John Brennan’s music struck a discordant note in his hometown of Goderich. The Ontario town of 8,000 on the banks of Lake Huron boasts famously beautiful sunsets and proudly calls itself “Canada’s prettiest town.”
When Brennan and his high-school friend detuned their guitars and walked onstage at an old local theatre, the sound that came out of the speakers jarred with the picture postcard foliage.
“We had a bunch of drinks before,” said Brennan, a lean, T-shirt-clad musician now in his 30s. “Then we spent, I think, 15 minutes standing in front of our amplifiers doing feedback and pressing on the pickups making weird clicking sounds.”
A sizeable chunk of the audience got up and left. Nobody clapped. When they were finished, nobody said anything. “I think one person said something, but it wasn’t good,” recalled Brennan. “It wasn’t a positive thing.”
The 1997 gig is a distant memory for Brennan, who now plays to more receptive crowds in Vancouver. The city is home to a small but enthusiastic audience for “noise:” music made with purposefully dissonant, harsh sounds.
Noise artists make music with everything from computers and effects pedals to chains and trash cans. It is intentionally inaccessible. But fans pack into noise shows in Vancouver and sit in rapt attention as one sonic torpedo after another crashes into their eardrums.
Some members of Vancouver’s noise scene have become internationally known. Brennan has toured Canada, Europe and Japan, playing noise. Sam McKinlay, a.k.a. “The Rita,” has produced a vast discography of harsh noise records.
In any other genre, artists of this stature might have a chance at supporting themselves with their music, like Vancouver’s top jazz musicians do. But noise plays to such a small audience that even its top echelon can’t swing a full-time music career.
Paying the bills
Artists like Brennan have to deal with the reality that their art is as uncommercial as music gets. Making noise won’t pay the stratospheric rent in Vancouver. But artists spend several hours a day making it anyway.
“I think 99.9 per cent of noise musicians in town all have other jobs” no matter how prestigious their reputation, said Brennan. “I can’t think of one artist in town that just does that.”
The jobs that support Vancouver’s noise artists range from sound-design contracts to working at safe-injection sites.
The safe-injection site jobs are “intense,” said Brennan, but they allow artists to take three or four days off every week. “A lot of people in the scene are really working as little as possible,” Brennan explains, so they can dedicate the bulk of their time to their art.
Brennan considers himself lucky that his job lets him be creative and make money at the same time. He works at Vivo Media Arts, where he curates a noise concerts series called Destroy Vancouver and organizes workshops in noise techniques like improvisation and circuit-bending.
He works part-time, which has an impact on his financial situation. “I am scraping by,” said Brennan. “But for me, I would rather work less, have less money and have more time to work on my art.”
The DIY philosophy
One element of noise that takes up a lot of noise musicians’ time is a technique called “circuit-bending,” in which he or she manually alters the circuitry in electronic devices, like toys and tape decks, to produce new and unheard sounds.
According to Jonathan Adams, a DJ and UBC graduate student in ethnomusicology, the DIY philosophy of circuit-bending and noise stems from strong anti-capitalist and anti-corporate sentiments.
“I think the fact that they don’t buy the tools from these huge, transnational corporations that are building the equipment and the software and so forth is actually a political statement,” he said. “I definitely think there’s a punk element.”
Graham Christofferson, known to Vancouver noise fans as “Worker,” definitely brings together the DIY approach and the political ethos of punk. He got involved in noise three years ago at a punk bar where everyone could play, Christofferson explained, “as long as they were doing something weird.”
Listen: Worker on the rebellious ethos of noise music (2’05”)
Christofferson’s “Worker” persona doesn’t do punk, but his roots show through in the aggressiveness of his sounds. Lately, he has adopted an angle grinder and a trash-can lid as instruments. In the middle of his performance, he starts grinding holes into the lid, producing sounds more commonly heard on construction sites while showering the audience with sparks.
Christofferson considers his music starkly political. In naming himself “Worker” and making aggressive music with homemade instruments and everyday objects, he hopes to use his art to communicate everything he hates about the capitalist system “and why you should destroy it.”
The Art of Noise
Noise actually dates back to at least 60 years before the birth of punk. In 1913, the composer Luigi Russolo wrote a manifesto called “The Art of Noise.” In it, he claimed that the human ear had become used to the speed, energy and noise of the urban industrial landscape and that music should incorporate similar sounds.
Since then, the major influences in noise have ranged from the avant-garde composer John Cage to the post-punk band Sonic Youth. Japan has produced a number of noise artists, like Hanatarash and Merzbow, whose influence is felt around the world.
Today, noise, similar to other music genres, encompasses a wide range of sounds. Even a single Vancouver noise concert can feature everything from abrasive industrial sounds to minimalist drones.
For Brennan, it’s about combining elements of noise with avant-garde jazz. He has been playing music since age three and studied jazz drums and guitar at Concordia before switching to electro-acoustics.
It has never been Brennan’s goal “to be a superstar or to get a million hits on YouTube,” he said. “I am just playing for myself and for the 13 people who really enjoy this, or whatever.”