The Art of Noise

by Andrew Seale

An aged building sits just beyond the shadow of Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway.

Aside from the local arts community, not many people even know it exists. The small path leading to the front door is littered with gravel from the nearby parking lot. To most people, it probably looks like any other industrial storage facility, but a cultural revelation is waiting to take place within.

The building is Diaz Contemporary, an art gallery, and the cultural revelation comes in many media. It is the sound of a turntable needle scraping against a badly burnt copy of the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. It is the sound of each track on the Beatles’ White Album playing simultaneously. It is records stomped on, cut, broken and reassembled, scratched, damaged then played. It is sound art.

In a 1913 essay called The Art of Noises, Italian futurist artist Luigi Russolo said society needed a serious musical revelation to continue cultural evolution. He said the change would come with the gathering of random noises into one solid sound. Unknowingly, he laid the groundwork that spawned the idea for sound art.

“This (essay) is key to sound art,” says Toronto artist, writer and musician Dave Dyment. “This is still pretty avant-garde to this day despite being written in 1913.” The 35-year-old artist sits in a small café attached to the Drake Hotel, which is strange considering the emergence of the building as a cultural hub for the pseudo-bohemian Toronto crowd. “I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the idea that culture is not fixed in the way it once was,” he says. “There was once a time when there was a definitive work of art and you went and saw it as you were told to in a particular environment.”

Dyment’s viewpoint of current pop culture has continually inspired him. “A song can come out and before you become attached to it, you’re hearing the remixed version, the live version, the cover version, the demo version, the alternate take.” He pauses to take a drink before continuing. “All this stuff is just creative fodder . . . It’s not just in music.”

Dyment’s words, though carefully chosen, are ironic as part of his creation process is sampling others’ works. But it is the creation aspect that sets Dyment apart from the pop culture he speaks of.

In 1963, a Czechoslovakian artist named Milan Knizak became the grandfather of altering vinyl by scratching records to achieve different sounds. Two years later, he tested his theories further by breaking and punching holes in the vinyl albums. Perhaps the most intriguing piece of altered vinyl, is one by Swiss artist Christian Marclay.

“If Knizak’s the grandfather then Marclay’s the son who inherited it,” says Dyment. “He sort of nailed it properly.” In 1988 Marclay placed vinyl records with the sound of recorded footsteps on the floor of an art gallery showing an exhibit aptly titled Footsteps. Thousands of visitors walked across the albums, damaging them extensively. Marclay then took the records and played them on a turntable. This piece was the inspiration for many others.

Last fall, The Harbourfront Centre housed an exhibit curated by Dyment entitled The Needle and the Damage Done. The display was a series of white casings holding records that had been altered in one way or another. Each box was accompanied by a single pair of black headphones for listening to the altered vinyl.

The recordings vary from piece to piece. Often, they take listeners by surprise, starting quietly but growing in volume as the needle fights to draw sound from the spinning vinyl. The listeners’ ears are assaulted with pops and cracks, misplaced voices, mangled drums and guitar; the rhythmic pulsating of a half destroyed record. This is what chaos sounds like.

“Each listener has some kind of unique experience,” says Dyment.

The exhibit doesn’t feature any sound art by Dyment himself, but rather, work he felt was relevant to expose. He says the job of a curator differs from that of an artist.

“Sometimes a curatorial premise forces an understanding of a work that the artist may not have considered,” says the tall, soft-spoken artist/curator. “The way this show works, I don’t think there is any chance of that happening.”

Dyment himself has dabbled with altered vinyl. Drawing inspiration from the “Top Ten” charts, he took stats of the top selling records in history and placed them in a pie chart. He took vinyl copies of the top ten records and cut a section of each record representing the amount of space each album occupied in the chart. He then pieced each section together creating a full record.

Accompanying this exhibit is an audio replica of the altered vinyl, allowing you to hear a bit of each album as it spins.

Back within the walls of Diaz Contemporary sits another exhibit, Untitled: Thoughts about sound, music, silence and confusion. The exhibit tells of a bored, confused society in need of something fresh. Kelly Mark, who was nominated for Artist of the Year at the 2005 Untitled Arts Awards, organized the exhibit.

“I didn’t want a sound show,” says Mark, who would rather be referred to as an “artist collecting other artist’s work” than as a curator. Mark’s original intent was to gather the work and show “who’s out there.”

In the whitewashed gallery it’s not difficult to feel sensory overload from the art collection. In another exhibit White Noise, Dyment has layered silkscreen upon silkscreen of sheet music from the Beatles’ White Album, creating a nearly solid white rectangle. Originally, this piece was accompanied by an audio track of each song from the album compressed and stretched to a consistent size and layered, simulating static.

Dyment’s last display, Sgt Pepper’s Extended Lonely Heart’s Club Band (sic), is a picture of every character from the album’s artwork playing an instrument.

Local artist Brian Joseph Davis’ piece entitled Ten Banned Albums Burned… Then Played, is a collection of records such as the Sex Pistol’s album andPrince’s Purple Rain. There’seven some work by 20th century composer Igor Stravinsky. As the name suggests, each album in the exhibit has been burned.

Davis says he was looking at the different types of music charts when he came up with the concept. “I was just thinking of statistical ways to rate music and what are alternative or not thought of ways to do so."

The idea to burn the albums came from a different type of inspiration altogether. Davis recalls a photograph he saw from an anti-Beatles rally around the period when there was a lot of animosity towards the band and their music. The picture was of an obviously happy boy, standing in front of a mound of records and holding one album in preparation for burning it. Davis says this piece brought two questions to mind. The first: why was the boy smiling? The second: what would the record sound like after being burnt?

The secret behind the boy’s smile, Davis considered could be because he was “insinuating himself into the Beatles mythology.” The second question needed a little work to answer. Three damaged needles and a broken record player later (the last spin of the final burned record tore the arm off), Davis had his answer. It was beyond the political statement of rebelling against censorship; it was a metaphorical look at mainstream arts.

“Our pop culture is something we both want and hate,” says Davis.“With burning records, a new art form is born.”

The audio accompanying Ten Banned Albums Burned… Then Played seems perverse to the listener’s ears. The closest comparison is the sound of someone running with an antenna among a thousand detuned radio stations touching them and picking up brief signals. For a moment, the listener will hear a recognizable part of the song before it is drowned out by white noise.

The burned albums weren’t Davis’ first experience using vinyl for art. He created an earlier piece entitled Greatest Hit CD Project, on which he multi-tracked entire albums from the likes of The Carpenters, Metallica and Whitney Houston, turning them into single tracks. Even the “digi-pack” casing for the album was made from recycled vinyl albums.

Davis admits that the ability to get records for cheap was part of the reason he used them to create the casing, but not the only reason he uses them for art.

“As a material, there is so much you can do with it now that it is a dead medium,” he says.  

Away from these artists who are so clearly inspired by pop culture, it is strange to hear groups on the radio recycling, covering, remixing and recreating each other’s music. One can’t help but ask the question: is it really possible that pop culture itself has been the basis of a new medium? Or is it simply society being “dumbed down?”

Dyment, with his unwavering faith in the arts, makes it clear society hungers for real art and will get it eventually.

“Media is a language,” Dyment says back at the Drake Hotel. “We know how to speak it. We know how to understand it.”

Want to hear more? Check out Brian Joseph Davis and the artists at Mercer Union.

© 2006 Green Banana