N O   P A R T   O F   I T
Far more important than baking bread is the urge to take dough -beating to the extreme - Otto Muehl

Saturday, March 13, 2021

Interview Series #25: Christopher Sienko

The NO PART OF IT Interview series was a strain of questions sent to a number of different people between February and March 2019. Each entry was scheduled chronologically to be thrust upon the world on a monthly basis since then. Each individual is introduced informally as if they were being discussed at a bar.


The Museum of Inconvenient Formats
Scheduled March 2019
Chris is a gift to noise culture.  I'm not sure if there is anyone else who writes at his caliber on behalf of the primitives.  Most might know him as one half responsible for the massive AS LOUD AS POSSIBLE magazine (considering its relatively massive presentation, it is hard to simply call it a magazine), but he has been writing for a number of sites, especially Gaper's Block in Chicago for a number of years.  "ALAP" has apparently shut down operations for its next issue, which was more than five years in the making at least, but some of those articles, I'm told, will resurface eventually (perhaps by the time this interview surfaces in two years).  At this moment (March 2019) Sienko's writing can be found in the fledgling Indiana zine "Vulcher".  When coming up with this interview series, Chris was one of the first people that I thought of, because while he is not a noise artist (and it's rare that people participate so intensely without being one), I'm quite sure, based on his writing that he perfectly navigates that line between having an objective view and having the experience of getting knee deep in the trenches. Being reviewed by Chris must be like being picked up out of the gutter by a guy who specialized in rare flowers that only grow in gutters. 
  1. What kinds of things have you been getting into lately?
This might be a lame answer, but jigsaw puzzles. Last summer, I bought a jigsaw puzzle of a Jackson Pollack painting (“Convergence”) at a garage sale. I haven’t done puzzles since I was a kid, but the absurdity of a jigsaw puzzle of something so thoroughly non-representational really sung to me. When we had the epic cold in Chicago this winter and were stuck at home, out came this puzzle from the back of the closet. It turned out not just to be a thing to pass the time while the outside world was uninhabitable for humans, but a real exercise in deep visual concentration. I’ve seen a few of Pollack’s paintings in the museum, but I’ve never stared as deeply at a Pollack as I did over those two and a half weeks. More than just trying to find that one piece that fits, I really found myself just obsessively staring at these criss-cross patterns and filigrees, imagining the physical arm and hand gestures that could bring on these patterns, seeing them turn into almost representational forms, and then back into abstractions, back and forth.
Having completed that, we’ve now moved onto a puzzle of Hieronymous Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights.” It’s fun in a completely different way, as strange little tortured (or ecstatic) faces and buttocks pop out at you from the tiny pieces.
Other than that, I’ve been getting into tracking down the locations of long-gone bookstores in Chicago, working on improvements to my new house (my wife and I bought a bungalow in 2018), going to the Chicago Film Society (located a 15 minute walk from my front door on the NEIU campus), and trying to write material without any expectation of whether it’ll be published or not. 

2.  What you do, do you do it as an artist, or is it a hobby?  If you don't like that question, what do you have to say about true art (vs. "entertainment")?  

