In March, no less a gateway of cultural propriety and acceptability than The New York Times gave perhaps the most thriving music scene in its backyard long-awaited due: "Whatever name the music goes by--avant-garde, noise or just, as Mr. Giffoni prefers, extreme--it is more easily defined by what it eschews than what it encompasses: conventional ideas of melody, harmony and rhythm mostly fall by the wayside."
Critic Jesse Fox Mayshark was referring to Carlos Giffoni, a New York guitarist and noisemaker who, for three nights each of the last three years, has turned a small club in Brooklyn into one of the loudest, most expressive musical hotspots in the world. Giffoni's No Fun Fest--a name suggested by perennial performer and supporter Thurston Moore--is a gathering of some of the most notable in the genre superficially dubbed noise. At No Fun, that term stretches from the free-form guitar cacophony of Alan Licht to Borbetomagus, a four-decades-old avant jazz project, and beyond. Each year, Giffoni has steadily upped both attendance and performers from across the globe: This year, all three nights were sold out, and Giffoni is exuberant when he discusses the musicians he was able to import.
This noise--fearless, borderless, indefinable sheets, squawks and squiggles of sound blasting from most anything one can imagine making sound--is nothing new. The Times has written about No Fun and noise before. In fact, this year's piece led with mention of another Times story, written 15 years prior by late critical prophet Lester Bangs, entitled "A Reasonable Guide to Horrible Noise." But, in the past decade, the relative popularity and propriety of noise has hit an exponential curve, moving beyond experimental anathema to accepted demi-obscurity: The standing joke is that every indie rock musician now has at least one noise project in vitro.
"The music that's commercially available is just boring and canned. People are more willing to look for the most bizarre, weird thing, especially young people," says Giffoni, 28, a Venezuela native who moved to Miami with his family as a teenager before founding Monotract and a slew of noise one-offs in Brooklyn. "You also find this group of really talented, brilliant people doing this out-there stuff."
New York isn't a stranger to hosting such "out-there stuff"--the free jazz breakthroughs and American minimalist stockpiles of the '60s, the punk explosion of the '70s and the no-wave movement of the '80s.
But this tide of noise is atypical in that it has not swept simply through the boroughs. Local pockets of noise enthusiasts have been prominent around the world for years, from the Load Records base of Rhode Island to Japan's long-standing PSF Records lineage. Giffoni, for instance, was inspired to found No Fun after he saw 2002's Destijl/Freedom From Festival in Minneapolis. His work, in turn, has inspired others: Jason Crumer, who has been at the fore of North Carolina noise for almost a decade, decided to begin a small-scale, Southern answer to No Fun after attending No Fun and a similar festival in San Francisco. Working with friend Michele Arazon and Ryan Martin, co-owner of Chapel Hill's Nightlight, Crumer started No Future Fest. He packed two warm nights with noise last June with less than a month of preparation time.
By now, Nightlight--Chapel Hill's noise bastion--should be common knowledge: The post-meridian extension of the Skylight Exchange, a by-day used book and record store and cafe, Nightlight has been hosting noiseniks for three years now, serving as a Petri dish for the development of a thriving regional noise circuit and a hitching post for artists touring the country. Anything goes: On any given night, some spectators are writhing on the floor, dancing to music removed from any standard of rhythm, while some stand at safe distance, digging on the processes as much as the sounds. It's rapturous.
"When you listen to bands play, you know there's some small person playing drums, and you can hear a six-string guitar and a four-string bass. One of the things I like about noise is that it bypasses that with increased effect," says Martin, who is only organizing and not performing at this year's festival. "It actually has the effect that harsher, heavier forms of rock music are supposed to have, but don't."
That ultra-emancipated aesthetic invites both spectators and performers en masse. Martin says that noise is more democratic, in a sense, than other forms of music because it doesn't require specific equipment. Noise embraces the production of sound without regard to the producer. From skill saws and homemade circuitry to toy keyboards and contact microphones taped to skin, all media are acceptable. And, though some enthusiasts are immersed in the 20th-century compositional or punk rock history of the genre or in a search for meaning, others couldn't care less. They're in it solely for immediacy and feeling.
"I've never been an industrial or experimental music fan. I've always liked straight noise, and I don't get off on a lot of older stuff. I know everything about noise after like 1995, and I've seen that progress," says Crumer, in Indiana for the closing days of a six-week tour with his metal band, Facedowninshit.
That populist idiom is aligned with how No Future Fest--and most of the noise scene--works as a financial enterprise: Most of the performers will get paid, but even the highest-billed performers--Macronympha, Giffoni, former Wolf Eyes member and Hanson Records owner Aaron Dilloway--aren't expecting to get rich. Some performers expect only to have a pittance of their travel expenses paid, choosing simply to play because the festival represents the most vital noise outpost in the South. With no outside funding, Martin and Crumer simply divvy ticket and beverage sales among the performers at the festival's conclusion and hope everyone is happy. Martin and Crumer also offer some performers a guarantee, out of pocket.
In New York, Giffoni struggles for funding, too: He foots travel expenses of performers from across the globe--like Japan's Solmania or the peripatetic European Zbigniew Karkowski--using credit cards, banking on ticket sales to break even. He's slowly started to pick up sponsorships for No Fun in New York and hopes to add more. Each year, at best, he earns a pittance for the hours of work he's done.
noisemp3.com; staalplaat.com; hansonrecords.net) has increased awareness, availability and reception. But age-old collectors' adages still apply: When bands bring limited-edition recordings--often artfully packaged in hand-designed sleeves or on colored vinyl--denizens buy it up, buying into a tight-knit club of noise cognoscenti.
"People just sell tons of their merch because it's like these folk art artifacts," says Martin.
Those cognoscenti pack the New York bills, too, something that Giffoni acknowledges has made his festival's success more imminent: Moore--who founded Sonic Youth 25 years ago while playing with experimental luminaries like Rhys Chatham and Glenn Branca--was one of the chief catalysts for Giffoni, encouraging him and linking him with several key performers.
But Crumer and Martin have had to go it alone: Crumer, performing with his American Band at the second No Future, asked most of the performers to play this year, and Martin recruited Dilloway and Can't, a one-woman act Martin says completely altered his approach to making music. Giffoni called to sign on after Macronympha--who plays, at most, a couple of shows each year--joined the bill.
Twenty bands are now slated for two days, and, together, they represent a broad sample of the harder edge of the noise genre, sharing characteristics and aesthetics without sharing sounds or means. Asking what noise is cascades into a series of rhetorical questions anyway, a limp inquiry into the meaning of a linguistic subversion whereby ugly, meaningless, obtrusive sound can maintain its vigor and be meaningful.
Bangs wrote that the horrible noise surrounding him was, bottom line, about liberation. More than a decade later, that is as, if not more, true than ever.
No Future Festival happens Friday and Saturday, June 2 and 3 at Nightlight in Chapel Hill. Each night begins at 8 p.m. and costs $10. For more, see nightlight.dyss.net.