Is noise “the future of music” or is it the end of it? Is noise the new punk as nihilistic anti-art or is it an extension of academic experimentation? Does humor have a place in noise or is it merely po-faced existential angst? These are some the issues addressed in this warts-and-all portrayal of what is perhaps the most pervasive D.I.Y. music scene phenomena to straddle the previous and current centuries the world over.
First and foremost, “People Who Do Noise” is a documentary of the men and women who populate the disproportionately active experimental underground music scene in Portland, Oregon, here in the U.S. The sheer quantity of such music coming out of a city its size (about 1/16th the size of New York) is absolutely staggering. The breadth of personal approaches to music-making is equally impressive. Through interviews, performance footage and additional commentary, a compelling and honest panorama of ideas and methods are put forth and explored. A cursory and generic summation could be that noise is the ultimate proletarian musical art form (second perhaps to singing in the shower) in that anyone can do it and anything can be it. This is undoubtedly a cultural observation because, with a certain mindset, anything can be music as well. Is noise even music at all? How all this is summed up in the future to become a part of history will be determined in another context, and while the professors stroke their chins, the rest of are living firmly in the present...loudly.
While a great deal of the music is intriguing and the performances are impressive, perhaps most compelling is the personal approach that each artist applies to his/her craft. Whether it be the use of a certain technique of vocal processing, the use of home-made gear or an individual philosophical springboard based upon empirical happenstance. It's a broad palette to say the least. The aggressive and harsh physical aesthetic that has come to characterize a lot of contemporary noise music by abusing the vocal cords is demonstrated by artists like Sisprum Vish, Oscillating Innards and Josh Hydeman. The latter even lays it on the line by asking “why would you even want to play noise music unless you had some fuckin' social or emotional problem?” While catharsis seems to be a common theme with a lot of these (mostly) young artists, a less nihilistic path is pursued by many others. Argumentix is something of a one-man physical theater, using his performances as an expression of a perceived impending apocalyptic world situation like some version of a young Samuel Beckett thrust into the 21st century with no explanation of what has happened in the last 50 years. Redglaer's music is fueled by an interest in what happens when you do things the wrong way, but still manages to create some dense and texturally rich soundscapes by combining voice, acoustic and electronic sounds. Honed Bastion manipulates feedback and uses a homemade synthesizer that sounds like a creation that has decided to turn on his master set to destroy or at least riddle your time on Earth with a steady flow of nightmares. Pulse Emitter also uses a homemade synth outfitted with photocells to realize his self-described “cosmic music,” which indeed evokes sonic asteroids hurdling through deep space. His aim is to remove the human element from music by “taking data from nature” (ionic disturbances and other atmospheric phenomena) and patching it into his gear. Kitty Midwife coaxes sounds of the “spring-tar,” a homemade koto-like instrument that uses springs in place of strings, and processes the dog-poo out of it. Daniel Menche contributes an intense set of heavy drone work and probably needs no introduction here. Highly disciplined music from an accomplished and mature musician. Along with Soup Purse and With Caro, these artists share at least one unifying factor : they are all solo acts. With the exceptions of Menche and Hydeman, they also use pseudonyms. Both are common elements in the noise underground and speak more about the sociological aspects of the scene and less of the personal nature of the projects. Having a moniker or alternative form of identification places something akin to a brand-name on ones work which, in a way, brings it one step closer to consumer culture. This is not a criticism, but merely an observation.
Two duo projects are featured here that are both impressive in their own right. The humbly named God fathom subtle transformations using manipulated circuits to create a unique space with each performance. This has more to do with the likes of AMM or some of the quiet Japanese electronic improv that has emerged in the past decade or so. Absolutely mesmerizing stuff. The other duo, Yellow Swans, are probably no strangers to most of you with their prolific release schedule and collaborative efforts. These guys are concerned with the deterioration of source material through what they call a “giant systemic network” feeding back on itself. Voice and guitar are completely obscured via tape and electronic processing so that something completely new exists by the time it reaches the listener. There's a lot of energy at work here but it's rarely sloppy or haphazard, even if these two can't agree on how to discuss what they do.
Perhaps the most golden moments on this DVD are the performances and comments made by weirdo music legends Smegma. After emerging through the Los Angeles Free Music Society in the 70's, they relocated to Portland some thirty years ago. Still crazy after all these years, the groups multi-dimensional improv is as fresh and alive as it ever was. The performance footage is stellar and the comments made by Dr. Id, Oblivia and Ju Suk Reet Meate provide a great deal of insight into the questions posited back in the first paragraph. Anyone who's ever seen footage of Smegma can't deny that there's an element of humor involved in the costumes and stage demeanor. In the late 70's they found themselves a fish out of water in a predominately punk-populated underground. After moving to Portland they forged relationships with, and we're accepted by, the local scene. Same agenda, different language. Today they remain a truly American maverick institution of sorts. As one comment from Dr. Id reveals, a fan mentioned how they should give hope to anyone who fears that they may grow out of their youthful creativity and opt for a more conventional life. I can only wish that my daughters think the same of me one day.
After 82 minutes of this, you're probably assuming you've seen and heard the best of what Portland's underground has to offer. Nope; not even close. In fact, the deleted scenes and extra footage have some of the best moments of all. There's more Smegma and Yellow Swans plus excellent performances from Budweiser Sprite, Acre, Blakk Condom, Shitty Vibe Smasher and Rockandrolljackie (Oblivia from Smegma) among others. These extras are a treasure trove of performances and I'm bewildered as to why this stuff wasn't included in the release proper. One exception is the lengthy talk with Noah Mickens who apparently books a lot of the events that feature these artists and plays in the group Nequaquam Vacuum. Although it's obvious that he's a vital asset to the scene, he tries to come across as some sort of authority on noise, both culturally and historically. Anyone who knows much about the origins of this music will recognize right away that Mr. Mickens is running a deficit in the fact department. Still it's kind of amusing and he manages to give a bit of lop-sided insight into the local dynamics that contrasts somewhat with the comments made by various artists throughout the film. A picture is painted of a city with an open mind, an open heart and a lot of troubled souls. If that doesn't constitute a hotbed of creativity then what does? Excellent job from filmmaker Adam Cornelius and crew; essential contemporary viewing. Or you can ignore it, but it won't go away.