The Art of Noise
Music writers tend to be pack rats, accumulating all sorts of memorabilia over the years: gig posters, flyers and handbills; promotional trinkets and T-shirts; autographed album covers. Pete Gershon is no different, except next week the editor and publisher of quarterly, Houston-based improvised/experimental music journal Signal to Noise will put two dozen or so pieces from his private collection on display at the Art Institute of Houston as an exhibit dubbed "The Art of Noise."
"My wife's all bugged out because all the walls are bare at our house," laughs the goateed Gershon, concluding a brief tour of the exhibit in the reception area of the Art Institute's Galleria-area campus. "Actually, a lot of this stuff came out of poster tubes and folders and stuff I haven't even opened since I've been down here [the Gershons moved to Houston from Vermont three years ago]. It was a good excuse to get everything in frames and out of boxes."
Gershon's neighbor and Art Institute PR director Deborah Helman noticed his collection at one of their kids' playdates, and convinced him it would make a good exhibit. "It totally merges art and music and design all together," she says. "The students here get a lot of inspiration from posters and album covers."
"The Art of Noise" is mostly posters and album covers, specifically several framed vintage, often signed Blue Note LPs, but it also includes intricate envelope collages by late jazz bassist Chubby Jackson and the Olivia Tremor Control — Gershon thinks it's by OTC's Will Cullen Hart, who has several similar pieces for sale on the band's Web site, but this particular one is unsigned — Gershon got in the mail.
Houston is well represented in the exhibit, with several silk-screened posters for local avant-garde music promoters Nameless Sound by graphic designer and KTRU DJ David Wang. Though his two young children preclude Gershon from going out much, he's very complimentary of Houston's experimental music scene, and the lineup of Signal to Noise's first ever SXSW showcase in March bears him out: legendary local recluse Jandek, Charalambides singer and former Houstonian Christina Carter, Space City Gamelan (a local iteration of the eponymous large Indonesian ensembles that employ metallic instruments such as the xylophone-like gambang), the Nameless Sound Youth Ensemble and Austin's aptly named Weird Weeds.
"Historically, there's been a lot of great stuff from Houston, and there still is today," says Gershon.
One of the most recognizable "Art of Noise" pieces isn't even his. It's a fluorescent-cartoon poster by former Austinite Frank Kozik for the Texas dates of Sonic Youth's 1992 "Pretty Fucking Dirty" tour with Pavement and Houston's Pain Teens — with the F-word conveniently taped over so as not to offend any sensitive eyes — that belongs to his wife.
"She tells me she actually used to have a ton more of these, but threw them away in between moving from one place to another," Gershon sighs. "My wife's not a collector; she just likes what she likes."
Gershon feels much the same way about the content of Signal to Noise: He likes what he likes. He started STN before the Internet was awash in blogs and Web sites championing music's obscure corners; the publication celebrated its tenth anniversary this past September. "It was a skimpy, newsprint, free giveaway rag [back then]," he says. "There were still piles of zines in the front room of every record store you walked into, but they were all about bad rock music or just stuff I wasn't interested in."
Although Gershon designs and edits Signal to Noise on a laptop in a spare room at his Heights home, it's nowhere near the shoestring operation it once was. Now printed on hefty, magazine-caliber stock, the generously illustrated journal has a healthy circulation of 10,000, and its Winter 2008 issue — featuring Houston-born nomad Devendra Banhart on the cover — tops out at more than 100 pages. (Locally, it's available at many Borders and Barnes & Noble stores, plus Sound Exchange and Domy Books.)
STN gives equal coverage to clamorous Pitchfork favorites like Black Dice, Oneida and Animal Collective, contemporary composers and multimedia artists (Joe Giardullo, Graham Lambkin) and dispatches from Negativland shows, Japan's hip-hop underground and the "Chicago drone" scene, where one ensemble employs something called a "Dreamachine" to manipulate the brain's alpha waves to induce "living fireballs like the mandalas of Eastern mysticism."
The journal's reviews section regularly assesses more than 200 new releases and reissues, as well as books and live performances. There's pages upon pages of good reading for anyone interested in "death metal-inflected free jazz," "welling fields of drones, groans, clangs and flutters" or "echoes of old-school German electronics alongside elegant cosmic rock trappings." More surprisingly, perhaps, are reviews of well-known names like Elliot Smith, ex-Phish frontman Trey Anastasio and Waylon Jennings. What are they doing in there?
"We've covered a lot of stuff where you could argue the case that it's inside the mainstream, but we've approached it from the perspective of people who have a different point of view about music, which I think results in a different style of coverage," Gershon explains. "And over time, more progressive and experimental sounds seem to be infiltrating the mainstream, so there are really no boundaries."
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