Brewing Up the Noise
Milwaukee Noise Festival curator Peter J. Woods describes his personal discovery of noise music like a conversion. “In 2003 I had a noisier rock band jump on a show called The Great Milwaukee Ear F*ck,” Wood recounts. “I had no idea what I was in for. . . . It totally blew my mind and I was hooked after that. Then 2004 rolls around, Wolf Eyes drops Burned Mind on Sub Pop, and I caught Prurient, Emil Beaulieau and Crank Sturgeon . . . and I decided I needed to make this music.”
Woods has curated the Milwaukee Noise Festival for six years now. He balances pragmatism with a boundless enthusiasm for the music. He keeps three evenings of roughly nine different sets running on a tight schedule “like a well-oiled, motherf#@%ing machine.” He deftly works the house sound system and corrals the audience back inside from cigarette breaks between sets without puncturing the casual, familial atmosphere of the gathering. Occasionally he remembers to make sure people have paid the cover. For Woods, hosting the Milwaukee Noise Festival is a matter of meeting the need for a concentrated gathering of Midwestern noise music artists. “The Milwaukee noise scene has roots that go back the ‘80s, with Boy Dirt Car and f/I ruling the scene back when this stuff was called industrial. The scene died down for a while, but picked up steam again when the first noise fest hit in 2005. So many people were making this stuff and doing it well that someone needed to organize a celebratory event. So I stepped up.”
Today, the Milwaukee noise scene is a tight-knit community of creative individuals exploring an expansive range of sonic methodologies. Many performers use a table filled with gear or a suitcase packed with electronics as the physical canvas for realizing their music. The diversity of sound sources is impressive. From laptop computers running custom software to chains of guitar effects pedals to vintage analog synthesizers to cassette players and turntables, it is a community that embraces every possible means of getting sound to emit from a set of speakers. It is a music scene that strikes a balance between the deliberate and the unhinged while allowing individual performers to tip that balance toward either extreme.
Noise music is generally built from a sonic palette of sounds that are normally suppressed. Instability, dissonance, glitch, and electronic static are embraced as core elements. Performances are often made up of improvised manipulations of signal flow and tapping into the expressive range of a harsh, saturated mass of sound. Its roots go back to the Italian Futurist Movement and French musique concrète of the early 20th century that were a response to the industrial revolution. Current noise music practices mix together a broad range of technological means as an emulation of the information overload that marks contemporary life. Noise musicians have a license to work at extreme volumes with the explicit understanding that each performer and listener present is responsible for protecting his or her own auditory system.
Just under the shadow of Interstate 43 in Milwaukee’s Walker’s Point neighborhood—an area marked by vacant storefronts that reflect the economic realities of life in a rust belt city—one finds the Borg Ward Collective. It’s an art space and all-ages venue that serves as the hub of Milwaukee’s simmering noise music scene, and it is here that the Milwaukee Noise Festival celebrates the creative drive that sets—and breaks—its own boundaries. The Borg Ward Collective is a space without platforms or stages. It is a back room that supplies little more than space and electricity. Throughout the festival there was a remarkable fluidity between performers and audience members as each occupied every part of the room throughout the three-night event. The music was experienced while standing in close proximity to the performers, and there was a collective sense of respect and curiosity for each act as an exchange of ideas among peers. Between sets, many of the performers would swap recorded media that took the form of various “obsolete” formats such as cassette tapes, vinyl records, and mini-discs.
The Milwaukee Noise Festival is as DIY as it gets. The performers would set up and break down their own rigs, and they were responsible for keeping their set durations within reasonable bounds. The length of each performance varied wildly between three and forty minutes, largely driven by an intuitive grasp of what the musical material called for. It was remarkable that there wasn’t a single act that felt indulgent or too long.
Not every performance operated at ear splitting extremes. Three Arguments Against the Singularity operated within a field of restraint and grounded harmony. Nummy—a.k.a. Gabrielle B. Schwartz, the crowned princess of Milwaukee noise—offered a performance piece that focused on the micro-sounds of water evaporating from a hot frying pan. Jason Zeh performed an exquisite set that used contact microphones placed on several running cassette players (most without cassettes). And guitarist David Daniell offered up an introspective set of solo extended electric guitar technique with a sharp ear for texture and drone.
But loud excursions were clearly an important part of the Noise Festival. The Spiral Joy Band presented a duo of amplified violinists playing aggressively into a wall of feedback. They performed facing two stacks of speakers accompanied by a tamboura drone played from a cell phone. KBD offered a tasteful live collage of manipulated electronics, extended slide guitar technique, and recordings of a radio preacher. Owlscry presented the full-throated screams of M. Jurek as he fronted an unlikely black metal band backed by a drummer and two noise artists working from tables filled with gear. And Reptile Worship transmitted an imaginary message about what to do when our lizard overlords come to harvest our mortal bodies. At least that’s what the pre-recorded message leading up to their drone-heavy outburst would have one believe. I certainly came away feeling more prepared to meet our reptilian masters after their set.
Woods’s own Phoned Nil Trio offered up a cathartic, Dionysian mash-up of hi-tech, low-tech, hi-brow, low-brow, and theater that was the closest thing to a headliner in a festival that was remarkable for its sense of flat social hierarchy. Phoned Nil Trio cooked up a sonic soup that played with the sonic possibilities of cassette recorders, laptops, turntables, bent circuits, trumpet, toys, and an amplified coffee percolator. The set ended with a cup of fresh brewed java literally handed to me by one of the performers as if the caffeine could somehow resonate with the many jolts offered up by the music. The performance was a slab of materials artfully carved by the ears and improvisational choices of Woods, Neil Gravander, and Dan Schierl. To my ears, it was music in the proud lineage of John Cage’s Imaginary Landscape No. 1 delivered without the academic bona fides.
It wasn’t just the academic posturing that was notably absent from the Milwaukee Noise Festival. It is also an event that operates without prominent sponsorships or marketing questionnaire forms—elements that represent “noise” of a different sort at most other music festivals. Foam earplugs are essentially the only thing that comes between the listener and the music. By supporting a body of music that generally has little chance of finding its way into concert halls, bars, or into the good graces of institutional support structures, the Milwaukee Noise Festival has tapped into an expressive sound that is brutally honest. The creative energy on display at the Milwaukee Noise Festival was often deliberately unsettling, but thoroughly rewarding.