Review by Blake Hargreaves

Sept Ames (Montreal)

Nirvana in Negative
Noise & Capitalism and the aesthetics of academia

In 2007 I was invited to the 40th anniversary party of CTV, Canada’s dominant media organization, by mistake. Sitting there with my date, drinking quietly in a corner while MPs and anchorpersons from across the country mingled and unembarrassedly commented on us (“You guys look so stylish! You must be from Montreal”), I suddenly spotted a well-dressed but bleary and lost-looking old feller. No sooner had I realized that eye contact might be a mistake, then he’d locked his sights on us and orbit became entry. He eventually introduced himself as the President of CTV Newsmedia, to which I was tempted to reply “yeah, and I’m Donald Duck” but I kept it in check and exchanged pleasantries until he was quickly bored of us.

When I learned this was in fact Bob Hurst, president of CTV Newsmedia, I did what enterprising young folks are supposed to do and tried to get a meeting with him so I could ask for a job. It was a disaster; he was much sharper then, and between eating a sandwich and checking email, in his office of ten thousand television sets, he withdrew my life history from me. The peak of the discussion came when I got to describing my undergraduate thesis, which I very generously described as a study of “the aesthetic differences between works of composition and works of improvisation”. He pretty much froze. Now I had gone and done it. “Really?…. what did you come up with?” The incoherent babbling episode that followed, with references to Jackson Pollock, the Rolling Stones, and “spirit” went longer than I’d care to remember before he finally showed mercy and cut me off by telling me in a cool low voice that if I hoped to be a journalist I had better learn how to explain something.

The thesis was really just a recording of my composition process and the research accompanying it, and it was that process that was a study in the differences between improvisation and composition. I never sent it to get bound, as it is meant to be, because when I finished the essay I decided the purpose of this essay was probably to show me what would become one of the fundamental questions with which I would fill my earth-bound days, so why not spend a lifetime on it instead.

In Noise and Capitalism, a new book of essays published by Arteleku, improvisation acts as a stand-in for the scene called noise or noise music in many of the pieces, and several tease out thoughts on the nature of spontaneity in a material and capital culture, and its political ramifications for those who engage in such activity, for their audience, and society at large.

The main promoter of the book, and contributor of its first and last essay, is enthusiastic, no-irony performer and all around good person Mattin, a performance artist who I much admire. He’s the pitchman for this assembly of musings on noise and capitalism from a dozen or so chatter-borgs who have produced enough prog-talk to thoroughly stone anyone. It comes in the form of an academic journal, with an overload of footnotes, references to theorists of varying popularity, and large words and larger concepts are hoisted around like so many steel storage containers at port, threatening to crush the reader in their brutish lack of clarity and coherence.

Initially I found myself uncomfortable with the discussion of music being so academic, and some authors lose a lot in the translation when they shift from a discussion of theory to application in the practice of making music. For those who define noise as improvisation, they universally gloss over the hard facts of the history of improvisation in music, for instance, and many discuss it as if it 
were unquestionably an instrument of political contrarianism, which I’d say would not ring true to many of the wizards of the craft who came to it before say 1950, or after.

Whether it was ignorance of Bach’s pagan Christian occult numerologist improvising, or the French school of organ improvisers who make tremendous rivals for any improvisatory form since, all under the holy guidance of the church; most of the writers in it completely disregard my essay’s question. If improvisation is to define the style being discussed, it seems pertinent to consider that the artist might have aesthetic motives in choosing to improvise, and it might have aesthetic consequences that may or may not have some pertinence to capitalism; but in this book, too often real musical motives aren’t considered the prime movers, which strikes me as completely insane.

So many of these authors see what they want in the practice of noise music, like one who sees a fuller in a blade as a method of drawing blood, rather than it’s true benign purpose which was cheapness. In my own experience, the techniques, styles, forms and instruments of noise were a more efficient way of achieving my musical objectives, not choices designed to improve a weapon of political solidarity or social/political/dialectical blood-drawing. They make the bland assumption that all people in the noise scene, whatever it is, are politically leftist, whatever that even means. I personally take the Andrew Coyne view that left and right are tribes of self-quarantine. I think most noise musicians are more Carlo Marx than Karl Marx. I heartily encourage the more combative forms of motivation for art, and will defend them forever, although from what I can see they are so often the tools of those with a weaker grasp of the art of magic-catching.

