Music

The Art of Noise

Mills College's Center for Contemporary Music said "get weird," and an East Bay experimental music scene followed.

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The atmosphere at apartment 671B is, in one word, hushed. Audience members lean against walls or sit dotted around the cavernous warehouse space watching a dude lit only by Christmas lights play a series of hypnotic sustained ringing sounds from his computer. It's the kind of show where you look around and see lots of eyes closed, everyone solemnly considering the music. There's no cover, no booze for sale, and no party chatter during the set. In other words, if you're looking for a warehouse rager, look elsewhere.

Yet in an interview last year, tUnE-yArDs' Merrill Garbus described the space — dubbed, fantastically, the Totally Intense Fractal Mindgaze Hut — as "the most underrated venue in the Bay Area." (The name, explained founding house member Max Allstadt, was semi-sarcastically invented when the house had a lot of "intense psychedelic noise music happening — a lot of people staring at the ceiling.") Needless to say, the ever-shifting cast of people who have lived at the Mindgaze Hut since it began in 2006 are pretty serious about experimenting with music. From drone to noise to improvised jazz, you'd be hard-pressed to go to a show there that doesn't challenge a layperson's preconceived notions about what exactly "counts" as music to begin with — hence the ultra-cerebral vibe.

"A lot of the shows are really delicate," said Allstadt. "It's almost like chamber music, so everyone within that scene knows the rule: to sit down and shut up and listen. It's much more akin to appreciating a painting than going to a show in some ways."

It's a self-serious attitude, to be sure, but this self-seriousness is key to the whole operation: Most of the people who've lived at the Mindgaze Hut are trained experimental musicians, students attending or graduates of the much-lauded Center for Contemporary Music at Mills College. And Mills is at the heart of a much bigger community of experimental music in the Bay Area that's existed here for nearly half a century.

It all goes back to computers. The Bay's legacy for experimenting with what exactly makes music "music" dates back to 1961, when the Tape Music Center was cofounded in San Francisco by a Mills graduate and former teacher. At the time, computers were specialized equipment and mostly sat in academic institutions, where early research was determining how music could be made with machines. As a result, non-academics itching to tinker with making electronic sounds had no real access to the tools. "The Tape Center was really one of the first of its kind," said James Fei, an associate professor of electronic arts and program head at Mills. "They cobbled together equipment from military surplus and wherever else they could find stuff." Then, they experimented with making what at the time was a completely new thing: computer music.

In 1966, the Tape Center moved over to Mills, but despite taking the plunge into academia, it hardly strayed from its iconoclastic roots — graduate students starting their tenures at the new Mills' Center for Contemporary Music (CCM) were met by the motto, "If you're not weird, get out!" It's this unabashed openness to creativity that has made Mills, and the Bay Area, an international hub for people interested in pushing the boundaries of music. The program grew a reputation for churning out musicians with a taste for exploring uncharted territories, with such experimental luminaries as John Cage and Pauline Oliveros calling it home, and remains a crucial part of the local music community.

And CCM has remained hyper-relevant despite rapidly shifting technologies. "The technical aspects of sound are constantly changing, and, to be perfectly honest, they're not that hard to figure out," said Chris Kubick, a Mills grad who makes sound art and teaches in the art department at UC Berkeley. "At Mills they're really emphasizing aesthetics and experience and understanding and appreciation for art. That's stuff you can't do on your own."

At what point, though, does the sound just become noise? Kubick, who creates more installation pieces than easily digestible — or by any stretch of the common imagination, musical — performance pieces, says it's all fair game. "It's all sound, it's all interesting. If it's not entirely silent, it has some element of fantasy."

But, within these open and abstract definitions, the lines dividing music, its more experimental outcroppings, and sound art become harder to determine. "One of the things that is very interesting about sound art is that there is no real distinction, no one can seem to agree on what it means," said Fei. "It's interesting because it's all taking place right now, so we can see people trying to come to terms with it — artists, critics, and historians."

Decide for yourself by seeing a show at the Mindgaze Hut or other experimental-focused venues such as The Lab (2948 16th St., San Francisco). Just remember to stay quiet.

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