Nihilist Spasm Band, Van’s Peppy Syncopators, Thurston Moore, Jojo Hiroshige, Knurl, Alan Licht & others

The 1998 No Music Festival Box Set

(Entartete Kunst)

Nihilist Spasm Band

Every Monday Night


By Monica Kendrick

It’s been nearly a century since the Italian futurists declared the need for an “art of noise” to reflect the passions and anxieties of a high-tech age. Yet to many folks still, “music” means a collection of sounds carefully patterned to soothe the savage breast–by definition the opposite of noise, which is anarchic and unpleasant and reminds us that we’re not as in control as we think we are. The protocols for who gets to make noise and what noise and when are elaborate and loaded. A too-deep throb from a passing car can create instant class and racial tension; minimalist composer Pauline Oliveros can sit back with eyes closed in apparent bliss while at her incitement a gallery full of adults make the forbidden annoying mouth noises of childhood for 45 minutes and feel like they’ve gotten away with something.

For thousands of years pontificators have been firmly convinced that some noises and combinations of noises are not just aesthetically but also morally bad–not just expressions of but contributing factors to the imminent decline of civilization. In medieval times the tritone was known as diabolus in musica, and in the 1950s rock ‘n’ roll was the devil’s noise too. But some of us heartily endorse the notion that a little anarchy is healthy for democracy. A few months ago, Canadian filmmaker and pianist Michael Snow told a fresh-faced Art Institute crowd that he thought “the rediscovery of free improvisation” was “the most important aesthetic development of the last 40 years.” Snow’s perspective was rooted in the raucous Dixieland jazz he loved as a teenager and the free-jazz movement he participated in during the 60s, offering his New York loft as a rehearsal space for Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, Charles Gayle, and Milford Graves, among others. He’s seen a lot of movements come and go since, and time has only strengthened his faith in the social possibilities of noisemaking.

Consider Snow’s friends the Nihilist Spasm Band. In the early 60s seven friends founded a Merry Pranksterish society called the Nihilist Party as a front for creative art terrorism in the small city of London, Ontario, in part as a protest against the Conservatives then holding sway over Canada. Visual artist and kazooist Greg Curnoe introduced his pals to the writings of the Russian nihilists, a movement devoted to the negation of existing cultural institutions. At the same time Hugh McIntyre, a librarian and blues fan, was researching the turn-of-the-century “spasm” bands: African-American southern players who got together for regular street and porch jam sessions on invented and adapted instruments, odd machine bits, and kitchen utensils. Partly out of the need for a band to accompany Curnoe’s film No Movie and perform at their Nihilist Picnics (which they still hold today), the Nihilist Spasm Band began their own jam sessions every Monday night.

As they refined their practice of inventing and modifying instruments to suit the sounds they wanted to make, as they learned to play their way and no other, something like songs evolved, built around smart-ass but moving “poems” written collaboratively and declaimed by English teacher Bill Exley. His booming recitations disappear into twitches and tweetings that mass into deep crunches and rumbles; bass scratches and treble bleats, long dragging scrapes, and vocal cries swell up when the lyrics drop out, giving the sense that something even more important is being communicated now.

The Nihilist Spasm Band gave their first public performance in April 1966, and their sheer weirdness elicited some early interest from the outside world. “We had a few nibbles from people asking us to come to rock festivals. People thought we were going to be the next Mothers of Invention or something,” says the band’s John Boyle, who plays electric kazoo, thumb harp, and drums. When they did play a “real” gig, with a popular band called Lighthouse, it nearly turned into a rumble between audience members who liked them and those who hated them, and most of the band’s lasting connections have remained in the Canadian gallery scene. Prior to the early 90s, in fact, nearly all their gigs were in galleries, often in conjunction with exhibits of visual art by Curnoe, Boyle, and guitarist Murray Favro. (Bassist Hugh McIntyre, who plays a self-designed three-string bass, is retired from the library; drummer and guitarist John Clement is a general-practice physician; and violinist–excuse me, “Pratt-a-various” player–Art Pratten is a retired photo engraver and amateur herpetologist.)

The Nihilist Spasm Band released their first album, No Record, in 1968; their second, Vol. 2, in 1978; and their third, 7x-x=x (on United Dairies, the label of tape collagist Steve Stapleton of Nurse With Wound) in 1985. Despite their very sporadic recording schedule (which was never really the point), their rehearsal and performance (they don’t draw much of a line between the two) schedule remained constant–every Monday night–as did the seven-man lineup until Curnoe’s death in a bicycle accident in 1992. Even after that loss, the Nihilist Spasm Band was too much of an institution, a habit, and a pleasure to consider giving up.

The same year Curnoe died, fanatical noise collector Jojo Hiroshige–core of the Japanese noise project Hijokaidan and operator of the Osaka-based Alchemy label–sent the band a letter professing his fandom. He released their old records on CD as well as a new studio album, What About Me (“So you think the CN Tower is the tallest free-standing structure? / What about me? / So you think there are seven wonders of the world? / What about me? / The sun never sets on the British Empire / It sets on me!”). He sponsored a very well-received Japanese tour in 1996 and released Live in Japan–which inducted the band kicking and screaming into at least one rock cliche–in 1997.

Yet the band managed never to play in the United States until their January 1997 appearance at the Empty Bottle, which is where I got hooked. Their playful but intense improvisations were marked by keen sensitivity and razor wit, and their apparent guilelessness–their authenticity, if you’ll pardon the expression–was in fact the self-possession of six very intelligent men in their 50s and 60s who knew just how venal things could get, but for 30-odd years had been content to resist by example. In New York later that year, they were greeted and feted by Thurston Moore, who had tried to get them a gig with Sonic Youth; instead they made their local debut at the Knitting Factory with sax-and-guitar typhoon Borbetomagus and the experimental rock band Run On.

