Thursday, May 8, 2014

Noise never really was, and certainly isn’t now, a Boys’ Club. Here’s Why.

It was April 7 when Margaret Chardiet, a 22-year-old noise artist who performs under the professional name Pharmakon, seemed to be having a bit of drouble dragging over her table of microphones, pedals, amps and a multitude of sound-manipulating gadgets to the center of the room of the dungeon of a venue that is 285 Kent in Williamsburg. A tall young man with an accent, British or Australian it was hard to tell which, walked up to her and offered to give her a hand.
Chardiet shook her head and said something along the lines of, “No, thanks, shouldn’t be playing the stuff if I can’t carry it.”
She continued on dragging, set up the equipment and the show went on.
She twiddled at her pedals and mountains of volume erupted from the vintage-looking speakers. She shrieked, walked threateningly into the crowd of 30 people and baited audience members by placing her hands on their chests and shoulders in a manner that could be interpreted as either threatening or playful. A crowd that counted noise “superstars” like Nate Young, Spencer C. Yeh and Jason Lescalleet among its ranks closed their eyes and nodded their heads in hypnotic solidarity.
Pharmakon is one of several female noise/experimental New York-based acts getting attention in a traditionally male-centric scene and re-igniting the genre all together. Noise music has much like other aggressive forms of music including Hip-Hop and Heavy Metal been a bit skewed towards dudes. But Pharmakon and other New York City-based acts like 29-year-old sound manipulating guitarist Noveller, 33 year-old sound artist Maria Chavez , 25-year old experimental musician C. Lavender and others are some on the more buzz-worthy acts in the scene, making a case that the female presence in noise and experimental music is growing, and even that the notion of a boys club in noise is obsolete, and all together stupid.
“It’s really hard to assess an exact figure for how many women are making noise,” said the founder of extreme music blog Blastitude Larry Dolman, “But I’d be willing to bet that if there was some math done there’d be telling evidence that there are more women in this scene than there were in the past. The noise scene is much different than it was only five years ago.”
It should be mentioned that women making noise is no new phenomenon. Composer Pauline Oliveros was making atonal sound art as early as the 1950s, and women like Lydia Lunch of Teenage Jesus and the Jerks and Adris Hoyos of Harry Pussy have all left indelible marks on the scene as it has progressed through the decades. And the women of this article certainly have much love and admiration for all noise musicians, male or female, “It’s up to you how you want to write this,” said Maria Chavez, “But I really don’t think it’s beneficial to perpetuate a girls v. boys theme.”
People don’t like discussing gender, and some might even find it silly to think about in 2013, but it takes little observation to see that there are more women in the underground noise scene. There is definitely evidence pointing towards the ratio of men to women in the scene equaling out.
Noise music’s increasing female presence is evident in the amount of women playing noise festivals. The 2009 No Fun Festival (curated by noise musician and owner of record label No Fun Carlos Giffoni that from 2004-2009 showcased the best in noise music at the Music Hall of Williamsburg) had one female solo act out of 26 performers (Noveller) (though women did play in some of the lineups of bands, ala Kim in Sonic Youth as well as Cold Cave, Bardo Pond, Skullflower and Pedestrian Deposit). The noise festival Ende Tymes that took place this past May 24 to 26 at the Silent Barn in Bushwick  had seven female artists performing out of its 44 (Maria Chavez, Zaimph, Rusalka, Pod Blotz, Penny Royale, Tahnzz and Ghost Taco), a 14 percent increase in the presence of female performers in four years time. While not an overwhelming statistic, this signifies progress.
Though Bob Bellerue, who organizes Ende Tymes and performs noise as Halfnormal, says he likes to keep the festival diverse, the influx of female performers to the festival has been organic. This year has the largest number of female performers in the festival’s history, but all these women met Bellerue’s one requirement, “Everyone that plays Ende Tymes has to be someone I really respect and want to see play,” he said in an interview conducted by this author for Tiny Mixtapes.
Giffoni doesn’t believe there are more women in the scene now than five years ago, “But perhaps there are more getting attention, maybe that’s what’s happening,” he said in an Email.
In his profile of Michigan noise legends Wolf Eyes in “Wire” last April, experimental music journalist Marc Masters made mention of noise music losing appeal due to an overly-macho, testosterone-heavy and drug-fueled sensibility. “Self-imposed rules crept in, threatening to choke a scene that touted sonic freedom,” writes Masters. “[noise’]s confrontational nature ultimately encouraged a macho, circus-like atmosphere, with mostly white male audiences.”
All of the aforementioned female performers are gaining attention for their own unique take on the genre.
Pharmakon’s music is on the heaviest and harshest end of noise, borrowing from other extreme genres like power electronics, industrial and black metal, showcasing the music’s potential for violence and ferocity. Her tendency toward the extreme might come from her upbringing.
Chardiet grew up downtown with two punk rock parents that exposed her to loud music. Her father took her to see anarchist punk band Nausea when she was 14 years old. Noise proved to be the only music loud and strange enough to shock her open-minded parents. “When I showed my parents my music they said, “Great, you found the one thing more extreme than what you were brought up with.”” said Chardiet in an interview with Pitchfork Media.
Pharmakon is choosy about the music she puts out, a rarity in a scene whose performers often record and release every amplified metal scrape to limited editions of 100 cassettes. Her new album “Abandon” on Sacred Bones shows how her pickiness has benefited her, as it has been released to high acclaim, getting four stars on Tiny Mixtapes.
Noveller, aka Sarah Lipstate, makes noise that is more delicate than most in the genre. She started getting into noise as a teenager despite her conservative John Denver-loving parents while working at her record store in Lafayette, Louisiana, discovering downtown NYC-noise rock bands like Sonic Youth and Teenage Jesus and the Jerks. But when moving to New York in 2005, she found herself drawn to ambient music like Brian Eno, and her music calmed down, with fuzzy guitar riffs interlaying serene background sounds.

