absolute value of noise
 < 1991 .. noise speak'r H O M E alignment .. 1988 > 


Booklet and audio CD by Absolute Value of Noise © 1989/2006.

BLACK is an audio release and booklet. The sound is from a radio show from July 1989 that featured intense noise mixed with occasional samples from radio news reports. The news coverage was of a recent shooting of black teenagers by police officers and the resulting protests. The sound on the CD is the noise (sans news reports). The writing is from 2006 (with a few journal entries from 1989).

BLACK (16:05) July 1989.


Noise Art: Rambling and Theory 2006/1989

In the current milieu, noise is familiar territory for musicians and composers from many genres. In the 1970s - 1990s, noise art, punk, and industrial music were a form of folk-music and activism. Their intention was anti-social (at least towards the main-stream) and anti-consumer. They attempted to deconstruct elitist notions of the musician and the composer. Anyone could do punk (without any musical training). Anyone could do noise art. Industrial music and noise art both questioned the role of musical instruments by using the sounds of our everyday environment to create loops, beats, collages, and other sound patterns. These noises included sounds from the street, from factories, boats, banging junk together, working with magnetic tape, feedback, etc. Artists like Merzbow questioned the tradition of distinct song structures by creating intense collages or assaults of sonic material. Radio art in Vancouver in the 80s and 90s was heavily influenced by this non-academic, raw collage aesthetic. It was also influenced by the ideas of Negativeland, the Tape Beatles, and others who believed in building culture by sharing material and hiding (or submerging) authorship. It questioned the increasing homogenization of radio and music within commercial broadcasting in North America. And it focused on the potential of the radio studio as an instrument for live performance and mixing. Although inherently anti-social against the main-stream, noise art encouraged the development of a network of like-minded people largely through mail-art (on audio cassettes), radio, phone-in radio, performance, and zines.

Absolute Value of Noise Radio started in December 1987. Brian Charles, made a recording of an old stone building being demolished. This cassette tape became "Alignment" - a searing distortion piece using cassette deck tape-head-feedback driven by the sounds of the demolition. Brian wrote "absolute value of noise" on the side of the tape and this became the name of the radio show. Brian used to hang-out at New Sounds Gallery - a radio show on CFRO that was produced by GX Jupitter Larsen (www.jupitter-larsen.com) and Blackhumour. GX would "drop by" the Absolute Value of Noise, bringing tapes with him from around the world. He also gave me a list of about thirty artists, and their addresses, enabling me to mail-out recordings and receive tapes and catalogs in exchange. GX would bring along various noisers from the local scene, and once in a while, if someone was traveling through town, they would show up and play something live on-air.

One of my earliest noise art works, entitled "Black", was an homage to the work of The Haters and M.B. (Bianchi Maurizio from Milano, Italy) from NOWHERE TO PLAY - a 12" LP that was produced by GX (The Haters) and other Vancouver artists in 1982. There were two tracks by M.B., both were relentless, droning collage works; both worked with a range of sounds and frequencies that created a sense of immersion into another world. The LP came with a photocopied booklet - information on the tracks, cut and paste collages, and a manifesto about pop-culture, corporatism, globalism and industrial agriculture. There was an inherent voice of activism within the noise.

I kept journals in those days - recording my thoughts about noise art and the world, and vast volumes of hacked together science fiction stories that I spun out obsessively. In 1995 these journals turned into "fire score". I burnt them, recorded it all and turned it into a sound collage (released on cassette). The journals are gone, but the ideas remain.

"In some ways progress/development is itself the ultimate anti-social act/activity. To show up one day, early in the morning, in the the middle of the city with several huge machines and begin to demolish a towering old stone building is ultimately anti-social - regardless of the plans for the future of the building site. The noise that goes on from dawn to dusk, the huge clouds of dust, the occupation of sidewalks and roadways that people use to travel on their daily routines - all of this creates a place that is unlivable (that people want to avoid). In comparison, playing a recording of this noise for 20 minutes on the radio is a minor insurgence. But the reaction of the public to construction is more often than not blind acceptance. The reaction to noise on radio can be anything from turning the dial to a different station to lodging a formal complaint with the regulatory agencies (I've dealt with a few such letters ..)." - Artist's Journals, 1989.

I remember when an eight storey apartment building was constructed kitty-corner to the Western Front (1), the hammering and banging crew would go home at 10 pm and the cement floor polishers would show up shortly before midnight. The men wearing gray overalls would push the giant cement polishers around and around forever until 5 am. Then they would go home and the hammering and banging would resume an hour later.

My drive to create noise art comes from a mistrust of the noise of the world - the chaos of our society, its impersonal and dehumanizing nature, the relentless drive of industry, the lack of time to simply stop, rest and think. My instinct and reaction is to grasp this noise, to suck it in, mutate it, shred it, expose its raw underbelly, and then feed it back into the world as a diabolical resonance.

"The noise of the world .. even when I go out into the middle of nowhere, to an alpine meadow far removed from civilization .. I take out my recording equipment, setup the microphones and discover that somewhere over the horizon there is a helicopter or an airplane, a chorus of distant chainsaws echo through the hills, the sound of the internal combustion engine is inescapable - a form of endless torture in contemporary society." - Artist's Journals, 1989.

In many ways, noise art is a way for me to articulate feelings about the world, the establishment, the North American dream of "progress", etc. that I was and am unable to put forward in words. In the 80s and 90s I tended to be more interested in observing then opinionating, and not too sure of how to explain my ideas, which were very intuitive and organic, not built on academic theory or main-stream media hype. I think this is common within the world of sound-art. The form has a language within academia, but this type of language doesn't exist to the same degree in the "folk-audio" realm, in the myriad small venues where artists who play with audio without institutional support or training produce most of the interesting experimental work in the genre. There is a lack of common language around process and methodology, around how to describe a particular type of sound, and about how these sounds effect people in different ways.

