The New Blockaders
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The New Blockaders combine the use of non-musical instruments, art inspiration, and a critique of musicality that is designed to renew.
They released their first album Changez Les Blockeurs in 1982.
The 'instrumentation' is made up of objects and bits of rooms being scraped, dragged, thumped, scratched, etc.
The soundworld that emerges is something that continues throughout their work, albeit sometimes featuring more processed elements, especially if in collaboration with others.
What marks this first album out is its refusal to go beyond what is actually a very limited set of sound possibilities - whilst there is continual clatter, it does not aspire to variety.
Unlike other of their releases, there is a dynamic, with changes in emphasis, mainly in the percussive elements – 'Part One,' for example, calms down toward the end, dissipating any momentum it might have acquired and in place of what could have been construed as rhythms are staccato metallic scrapes.
Throughout, the percussiveness is jerky, but also insistent, as if trying to create an object that is both resistant, massive, and also something that exists only to be pummelled away.
'Part Two' ends with quiet creaks (having taken in a dog yapping and something like elephantine trumpeting.)
Clatters give way to bumps and finally, a hiss like dust.
On the face of it, this is very similar to the recordings and performance of Einsturzende Neubauten, who use electrical tools, metals, bits of buildings, and so on at about the same time.
But the German group are using destruction, where TNB are destructive of instrumentation.
TNB refuse the evocations that characterise 'Industrial music,' and collapse signification into material.
Initially, unlike Pierre Schaeffer or Nurse With Wound, the sound seems to maintain its ‘dramatic context’ – i.e. we know, and are encouraged to notice, what is being played, however unusual it is in the context of music (recording, performance, artwork.)
But TNB refuse a virtuosity of the newly musicalised object.
If a chair or wall is to be used ‘as percussion’ it will not be salvaged as a musical instrument, but will retain its flatness, its essential unmusicality.
Later recordings and performances even lose the residual possibility of ‘properly playing’ objects in an indistinction of sound.
Refusal is a key part of their strategy.
Also in 1982 came the 'TNB Manifesto,' which lays out a strong rejection of all art, the past and meaning. In being 'anti-music, anti-art, anti-magazines, anti-books, anti-films, anti-clubs, anti-communications' they aim for new thoughts, new actions etc. Their rejection is purposeful, but also contains the same seeds of contradiction propagated by the multiple Dada manifestos: 'we will make a point of being pointless.' Their philosophical nihilism (as opposed to the use of that word as an accusation of hypocrisy, cynicism or violence) is complete: everything is to be refused, even the meaning of the refusal. They are genuinely rehearsing and re-presenting the purpose of Dada – a continual questioning and destruction being in its own right creative, and not just a way of clearing a path, or effecting a cleansing (as some parts of Futurist manifestos suggest.) The manifesto does announce ‘we must destroy in order to go forward!,’ but the important thing is how this is achieved – the going forward of TNB music is always a dwelling in the destruction of musicality. They recall the era of high modernism as a refusal of all that came before or at the same time. The manifesto summons a moment where the artistic avant garde imagined they could change society through art and exclamation marks. This manifesto doesn’t quite work in the way it seems to at first: it is much more of a commentary on writing manifestos: a meta-manifesto, which, because it takes 'the manifesto' idea seriously, ends up being less than a manifesto (and this in a good way.) It both means what it says and realises the impossibility of this working, replaying Nietzsche’s dictum 'Nothing is true! Everything is possible!' The sounds that we get are in place of music, and this writing is in place of a real programme for change. Above all, what characterises the attitude and the sound is refusal – hence the 'blockade,' but how to keep this fresh without changing is a dilemma. One of the ways out has been collaboration, and ultimately the outward contagion that bears fruit on Viva Negativa! (2005/06), two four-album sets of 'versions' of TNB works. But before we get there, it is worth tracking TNB a bit further in their own right. The 'Live Offensives' of Gesamtnichtswerk (2003) continue the harsh, often jerky percussiveness, with pipe rolling and bashing to the fore on Live at Morden Tower (10/83.) All four performances establish a mass of sound that avoids light and shade in favour of a randomly phased strobing of sounds. There is no attempt to make high-quality recordings, so tape hiss and loss of sharpness also become part of the block of sound that is set up. Noise music is always an attempt to re-assert the material over the musical, and this means not hiding the process of production as digital sound attempts/claims to do. Loss of quality is not inherently something to do with Noise music, as mp3 sound compression and selective heightening of vocals over other elements demonstrate, but the boundary between means of reproduction and material to be reproduced in TNB's material blurs, as does the line between what is acceptable and unacceptable on a recording, as does the distinction between music and non-music (where, in this case, music would just mean the sounds purposely created or replayed by 'musicians.') Everything about TNB entails refusal, and yet this refusal to even be anti-art is potentially problematic, because firstly, it is a common gesture, and secondly, it had in this case produced a large body of 'not-even-anti-art.'
