Noise is, by its definition, a pejorative term. "Turn off that noise" was never intended as a compliment for anyone, just as the sentence's object, noise, was never intended to address a musical genre.
But in the last three decades, the term has been claimed, conquered and owned by a worldwide music community, running the gamut from people manipulating tapes and building computer software to people bending circuits and building labyrinthine routes of pedals.
Today, noise is a legitimate genre: It's the main event or a strong sideshow at festivals all over the world (No Future is Chapel Hill's answer to New York's wildly popular No Fun), and long out-of-print noise records can sell for hundreds of dollars. Indeed, the successful embrace of noise as a name signals a subversion of the highest order, an ultimate pass on all expectations of decency, structure, form or consonance. Such linguistic flips are more common in gender and race politics, but the implications for music—in essence, building an entire genre around a word that's a most basic insult—are drastic. Everything becomes extremely relative: How can you know what good noise is when, on all levels, the term is built as a paradox? Some would say good noise is a noise musician shutting the fuck up, but others have very specific standards for their "good noise."
"It should be very deliberate, so everything is on purpose with control over the sounds. Generally mean-spirited, and there should be some singular-ness to it," says Jason Crumer, who records under his own name and with his duo American Band. He is one of two principal No Future organizers this year. "There are a lot of noise guys who are the only ones that could ever do what they do, and I consider that good noise. But mainly being deliberate is all. And it has to be a sound that I enjoy."
I disagree with that on several levels, but that's OK. Experiencing and enjoying this music introduces an entirely new level of subjectivity to criticism and musicianship: There's no lyrical twists to marvel, no mastery of scales to ogle, no hook to catch. Standards for what one considers good noise have to be completely personal, even if not wholly defined. After all, any critical consensus on the squalls and squiggles of noise consist of a few dozen writers at a handful of small magazines (Britain's Wire being the most well-regarded and, for that reason, the most reviled), a few Web sites and a string of message boards. Having an opinion that differs from that small collective voice won't exactly make someone less popular with girls or headline news.
Harsh noise—which is the virulent, ferocious subgenre Crumer not only records in but also follows the closest—excites people because it bumps the ecstatic release of punk rock to this new level. As Crumer says, most punk rockers dismiss noise because it's threatening to their we-have-the-basics stance. What Crumer calls "some singular-ness" can often be a (completely fascinating) gimmick that looks like it requires no talent. Imagination is another issue altogether, but such reductionism makes everyone sound ignorant, anyway. Rather, if punk stripped the bombast off of rock, then harsh noise strips the basics from punk rock. Devoid of exacting form, it aims for something completely intoxicating and singular.
That said, I don't care if noise has a mean spirit as much as I care that it has a spirit—something important to be communicated. And one of the things I love about noise (or improvised music at large, not that all noise is improvised) is its lack of apology, its ability to try something risky even if it fails and embrace success or failure. The indeterminate elements that introduces simply can't thrive when people have complete control over their sounds. Watching a noise musician adjust a tone the wrong way and recover by folding that error into his set is one of the most rewarding things I've ever experienced, and, to me, it's good noise: Watching someone take their limitations and foibles and strengths and build something unexpected and wobbly and unorthodox from it. Then again, it's just silly noise. I'm glad it's here.
No Future Fest III happens Friday, April 20, and Saturday, April 21, at Nightlight in Chapel Hill. Noxagt, Clang Quartet, Can't, Leslie Keffer, Black Meat and eight more acts perform Friday. Macronympha, Bloodyminded, Jason Crumer, Tom Grimley and 18 more acts perform Saturday. For more, see www.nightlightclub.com.