Hugh By Nature: RIP, Hugh McIntyre (Nihilist Spasm Band)
"After all, when you eliminate the scale, the key, the repertoire, the category... the traditional rules, and even the breaking of the rules, what is left? We can only rely on each other."
I know Zoilus has been seeming like a deathblog this week, but unfortunately I've received word of another passage that cannot go unmentioned.
Yesterday, Hugh McIntyre, the gentle-giant bass player of the nigh-on-mythic Nihilist Spasm Band, joined former bandmate Greg Curnoe in the realm beyond noise, in the soft perpetual No. Hugh, who died of congestive heart failure, surrounded by friends in London's Victoria Hospital, would have been 68, I think. Until recently he was still playing with the NSB, as the band's mantra has it, "every Monday night."
The NSB are arguably the founders and certainly among the longest-running projects ever in contemporary noise music, beginning in 1965. Hugh was the band's fulcrum, wielding his handmade three-and-a-half-string bass, giving rhythmic drive to its shrill anarchic whirl, and declaring where each "song" would start and stop. What will become of the NSB now is uncertain, though no one should underestimate the project's own stubborn, autonomic will to live.
Many people knew Hugh and the Spasm Band much better than I did - I met him for a few moments here and there and caught the band now and then. But the NSB's heirs are in the Japanese noise scene, such as Merzbow and Hijokaidan; their admirers in bands such as Sonic Youth: "All these people who sort of put themselves on stage and want to be super rock stars. ... There's no way they can ever attain the majesty that Hugh has on stage," said SY's Thurston Moore in 1999.
And then there's my friend Ben Portis, who for years ran the innovative No Music Festival in London, centred around the NSB. Between them, they brought me to a deep appreciation for what the NSB has achieved, in Canada and around the world, all the while opposing any notion of "achievement." And just what a model they are for a way of life. I have written a couple of pieces about them: One when No Music was held in New York in the aftermath, as it turned out, of Sept. 11, 2001; the other when the crosscurrents of Canadian art, music and noise were spotlighted at the last No Music festival and interrelated exhibitions in Toronto.
I encourage you to read them, but also I hope to get permission later today to post an email circulated by Tim Glasgow, a sound engineer, musician and close associate of the band (and of Sonic Youth), beautifully describing and paying tribute to Hugh's passing. Watch this space - it will give you a more direct sense of the man and his cantankerous but expansive, extraordinary character. A sad loss for Hugh's friends and collaborators, for Canadian culture and for music, art and noise lovers around the world. [...]
Anarchy in the U.S.
The Nihilist Spasm Band of London, Ont., tried out their legendary recipe for cacophony on New York, CARL WILSON writes
The Globe and Mail
16 October 2001
A giant, electrified "kazoo," with klaxon horns soldered on. A "violin" without strings. Club-like "drumsticks." Cooking pots, water pipes, thumb pianos, a bass "guitar" strung with half-lengths of piano wire.
Using such handmade implements, the half-dozen-plus non-musician musicians of the Nihilist Spasm Band have laid waste loudly to the pieties of placid Southern Ontario, every single Monday night in London, for 36 years.
Almost without their knowing it, it has made them living legends, the unholy godfathers of a worldwide underground of "noise" musicians -- audio artists, rock and jazz players and assorted sonic storm kings -- that stretches from Tokyo to Toronto to that other London, the one with the Queen. And on this past weekend, they congregated with those admirers at the avant-jazz Tonic nightclub in Manhattan, for a special New York edition of the No Music noise festival, which had a three-year run in their home town.
"New York is a proving ground," says festival curator Ben Portis, a thirtysomething London-born artist who has collaborated on No Music and other projects with the Spasm Band for the past several years. "If the NSB is to have an enduring legacy, it has to demonstrate that under scrutiny of demanding ears -- and challenge standards that unfortunately are all too usual in New York City. 'Free music' there is not as free as it could be."
An unusual situation for a collective whose history is defined by not giving a damn what anyone else thinks. "We are immune to fashion because we are self-motivated," says John Boyle, who plays drums, kazoo and other instruments in the band. "We depend on each other because, until recently, we were the only practitioners of our genre. The fun of creating is the payoff. It's still fun. As long as that is the case, we will continue, whether or not anyone is paying attention."
For a very long time, hardly anyone was. The Nihilist Spasm Band was founded in 1965 by Greg Curnoe, the well-known London visual artist, as a kazoo chorus to provide the soundtrack to an experimental film. In a burst of the harrowing kind of enthusiasm that characterizes them to this day, the little band of nonconformists decided to make noise-making an ongoing avocation. And so the regular Monday-night sessions began, in any London space that would have them, in front of friends or family or no one.
