scraping tai-gu off the wheel

It must be the time for old things to be revisited, and as always through whatever is going on around here now. So, an entire chain of stuff like buried multiple hyperlinks means I’m mentioning Jerry Snell, formerly of Carbone 14, who’s in Taiwan for the 台北藝術節 Taipei Arts Festival. I dunno who 太古踏舞團 is, I don’t think I heard of them when I was over there (almost a year ago now), but that’s what the internet is for … right here.

He was first forced to tame his fiery cynicism of authority in 2002, when he was invited to compose the score for the Beijing Modern Dance Company’s first joint Canadian-Chinese co-production, BONE. And in recent months he’s been busy in Taipei collaborating with Lin Shiu-wei (林秀偉) and her critically acclaimed Tai-Gu Tales Dance Theatre group (太古踏舞團) on a new show entitled Upanishads, which will premier at the Taipei Arts Festival next week.

— Taipei Times

Reinventing industrial noise

Long-time purveyor of abrasive rock, Jerry Snell has recently traded in his distortion pedals and penned a more cultured score for one of Taiwan’s leading modern dance troupes

Although well known in Canada for his left-wing sociopolitical commentary, his biting anti-US and anti-globalization folk-rock/industrial compositions and his work with contemporary circus troupes, Montreal-based singer-songwriter Jerry Snell has built a name for himself in Asia over the past three years for very different reasons.

He was first forced to tame his fiery cynicism of authority in 2002, when he was invited to compose the score for the Beijing Modern Dance Company’s first joint Canadian-Chinese co-production, BONE. And in recent months he’s been busy in Taipei collaborating with Lin Shiu-wei (林秀偉) and her critically acclaimed Tai-Gu Tales Dance Theatre group (太古踏舞團) on a new show entitled Upanishads, which will premier at the Taipei Arts Festival next week.

“I’ve had to tone it down in Asia because people don’t express themselves in the same way as in Canada,” said Snell. “Music and lyrics that would be considered [normal] back home would be considered far too expressive here.”

Snell cut his teeth in the music business during the hedonistic days of punk rock in 1977-78. It was to be the harsh repetitiveness and abrasive jackhammer basics of the early industrial scene in the late 1970s, however, that would prove to be the turning point in his career.

By drawing stimulus from early hardcore industrial acts like Test Department and Foetus, Snell began to toy with the process of using industrial music as a backdrop for performance art.

In 1980 he co-founded the modern dance-circus troupe Carbone 14 with Gilles Maheu. The group, whose shows blended aspects of multimedia performance with contemporary dance and circus and utilized heavy industrial soundtracks, proved hugely successful.

After 15 years with Carbone and with the group at the pinnacle of its success and about to move into its own studio Snell decided to call it quits. He felt the group “had become too bourgeois” for his left-of-center ideologies.

“We started out as buskers at a time when [contemporary] circus was a relatively unknown concept,” he said. “After 15 years of [directing] and writing scores for the group I felt that the concept of what we originally set out to achieve had became too commercial. It had lost its edginess and egos were replacing soul.”

Within five years of leaving the group Snell had toured extensively, held workshops throughout Europe and established himself as one of Canada’s leading industrial rockers. Back at home he secured a residency with the National Circus School and penned the scores to performances by several of the nation’s leading contemporary circus troupes.

While his heavily industrial music based work with the circus troupes meant that Snell was forced to concentrate on the music rather than the lyrical content of his compositions, Snell continued to work on politically motivated material in his own time. And in early 2001 he began exploring more mainstream ways in which to get his anti-capitalist/globalization messages across. The result of Snell’s time out from the industrial scene was Cash: The Album.

Released in 2001, Cash is arguably Snell’s most politically powerful solo album to date. Coincidentally mixed and recorded on the same day Muslim extremists destroyed the World Trade Center Snell packed his album with Southern blues hooks and riffs, Tom Waits-like whiskey drenched vocals and oodles of anti-US rhetoric.

