Life in the Bush of Ghosts: A Fraternity of Noise

Students in Professor Lisa Phillips’ Literature of Journalism class were assigned to immerse themselves in the unfamiliar. Here’s what they found:

Max Freebern experiences the sounds of Noise music, something that confuses but intrigues him as he learns to listen to the odd noises.

Matt Luczak sat hunched over his knee as he began to compose the first set of the night. He frowned at his synthesizer as gentle, atmospheric sounds began to ooze from the speakers like the soft whirr of an air conditioner. The room became filled with a sense of tranquility, coupled with an odd feeling of suspense. It was quiet. Too quiet. He peered at the monitor screen as he plotted his plan of attack. A harsh, piercing noise sliced through the angelic tone as Matt’s fingers stabbed at buttons and twisted knobs. I leapt back. To my horror, the tone was further adulterated by these harsh interruptions. I saw that he had positioned two microphones towards each other and looping the chaotic feedback it spat out. I felt unsettled and confused, completely unable to perceive anything but utter nonsense.

The audience stared at the performance with stern, analytical expression on their faces. I felt as if I was in a modern art museum, inspecting an empty toilet paper roll tied to a piece of string and wondering: are you trying to tell me there’s something more to this? I scoffed as one boy passionately nodded his head to a beat I could not distinguish. I was certainly out of my comfort zone. My usual stomping grounds consisted of sweaty, trap-rap filled fraternity parties and middle school dance-esque mixers with various sororities. Prior to college, I never dreamed of joining a fraternity, and in fact openly mocked and criticized them. Yet the immense support system and community made me feel like I had a place in the world, like I belonged. It’s a bizarre cult bond that has created some of the strongest relationships I’ve ever made. To my surprise, this sentiment was the first place Matt and I found common ground in our lives.

“I think it’s just like fewer people are into it. That’s kinda the thing that’s attractive to some people; to be into this thing nobody else is, it’s like exclusive. Or maybe they’re just like avoiding big crowds. There’s so many people, it’s really crowded and it’s very impersonal.”

Matt’s two-story white house does not seem to fit in the row of homes which accompany it. The surrounding circle of structures are snuggled tightly together, while it sits in lonely isolation, as if the other houses shun its ominous vibes. As you approach the right side of the house, you’ll notice a moldy wooden fence distinguishing the two neighboring properties. To the right, the neighbor’s lawn is meticulously manicured and shorn like a buzzcut. However, to the left, the ground is littered with crumpled cigarette butts and abandoned liquor bottles, sunk in the mud. A web of vines snake through clumps of weeds covering the ground and cling to the faded white walls and cinder block chimney. In the back, a set of worn wooden stairs lead up to a decrepit door plastered with obscure band stickers. Through this doorway lies My Life in the Bush of Ghosts: a do-it-yourself venue for avant-garde and experimental musicians. The college kids call it the Noise House.

“Some people are just into a quieter scene where there’s not as many people. Some people might be drawn to it just for that reason. I think, like you just mentioned, your fraternity… I think that is an aspect of it, it’s like a belonging. They’re doing this in every city, pretty much, and it’s just this little family of weird musicians,” Matt said.

Matt began renting the property five years ago when he moved to New Paltz. He and his Golden Retriever, Buddy, share the humble apartment which hosts the epicenter of the experimental noise scene of the local and surrounding areas. The apartment consists of a small 1980s style kitchen, a living room and a bedroom that Matt shares with Buddy. The living room is cluttered with a drum set, a few pieces of furniture and piles of wires, amps and other noise equipment. One wall is covered with a fall, woodland backdrop wallpaper. The shrubbery reminded him of “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts,” the first collaborative album of Dan Eno, celebrated for his pioneering work in ambient music, and David Byrne, the leader singer and guitarist of the Talking Heads. Thus his new home claimed a name.

