Interview: Ben Osborne, Noise of Art

Ben Osborne

Ben Osborne is a writer, DJ, curator and driving force behind the Noise of Art, a collective which marries electronic music with the performing arts, film and other visual media.

Noise of Art has been staging music events since 2006 at unusual venues including The Tate, BFI, Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, The National Film Theatre and Glasgow Art School.

These ambitious cross-platform projects have involved leading electronic musicians and artists including Justin Robertson, Booka Shade, Fujiya & Miyagi, Coldcut, Vector Lovers, Ashley Beedle, Lemon Jelly and Kafka.

They have also showcased a broad range of visual artists including Gavin Turk, Stella Vine, Russell Herron, Miss Led, Gareth Bayliss, Schwange and Mark Scott Wood.

Next month, Noise of Art will embark on a year-long celebration to mark the centenary of electronic music. The collective will host a string of events that all relate to Italian futurist Luigi Russolo’s Manifesto for An Art of Noises, which was first published in 1913 and outlines a precursor to the synthesiser.

First up will be a rare chance to see the Eccentronic Research Council (ERC) live, featuring TV and film star Maxine Peake.

Maxine Peake, ERC

Maxine Peake, ERC

ERC will be joined at Village Underground, London, on 17 May, by Fil OK, Justin Robertson, Jim Stanton and Scottee.

We caught up with Ben ahead of the celebrations to get his take on the gradual assimilation of electronic music into the mainstream and the erosion of barriers between music and art. He also explains his fixation with the weird and wonderful creations of Russolo and explains how this historic figure has inspired his latest venture.

Do you think the disciplines of music, art and design are well integrated in the UK?
When I first began doing Noise of Art, which launched for a one-off event at The Tate, the digital world was starting to make cross-platform work much easier and cheaper. So most people I knew either through music or art were beginning to combine their disciplines. I was aware of a lot of this stuff going on and I was also aware that it wasn’t being put on anywhere. There was a need to take it off the small screen and put it into a live environment.

Did you encounter any resistance to your ideas?
Certainly at the beginning, because some venues didn’t know if the audience was there for this stuff that we were proposing. At the BFI for instance, they’d tried doing silent film with electronic music once before and it hadn’t worked – it really pissed off the film purists, who make up part of the core audience. So for them, there was a risk that they were putting off the people who regularly turn up to see silent films. I think it was a genuine fear, but luckily they really liked what we did. I’ve worked with them now for eight years. But there was a reticence, and funnily enough there still is, because it’s reaching outside of people’s comfort zones.

Ben Osborne, Latitude

Ben Osborne, Latitude

Do you think audiences are starting to expect more from live events?
Yes – and that was part of the motivation. A lot of the electronic music that’s played in night clubs is just not a spectator sport. People who go out clubbing go out for the communal experience but you do get the nerdish crowd to watch the DJs. It’s interesting from the performance point of view. Getting the balance right between an interesting and artistic event which still keeps the vibe going is a difficult juggling act. You don’t want to kill the mood and get everyone to stop dancing and stare at the screen – which has happened a few times! It depends on the event really. It’s nice to do the transition from film to party.

What appeals to you about bringing music to events and venues that don’t normally play music?
It’s about shaking it up, really. Most people have pretty broad tastes. That old genre thing is pretty tiresome. It’s really archaic and that notion has disappeared in people’s listening habits. But, people still expect a certain thing when you are playing out as a DJ. It’s great when you can indulge other interests and passions when you’re putting on an event and I think it’s good for the crowd too. You might not have a sense of what’s going to happen next, which is a little more exciting.

How did the 100 Years of Electronic Music project come about?
It’s marking the Italian futurist Luigi Russolo who broke up sound into different categories and imagined there could be an instrument that could play it. He described how you could change the tones and said that string ensembles were boring to the modern ear. He thought there was more enjoyment to be had out of the noise of a car backfiring than an orchestra.

He describes a lot of the sounds that we now consider to be part of electronic music. He wrote his manifesto in March 1913. It caused some discussion but no one took it up. He even invented his own musical instruments to play this stuff and organised a concert in Milan in April 1914, which caused a riot. After the war ended, he resurfaced with his instruments in Paris and would soundtrack silent films from the era.

Luigi Russolo

Luigi Russolo

What were his instruments like?
Each one can fill up a room and they only make one sound! I imagine that while you are watching the silent film, he’s charging round the place trying to trigger things off!

Electronic music has traditionally been outsider music. How do you think its standing has changed over the decades?
Really, electronic music changed in the nineties after what had happened a decade before. The eighties was an extraordinary time for electronic music. Technology made electronic music as accessible as guitar music. It all coincided with post-punk and the first wave of hip-hop, so that period brought electronic music into the mainstream in a way it hadn’t existed before. Then the late eighties brought acid house – the Roland 303, 808 and 909 were suddenly affordable because they were becoming obsolete. All the studios were kicking them out and the street was picking them up. There’s that famous story about DJ Pierre coming across a 303, switching it on and acid house coming out! Then in the nineties electronic music became a massive commercial offshoot of the wider music industry.

How has the nineties’ legacy affected today’s music?
It’s still got that high end – big commercial artists – but there’s also still a sense of otherness about it. It still has its own culture even though it’s assimilated. It’s weird. There’s definitely still a great sense of otherness about it.

Do you see music makers reverting back to analogue kit after a long period of favouring computer plug-ins?
Yes, I think so. That slightly clunky unpredictable analogue sound is what made electronic music exciting. Personally, I’m not a fan of the overproduced stuff. It’s too predictable and you’re too certain of what is going to happen next. That hardware, rather than software, approach to electronic music is always more attractive. In the early 2000s, the whole Berlin period concerned itself with ripping up the electronic rulebook and starting again. But things do get repeated regularly – it happens in every genre. And in electronic music, people are constantly questioning themselves. It’s that contradiction that keeps it interesting. It’s a massively broad church.

To find out more about Noise of Art and 100 Years of Electronic Music, see http://www.noiseofart.org/