2013: Noise and People Exploring the role of gender on the fringes of experimental composition

We celebrate the end of the year the only way we know how: through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music and films that helped define the year. More from this series

In a high-profile interview from earlier this year, Chardiet was asked what it’s like to be a woman in a male-dominated scene. Her response is one of the central reasons for writing this article. “It’s really not something I think about much. There have been women making noise since the 80s. It’s a male-dominated scene but not more so than any other scene. […] If the only thing you can grasp from it is something so superficial as the fact that I’m a woman making noise, that suggests to me that you’re not listening very carefully.” And indeed, the biggest pull factor for the Pharmakon sound is that it’s technically stunning. Chardiet has been able to channel deeply personal sentiments through a stark and emotionally rupturing aesthetic. What makes her a remarkable artist is not just the ability to naturally contort and test vocal limitation, but her exposure of social observations, which are distorted in a way that allows her to feel as though she is making a difference. And she is: her music is provocative to the point that it derails most other attempts at creating social discomfort, not because she is female, but because she is incredibly talented and has the deftness to create these harrowing pieces. The resulting music fits into a category that’s founded on power electronics and dark ambient textures, but it’s her technical prowess in stitching it all together that gives Abandon its deliciously potent kick.

As per the album cover, the music on Abandon comes from personal experiences, which are unique to Chardiet as an individual. In this respect, her gender is an essential component to the make up of her sound, but it should not be used as a means of judging her talent. It’s abhorrent when those factors are used to make prior judgment about a recording or the way that the artist sounds, and it happens regularly. This isn’t limited to music that pulls on harsh noise aesthetics, though. Indeed, it follows nicely that Chardiet’s comment about male dominance ties into the smokey consensus on GUTTER — it’s not only felt in noise, but also in hip-hop, metal, jazz, blues, d&b etc. Noise has the potential to borrow from each of these genres differently, and it’s curious to map how the resulting works can be remolded to suit an alternate context.

Beating the Boundaries: Ashley Paul’s explorations in acoustic pitch

Ashley Paul

Earlier this year, former Yellow Swans member Pete Swanson re-imagined a track called “Soak the Ocean” by Brooklyn-based artist Ashley Paul. In his description of her live performance, Swanson said that “Ashley played a clarinet […] and focused on emitting long high-pitched tones that seemed to make the most hardened noise guys’ hair stand up on the back of their necks.” He also quoted Keith Fullerton Whitman as saying of Paul, “I’ve seen her play these harsh noise shows where she’s the only woman playing. She walks up on stage with only a clarinet and manages to lay waste to all the guys riding the feedback wave.” Aside from being struck as to how both artists felt the need to bring gender into the equation, their description of her music appeared to allow ample preparation for what one of Paul’s records might sound like.

But when I first heard Line The Clouds, I was utterly taken aback. Paul is classically trained, but she spent a long time working with various forms of jazz before exploring avant-garde composition. Her style hinges on emanating high pitches and spine-tingling tones, which she kindles through saxophone, bells, guitar, and bowed crotales. The resultant sound could not be further from the damning coarseness of harsh noise or the guttural snarl of Pharmakon’s PE endeavors, but it has the potential to induce a similar response. Paul’s music is wonderfully enchanting and quite unlike anything else that’s been released this year; there is a feeling in the songwriting that’s grounded on the most subtle observations, which are caught up in free-form acoustic improvisation and experimentation.

When I spoke with Paul back in June, we talked about what it was like performing at festivals and the kind of acts she often gets billed with. She told me that most of the time she feels like the odd one out, but only because her music is so different to what anybody else is playing. Line The Clouds is a sublime listening experience because of the directions it takes you in and the way that it makes you feel — it catches you unawares, with an isolating quality that’s difficult to embrace, as each sound is so subdued and delicate. Whereas harsh noise has the potential to dominate the listener through aggressive sonic structures, making it easier to zone out to, Line The Clouds leads to a very private space that’s sensationally jarring.

In this respect, I’m doubtful as to whether Paul would be happy with her work discussed in the context of noise, but it feels appropriate because of the reaction it conjures as opposed to how it might conform to a specific label. For that reason, it’s a perfect example of how music is directed by artistry, which pulls on an abundance of visceral responses that have little to do with gender.