This vision of noise and the people who make it will come as no surprise to most who care about the scene discussed here. Marxist or otherwise left or oppositional or anti-fiduciary scholars should naturally be attracted to noise, not least because so much of it embodies the aesthetics of capitalism’s biggest enemies, that of apathy and skulls and death and so on. Plus this is the new music scene that most heartily embraces improvisation at this time, and improvised music is probably more resistant than most forms of music to the processes of description and classification required for the capitalization of it.

There is a lot of negativity in this book; disgust, contempt, futility, cynicism. Like a tab of acid but without the laughs, the book’s tone felt mind-scrambling and dreary, and I felt it wasn’t becoming of a book about an emerging field of music which has given a lot of musicians a feeling of harnessing the potential to completely recalibrate the matrix of popular and underground music categorization. Although some come close, no one in the book makes full contact with the blasting open of genre, form, intent, and sound that noise represents as a cultural attitude; the noise musician’s radio show playlists are often dizzyingly expansive, and actively and deftly demonstrate to what degree it is all the same practice. The consolidation of the art of music, a century after it first discovered a new canvas in recording, is really picking up its pace and this book wastes no time on any part of the picture it deems tainted somehow by brushes with capitalism however slight, and however meaningful the omitted continents might be. Whether it’s a longing for a world where we needn’t be imposed upon by awful tasteless popular music forms, or just a nobly consuming interest in Marx, DeBord et al., the spirit of music suffers in this book, drearily dragged through theories and suppositions and speculation, and at the end I could remember only two or three brief expressions of joy or 
even much interest beyond the potential uses for this music in opposing capitalism.

The spirit of Marx may suffer in my review of course. But it’s a weird time for Marx. China is capitalist and large parts of the Western world are seeing the percentage of their GDP which is controlled by the government reaching and exceeding those present in the Eastern Bloc.

So the basic ideology of the book confused me too. But it was more the total incoherence of some of the ideas in it when imagined in a tangible world. I asked my dear friend who is deep into this area, more than anyone I know, about it. She sorted me out this way; she said the point of doing this writing isn’t to try and crack the code, and find the solution to unraveling capitalism. It’s to light a little fire, a little idea, and it might just go out right away or it might burn down the city, but hopefully it will warm someone for some time, and perhaps someday one of these ideas will warm the world. Well ok she didn’t gush quite that hard, that last part is really mine.

And I was warmed; reading the book was strangely emotional, maybe due to the utter lack of feeling within it. It reflects Mattin’s oeuvre well in that way, as the lack of emotion in an expression wrought with equal parts brute force and aimlessness invites the audience to fill in the blank. It’s like being beat with the club of empty style, which is style at its best, a mechanism that gives class to its contents. There were ideas in the book with regards to the means of production and experience, which are endlessly thinkable questions when applied to a very personal and possibly spiritual practice like making art, whose morality is so underdefined. And some of the essays differed greatly from the norm, and managed to be a breath of fresh air in what otherwise felt like a mouthful of cotton. I believe the problems these writers want to solve can be real and very serious, even if I question their commitment to actually solving them, and their language in explaining it all makes it almost impossible to grasp.

When Mattin came to Montreal in December of 2008 for Cool Fest 8, I couldn’t tell if the prospector’s twinkle in his eye was in anticipation of entertaining the youth or inflicting a little bit of pain or discomfort on them. Out of everyone he was clearly the most jazzed about the whole thing. I loved him right away because he was what I love; a bit of beauty wrapped in a surprise. He and Marcia Bassett played the loudest and longest set of noise wall I had ever seen in my life. It was like driving in a car made of pop cans through a tunnel that is slightly smaller than the car, for 45 minutes. And he was all sweetness. Marcia too.

