CB Where do you hear the avant-garde in popular music now?
MK So much popular music is cacophonous, but it is not trying to be avant-garde. To give a very simple example: how many post-punk bands use the “off” guitar tunings of Sonic Youth? This might not even be conscious imitation; it’s just what guitars are supposed to sound like in a certain type of rock and roll. Or, how many bands employ the dissonant qualities of certain Velvet Underground songs? I doubt they understand the connection between the Velvet Underground and the art music of their period—the direct connection they had to Minimalist composers and Fluxus. Once it gets to this point of unconscious musical quotation, then I see no reason to include it in the festival. Even though some popular music sounds, on the surface, like it has a connection to this avant-garde lineage, it doesn’t. The audience that listens to it doesn’t think about it through the framework of art—or care about that.
CB What changes when the audience does think about it through the framework of art?
MK It’s a more conscious experience, that’s all. When I was young and found myself attracted to music that didn’t sound like standard music, I thought about that attraction through deconstructive modalities—through politics. It was important to me that the music was assaultive—even if that was not the intention of the composer and it was my misreading. I felt that the structures of popular music were a kind of pre-given information, a kind of, for want of a better word, brainwashing. These structures had to be attacked. I was very influenced by the writings of William Burroughs and his use of the cut-up technique. For him, this was a way of taking the world apart to expose how it was structured. People going to a music concert to dance and have a good time are not thinking about that. That’s not why they enjoy music.
On the other hand, I don’t want to be a snob. There needs to be music geared toward the level of sophistication of various listeners. For instance, I am not a particularly big fan of Marilyn Manson. For someone of my generation he seems like a rehash of Alice Cooper, and it could be said that Alice Cooper was a rehash of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. But it’s important that 12-year-olds have their own version of packaged rebellion to shake them out of their little neighborhood rut. If all it takes is makeup on the face and some anti-Christian lyrics to shake things up a bit—I’m all for it. That’s step one.
CB What about the pleasure principle? You were saying you really like cacophony.
MK It’s sublime, it’s like a thunderstorm or an earthquake. If you go to a concert by an amazingly loud metal band, it’s a gut-wrenching experience; there’s no denying the pleasurable aspect of that. At least, I find it pleasurable; I know many people find it to be the opposite.
CB How are noise and performance art intertwined? You said you see your music and performance as two separate things.
MK Yes, I do. On the other hand, the internalized notions I had about musical structure obviously inflected my performance work of the ’80s. This is more consciously dealt with in some of my more current work. The performance I will present at the Judson Church as part of the Performa festival is based on popular forms of music and theater. It’s part of my “Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction” series. I take images from found photographs of various American folk rituals and entertainments, and I try to re-create them from scratch. One section of the Judson Church piece is a horse dance, with people dressed in horse costumes, like something you might see at a football halftime show. They dance to live organ music that was derived from my huge collection of popular organ records. I sampled these and cut them together to produce something akin to circus music. This was scored and two organists will perform it live. The music I have been making in the last five or six years is unlike the kind of improvisational music I normally make, because it needs to have a kind of illustrative function. Many different musical genres are referenced. I have, for example, just made a new album of dance music with the performance artist Michael Smith. It is a kind of techno music for babies.
CB Now that noise is part of general musical culture, is it the end of noise as a category?
MK Noise is a relative term. I’m sure there is music being produced now that has to do with theories of noise that I am unfamiliar with—say, related to current technologies. But when you say noise music, I think you mean a historical term used to describe a certain kind of caustic post-rock. I think that is close to over as a trend because it is so omnipresent and so much a part of current popular music. The very fact that I have been invited to curate a noise music festival tells me that it is over. That’s why I chose to present historical material.
Currently On ViewMike Kelley has a November solo exhibition at Gagosian Galleryin Chelsea, a collaborativeproject with Michael Smith atthe SculptureCenter in Long Island City [through Nov. 30] and, at Performa 09, a live performance [Nov. 17-20 at Judson Memorial Church]. Also as part ofPerforma, he has organized a music festival [Nov. 20-21,at the Gramercy Theater]. All are in New York.
Carly Berwick is a writer based in Jersey City