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The Art of Noise

Milwaukee Noise Fest returns for year three

Sep. 25, 2008
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   The Uptowner, a 58-year-old corner bar in Riverwest, seems an unlikely venue for an impromptu noise show on a Saturday night. Peter J. Woods sets up his gear, synthesizers, effect pedals and an electric violin on a card table while a small group of people gather in front of him and a couple of guys shoot pool directly behind him.

  Then the noise starts.

  A violent wall of screeching distortion fills the room. There is no rhythm, no melody and no noticeable structure. Woods begins to scream into a microphone, heavily distorted. Two of the bar patrons start to get angry.

  "Turn this shit off, now!" one of the patrons yells from the end of the bar, his face turning red. "This is the worst shit I've ever heard in my life! Stop it!"

  Woods plays a short set and then packs up. As he walks by me with an armful of gear, he says, "This is what I was talking about earlier."

  Earlier in the day, I interviewed Woods and asked him if people say to him, "I just don't get what noise music is."

  "They say it all the time," Woods admits. "My response is, 'I get where you're coming from. I get that you don't understand noise. It's OK.' You really have to develop an ear for it, more than any other genre of music.

  "There are so many subgenres and approaches to it," he continues. "If you look at one tiny facet, sure, it all sounds the same. You have to take time and listen to the full range of what's going on."

  Woods should get a better reception at the Milwaukee Noise Festival, a three-day event he organized that will feature him and more than 25 other noise bands. This is the third year that Woods has organized the event, and it has grown in size each year. The bands play an experimental blend of sound, using synthesizers, effects devices, tape loops and even sheet metal amplified with contact microphones.

  Paul Fuhr, who performs as The Demix, has modified a drum machine synthesizer into a noisemaker. He has glued nails to the machine, and attached wires to the inner circuits. He creates different levels of distortion by wrapping the wires around the nails. He also uses a device called a "chaos pad" that provides delay, echo and distortion effects. He says his set is improvised around a loose idea.

  "I'll have an idea of what I want to do, but the machine is random, so you sometimes go down a path you don't expect," Fuhr says.

  In addition to unusual instrumentation, bands take an unusual approach to songwriting. For example, the four-piece noise group Sling will perform a piece in three movements called "Dojo Jigoku."

  "The piece is based on a ceremonial Japanese delicacy known as dojo jigoku," explains Sling member David White. "Movements convey the process of cooking and consuming the Japanese delicacy through sound."

  One of the highlights of the fest is a reunion of Boy Dirt Car, an industrial noise band that first formed in 1981. The band shared members with Milwaukee punk legends Die Kreuzen, and played gigs with Sonic Youth and Einsterzende Neubauten. They broke up in 1988, but re-formed to record an album last year. Woods sent them an e-mail asking if they'd like to play a reunion show, and they agreed.

  "It's really exciting," Woods says. "It's sort of monumental in a way. I know people who have always wanted to see this band, myself included."

  Noise Fest is an opportunity for people to check out the form and draw their own conclusions, Woods says. And he has some advice for people checking out Noise Fest for the first time: "Take in as much as you can. There's a huge variety."

  But, he warns, "bring earplugs if you value your hearing. It'll be a pretty loud couple of days."

  The Milwaukee Noise Festival runs Sept. 25-27 at the Borg Ward.


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