I don’t think about it in that way, artist or hobbyist. I just do what I do. It’s a hobby in the sense that I rarely if ever get paid money for it, I guess. It’s not a hobby in that I want to spend the rest of my life doing it. Though people also have the same hobbies their entire life! I am currently trying to work on some new ideas that will possibly be closer to “art” (or at least abstraction) while still operating as someone who writes stories about almost-forgotten noise artists.
I guess this maybe fits with the question of what I’ve been getting into lately, but I’ve realized in the last few years that the type of sound art that really excites me would be roughly described as “quasi-academic nonsense.” Things like the Gregory Whitehead “Vicekopf” 7-inch that RRR put out. Maybe there’s truth to it, but the Hafler Trio’s “Three Ways of Saying Two” is like a thrilling adventure movie about a scientist/philosopher who may be completely fictional. Any time where a piece of work (music, film, fiction) is setting itself up as a source of information but clearly devolves into half-truths and outright fabrication is becoming more thrilling to me, possibly as a controlled version of the world itself, where definitive truths about anything become increasingly difficult to determine.
Anyway, true art vs. entertainment is a hard one to officiate. One of the things that makes me laugh the most about noise is that it has these two seemingly opposite poles implanted into it, with reasonable adherents on both sides. For some, noise is good when it’s exhausting, and it’s bad when it’s fun. Other folks would like to “rage out” to some cool noise, and would rather not be in the presence of something that makes you bored or exhausted. I kind of like that side one of the Observation Clinique LP gives me a stress headache, so I guess that makes me on the “Music Should Hurt” side. But I also shook my head vigorously and with joy seeing Incapacitants play in New York 10 years ago. Is stuff that’s hard to endure “art” while stuff that makes you pump your fist “entertainment”? To 99.9% of the world, it’s all garbage, so please yourself.
Using the dichotomy of art vs. entertainment automatically puts art on a higher plane, and by extension, creates a Canon of True Art that was done almost as a refutation of entertainment. Did you feel terrible after that Tarkovsky movie was done? Good, that’s art. But for a good chunk of human history, art was something that was made freely and with/for enjoyment. There’s lots of art that’s art but is also commerce (handmade jewelry, driftwood sculpture). Noise as an enterprise is kind of like driftwood sculpture. Everyone who makes it has a slightly different take on it, there’s only a handful of people who are into buying it, and the sale of it usually nets about enough money to buy a case of beer on the weekend. It’s a cottage industry of people with specialized tastes for people with specialized tastes. But it’s still art.
So what about the notion of art being something that brings our mind into a higher state vs. entertainment which keeps our minds off of our troubles? Maybe that’s a good definition. Sorry, I’ve completely worried this question into five paragraphs and still have no answer.

How would you describe what you do?
I buy a ton of records, listen to them every chance I can, scribble notes, and hope that my thoughts on the records and what they do inside my head semi-accurately translates to the page. Noise (and most non-musical sound creation in general) sounds to me like a new language being written every day. All of these distinct sounds and structures and gestures that noise performers create out of thin air sound like phonemes used in new ways of conveying thoughts or experiences. If the deep melancholy I felt halfway into the track “Queer Patrol” on Richard Ramirez’s Start Again CD can be brought into words, the writing goes beyond being a consumer guide and into a shared understanding about what chaotic, semi-organized sound can bring out into the air and, by extension, why we stand around in unheated basements watching people shake metal and turn knobs. I’m trying to figure out what I (we) get out of all this, and how these weird sounds and gestures can mimic some aspect of our joy and anger and melancholy that high-flung “art” and music can’t. Similarly, reading other peoples’ writings about noise and music gives me almost as much pleasure as listening to the stuff, because it connects all of us as being excited about this thing that we don’t quite understand.

4.  How would you describe your creative progression over the years, in a brief synopsis?
I used to spend a lot more time trying to pick the catchiest, flashiest words to describe sounds in specific moments. Since I’ve never had a noise project myself, I can’t explain things in terms of flanger abuse or filter sweeps or whatever with any credibility, so I’d go out of my way to use the purplest prose possible to describe the tape, moment by moment. Endless paragraphs about electric-blue lava flows and psychic whipcracks and cascading sheets of rats covered with nails raining down on you. Stuff like that. I still do that, of course, but now I spend more time trying to call up the experience the sounds creates in my head, the atmosphere and intangible, time-stopping moment of perfection. Also, because I’ve listened to thousands of noise records over the years at this point, I spend a lot more time focusing on what a release is doing that I haven’t heard before, and how an artist keeps advancing in what they do, which is why so many of my reviews will cover 3 or more records by the same person.

5.  How would you describe your philosophy?
It needn’t be huge, but find some way to bring some new thing into the world that wasn’t there before you arrived – a new type of thought, sound, word, kindness, food, laughter, something. And if you can’t always improve the world, at least do what you can not to bring a lot of needless suffering into it.

