Friday, June 30, 2006

Fe-mail at the Western Front, Vancouver International Jazz Festival 2006

Recourse to theory is a telling step. I'm not exactly hitting the books here, just trying to puzzle things out in my own fashion, but there's still an attempt to make sense of something intellectually and systematically, and the need to make that step is one I feel self-conscious about. It reveals things about me: that I have stumbled upon something that I did not already understand, did not feel entirely comfortable with, did not have a framework prepared for, and NEEDED to theorize it. I feel like I'm baring a bit of my soft white underbelly in so doing... Nietzsche says "The will to a system is a lack of integrity," referring to the Procrustean nature of philosophical and political argument; but maybe sometimes the will to a system is simply a response to seeing something you just have no other way of processing. It doesn't necessarily require chopping off limbs. Heck, sometimes systems are useful...

I am, ahem, a bit stoned. Settle in.

Maja Ratkje and Hild Sofie Tafjord, also known as Fe-mail, played the Western Front this afternoon. It was beautiful music, very intense, occasionally harsh, and consistently strange; being stoned, though, I got all excited to discover that there was a strong sense of UNFAMILIARITY to what I was seeing, something that unsettled me, that I needed to come to terms with. What is it?

1. Their music, while it is justly so-labelled, is not the usual sort of thing described as noise here. I eavesdropped on Kelly Churko and Masa Anzai talking about this in the row behind me even before the show started. (Kelly and Masa play an Almost Transparent Blue gig with Skye Brooks tomorrow afternoon and then will be in attendance -- Kelly will be playing, I dunno about Masa -- at another fine harsh noise event at Video In, starting around 8, which I'm hoping Maja and Hild will attend). Their commentary ran like this: "It doesn't look like a noise show -- their gear's too nice." Kelly, I think, who'd seen Maja during Vox, I guess, replied, "It's not that kind of noise."

Noise -- or any music that locates itself far outside the conventional boundaries of what is normally considered "music," if you'd rather describe Fe-mail as improvised music, or such -- tends to attract, at least on the Vancouver scene, a certain type of person -- often men, however smart/nice/interesting they may be, who need to channel their aggression in some way; usually intelligent, sensitive sorts who have had a very difficult time gratifying themselves by fitting in to the dominant social melieu here, which is fairly socially conservative, sun-loving, and Yuppified; not finding personal or social gratification in work, family, shopping, and/or rollerblading, like they're supposed to, they've taken it on themselves to create their own community, often involving -- as an expression of their alienation -- an assertion of rage and pain and aggression at the conditions in which they find themselves -- conditions which have driven young men to harsh subcultures of some sort or other for decades, and which the author is no stranger to himself. This move often couples noise with very angry, harsh, fascistic images and an uber-masculine, violent elitism; the more alienated the group, the further they place themselves above the mainstream, and, however strong the bonds they share with each other, the more indifferent they are to offending or upsetting outsiders. Noise musicians in Vancouver, in particular, seem to strive to be as antithetical as possible to the laid-back tanned Kits Beach aesthetic that predominates, countering the prevalent Californianism with an industrial, pierced, fuck-your-society look, bred of punk, metal, the Goth scene, and early Einsturzende Neubauten videos. I always thought of Lashen of Flatgrey (anyone got a link to an official site?) as the perfect visual expression of what noise generally means in Vancouver, while the G42 boys (releasing a new CD at tomorrow's Video In event) as the members of the scene who do the most to subvert and ironize these very tendencies -- and I don't just mean Fritter's cowboy hat (tho' it counts). (Sistrenatus, also on the bill tomorrow, has his own ironic edge, that has something to do with his source of musical inspiration -- old heavy metal records -- but it isn't necessarily obvious; someone who didn't know Harlow might think him a really scary, weird guy, based on seeing him perform). It isn't just a reaction to being on the west coast, though; Throbbing Gristle, say, or the music of the Aktionists, suggest that other cultural melieux equate noise with fascist imagery, violence, Satanism, death, pain, and so forth. And the music FITS the aesthetic; harsh, punishing, inherently sadomasochistic, there is an extremity to the music that is SUPPOSED to scare the normals away. "Ordinary people," as said by Harry Dean Stanton in Repo Man. Fuck them, I hate them. RAAAAAAAAGGGGH.