In March 1998, back in London, the band returned the enthusiasm and hospitality it had received abroad by hosting the first No Music Festival, a two-day buffet of noise that included Hiroshige and his wife, vocalist Junko; Moore; New York improv guitarist Alan Licht (who played in Run On); Van’s Peppy Syncopators, aka Wisconsin-based instrument inventor Hal Rammel, Chicago writer and guitarist John Corbett, and his wife, writer, performer, and violinist Terri Kapsalis; Toronto noise “band” Knurl, aka performance artist Alan Bloor; London (Ontario) multi-instrumentalist Jason Bellchamber; drummer Aya Ohnishi of the all-female Kyoto punk band Sekiri; and the offspring of several Nihilist Spasm Band members. Each night the artists performed separately in the formal Aeolian Hall, then moved downstairs to the Forest City Gallery, home to the band’s Monday-night sessions, where everyone mingled with unself-conscious promiscuity. All of it is documented on a six-CD set on Bellchamber’s label, Entartete Kunst; the box includes a photocopied booklet, stickers, and a pair of earplugs.

Six CDs is a lot of anything, but the 1998 No Music box (what its actual title is isn’t clear) is intended to be friendly. Licht observes in the liner notes that “the NoFest summons almost seemed like a dinner party invite.” Taken as a call to sit at the cafeteria table with a bunch of gifted class cutups strutting their respective stuff for the sort of wisely and stubbornly eccentric teachers every misfit kid longs for, it seems far less daunting. And listened to in one or two sittings, it reveals that though “noise” these days is most certainly a genre, with conventions and cliches of its own, there’s still a lot of room left to maneuver.

Van’s Peppy Syncopators’ quiet, sly playfulness–Corbett’s guitar, Rammel’s Harry Partch-like invented instruments, and Kapsalis’s violin and wry delivery of texts by Rammel, Ivor Cutler, Arthur Cravan, and herself–seems miles away from Hiroshige’s heartfelt speech about noise as a force capable of leaping cultural barriers in a single bound and his subsequent whirlwind demonstration. Yet both, as well as the rest of the performances–Licht’s rich slice of his ongoing minimalism-metal fusion project, Knurl’s apocalyptic amplified toaster bashing, Moore’s artfully artless stretches and flails, and the various combinations thereof–suggest a microcosm where there’s not too much conflict between individuality and community and the golden rule is “anything that’s interesting goes.”

Two weeks ago I went to London for No Music II, an even bigger production that, in addition to the Nihilist Spasm Band, involved Iowa banjo improviser Christian Kiefer; California noise guitarist Jon Borges (who celebrated his 14th birthday on the five-day drive up with his mom); soundman and instrument builder Tim Glasgow; Toronto guitarists Eric Chenaux and Kurt Newman; Unclean Wiener, a Vancouver-based performance art band that includes Greg Curnoe’s son Galen; Belgian pianist Fred van Hove with Chicagoan Ken Vandermark; Masahiko Ohno of the Osaka noise band Solmania; Borbetomagus; Ohnishi again, as floating pickup drummer; Licht again, playing a duet with Michael Snow; and Bellchamber again, in an odd drum-and-laptop duet with Jim O’Rourke.

The Nihilist Spasm Band had just returned from another Japanese tour, where they shared stages with Hijokaidan, Masonna, Merzbow main man Masami Akita, and other noise luminaries. They seemed a little stunned to be back in London and surrounded once again by improvisers, many of whom were young enough to be their children, and some of whom were their children, and one of whom was a child. So much for that social-astrology notion that generational affinity is everything.

I commented that there seemed to be more interest in free improvisation among younger people now than at any time since the 60s, and McIntyre immediately turned up his nose at the notion that the 60s were the community’s heyday: “The 60s for all the hype were actually very conventional.” Boyle elucidated: “Well, there were people in the 60s interested in new-wave jazz, and some of them associated us with that. In fact we had free-jazz musicians try to sit in with us, but it often didn’t work. They had learned jazz listening to records. In the early 70s when rock started to break out a bit, some rock people were interested, but only very few were able to sit in with us. But now there is definitely something new, that’s more open. Like that kid last night, 14 years old–he would have been trying to play like Jimi Hendrix or something.”

Perhaps this enlarged sense of community inspired the band in the recording of its brand-new album, Every Monday Night. Made in October 1998, it rings with contentiousness, crankiness, shtick pushed through its limit into grinding, grunting passion, jokes and wordplay taking on the gravity of public speeches and prophecy. The band’s militantly ordinary appearance–the album cover is their plainest yet, a snapshot of them standing around a Dumpster wearing pleated khakis, sweaters, sport jackets, and winter parkas–only underlines the native strange rebelliousness that percolates in us all. It’s what makes them dangerous. A great part of their appeal is the combination of their longevity and their utter lack of ambition: it’s deliciously validating to have tangible human evidence right in front of you that the desire to assert one’s existence and make contact through unfettered exchange of noises isn’t necessarily something you give up in disgust if the world doesn’t beat a path to your door when you’re young.

The Nihilist Spasm Band’s wry joy in playing the way they do farts in the general direction of conventional notions of age-appropriate behavior as thoroughly as their sound does toward conventional notions of music. “Oh they say that we’re too loud / That’s the way we like to be,” Exley pronounces on “The Filter Song.” “Shove the filters in your ears / Shove ’em where they ought to be.” They embody all the paradoxical virtues of refined catharsis–a deeply civilized way of being “uncivilized” in the Huck Finn sense, a satisfying life’s work disguised as an odd hobby.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Brian Davis.