Art of Noise

When I was a kid my parents took my brother and me to museums all the time. Art was a significant part of how our family spent time together. From our small town in upstate New York we would make forays to Utica, Albany, Binghamton, New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Buffalo, etc., specifically to go to particular museums and exhibitions.

My mother was a paintings conservator (now retired), and so I was constantly exposed to pieces she was restoring in her studio. Sometimes I would tag along with her when she went to museums, galleries, and other sites to work on paintings or murals. (WPA-era post offices became a specialty of hers.)

Later, when my mother’s business was doing quite well and she was feeling very flush, our trips extended to Europe. One time we even took a notoriously extravagant four-day trip to Amsterdam and Germany just to see a Matisse exhibition in Dusseldorf. My mother felt that she would otherwise never have had another chance to see some of the paintings that she’d always wanted to see, which were on loan to the exhibition by the Soviet Union, who at the time wouldn’t let them enter the US.

Consequently, I was taught that art is very important, something worth travelling great distances and going to great expense to experience. I absorbed a great deal of my aesthetic sensibility from listening to my parents’ responses to art, but I don’t remember their ever deliberately saying to me what was ‘good’ or ‘bad’ about particular works. Not that they weren’t discriminating, but they didn’t ever seem to force their judgments on me.

I learned to love going to museums, and a trip somewhere often felt incomplete if we didn’t get in enough time for art. The thing that bothered me for much of my childhood and into my teen years was that I just didn’t know how to respond to abstract art. I enjoyed almost every type and era of art, but when I looked at abstract pieces I just didn’t know what I was supposed to take away with me.

I remember one particularly fraught visit to the Whitney in New York when I finally broke down and talked to my parents about it. I asked them what I was supposed to look for. My father told me just to look at a piece, not look for anything in it, and if the piece did anything for me, well it did. If it didn’t, well, move on to the next one and try again. Looking back now, I see this as solid advice, but to a 13-year-old boy impatient to participate in his parents’ adult world it was very frustrating.

In 1979, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York organized the largest exhibition it had ever put together of a living artist’s work, Clyfford Still. Naturally, my parents had to see this exhibition, and of course, my brother and I went with them.

I don’t know what it was about that particular show, but the only way I can describe my experience is as an epiphany. I felt so deeply moved by the number of large-scale paintings assembled in one place — their vast fields of rich, deep colors dwarfing the people who mingled in the galleries — that I knew that a brave new world had opened up to me. My response was not intellectual; I still couldn’t say what I took away with me. But it didn’t matter. I knew the visceral and overwhelming power of art. It felt so good.

I know I’m breaking the rules a little bit here in terms of image size, but I want to try to give you a sense of the size and power of these paintings. Of course, even the largest imaginable .jpg file couldn’t possibly succeed, but indulge me.

Just one more, okay?

About six years later I had another epiphany related to abstract art, for which, I now see, the one at the Still show had prepared me. Away from home at college I had begun to develop an interest in kinds of music I’d never heard before in my small town — funk, hardcore, etc., but especially jazz.

I noticed a sign for an upcoming show to take place in the college’s tiny chapel on campus — Roscoe Mitchell, a jazz saxophonist would play solo. I had no real idea of what to expect, but an adventure sounded just about right to me.

It was a bitterly cold Friday evening, and most of my friends had nothing else to do, so I told them about the show and suggested that we go. I remember that a few of them were a little put off by the $5 admission. (Five bucks bought a lot more then than it does now.) Nonetheless, about five or six of us trooped the couple of blocks from our dorm to the chapel, which wasn’t that well heated.

Here’s a little taste of what we experienced that night.


My friends were made very uncomfortable by the atonal squawking of Mitchell’s alto saxophone, and they were clearly irritated with me for having coaxed them into spending too much money to submit themselves to what they considered auditory torment.

I, on the other hand, was transfixed. The experience was overwhelming, sitting just a few feet away from an artist who was risking his all, putting every bit of himself into what he created that very instant, just blowing what came to him, building and shaping a piece, abandoning himself to it, laying himself open in front of strangers. Again, another world had opened up to me.

Looking back, I can say that my response was approximately the same as the one I had had at the Clyfford Still show, but of course muted and tempered by the fact that my friends were so bummed out. Just as color and shape in abstract art are arranged with a set of conventions and intention different from representational work, provoking a visceral response in me, so here was sound shaped and colored in a way much different from that of the typical verse-chorus-verse structure to which even punk and standard jazz are subject.

