NOISE: A Twenty-First Century Ode to Chicago

“it is characteristic of noise to recall us brutally to real life”

– Luigi Russolo

            It hit me when I turned thirty-one. That need to find more, see more, hear more, touch more (not taste, my palate’s really picky), lose more, destroy more. The first thirty years of your life, you gather; the other thirty, you lose; so you can die even. So here I was, done walking the line. The need to radicalize, to read books that start with the publisher’s carefully distancing “note to the reader,” to live in dark small cheap places, to not fixate, to listen to music that doesn’t begin or end, to lead a Spotify-free life, to inflict pain on my body, to diminish its dimensions, its presence in time and space, to modify it, but not for some beauty ideal’s sake – that need welled up in me around May 2017, it hit me hard to the point of paralysis. Good thing I was in Chicago when it happened.

In the Windy City, you get on the Fifty-Five from Hyde Park, hold your breath between stops on the Red Line, one more bus, and then you find yourself walking down car-crammed pockmarked streets at night, the L yelling above your head, until, around a corner, any corner, you see someone nervously sucking at their rolled-up cigarette next to a bike rack hanging onto loose front wheels like pulled wisdom teeth (haven’t they learned their lesson yet). No one is talking to one another. At least not yet. For a second, you start performing middle-class awkwardness until you realize, it’s ok, no need to pretend that I have a crowd waiting for me here or stare at my phone to fake sociability, this is a place you go to alone. It’s 9pm and the show is about to start. Not many people have found their way to the place, but those who are inside have come here spurred on by the same devil as mine. It looks like most of us don’t know how we really ended up here. Why here and not some twenty minutes south-east at the opera house? Why here and not at the top floor of the Hancock tower? Why here and not in a booth at the Regenstein Library? Why am I wearing these monochromatic clothes – old black jeans and a torn tank-top that an almost lover left at my place? Except for the pants of a hippie standing in the corner, the only color in this place is in my eyes.

People come here to molt, to be cleansed by decibels. That’s right. Going to a museum and looking at art, no, it’s not enough, images rarely pierce your body. But sound does. It tears straight through your guts, it hurts your eardrums, it makes you useyour body, it makes you and your body one, it becomes unavoidable. Narita of High Rise said in 1996 – in Japanese, of course – that “[i]f you’re going to the trouble of making music then you’ve got to give something to the people who hear it, or else it’s meaningless. There’s got to be a shock they get from the music. Something that makes them want to get violent. Or go crazy. That’s the best kind of music, isn’t it.“ So watching him play his guitar like a speed psychedelic punk rock Paganini at the Empty Bottle on August eleventh, I understand what he means. Some bands you only listen to live. Some bands produce sounds that function as brooms in your brain but you can’t – and you shouldn’t – take the broom home. Narita is small and he smokes outside alone. His facial expression is suspended somewhere between bewilderment at and calm admiration for the things of this world. I want to ask him many questions, but sometimes many questions are an answer of their own.

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Narita (left) of High Rise at the Empty Bottle, August 11th 2017

The bodies I see in front of me at this place are disciplined. It takes them a while to disassociate corporeal movement from sadism. It’s as if the only immediate result from colliding body parts were death. If I move, I’ll kill you. It’s a can of beer or a gun. Inertia or annihilation. And that’s where noise comes in – it elongates the spectrum of existence. Noise is the result of the collision of bodies – unwanted or not, who cares, but it does not kill you. It wakes you up, it makes you shut a window, shut your mouth, shut your ears, it makes you finally exchange a sentence with your neighbor, it interrupts your tweet post, your umpteenth facebook selfie, it makes you look up and away from your laptop screen. It is in the nature of noise to interfere, to create silence and momentum.

For the Italian Futurist Luigi Russolo, noise was the apogee of Western music. “Noise sound,” he called it in “The Art of Noises” (1913). Away with the good old violin, the organ and the piano, and all hail the roaring of machines, animals, and natural catastrophes, those “resonant slaps in the face”! Sound, in his opinion, is musical, unnatural to our lives, something like an event to be attended. It becomes “to our ears what an overfamiliar face is to our eyes.” Noise, on the other hand, is a constant, but “reaching us in a confused and irregular way from the irregular confusion of our life, [it] never entirely reveals itself to us, and keeps innumerable surprises in reserve.” In other more fancy words, sound is ideology masked as bon ton; noise is simply the conditio humana. Or in other more simple words, sound is what you’ve been taught to listen; noise is what you hear. Noise is permanent, it’s disruptive, it’s an acoustic slap in the face that recalls us “brutally to real life,” and THAT’S OK.

