"A lot of people are afraid of the word 'noise,'" says Ken Cornell, one of Albuquerque's longtime "noisicians." The word so often has a negative association. But for people open to it—folks who can handle dissonance and, usually, a lack of hook or melody—it can be cathartic. "If your eardrums are being pummeled with these tones, if you let yourself go into it, it has something in common with ambience. It floats," Cornell says.
Cornell, the brain behind Noise Fest performers Alchemical Burn, gives us a crash course in the genre: Real noise has roots in the '60s with acts like the Plastic Ono Band and Masami Akita, and was heavily influenced by the drug movement. It lived through and was affected by slowly co-opted genres (such as punk) but has survived on the fringe.
Experimenting with noise works differently for everyone.
“It's almost like a jazz standard,” says Geoffrey Stauffer, who plays guitars and noise toys for headliners the Spirit Bears. “There'll be a head, and then it'll just open up from there.” That's how Stauffer and his wife, Esther, make noise. He describes their work as a mix of ambient noise, hardcore punk, free jazz and Alaska Native music. Though the timbres are very different, Cornell also likens noise to free jazz because of the techniques employed.
Noise is generally without structure. Cornell, whose sets are always improvised, says he thinks of it as visceral sonic creations—sound sculpture. He establishes a wall of sound, then chisels away at it, using mixing consoles, guitar pedals, maybe a couple of synthesizers. Cornell used to be in more traditional bands and says he often got bored playing the same old structured songs. Noise came to him naturally when he would practice on his own.
It also carries with it an attractive heritage. "Once upon a time, jazz came from this antiestablishment sort of stance, then rock 'n' roll, then punk rock was the next one up," he says. "All of those genres have been co-opted pretty heavily. ... Noise is young enough that it's an antiestablishment sort of stance. In its being, it still has its buck-the-system energy to it."
Maybe that's part of the commonality that defines the genre. But, ultimately, no two experimental or noise acts are ever the same. Take this lineup:
Raven Chacon, a Duke City native, will haul his homemade mics and gear with him from Los Angeles for what he promises will be an ear-piercing performance. He recommends earplugs. A Black Lux focuses on additions to and alterations of samples and recordings of nonmusic things. Peanut Butter Jones, Stauffer's brother and founder of Faith Cannon Records, is described on the label's website as, "a big heap of fantastical imagery and textured pinks and blips."
It's a music, a movement, and it's never the same.