Fe-mail, tho' I'm sure they've scared their share of normals away in their day, too, are NOT LIKE THAT. Visually, this is particularly evident if you scan down and peek at the previous picture of them I posted, which contains its own ironies (which we'll get to). But musically, extreme as they may be, they really aren't all about getting you down on your knees and jamming a lead pipe up your ass. They appear to want you to revel in perception, in aesthetic experience, and, perhaps, to THINK about what they're doing; they're out to change minds, not damage eardrums. Hell, the Western Front even posted warnings that the show would be "extremely loud" on the front door, a quaint courtesy for the ooh-let's-see-a-jazz-show crowd that sometimes attends these things ("ordinary people"). In fact, some of today's attendees, cued to the Vancouver scene, saw this poster as a sign of status, as if loud EQUATES with cool; they're still back at the stage of rebelling against society, staking their own turf by making harsh noise, WANTING to punish the world for whatever they feel has been done to them. Fe-mail, for whatever reasons, seem perfectly comfortable inhabiting their turf, without making any grand displays of dominance or of anger at society; they don't seem angry, just REALLY DIFFERENT from what you've come to expect, and this in fact makes their music a lot more disturbing.

Is this clear? (Stoned, I tend to overdo it, because I can never tell). I mean, when you see some guy with a ring through his nose, pale skin, dressed all in black, with ample tats -- sorry, Lashen! I like you! -- you KNOW that there's going to be some harsh noise afoot; what else could he possibly play? But Maja presented herself today like she could have been chewing bubblegum, in a tight striped pink-and-black sweater; Hild, in a dress, looked like she could have been on stage at Lilith Fair with an acoustic guitar. (She seems just as intense a person and performer when she's onstage as Maja, mind you; the press photos on their site, particularly the more posed ones, do not capture the level of intensity these women bring to the stage). Still, far from seeming angry (image of Lashen screaming and raising his fist), they seemed like they were making music, making art, and not at all concerned, even, that they were doing it from what would normally be called an out-there space. There is, in fact, something FAR MORE subversive, far more disturbing, far more WEIRD about seeing Fe-mail than Flatgrey. It has everything to do with what you expect.

And that brings us to point 2. Not only is Fe-mail's noise different enough to call the whole noise transaction into question, it is being made by two WOMEN. With the exception of Coelacanth and some of the women on the Video In scene, there really ISN'T much of a female presence here when it comes to noise, or, if you set aside Peggy Lee, when it comes to any improvised music. Say what you will about what this reveals about my limitations, but it's unfamiliar and interesting to observe two women confidently and comfortably manipulating a very large tableful of complex electronic devices. And this raises all sorts of anciliary questions about society at large: gee, what the hell does that reveal about the world, that I've never seen women DO anything quite like this before? (Even Laurie Anderson, a technological adept beyond question, merely played a modified violin when she was here -- not so far outside the realm of what one expects a female to be able to do, musically.)

