STAGED IN AEOLIAN HALL above the Forest City Gallery in downtown London’s weary east-end, the No Music Festival was the brainchild of organizer Ben Portis. A visual artist living in New York, Portis is the former host of “Jass Beeps,” a jazz program at University of Western Ontario’s radio station CHRW-FM. Last year he directed a new music festival called the “New School Jazz Series” at the Forest City Gallery. Although an artistic success, the series suffered from a disappointing attendance, so Portis decided to shift gears this year and present other sorts of music—specifically: noise music. With the legendary Nihilist Spasm Band being the gallery members making the greatest artistic strides over the past couple years, they became Portis’ obvious choice around which to anchor the festival. Invitations for the other guests followed logically from the contacts the Nihilists had been making over the course of their ever-widening travels.
Festivities got under way Friday evening with the Canadian premiere of VAN’S PEPPY SYNCOPATORS. An experimental trio from Chicago, the Syncopators are comprised of Hal Rammel on saw, snath and triolin (homemade acoustic instruments played with a bow), John Corbett on acoustic guitar, and Terri Kapsalis on violin and vocals. The ensemble was unknown to nearly everybody in attendance, although their bio sheet details extensive cred in the midwest and Chicago music scenes. (Corbett heads the Sound Department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and works as a senior writer for Option and Downbeat magazines. Kapsalis is a widely published scholar in the field of women’s sexuality who’s contributed to work by Gastr del Sol and Tony Conrad. Rammel is a polymath artist who lives in Milwaukee.)
Kicking off with surprising formality, the trio appeared less interested in making noise than exploring avant-garde experimentation. Most of the performed numbers actually sounded orderly and musical, with frequent poetic interruptions courtesy of Kapsalis. Abetted by subtle taps and flanging from Rammel’s saw, Kapsalis’ humorous readings elicited widespread laughter throughout the 300-400 in attendance. Too distracted by the hall’s mysterious interior (principally used for chamber music and organ recitals) and the annoying floodlighting to pay close enough attention to her readings, they had the effect of ramblings to me. Despite these diversions, the inventiveness of the trio was engaging. Most exciting were the improvisational passages following Kapsalis’ poetic interludes, when swift exchanges between her violin and Rammel’s assortment of bowed instruments brought stinging intensity to where there’d been oblique passivity seconds before.
The lights dimmed to near-total darkness for the performance of Toronto
artist Alan Bloor, aka KNURL. A strikingly tall and angular hellion dressed
in black, Knurl was Friday evening’s surprise guest. Seizing control on
a menacingly stark backlit stage, he started by attacking an auto shock,
throwing down a gauntlet for all that would follow.
With a chain looped around-and-thru the shock’s coil Knurl yanked the chain back and forth with tremendous force and presence. He looked for the world to be playing the part of a mad scientist in an old German Expressionist film. His formula was simple in execution, engaging contact microphones, amplification effects and sheer volume to construct a mesmerizing squall of dense, head-rattling abrasion. The auditory assault was staggering. Compañeros Sandy, Peter and myself stood slack-jawed and amazed. “Who the fuck is this guy?”
The performance defied all sense of time and space. There’s little to compare it against in real time, but for what must have been a good ten-to-fifteen minutes, his first “song” was an improvisation of brutal, pulsating cadences amidst a steady roar. At no point did the sonic blast—think of a dozen woodpeckers harmonizing with rocket propulsion and throw in some screeching brakes for good measure— ever waver or collapse into boredom, a monumental feat. So hypnotic is the overall effect that we were each given the sense of being willed to invent our own melodies to accompany the coarse frequencies, all the while swaying our bodies to the subtle rhythms. Satisfied that his first composition had sufficiently expired Knurl put the coil aside, setting down a pop-up toaster and thrusting into it a pair of rusted iron rods. Pushing and pulling the rods as if they were levers to another dimension, he began improvising a composition that didn’t sound any different than the first one—severe, unforgiving, similar in density and duration, and no less mind-blowing.
Knurl’s performance has to be seen to be appreciated. Following his set, Sandy and I made beelines to the merch table and snapped up copies of his Paraphasm and Infraneuroma cassettes. Recorded Knurl is an acquired taste. We’ve since played these tapes for others to experience, but making believers of them has proved fruitless. The reactions are certifiably negative: “Stop. This is garbage, this is bullshit, turn this off now or I will fucking kill you!!” These are not exaggerations. Resistance is hostile. Live, Knurl is dynamite.
