Essay: Noisy People 2014-09-04T00:19:24+00:00

© Ingrid Taylar for


“People ask me what I do, and I’ve just come to say, ‘I do weird music.'”– Cheryl Leonard in “Noisy People”

“Weird,” as the documentary Noisy People demonstrates, is a subjective designation. When musician Leonard draws her bow across a leaf or a piece of driftwood to elicit a sound, the gesture might seem weird to those of us who’ve lived within the constraints of pop music and linear thought.

But in Noisy People — and this is the power of the film — you live for an hour within an altered paradigm or, better yet, without a paradigm. It’s a creative world where a piece of driftwood becomes the song of a cicada, and where a percussive instrument is anything you choose to strike against a drum.

Director Tim Perkis made Noisy People as a window to the world of experimental music, a world in which he himself has played a significant part.

“I’ve been playing and working in this scene in the Bay Area for 25 years, and it seemed completely underreported, and then misunderstood when it was reported,” Perkis says.

He embarked on a cinematic project that spanned more than 3 years, from start to finish. The result is a film that is alternately humorous and poignant, sharing with the audience the heart, the motivation and the inherent beauty of making sound for sound’s sake . . . of making art without traditional expectations.

Noisy People navigates this world through a series of chapters on individual sound artists of the Bay Area:

  1. Damon Smith is a former bmx biker who plays double bass and finances his craft through giving music lessons and posting flyers.

  2. Phillip Greenlief busks for no money to engender a spirit of “free music.”

  3. Tom Djll stages “Mockracy,” an improvisational satire of government, performed by self-governing sub-groups in the orchestra.

  4. Greg Goodman hands out bananas and pineapples as tickets to his shows at his Berkeley home and performance space.

The connecting thread is the artists’ involvement in improvisation and collective improvisational performances. The film culminates in Gino Robair’s I, Norton, an improvisational opera about the self-crowned Emperor Norton of San Francisco. As conductor, Robair gives loose direction — “play nothing, but intensely.” The resulting performance is a brilliant cacophony, and a novel experiment in authentic community.

To attempt a unified characterization of the artists is to constrain a music that, as Perkis suggests, refuses to be pinned down. It’s not that the musicians lack construct and context. They come from varied backgrounds, and most are highly learned in jazz or classical or other more traditional modes.

It’s just that in lifting the yoke of expectation, these artists also lift from the audience and the viewer what might be a lifetime of creative mandates. Watching others transcend the boundaries of convention has the power to blow open a few creative circuits in anyone who can embrace that deep and profound a freedom. The freedom to allow for, as Perkis says, “happy accidents” to infuse your creative work.

Noisy People portrays each artist with a measure of humor, but also with a respectful seriousness about the craft. With an art form that defies a commercial niche, it would be easy to fall into a cliched representation of people “making noise.” But Perkis, having an intimate relationship with the subject matter, delves into the inspirations, the frustrations and the pragmatic aspects that comprise the complex lives of these artists, and of artists in general.

More than any art-related film I’ve seen in recent years, Noisy People captures the grit and the passion of the creative and musical existence. It proves that the standard Hollywood depiction of the troubled artist, isn’t nearly as interesting as witnessing the actual process of the functioning artist — the challenges that face anyone who tries to make for him or herself, a creative life outside the realm of a profit motive.

“To me,” says Greenlief in the film, “if you’re making music, even if you’re making music out on the street — and people walk by and they’re not listening to you, maybe they are listening to you — you’re making music in the community.”

And the community spirit is part of what makes Noisy People and this coterie of Bay Area artists, intrinsic to what I and so many people have loved about San Francisco over the years.

If the Bay Area is a “magnet for people who are interested in exploring,” as Robair suggests in one segment, that spirit of exploration and fun experimentation is all over Noisy People. Leaving the film feels like leaving the sanctity of a different dimension, where all things impossible become, for an hour, possible.

In an essay on the subject of Noisy People, Tim Perkis writes:

“Not all lives are built around economic striving. In the context of our hyper-capitalist society, it’s difficult for us to remember that for most of human history, most lives were not. The artists in my film remind us that there is another way to live: pursuing a passion directly, independent of its economic value.”

Noisy People is a link to a world outside of that commercial spectrum — what many of us consider the norm. It’s a flashback (or forward) to a social ethic and consciousness with a refreshing vision of art as life.