BY Dan Fox in Frieze | 01 JAN 03
Featured in
Issue 72

The Sound of Speed

Black Dice and Musical Context

BY Dan Fox in Frieze | 01 JAN 03

In 1970 Philip Glass visited Europe as an assistant to Richard Serra. During a performance of one of Glass' works a member of the audience rushed onto the stage. The composer, a former boxer, punched him with one hand and carried on playing with the other. Glass also recalls how, on the occasion of a New York concert in 1973, 'A man literally tried to stop the concert by yelling, 'They're not musicians! They can't play! I'm a music teacher and I know they're not really playing their instruments!' 1

It seems extraordinary that the music of 1960s and 1970s Minimalist composers, now such a part of our media soundscape (selling cars or pumping quietly through fancy design shops), could once have fired people to anger, just as it's difficult to imagine how Stravinsky's Rite of Spring could have provoked rioting when first performed in Paris in 1913. Take the intelligent and notorious Throbbing Gristle, for example, who were once reviled by many and, in their Coum Transmissions manifestation, described by Conservative MP Nicholas Fairbairn as 'the wreckers of civilization'. A lavishly packaged (and lavishly priced) boxed reissue of the band's live recordings, TG24 (2002), has just been released, a 'best of' compilation is due in 2003, and their more mellifluous sounds are finding their way into hip bars and on to the turntables of the in-crowd. Even a band as smart and confrontational but seemingly 'difficult' to listen to as TG are now finding either that a broader audience is beginning to make sense of their project, or that any endeavour, no matter how resistant to assimilation, eventually undergoes some form of reification by the mainstream. Avant-garde classical music aids the ad man's tasteful soft sell. Underground Punk experimentation is accessorized. 'Cool' becomes the key with which to decipher the idea that something is 'difficult'. For better or for worse, we acclimatize ourselves to music over the course of years, and somehow we work each other out and music finds the right home at the right time.

With their roots in the abrasive sonorities of early Industrial music (such as TG's), Japanese Noise and Modernist Classicism, New York-based Black Dice have found at least a temporary home in the borderlands between the art and left-field music communities. Although not quite as extreme as the pioneers in this field, or as pure as current noiseniks such as Satanstornade, Black Dice are nevertheless not a band you would choose to listen to if you were feeling even remotely fragile. Once a physically violent thrash Metal band, their music has broadened into mellower (if at times worryingly New-Age) territory with the release of their first album, Beaches and Canyons (2003). The demands they place on their equipment and the extremity of volumes and frequencies in their improvised live performances still carry a brutal physical punch, however.

Black Dice's sound is a music of acclimatization. Listening to tracks such as 'The Dream is Going Down' and 'Big Drop' is at first like putting your ear next to a chorus of pneumatic drills, but once you get past the pain barrier, more elegant, repeated structures begin to appear. As your ear attunes itself to timbre rather than pitch, and to the tonal quirks of vocalist Eric Copeland's banshee wail rather than the fact that he is screaming, 'Big Drop' suddenly feels that bit warmer. You roll with it along a tantalizingly unresolved path, with the similar pleasant sense you get from travelling without arriving. Through delirious ears sense can be made of the chaos. Subtler melodies start to peek shyly from behind the blinding white noise, and somehow the apocalypse doesn't quite seem so bad after all.

In New York last year Black Dice performed a specially composed piece for painter Richard Phillips' 'America' show at Friedrich Petzel Gallery, and for Peter Coffin's 'Perfect If On' at Andrew Kreps Gallery they played amid the verdant foliage of a greenhouse. From the Chat Noir in Montmartre in 1881 through the Cabaret Voltaire to New York's Mudd Club in the late 1970s (where the art and No Wave music scenes partied and sparked off each other) musicians have found that art spaces can provide a sympathetic home for music at the bleeding edge of sonic experimentation. (Bernard Gendron's book Between Montmartre and The Mudd Club: Popular Music and the Avant Garde, 2002, is a wonky but fantastically detailed stab at a history of the 'border crossings' - the seldom chronicled bars, clubs and spaces where entertainment, performance and music have fed into artists' primary practices.)

Whether the current interest surrounding Black Dice is due to the cultural capital accrued by playing the art space circuit is a moot point. You're going to hear anything differently if you listen to it from the back of a grotty venue rather than a plant-filled hothouse at a downtown art space. Anyway, who goes to an art gallery as a paid-up punter expecting to dance your legs down to the knees (those museum-meets-club nights never quite work ...) or reel from the full solar plexus blow of a requiem? Perhaps those whitewashed walls attune your ears to a more analytical frequency, rather than leaving them open to the direct kick that can be given by a live gig in a dingy bar. Whether that bit more is actually there or whether you're hearing things is another matter. You can be on a beach or ranging through a canyon, it can be dawn or dusk, but a change of scene can provide room for experimentation, for having a crack at something new. It can provide room for mistakes, for falling flat on your face, for brave failures. It allows bands like Black Dice to make their kind of sense in the here and now.

1. Robert K. Schwartz, Minimalists, Phaidon, London, 1996, p. 125.

Dan Fox is the author of Pretentiousness: Why It Matters (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2016) and Limbo (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018). He co-directed the film Other, Like Me (2021).