Minneapolis Noise: Underground audio art form that you might not have heard of

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“I moved to Minneapolis for the noise scene back in 2008.” I overheard this statement at a recent noise show and wondered where I’d been for the last six years. Noise is not a new genre, but it’s new to me and definitely underground. I wanted to learn more so I started my research where all great scholars start, Wikipedia. They track noise to Luigi Russolo’s 1913 manifesto, L’Arte dei Rumori (The Art of Noises). Nice to know I’m 100 years late to the game! In fact, according to a recent interview with noise musician John Olson of Wolf Eyes, noise is over – “completely, 100 percent!”

Undaunted and with the help of a guide (Kevin Cosgrove aka Transitional Species), I spoke and/or emailed with several local noise (and noise-related) artists.

From an outsider’s perspective noise seems to be about the vibrations and reverberations of sound. The artists seem to stretch the vibrations to different effect using a wide range of instruments – percussion instruments, stringed instruments, voices, metal shelves, a laptop; a lot of noise is pure electronics with effect pedals and cords. The key seem to be creating a sound that’s interesting and deep. In a live show I think it’s as much about feeling the music as hearing it. That is not unique but especially true with noise. Most of the noise I’ve heard has been loud, but I don’t think it has to be. Sometimes the noise is droning, sometimes white noise, other times dark ambient and sometimes postindustrial or post digital. And that’s where the nuances come in.

Here are what some local artists say about noise…

  • Anthony Amelang on noise, “Noise is all around us. The modern urban landscape is quite literally devoid of silence. So it seems only natural that noise is used by many as a means of creative expression, especially given the widespread availability of audio technology today.” I think his description of a live show is particularly apt, “When I see a really good live noise set, it’s like standing with my face toward a strong wind. It’s very physical. It takes you over. This is what makes performing noise so satisfying to me. It’s transcendent.”
  • Thomas Boettner (from fire island, AK) describes noise, “In a sense, Noise is a form of pure, auditory expression, unbeholden to the notion that “music” requires accepted patterns and forms. … I feel that Noise is that which is unfamiliar, shocking, troubling, upsetting–and just as often transcendent, provocative, and cerebral.”
  • And from an unnamed source, “Music is typically defined as “organized sound” so noise could then be defined as “unorganized sound” relative to: rhythm, melody, harmony, repetition.”

Kevin was good enough to help me with some of the nuts and bolts of noise. Kevin plays a bicycle wheel with a bow. The wheel is set on a modified metal bowl – larger but similar to one you’d see at the end of a Yoga class. Other musicians play treated guitars, drums, buzz saws or their voice. The object is to get the sound to vibrate and then manipulate the vibration into noise; that is done through synthesizers and sequencers. Some noise is improvised; some is highly structured.

The first time I saw Kevin play, I remember an ardent fan asking how the bicycle wheel was tuned. Was the tension for each spoke specific and measured like a piano? It wasn’t. More recently I saw Kevin play and I asked about how much of the show was planned; I learned that what was planned wasn’t what happened during the show that somehow another sound just took off and Kevin went with it. Especially for the live shows, the performance includes the instruments including the electronics, the audience and the performer as director or overlord of the experience but not as ultimate controller or micromanager.

Kevin doesn’t think of himself as a noise performer and when asked, most folks had some hesitation about defining noise. Anthony Amelang shed a light for me on that aspect. “There are many artists and entire sub-genres which utilize noise (Noise Rock, Shoegaze, Industrial, etc) towards a musical end. In fact, the same is also true in reverse. Many noise artists sometimes incorporate musical (or at least semi-musical) elements. What makes something noise to me in a strict sense is if the atonal elements are at the forefront. In other words, it’s if the noise isn’t just part of the music but instead is the music.”

There are noise shows around town. While I feel the sound could have a wider audience, the concert locations are definitely underground. Let’s just say I probably won’t run into many moms from my kids’ schools at a noise gig. According to a 2012 article from Henry Rollins, the underground appeal is not unique to the Twin Cities scene. “One of the most prevalent and undermentioned genres of music is what is known as noise. You can find it all over the world happening in basements, small venues and even some festivals. … A lot of the noise labels are run out of a house or apartment, quite often by the artist. No one in the scene is making much money and no one thinks they are going to get rich creating noise. These are the jams that not many people seem to want.”

The local artists seem OK with the lack of fame and fortune too. Most of the shows I have been to have been in homes – basements or attics. It’s a lot of guys wearing black and bringing in their own beer. (Delores Dewberry being a notable and local exception.) The performers play one “song,” which can last 5 minutes or 15. And the audience is rapt in attention. It’s not commercial, but it’s compelling.

To learn about upcoming shows, check out the websites and Facebook pages of the various performers. You’ll note that the address is often not given publicly, but you can get that in a private message and I have to say people at the shows have been pretty friendly.

(Video from fire island AK)