One week ago yesterday I loaded some gear into my car, picked up Dave Wren (Moulttrigger) at his house, grabbed some beer, and drove up to Boone, a small town west of Ames that a couple old friends come from but that otherwise doesn’t usually have much going on, where I took part in one of the most epic noise/experimental music gigs I’ve ever been to.
I consider “Zeitgeist 2012” one of my great triumphs of 2012 even though I honestly don’t feel like I did a lot more than show up and play. But that’s the beauty of it, it came together so organically everybody just put in what they had to offer, though the biggest contributor was no doubt Trent Reis (Juxwl) who hosted it at his occasional show space known as the Elephungeon. I think it was also his PA that we used. Trent really came through big on this. Hell, there was even free food. Going into that weekend I knew this thing would be a success even if this bunch of freak sound artists just ended up playing for each other, because great things were bound to come of our just meeting each other in person, and honestly this scene is very participatory; we don’t care a whole lot about the artist/audience distinction; one thing I’ve noticed happens an awful lot when someone becomes exposed to this scene is that immediately want to start their own noise project. That’s probably why Henry Rollins said in that LA Weekly piece that noise is more punk rock than punk rock ever was. Turned out we got a few people who came just to check out the show, and I think they left with some great tapes and CDs and their minds reeling with sound and freedom. Zeitgeist was the kind of experience that really makes my synapses light up.
Zeitgeist grew out of discussions going on in a Facebook group called the Central Iowa Noise Insurgency, which has since been renamed All Iowa Noise Insurgency. I started the group but have been pleased to find that once I added a few people that I thought might be interested, it didn’t need much prodding from me for cool things to start happening on it — folks were motivated to have fun conversations and launch projects and plan events.
And of course this was just what I had hoped for. There is a reason I chose the word “insurgency” for the group’s name. There were maybe three main inspirations behind starting the group. The first was as a backlash against local music “coalitions,” “alliances,” and the like. I’ve probably talked a bit before in this space about how I don’t feel any real attraction to the Des Moines Music Coalition. I get solicited to join this thing all the time, but it costs money I can’t really spend, and I feel like the message I’m being sent is, hey, if you give us money we’ll let you get really involved in local music. So basically, asking me to buy something I already have. Plus they have these wine-and-cheese fundraisers where I’m pretty sure if most of my favorite local musicians showed up to one, they’d get looked at funny for looking too scruffy and underdressed. I kind of see it as an outlet for middle-aged local business suits to hold on to some part of their youth by feeling like they’re doing something rock and roll. And that’s fine, because the results are good: we have a few annual local music festivals that are sometimes pretty cool and a big summer concert festival called 80/35 that I really enjoy and recommend. But ultimately I think the point of DMMC is to benefit Des Moines itself and the local economy, with benefiting local music artists or local “culture” being just the means by which they choose to focus on in pursuing that end. They also used to have some seminars for local musicians that had something to do with trying to show them the ropes of the music business or media or help them learn to promote themselves better but in my experience these weren’t all that great or informative and the Q&A’s seemed to degenerate into local musicians whining about not being more famous than they are and how hard this stuff is.
Ultimately, I’m skeptical any time someone proposes starting up some kind of organization to improve a local music scene. In my opinion and experience great local music scenes don’t happen because somebody set up an organization (read: power structure) around the idea and attracted some people to throw money at it. Great local music scenes happen because musicians do great stuff, and more importantly, do it together. A “coalition” or concept like it just sets up the idea that there’s an organizational hierarchy, with people at the top who have connections and skills and favors to hand out. It encourages a dependent relationship on the part of musicians — if I join your club you’ll use your power to help me be more successful at this music thing. Typically they don’t deliver on that. The same artists get press and attention that would have anyway because they are very commercially palatable and/or they hustle pretty hard.
I come from the DIY mindset, because the music scenes I got started in didn’t have anyone to do it for us. What I learned is that DIY works, as soon as you rethink the Y part — it means not expecting anyone to do it for you, but it does not mean doing it alone. I think the approach is better referred to as DIO — Do It Ourselves. There is collaboration and cooperation, but no authority. In terms of how it came together, Zeitgeist may well be the most beautifully anarchist thing I’ve been involved with in quite some time. Thus it was just the sort of thing I’d hoped for, since as I was saying, the word “insurgency” in the name of the Facebook group was intentionally chosen — to connote subversiveness and a rebellion against the idea of music coalitions/alliances/societies, and also because insurgencies tend to be decentralized and loosely structured at most. An insurgency of the sort I had in mind, while it may have a few people setting the tone and expressing the general ideals, has no central leadership. It’s a decentralized network, and participation is voluntary and at-will, and usually action takes place through small temporary bubbles of organization that arise within it and then dissolve back into it after carrying out a mission or project. For these missions to self-organize requires communication, with as little friction as possible. Because of Facebook’s status and mission as a corporate surveillance-marketing entity I think people often underestimate its potential to serve this purpose. It’s not the only thing capable of doing so, possibly not the best, but it is the biggest and easiest to find.