A tough act to follow, it might have been anticlimactic for anybody else to follow. Except that the performer was a highly anticipated THURSTON MOORE, the evening’s headliner and responsible for seating at least ninety percent of those in attendance. This was Moore’s first solo gig in Canada, and his participation at the festival was a real coup. He became intrigued by the Nihilist Spasm Band many years ago, drawn firstly to the band’s irreverent name, and then impressed by the creative energy of the music and the members construction (or “hot-rodding”) of their own instruments. Moore initially invited the Nihilists to open for Sonic Youth on a leg of their tour, but when this couldn’t be accommodated instead accepted a counter-proposal to play in London.
With his lanky frame seated and hunched over a guitar laid gently in his lap, Moore began his hour-long improvisational performance slowly, almost hesitantly. Chords were strummed and plucked up and down the guitar’s neck and across the bridge in a style familiar to many of those in the crowd, but the trail didn’t come easily. There were points during these initial passages that, to be truthful, seemed like aimless noodling. But when the gears clicked, he began hitting passages of genuine inspiration.
The exercise here was the process of living, breathing creation. Intervals of twenty-to-thirty second guitar runs and harmonic explorations came out of nowhere, having the imprint of whole new Sonic Youth vehicles then imploding and cascading into entirely different developments. One got the sense of a relaxed Moore seated at home, alone with guitar and four-track recorder, inventing stream-of-conscious melodies and rhythms at will, for editing and reconstruction at later stages. Therein lies the trade-off: a listener forfeits the art of editing for the experience of receiving pure and direct inspiration. So while some moments lagged and tried ones’ patience, others were absolutely brilliant. These “outtakes” were alone rewarding for fans, and alongside some archetypal ferocious Sonic-guitar assaults peppered throughout, comprised the most captivating elements of his early set. Less successful were his explorations stomping chaotically on a bank of foot-pedals.
Moore’s performance climaxed with an intensive improvisational duel with Osaka, Japan’s legendary JOJO HIROSHIGE. While Moore folded himself into a hairpin pulling moans and howls out of his instrument, the inimitable Hiroshige, the “King of Noise,” hit the stage like a man possessed, alternately lashing and shouting at his guitar with paranoid fury and making manic hand gestures to the demons in his head. A guitar style wholly of his own invention, Hiroshige’s gestures are gripping, never to be forgotten and totally insane. The sights and sounds of these demons locked in mortal combat with Moore made a most-excellent show stopper for evening number one.
Implausible as it might have seemed, Saturday night’s performances were even better. Fresh from his guest slot with Moore the previous evening, Hiroshige was first out of the gate in his Canadian debut. The “King of Noise” comes by his title without gimmickry. As guitarist for the group Hijokaidan and founder of Alchemy Records (the roster includes Borbetomagus, Nihilist Spasm Band, and Solmania), he is a principal promoter and practitioner of noise music, a true legend in the genre. Composed and seated, Hiroshige began by speaking softly about noise music. Apologizing for his poor English, he slowly, quietly, and with great patience and dignity, imparted a simple, yet lucid explanation of the power of noise music. Noise, Hiroshige related, transcends language and culture. It's about images and the beauty of conveying them mentally through sound. Hiroshige’s first selection was a terse and disciplined guitar improvisation that evoked an austere imagery, and all of it in high contrast black and white—shards of glass, wire, metal, pain, dread, and paranoia. Think Greg Nickson’s Tetsuo: The Iron Man. His second piece traversed similar terrain, but here the relentless guitar frenzy was buoyed by strafed howls. More than just a conveyance of torture, this time Hiroshige made you feel it. The third and last song of his set was climaxed by the addition of Junko, the Hijokaidan vocalist. Junko is a Japanese banshee. As legend has it, when banshees wail death is imminent. When Junko sings, death has arrived. A mere waif, her stage presence is physically subdued, ramrod stiff, but astonishing in its psychic range and impact. Her voice is a weapon, a series of primal screams piercing and bludgeoning all whom hear. Alongside Jojo’s beautiful guitar noise, it is terrifying—as Sandy calls it, the sound of a thousand rats getting their balls chopped off.
New York guitarist ALAN LICHT was Saturday’s surprise guest, and probably nobody was more excited about it than I was. His guitar finesse with the band Run On has contributed to a pair of the finest rock records of the past couple years, so I was really pumped. I wasn’t disappointed. Licht’s engagement was but a single composition lasting perhaps twenty-or-so minutes. For me it was the single best work of the entire weekend, perhaps because it possessed more rigidity of structure than most of the other material. It was improvisational, to be sure, but appeared to have an explicit direction, a beginning, middle and end. Titled “Betty Ford,” Licht described the piece as a pseudo-sequel to “Betty Page” off his album Sink the Aging Process (Siltbreeze). The song began patiently, with Licht seated and laying his guitar flat on his lap. Taking a Philips screwdriver in his right hand, he held the metal head between his fingers and twirled the handle continuously back-and-forth across the guitar’s pickup. A rolling rhythm that sounded like squirrels furiously scratching away above my ceiling, Licht worked his left hand deftly on top of the bridge, walking it like a spider and pulling meticulously timed pops and crackles out of the din. Gradually, almost imperceptibly, he then worked his hand down the neck, using it as a slide. With total command and concentration, long sustained notes arose, and an intense, subtle melody prevailed amidst the raucous rhythm. The repetition of both parts was staggering, the composition truly epic—one of the most amazing aural performances I have ever witnessed. It couldn’t possibly have gotten any better than that, but it did. Licht’s composition might have been my favorite single piece of the weekend, but the portion hosted by the NIHILIST SPASM BAND was the icing on the cake.