The NSB sound was inspired in part by the New Orleans "spasm bands" that made street-corner music on jerrybuilt instruments amid the ferment of early jazz, and by the dadaists and futurists of modernist art (besides Curnoe, drummer-"guitarist" Murray Favro and Boyle himself were all painters). They looked back to 1913, when Stravinsky's Rite of Spring enraged his audience, when Futurist Luigi Russolo published his Art of Noise manifesto in Italy, and Marcel Duchamp composed his first piece of music using games of chance.
But more important was the group's collective rejection of Canadian inferiority complexes, a determination to make something original, individual and local, not copycating any trends abroad. None of the members have any musical training, and they build their own instruments to specifications that render them physically incapable of playing something, like a scale or a chord, that would be dictated from outside.
Curnoe died in a bicycle accident in 1992, and so, as the band puts it, "plays less often" now. The other members have resisted the pressure of parenthood, day jobs and bouts of ill health to keep their tradition going, Monday after Monday. "There's an old joke," says "violinist" Art Pratten, a former newspaper press technician, "that you have to do more than die to get out of the Spasm Band."
Gradually, as the members retired from careers as librarians, doctors and teachers, they've been able to devote more time to a project they learned was not as obscure as they'd thought, and mix with people who had found their rare old records and considered them an inspiration alongside the likes of Duchamp or radical composers John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen.
Among the highlights was a 1996 tour to record and perform in Japan, documented in Zev Asher's documentary about the NSB, What About Me?, which premiered at last year's Toronto International Film Festival. They have played to eager crowds in American cities such as New York, Pittsburgh and Chicago. They have collaborated -- as they did again this weekend -- with musicians like Sonic Youth guitarists Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore, and they recently recorded an impressive double CD, No Borders, with eminent free-jazz saxophonist Joe McPhee.
And from such connections the No Music festival was born. "The band members discovered a sympathy and context with other musicians for the first time," says Portis. "The idea was to invite some of the NSB's new friends to their home turf. The festival, conceived as a one-off, was so successful in every respect that everyone wanted to do it again. And so it pushed ahead as an annual event."
The festival was based at London's Forest City Gallery, and its range is amply documented in several multi-CD sets recorded there, especially in the late-night "Interplay" jam sessions. But after three years, Portis says, "My sense was that the festival had exhausted its possibilities in London, as we were all fatigued and the audience had reached a plateau."
When the New York offer came last winter, Portis -- who has lived in New York state since 1997 -- jumped at it. "And it appealed to the Spasm Band because they have so much conviction in what they have been doing for the past 36 years. They have something to prove, and not much time left to prove it."
That's why, on the weekend, musicians such as Ranaldo, McPhee and Moore, the noise collective Borbetomagus, pianist Cooper-Moore as well as Toronto's long-running improvisational group CCMC (artist Michael Snow, sound poet Paul Dutton and composer John Oswald) were shaking Tonic's rafters. Sadly, the Japanese artists cancelled out in the wake of the World Trade Center bombing.
"The Japanese artists bring a different mindset to performance, more meditative and mindful of general spirit," says Portis. "This was the principal reason for their withdrawal -- a celebration of their art would be anathema at present."
One wonders if anyone else feels that way. Is a festival of chaotic noise, usually considered confrontational and abrasive, what New Yorkers need to hear right now?
"This is very constructive music," he says, "with an expertise in rubble, piecing together shattered musical bits, already in a state of crisis. I expect it will be effective, inclusive and attuned to what people are feeling. . . . From the outset, the Nihilist Spasm Band always mirrored geopolitical folly in personal foible -- they are more relevant than ever."
The New York festival is likely a one-time event. Boyle says he likes "the guerrilla format of reappearing in a different location each year, if that's possible. It would parallel the Internet-related internationalism of the phenomenon." And, of course, even if the festival dies, the Spasm Band won't be affected.
"The band will go on until there is no one left to play," says Pratten. "Every Monday night."
* * *
Music, visual art and the shrieks that bind them
By CARL WILSON
The Globe & Mail
Sept 25, 2003
Music and visual art are estranged siblings, each wanting what the other one's got enough to stir lifelong resentment. They stirred first in the same cave, we assume, one daubing blood and fruit juice up on the stone and the other picking up a couple of rocks and knocking them to a beat; and they both eventually got sent to the same schools, groomed and jargoned up to the eyeballs and earholes into respectability.
But when they each hit that awkward 20th-century rebellious stage, music went mostly one way -- out of the concert hall and into the nightclub -- and art mostly the other -- deeper into museums and universities.
