Noise, or Art?

DJ Scott Sommers celebrates two decades of (sometimes) inspired clatter

Ure Thrall, for one, has been making and distributing tapes for years. Chuck Roast, owner of the Vinal Edge record store, is a principle in Turmoil in the Toybox. Bonnie McNairn and Jim Wilson -- first as Esoterica Landscapes 7 and currently as Voice of Eye -- have moved from industrial noise to rhythmic, ritual sonic landscaping over the past seven years, making an international name for themselves in the process. Chad Salvata's E-Coli project delved into avant-opera before Salvata left town for Austin, then New York, and Houston's Awefull Records is eight volumes into the ongoing Manifestation series of CD compilations, gathering like-minded experimentalists from around the world. Lazy Squid Records founders and Sad Pygmy bandmates Carol and Sean Kelly are responsible for the 51-track "noise collection" Cataclastic Fracture.

In Baytown, Richard Ramirez pumps out homemade cassettes as if on an assembly line, and collaborates long-distance with recognized Japanese noise artists Merzbow. The Dave Dove Paul Duo takes off from a free-jazz tendency for parts unknown, and Charalambides keeps moving farther afield from anything that might sit still under a label.

Even the tape that Thrall's friend Jay has given Sommers to play on The Avant-Garde Show -- an edit, he says, of fragments of practice jams by his now-defunct rock band -- fits the bill, although the casual listener may not be thoroughly enlightened by Jay's observation that the music is the result of a process in which "there are two envelopes going at once, and they're both dynamically sensitive."

One point of common ground in this maelstrom of sound has been Sommers' program. But now, he admits, there's a new generation of sonic sculptors and noise artists that he's unfamiliar with. In the old days, composers would be lined up outside his control booth, tapes in hand. These days, he doesn't count on local performers showing up at all. Part of the problem, he says, is that "the new stuff is awfully hard to find unless you're wired into the network." And networking gets harder as other duties and desires grow. On the Friday before the show Thrall and Jay visited, Sommers missed out on seeing the first ever Texas performance by 30-year-old British improv trio AMM at Rice's Hammon Hall. He was downtown instead, at Jones Hall, listening to Andrea Marcovicci cabaret her way through the songs of Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern.

But if Sommers' show isn't the one-stop experimental shop it once was, that's partly because the scene has expanded from the home base he gave it. Voice of Eye's McNairn now hosts a similarly conceived show called Genetic Memory on KTRU/91.7 FM. And local artists have scattered in search of greener pastures -- and sometimes found them -- in avant citadels such as San Francisco and New York.

Some of those artists will be coming home to Houston to celebrate the 20th anniversary of The Avant-Garde Show as part of the SonicWorks program. For a brief time, the spotlight will shine into the nooks and crannies of the experimental music underground, causing celebration among fans, confusion among non-initiates, and intrigue among curiosity seekers. Maybe a few previously unexposed folks will undergo the revelation that here is music that demands a different kind of listener, one with an ear tuned to texture and pure sound instead of melodic hooks and song craft, and that avant-garde music's practitioners are perhaps best understood, in one fan's words, as mathematicians who derive their pleasure from working out the most unlikely problems.

And as a result, perhaps experimental music will make a small comeback in Houston's public consciousness. Or maybe not. Either way, come the following Sunday night, Scott Sommers will be back in the DJ booth at KPFT, conceiving his show the way he always has: "Just having a bunch of people over to listen to some records."

"SonicWorks '96" runs May 35 at DiverseWorks, 1117 East Freeway, and late evening May 3 and 4 at Commerce Street Arts Warehouse, 2315 Commerce Street. DiverseWorks shows tickets are $12, $7 for students; festival passes are $20 for students. CSAW Performance Party admission $5, $2 for festival pass holder. For reservations and info, call 228-0914.

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