The title of their collection, Gesamtnichtswerk, is important here. It reminds us of Wagner’s dream of the 'total art work' – the Gesamtkunstwerk, but the art is replaced by nothing, a nothing that is emphasised in the sleeve notes, as being outside of everything, an emptiness that becomes total rather than being a contained space of nothingness, or some sort of nothing reserve. In place of art then, is nothing – no renewal, no radicality to inspire. As it is a collection, it is not about a total single moment of nothing but the sprawl of nothing where there should be something, which means the 'total' part refers to the entirety of music and art (scraps of which litter the booklets.) Clearly, though, creation has occurred in this nothingness, just as many currently suspect of black holes, but creation based on refusal is not the same as affirmative art, art that believes itself, and this because, not despite, of the 'manifest.' The gesture is backed up by a material working-through of 'nothing' where art/music is supposed to be, and where a space has been cleared, there will be no building, only more clearing. The third CD of Gesamtnichtswerk offers two 'symphonies': Simphonie in X Major and Simphonie in O Minor (1991): neither of which are recognised keys for composition … Simphonie in X Major begins with huge industrial blasts, and moves through phases o machinery destroying itself – there are rhythms, made up of booming and howling. After 7.10 in the 'First Movement,' the noisier part stops and gives way to scraping and thumping, building back up to more overwhelming blasts. The 'Second Movement' is crashier. Simphonie in O Minor is mostly quiet hiss, fizzing, and, gradually rising in volume from virtual inaudibility, a background throbs within it. The symphony is of course the privileged mode of 'classical' music at its height as an elitist art (culturally as well as in terms of class reception and production.) Like the realist novel, its steady narrative and teleology reassures the higher classes of European society. Its structure makes it easy to construct a linear history of aesthetic beauty around it, suggesting a sense of order at all levels. Modernist experiments moved away from the symphony and/or sonata form, and in the case of Noise music, attempted to leave form behind (somewhat optimistically and didactically.) TNB take the symphony into the woods and pound it until it stops speaking its language of reconciliation and resolution. Narrative is specifically undone through the nonlinear trudge through 'nonmusic' in the first 'simphonie' and through absence in the second (without being the smug silence of John Cage’s 4'33".) This rejection of narrative is crucial in returning us to the question of influence – which can no longer be heard in terms of inheritance but must be seen as agonistic and retrospective. Not only this, but it is undone – not refused, the spurious belief in individual genius unconnected to history stripped back.
This rejection of the notion of the creative genius (as seen in Dada) extends to TNB collaborations, which range from Organum through The Haters to Merzbow, to the 'versions' or 'tributes' on Viva Negativa! The working methods are kept obscure, but it mostly seems as if material is being shared and altered, rather than the Jazz model of the individual player finding a like-minded spirit and realising some sort of meeting of musical minds through presence. Similarly, TNB collaboration is not like remixing, where one self-present individual brings their style to another, in a mutual reinforcement of supposed greatness. Instead, individuality is swamped as the material gets more isolated from any controlling 'artistic' force, and aims for the selfgeneration and self-maintenance of living organisms. From the descriptions here, it might seem this is a very dry 'music' but it breathes, albeit slightly toxically. Its self-containedness, its removal from individual fingerprints being the key to its uncontrollability for listener and performer alike. This is not to say there is no recognisable style, or that a TNB/Organum recording (such as Pulp (1984) doesn’t suggest elements of individual styles combining. But once the 'music' is essentially made of noises, structured noisily and disruptively, without offering a welcoming form, any recombination takes it further from artistically recognisable modes of talent, skill, etc. even if a certain audience would 'appreciate' this music as if it had those attributes.