6.  Do you believe in psychics, magic, ghosts, or gods?  If no, then maybe you'll share your favorite conspiracy theory (whether you believe it or not).  
I believe in people who believe in psychics, magic, ghosts, and gods. Let’s say that. I haven’t experienced much of it myself, but I’ve seen great art that’s influenced by these things and had great experiences in the presence of people who believe in them. Like strong drink or drugs or arcane philosophies, the stuff you list above reacts in interesting ways with the chemistry of certain people and drives them to do, think, or create things larger than they could otherwise. Good enough for me.
By comparison, people who are really into conspiracy theories give me stress. When I hear someone giving an incredibly convoluted story about how this or that mass shooting is a false flag deliberately staged to take away our guns, it just drains the life out of me. On the one hand, a good chunk of conspiracy theories can be Occam’s Razor’d into dismissal – the earth isn’t flat, dipshit! – but the notion of having to gather up that mountain of evidence that would refute this stuff seems like a long march to nowhere. Here are the ten ways we can tell the earth is round. “Well, but what about this one photo taken on this one day 60 years ago where the shadow breaks the other way?” By comparison, people who believe in psychic powers will tell you the reason why is because they’ve felt them in their lives, not because they’ve been scraping up covert, suppressed photos of Tower Seven from a different angle, etc. Jesus, this answer is making me exhausted just typing it.
All that being said, look up Preston Nichols’ theory about the 1975 disco hit “Sky High,” recorded by the band Jigsaw. Nichols contends that, because of an experience he had in 1983 where he bought multiple copies of the single, all of them unplayable, the song had been trapped in a closed-down time loop and sent back into time to 1975, unavailable to the world but still remembered. That one is at least interesting and doesn’t end with people running up and yelling gibberish the faces of grieving parents.

7.  What would you say was your most definitive experience?
If you mean what is an experience where I acted most definitively and did what I was meant to do, then helping write the first issue of As Loud As Possible fits the bill. That was the most sustained bit of writing I did that actually translated into a worthwhile finished project. There was also a certainty of intent at that time that I never felt before or since.

8.  Do you have any side projects that I am not aware of? If not, what is something you'd like people to know about you, that you don't think anyone would ever ask?
I’ve written over 300 long-form book reviews over at Goodreads. In particular, from 2013 through 2016, I had a long, multi-bus commute to and from work, and I took the time to get into reading, especially fiction. At my peak, I read 85 books in one year. At a time when I was feeling like my writing structures post-ALAP were getting stale and repetitive, writing about plots and characters and ideas and the magical alchemy these things can do in your brain livened up my writing in ways I hadn’t anticipated. Not just the sheer amount of writing I did, but making myself review everything with no expectations of what the “scene” would think of my reviews, gave me this open space to figure out how to write. Some of those reviews, in my opinion, are some of the finest writing I’ve done, and believe me, it’s rare to hear me actually praise any of my own writing. Around 2017, the spell was kind of broken, I started reading a lot less again, and my policy of reviewing everything has starkly fallen off, so maybe it was just a moment in time that can’t come back.

9.  Would you care to name any theoretical "desert island" records, or at least releases that you think are approaching your concept of "perfect"?  
I could (and probably will) spend the rest of my life enjoying and trying to decipher Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives. As for noise records, I never tire of Emil Beaulieau’s Anti-Performance cassette. You can hear it on youtube if you can’t find a copy. It’s still the default sound I think of when I think of Harsh Noise. The Shadow Ring’s three records on Swill Radio (Lighthouse, Lindus, and I’m Some Songs) are empirically perfect as well. I can’t think of a thing you could do to improve any of those.
My notion of “perfect records” or “desert island picks” are also records I don’t listen to regularly. The idea of taking records I’ve heard a million times (Pink Floyd’s Animals, The Beatles White Album, The Residents’ Commercial Album, Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night, everything by the Firesign Theatre) onto a desert island seems odd to me. I can recreate those albums in my head, almost note by note, word by word. A desert island disc is something I can’t make head or tail of now, and with any luck, still won’t understand in 30 years when I’ve finally died of eating irradiated shrimp coming in off the mainland.