Playing music that uses heavy and quieter sounds is a powerful experience for Lipstate, “It can be cathartic, even if it’s really beautiful,” said Lipstate. “It’s not always the loudest and craziest stuff that does this for me, sometimes it’s the more introspective stuff.”
Her on stage persona is lighter than a lot of noise artists and she just seems more approachable. She smiles in between songs and generally just seems ecstatic to be doing what she’s doing, her recent performance at the Red Bull Music Academy’s “Drone in Progress” in May demonstrated her sincere love in her music. Her music has resulted in her being featured in mainstream publications including Time Out New York, the Wall Street Journal and the Village Voice, and she is now branching out into film, working on upcoming films “Traitors”, “Grand Street” and a few others.

Maria Chavez came to experimental music through unlikely sonic means, dance music. She started as a DJ in the early 00’s in her hometown of Houston and while she maintained an interest in dance music she quickly grew tired of the music’s treatment of women. “It seemed back then that the only successful female house DJ was a topless D.J., ” she said laughing.

She stumbled upon the improvised music scene in her hometown, leading her to sound art. She found herself under the tutelage of Pauline Oliveros, an improvised music composer and one of the originators of what would go on to become noise music. Oliveros was one of very few females working in this style, and her success in a male-dominated world made a strong impression on Chavez. “It was incredible to learn all these practices that were started in the 50s by a woman,” said Chavez. “I am really spoiled when it comes to strong female role models.”
Maria’s compositional training and experience as a DJ stuck with her. Her music is more subdued and textured than harsh noise, consisting of field recordings and test tone recordings.
“As an artist I’m just really interested in sound installation and how sound is related to the perceptions of the listener,” said Chavez.
Hudson based-experimental musician C. Lavender (she prefers to be referred to under this name) was a metal head in high school. She studied guitar and wanted to play in a metal band. It didn’t pan out, and she found herself in her room experimenting with sounds, not really sure what her music would turn into “I didn’t really realize what I was doing was noise,” she said, “I was sort of growing bored with music, and this just seemed more fun.”
Her music is an interesting amalgam of highbrow and lowbrow. She still loves metal and punk, citing British-anarcho Crass as an important touchstone in her musical development. She has also played in absurdist noise troupes like Cock ESP and the Laundry Room Squelchers, engaging in the total musical violence that noise is sometimes capable of and loved being a part of it, “Sometimes I liked playing with the Squelchers more than I liked doing my own music.” But she is also a trained musician. Like Chavez she has worked with Pauline Oliveros. She has also studied dance extensively, and is applying this passion to her music, incorporating experimental dance into her new project Tanz Praxis in collaboration with LN Foster of Drums like Machine Guns. The meeting of punk ethos and trained classicism forms a captivating juxtaposition.
The women involved with noise music for the most part do not seem to like being categorized in terms of gender or otherwise. Chardiet declined an interview request upon learning what this article deals with. “Margaret tends to shy away from any piece or show that focuses on her gender,” said Chardiet’s younger sister Jane who runs an extreme music blog under the moniker Jane Pain in an Email..
C. Lavender hopes her music speaks for itself itself, “I think the gender thing is just a silly question these days,” she said, “I just have more fun making these sounds.”