The manifesto too exists as if it were a manifesto, as if it returned us to Dada, but without being merely a knowing reference or something in a 'retro' style. It is there again at the opening of the Viva Negativa!, both written and recorded on seven-inch single. Underneath it lies several hours of material, where TNB material has been ingested by others and 'tributes' made: the manifesto’s seriousness (it is not ironic, in the sense of smugly deriding those early twentieth-century manifestos, but it is a humorous take on the idea, I think) is essential for its own failure, and therefore its capacity to set up a tortuous, 'aporetic' path through the material. Its contradiction through eight albums of 'covers,' four of them literally coming after the manifesto, in box 1, is part of the noise not being simply within TNB 'music,' as it establishes an effect that stretches out of the record itself, between records, between TNB and others, between TNB and listeners, and so on. Like Dada, the manifesto cannot but does succeed. It becomes impossible to fail, but to succeed as 'not-even-anti-art' is failure. This 'failure' is what defines noise in its encounter with music, for noise must fail to be noise if it is accepted, and of course it fails if not heard as well. This failure is where noise resides, the fate it selects for itself, or has selected for it.
Noise must be only as if it were music, not as a new musicality, and all this is signalled in the relations set up the TNB manifesto and their actual musical practice, something akin to Bataille’s 'formless,' which travels between and undermines both form and formlessness. No assessment of influence and the way it plays out in art could ignore Harold Bloom’s influential The Anxiety of Influence, originally published in 1973. Bloom argues that a later poet is in a continual struggle with precursors, and realises their work as if free of influence, but all the while making that influence come to be, in the new poem. Many have misunderstood the 'anxiety' of the title, as Bloom is not shy of pointing out in his preface to the second edition. The anxiety is not separate or prior to new creation: 'what writers may experience as anxiety and what their works are compelled to manifest, are the consequence of poetic misprision, rather than the cause of it. The strong misreading comes first.' (Bloom 1997.) The later poet develops as artist through six stages or 'ratios,' beginning with a misreading that is never excised ('clinamen') and continuing through various reworkings until ultimately, the later poet becomes the precursor, thereby belatedly making the earlier poet into precursor ('apophrades.') Influence becomes unavoidable, and something that 'cannot be reduced to source-study, to the history of ideas, to the patterning of images.' (ibid.: 7.) Anxiety and influence come late, not early, such that 'a poem is not an overcoming of anxiety, but is that anxiety' (ibid.: 94.) Bearing in mind the seeming absence of worry in TNB with regard to their artistic precursors, they offer good examples of Bloom’s idea of 'anxiety': the presence of Dada or Surrealism, for example, represent a creative misinterpretation rather than a happy wallowing in older, better forms. That those movements are thought to belong to the past (chased away by a succession of other avant-garde movements) heightens the possibility of 'misreading,' without becoming cosy irony or nostalgia, but an awareness of the influence as an inevitable connector. TNB’s collaborations represent a way of incorporating influence, of annulling it respectfully. The collaboration is away of realizing equality, but what is produced heightens Bloom’s idea of anxiety in that influence cannot be surmounted and all attempts to do so only emphasize its lurking (creative) force. Influence is no longer linear, in this view, and nor is it capable of being clearly delineated: 'misreading does not simply occur between two texts, but spans and in fact constitutes the history of the poetic tradition' (Allen, 1994.) Again, it is worth noting that 'misreading' is not the implication of an error by Bloom, by the process of reading itself, which is always removed from the source (and we could extend this, to the author.) The field of poetry, of creative writing in general, even art in general, is composed of misreadings. So when the influence of influence is raised, as it is by TNB, to become something problematic, rather than hidden, this is a playing out of Bloom’s theory. In fact, they can tell us something about its reach, can display its functioning. This is in large part because the actual precursor, for TNB (seen from a Bloomian perspective) is not a movement, or an artist, but music. It is music that must be re-read (misread), re-appropriated, denied, destroyed and so on, and finally music is brought back to an origin through its denial (i.e. the beginning of all music is its emergence from other sounds, which then become thought of as noise.)
TNB’s Gesamtnichtswerk even undoes the idea of a historical compilation, not just through conceptual framing, but also through closing on the twenty-minute silence of ‘Null Bei Ohr' ('Nil By Ear.') This is not a reference to, or repetition of Cage (but in being silent, it makes itself the anxiety of such a repetition.) At the end is nothing, in place of Noise music. As it occupies time, the listener awaits, attentive – is it going to burst into sound? Is it made of frequencies beyond hearing? Is it about the machinery of recordings? All of this was never about listening, it almost says.