Now, I know that most people don’t hear this as music, and I don’t really blame them for it. Avant-garde jazz remains difficult listening, even for me. I generally don’t unwind after a long day by popping a Peter Brötzmann album on the turntable.


Really, in fact, the best way to experience avant-garde jazz is in person. I have some recordings of live performances, but I rarely listen to them. It seems to me a little like looking at a .jpg of a Clyfford Still instead of walking in front of it at a museum — a very diminished experience.

I often wonder, however, that if there had been some feasible way to monetize avant-garde jazz to the same degree as painting whether it would have gained more mainstream acceptance, just as abstract art (originally not accepted as “art” by the mainstream) came to be accepted through being sold in galleries and eventually commissioned by banks.

Eric Dolphy, a remarkable avant-garde saxophonist and flautist who played with Charles Mingus and John Coltrane, among many others, said, “When you hear music, after it’s over, it’s gone, in the air. You can never recapture it again.” I guess that because recordings can’t really do improvised music justice, there is really nothing (literally no “thing”) to sell outside of a ticket to a concert — the experience of closing your eyes and letting it wash over you like a soul-cleansing blaze of fire and hail of razor blades — and it will therefore most likely remain a part of the aesthetic hinterlands forever.

P.S. Interestingly, while tracking down the exact wording of that Eric Dolphy quote, I found this website on which I found this video. Leave it to the Italians to put it all together.


11 responses to “Art of Noise”

  1. ScottyGee says:

    Thanks for putting this out there, Tim. I loved the Brotzmann piece — his drummer kicks some serious butt in that number. I wasn’t so crazy about the Mitchell clip, but I can see how it would be quite an experience to be in the same space as all that energy.

    The Italian clip prompted the following reaction:
    …wow, so just like at an American show, Italians can’t shut the f*ck up while someone’s playing music.

    As for the paintings, I’d love to see a Clyfford Still show with you. I’d need a little convincing, but arm-in-arm with the Timo might do the trick.

  2. swells says:

    You’re leaving out my favorite part of the Still story, which your mom told me: that at the exhibit you sort of sidled up to her teenagerishly and mumbled, in a way she described as somehow sheepish or guilty or something like that, “I think I just had my first aesthetic experience.”

    That story almost makes me want to have a kid!

  3. For me, the Brotzmann piece is fairly accessible. The Mitchell piece, less so. I think that to love abstract art in any medium requires a certain kind of personal surrender, no? We give ourselves over to the raw experience.

    As much as I love art in general, I’m having a kind of mid-life art crisis in the sense that I struggle with questions of how to VALUE art… this is especially true for abstract art. I mean wouldn’t it be great if everyone would get over their fear of making art, and just get out there and do it? On the one hand, I think it is really important that some people be able to explore a medium to its fullest, and I know this couldn’t happen unless there were collectors. On the other hand, I hate how the professional art world thrives on the myth of genius, and makes that which comes natural to children feel terrifying for adults.

    Anyhow, Tim, thanks for this thoughtful piece. I really enjoyed it.

  4. ScottyGee says:

    3: I think the idea of adults doing what comes naturally to children is what makes successful abstraction so important. The process of unlearning (at least in my experience) is way more difficult than that of learning. Does that make sense?

    That said, the question of how we value art is troubling to me as well.

  5. swells says:

    I haven’t been able to reach where you are with avant-garde jazz, mainly because I’m not sure I’ve ever heard it live and also because the of the difficulty of the “unlearning” process for me w/ regards to what I like in music. I certainly know what it is to feel that way about a painting, though. Your descriptions remind me of a moment I had at the Tate a couple summers ago, when I walked in a room hung with six giant Gerhardt Richter abstracts that he had painted in homage to John Cage. Something about them completely seized me and I was overwhelmed to the point of tears, but when Scott asked what it was about them that hit me so hard, I couldn’t even begin to pinpoint it or even narrow it down. Visceral is the only word for an experience like that. Maybe you can get me there with music too!

  6. Tim says:

    I think it’s a really long process to get to the point of liking avant-garde jazz, and you have to want to do it, too. It seems to me both a learning and an unlearning process. Part of it is simply being exposed to it a few times over the course of a number of months or years. I think my father’s advice to my teenage self stands the test of time. Listen to a performance. If it works for you, great. If it doesn’t, try another.

    One thing to remember, too, is that just as with abstract painting there will be pieces and artists that aren’t for you, or don’t succeed as well in your eyes or ears. I think a lot of people might say, “Well, how do you tell a good improvised piece from a bad one?” For me, successful performances have a clear sense of direction and purpose, along with intensity and focus. There are people who just noodle, just as there are noodley guitarists who play rock or pop. Getting to the point at which I could say to myself with confidence that a performance is worth my time and attention has been a very long process.

