Urban Circuitry: Community Building Through Noise in Downtown New York City 1973-1981
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Since the release of Please Kill Me by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain over twenty years ago there has been a veritable boon of musical oral histories. It seems that no major city nor music movement can be verified without this poly-vocal description of their past. These stories told by the people who lived them offer a useful compendium to both academic scholarship and music journalism which have previously shaped the narrative of rock history. However, absent in many of these historical accounts is a consideration of both audience reception and the sound itself. Conversely, musicological histories focus their studies on music as central object; one impervious to social factors. In this dissertation I want to unshackle both music as static composition as well as the unilateral directionality of sound to audience. That music, specifically noise, is not a concretized reverberation but instead a transmittable force or energy. I look at how audiences and the bands themselves shape and are shaped by music’s affective charge allowing the experience of live music to become a collaboration that opens up new possibilities for selfhood and relationality. Beginning with the affective quality of noise in Suicide in the early 1970s, there is an examination about how live noise creates communal intimacy. The history of this philosophy of noise is then traces through the No Wave scene in the late 1970s through the mutant disco movement of the 1980s. These band’s atonality is in fact a polytonality in their music reflecting the polytonality of their community. Finally, this dissertation extends No Wave’s history from one characterized as a niche and nihilistic musical footnote to one that speaks to a collective intimacy dependent on live performance and space. The import of the No Wave bands is not found in the noisy sound of future disciples of dissonance, but instead in the cross-pollinated club scene in downtown New York City in the 1980s.