Art had mostly resolved that low culture could be absorbed into the higher spheres (once properly deconstructed), and music had mostly decided that even the most arcane theoretics could be applied to dance hits (given a snappy genre nickname).
Music is the gregarious party animal, art the wallflower with the better-appointed apartment. Not that some of music's friends aren't agoraphobes and that artists never break plates over their patrons' heads, but the general rule has reasons enough.
One of the most powerful is that visual art usually involves a singular object you stare at in studious contemplation, while even the most outlandish, room-clearing musical abomination is readily reproduced on a mass scale, and can be heard by hundreds at once, many of them inclined to bump or slam or headbang against each other.
Those facts have outmanoeuvred the contrary inclinations of pop-loving artists and obscurantist musicians again and again. Can't help the way you came out, kid. You're just big-boned.
But there are black sheep, and you can find a whole flock in the Soundtracks art exhibit touring Canada (and opening bit by bit this month in seven different Toronto galleries) and at the No Music festival tonight through Saturday at the Forest City Gallery in London, Ont.
In Soundtracks, for instance, you'll discover that such grey or late eminences of Canadian art as Michael Snow and Greg Curnoe devoted themselves for decades to making unruly music as well. For both -- pianist Snow with the Artists' Jazz Band in the 1960s and CCMC from the 1970s to today, and drummer Curnoe with London's Nihilist Spasm Band from 1965 to his death in 1992 -- music could be a communal and political balance to the solitude of painting, sculpture, writing and (in Snow's case) experimental filmmaking.
At No Music, you'd find that the Spasm Band carries on with its weekly sessions of painter John Boyle blowing kazoos into car horns and Murray Favo and Art Pratten playing their hulking sculptural guitars and mutant violins, and retired high-school teacher Bill Exley still bellows his nonsense poems, as they have every Monday night since the mid-1960s.
Around them, from as far away as Seattle and Japan, is gathered an admiring horde of chaos-music-come-latelys who regard these paunchy retirees as founders of the Noise revolution. And a curiously high number of visual artists are among those anarchic faithful.
The festival, now in its fifth and likely final year, is organized by Spasm Band friend and fan Ben Portis, a contemporary-art curator at the Art Gallery of Ontario (and a co-curator of Soundtracks) and among the performers this weekend are not only Michael Snow and his frequent crony in art and noise Nobuo Kubota (architect, sound poet, founder of the Artists' Jazz Band) but American artists Gary Hill and Paul McCarthy as well.
The former is one of the most prominent video-installation creators on the planet, the latter a notorious art-world provocateur: You currently have to pass through the crotch of McCarthy's giant, inflatable black-rubber sculpture Blockhead (modelled partly on Popeye and partly on Pinocchio) to enter the Tate Modern in that other London.
Hill has appeared at No Music before, juggling sound the way he does in his video soundtracks. McCarthy, however, is a coup.
Best known for enactments in which beloved characters such as Santa Claus or Heidi are caught in flagrante delicto and smear themselves with ketchup and mayonnaise in lieu of excreta on the ruins of sets of Gunsmoke or A Family Affair, McCarthy's actually been a noisemaker for years, but he seldom airs his screeching, burping and squealing outside the Los Angeles scene.
It's tempting to think the festival's eponymous directive -- No Music -- is the passkey, that in a margin from which tempo, melody, harmony, every trace of song is banished, there's enough disdain for the commoner to make the art denizens comfy.
A glance at the rest of the Soundtracks roster says otherwise. The folk-music kitsch the Group of Seven embraced, as documented at the McMichael Gallery, and the affectionately snooty pastiches in most of the installations to be shown at the Power Plant and elsewhere show how the art mainstream gets more het up about shoplifting pop iconography and sentiment for art's arch ends.
But noise had its beginnings in the Futurist manifestos and Dada happenings of the teens and twenties. It was incestuous crossbreeding. The artists can't help checking on how the grandkids are doing, and what they find -- for instance in the squall of Japan's extraordinary Incapacitants and Hijokaidan, both flying in for No Music this year, or in Michigan's Wolf Eyes and Brooklyn's Black Dice (who run with the indie-rock kids) -- looks strangely familiar.
While structured music casts its lot with storytelling, comedy and romance, noise is more apt to achieve the perceptual warp: The Incapacitants' storm of dentist-drill shrieks and car-crash wreckage is overwhelming enough that the senses bend and tangle. You begin to see sound paint the air in slashing strokes. It is visual, aural, practically surgical, and can be as lonesome as hearing a chant from the depths of Rothko's reds. As lonesome as a family reunion.