Preview: CMU's Wats:ON? Festival explores the origins of an abrasive genre

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Many music fans know that Art of Noise was an '80s British synth-pop act with a handful of minor chart hits, notable mainly for its early use of the Fairlight CMI sampling computer.

But the phrase appeared much earlier in a seminal modernist art movement known as the Italian Futurists -- "The Art of Noises" was the title of a manifesto by painter/composer Luigi Russolo. The first true "noise musician," he mapped out an Industrial Age realm of six sonic categories: booms, hisses, whispers, clanks, shouts and buzzes, building a fleet of noise-generating devices called Intonarumori. He wrote compositions and assembled a noise orchestra to play them in 1913, but alas, he was so far ahead of his time that the performance started a violent riot -- the same year that Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" produced a similar result.

Wats:ON? Festival -- Noise

Where: Kresge Auditorium and Studio for Creative Inquiry, Carnegie Mellon University, Oakland.

When: It runs today through Saturday; The Cyborgs of Sound/Leslie Flanigan concert is 7 p.m. Saturday.

Admission: Free; full schedule at

However, Russolo's legacy looms large through musical history: 30 years later, maverick American composer John Cage began to define all sound as music, working with silence, prepared pianos, and chance-determined composition. A generation later, Lou Reed churned out "Metal Machine Music" and the UK's Throbbing Gristle invented "industrial music" for a post-industrial society. By the turn of the 21st century, Wolf Eyes and Merzbow have become legendary for their harsh walls of noise, now accepted within the broader-than-ever spectrum of alternative musical approaches.

With 2013 being the 100th anniversary of both Russolo's publication and Cage's birth, the directors of CMU's Wats:ON? Festival (honoring architect Jill Watson, a CMU alumna and adjunct faculty member in the School of Architecture who died in a plane crash) felt the time was ripe for a presentation of noise. Previous festivals were re-energized when adjunct architecture professor Spike Wolff assumed the helm, addressing such themes as virtuality, speed, and transformation.

This year, Ms. Wolff collaborated with Golan Levin, director of CMU's Studio for Creative Inquiry, operating at the intersection of art, science, technology and culture. "One of the things I wanted to do was feature the Intonarumori," explains Mr. Levin.

As a sculptor in the fine arts program, an instrument builder studying violin-making at Philip Injeian's downtown violin shop, and a former manager of a company that built life-size animatronic dinosaurs, Carl Bajandas was a qualified candidate to construct the noise machines. "Back in Denton, Texas, I lived with a guy who was in a noisy drone band called Violent Squid, so I was familiar [with the genre]," he says.

Mr. Bajandas (whose kinetic sculptures are at found an old blueprint online, manufactured the parts with a computer system, and assembled a total of 10 machines by hand. "I went through some prototypes," he says, "using cello strings for resonators, pierced through drum heads."

"Ten [machines] is the largest re-creation that's happened," adds Mr. Levin. "Some were made in Japan in 2002, and a group in San Francisco has made six of them ... . So then, I enjoined two grad students to compose a performance for the Intonarumori using Russolo's original instructions."

A glance at that score reveals no "notes" in a classical music sense, but rather undetermined rows of lines and squiggles, making it one of the first instances of "graphic notation." This was a unique task for the pair assigned to the job: Ziyun Peng and John Ozbay.

"We wanted to stick closely to the manifesto," explains Mr. Ozbay, who studies music technology at CMU and harbors a love for jazz and soundtrack musicians such as Jan Garbarek and Ludovico Einaudi. "There are a couple of planned structures, and then we improvise within that for 10-12 minutes. You can see [in the score] how you turn the levers and work the cranks. We thought that everyone should be able to play this."

And indeed, according to Mr. Levin and Ms. Wolff, the Intonarumori will be available for the public to experiment with in the Great Hall of the College of Fine Arts. Another grad student, Dan Wilcox, will join Mr. Bajandas later this year in a noise-machine performance at the Carrie Furnace.

But the festivities of Wats:ON? aren't limited to Russolo's brainchildren -- the co-directors planned three solid days of noise celebration.

Today at 5 p.m., Ms. Peng and Mr. Ozbay's piece is preceded by an introductory lecture from author Geeta Dayal, who wrote an official biography of ambient-music pioneer Brian Eno.

Friday (8 p.m.) features film historian Jeff Hinkelman screening "What Is the Sound of a Pig Dancing?," which explores the early use of sound in motion pictures.

And Saturday begins with Mr. Wilcox's workshop on using open source software to write lines of computer code to turn into music ("anyone can bring their laptop to learn this," assures Ms. Wolff) and culminates in a live experimental music concert from local circuit-masters Jeremy Boyle, Michael Johnsen and Eric Singer as Cyborgs of Sound.

The headliner that night is Brooklyn-based electronic musician Lesley Flanigan, who builds her own noise instruments, controlling feedback between microphones and speakers and using the physicality of her voice to sculpt tactile walls of sound. "She's in the same scene of new media artists that I am," says Mr. Levin. "We worked together at another event, so I asked her to come. Her work is the next generation after [avant-garde vocalists] Meredith Monk and Joan LaBarbara."

For Ms. Wolff, what makes the Wats:ON? fest a success is both the eclectic mix of contributions from all corners of CMU's College of Fine Arts and the interactive nature of the event schedule. With all activities free of charge, audiences can count on experiencing sounds they haven't previously encountered. So let's hope -- unlike a century ago -- there won't be a riot. Or if there is, at least make it a teenage riot, a la noise-rockers Sonic Youth. Russolo would have liked that.


Manny Theiner is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer.


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