Thursday, May 17, 2007
“Genre is Obsolete”
(Multitudes, No. 28, Spring 2007)
1. ‘Noise’ has become the expedient moniker for a motley array of sonic practices—academic, artistic, countercultural—with little in common besides their perceived recalcitrance with respect to the conventions governing classical and popular musics. ‘Noise’ not only designates the no-man’s-land between electro-acoustic investigation, free improvisation, avant-garde experiment, and sound-art; more interestingly, it refers to anomalous zones of interference between genres: between post-punk and free jazz; between musique concrète and folk; between stochastic composition and art brut. Yet in being used to categorize all forms of sonic experimentation that ostensibly defy musicological classification—be they para-musical, anti-musical, or post-musical—‘noise’ has become a generic label for anything deemed to subvert established genre. It is at once a specific sub-genre of musical vanguardism and a name for what refuses to be subsumed by genre. As a result, the functioning of the term ‘noise’ oscillates between that of a proper name and that of a concept; it equivocates between nominal anomaly and conceptual interference. Far from being stymied by such paradox, the more adventurous practitioners of this pseudo-genre have harnessed and transformed this indeterminacy into an enabling condition for work which effectively realizes ‘noise’s’ subversive pretensions by ruthlessly identifying and pulverizing those generic tropes and gestures through which confrontation so quickly atrophies into convention. Two groups are exemplary in this regard: To Live and Shave in LA, led by assiduous American iconoclast Tom Smith, whose dictum ‘genre is obsolete’ provides the modus operandi for a body of work characterized by its fastidious dementia1; and Runzelstirn & Gurgelstock, headed by the enigmatic Swiss deviant and ‘evil Kung-Fu troll’2 Rudolf Eb.er, whose hallucinatory audiovisual concoctions amplify the long dimmed psychotic potencies of Aktionism. Significantly, both men disavow the label ‘noise’ as a description of their work—explicitly in Smith’s case, implicitly in Eb.er’s. This is not coincidental; each recognizes the debilitating stereotypy engendered by the failure to recognize the paradoxes attendant upon the existence of a genre predicated upon the negation of genre.
2. Like the ‘industrial’ subculture of the late 1970s which spawned it, the emergence of ‘noise’ as a recognizable genre during the 1980s entailed a rapid accumulation of stock gestures, slackening the criteria for discriminating between innovation and cliché to the point where experiment threatened to become indistinguishable from platitude.3 Fastening onto this intellectual slackness, avant-garde aesthetes who advertised their disdain for the perceived vulgarity of the industrial genre voiced a similar aversion toward the formulaic tendencies of its noisy progeny. But in flaunting its artistic credentials, experimental aestheticism ends up resorting to the self-conscious strategies of reflexive distancing which have long since become automatisms of conceptual art practice—the knee-jerk reflexivity which academic commentary has consecrated as the privileged guarantor of sophistication. In this regard, noise’s lucid anti-aestheticism and its affinity with rock’s knowing unselfconsciousness are among its most invigorating aspects. Embracing the analeptic fury of noise’s post-punk roots but refusing its coalescence into a catalogue of stock mannerisms, Smith and Eb.er have produced work that marries conceptual stringency and anti-aestheticist bile while rejecting sub-academic cliché as vehemently as hackneyed expressions of alienation. Each implicates delirious lucidity within libidinal derangement—“intellect and libido simultaneously tweaked”4—allowing analysis and indulgence to interpenetrate.
