The Noise Ordinance

Eugene Noise Fest comes to WOW Hall

EntresolPhoto by Todd Cooper

With only 12 tones, Western music can sometimes seem like a limited medium. After all, there are only so many ways to combine tempo, harmony and pitch to create what we commonly recognize as music. 

Remove these foundational elements, and what’s left over?

Noise. But can noise also be art?

Don Haugen, curator of the Eugene Noise Fest, calls noise art “unwanted sound” — or the “weeds of music.” Noise artists create something unique from the sometimes harsh and other times meditative scraps most musicians leave on the floor.

Haugen founded Eugene Noise Fest a little more than 10 years ago, and this year, with artists from as far south as the Bay Area and as far north as Portland, the event has found its largest venue yet: WOW Hall.

Artists performing at this year’s event include Eugene’s Entresol, Depleted Your Cranium, Microwave Windows and many more. 

For a city of its size, Haugen calls Eugene’s relatively large noise scene “flexible,” but adds it’s a challenge to find venues for noise shows. In the past, Haugen has organized events in such unlikely places as the back rooms of game shops. Noise scenes, Haugen jokes, are a “home for a lot of broken, misfit toys.”

In the late ’80s, an interest in industrial music and art punk led Haugen to making art out of noise. “I would compare it to painting or writing,” Haugen says, instead of traditional music. 

Other noise artists come to the scene via free jazz, heavy metal or electronic music. 

“It’s a street-level abstract art,” Haugen says, adding “there’s a lot of texture,” as well as an interest in how sounds contrast with one another.

And while noise art shares some similarity to ambient styles of music, “it’s just louder,” Haugen says. 

Some noise artists manipulate traditional instruments, others use old medical equipment or electronic test equipment, coaxing sounds from electricity or other repurposed objects. A multimedia element often accompanies noise art, such as video projection. And while there’s no real tempo, harmony or tone, these elements do occasionally emerge organically from noise sets that are often improvised, but other times carefully planned out in advance.

“It’s like a Polaroid shot,” Haugen says, describing the noise art experience. Audiences should appreciate noise sets more like an art gallery experience than a traditional rock concert, he says. To this end, Haugen says those attending this year’s Noise Fest will never again “experience anything like this in a live music setting.” ■

Eugene Noise Fest is 7 pm Saturday, Aug. 18, at WOW Hall; $8 advance, $10 door. All-ages.