Jeff Burger

Publication Date:
September 1986



Innovative musicians throughout history have had to put up with such questions as, "Is it art or is it noise?"  One British group has taken the issue a step further and embraced the concept of art and noise.  They even call themselves The Art Of Noise.  No matter what your definition of art may be, they appear to be the state-of-the-art band of the moment in the techno-primitive school of modern pop.  Percussion and sampling make up 90 percent of their LP, In Visible Silence [Chrysalis, BSV41528], with chords and recognizable sounds the exception rather than the rule.  In Visible Silence is to the dance floor of 1986 what musique concrete was to the college concert hall of the '50s.
But who are The Art of Noise?  Even now, with their third album out and a strong track record on the charts, they remain one of the most faceless success stories around.  "The reason we don't show our faces," says co-founder Anne Dudley, "is that there is a tendency for the music industry to sign haircut-and-faces bands with no regard for music.  We simply want people to listen to the music!"
If the trio's credentials are any indication, that should be no problem. After leaving London's Royal Academy Of Music for the greener pastures of pop, Dudley contributed keyboard stylings to projects by Paul McCartney, Wham!, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Malcolm McLaren, ABC and the London Symphony Orchestra.  Jonathan (J.J.) Jeczalik, ace Fairlight programmer, met Dudley through producer Trevor Horn; Jeczalik's credentials include Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Kate Bush, Nik Kershaw, ABC, and the Pet Shop Boys. Completing the group is another former Horn associate, Gary Langan, who works mainly as an engineer.  New Music Express awarded him its "Best Engineered British Rock Record" award in 1980 for the Buggles' "Video Killed The Radio Star."  He continues to produce and engineer for Billy Idol, Paul McCartney, Scritti Politti, and others.
Few bands can claim as eclectic a background.  Langan likes heavy rock, Dudley enjoys classical and pop, and Jeczalik's favorites are Bach and Mahler.  "The Symphony Number 5 and Symphony Number 4 [of Mahler] and [Bach's] Brandenburg Concertos were very influential," Jeczalik insists. "All the riffs you need are in there; you've just got to listen and dismantle them.  I mean, Verdi!  Every piece of pop music that's been written is in there.  His choruses are phenomenal.  Every one has a hit tune that can come right out." 
Understandably, Dudley describes the band as "many different things at different times. Certainly when it started, it was what we did for fun; we did our session work for other people, then got together on weekends and evenings to do this crazy stuff."
The three Artists like to write and record together as a group, often using pure sound or rhythm as a starting point.  "A typical scenario," Dudley explains, "would be that we find a sound we like and incorporate it into a rhythm we like.  Then somebody devises a riff or tune we like. Before the inspiration dissipates in a cloud of boredom, we run a 2-track machine and start recording, playing along, and improvising. During the course of this improvisation each of us tries out certain different things.  Then, when we run out of ideas -- which might be 30 seconds or 30 minutes later -- we stop the tape, listen, think about the bits that really work well, refine the structure, and start again."
For a good example of how they work, look no further than the Noise version of the "Peter Gunn Theme."  Though people have been humming this tune for several decades, Jeczalik insists, "We wrote it.  I mean, we didn't know it was 'Peter Gunn.'  If you write something in F and use some black notes, there's every chance it's going to be 'Peter Gunn.'  After all, there are only twelve notes in the scale!  The problem was that somebody [Henry Mancini] had beaten us to it by 27 years or so."
Of the horn section in the middle, Jeczalik says, "I believe if you listen very hard you'll hear this Wurlitzer piano in the background, built up to this huge polyphonic sound through the Marshall equipment we use to get this vile distortion we like.  I then sampled and hornified it."
In Visible Silence took a long time -- five days a week, from August '85 through February '86 -- to finish, partly because several different mixes were done for some songs.  "The album version of 'Legs' is different from the 7" single, which is different from the 12"," Dudley points out.  "It may be something we add live as we're mixing.  I suppose we start from the same basic recording, though."
"And we label each mix after the event," Jeczalik elaborates.  "We work on one without knowing whether it would be the video mix until someone says, 'We'll use that one for the video.'  We did five mixes on some stuff, but other things on the album were done straight to 2-track without being remixed.  When you're writing something, you may not be aware whether it's the best version you'll come up with in the next few weeks.  Although a particular track may have better balances and inflections than another version, it might not have the best mood."
Dudley, Jeczalik, and Langan are just as free-wheeling in choosing equipment to work with as they are in devising a process for recording.  "There are so many ways of starting off with a rhythm and getting it onto tape," Jeczalik says, "that we don't use all these things all the time. We'll use whatever works.  We don't use MIDI much."
When they did use MIDI on In Visible Silence, the Yamaha QX1 functioned as a sequencing master.  Two other sequencers were also called into action: an old Roland MC-4 Microcomposer, and the Fairlight's Page R.  "We used a Series III Fairlight for a while," Jeczalik notes, "but the main instrument was a Series II.  It has a certain rock and roll quality we like.  The Series II is one of the few modern sampling devices that has a sound of its own."  An AMS Window Recorder was also used for sampling and manipulation.  Other keyboards on the album include Wurlitzer and Rhodes electric pianos, Minimoog, Memorymoog, PPG Wave 2.2, Sequential Prophet-5, Yamaha DX7, Solina String Ensemble, grand piano, and Kurzweil.  Sometimes the band ran keyboards through Marshall amps or used MXR effects as processing for distortion.  Tape loops were also used for echoes. "They have an extraordinary sound, one that you can't replicate," Jeczalik says. "It's a bit like using EMT plates."
The massive amounts of percussion on In Visible Silence go way beyond standard drum machine patterns, incorporating subtleties normally associated with real drummers.  "The rhythm comes down to the three of us," Jeczalik explains.  "We do that as an ensemble because the basic rule is that the groove has to be interesting."  Their percussion arsenal includes Linn 9000, Roland TR-606, TR-707, and TR-808, and CR-5000, Oberheim DMX, and "some Simmons stuff" controlled by other machines.
When all is said and done, In Visible Silence remains an enigma, a cacophony of unusual percussion and simple melodies, a rough diamond in the highly polished world of pop music.  The fact that The Art Of Noise doesn't fit into prevalent musical pigeonholes suits Dudley just fine. "We're very distressed by the incessant categorization of music," she declares.  "We don't think music should have these artificial barriers; that's why our music involves anything and everything we might acquire or devise.  When we did 'Beatbox' [from The Art Of Noise], it became a hit on the Billboard dance chart.  It was heard as a black record, and that was a market we didn't even know existed.  It was extraordinary that these white musicians locked away in an English studio were appealing to street kids all over America.  I've worked with bands who say things like, 'We're going to have the ultimate dance record.  It's going to have 114 bpm, it's going to use this sequencer, it's going to have a Minimoog bass, we'll use this sequencer, and we'll put this chip in the Linn.  It's going to appeal to people from the age of 7 to 17 in the A, B, and C markets, especially Detroit.'  To me, this is a recipe for disaster.  If you don't make music that's true to yourself, you're not going to have any longevity."

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