He poured scorn the US for its continued production of weapons of mass destruction on Crimes Against the State, he ridiculed the US Government for expanding sate control in the name of “war on terror” on Holy War and he showed his contempt for cliched Western ideologies on the track Colonialis.

“I wanted to move away from industrial [music] and combine inaccessible lyrics with an accessible style of music. Cash is basically folk-rock with a political message,” said Snell. “Its release shortly after 911, when people had been made aware just how unpopular the US was meant that it was a bit redundant, though. [President] Bush had already done the work for me.”

Snell’s departure from industrial rock proved a short-lived affair, however, as within a year of the albums’ release Snell was invited to Beijing to collaborate with the Beijing Modern Dance Company. Instead of sticking to the tried and tested abrasive musical rules of industrial rock as practiced by JG Thirlwell (Foetus) and Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails’), Snell decided to take the genre in whole new direction.

In Beijing, Snell created a hybrid form of industrial music he dubbed `industrial new-age.’ The odd musical concoction that combined the guts of industrial music — extreme noise built around repetitive loops, syncopated rhythms and punk aggression — with more rhythmical and melodious variations and aspects of world music.

“I wanted to show that industrial music had two sides and each depended on the treatment of noise. You take the basic Nine Inch Nails-like industrial sound, which is [musically] negative in many respects, and blend it with edgy new-age,” said Snell. “You have to find the balance. By adding spirituality and soul to the new-age-like elements of industrial rock it became something that nobody had done before.”

The most telling of Snell’s BONE compositions was his industrial new-age reworking of Elvis Presley’s 1956 hit Heartbreak Hotel. At 10 minutes long, the gritty and sinister revamping of the rock-and-roll standard was an abrasive avant-garde and almost anti-music fusion on which he successfully blended the jackhammer basics of Western industrial alt-rock with the serene and precise sounds of classical Chinese instrumentation.

While Snell spent much of his time in China honing his new oddball musical concept, he was, along with his band — The Banned — invited by China’s leading rocker, Cui Jian (催健) to perform several concerts. The largest of these was at the annual Great Wall Festival, where Snell became the first North American act to be granted permission to perform on the Great Wall of China.

After a brief stint back in Canada during which time he directed and wrote scores for two anti-war multimedia shows, Snell returned to Asia in early 2005. Since his return he has been busy working with Lin and her troupe in Taipei in preparation for its upcoming performance. For his latest score Snell has been forced to revise his industrial new-age genre once again.

The revamped new-age-influenced hedonistic jackhammer beats created during his time in China may have pleased the Beijing modern dance crowd, but Taipei modern dance circles found it all too gutsy for their liking.

“I’ve had to throw away my distortion pedal, [Lin] didn’t want anything that heavy,” he said. “She wanted to include Asian mantras and other Oriental themes and wanted me to create a cross-cultural piece that contained many contrasting aspects and styles of music. The idea was that Lin didn’t want anybody to know where the composer came from.”

For the Tai Gu Tales group, which blends Western-style new-age and contemporary dance routines with more traditional Oriental dance standards like Taoist and Buddhist religious dances, Snell has had to create even more mellow cross-cultural new-age compositions with an industrial edge.

A reworking of Snell’s 2002 Final Om sees him combining East Asian mantras with synchronized electronic loops and heavy reverberating vocals over a backdrop of traditional Chinese and Asian instrumentation.

Instead of going for the throat, however, Snell chooses to creep up on his listeners with a mesmerizing wall of sound that lulls listeners. The tune lulls the listener in but never lets them quite relax. And even with the inclusion of traditional Chinese instruments and precise and soothing rhythms there remains something evil and quintessentially industrial about the soundtrack.

“When you work in different cultures you have to act like a sponge, not a wet rag,” said Snell. “You take in and absorb what’s going on and then you adapt it to suit your own style, which in this case is new-age with an industrial edge.”