During the last few months of 2012, about fifteen sound artists and noise musicians gathered in West Oakland to form a new collective for like-minded experimenters, from which they hoped criticism and creation would spawn. The founders are a who’s who of the insular experimental music scene, including record label owners and underground venue proprietors, as well as the leaseholder of an established West Oakland DIY space, from which the collective takes its name. Out of fear that police may target its performances, which are often held in illegal spaces, the collective asked to remain anonymous, and hereafter will be referred to as the West Oakland Noise Collective (WONC). Despite being under the radar right now, the collective aims to expand the audience for the historically academic and obtuse genre.
The Bay Area has long been fertile ground for both large and small efforts in sound experimentation, but by all accounts, it seemed like an ideal time to organize and attempt to ground a scene that has been in flux. Back in October 2012, Cal Performances hosted a touring production of Einstein on the Beach, Philip Glass and Robert Wilson’s four-and-a-half-hour experimental opera, selling out three of its performances. In total, roughly 6,000 attendees watched the opera’s landmark West Coast premiere. WONC and its supporters saw the success of Einstein on the Beach as a litmus test for the audience of experimental music.
One of WONC’s members, Raub Roy, who performs as Horaflora and started label Weird Ear last year, hopes that having a devoted collective and performance space will lead to more (and ideally new) listeners. “The relief of not having to write countless houses, galleries, and warehouses when I’m called upon to find a touring act a gig means I can devote that much more energy to promotion for the show itself,” Roy said. Securing a permanent venue for WONC could follow the success of The Totally Intense Fractal Mindgaze Hut, a like-minded performance space in Oakland that, since 2006, has been particularly hospitable to graduates of Mills College’s Center for Contemporary Music.
The point of noise performance is to let the sound unfold in the listener’s ears. “If [noise] is as fantastic as it should be, a concept doesn’t matter,” Roy said. “If it needs conceptualization to be understood, that’s not noise.” Noise as a concept often flavors other genres, with non-melodic distortion and dissonance as key motifs. Tropes like amplified feedback and mechanical sounds are elemental in noise, but are equally important in punk and industrial music. But really, noise is the constant “other” — sound that doesn’t fit into an obvious pattern of significance, and plays with our ability to find meaning in what we hear.
What follows, in an obtuse genre with a huge focus on mechanical manipulation, are live performances with expansive potentials even when they border on absurd or risk alienating an audience. It’s not uncommon for acts to choose to remain anonymous (members of local outfit Styrofoam Sanchez wear cubic styrofoam structures on their heads), while others perform sitting down or entirely eclipsed in fog.
Because the Bay Area has a relatively small community for experimental music, performers can stagnate in a too-familiar scene. A co-founder of Ratskin Records, an Oakland experimental music label since 2005, Mike D (who also performs in Styrofoam Sanchez) thinks the collective format could combat this effect.
“This is where the idea of autonomous collectives serves a purpose — if peers are actually peers and spend enough time around each other, bouncing ideas around, general constructive criticism can be achieved, which raises the bar for everyone,” D said. In D’s terms, artists risk becoming “syntactical terrorists,” i.e., having too much control over the discourse around their own work.
The challenge lies in reaching these non-traditional audiences to inspire new critical discourse. Venues have played a vital role in growing the scene, and the experimental community lost one of its few legal venues when 21 Grand closed in 2011. Illegal or not, the collective is determined to establish its own permanent performance space. A few collective shows have already taken place in January at an undisclosed West Oakland location, which will remain anonymous, Roy said, until the space is absolutely secure in protecting itself from legal action.
Experimental music icon and former Mills College instructor John Cage predicted in his 1937 text, The Future of Music, that: “The aid of electrical instruments (will make) available for musical purposes any and all sounds.” While Cage’s prediction came true, what remains to be seen is how collectives like WONC can emerge from the underground to offer an inclusive place to discover this Bay Area art form.