Chavez doesn’t like the idea of a “girls vs. boys” scene, but she does have her own ideas about what women might do differently than men. “I feel women have a closer relationship with the instinct of the moment,” she said, “I feel like what’s happening right now is the women that are getting recognition are the ones who perform in tune with their instincts.”
She related a story about performing in Krakow, “I played a set, and I thought it was just really nice, and really smart,” she said. “After I played all the guys there told me it was good but they wanted to hear me go nuts and play a really loud one. I said, “So you guys just want me to make a ton of noise, right?” Of course they did.”
So why is it that these women and others are now playing such a prevalent role in noise now, especially when there have always been a few women scattered about the scene throughout history?
The Internet has exposed people to noise music at a rate that was previously impossible. In the 90s, the only places to read about this music were small zines like Bannanafish. Now, Pitchfork has an experimental and noise music column “The Out Door” by Marc Masters and Grayson Currin that every month enlightens the indie brethren what is going on in noise, sound art and experimental music. Spin Magazine covers noise regularly, having run a feature on Pharmakon earlier this year. Even mainstream publications are taking notice, with Noveller being written up in Time Out New York and the New Times, and Chavez getting featured in Interview Magazine and the Village Voice. And with all this information filtering through a 24-hour endless web stream, noise is just easier to hear about for kids these days. Chavez feels that the noise scene is expanding overall and the influx of women is a by-product of the noise scene’s growth. “I think we are just starting to see what the Internet is capable of in terms of what it can do for this scene,” she said.
Noise is also economical. You need no musical training to start a noise band, and you don’t need any flashy instruments, in a generation of post-collegiate habitually unemployed kids in their early 20s, this is appealing “You know how people say that what was great about punk was that anyone that learned three chords could play it?” said Bellerue, “With noise you don’t even need the chords.
Some of noise’s vets, like Giffoni, feel that noise is and always will be the true underground music, incapable of reaching a mainstream audience, and he is perfectly fine with that, “Wolf eyes played Coachella six years ago,” he said, “We had our chance, and we blew it.”
But noise music continues to grow, and as such the younger generation of talent in the scene has a more hopeful outlook, believing that more women will become interested in it. Chavez has a particularly optimistic outlook concerning the future of noise, “I feel that at the rate the scene if progressing, than that 10 or 20 years down the road noise could be in the mainstream,” she said.
This may not be that extreme of a belief. Bands like Animal Collective and Deerhunter have roots in abstract and atonal noise, and it’s hard to imagine electronic acts like Zomby or Laurel Halo or even Grimes amassing the audience they have 15 years ago.
There are still more men making noise music than women. Despite seven performers being female at Ende Tymes, the other 37 were male. This of course isn’t unique to noise music in any way, as other aggressive forms of music seem to have a bigger pool of men than women, whether it Hip-Hop or Heavy Metal.
But if Chavez’s assertion is in anyway correct, and that if noise continues to reach larger audiences, than in theory there will be no more articles such as this, and the examining of a “growing presence of women in noise” will prove obsolete.
“If more girls are playing than more girls are going to be comfortable and going to the shows,” she said.