(I can hear it rumbling in your head: "What the fuck? EXPECTS A FEMALE TO BE ABLE TO DO? You condescending bastard" -- right? But wait a minute, what we expect is based on what we've EXPERIENCED. With only a few exceptions, women don't DO things quite as weird as this, at least with any degree of confidence, in Vancouver; and this is worth thinking about. Part of it may be do to social sexism, lack of opportunities, or technophobia. My guess, though, is that it probably has a whole lot to do with women's own internalized notions of what feminine behaviour constitutes. Not many women are attracted to the geek world of black boxes, weird sounds, and wires; however much our ideas about what women can or could or should do have expanded in the recent years, we are simply NOT THAT FAR ADVANCED, yet. Hell, Hollywood films like Disclosure are still grappling with the issue of whether women belong in the workforce... A quick survey of female musicians will confirm that most stick to a model of comfortably assimilated, socially acceptable feminine behaviour -- for every Diamanda Galas there are three dozen Sarah McLachlans. And usually where a woman does rebel -- I'm thinkin' of Patti Smith now, but fill in your own blank -- it's on a fairly conventional axis of gender; they adopt more masculine forms of behaviour, without really departing too far from social norms. Patti Smith is unusual if you compare her with Sarah McLachlan, but not if you compare her with Iggy Pop or Lou Reed; she's still pretty close to something that we can easily digest, don't have to think about. Gender bending is in fact not THAT weird; even at it's further reaches, there are communities of dykes, transexuals, and so forth -- places in society for them, however marginalized they may be.

By locating themselves so far outside the boundaries of conventional approaches to sound and music, tho' -- not on an axis of gender, but on the axis of art -- Fe-mail are in fact challenging our expectations of what women can, could, and should do in ways that are radical and interesting. There's a space for them, too, to be sure -- among improvisers and noise-heads and arty types -- but there are few other FEMALE artists (none that I can name) who inhabit it in quite the manner they do. (Delightful as I find her music, even vocal improviser Maggie Nicols seems more like your eccentric aunt, or perhaps some Beat-affiliated character like Helen Adam). Men who make this sort of music are celebrating a freedom they already have to step outside the realms of the expected, in pursuit of art, but women who do the same thing, simply by virtue of being women, at least APPEAR to be doing something more radical (I mean, hell, I dunno, maybe there are tons of women improvisers and noise musicians in Norway and none of this is as important as I'm making it out to be, but this is how it looks from the point of view of someone acclimatized to our male dominated noise scene). It seems that simply by doing what they do -- in a way, regardless of what they actually play or record -- Fe-mail are making a statement, that they are as free to explore beyond the boundaries as anyone; their actual music is not as relevant to the meaning they convey as the fact they make it. It SEEMS like a feminist act to be as musically odd as this. The name of the band suggests that they intend this.

This is not to say that their music isn't really adventurous and interesting, but... it's much, much harder to write about. It needs to be heard. As for the rest, hell, I dunno, maybe it's just a personal problem on my part. Women who do what they want to do, fearless and original and assertive and strong, and in the process step blithely over the usual boundaries they are asked to function within, can have an unsettling affect on me; women have a fair bit of power over me, or at least a strong effect, so when they start gettin' all unpredictable-like, I get nervous... Occasionally my fascination with such women has led me into places I'd rather not be (since, art consumption aside, I live a fairly conservative and middleclass life, which not all outsider wimmen do... Oh, do I have stories. But not for here). Maja and Hild are intense people, intense performers, fascinating to watch, and, for me, a very new experience; I'm looking forward to seeing them again (under the name Agrare, tho' like I say below, Lotta is NOT with them) at 2PM at the Roundhouse, tomorrow. If y'all go, leave a comment, tell me what you think.

Ahem. Between when I started this rant and now, the drugs have worn well off and I've actually snuck off to take in a Clouzot movie at the Cinematheque (some great restorations playing over the next few days -- I heartily recommend, in particular, Pontecorvo's Battle of Algiers, tho' the Clouzot film is pretty fun, too -- and Eyes without a Face worth a look, tho' it's the least of the three. My mind is off Fe-mail and feeling more than a bit sleepy -- even having skipped shows on a couple of days, I find myself exhausted by this festival, having taken too much in. Go see Agrare (actually Fe-mail) at the Roundhouse tomorrow. React to it. Observe your reactions. Learn something. Or just zone out to the bizarre sound. Fascinating as they are to watch, it's music best listened to with your eyes closed. And some people would bring earplugs, tho' I didn't.

See y'all at Video In tomorrow night.

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