I spent last week telling people that I was going to a noise show, with the inevitable question following:
“What’s noise music?”
Honestly, it’s exactly what it seems like: musicians who deconstruct music to experiment with the boundaries dividing music between sound and noise. There’s a whole Wikipedia page detailing more pretentiously the nuances of noise if you want a more academic description of this specific scene. Knowing how seriously some music nerds take noise music, I was curious to see Orange County’s noise demographic at the Seventh Annual Santa Ana Noise Fest (SANF), featuring fourteen noise acts invading the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art (OCCCA) with their distortion, feedback and wildly technicolor visual projections.
The beauty of noise shows is their strange, sociological oxymoron; a group of contemplative sulkers gather together, but remain isolated in their deeply personal connection with the visceral, sonic turbulence. Collective brooding. You forget about everyone else in the audience, forget that there’s a person on stage controlling the noise, forget everything outside of your body in that moment. You can feel physical anxiety and mental serenity simultaneously.
SANF removes all of that from the noise experience, turning it instead into a silly gimmick. OCCCA is more like an adult rec center; a place you can picture your grandma going to take a painting class or have bingo night. There were snacks, including a SANF-personalized bundt cake, and a few rows of plastic chairs for us to sit comfortably in noisy bliss. This was a considerate move on their part, but again, the appeal of live noise music is the physical discomfort. Sitting down with my legs crossed totally broke the spell.
Then there was the audience: the straggling hodgepodge that didn’t seem to be a part of any scene. There was the John Slattery silver fox in a sparkly vest, sitting on the bench in the front with a permanent grin next to his deeply-confused wife. Everyone sat either on the outskirts of the chair arrangement or stood in the back of the room, leaving a clump of empty chairs as the centerpiece. Fringe brooding.
Musically, the highlight was “X-Bax,” two older men in lab coats and goggles, mixing guitar with soundboard knob-turning to create a static black hole. Meanwhile, a grueling voice chanted “Santa Ana Noise Fest Twenty Fifteen!” incessantly, reminding everyone where they were (just in case they had forgotten).
An emcee introduced each act, prompting applause from the audience and transforming the atmosphere into a distorted talent show. Ultimately, I ended up feeling more amused than entranced throughout the night, giggling at the quirks of the crowd and performers.
It was a quintessentially Orange County event: taking something really progressive and ground-breaking in the world of art and trying to commodify it for a population that doesn’t take itself too seriously. In a way, I appreciated that. “Scenes” are always so exclusive and off-putting, as egos compete with appreciation. Nothing about SANF seemed too into itself; it was a genuine act of bringing together whoever happened to show up and listen to some weird sound exploration all night. Sincere brooding.