3. The sound conjured by To Live and Shave in LA is unprecedented: where noise orthodoxy too often identifies sonic extremity with an uninterrupted continuum of distorted screeching, Shave sculpt finely wrought twisters of writhing sound by coupling scrambled speech, keening oscillator, abstract shards of bass and guitar, and a dizzying array of sampled musics (glam-rock, metal, avant-classical, industrial, jazz, pop, and country) into a far from equilibrium maelstrom topped by Smith’s crazed croon, which spews reams of splenetic invective. Orthodox noise compresses information, drowning out detail in a torrential deluge; Shave construct songs around an overwhelming plethora of sonic detail, challenging the listener to engage with a surfeit of information. There is always too much rather than too little to hear at once; an excess which invites repeated listens. The aural fascination exerted by the songs is accentuated by Smith’s libretti, which feature verbal conundrums whose inventiveness baffles and delights in equal measure. Just as Shave’s sound incorporates an overload of sonic information, Smith’s words embody a semantic hypertrophy which can only be transmitted by a vocal that mimes the senseless eructations of glossolalia. Fittingly, Smith’s ravings evade decipherment through a surplus rather than deficit of sense.5 Refusing to yield to interpretation, his declamation cannot be separated from the sound within which it is nested. Yet it would be a mistake to confuse Shave’s refusal to signify and their methodical subtractions from genre for a concession to postmodern polysemia and eclecticism. The fitting analogue is the bracing formalism of Pierre Guyotat or Iannis Xenakis, rather than the agreeable pastiche of John Barth or Alfred Schnittke. Indeed, the only banner which Smith is willing to affix to Shave’s work is that of what he calls the ‘PRE’ aesthetic. PRE is “a negation of the errant supposition that spiffed-up or newly hatched movements supplant others fit for retirement […] PRE? As in: all possibilities extant, even the disastrous ones.”6 The imperative to innovate engenders an antinomy for any given genre. Either one keeps repeating the form of innovation; in which case it becomes formulaic and retroactively negates its own novelty. Or one seeks constantly new types of innovation; in which case the challenge consists in identifying novel forms which will not merely reiterate the old. But one must assume an infinite, hence unactualizable set of forms in order not to repeat, and the limits of finite imagination invariably determine the exhaustion of possibility. It is never enough to keep multiplying forms of invention; one must also produce new genres within which to generate new forms. Noise becomes generic as the form of invention which is obliged to substitute the abstract negation of genre for the production of hitherto unknown genres.7 Generic noise is condemned to reiterate its abstract negation of genre ad infinitum. The results are not necessarily uninteresting. But ‘PRE’ intimates an alternative paradigm. Since the totality of possibility is a synonym for God, whom we must renounce, the only available (uncompromisingly secular) totality is that of incompossibles. If all possibilities are extant, this can only be a totality of incompossibles, which harbours as yet unactualized and incommensurable genres. The imperative to actualize incompossibles leads not to eclecticism but to an ascesis of perpetual invention which strives to ward off pastiche by forging previously unimaginable links between inexistent genres. It is the injunction to produce the conditions for the actualization of incompossibles that staves off regression into generic repetition. In The Wigmaker in 18th Century Williamsburg (Menlo Park, 2001), probably the group’s masterpiece, this imperative to actualization gives rise to a music that is utterly without precedent. Shave’s most recent recordings continue to bear witness to this ascesis of invention by essaying textures, tempos, and techniques that abjure their own previous canons of heterodoxy without relapsing into any recognizable musical style.8 Where prior work had privileged the splenetic, the unbalanced, and the discontinuous, these recordings favour measured stateliness, brooding expansiveness, and epic continuity.
4. Eb.er squarely situates Runzelstirn & Gurgelstock under the aegis of Aktionism. Their performances are not concerts but rather ‘psycho-physical tests and training’, where both the testing and the training are directed toward the performer as much as the audience. The rationale is not shock and confrontation but rather discipline and concentration. Eb.er and accomplice Dave Phillips repeatedly slam their faces into contact-miked plates of spaghetti. Eb.er pounds and gurgles at a piano pausing only to fire a shotgun repeatedly into the audience (unbeknown to the audience, the shotgun is loaded with blanks). A woman with a tube inserted into her anus screams in misery as Eb.er blows into it to the strains of an elegiac string accompaniment. Eb.er struggles to extract sounds from contact-miked fish lying dead on a table. Three women imbibe colour-coded liquids which they then vomit into bowls in orchestrated sequence. These are experiments in contrived absurdity, poised at the tipping point