A night of experimental music and earplugs.
Photos by Fred Pessaro. View the complete set here.
One of the most common complaints about multi-stage music festivals, and one of the least preventable, is of sound bleeds. People wanting to watch one act are upset about hearing rap beats or guitar fuzz coming from a neighboring stage. Unless the festival grounds are extremely large (which becomes its own problem), sound bleed is inevitable, especially when acts of varying genres and sound levels play at once. Red Bull Music Academy's Drone Activity In Progress found an interesting way around this problem: They embraced the sound bleed, treating it as a feature instead of a bug.
Perhaps it helps that the musicians featured at the event were those who, by nature, lend themselves to experimentation and aren't thrown off by a bit of extra sound. Hosted at Knockdown Center, an impressive brick warehouse in the part of Queens that is basically Bushwick, the night showcased a wide mix of drone, noise, and experimental electronic musicians. There were legends (Kim Gordon's Body/Head, Stephen O'Malley), current heavyweights (Prurient, Pete Swanson), and acclaimed upstarts (Pharmakon, Liturgy's Hunter Hunt-Hendrix). Sonically, it covered everything from drone (O'Malley) to jazz freak-outs (Kid Millions/Jim Saunter duo) to guitar shredding (Mick Barr). There was something for everyone, or at least everyone who doesn't mind popping in earplugs and spending a few hours feeling sound waves actually vibrate through their body and trying to communicate to their friends through hand signals.
In a sense, noise music is a lot like whiskey. This isn't a statement about the intoxicating effects of sound, nor is it a comment on the stereotype that aficionados of both pursuits are smelly and wear sweats outside. Rather, it's an extended, sort-of-terrible metaphor about acquired tastes. While you may hear people talking about tastes of oak and smoky hints and applewood and earthiness, the first time you drink scotch your reaction is much more likely to be "OW JEEZ my throat, why do people drink this on purpose?" Similarly, noise connoisseurs might cite jazz or Krautrock influences and dance rhythms, but, at least initially, noise and drone tend to mostly sound like really loud feedback. With enough exposure to the right stuff, though, you'll start to notice nuances, and (hopefully) develop a taste for the stuff. In that sense, then, Drone Activity In Progress was sort of like a giant scotch tasting, but for noise music.
Continuing with the scotch metaphor: I'm not a purist. Just as I like my whiskey with Coke, I want my noise balanced with some pop.That's probably why my favorite performance of the night came from Pete Swanson, formerly of Yellow Swans. Swanson's a scene vet who, in recent years, has inched closer to creating something more approachable. This year's fantastic Punk Authority EP feels like being at a rave where the speakers are severely damaged but no one cares. Perhaps most notably, his set inspired actual dancing.
On top of the music, Nuit Blanche New York created a visual experience that did the sounds justice. From the rainbow-lit building facade to the film projections in the main room, they gave the night a feeling of being much more than just a concert. A good noise or drone performance can, through repetition and the sheer amount of sound, have a mesmerizing effect on its listener. A bad performance can be painfully boring. Obviously the musicians played a key role in this, but the visuals ensured that the night remained a multi-sensory spectacle and never slipped into tedium.