When I first met Matt, we stood at about eye level to each other. Although he was 39, he exuded a much younger aura. His skinny frame was decorated with nearly 15 tattoos ranging from an ironing board on his left shoulder to, a mystical diagram consisting of nine interconnected triangles surrounded by a flowery sphere, called a Sri Yantra. The triangles represent the cosmos and the human body. His favorite tattoo is a crude stick and poke of a smiley face on the top of his right shoulder because he thinks it’s goofy. He usually wore some sort of hat, which sat above a pair of soft, tired looking, green eyes. A man’s eyes are very telling. From afar, I mistook his gaze for one of judgement and apathy, but soon discovered he was engaging, sincere and genuine. With a simple handshake his eyes softened, followed by a humble and welcoming smile.

Before moving to the Noise House, he lived in a rough part of Poughkeepsie, working at a corner store. There, a buddy of his let him run house shows out of his art gallery at night. Even after said friend was evicted, the landlord was generous enough to allow him to host his shows without charging him a dollar. He far preferred that venue to the pizza shop he usually used, which was less inviting to his musicians’ unique style. Through touring with his own work and meeting numerous artists through shows, he amassed a substantial network of people in the noise community. All of the performers present at the night of his performance were friends through their fraternity of noise.

I stumbled in expecting a loud, talkative atmosphere, but was met to a quiet circle, sitting on couches or cross-legged on the floor. It almost seemed like an awkward reunion of distant family members. The audience members ranged anywhere from college students to those in their 50s. There couldn’t have been more than 15 people in attendance. The tone of conversation was quiet and reserved as they threw around names and terminology that flew miles over my head.

“There’s the attack, which can either be hard and peaking, or it can be soft and then swell. Then there’s the decay,” Matt explained as he attempted to decode the composing process for me.

“It’s really just atmospheric, like noise that just shouldn’t be there,” another added.

“The sound wave and tone affects the parameters. It’s all about the shape of the decay,” another said.

My inquiries only lead to further confusion. I often wondered if they even knew what they were talking about. I felt very much out of my comfort zone, many of my questions simply lead to further questions with vague answers. To make matters worse, Buddy began humping my leg.

One of the most bizarre and intriguing performances came from a man named Lawry Zimbra. Lawry met Matt at a noise show in Manhattan called Spectrum. Lawry was a tall, tan, portly man with warm brown eyes and short black hair. He had a fatherly energy that came from his warm smile. Their friendship was solidified after Matt mistook one of Lawry’s homemade instruments for a unicycle, which Lawry got a huge kick out of. Lawry had brought his unicycle-looking instrument to the show and performed a set with it. He had taken the core of a bicycle wheel and replaced the spokes with guitar and bass strings. The wheel sat fixed on a stand where he could spin it to access different strings. He dragged a violin bow across various strings, while simultaneously fingering and twisting the string. The wheel produced strong reverberating sounds that shook my body and mind. He looped these soundwaves over each other to create thicker layers of the intense vibrations. Compared to Matt’s set, I found Lawry’s set rather soothing. I closed my eyes and let the sounds flow through my body, placing me in a trance like state.

Lawry had brought another musician named Billy Cancel, who was touring with him at numerous noise performances. Billy was a short, scrawny British man with a mop of brown hair on his head and set beady eyes. He was definitely an intense looking individual. I was twice as surprised when he appeared in front of the audience in a shiny gold leather suit and pants. He and his wife, Genevieve Fernworthy, form their joint project called Tidal Channel. While Genevieve produced an eerie background with her synthesizer, keyboard, and bass guitar, Billy stared menacingly at some distant point in the back of the room and chanted obscure poetry in a whiney British accent.

“Soft glitter cosmos … needs a pig war,” he shouted into the microphone, mispronouncing “cosmos.”

“Good Claret.”

“Reversible surfaces.”

“Cold Ham.”

I had to bite my tongue and cover my mouth from laughing throughout the performance. Billy seemed so angry; his face turned red as he passionately screamed his poetry. While I found the performance unbearable after a few minutes, I watched Matt nod along with a smile on his face. While I couldn’t distinguish a single coherent thought, he thought the performance was well-written. I thought he was crazy.