Okkyung Lee: I Make Noise

Okkyung Lee (photo by Nathan Thomas at Fluid Radio)

The role of acoustic instrumentation in noise is fascinating, and there have been a number of albums in 2013 that have had an impact (though admittedly not in the same way as Paul’s). Okkyung Lee has to be one of the most prolific artists working in that domain right now. Not only has she released full-lengths on John Zorn’s Tzadik and Stephen O’Malley’s Ideologic Organ, but she has also worked with Marina Rosenfeld and C. Spencer Yeh, played gigs with members of The Necks, and collaborated extensively with Lasse Marhaug, who recorded the aforementioned album using a secondhand cassette recorder.

The latter album might have taken a long time to sink in, but Lee is an astounding artist dedicated to breaking down the boundaries of composition through her use of acoustic strings and abstract recordings. She is certainly proud of her direction — “I make noise” reads the description on her Twitter profile, which is certainly an apt way of recounting her approach. Lee used Ghil as a vehicle for detailing her relationship with an instrument she has grown up with and a city she is apparently most fond of. It sounds like an improvised cluttering of strings and vibrations that twist and snarl, testing the dexterity of their material compounds.

But in describing it, I’m already playing into the reason that led her to retain a fair distance at first. Lee mentioned this in an interview with Fluid Radio, saying “It would be great if people could listen to my music without any preconceived notion of what it should be, […] but then that’s also impossible, not to have any kind of idea what you’re getting into.” In the same interview, the author expresses their preference for a review of Ghil written by a four-year-old girl, who was not given any information about the album or the instruments or any context whatsoever, including the artist’s gender. Without this information, the young girl depicted a series of reactions to what she heard without once referring to any additional factors, a complete detachment from the trappings of any press release or social construct. When I wrote about the record over the summer, I found that there was too much weight attached to the external elements of the music, and that got in the way of how I was able to access these sounds. The Search and Restore review is particularly significant, because it emphasizes just how powerful Lee’s work can be while holding its own weight. Lee might be a woman working with noise, but her material is so far detached from identity politics that additional emphasis on her gender seems ridiculous.

Noise in a physical domain: Unicorn Hard-On and the Laundry Room Squelchers

Unicorn Hard-On

As gender played a role in the title of Boyle’s film, it also plays a role in the way that art is perceived when it’s created by practitioners who do not conform to the “male-dominant” stereotype — that’s just inevitable. The importance, however, lies in its appropriation. Perhaps GUTTER struck a particular chord with this writer, because it also features Valerie Martino, whose debut album as Unicorn Hard-On was released in September by Spectrum Spools.

For over a decade, Martino has been working on her own unique breed of noise-infused techno, and Weird Universe feels like a refined consolidation of her sound on a single disc. But her music doesn’t stop at Unicorn Hard-On. As part of Rat Bastard’s improv noise collective, the Laundry Room Squelchers, Martino takes part as one of several performers who are encouraged to go completely berserk during performances. This involves provoking the audience to participate in a no-holds-barred human pile-up throughout the set. Due to the physical nature of her work and the role that she plays in that collective, Martino also defies any stereotypes about female musicians through the way that she uses her body — that savage black eye is perhaps the most well-known consequence.

But these stereotypes have eroded over time, in part because they were never based on fact or even a reliable premise. Instead, they were formed through social constructs and expectations about what it means to be a woman in the music industry, which is frequently criticized as being regulated by men. Of the four artists I have discussed here, Martino is the essential antidote to this, not only in the performance art she creates as a Squelcher, but also in the corporeal nature of her approach and how that plays into her music. The Squelchers’ rumble is what led to the trophy display of bruises at the beginning of GUTTER, of performers so immersed in their sound that they come away wounded. Weird Universe is an embodiment of that physicality, which is strenuous but powerful, a sonic embodiment of how the stereotype is gradually dissolving.

Conclusion: Sexism and all similar bullshit must die

The disparaging comments that see gender taking a precedence over artistry need to stop. Not only are these artists operating individually in a way that challenges audience and critic perception alike, but they have also contributed to breaking down a number of stereotypes about people and noise, about expectation and appreciation. In terms of online coverage, it appears there has been more exposure of female practitioners this year, but again that’s only a perception, one that’s easily warped by the social media and familiar web haunts that become a part of some idiosyncratic online routine. The crucial thing is that it has been a great year for noise in all its variant forms, and that’s the point that needs to be emphasized above everything else.

The final quote from that Meoko article comes from Nina Kraviz herself, who despite not fitting remotely into the aforementioned noise categories, hits the nail on the head in the crudest terms possible: “Sexism and all similar bullshit must die. And the first step to it is to let artists be who they are regardless of their gender, skin colour or sexual orientation.” Here’s to all that’s set to follow.

We celebrate the end of the year the only way we know how: through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music and films that helped define the year. More from this series

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