Now that MoMA has finally ‘discovered’ sound art, it seems like an ideal moment to acknowledge that the practice – whether manifested as audiovisual environments in exhibition contexts or as experimental music composed for practitioners and fans – has been around for a very long time. From Luigi Russolo’s 1913 The Art of Noises and Léon Theremin’s 1920 invention of his eponymous instrument to the 1980s synth band Art of Noise and Warp Records’ ‘Artificial Intelligence’ series in the 1990s, industrial and electronic sounds and devices have been manipulated for aesthetic and atmospheric ends for at least a century.
Until the mass adoption of the Internet, there had never been a better time for sound artists to disseminate recordings of their works than the period between the mid-’70s and the mid-’90s, roughly between the birth of the boombox and the death of the Walkman. This was the heyday of the quality blank audio cassette, a format whose cheapness, ubiquity and portability democratized music-sharing and allowed artists with no commercial viability to become sub-rosa distributors of their own audio experiments. From mixtape-themed Esurance ads onwards, nostalgia for cassette culture has blossomed in recent years, so it was appropriate (if a bit nostalgic) that Generator, New York’s first sound art gallery (1989–92), would be almost perfectly replicated as a gallery show a few blocks away from its original East Village location.
Founded by Gen Ken Montgomery, a film student who really wanted to be a sound artist, Generator briefly became New York’s clearing house for the experimental music/noise underground. It was first housed in a small storefront on East 3rd Street and later moved to an industrial loft space in Chelsea (long before blue-chip galleries colonized the area). Montgomery was initially drawn to the field by John Cage’s 1961 essay collection Silence, particularly its ‘Lecture on Nothing’, from which he learned to hear any type of sound as music. He made a cassette of his own experimental music (Gen Ken and the Equipment, 1981) and soon found himself immersed in a global network of like-minded artists who mailed each other cassettes of their work.
An early pen pal was Conrad Schnitzler, the German sound artist who had been a student of Joseph Beuys and an early member of Tangerine Dream and Kluster (later known as Cluster). Montgomery and Schnitzler established a record label, Generations Unlimited, to document avant-garde sound works by the burgeoning global network of ‘modern folk artists’, and Montgomery eventually opened Generator as a site where New Yorkers could experience recordings and performances of sound art.
As re-created at AVA and staffed by an older but still infectiously upbeat Montgomery, Generator made obscurantist, mainstream-hostile record stores seem like Wal-Mart. Cassettes and vinyl records in arty packaging (burlap, sheet metal, etc.) lined the walls amid flyers and memorabilia in the small, one-room space. There were early works by artists who later became relatively well-known – Test Dept., Merzbow, Zoviet France, Illusion of Safety, Christian Marclay – alongside material you’d only know from Generator. One said ‘Processed Violins and Feedback Machine’, another, ‘Rheem Califone Speaker with Two Wine Glasses Vibrating’.
Thin, abrasive noise evoking a digitally filtered table saw – what I call ‘insect fear music’ – played on the stereo. I was pleased to see cassettes and zines from the Tape Beatles, puckish sample collagists from the Generator period. A flyer on the wall provided an answer to the question ‘What is a cassette concert?’, which the Flaming Lips must have read before embarking on their participatory car-stereo ‘Parking Lot Experiments’ and the four-disc album Zaireeka (1997). A monitor played a loop of a young Montgomery touring someone around the East Village, circa 1990, with boyish enthusiasm; meanwhile, a few feet away, the present-day Montgomery related a story of a concert event from the period involving live gerbils, a fog machine and cases of vodka. It was a welcome echo from a very different New York.