Tulsa Noise Fest starts before Tulsa Noise Fest starts. Months before the lineup is public, the noisy side of social media begins sharing posts and excitement about what’s to come. Artists who’ve performed historically are tagged, memes of absurd instruments and situations abound, and eventually the schedule and roster begins to trickle out. In 2019, sixty-six artists performed at Tulsa Noise Fest from the queer, introspective RAGK to the trauma-soaked Ritual Chair to performative titans Pedestrian Deposit to harsh noise veteran The Rita to even yours truly. Put together by Tulsa’s Nathan Young and Stilwell’s Matt Hex, and with the assistance of the Tulsa Artist Fellowship, Tulsa Noise Fest was a lot of – well – a lot.
I had met both Young and Hex while playing Tulsa last September. I was playing as Reverent, and Hex played as Bonemagic, a seething combination of black metal, synth-wave, and noise. Young was in attendance, which is how we first bonded over our mutual love for Japanese music. A couple months later, I profiled Bonemagic on Bandcamp, talking with Hex about noise, growing up in Stilwell, and personal trauma as creative catalyst.
A couple weeks before Tulsa Noise Fest 2019, Young reached out to see if I’d be interested in doing a write up on the event, saying the fellowship could put me up at a hotel in exchange for writing a piece. I was coming through on a twelve-day solo tour under my own name, so I told him that unfortunately I would only be in town for a day – Saturday of the event – but after ten days of being alone on the road and driving three thousand miles, a hotel room would be pretty nice. The exhaustion you get from touring alone is unlike anything else – psychedelic and emaciating, an asymptotic relationship to complete absolution. Good for your discipline and character, bad for your health.
The Tulsa Artist Fellowship put me up about a block away at the Fairfield Inn, but I parked in the lot dedicated to the Fest since I had my store in tow. The fest is as much a meetup as a series of performances – most folks who attend are artists, many from out of town. Noise is a fragmented but deeply connected circle. Even small towns commonly have a resident noise artist jacked into the DIY network. This is something I’ve discovered both from touring extensively and from doing way too much mailorder. There are people all over the globe – read: in the most remote corners of the globe – who go crazy for this shit.
Tulsa Noise Fest functions as a convergence, mostly of North American noise practitioners. People come from Miami, California, Washington, New York, Illinois, and so many more locales. All of this is to say that as soon as I stepped out of my car, I ran into about fifteen people I knew and more that I had connected with from the internet. Within minutes, I had met many with whom I had corresponded for months if not years online – Derek Rush of Compactor and Johnny Cash of Breakdancing Ronald Reagan, to name a couple.
Saturday’s festivities began at 5PM and lasted past 1AM. Whitey Alabastard set things off with one of the more kinetic, absurd sets of the night, beginning upright and concentrated, and ending flailing on the ground with a contact mic in his pants. Following that, Rush Falknor laid it down with a varied set oscillating between the controlled and the chaotic. For this gig, he broke out his reel-to-reel, adding a rich sonic element to the frenetic performance.
An early stand-out was the Developer vs. Human Fluid Rot set. Robbie Brantley from HFR has been a good friend of mine since I lived in Miami. One of the most entertaining and enthusiastic performers around, and a fantastic human being. The face-off with Developer lived up to every expectation, wild, loud, and theatrical. As is custom for a Human Fluid Rot set, the audience interaction got rowdy, and eventually the crowd had lifted the table up above the performers’ heads amongst the bellowing static. The sound ended, Brantley yelled “Fuck you! Fuck you!” looking truly anguished, then broke out into a smile and started hugging people.
Another highlight was Misery Ritual’s physical, self-flagellating performance. Almost church-like, it had Kyle Ferguson performing with a contact mic in the mouth, rallying a crowd around his noise table before pummeling his back with chains. The Culled and Pyramid Dust sets were very, very fun. I’ve got to admit, I don’t listen to much cut-up or harsh noise at home, but when it’s done right in the live sphere, there’s nothing like it, and Culled are two of the best. Eric and Dan are having such a blast when they play, it’s contagious, and they never wear out their welcome, playing short, sweet sets.
Everyone crowded around for Bonemagic later – in some capacity, Hex knows basically everyone on the bill, doing a lot of the outreach for the festival, and when he plays in front of noise-heads, it’s like that bloodbath rave scene in Blade. I mean – no one’s dying, but vibe’s similar – heavy rhythms and synth swirls. Oh, and there is blood. During his set, Hex shattered two of the lightbulbs he was using as props and rubbed the broken shards into his forearms. Hex’s commitment to performance is inspiring, even when it’s self-destructive – if something will make for a better show, he will consider it, if not do it.
Ritual Chair AKA Hailey Magdeleno is making some of the most important noise these days, up-front about her experiences as a survivor. Her performance was profound and moving. She began sobbing even before uttering the first words, starting with looped electronics before climbing atop a wheeled table and testifying before the audience. Up to this point, chatter was a given, but everyone was quiet for Magdeleno.
Following Ritual Chair were most of the headliners – Crank Sturgeon, The Rita, and Sickness, each of whom performed in markedly different capacities. Sturgeon’s “shitty” performance was all about toilet paper, puns, and choreography – unsure if anyone would call the physicality of his show a dance, but it’s what came to my mind as I watched him. At one point, all that could be heard was a high-pitch, and Sturgeon nodded to the great composer and academic Pauline Oliveros, calling it the deep listening section. Towards the end he cried “You better lift me up” to the crowd, as he began surfing through the audience. He yelled “shit, shit, shit” as the set came to an end.
The Rita’s set was more static, though there was a physical element as well. The Rita is a project about obsession – sharks, stockings, and dancers being some of the recurring motifs in Sam McKinlay’s work. As music played, at times melodic samples, and at times harsh and static, McKinlay hung a poster showing legs in stockings and dragged a contact mic along it, both laying bare his obsession and cheekily alluding to its ubiquity in his work – in the top right corner it said “The Rita.” McKinlay’s low end was powerful, and made for a physical listening experience. I’ve rarely been so impacted by harsh noise, but the Rita’s was like taking a bath, getting a massage, or slowly shaving off your dead skin.
Straight Panic was also moving and heavier than a death in the family – I had previously done a profile on Thomas Boettner’s militant queer power electronics project for Bandcamp, so it’s no secret I love this project. Boettner’s chest-mounted mic allowed him to utilize both hands when manipulating synthesizers and pedals. He took a large sniff of poppers before playing, and laid waste to those watching.
This was the final night of the three-night festival, and people were dog tired by the end of it, but ecstatic. As everyone retreated back to their beds or bottles or buys, it was easy to hear plans for next year getting formulated.