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Los Angeles Free Music Society the Box.

Legendary among connoisseurs of weird records and mutant sounds for their woozy, hypnotic tape manipulations and free-form freak-outs, the Los Angeles Free Music Society (LAFMS) may be obscure but it hasn't been entirely overlooked. In fact, having attracted a frenzied cult following, this coterie of self-described "bands without musicians" is probably now as "popular" as it could ever hope to be--and these noise-icians have always seemed more at home on the fringes of pop music than anywhere in the institutionally sanctioned world of the "experimental." After all, the group formed in the early '70s through after-hours jams and backroom recording experiments at a Pasadena record store where several core members worked and many more shopped. Their self-released home recordings and live albums (typically manually dubbed cassettes or hand-packaged vinyl) wed alcatoricism, extended technique, and musique concrete with the swagger and amateurism of garage rock. If, as Branden Joseph has suggested in Beyond the Dream Syndicate: Tony Conrad and the Arts After Cage, LAFMS can be placed alongside such groups as AMM, Musica Elettronica Viva, and Gruppo dirnprovvisazione Nuova Consonanza in an international transit beyond Cageian indeterminacy to "pragmatic improvisational activity," then the collective stands apart from their relatively high-minded fellow travelers with an approach that portended both the vulgarity and the do-it-yourself initiative of punk.

"Beneath the Valley of the Lowest Form of Music: The Los Angeles Free Music Society (1972-2012)," which inaugurated the Box's sprawling new space in downtown LA, presented a multifaceted, forty-year overview of the group's activity thus far. Taking center stage was an extensive selection of homemade noisemakers, modified instruments, old tube radios-a/w-amplifiers, jerry-rigged turntables, and hand-built synthesizers. Inventions such as Rick Potts's guitar meant to be worn as a shoe or his guitar with a hinged neck hinted at the general timbre of the group's past performances. By comparison, archival footage playing on a tower of nearby monitors felt stale. Of course, improvisation always runs the risk of an off night. The wall of show flyers, however--featuring posters announcing opening slots for talents as diverse as Captain Beefheart (who contributed album art to a few LAFMS releases) and Divine (performing excerpts from Female Trouble live)--hinted at what some of the better nights might have been like. Also on view were photographs (recently printed from the old negatives of another key player, Fredrik Nilsen) of people recording and hanging out (sometimes it's hard to tell one from the other), while a selection of often pornographic collages, doodles, and druggy fantasy paintings connected the scatological visual impulse that developed in tandem with LAFMS's maniacally cultivated "lowest form" of music. All of this was, however, only a footnote to the show's main draw, a series of weekend performances in the exhibition space by core LAFMS bands Le Forte Four, Doo-Doocttes, and Airway, among others.


Like the best free improvisations, in which individual contributors work pragmatically and democratically to shape one cohesive sound, these various retrospective views jelled into a singular, coherent style. In this context, the sudden passing of LAFMS stalwart Mike Kelley was acutely felt. This milieu shaped his aesthetic outlook as much as he influenced its contours, and hints of Kelley's own genre-bending bricolage and other investigations of authorship could be detected in the group's borrowing from whatever unusual records they could get their hands on, whether Cornelius Cardew and the Scratch Orchestra's 1971 LP, The Great Learning, or the Smithsonian Folkways 1958 compilation Sounds of North American Frogs. A performance on February 11 by Extended Organ, in which Kelley had been expected to play with Nilsen, Joe Potts, Tom Recchion, and Paul McCarthy, took place regardless, becoming a fitting memorial to the greatly missed artist.
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Author:Carlson, Ben
Publication:Artforum International
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:Apr 1, 2012
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