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Where South San Francisco ends, desolation begins. In November, 1980, flyers began appearing on neighborhood telephone poles announcing an upcoming Rhythm & Noise show. "Crisis Data Transfer," the poster promise. No location was given, but a recorded phone message provided detailed directions to "The Compound."
The Compound sits among a grim terrain of decaying housing, abandoned warehouses, electrified chain-link fences and packs of wild dogs. It was R&N's first show. Upon arrival, walkie-talkie-wielding attendants drove our cars away, leaving us to warm our hands at scattered timer fires. The scheduled showtime came and went and still we waited and shivered in the damp Bay air. Finally, a huge steel grate door was raised and we entered into billowing smoke and ten channels of surround-sound. The interior was banked with video screens of all sizes and enough sound equipment with which to construct a small village, most of it with that homemade hacker's look to it.
"Vaudeo" they called it: video narratives set to live and manipulated soundscapes. The music screeched, droned, undulated, and even, on occasion, harmonized -- always with some semblance of a beat. Rhythm & Noise -- a well-named ensemble.
The Compound is scarier than ever now that crack kings control the territory. The video screens are gone and the cavernous interior is jammed with hanging steel drums, hollow tubes, huge springs, wires -- wires everywhere -- and a baby grand piano. A control tower houses an intimidating array of sound equipment -- analog, digital, sampling, synthesizing, hybridizing, mixing boards, keyboards. A Mac II waits in the wings.
Naut Humon, quintessential sound traffic controller began my tour slamming his arm down on a keyboard and manipulating the sustained sound for two roller-coaster minutes. Then he layered digitalized samples into an oscillating techno swamp. Synthesizers added electronic pterodactyls to the mix. Past sessions with percussionists, singers, and other musicians were called up to lend texture and spark. Finally this work in progress, "Running on Radar," treated the ears to soundwaves come full circle: noise tamed into post-modern lyricism.
Naut Humon is the thread tying R&N together through the years. Z'ev, Nik Fault, Rex Probe, Michael Belfer, Comfort Control, and Diamanda Galas have been collaborators, but Humon is Rhythm and Noise.
. . . In the early '70s Z'ev entered the picture. He was working with all these metal assemblages. He'd tune these racks of scrap until they were welded sculptures with sound functions. I'd quit Cal Arts so I could invest my money in equipment. We formed a group called Cellar M to combine live percussion with electronic manipulation. We did some good work, but dissonance wasn't hip yet.
How fully did you work out the pieces you performed with Z'ev?
There were definite flight plans, but they had room for spontaneous combustion.
When did Rhythm & Noise emerge as a distinct entity?
In 1976, Nik Fault, Rex Probe, and I began a heavy period of research and development. We sold a lot of what we had and began to build most of our equipment. We started to develop The Compound, though we didn't actually perform until 1980. The punk/industrial movement was strong by that time, so we got some recognition, but people still couldn't understand it emotionally. At least not the way they could understand Led Zeppelin or whatever else they were used to listening to.
You hadn't recorded anything yet?
Right. That's were Throbbing Gristle had an edge. They had a product. We had always avoided that. It wasn't until 1984 that the Residents convince us to record on their label Ralph Records.
Is it possible to point to any roots for your music?
Our roots are more in timbre than in rock 'n' roll. We were definitely aware of people like Stockhausen and Xenakis. I listened to Hendrix, but the thing that was interesting was that he was adding noise to the blues and making it popular. I saw a bridge between Hendrix and Stockhausen. The challenge was to understand noise in an emotional manner.
What distinctions do you make between live and recorded versions of your pieces?
Live performance should be different from what you experience in your living room. On the one hand, you have to create links to the past, to what is familiar, but live music should offer a sense of involvement, of immediacy, of surprise. It fascinates me how many rules you can break.
You've talked about the concept of "dissonant convergence."
These are not necessarily contrary terms. R&N is realizing-embracing more mass harmonic structure because we are working to understand the harmonic of noise as well as the dissonance. The question is, do dissonant sounds form harmonics or a larger dissonance? You have the effect and the after-effect. Each sound becomes a memory capsule that you place in your own spectrum. It meshes with each subsequent sound. You determine its esthetic. One man's noise is another man's poison.
Another question is, do you always need a beat, a rhythm, a pulse to make the relationship with the timbre, to make it speak to you or to the masses? It's hard to break out of pop shells. People don't understand things that aren't part of their existing paradigms. They want to be able to hum it, to remember it from high school days.
I like how hip-hop is played through jam boxes so loud that distortion becomes part of the esthetic. In Cairo, the muezzin chants through loudspeakers so tinny and loud that noise becomes part of the prayer. And boom cars -- it's no longer, "My Cadillac is bigger than yours," now it's, "My noise is bigger than yours because I have five woofers." It's an intentional misuse of the technology. It proves that attitude depends on how you listen. You might like the music you hear while inside a club, but it might sound like noise if you live across the alley. We sound like noise to a lot of people.
Typed by Cheryl Vega 5-5-95