In the 1970s, the sound studies guru R. Murray Schafer wrote: “Noises are the sounds we have learned to ignore,” and, let me add, he didn’t and doesn’t really want this to change. If anything, he wants a noise-free world. For Schafer, noise is a form of pollution, unwantedsound, unmusicalsound, an unwelcome“disturbance in any signaling system.” It follows, then, that for a sound not to be perceived as a disturbance it has to be wanted, musical, and welcome. I read: from the right family and cultural background, the right class, ethnicity, nationality, skin color, invited, legal, wanted, welcome. Follow Schafer and only engage with sounds – and why not also in activities and people – that we consciously seek out and desire, that are arranged according to a predetermined system that excludes disturbance – whatever that means in whatever culture – and, finally, please don’t trespass, this is private property. Whew. Now that solves everything. A can of beer or a gun. Discipline orpunishment. It brings back to mind something I read: “We can do anything we like as long as it is UNIMPORTANT.But in all IMPORTANT matters the system tends increasingly to regulate our behavior.” Ted Kaczynski wrote that.

On the other side of the pond, the semiotician Yuri M. Lotman – whose lifespan, by the way, coincided almost exactly with that of the former Soviet Union – defines noise as “the intrusion of disorder, entropy or disorganization into the sphere of structure and information. Noise drowns out information.” Noise, as in Murray Schafer, is associated here with what we all would perceive as negative terms: intrusion, disorder, entropy, disorganization, drowning out information. A free, uninterrupted information flow, structure and information themselves, are desirables. But art, Lotman continues, “is capable of transforming noise into information.” While for Russolo noise should disrupt information, and for Schafer music as a form of art and noise are irreconcilable, for Lotman noise can become an element of music and, through it, become information. But do we want noise to transmit information and content, instead of disrupting it? Isn’t the information of noise that there should not be such thing as the free flow of information? Anything free flowing and entirely uninterrupted will sooner or later become ideological. When the slap in the face becomes content loaded, then what else can it express but punishment?

And finally, the ultimate wisdom of the Urban Dictionary: “Noise is what it sounds like it is. […] It can be painful to listen to.” Yogi Berra couldn’t have said it better himself. Noise is what it sounds like. Pain in the form of punishment is ideology. Pain in the form of disruption is revolution. It’s the latter that makes me take empty buses across the South Side in the middle of the night.

I’m not going to idealize the Empty Bottle, but it’s one of the few places in Chicago that feels so appropriately out of place. Inclusive. If you’re thinking of the Green Mill, don’t. Old punks, broke PhDs, friendly metalheads, bipolar artists, mama’s boys, workers, hippies, hipsters, hip-hoppers, you name it and it’s at the Bottle. Kinda like Sean, who has learned how to pogo without really crashing into anyone. When Sean says he hates a poem, he means that he hates the wittiness of it. Like New Yorker poems, so baroque in the attempt to show off their wittinessthey make Giambattista Marino pale in comparison (look him up). So Sean curses at his phone screen and gives the poem his stinky finger, because, yes, dude, we can see how witty you are, now eff off with your sweet witty poem. As I am writing this, he calls me and I remember a line of his from the other night when he said, looking at me from the other side of the bar table, “I can smell how beautiful your vagina is,” and we burst into laughter. Sean is poly and has a beautiful flamingo. He’s one of those Americans that will never tell you their birthplace, but he has the head and facial hair of a 19thcentury dandy – or even better, of a Balkan freedom fighter – and I am sure that the Chicago Art Institute has a daguerreotype of him somewhere in its basement full of uncatalogued stuff. He knows bands like High Rise and listens to CAN and his eyes are kind of crazy when he fixes them into yours. It makes sense because from 9 to 5 he is a velociraptor. “If it’s not trying to kill you, then you’re not doing it right,” he says in his usual quotable way. I think we were talking about Frankenstein and AI. He likes to touch people and he’s hoping to make me feel attached to him by gently rubbing the back of my neck with his fingers. I haven’t told him that it only works when I am the one who’s doing the touching.