In fact, my second inspiration was also a Facebook group, the Contact Group Of Homemade Experimental Electronic Music And Noise which was founded by the great Hal McGee. In its first year or so this group spawned an amazing outpuring of creativity and discussion and new connections between artists, it was truly inspiring. More recently, there has been a move away from this group amid concerns about its having become a promotional link-dump as well as the coming to light of Facebook’s new functionality regarding how much stuff from groups and fan pages makes it to your news feed without your either adding them to an “interest list” or the group/page admins ponying up eight bucks to promote a post. It has reached the point where Hal has deactivated his Facebook account and set up shop at a new site under the little-known social networking platform wall.fm. Discussion around what went “wrong” at the Facebook CGHEEMN (or at least, what caused it to diverge from Hal’s intentions) has generally concluded that the roots were in the group’s getting too big, and therefore too difficult to participate in actively. To a degree, I felt that I saw this coming, and believed that a major factor leading to this was the broadness (globalness) of the group’s definition. I wanted to start something like it with a tighter focus, as I felt this would restrain it from growth to excessive size and the chaos that comes with that.
Two areas of focus seemed obvious, and self-reinforcing: first around genres or artistic approaches, for which I chose a definition quite similar to that of the CGHEEMN, dealing in the more avant-garde strains of modern music, which turns out to encompass a pretty wide net of genre labels. I initially toyed with the idea of simply starting a general music forum that would present itself as an alternative to the DMMC through the disorganizational philosophy I have outlined already. But one of the problems I saw with local music organizations was that “music” was itself too broad. Musicians, to come together spontaneously, needed something more than geography or city of residence to unite around. This is why your local “music coalition,” if your city has one, probably ends up focusing a lot on indie pop and rock and mostly ignoring jazz, metal, polka, and the avant-garde — it goes with what’s moving the most money around. Experimental music, while only one of my many areas of musical enjoyment and interest, has been close to my heart for many years and seemed to be lacking a forum in my area.
The second focus was geographic, which just seemed natural, but I was unsure of what the right boundaries should be. Des Moines is where I live, but seemed too specific by itself, since Ames seemed to have more going on and there were several people from there I wanted to involve, thus I arrived at “Central Iowa.” A conversation at Zeitgeist convinced me to expand this to Iowa itself. We had one artist from Albert Lea, Minnesota come and perform, Donavan Skinner (Navonski) but at this time I still believe that “the midwest” would be too large an area to keep the coherence we want, as it would mean swallowing up several large cities (Minneapolis, Chicago, Omaha, Kansas City) that likely have active networks of their own anyway. Albert Lea is pretty close to the Iowa border, so what the heck.
The third inspiration was traveling up to Minneapolis on March 31 for the Minneapolis Noise Fest. I wrote a bit about it here earlier, and it was really inspiring to see a crowd actually showing up to see dudes scream over amplified static. The performances were great and so were the people there. It seems like lots of cities in the US have an annual festival of noise music, of one sort or another, sometimes it’s even just a gathering in someone’s back yard, but this was my first and I loved it. I wanted to bring an experience like this to Iowa. On November 10, 2012, we did just that, and it was great. Here’s to many more.
Below are links to some media relevant to Zeitgeist and the performers that came, played, watched, chatted, joked, traded recordings, argued about politics, ducked out early to make a long drive home or stayed late to jam together, and became a glorious little knot of friends. Please check out all of them. You won’t be sorry.
First of all, the great Matthew As More saw fit to set up some mics and his ProTools rig and make an awesome audio document of the evening, capturing nearly all of the performances. This whole thing can be streamed and downloaded on Bandcamp:
I got some video of the first few sets before my iPad ran out of space:
Nameless: I got nothing on these guys. Anyone out there got any links about them, please leave a comment.
DJ DJ Tanner:
Warm Gospel tapes: Juxwl, DJ DJ Tanner, and lots more great stuff
MedPen: on Facebook
Bob Bucko Jr:
Personal Archives (Bob’s label)
Aural Resuscitation Unit:
Dubuque Strange Music Society (Randy’s label)
Breaching Static blogspot (Alex’s label)