I simply gave them a list of musical works that inspired me, personally—it’s a very subjective selection that includes a wide variety of approaches. I’m sure a lot of music purists will say the festival is a big mess—pairing improvisational music with compositional music like Stockhausen, for example. But I wanted to present various trends in the history of experimental music that allow for dissonance and where abstraction is entertained.
In actuality, I don’t believe there is any such thing as noise music. The term only has meaning in relation to a given dominant system, like the 12-tone system. Since avant-garde practices have become so completely subsumed into contemporary pop music such sounds can hardly be considered noise. This crossover happens quite quickly, especially when electronically amplified instruments become commonly available—like when electric guitars and organs began to be used in rock-and-roll music in the ’50s.
CB What’s interesting about amplification?
MK I’m not saying that everything that is labeled “noise music” is about loudness or amplification per se, but I do think that, conventionally, noise music is thought of as loud and raucous. I like loud and raucous music. I grew up in the era of hard rock music that utilized heavy distortion and volume. I personally like the sound of electronic feedback. I have no musical training. I don’t know anything about traditional notions of music, except what I’ve read in passing.
CB So how did you encounter Stockhausen, Cage, all this atonal stuff?
MK Initially through psychedelic rock. In researching its roots, I discovered that much of what I responded to in it came directly out of avant-garde music. This led me to electronic music and free jazz. I grew up near Detroit and saw a lot of free jazz, particularly Sun Ra. In fact, one of the reasons I was drawn to going into art was my understanding of this relationship between avant-garde music and art practice.
CB Was there an evident link between this music and art practice, in what you were seeing and listening to?
MK Yes. A lot of the music was sense-surround—there’d be light shows or films playing during the concerts, and much of the staging was theatrical. It was obviously linked to Happenings and avant-garde theater practice. I read about Dada and Futurist performance and found out that these notions of performativity originated at the beginning of the century.
CB Does the history of noise really all begin with Dada and Futurism?
MK Primarily, yes. Because that’s when, at least in serious music, there is a shifting away from the notion that music is limited to a specified group of notes and chord structures to an acceptance of the idea that music is the organization of sound—any sound. I was very influenced by the essay “The Art of Noises” by Luigi Russolo [published in 1913]—I read that when I was a teenager. That piece of writing really changed my life.
I grew up in a milieu where the test of musical quality was the ability to play the fastest guitar solo. Never having had any access to musical training, I wondered how I could produce music. I was talentless. But, thinking about it through Russolo and Futurism or through Fluxus, which were art-related, not music-related, genres, I was free to make music based on ideas rather than the mastery of an instrument. I could work with sounds I was personally attracted to, like feedback and static, which had the intensity of amplification of arena rock—the kind of sound that grabs you by your guts, that is so intense you cannot deny it.
CB I’m interested in your comment about not having training and being talentless. Does noise eliminate the criterion of talent?
MK It just shifts the notion of talent away from technical skill. But, again, noise music is a very unspecific term. There are many composers who make what might be called noise music, like Stockhausen. And there are free improvisers who come out of the jazz tradition who are amazing technicians, but that virtuosity might be downplayed in favor of other intents.
I am not often that interested in controlling the sounds I make—it is more like play, done for the pure pleasure of experimentation. When I was in my late teens I would use old tape recorders and play loops of found and recorded sounds. I was at the University of Michigan then, studying art, and aware that such things were being done in the music and art context—Steve Reich’s work for example. I became more aware of the ideas behind such works and the various modes of conceptual art. I was trying to find a niche for myself. But, at that time, I did not think I could find a place for my musical interests in my art practice. I saw it more akin to physical exercise, a free zone, where I could do what I wanted and it didn’t matter whether it was any good or not.
But, oddly enough, I did certain things so early that they were novel in the art context. Destroy All Monsters is such an early example of an art school noise band that there are not too many precedents for it. We were pre-punk, and in the early ’70s there were no public venues where we could play. By default, we were an artwork because there was no place for us in the music world. I always thought of the band as being a kind of sculpture—a sculpture of a rock band. The music was less important than the band structure. This was not so unusual really, because there were already popular fakebands like the Monkees that couldn’t play at all and just acted their parts. The idea of doing something similar in the art context was interesting, but we also wanted it to be “art,” which means it had to be unpalatable. We wanted to sound heavy like a metal band. A certain kind of ugliness is a common aspect of the Detroit rock sound—like the Stooges, for example.
CB You were saying your music is outside your art, but then of course so many of your projects involve noise in one way or another.
MK After I moved from Michigan to Los Angeles I didn’t have a steady group of people to play music with anymore, so that’s when I began to do solo performance. These were language-driven but, to me, very musical in orientation—very composed, with much attention to the rhythm of the speech. These performances, unlike the noise improvisation of Destroy All Monsters, were highly structured but quite abstract. I thought of them as a kind of theatrical form of music, using speech instead of electronic sounds. I didn’t need other performers or special equipment to do them.
Still, ever since then, I have on occasion gotten together with other people to play improvisational music. I am involved in a number of different groups. We never rehearse, we rarely plan ahead. Because my other artworks are so thought out, I find this approach a kind of release.