When he came back in the spring of 2009, and performed with Tim Goldie, they located, at the intersection of impressionism and expressionism, this place where despite the emasculated rock on the radio and the cream-puff muscleman noise machines, white men performing can still make a sound and be sexy, and have class. Gone was the pube/dick-cheese of Seedbed or Stelarc, what we got was a streamlined, aerodynamic performance art that is nothing less than groovy. Within the language of existentialism, banalities and non-emphasis, Mattin managed to extract an essence that’s in short supply but thirsted for at the moment; of what’s good in black metal aesthetics, the flavour that cruises through Steven Parrino’s artwork, that sensory experience that the eighties were, in my head, before I really got to know them. Like if Cold Metal was actually an amazing album. They transformed Harsh Noise Wall into High Net Worth.

His opening essay, ‘Going Fragile’ is a beautifully simple exploration of the concept of risk in performance and art-making. Reading this book is not nearly as pleasurable as watching Mattin perform, because sadly there is very little personality on display here. But his performances do a lot to improve the book.

As I was left wondering who we should think makes noise, and what it ought to mean, I was reminded of Donald Mitchell’s excellent description of the emergence of the 20th century’s artist myth, in The Language of Modern Music:

“But for the artist, neither the role of the esteemed rebel nor the role of scapegoat is a particularly fruitful one. In previous centuries one may be sure that the artist would not have welcomed having freedom, as it were, thrust upon him. On the contrary one might view him in earlier days as the purveyor of order in a free society (and who can deny the freedom that order bestows? Is it not a principle inherent in great art?). In our captive society, however, the situation of the artist is very different. Can it be seriously contested that in our own time, whether a ‘myth’ or not, the concept of the ‘free’ artist has substantially influenced artistic practice? At the very moment of writing, the prevalence of action-painting, of tachisme, would seem to confirm that the myth can exert a very real influence. (‘Current social values may, as Koestler has remarked, be extraneous to aesthetic merit, but they cannot be isolated from it’).

I might have said order in a chaotic or heartless society, but that’s all.

Koestler as an occult figure is difficult to beat, he is so many thousands of miles beyond what people think when you say ‘occult figure’. It’s widely thought that Forrest Gump is based on him (haven’t seen it). Besides miraculously surviving a stint in Franco’s prison, authoring a sex encyclopedia, and zillions of other dazzling exploits (Anne Appelbaum’s brief account of his life in her review of Skeptic is hilarious, astounding,  and barely scratches the surface), he was one of the first and only people to write an intelligent account of what it was like to take hallucinogenic drugs, in Return Trip to Nirvana. The letter he got from his psychiatrist friend at Harvard inviting him to try the stuff is worth quoting in this context:

Dear K …,
Things are happening here which I think will interest you. The big, new, hot issue these days in many American circles is DRUGS. Have you been tuned in on the noise?

‘Noise’ in its most simple definition, unwanted sound, has covered everything embraced by the noise scene, from imitating industrial sonic by-product to embracing bodily noises and recording defects traditionally scrubbed from recordings. Even a special fondness for sounds lost to society, be they faraway folk sounds, obnoxious oddities or long-forgotten vanity presses, is characteristic of the noise fan.

But Koestler introduces us to another meaning for noise: chatter, excitement, concern, controversy, spirit. I think it is accurate and progressive, this new definition, and the book sort of gets that, even if it is weak on aesthetics and too long on references. Unfortunately the dominant energy is directed towards what is unwanted, be it copyright, capital, critical approval, etc. and it consolidates these feelings into a new myth for the artist, not as a free one, but as a revolutionary struggling to change the world’s financial system, or people’s perceptions of reality, or the artist’s own, against an industrial/consciousness complex which does not want people’s perceptions to be changed.

Twig Harper, when I first met him, seemed to fit this artist myth. He was the first person I called after finishing the book. I chose to talk to Twig because I wondered if I was way off the mark in finding this book dreary, and I thought he was close to it, but I like him, so he’s the bridge. Some of his artistic practice could be described as self-sabotage, or there was a time when the present-tense reality of Twig did little to refute that you could say. I don’t think Twig dislikes me, but he shot me with a pellet gun during a performance of mine at his house. So you know it’s a stretch for me to put it this way, but the first time I heard Nautical Almanac I might have shit my pants, except I was in the bathroom at the time so we’ll never know. To this day that music they played is something so powerful, they brought the dreary world of radicalism, noise slovenliness, pouting instrument abuse to life and they made it dance and they made it sing. It’s one of the most important musical moments of my life.

