Everyone is sitting in a wide semicircle, legs crossed on the concrete, and the electronic sounds trickling out of the speakers remind me of the whale soundtrack my Montessori teacher played during naptime – soothing and eerie.
Then comes the halting cadence of a young kid reading and a slow-growing garble of adult voices. It’s like a Peanuts cartoon, but really, really scary. Normally, I’d be making a beeline for the exit. But strangely, after several performers and against all odds, I’m actually enjoying myself. And why not? It’s Sunday morning, a little after noon, and I’m having an experimental music breakfast at a multimedia art gallery called The Lab.
When I first arrive at The Lab on 16th Street and Capp in the Mission, I have the pleasant sensation of being in the wrong place with the perfect excuse to explore: innocent ignorance.
The space is cavernous with high ceilings and exposed ductwork. The performance area is a womb – dark, swaddled in black cloth, and packed with electronics. In the center, a long glittering rope dangles what could be a Cornish game hen. I’m already starting to panic. Thankfully, Eilish, the surprisingly mild-mannered director of The Lab comes to give me a tour of the gallery.
The performance space décor and the exhibits are almost indistinguishable. By the entrance is a black E.T.-esque sculpture and on the far wall two handprints I am told are “remnants” from an older show.
I’m praying that the morning has no audience participation; I get weak in the knees when artists try to break the fourth wall. Not in the teenage-swooning-girl way, but in the pass-out-and-hit-my-head-on-the-concrete way.
On the dashing-the-head note, let me just be clear: I play the saxophone. I like Bach. Noise is something I deal with, not listen to. I have every intention today of being stubbornly curious, trying to understand the scene enough to write about it, but not expecting to enjoy myself. As Eilish leads me around, I take good note of the free, neon green earplugs by the entrance. At least I won’t lose an eardrum.
Before the show, I decide to take advantage of the only moments I expect anyone will be able to hear me to find out more about the San Francisco noise scene. And, of course, stuff myself with pancakes.
I happen to be in luck. The organizer, the elusive and mysterious man of many names, the throbbing heart of the Bay Area music scene, happens to be flipping pancakes. It’s not often in life you can do your job while eating a fluffy flapjack.
Bonnie Banks, as I’ve been instructed to refer to him, has been organizing noise events for more than 15 years through various entities: Electronic Puppenhorten shows, Brutal Sound Effects, and now Godwaffle Noise Pancakes. He doesn’t like attention, credit, or questions. I ask him about the pancakes. He says he didn’t come up with the batter. That’s about as far as we get. His lack of ego is representative of the spontaneous and earnest feeling of the show, which at this moment, is lurching to life.
The lights go down, the crowd hushes, and Andrew Kaluzynski of Pain for the Party takes the stage. With his Nintendo DS.
When I saw that a band called Pain for the Party was opening, I expected to spend the entire morning shielding my ears from blood-curdling screams and soul-rending feedback. Instead, I’m trying to figure out how Andrew is making quirky electronic riffs with the same console my sister uses to play Animal Crossing.
After his set, Andrew giddily describes his max MSP patch and chaos pad. Like most in the experimental music scene, Andrew started by fooling around with real instruments. When he was six he broke his toy piano by putting in “blocks and stuff” so that it would make strange sounds. Little did he know, he was emulating John Cage, who shocked the classical music scene with his “prepared piano” experimental music in the late ’40s.
The next performer, Anna Leja of Terror Apart, isn’t tinkering with instruments, but making her own. On stage, I see the standard equipment: effects pedals, a mini mixer and a Casio keyboard. Then she pulls out a curled piece of dried kelp with a dangling electric cord and fills the gallery with a deep, low-pitched, whale call. She's not the only one blowing kelp. A musician in the South African coastal town of Hermanus has been selling painted kelp horns after the recent worldwide irritation with the related vuvuzelas.
Anna’s not trying to cash in on vuvuzelas. She’s searching for a primal approach to noise. Famous Techno, the third band, has the opposite approach – making music out of the electronics themselves.
Chris Dixon and Kim West play in a noise rock band with actual songs called Death Sentence: Panda! Today, they are unleashing their music-techno-geek sides as Famous Techno.
The whole time they are playing I can’t stop wondering what the two are actually doing up there. There seems to be no instruments and they don’t even have a computer. After the show I head over to try and find out.
Chris has got a collection of cables hanging around his neck with plugs that glimmer like primitive jewelry. Well, Chris says, the sound starts in a rhythm sequencer, then it gets split into different mixers, chopped up by pedals, and then four different versions come back together in the main mixer. If that’s not enough, add in a theremin – an electronic instrument invented in the ’20s as part of a Soviet research project into proximity sensors. You just wave your hand at it and it makes noise.
So, how does it all come together and make music?
Chris: “That's kind of the fun of the whole thing. You don’t really choose the output. In a lot of instances you just turn things on and just let it go and it will start self-oscillating. There is a lot of chance involved.”
I really, really want to touch the theremin, but a little voice in my head tells me I’m not quite ready for noise-making Soviet experiments. That voice is about to get some creepy company.
Cliff Caruthers, the next performer, has tucked his large square frame as deep as possible behind stacks of electronics. The only reason I can see him is because his computer screen is making his face glow. At a rock show, he could be mistaken as a techie. In a way, that’s not far from the truth. He, like everyone else here, has a love of sound – not as a means for transmitting feel-good lyrics – but for the sheer glory of its noise.
Unlike the tech-loving Famous Techno, there’s no chance involved in Cliff’s music. He gathers his own sound and uses his own voice. The child reading is a recording his father made of him in the ’70s; the scary, whispering demon was recorded this morning over coffee. “Sound,” he says, “is such a Tower of Babel.”
Cliff actually makes a living making noise as a freelance sound designer for theater companies like The Cutting Ball Theater in the Tenderloin. He also produces the SF Tape Music Festival . Tape, he explains, is an academic term referring to the “Stockhausen” days of splicing tape. Karlheinz Stockhausen, I research, is to noise music what Walt Whitman is to modernist poetry.
If it were a rock show I’d be shuffling to the parking lot to beat the crowd, but I’m actually excited for the last act. Chris Brown is a core character in experimental music, and as soon as the music starts it’s evident why. While the other performers slinked in the furtive shadows of The Lab’s cavernous space, Chris, who daylights as a 57-year-old music professor at Mills College, composes in the middle of the room. And not only does he make some dynamic noise, he has some killer dance moves.
After the show, I help him take his equipment down to his old Toyota, not because I think he needs help, but because I want to hear more about a man who went from playing concertos to forming a robotic band. He tells me the only reason that more classical musicians and people of his age range don’t dabble in experimental music is because of social pressure to play “serious” music. What could be more serious than making noise that has never been heard before?
I thought the show would leave me cursing a headache all afternoon in some quiet nook, and it’s good I’m not because it’s a blindingly bright 2:30 in the afternoon. Instead, as I ride through crowds of milling hipsters nursing hangovers, I’m wondering when I’ll get my next chance to hear some fresh, new noise.
Check the The Lab's online calendar for the next Godwaffle Noise Pancakes. Want to really do it yourself? All you need is some dried kelp and a mixer.