between comedic entertainment and intolerable provocation. The controlled delirium of these actions is further honed and exercised in R&G recordings, which are meticulously edited exercises in discontinuous variation. Sighs, gasps, burps, groans, retchings, barks, growls, dogs, roosters, accordions, yodels, strings, pianos, brass, shouts, roars, thuds, shrieks, and sawings are punctuated by precisely defined intervals of silence, which are in turn periodically shattered by crescendos of processed wails that morph into choruses of mournful ululation. The sound of gagging is followed by the sound of bludgeoned flesh and cracking bone; gentle acoustic rustlings are cross-stitched with violent blasts of synthesized blare. The perpetual oscillation between cartoon mischief and psychotic malevolence is at once comic and uncanny. Eb.er describes his editing procedure thus:
In Switzerland I used open reels and scalpels, almost surgical. Cutting, cutting, cutting, sewing back. I dig a hole and stay in there with all those blades, tapes, and scissors. I didn’t want to mix things up, but to put the knife into the sound of what I did and recorded, inside and outside. What you hear on R&G is real. The action and its body. I just cut the body parts, sew them wrong and cut again—in that timing, 15 years of R&G sounds get divided and divided, grow and grow. I grow my sounds ‘biologically’, like dividing cells. Cut and let grow.9
This surgical metastasis finds an echo in Eb.er’s paintings; oneiric depictions of an-organic anomaly somewhere between Hans Bellmer and Nigel Cooke. A transsexual Mickey Mouse sporting disfigured genitalia sprawls in pornographic abandon. A schoolgirl with a fissured head and single prominent nipple gapes blankly while the diseased landscape yawns through the hole in her face. In lesser talents, such tokens of derangement have long since degenerated into affectation. Over-familiarity has rendered the iconography of Vienna Aktionism banal; blood, gore, and transgression are now tawdry staples of entertainment. But Eb.er’s judicious leavening of the freakish with the cartoonish and his astute transpositions of psychic distress into infantile slapstick betray a suspicion of stereotype which has thus far prevented his investigations of derangement from lapsing into predictability.
5. Where noise orthodoxy substantializes its putative negation of genre into an easily digestible sonic stereotype—the hapless but nevertheless entertaining roar of feedback—Shave and Runzelstirn construct the sound of generic anomaly by fusing hitherto incommensurable sonic categories: dub cut-up, free-glam, and electro-acoustic punk for Shave; cartoon musique concrète and slapstick art-brut for Runzelstirn. Both deploy an analytical delirium which steadfastly refuses the inane clichés of sub-cultural ‘transgression’ on one hand, while obviating the stilted mannerisms of academic conceptualism on the other. Neither sounds like ‘noise’; yet it is their refusal to substantialize the negation of musical genre that has led them to produce music which sounds like nothing else before it. The abstract negation of genre issues in the sterile orthodoxies of ‘noise’ as pseudonym for experimental vanguardism, and the result is either the stifling preciousness of officially sanctioned art-music or (worse) the dreary machinations of ‘sound-art’. But by forcefully short-circuiting incommensurable genres, Shave and Runzelstirn engender the noise of generic anomaly. It is the noise that is not ‘noise’, the noise of the sui generis, that actualizes the disorientating potencies long claimed for ‘noise’. 10
 See the interview with Smith online at http://www.toliveandshaveinla.com/bio.htm
 Smith’s own description of Eb.er in an interview available at http://pragueindustrial.org/interviews/ohne. Eb.er is a qualified martial arts instructor.
 For an overview of industrial culture see the Industrial Culture Handbook, Re# 6/7, edited by V. Vale and A. Juno, San Francisco, Re/Search Publications, 1983. The best insight into the nascent noise scene of the late 1980s and early 1990s is provided by the magazine Bananafish, edited by Seymour Glass, which has only recently ceased publication with issue 18 (2006). An anthology of issues 1-4 was published by Tedium House Publication, San Francisco, in 1994.
 Smith: “My libretti are not random, owe nothing to stochastic or aleatory operations, and in their specificity are rigidly fixed to character. My approach is strictly cinematic.”
 Interestingly enough, recent years have seen the emergence of sub-categories within the ‘noise’ genre: ‘harsh’; ‘quiet’; ‘free’; ‘ambient’, etc. Noise seems to be in the process of subdividing much as metal did in the 1980s and 1990s (‘thrash’; ‘speed’; ‘black’; ‘glam’, ‘power’; ‘doom’, etc). Nevertheless, the proliferation of qualifying adjectives within an existing genre is not quite the same as the actualization of previously inexistent genres. Whether these sub-categories will yield anything truly startling remains to be seen.
 Noon and Eternity, Menlo Park, 2006.
 From an interview with Drew Daniel, ‘Aktion Time Vision’, published in The Wire 227, January 2003, pp. 21-25.
 Further information about both groups can be found on their respective websites: http://www.toliveandshaveinla.com/ and http://www.artnotcrime.net/r+g/