It was at the Bottle that I first heard ONO and watched Sean do his performance pogo. Actually, you don’t hear ONO. Youlivethem. ONO is what coming to the world through a vagina must have been like. ONO hurts, so I guess they’re doing something right, right Sean? ONO is “onomatopoeia before music.” Their noise sound is like a hammer on your eardrums, relentless but groovy, catchy but not loopy. I can’t figure out how. The bass is easily distinguishable; drums normally have a solo at the end; Travis’s voice like the Metatron’s cannot not be listened to; but the rest? Not caught up in the technical details, it’s easier to perceive ONO in organic terms, like a big living gooey mass moving, crouching slowly, sticky like hot asphalt. Let Travis embrace you, and the drums and bass lull you into a groove, until Rebecca and Co. pick you up and slam you against the ceiling when you’re expecting it the least. “J. Edgar Hoover. J. Edgar Hoover.” Yellow raincoats, white nuclear disaster suits, pink dresses, and black veils, dervish skirts, and a Santa beard, professor’s glasses, a diva’s shoulder move, thrift store wedding gowns, words words words, clear but undistinguishable, sweeping the inside of your skull clean, you told your girlfriend you can’t deal with attachment?, really?, here, put this slave ship between your ears, and, while we’re at it, Vietnam too, your Netflix subscription did not go through?, here’s my black queer punk preacher veteran body for you, “I was born and raised Chickasaw-Black in pre-integration, pre-electricity, pre-indoor plumbing Itawamba County, Mississippi;”your dog’s having indigestion and your neighbors are too loud? “I live on the South Side of Chicago and see what all the people live with there. To America, as a black body, I am noise.” There, there. “If you came for music, leave now!” The black, queer, foreign, female, disabled body as being noise. THIS is your South Side’s contribution to sound studies. You could not have thought of this one, Russolo, short-sighted as you were. A few Ethiopian bodies in your noise orchestra, wouldn’t that have been something? And Schafer? How do we catalogue this kind of noise? What urban measures can we implement to suppress and regulate this Unwanted, Unmusical, Unwelcome in our neighborhoods, homes, classrooms? Should art transform this noise into information, Yuri, so we can digest it more easily? Do you prefer a good laugh, generation Game of Thrones, with Jeffrey McDaniel’s the asshole’s guide to writing poetry? Or can you come here ready to have your own body emptied of organs by distortion? Deleuze, meet ONO. And Moor Mother is right: we don’t fully appreciate what we have in ONO, here in Chicago, thrown out of balance as our moral compasses are by the Sears phallus.

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ONO at the Empty Bottle, August 11th 2017

Now from the Empty Bottle, the usual next stop is the Hideout. There I meet Billy who isa poem, he likes to dance. Actually, he’s a Jack Kerouac but he says he can’t squeeze words between two covers (he says this while moving his hands as if squeezing the air out of an accordion) – there are too many of them. He’s a kid but he’s wise because he’s prayed to Jesus on acid, and he’s crashed a few months on a Chicago queen’s couch. Her name was Kay and she took him in with a “sweetie” dangling from her lips. Yes, we’ve seen Transparent, Billy hasn’t. But he knows that reality exists beyond a TV show while my sweet undergraduates only get to see it on screen. “What do you think about music by bad people? Ever listen to the Manson family?” he asks, as he invites me to take a free tour on a river boat with him. Billy still uses such words as “wife,” he thinks he’s a Maoist, and he’s almost been raped on a freight train, but I don’t know where he was going. Reminds me of an anecdote my friend Graham told me about Axl Rose almost being raped. Billy is the millennial Axl Rose, but he wasn’t afforded the comfort of a motel room, and he wears his bandana around his neck. Now I saw him load up a U-Haul truck in Hyde Park for some spare change, and then off he went onto another freight train to Boston, I think. “May I write to you when I’m abroad?” he asks. “You may.” But I’m not going back to the Hideout.