Preceeding their performance was an official letter of congratulations from London’s infamous born-again Mayor Dianne Haskett. Read aloud by funky councillor Diane Whiteside, the letter was punctuated with arched eyebrows and chiding titters from the locals all around, but was received with what seemed like genuine appreciation. Yes, truly, the Nihilist Spasm Band had arrived. Not that they’d ever gone away, mind you. In a record of longevity that makes Cal Ripken look like just another ball player, the Nihilists have played at the Forest City Gallery every Monday since 1966. Since improvised music can’t be rehearsed, every gathering is a performance, sometimes attended by an informal audience, other times played to nobody at all.
The Nihilist personnel has remained solid since conception in 1965— John Boyle, John Clement, Bill Exley, Murray Favro, Hugh McIntyre and Art Pratten. (Fellow original members were Archie Leitch (permanently retired) and Greg Curnoe, deceased after a tragic accident while cycling in 1992.) Originally a kazoo band in the early days, the Nihilists have since expanded their arsenal to include a whole range of instruments, all homemade, and none tuned to any scale or any other instrument. The goal is total free improvisation and having fun. Each band member is capable of playing a number of instruments, and it’s not uncommon for members to mix variables by switching their instruments or abandoning the stage at will. The only structured part of their performance is the (mostly) unaccompanied conversational verse of Bill Exley. His works Saturday night included the painfully funny nihilist anthems of “No Canada,” “I Am a Real Nice Fellow,” “Heritage is Not Culture,” and “I Have Nothing to Say.” When the animated readings are finished, the band collapses into chaotic free improvisation, a clatter of guitars, drums, violin, kazoos, and more. Solos are avoided; after all these years, the musicians have an intuitive grasp of where the noise leads them and the result is attuned cacaphony. While the band plays on, Exley all the while gesticulates madly, pirouettes, stands at attention, sometimes accompanying the racket by dropping marbles into a pot (the only pot or pan seen the entire weekend).
As if the sounds produced by the Nihilists wasn’t cool enough, guests were invited on stage throughout the set to improvise with the masters. If you’ll excuse the comparison, it seemed like noise music’s Last Waltz, and several guest spots were highlights of the weekend—from the beautiful Aya Onishi (member of Osaka trio Sekiri) on drums, to Jojo Hiroshige’s guitar showdown with Favro and Clement. An amazing moment was Thurston Moore’s incredible engagement with the band, cut abruptly short by Hugh McIntyre. Looking like Moses in a garishly loud Xena t-shirt, McIntyre was the festivals’ most enigmatic and visible host, marching around like James Cameron, looking at his wristwatch and shouting “Cut!!” no matter how inappropriate the timing. Moore, for his part, looked bemused at the interruption and took it all in stride.
AND SO WITH THAT, the festival officially ended. Festivities, however,
kept going. Musicians, guests and many in the audience retired downstairs
to the Gallery’s intimate rehearsal space—the official Nihilist home base—for
more improvisational noise. The showcase was termed Interplay II (we missed
the previous evenings’ knowing nothing about it) where musicians were thrown
together in various assemblages with a clock ticking. The experiments were
more low-key than upstairs and didn’t always work (Knurl, for one, had
his fire-grate routine wasted by a bad connector), but swept up in the
relaxed smoky atmosphere of a small green room, comfy furniture and beer
on tap, nobody seemed to mind. Finishing up past two in the morning, the
best moments of the jam session occurred with Moore mixing it up with Junko
and Art Pratten, and a moving duet between Junko and Terri Kapsalis.
All in all, the weekend was magical, pure bliss, and an awakening of creative possibilities. I can clearly recall Sandy seated peacefully with a cigarette at his lips, casting his gaze around the room filled with the likes of Jojo, Thurston, Alan Licht and a pile of other hep-cats, saying, “This is the coolest thing I have ever seen.” Amen to that brother.
Vancouver documentary filmmaker Zev Asher (RAT ART: The Croatian Independents) shot footage for the entire festival. It is hoped that the project will result in a video documentary, magazine piece or compact disc.