Our conversation reached its peak when we were talking about what musicians do, and how this book kind of misses it. Twig said “It’s all very analytical intellectual rational writing, and I think this kind of music deals with paradoxes, holes in time, the immediacy of an experience being sort of magic… and once you intellectualize something it’s no longer an immediate experience, that’s the way we’re wired… it should unwire you, break old connections and make new connections, and I think the arts are the forefront of everything, the artists are the pioneers, they’re going out on the farthest reaches of inner/inter-social space. They’re going out there, into the void to gather information in space and bring it back, and recreate that experience from the other side and that’s the role that artists and musicians play in society… and that’s a great thing and the ones that focus on that, do that, and that’s what you do.”

I realize now that with this book, Mattin is actually doing what Twig describes. He has consolidated a world of ideas and grafted it onto a stylistic non-entity, and in doing so has acquired a scepter to lead the second act of his quest. The book is like a Manzoni-type prop, perfectly suited to his motorcycle schizoid black art psychodrama with no drama. An academic journal on a subject which is totally undefined. A world is being created here. In this way he is, I think, on the crest of a creative wave that has accepted that carefree folkie boho music making must merge somehow with academic musical practice.

After reading Noise and Capitalism, I finally feel equipped to work on the imaginary thesis; in fact I’m dying to write it. I’d open with a quote about Beethoven, I think it was Copland or Bernstein, who said that what makes Beethoven so extraordinary is that while he wasn’t a master at anything (his melodies, harmony, rhythm, orchestration, all are good but not masterful), his music has that quality of sounding as if you might have heard it before, yet it doesn’t sound predictable, it sounds inevitable. The quote includes something about being it dictated to Beethoven by God; you get the idea.

And that’s what makes improvisation’s results different from composition; you get to short-circuit the effort it took Beethoven to achieve that quality. The goal of popular theatre productions, it is said, is that make the audience believe it’s happening for the first time. In a composition, it might take several listens to get how instinctive it is, how well that effect has been accomplished. With improv, it’s usually the real deal.

And the book feels as inevitable… as the death of capitalism. It comes off as a beautifully crafted scrying medium; it’s transparencies too many to mention. Within its pools the academic, the artist, the anti-academic, the mystic, will find 
what they seek. As a work of art (for the uninitiated with so much of the academic terminology like myself) it is a work of omission; I reacted mostly from those parts which seemed to miss the point completely, and it was a strong field in this book for me. I learned a lot about what I think.

In closing Return Trip to Nirvana, Koestler uses a parable to explain how he ultimately feels taking drugs is a cheap substitute for real mental magic. Relating his schoolboy climbs up 7,000 foot mountains in Austria, he says the view from the peak is the same for the climber as it is for the one who takes a cable-car, but having worked for it and experienced the journey stone in hand means that for the climber, “their vision is different”.

Reading Noise and Capitalism is like the mountain climb in negative; the vistas and appreciation happen inside the reader, reflecting on what’s missed, not in the book; it’s mostly treacherous and unpleasant, and what you get at the end might be less useful than a personal creative epiphany achieved by making music, listening to some, or just having a good old-fashioned think. It’s like a drug that actually takes work to slog through, but the result is a mental mash that you probably can’t conjure up yourself, and for some will introduce ideas and phenomena that, while strangely expressed and weird in attitude, nevertheless shine light somewhere. Those familiar with Mattin’s performances will also enjoy an aesthetic aftertaste unobtainable anywhere else, and its flavours, for the time being, are worth acquainting oneself with.

Review by Blake Hargreaves

2 Responses to “Review by Blake Hargreaves”

  1. No Good News From Booze » Blog Archive » NOISE & CAPITALISM» Blog Archive » Review by Blake Hargreaves Says:

    [...] View post: NOISE & CAPITALISM» Blog Archive » Review by Blake Hargreaves [...]

  2. Blanca Oraa Moyua Says:

    I really appreciate the reflection of Blake Hargreaves. He really knows what he is talking about and I can feel he respects Mattin’s work, making the difference beewen the book and his perfomances: two different expresions of his artwork always trying to brake the unkown.

Leave a Reply