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The Art of Noise

Sherri Cohen

Strictly speaking this is a story not about music but about noise. It is also the tale of a fairly young performance artist in Lake Worth named Kenny 5 who creates noise -- and sometimes by mere coincidence, music -- on a variety of self-invented instruments, all of which begin with the self-invented word 'lectric, as in 'lectric surfboard, 'lectric wood, 'lectric grease pan, and 'lectric eye.Noise is a type of "sound art" virtually guaranteed to repel anyone brought up on a traditional mode of music, be it Metallica, Iggy Pop, Robert Johnson, or Frank Sinatra. Indeed one must think of noise as a sort of abstract art to get anywhere at all with so much otherwise meaningless racket. Even then, the "art" designation stands only as a dubious rationale for the existence of noise. This stuff will make your eyes bleed. Listen too long and you'll wind up strapped to a gurney in the back of a long ambulance en route to the loony bin.

Noise comes in a variety of flavors: ambient, harsh, junk, psychedelic, industrial, techno-primitive. New flavors are emerging constantly. If they're anything like their predecessors, they'll all be as sensuously pleasing as chewing glass or tossing kittens into wood chippers. (The therapeutic value of noise is not in question here.) Slap on a noise disc -- anything from Throbbing Gristle to Lou Reed's classic Metal Machine Music -- and you'll encounter a whole new world of clanking, banging, screeching, droning, bubbling, and wailing, wildly incongruent parcels of tortured sound heaved with abandon against invisible backdrops of dreaded silence.

"Instruments" range from guitars, drums, and synthesizers to kitchen appliances, metal detectors, and hunks of wood. Whatever tool is used to make noise, invariably it is exaggerated and distorted by amplifiers and sound-effects devices. In other words all noise is 'lectric. By design and intent, the majority of it will lead the uninitiated listener to great heights of murderous agitation.

Kenny is 35 years old, somewhere in the neighborhood of six feet tall, trim, deeply tanned, and heavily tattooed. He dabbles in a few different types of noise, but he seems to harbor a particular passion for creating it from junk. His real surname is Greenbaum, an admittedly bankerish cognomen that hardly captures the flair or flavor of a man who so relishes the process of transforming the discarded refuse of others into low-tech instruments of sonic mayhem. At 6:00 on any given morning, Kenny might well be spied driving around the back alleys of Lake Worth searching for the raw materials that, when properly manipulated, will one day take their rightful place among Kenny's strange arsenal of noise gadgetry. "I'll tell you what," he enthuses, his voice forceful, rich with sincerity, "the best stuff I have is either garbage-picked or recycled, and that's the shit, know what I mean?"

With great pride he whips out the 'lectric grease pan for inspection.

The mainframe of the 'lectric grease pan was once an everyday household item -- which some of you may know better as a common baking sheet -- that Kenny's wife tossed into the garbage after years of service. Being the chronic and visionary garbage picker that he is, Kenny fetched the grease pan from the trash, realizing in an instant that his wife's rubbish would serve quite nicely as his next grand noise machine.

He affixed an old guitar pickup to one end of the pan and a makeshift bridge to the other. Between the two poles, he strung 18 inches or so of steel wire. With those few alterations to a corroded relic, Kenny 5 had himself a genuine, one-of-a-kind, patent-pending 'lectrified grease pan.

As might be easily imagined, Kenny's invention is nothing much to look at. It's bent and stained -- hell, it's nothing but an old baking sheet, for God's sake. Yet as distasteful -- or simply uninteresting -- as it looks, it's the sound of the thing that really cuts into your spine. A busload of shrieking children rolling off a cliff could scarcely match the earsplitting misery Kenny unleashes when he plugs the grease pan into a high-powered, effects-laden sound system and gets to grating violently on the string with a metal spatula or bouncing a large ball bearing on the pan's surface.

Instead of piddling around with quaint niceties like rhythm and melody, noise often rips and grinds in the manner of punk rock but without even that much noticeable order. Take a big metal spoon and use it to indiscriminately thrash the piss out of your kitchen sink. Congratulations. Not only have you invented a new instrument, you are well down the road to becoming a noise artist. All that's left is to rip the sink from its moorings, solder a barely serviceable microphone to the bottom, and take your act on the road.

Sometimes, of course, a noise artist might slip into the pedestrian mannerisms of conventional music. This is a largely accidental occurrence. As Kenny explains his own noise endeavors, "If it becomes musical, it just happens on its own. It's all off the cuff. It's like I'm shootin' bullets at a big red barn. So the target is giant. I'm never gonna miss. There is a gray area. I'm making this up somehow as I go along. There's not a manual on how to play the 'lectric surfboard or an electric piece of wood. So as I go along, some of these instruments, yeah, they'll be more musical than others. It all depends."

Not too long ago, Kenny was at the vanguard of a noise movement in Detroit, where he played with an aggressively subversive trio called Princess Dragon Mom. The group was one of several in Detroit that were heavily influenced by the many waves of noise coming out of Japan. "We got together with one thing in mind: We were interested in creating the sounds of the future," Kenny says. "We were, like, let's dig down deep. It's not about making a buck. It's about us having a lot of fun."

When Kenny moved to Lake Worth, he found a charming town in need of noise. Looking to create some, he took a job at Downtown Books & CDs, a mildly hip, independently owned shop on Lake Avenue where today he is the general manager. At Downtown Books, Kenny is trying to jump-start what he calls offhandedly "a new performance-art-of-the-future club," a nexus, that is, where interested parties can feel free to talk noise, exchange ideas, and generally behave like creative, avant-garde beings with bright ideas. Lake Worth is a cool, somewhat progressive little hamlet. Perhaps he'll get some takers. If you're interested, give Kenny a call at the bookstore. He'd love to hear your voice. Play your cards right, and he might even let you mess around with the 'lectric surfboard.

Right now Kenny has a big show coming up at the Palm Beach Institute of Contemporary Art. His services were commissioned by renowned dancer and choreographer Demetrius Klein, who agreed to stage a performance art piece at the museum during the showing of an exhibit -- Klein calls it a "furniture-as-art thing" -- called "Against Design." A recent rehearsal for the piece at Klein's Lake Worth dance studio looked and sounded like a whole mess of twisted frivolity. Klein and three other dancers basically performed a series of innovative, physically demanding solo and ensemble dances while Kenny kicked out jagged shards of raw sound on his various 'lectric inventions.

The whole affair promises to be anything but mundane. Klein says the piece recalls for him the performance art heydays of John Cage and Merce Cunningham in the mid-'60s and throughout the '70s. He's excited about collaborating with a live noise artist instead of the usual prerecorded tracks. "I've done similar stuff before, but never this severe," Klein says during rehearsal.

Meanwhile, across the studio, Kenny is wailing and chanting indecipherably into a microphone that is sunk deep into the gaping mouth of a stuffed sailfish. The vocalizing -- which issues from the speakers like rolling thunder -- roughly matches the graceful steps and twirls of a slick young dancer practicing his solo before a wall of mirrors. By showtime, noise and movement should be beautifully synchronized.

After the rehearsal Kenny says that this is the most honest project he's ever done. There's very little bull, he explains, none of the standard music-business crap. "I like doing something for the sole purpose of it just being fun, interesting, primal, back to the cave, you know, and nothing else. When that happens," he adds confidently, "then all of a sudden people start gravitating toward all this stuff."


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