10.  What is the earliest childhood memory you can (or are willing to) recall?   
The most sustained memory I have as a young child was probably around ages 3 to 5. It was something my dad and I did regularly, a game we played. There was this cardboard box that had a small, rectangular hole in the bottom. You would lay on the ground, put the box over your face, so it would be completely dark except for this small rectangle of light over your face. I remember we had these small ceramic Sesame Street Christmas ornaments, and whomever wasn’t in the box would take one of the figures (always one at a time), put it in view of the little window, and talk to the person in the box. I don’t know how we came up with this game, but I loved it. It was always a weird little one-on-one conversation between me and Bert, or my dad and Oscar the Grouch, or whatever. It wasn’t elaborate stories or adventures. I just remember it being a dialogue. I have several photos of this happening, so I know it’s not just something I imagined.

11.  Are you able to appreciate other peoples' creative work regardless of their personal shortcomings or inherent flaws?  To what extent?  
It really varies on how much I love the art, how much tolerance (or not) I have for the flaw, how much I empathize with the person, or, maybe most importantly, whether the flaw in question colors the art. I balance the equation differently with each case.
Also, any time I find out that so-and-so who I liked is actually a skeevy sexual predator or whatever, it always strikes me as an awesome opportunity to check out some new artists who, I don’t know…might not be skeevy sexual predators. I don’t like the way the argument has been framed as two sides – do you cast them out into the wilderness, or do you clutch them to your breast in defiance of the world’s evolving sense of appropriate conduct? If a large number of people who I once admired turn out to be scumbags or psychopaths, my first thought is not whether to protect them or reject them, but to learn about what else is going on out there in the world that I might not have noticed? Tom Ellard of Severed Heads said he used to delete his sample bank every few years so he didn’t get too comfortable using the same old sounds over and over. I still have a fair number of scumbags in my collection (and in my head), and they probably won’t be driven out into the desert any time soon. But I also evolve and find other types of people interesting over time, people who don’t treat women like garbage or play grab-ass with Nazi symbology in the interest of “embracing the dark side.” A lot of what I thought was cool and profound at age 20 sounds vapid and childish 25 years later. But if it still works, whatever that means at the moment, then in it stays. But finding out someone I liked was a creep is usually an opportunity to expand my world, not contract it.

12.  Do you have any heroes or heroines?  Who are they?  Feel free to add anything that makes them stand out.  
Honestly, Robert Ashley is a big one. Not only do I love his language, his word choices, his humor and his reproductions of human behavior, I also admire that he was from a family where hard daily work was accepted as a fact of life, no matter the profession. He came from a farming background, and moving to the city to study music (let alone avant-garde composition) was an uncommon life choice. The fact that he told himself, deliberately, that if he was going to be a composer, he had to work hard on it every single day, ten to twelve hours a day or more like a job, just deepened my admiration for him. I don’t put in the work like he did, but I really do have a voice in my head reminding me that if I’m going to do this, I need to commit fully to it every single day. I also admire Franz Kafka for making his masterpieces while holding down a day job and laughing at the things that were breaking him down, Thomas Pynchon for creating his stories on enormous canvasses over very long periods of time, and Jane Bowles for, as her husband Paul put it, being unwilling to buy store-bought nails or tools in creating her works, but smelting every nail and every tool by hand, even if it meant only writing one short story every couple of years. I admire David Cronenberg and Don Delillo and Charles Portis for really only having a few obsessions that they just keep re-working until they refine them to perfection. I admire Robert Downey Sr.’s personal use of language without regard for whether it makes sense to anyone else. I admire Flannery O’Connor’s use of unpretentious language in a way that conjures weird, bleak magic. I think I admire people who are slow and methodical in the way they approach their obsessions and present them to the world, mostly because I aspire to be that way. I admire way too many people, honestly. This could be a huge list. Maybe I’d get more work done if I wasn’t so busy admiring people.

13.  What would you like to have on your epitaph?  Or what is your favorite quote?  
Whatever you are meant to do in life, do it now. The conditions are always impossible.” – Doris Lessing