The first generation of artists producing work in the Noise 'genre,' starting in the late 1970s, did so with a strong focus on performance. The generation that followed, emerged, for the most part, in the early 1990s. The defining characteristic of these younger artists was that they misheard the Noise Music of The New Blockaders. What was intended to be meaningless, or the inconsequential and unintentional byproduct of a conceptual performance, was misheard as being aesthetically pleasing. Beginning in the 1990s, a generation of artists appeared who had grown up listening to the Noise Music of the 1970s and '80s, who were not disturbed by it, were not provoked into antisocial action by it, and did not hear it as the documentation of an art happening which had little to do with the sound being produced, but instead heard it as music. 1990s Noise artists re-musicalized Noise through mishearing it, finding in it beauty, and meaning.
TNB are perhaps best known for the ambitiousness regarding the stated goals of their art. The group released a manifesto in 1982 which stated that Noise stood in opposition to all other art that had ever existed prior to it. Their concept divided all artistic expression into two categories: Art and Noise, which they equated with anti-art. Their manifesto reads: 'We are The New Blockaders. Blockade is resistance. It is our duty to blockade and induce others to blockade... Anti-books, anti-art, anti-music, anti-clubs, anti-communications. We will make anti-statements about anything and everything. We will make a point of being pointless.' TNB saw Noise as a project that stretched much further than the realm of the sonic, but was an entire movement of art practice, including literary, performance and visual art. In their earliest actions, the audio portion of their performances seems like something of an afterthought, or even perhaps the byproduct of the performative creation of a situation, or environment, which was the group’s primary intention. Notice that in the opening lines of the manifesto quoted above, they do not even mention music, even though they are remembered largely as a musical project. I argue that the early works of TNB, though they are considered the originary examples of Noise Music, should be more appropriately considered as a kind of Performance Art. As a result, I wish to suggest that their musical documents from this time can be heard as noisy in that the sounds they capture were not produced as the intentional content of these performances, but were, in large part, the sonic byproduct of the activities that produced them. I believe that if one considers the address of these early TNB works, the audio component was secondary to the creation of a situation and a context in a performance space. As such, they cannot be heard as musical works in the way that most musical works are assessed, but rather as performance pieces, in which sound was produced, but only accidentally and as an element secondary to other artistically expressive concerns. The TNB manifesto also provides us with an understanding of noise (and Noise Music) as a rejection, or an assault on meaning. Like some of the scientific definitions of the word noise, which describe noise as meaningless, random data, TNB argue that their art is likewise, devoid of meaning. This is a common theme which is repeated over and over again in the discourse of Noise Music, but seems to be misleading. Even Cage, who left the actual sounds in his compositions up to chance, understood that meaning was produced in the act of framing those sounds as music, and in organizing them as a performance. In a sense, meaninglessness as an aesthetic imperative is in itself eminently meaningful.
Even though the actual audio was beside the point, TNB recorded their performances and shared them throughout the world. The trading of these recordings fostered an international community so spread out that there was rarely any possibility of traveling to attend performances. The cassettes were documents, objects that could be shared, that would circulate intercontinentally when it was impractical or financially impossible for bodies themselves to do so. In those earliest days, Noise Music was largely a performance-based practice and audio recordings were documents of live events, rather than artworks in themselves. However, artists did produce recordings as a way to communicate across borders, and share ideas about the genre. Because of this, the cassettes made available to listeners who sought them out, whether they understood what it was that they were hearing. According to TNB, taste in art was anathema to their mission of disruption and confrontation. Noise Music couldn’t be judged by the same terms that other art was: it was neither good nor bad - it either was noisy (which is to say, successful) or it wasn’t. Many discovered Noise Music through the recordings - the objects themselves (cassettes, LPs, CDs) are materially identical to the objects that carry traditional music - and responded to the audio first as music, only learning later that it was associated with performance art, or designed as social provocation. As a result, a new generation of Noise Music artists consciously made 'noise' as music. How were they to know that they were being (unsuccessfully) compelled by TNB to listen somehow differently when, by all outside appearances, the tapes and records listeners heard seemed to contain music?'
If Noise Music was ever noisy in a way that afforded any critically-useful theorization of noise, then it was only ever so for a brief moment. Almost immediately following the first sonic experiments of TNB, The Haters and Hijokaidan, Noise Music’s noisiness, it seems, was tamed, subsumed into a predictable, codified art practice and underground music field. This shift can be heard not only in the music itself, but also in the politics of the various artists’ stated ‘meanings’ communicated by their work. Extra-musical elements -including interviews, live performances, album and song titles, and the visual art which adorned the packaging of the cassettes, records and compact discs released throughout Noise Music’s thirty-something year old history.
Even Anti-Art Is Art... That Is Why We Reject It!