The best is noise

Howard Stelzer's tale of the tape
By MATT PARISH  |  August 11, 2009

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MIXED SIGNALS: "There's nothing subversive about noise. It has a long history. . . . It's codified. It's a genre."

One night last winter, Thurston Moore and Swedish sax kingpin Mats Gustafsson popped into the Middle East upstairs for an off-the-cuff performance together. The loose group arrangement — Bill Nace and Chris Corsano joined in at the last minute — made for a thrill that you hardly ever get in rock-music circles. Old-school indie fans rubbed shoulders with free-jazz aficionados, and before anyone in the packed crowd knew it, we were up and away on a swirling trip of fuzz, squawks, and sheer musical momentum. It wasn't hyped and it didn't go down in history books. It just happened and it ruled.

Intransitive Recordings, which is run by Boston tape artist Howard Stelzer, presented the show as part of a series of improv events that will resurface this Saturday at JP's Axiom Gallery with virtuoso UK-to-New-York-transplant percussionist Aaron Moore. I seize the opportunity to discuss with Stelzer his slow-burning love for what he calls "the best place in the country for experimental music."

"There's nothing subversive about noise," he says as he takes an early dinner break at the subterranean bar at B&G Oysters, in the South End. "It has a long history, and it's been presented everywhere. It's codified. It's a genre."

Stelzer's 10 years in Boston have been a challenging run of promoting and releasing uncompromising music — the kind of grating, droning stuff that still sends some unexpecting audience members running. Yet his career in the scene has been marked with a relaxed, non-confrontational attitude about the material. "It's music. Good music is good music."

Stelzer's own repertoire stems from tape machines: feeding back recordings into each other, jamming the buttons down to tax the gears, pressing the little reels with his fingers. You may not know what a Walkman sounds like after being dropped into a vat of molasses, but you probably remember the sounds it makes right before the batteries die for good. Stelzer's methods bring to mind both.

He moved to Boston from Florida in 1998 and quickly discovered local improv heroes Bhob Rainey and Greg Kelley and the experienced audiences they attracted. "It felt like something was at stake for performers here. It wasn't just some dudes having fun with improv. They were serious about it." His label grew along the same lines of the focused sincerity and playful antagonism of his performances, and soon he found himself with a roster of local and international artists.

"There was a release by a Japanese group, Nerve Net Noise, that's infuriating to listen to. It sounds like a hummingbird's heart beating. I think it's great, but right before I put it out, I thought, 'Man, three people will buy this.' " Its 500-copy run sold out. Last year, Stelzer scored funding from the city to bring the group over for a performance as part of Boston's First Night festivities, an accomplishment that says as much about his honest willingness to promote his music to the general public as it does about the city's open-mindedness.

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Related: Thurston Moore moves on, Growing pains, Best week ever!, More more >
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