MOCAD Talks the Art of Noise

From the factory floor to the freeway, noise is all around us. But is it music, or even art, when performers make it? The Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit plans to talk about it tomorrow evening. WDET’s Rob St. Mary takes a listen.

(click the audio link above to hear the story)

The Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit often pushes the edges of what some people would consider art. Because of that Ben Hernandez of MOCAD says a museum board member asked him to put some of their musical offerings in context. Tomorrow night’s panel on noise aims to do just that.

“Sometimes it’s like almost sad to refer to it as just noise because that’s your parent’s definition of it… and to me it’s kind of funny to see everybody adopt that.”

But the concept is nothing new… people, the press and performers have called things noise as far back as the late 1800s… when composers like Erik Satie started working with rhythm over melody.


And as painters and sculpters of the time became more surrealist… developing dream-like and emotional concepts… the idea that sound could be sculpture or art began to emerge. As electricity flowed… sound from machines evolved. Italian futurist Luigi Russolo works around World War One were considered early experiments into electronic music…

"Luigi Russolo”

Overtime… popular genres begin to free up… such as jazz and

"Ornette Coleman”

rock music…

“The Velvet Underground”

One could even catch mainstream acts like the Beatles experimenting…

“The Beatles - revolution 9”

By the early 1970s the idea of “noise as art” developed further.

"Destroy All Monsters"

Around this time a group of Ann Arbor art students known as Destroy All Monsters started to experiment. Cary Loren was part of the group.

“Our group was really about a lot of things… not just noise… it was theatre… and it was sort of a combination of a lot of different media… and we would invent our own instruments and kind of play with hacked up tape recorders and loops and damaged amplifiers and guitars. So, everything was kind of a tragic imitation of a band.”

Loren says 1950s science fiction movies, 1960s underground films and an interest in dada and surrealist art inspired them.

“I think we had a very anarchist ideas about music. We didn’t like pop music. We didn’t like rock-n-roll.”

Loren says Destroy All Monsters was also a sort of counter-reaction to the popularity of singer/songwriters of the time like James Taylor.

Around the same time as Destroy All Monsters was starting in Ann Arbor… another group of visual artists was also working in noise and electronic music in England.

“Throbbing Gristle”

Throbbing Gristle was so hated at the time that one British tabloid called them the “wreckers of civilization”. Greg Baise is a Detroit area concert promoter. He says the band’s sound ended up being as influential as how they did the marketing.

“Maybe a year before punk rock was on most people’s radar… and they were marketing their records like it was normal music… like the Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin records that you would see on the walls of record stores… which just happened to have covers designed by one of the members of Throbbing Gristle. So, they would market it like that and sell it like that and they would sell out of records.”

“Throbbing Gristle”

And Gristle was not without humor. One album – called “20 Jazz Funk Greats” – features no jazz, no funk and only eleven songs. Released independently… an entire genre of electronic music decades later would be influenced by Throbbing Gristles and named in honor of the band’s label called industrial. As Throbbing Gristle was “wrecking civilization” in England… former Velvet Underground guitarist Lou Reed released a record some have called unlistenable. It was called “Metal Machine Music”.

"Metal Machine Music”

MoCAD’s Ben Hernandez.

"I think it was Lou Reed using his fame to play a joke on the people but also to say… that possibly, this is the next step.”

Among the reviews at the time, critic Lester Bangs said “Metal Machine Music” “shows integrity… a… psychopathic integrity, but integrity nevertheless."

Regardless, Hernandez says the album has influenced many groups including Detroit’s Wolf Eyes which has toured internationally with more mainstream indie bands such as Sonic Youth.

“Wolf Eyes”

Ultimately, Hernandez says a mainstreaming of noise is taking place today. He says it’s at a point where band like Lightning Bolt can sell upwards of 500 tickets for a Detroit show.

"Lightning Bolt"

“If this is what’s challenging now… than, what is it that’s going to be challenging in the next ten years? In my mind, I’m really excited to hear what the next step is.”

Could what makes us cringe now become mainstream? Hernandez says it’s possible.

Just keep in mind that this so-called noise helped to foster the current sonic evolution over 100 years ago. And today most would call that rather tame.


I’m Rob St. Mary - WDET News.

The MOCAD noise panel takes place Thursday evening at the museum in midtown Detroit. On Friday, a reunion show for Port Huron based industrial group Hunting Lodge will take place at MOCAD.

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