Most noise artists coming from this (punk?) sensibility aren't very interested in using text to explain their work. Many of these artists are writers, but their written work is more a parallel exploration of ideas, rather than an explicit way to explain their sonic creations. If you go to Merzbow's web-site (www.merzbow.net) there is no artist statement (although he has recently added an "interviews" section with one link). People like Mark Stewart (punk-funk, the Pop Group) have made a reputation by sitting silently during live on-air interviews, watching the announcer become both perplexed and frustrated.

Noise art is experienced in very different ways when it is moved from the Loud performance space, onto radio, and then again onto the Internet. It shifts from being an intense physical experience into the realm of an armchair, text-based medium. In recent years, I have done a number of collaborative, networked sound-art projects. On the Internet, the history of non-articulate (non-text-based) artists becomes lost. The tendency to collect albums (vinyl and CD) (often through the mail) over a long period of time, thereby collecting a chronology of the work of an artist and being able to hear the work and trace differences and progression over the years is switching to a tendency to download anonymous seeming tracks into a mp3 player. You can still "feel" what the artist means (or is "talking/noising" about), but the larger overview, the tactile effect of the record cover, etc. is lost. Text takes over almost completely in the world wide Web. It is a text based media after all where image and sound are positioned as illustrations. The inarticulate (which was very much at home in the notions of punk, noise, and raw physical trashing about) has no place in the culture of the Internet. You have to be able to talk about what you do, to communicate, to fit into a communications based world where the audience/browser sits in a chair at a desk. I think this is why, within the realm of the network, I am primarily interested in network-connected projects that have physical manifestations - live performances, installations, social gatherings, radio broadcasts, books, audio CDs - things that you can see, touch, and interact with.

I remember a conversation with Shelly Hirsch. I was doing the sound for her concert with David Weinstein at the Western Front in 1991, so we had talked about all sorts of things while setting up for the performance. We went out to dinner before the show and as we were sitting around at the local Korean barbecue house, she turned to me and asked me "What do you do?"

"Noise." I replied (and that's a big final, definite "period" after the word "noise").

"What do you mean?" she asked looking a bit puzzled.

"I do radio. The other day I played a vacuum cleaner on the radio."

"How do you play a vacuum cleaner? .." the conversation (such as it was) was interrupted.

In many ways this is an example of the inarticulate taken to a ludicrous extreme. In another way, what more is there to say? Certainly a musician who is familiar with experimental music from many different genres can extrapolate .. "How do you play a vacuum cleaner .. maybe like this." The important thing is to stimulate the imagination, not wear out the reality (playing a vacuum cleaner on the radio is in fact not that interesting (2). But the inference is that things that we typically decide not to listen to in a music-appreciation way, do have a sonic imprint that can be studied by the ear and the body. You can focus on these noises and hear an entire world of subtle transients and atonal drones that most people ignore and block from their experience. Really good auto mechanics do this as a way of diagnosing what's wrong with your car. Electricians listen to buzzes in heater relay boxes to figure out what the power drain is, or if there's a weak connection somewhere in the system. And when you're vacuuming at home you listen for the shift in sounds that tells you if you just sucked up your pet rodent, or if the vacuum cleaner bag is full, or maybe a piece of dental floss is stuck in your power head wrecking havoc.

I find it interesting that so many noise artists that I've met produce shockingly intense and angry sounds as a reaction to the world. These same artists are often gentle and politically aware people - artists who want to see a world that isn't dominated by greed and self-destruction. By "gentle", I don't mean "naive". Certainly, within this realm people engage in all sorts of ritualistic practices, fetishes, and sub/alternative cultures, but there is a general sense of individual responsibility and respect for others. Many of these artists eschew abusive hierarchical structures. They aren't interested in taking over the world or manipulating people and marketplaces. Merzbow is an advocate of animal rights. GX writes about the "interconnectedness" of all things - promoting global consciousness rather than global exploitation. A certain contingent of the noise-radio-art scene in the 80s and 90s was interested in networking - exchanging sounds on tape through the mail, traveling, visiting like-mined artists, doing collaborative radio projects, etc. Part mail-art, part radio-art, part-performance. Ron Lessard of RRR records used to have an open call for cassette tapes. People from around the world would send him material, he would use it live on-air and send out copies of the resulting collage.

"Destruction and temper tantrums are often responses to things beyond one's control. The noise extends from this same, primal, emotional space." - Artist's Journals, 1989.

I can remember my friend Anthony Roberts coming up from behind an over-sized oil drum and screaming:


Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang. (A continuous hand drum roll with 6 accents.)


Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang.

A piece that was done in gallery spaces, performance halls, in the street and parking lots. The conveyance of the message, delivered with such intensity to vastly different audiences in different physical spaces goes beyond anything that one typically experiences in the contemporary milieu. Sound, moderated and channeled by electronic technology, is often removed from raw physical space and associations. It becomes passive. Even when loud and aggressive, it is always associated with a device that has a known (and comforting) "off" switch.

(absolute value of noise October 2006)


(1) The Western Front Society is an Artist Run Centre, established in 1973 in Vancouver, Canada.

(2) Vacuum Cleaner - this particular radio show was amazingly popular among those who didn't hear it. A producer from CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) wanted to do a feature on it for the evening news. I declined to play the vacuum cleaner in front of the cameras.



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