the brainchild of designer, artist, and noise musician Don Haugen, who started it in the early 2000s when he was associated with the newly formed Downtown Initiative for the Visual Arts (DIVA). The large gallery space at DIVA (now a Buy 2 convenience store) was the scene of endlessly creative expressions of noise in all its guises, including virtual silence, violent caterwauling, circuit-bent sweetness, and rich feedback decomposition.
A couple of memorable acts from the first festival come to mind: Portland artist Daniel Menche’s foundation-shaking, additive, minimalistic performance, using only a contact mic at his throat, a few foot-pedal effects, and a giant speaker cabinet. Menche ended his set by doing a backward flip onto his bank of foot pedals which he then beat into silence with his fists (he happened to have a fractured collarbone at the time). And IDX1274, a dude dressed in work clothes and a snap back, who dropped an active microphone onto a steel plate and then attacked it with a power grinder.
Defined as any organized expressive use of non-pitch-centric, non-harmonic sound in a musical context, noise music’s deep roots reach back to 1913 and futurist Luigi Russolo’s manifesto The Art of Noises, which predicted that noise-generating machines would inherit the stage of concert music. He also predicted the violent reaction of his audiences, who rioted after the first performance of his Gran Concerto Futuristica (1917). Russolo’s music is a far cry from current trends in noise music, but nonetheless, his experiments fed the development of noise-based creativity in America throughout the twentieth century from Henry Cowell to John Cage, Harry Partch to La Monte Young.
The experimental tradition of American music pushed the envelope of acceptable material for musical creativity into the mid-60s when pioneering young artists such as Welshman John Cale started to tune in to the noise and applied the aesthetic to their own work. Cale, a founding member of The Velvet Underground, explored noise in the form of feedback and drones in his work with La Monte Young (Theater of Eternal Music). VU’s influential sophomore album, White Light/White Heat, is credited with birthing lines of innovative pop music such as noise punk, noise rock, and No Wave.
Jump forward to the 1970s and ‘80s, when do-it-yourselfer punks and rockers were straying into the landscape of noise with efforts by Suicide, Rhys Chatham, and Glenn Branca in New York, leading the No-Wave movement that rose in response to the ubiquity and banality of the New Wave phenomenon. The thread was picked up in Europe by German industrial rock musicians such as Einsturzende Neubauten; in England with the advent of the Shoe Gazer genre (musicians spent much time gazing at their feet where their effects pedals were positioned), championed by the groups My Bloody Valentine and The Jesus and Mary Chain; and in Japan with Merzbow and Ryoji Ikeda.
Street Level Avant Garde
In contrast to many noise artists who immigrated to noise from death metal and industrial rock, Haugen—a soft spoken, mellow man—found his way to noise by way of hardcore punk. He has championed the DIY aesthetic of punk throughout several years of noise festival and noise concert production in Eugene and Corvallis. He keeps his projects out of bars to allow all-ages audiences. (This year’s venue, the WOW Hall, is all ages, all the time, with a bar downstairs and a bouncer.) He shuns the “headliner” structure of concert promoting. All acts are equal. “It’s street-level avant-garde,” Haugen explains, “without the support and shackles that academia supplies.”
He often stages concerts in the back room of a local video game store whose owner is an enthusiastic supporter of the genre. That doesn’t mean that Haugen and his peers poo-poo high-art representations of noise music. Rather, they absorb and borrow material from the art world and revivify the aesthetic. Noise concerts can be seen as musical direct actions. “It’s like taking John Cage and making him a punk,” he says. In our recent conversation, he referenced influences as diverse as Cage, Sonic Youth, American minimalist music, and French electro-acoustic master Éliane Radigue.
After a few initial years of Noise Fest regularity, family demands caught up with Haugen and he took periodic breaks from producing the festival. In the meantime, his approach to noise evolved in response to his changing lifestyle. He has made a distinct decision to not use computer processing in his own noise projects, saving the digital realm for mastering recordings. Test signals and sine tones are the meat and potatoes of his drone-based, static creations. His current work is perhaps mellower than earlier efforts, with an emphasis on drones and dynamics, “Some artists like to start at 110 percent and keep it there till they hit the off switch,” Haugen explains. “I like softer sounds too, I’m interested in layers, textures, dynamics.” He couldn’t say whether this shift was part of a larger trend, although he did say he’s noticed an increase in quieter work in the genre lately.
Haugen also creates abstract video works to accompany his noise projects. This year’s Noise Fest will feature moving image art with some of the performances. Because noise music—utilizing unwanted sound—is alienating on its own right, Haugen believes that images are often the doorway through which a novice listener can access the depth, nuances, and complexity of the genre.
Haugen keeps the festival’s focus local and regional. Most of the acts on the roster come from within a hundred miles or so of Eugene: Sleeping with the Earth and AUME from Portland; Chefkirk, Squidopus, Haugen, and Esperik Glare from Eugene; MKultramegaphone from Salem; Deadly Discs from Corvallis; and Alan Jones from Washington, among others, with a few acts from farther afield (Klowd from Sacramento, Vintage Violence, named for a Cale album, from Australia).
Haugen recognizes—despite a dearth of sympathetic venues—a vibrant, self-supporting community of experimental music both here in Eugene and in Corvallis and suggests that these scenes are healthier and more productive than in larger towns such as Portland, Seattle, and San Francisco, where the struggle to stay afloat can bring an artistic career to an unwanted but necessary end. Luckily for Eugene, Don Haugen stays tuned in to the latest frequencies of noise music and its vibrant scene and continues to showcase this challenging, compelling, and rewarding performance genre here.
And after more than a decade, a consistent core of listeners continues to respond. Haugen believes that noise music can appeal to many listeners despite its sometimes high-decibel experience. Smiling, he references a standard task in good electronic studio maintenance. “It’s a good head cleaning,” he says. In more ways than one.
Daniel Heila is a composer, writer, and flutist living in Eugene.