The Undiscovered Country

There was a time in the F# A# ∞ era when everyone and their gran was making music they described as ‘experimental’. At the time, this meant lots of long bits that may or may not contain an abundance of reverb and swathes of distortion, with spartan tom work and a vague, dramatic title. But what were the roots of this musical movement? What was experimentalism when there was no 16-strong pedalboards? In this article I’m going to tell you about some of the artists and events that defined the approach we take a little for granted today, both on and off the guitar.

The Noise Machine
On the back of my right leg is a big tattoo of an intonarumori. Literally translated from Italian, this means ‘noise machine’, and that’s exactly what it was. In the early 20th century, prior to the beginning of WWI, there was an artistic movement known as Futurism, a precursor to Dadaism, which was founded by a group of young men determined to shake up the established artistic order. While their beliefs are myriad (and best consumed via book The Art Of Noise), they firmly believed in the destruction of the notated, book-taught system of classicism, and one of their number, Luigi Rosollo, decided to physically demonstrate this feeling with the aforementioned device. Though no original intonarumori survive, plans and images of them do, and a number have been reconstructed in the modern day by universities and independent musicians. Inside of the large wooden enclosure lurked any number of things, from scraping devices to long wires, each controlled with a brutalist lever mechanism. The intonarumori was designed to be the first musical instrument not to make a melodic sound, as the Futurists argued that as the sounds of mechanised apparatus, vehicles and industry were now as much a part of everyday life as birdsong and wind, their sounds must have equal value, and, therefore, all sounds were equal. Culminating in a performance entitled Suite For Intonarumori And Orchestra, the impossibly harsh sounds created at its 1913 Milan debut resulted in a riot that left 17 dead and nearly destroyed the building.

Throw The Canvas
This spirit firmly in place and with the melody-free collage work of musique concrete kicking off in France, it was only a matter of time before similar inroads were discovered on conventional instrumentation. Though a number of guitarists would go on to plough this furrow (Fred Frith, Thurston Moore, Derek Bailey etc) Keith Rowe of AMM is arguably one of the first to clamber out of the melodic confines of jazz guitar through his approach to the instrument. As he stated in an interview:

“I thought about Jackson Pollock and the American school of painting –
by placing the canvas on the floor, he had in one movement broken with
the traditions of European easel painting, and so I decided to do the same
with the guitar.”

Such an approach had the effect of making the sounds and techniques employed more industrial, resulting in the guitarist playing the noise itself, rather than examining chord progressions or voicing. Known for incorporating short-wave radio, springs, fans, knitting needles and more into his collages, Rowe’s efforts in turn inspired guitarists like Otomo Yoshihide, who splits his time between working as a flood relief agent for the UN and playing some of the most skeletal noise music of the modern day. A great fan of tools like horseshoes, Yoshihide has brought his scraggily-elegant playing to bear in his collaborations with groups like The Thing, themselves a bastion of truly atonal, off-kilter and abrasive song structures.

By Extension
The use of external objects on the guitar is part of an approach referred to as ‘extended techniques’. Far from the exclusive province of the guitarist, extended techniques refer to anything that goes beyond the conventional scope of instrument/player interaction. A violinist playing with the back of the bow is as much an extended technique as it is to throw dice into a piano and continue playing with their physical interference. Players like Duane Ellison of The Jesus Lizard are big fans of this approach, though the prepared piano of John Zorn is still one of the music world’s best known examples. The cellist Okkyung Lee has been stretching the capabilities of her much-more-classical instrument for years, fully ignoring the lines between traditional classicism and noise, and reaching into the realms of the academic avant-garde, composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen and William Basinski have pushed what’s expected of sound in the classical realm into abstraction.

Maximum Volume Yields Maximum Results
Taking the idea of loud amps to its logical conclusion, bands like Earth, Boris, Mogwai, and perhaps most famously, Sunn O))), have decided to incorporate immense volume as part of their sound, and while this is generally regarded as a ‘heavy’ thing, it’s also been a big part of shoegaze. My Bloody Valentine, Sonic Youth and even Lift To Experience all elected to attempt to pickle their listeners with hilarious amounts of decibel activity, and if you can handle it in a live setting, it can be a hypnotic experience. Drone and repetition play a huge part in this approach, feeding on the work of artists like La Monte Young with his lengthy, subtly-shifting or downright confrontational sound installations. Though his works exists chiefly at the opposite end of the aggression spectrum, Brian Eno took another approach to repetition by pioneering generative music, whereby glacial, edgeless tones tectonically slide across one another, operating outwith the hands of their creator. Far from a new thing, drone-worship finds its roots in Indian raga and in the practices of nada yogi, who believe that as all sounds are created by one thing vibrating against another thing, there is an unstruck sound – the anahandra nada – at the core of existence.

What Does It MEAN?
The reason why all of this matters, and why it’s important here, is that it demonstrates that there’s no one way to go about making music, nor are there any real rules when it comes to making music. One man’s Santana is another man’s San Quentin, and rather than concerning yourself with what you think you should be playing, the musical universe is big enough that irrespective of the sort of music you make, there’s always someone out there who’s going to be into it. The old saying that ‘not many people were into them, but everyone who was went on to form a band’ is as true as it’s ever been, and with so many people travelling the well-worn paths, why shouldn’t you venture into the wilderness to see what’s there?

John Tron Davidson is a plectrum guru, musical sage and owner of Heavy Repping! the best damn plectrum blog on the internet!