Philly lent us the almighty Moor Mother for an August twenty-third evening, but the Hideout was the wrong venue. You don’t bring a prophet to a place with a reputation to uphold: “Chicago’s most loved small venue” is the critical theory of Chicago bars – it’s pretentious, broey, almost entirely uniform in its attempt to be diverse; so you don’t go there alone unless you’re waving the banner of your clique; it’s where people who say “post-humanism” come to smoke a self-congratulatory cigarette on the patio while creating an atmosphere to make Patti Smith feel like a wallflower. Don’t get me wrong: it’s not the space itself, nor its employees. It’s the crowd it has come to attract throughout the last years. Us few Bottle goers, DIY chasers, we try to append ourselves to some group, but style here is a protective measure, thick with oversocialization, to quote Ted again, and the can of beer or a gun logic takes effect at “hello.” “He steals all of my friends. It’s gonna happen to you, too, Peter,” I overhear a girl say while I’m writing this outside, after having lived ONO again. So Camae Ayewa, a.k.a. Moor Mother, without knowing, came to give a concert like a pop-star to a bunch of individuals looking for catharsis in other people’s collective causes. “Is the saxophone player gonna do just one song with you?” asks the sound guy. “We don’t dosongs,” she says, and I want to embrace her, Travis has found a soulmate.

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Moor Mother at The Hideout Inn, August 23rd 2017

Moor Mother is an epic poet. She’s writing the epic of slavery, of discrimination, of suffering. “Writing” is the wrong verb. But so are “performing” and “singing.” Moor Mother is voicing and noising, she’s channeling like a shaman. Her material is the noise of history. She jumps from date to date to tease out the distortions and harness them into one noisy slap in the face of Western history, and the sax is CRYING, it’s yelping, screeching, whale whining, it’s snake charming, “plastic, plastic, plastic,” she says into the mic, EBOLA, “not enough dead Europeans,” the bass pierces the gut, her voice the ears, “did you see it in the news?” over a Nina Simone sample, it’s her epic lament, “meanwhile fifty-two school boys in Mexico are missin’…. we shareyour rage,” a dirge to all the silenced noisy bodies, “you’re gonna see my dead body at the protest.” The Mother’s lament has no beginning or end, she’s in medias res because that’s where we always are, and the polite applause that the zombie crowd throws at her is inappropriate, “applause is kinda English,” she retorts, and I want to embrace HER again and bring her to Agnes, my Caribbean Mother, which might create a black hole under Lake Michigan and that’s OK, this lake is as sterile as the Ottoman Empire, a disciplined puddle that has no stories to tell. But Moor Mother, Caribbean Mother, South Side Santa – your thundering manifestoes, your miner’s lungs full of the coal of history – you are no metaphors, you’re as here and now as it gets, and you hurt, and you don’t come for the applause, you come for the blood. And then “I forgot, like, how intense can sound be as an emotional experience,” I eavesdrop outside, “the opener was also… he’s gay,” the same post-humanist continues, before he starts talking about Taylor Swift’s latest album, and I am not going back to the Hideout. The harnessing of historical noise sound bursts into afrofuturism, and I am not going back to the Hideout because there people attend concerts and listen to songs, follow artists, and that doesn’t kill them so they must be doing it wrong. Come you East Coast maenad, rip this hedonism apart.

At last, with Ariel, I go to the Ballroom in Bridgeport, “a live-in project space for exhibition, performance, learning, meeting, and more.” Ariel says he doesn’t understand poetry, as he points at the wooden dome of the place, but he hasn’t heard the Mother. He makes things happen, he cooks for me, and is all about the destination. When we bike north, he sets a phone app to count calories and distance, and then he starts pedaling with no stop scheduled at the McCormick place drinking fountain to look at the flock of geese. I told him, geese can fly as high as a commercial airplane, and, one day, I want to send my kids to Deep Springs in California, but he’s already flying ahead on his Italian bike, telling me about his latest festival plans, and I can only catch whiffs of meaning as he occasionally looks back to make sure I am still there (I don’t wear a helmet). Of course he’s vegan, but he says veganism and environmentalism are not two sides of the same coin. This makes me angry especially when I see vegan cheese wrapped in three layers of plastic at the local grocery store. Ariel is surprised to hear that I am learning from him. “I didn’t know something could be learned from me,” he says, walking on air, and then goes on to tell me about Laibach and the Fuck Buttons, and about a guy who’s putting together a history of Israeli punk music. The way he side sweeps his hair over his right shoulder makes him look like a pretty girl from behind, makes me want to look at paintings, from up close. He doesn’t trust me and says things like “your body’s like a Coke bottle” while pouring me another Jack Daniels on the rocks.