“It’s very forward thinking,” Matt said. “He changes the context of his poetry by incorporating abnormal music into the performance.”

Matt’s open-minded attitude makes the Noise House such a welcoming environment. He applies a laissez-faire attitude towards most aspects of his life. Back when Matt used to host his shows in the Poughkeepsie pizza shop, he met Max Hammel, the third performer of the night. Max and his former bandmates brought their equipment to Matt’s show and he gladly let them perform a set on the spot. Max calls his current project Head Separated From Body. He had created his own synthesizer, consisting of dangerous looking wires and knobs in a wooden briefcase. He rapidly mixed high pitched laser noises and electronic churning that made my head spin. I looked down at Buddy in awe as he slept peacefully through the deafening screech. At one point Max began eating a tangerine in the middle of his performance and using the peels to play his synthesizer. Matt explained that the acidic juices from the peel alters the sound that the instrument produces. Although I didn’t exactly enjoy the product, I was baffled by his ingenuity. I couldn’t fathom the amount of experimentation required to discover these secret tricks. Although I could not comprehend how Max makes his music, it’s clear that he fully understands how to produce the sounds he desires.

Despite my numerous conversations and meditations on the whole noise scene, I was still dissatisfied. The performances I experienced, and the vague and empty explanations I’d gathered on noise culture had yet to yield a clear definition. I reached out to Matt to try and secure a better answer, only to be met with more obscurity.

“I have always kinda questioned that too. The definitions like is atmospheric or extra sound that shouldn’t be there. So when you call it like noise music it’s almost like, it’s like an oxymoron.”

My confusion and frustration had peaked, when I thought back to a lesson taught by my high school creative writing teacher. He told me that people don’t have to create with a meaning or purpose in mind; some people simply create to create. The tone and composition, or lack thereof, is as telling of a characteristic of a musician as their eyes. People will always search for ways to create something unique. At its core, noise allows for the most liberating outlet of expression, with endless possibilities for its deliverance. Each of the musicians reflected their own personalities in their performances. Trying to pin a tag on something that obscure would be an act of futility.

“ I don’t really know how to define it, I don’t approach my work that way.”

It cost roughly $150 for Matt to buy 1,000 stickers of his dog online. He paid an extra $50 to double the order. You’ll find the black-and-white, blurry headshot pasted on telephone poles, road signs, doorways and dive bars across the village. He figured he’d never find a better symbol for his noise brand.

He likened his quest to that of revered graffiti artist Shepard Fairey and the mysterious society of graffiti street taggers. Fairey’s “Obey Giant” manifesto reads: “The Obey sticker attempts to stimulate curiosity and bring people to question both the sticker and relationship with their surroundings.”

Originally, Fairey thought his message only catered to his clique of skateboarders and art school friends. It was an inside joke for a chosen few: those who got it merely smirked while the outsiders agonized over its meaning and eventually condemned it as nonsense. Fairey saw an opportunity to create a phenomenon out of obscurity.

Fairey may have Andre the Giant, but Luczak has Buddy the Golden Retriever and a manifesto of his own: “If they don’t get it, f*** it.”

 

Read more about #ImmerseYourself here:

Meg Tohill examines the library and late night study room till 4 a.m., observing and conversing with other students finding a haven in the library.

Matt Schenfeld goes underground exploring house shows and the performers of New Paltz’s music scene.

Trish Mollo stays committed to a 6 a.m. start at the gym to delve into the minds of the gym rats that seem to live there.

Alicia McGowan observes the rugby team and how they handle practices, games, losses and life.

Emily King is a farm girl at heart, but keeps that a secret as she accompanies the Sustainable Agriculture Club on campus and discovers what they think of the future of farming.

Maeve Allen watches puppets perform during a rehearsal of Avenue Q, where the theater department students express themselves through their characters.

Bryan Godwin watches band MoonUnitt who is new to New Paltz perform and light up the house show scene.

Sabrina Petroski joined the SUNY New Paltz burlesque troupe for their 10-year anniversary show where she learned more than just the art of burlesque.

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