    I like the urge to say that adults need to unlearn the things that limit them in order to create with the abandon of a child, but it’s important to remember that the standard “My-kid-could-do-that!” critique doesn’t hold water.

    The same goes for improvised music. About 6 years ago I regularly attended an avant-garde series at which a particular guitarist played frequently. His stuff was terrible — directionless, unfocused, lazy, boring. It seemed like he didn’t even know how to play the guitar at all. A few years later, I was very surprised to see that he had joined the band of a local pop singer I quite like. I expected him to continue to suck. In fact, he is really, really good with that band. He’s a very good, competent player of songs with a standard structure, but has no real idea how to play outside the lines and create something interesting.

  7. Nat says:

    The second clip was really cool. As odd as it might sound — I have this feeling that I would listen to it in my car just the same way, I listen to Stone Temple Pilots – volume all the way up. I am not so sure about the first one, maybe because there was not enough time to understand where he was going with this.

    I was introduced to avant-garde, when a park a few metro stations away, organized a whole year art sale. There was this giant pathway, a couple kilometers long, where hundreds of painters displayed and sold their art. Avant-garde was in fashion, and you could walk for a while before you’d find anything but that. It was so neat, because you could see an artist, look at his art and get a vibe, and then, move on to someone else with a different vibe and completely different paintings: being able to meet the artists really helped understanding the emotions they were going for.

  8. Stella says:

    I’m always jealous of people whose parents were into art and museums…and to have a conservator as a mother! Wow. How fab.

  9. Rachel says:

    Wonderful essay, Tim. Your youth sounds SO much better than the thousands of hours I spent in church pews, desperate to have an aesthetic experience of some sort! I’m still struggling with the jazz, but it does have a charisma and immediacy that keeps pulling me back to the clips. It’s not enjoyment, exactly–it’s almost better than that.

  10. Dan Bresnahan says:

    There is a real difference between non-representational art and avant garde jazz, but that doesn’t mean jazz can’t find its niche-and has! If you’re looking for monetization, consider how many films and TV shows over the years have used jazz accompaniments-and they tended toward the less strictly structured because they were often extremely fragmentary and intended to evoke moods in the audience. Also jazz has had phenomenal acceptance outside of the US so that what we see here as a deficiency is somewhat misleading. I beg also to differ on the point that recorded music is necessarily inferior to a live performance: that strictly depends on the response of the listener. I have been a jazz fan for nearly 60 years (from age 13) and most of what I have heard has been recordings-the turn on there is not dependent on the performer, but on the performance. Admittedly a live performance becomes a sort of “mixed media” event, but there are other ways to do that to. It’s sad that musicians and artists rarely think of getting together to play music in museums and galleries, calculated to create a complementary aesthetic synthesis. Words and music have been a traditional mix almost forever. Why not music and art?

  11. Tim says:

    Hey Dan, thanks for commenting. I didn’t mean to imply that abstract art and avant-garde jazz are the same thing, simply in different media. My aim was to make an analogy between the two and, by pointing out some similarities, offer a point of entry into the latter for people who enjoy the one but not the other.

    I guess my bias for live avant-garde music stems from my general higher valuation of live over recorded music. I enjoy live music much more, probably because it offers, or even demands, the opportunity to focus strictly on the music. I’ll put on a record at home and then start doing other things — reading, eating, cleaning, talking, whatever. When I’m out to hear music, I concentrate on the music (and hope that others around me do, too).

    I think this bias is heightened even more in cases of improvised music because the thrill of being in the same space with the performer is elevated by the fact that she or he is creating the piece on the spot. The tension that builds in a room when a performer is right on the edge between controlling a piece and letting it get away is phenomenal. If a piece has been recorded and released, it’s a fair guess that it was successful, so that tension is diffused. Also, if I miss something when listening to a record I can start it over again. I just don’t hang on every note the same way I do at a performance.

    In terms of monetization, of course jazz (and especially avant-garde jazz) has done much, much better in Europe and Asia than it has in the U.S. However, it still doesn’t have institutions as hugely popular and financially successful as, say, the Saatchi Gallery or the Guggenheim in Bilbao. Partly, I think that’s because once a jazz artist is dead there is little outside of personal effects and recordings to sell or collect. When Clyfford Still died, for instance, he left hundreds upon hundreds of paintings and drawings that have increased in value.