At the Ballroom, august fourth, we feel at home, we sink into sofas, and strike up conversations, check out the Experimental Station on 61stand Blackstone, is that the last beer? we share, and it’s loud. DIY Chicago at its best, Ganser/ONO/A Deer Horse/Flesh Narc/Thin Skin/Nonzoo, girls’ high-pitched voices and pigtails droning over fast chords, the equipment dies on the first band, several times, anticipation is in the air, the guitarist is nervous, they’re opening for ONO, and Billy is there, too, making his break-dance moves, and that guy I keep seeing everywhere, next time he’s standing next to me I’ll ask him to be my friend and tell him to check out Chicago’s Aerial Drones and the Observatory from Singapore, and I’ll tell him how I stopped going to the CSO because they act as if no woman has ever put music to paper. This is where MoorMotherGoddess should have thundered, so close to the crowd that we’re indistinguishable, the spectrum of existence stretched out to a point that you can actually hear it sound.

This is where I need to be right now, this is where it all comes together for me on the smallest but most accurate scale on the 42ndparallel north, Tito, Binyomin and his Chagall, Scheherezade’s mean baklava, Ilmi’s 25-year-old son and his qeleshe, Mrs. Grau’s burnt down house, Karl’s moustache, Randal’s broken hip, the American passport, the American passport, the American passport – that cosmic noise we call life. When you were born in a communist country and grew up in its rubble, “to radicalize” does not mean to become a socialist, start a commune, or flaunt your Marx. Nor does it mean to shave your head and wear a swastika sleeve band. It rather entails a relentless search for an alternative to all ideology. And if ideology is music, then the alternative must be noise. Perhaps we need to learn from Travis’s and the Moor Mother’s lesson and dispense with such terms as “music,” “song,” and “bands” altogether in order to fully appreciate the spectrum of sonic events out there. Furthermore, when at thirty-one I feel the need to inflict pain on my body, it is not a call for help or drugs, prescribed or otherwise; it is a choice, a cry out against the disciplining of the body I have undergone throughout my life as a woman without a country and a family. Here’s a commandment for you: do not judge those who have danced to the music of immigration services. “To inflict pain on my body” means to own the right to do so myself.

Perhaps others have been lucky enough to be hit by these needs earlier in their lives, have found themselves being able to live them out, and are now full of wisdom in matters of the world. Sincere kudos to you. Also, congratulations on your privilege. But, honestly, what did I know at age sixteen, twenty-one, or even twenty-six, about choice and alternatives, busy as I was surviving? Perhaps six years ago, Billy would have been a bum in my survival-mode eyes, Ariel a hippie, Sean a perv, and all the things I heard this summer in Chicago, well, the proverbial noise. So this is exactly where I need to be right now. Russolo wrote that “it is characteristic of noise to recall us brutally to real life.” And I’d say that if you’ve brutally lived a real life, again, if you’ve brutally lived a real life, it will inevitably lead you to noise.

Noise tolerates no genre, it’s not an event, it’s not a discourse, it’s not structured or in pursuit of sense, what you regulate are your ears, not noise. Chicago was breastfed on blues, and is now maggot-eaten by noise, and THAT’S OK, our unwanted bodies crawling up through its cockroach infested neighborhoods, eastern european janitors, mexican bar keepers, black cashiers, working class phds, underpaid dinosaurs, wannabe kendricks, saul bellow is dead, so if you read up to here looking for a nice academic conclusion with some quotes from German philosophers, leave now! because we’re not here for the applause; we’re here for the blood.


Last revised on September 14th 2018


Alamo-Costello, Chester. “ONO – An Unabridged History in Conversation.” [August 7, 2016]

Kaczynski, Ted. Technological Slavery:The Collected Writings of Theodore J. Kaczynski, a.k.a. “The Unabomber.”Port Townsend, WA: Feral House, 2010.

Lotman, Yuri M. The Structure of the Artistic Text. Translated by Ronald Vroon. Ann Arbor: [Dept. of Slavic Languages and Literatures], University of Michigan, 1977.

Quillin, Sarah Jane. “Profile: ONO.” [2017]

Russolo, Luigi. “The Art of Noises (excerpts).” In Futurist Manifestos, edited by Umbro Apollonio, 74-88. Boston: MFA Publications, 2001 [1913].

Sasaki, Toshi and Kuniaki Satoh, transl. by Alan Cummings. “High Rise. Interview with Munehiro Narita.” [1996]

Schafer, R. Murray. The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World. Rochester, VT: Destiny Books, 1977.

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