"What do your want your audience to feel when you're playing?" It's a simple enough question, but there are lots of ways that Margaret Chardiet, who makes music under the name Pharmakon, could answer this.
Chardiet creates worlds of hanging dread with pulsating noise and distorted percussion, like swords of Damocles changing in appearance but not intent. These swords aren't given much breathing room between them and your head; the music is close to you whether you want it to be or not. Thus one could assume the New York artist wants her audience to feel as if they might fall through the dance floor and into a pit they'll never return from.
Nonetheless, she finds this to be an odd question, stating that it's mainly asked of noise musicians but is almost never considered in rock. "People can recognize chords, they recognize songs and hooks and melodies" in rock, she says. "Whereas noise is maybe more of blank slate in that there aren't those tropes to fall back on."
Chardiet does have an answer, though: Really, it's up to the audience.
"I want them to just feel unbridled—whatever part of themselves they don't usually tap into," she says. "I just want them to experience it how their natural response or natural reaction is to it."
Depending on the venue, Chardiet often prefers to play on the floor. One may see this as part of her punk upbringing—she was a part of the Red Light District punk house in New York prior to Hurricane Sandy—or it could be an affront to people standing in the back.
Whatever the case, it gives her a closer connection to the crowd. "I'm hearing the music as the audience is hearing it," she says. "I can walk through the audience, I can be a part of the room, a part of the audience."
After a series of limited cassette and CD-R releases, Chardiet released Abandon earlier this year through Sacred Bones Records. It's her biggest release to date, serving as an introduction to those who hadn't heard her before and as a validation for those who already were familiar with her work. It's music for discovering the Steppenwolf you really are.
"Crawling on Bruised Knees" alternates between thunderous, cavernous slams and electronics that sound like they're moving in half-speed slashing motions. "Ache," which starts with a distorted alarm that gives way to a cavalcade of mysterious voices, sounds like a combination between your worst hangover and the trip to the hospital that finally made you quit drinking.
Abandon begins with screams that are painful to hear, even if you listen to noise music for entertainment and/or enlightenment. Chardiet's voices are not the stereotypical angry barks you find in a lot of noise; instead, they alternate between fevered confessions and gut-wrenching leaps of agony.
This quality has led to comparisons between Pharmakon and Diamanda Galas, the avant-garde composer and vocalist known for The Litanies of Satan and her collaborations with Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones. But Chardiet doesn't buy it. "She's a trained operatic singer with an insane range who plays a lot of very bizarre takes on traditional modes of music," she says. "When they don't know what to make of you, they just want to compare you to something."
Perhaps. Even so, both Pharmakon and Galas can fill a room with sound—uncomfortable, unforgiving sound.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Bruised knees and bad dreams."
Andy O'Connor lives in Austin and writes about music for Pitchfork, Invisible Oranges, Noisey, Austin360, Metalsucks and others. Catch him on Twitter.