Why Noise Bands Are Playing at the European Organization for Nuclear Research
Deerhoof was the first guest band to play as part of an initiative called Ex/Noise/CERN.
Credit: CERN/Marine Bass
What happens when you combine an experimental indie rock band with an experimental particle physics project? A lot of noise, apparently.
The collision, as you will, of San Francisco noise group Deerhoof and CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) in Switzerland was the brainchild of resident CERN physicist James Beacham.
A longtime fan of the band, Beacham wanted to get outsiders intrigued by the often-complicated science going on at the research organization, which is the home of the Large Hadron Collider and of major physics discoveries like the Higgs boson.
He brought Deerhoof to the CERN headquarters in August to give them a tour and "inundate them with science."
The band also played a concert in a large room where the LHC's superconducting magnets—crucial to getting the particle collider to work—are assembled, tested, and stored. Each of the members were set up in isolated spots around the space, and then the band was asked to improvise a performance from there.
"I don't know if anyone was expecting a nine-minute slow-build weird freakout John Cage-style video to get 70,000 views in like four days," Beacham says.
Beacham hopes to invite other progressive and genre-bending musicians to come and improvise around the scientific campus under the banner Ex/Noise/CERN, although he was unable to confirm any other acts yet.
Motherboard caught up with Beacham and Deerhoof's Satomi Mastuzaki to chat about what a noise band would have in common with particle physics experiments.
MOTHERBOARD: Is this the first time CERN has done something like this, trying to merge art with science?
James Beacham: Occasionally we force ourselves out of our meeting mode and try to explain what we do to the regular person so that we don't lose sight of why it is we're doing what we do.
And what is that, again?
Beacham: CERN is an international research facility and that is dedicated to fundamental particle physics, and the main project here is called the Large Hadron Collider. What this really is is 27-kilometer-round tunnel that is that is dug underneath the border of France and Switzerland here near Geneva, and inside this tunnel are the superconducting magnets that we use to send the beam of protons up to almost the speed of light, and then we slam them into each other. We do this because we're looking for new stuff, new physics that humans have never seen before.
What's unique about 2015 is we doubled the energy we were using before when we discovered the Higgs boson. So we jumped up in energy, and the truth is that we really don't know what we're going to find. It's own kind of an open-ended stab in the dark as to what new particles we might discover, what new effects we might see. So it's really exciting and kind of weird in effect—we're just pushing forward into this realm of the unknown, the human knowledge unknown.
"A band like Deerhoof, they are doing what they do because they can't help themselves."
So you wanted to explain this to others through music?
Beacham: It's really a way to get people's attention, so they can see the equipment that we have here and maybe they'll hear a little bit more about the science and then they'll get a little more curious and they will seek us out.
This one is a bit strange because the form of it, because it's not just an explicit explanatory thing. It's more like John Cage art/Matthew Barney art film trick to try to get people to pay attention to our research. That was why it was really unique, because I don't think CERN has really ever produced something like this.
How did you get Deerhoof involved?
Beacham: The best parts in their live shows are the points at which they push beyond the melodic and beyond the understandable, into the unknown, into the musical nether regions. But they do it from a basis. That was sort of what I noticed at their show and noticed that I had subconsciously understood the whole time—that a band like Deerhoof, they are doing what they do because they can't help themselves. They want to start from a basis of well-known musical ideas and then want to push beyond that because they're curious and they're just pushing forward.
Which is really what we do here at CERN. The research that we're doing here at CERN, we're not doing this for a profit, we're not doing this to make money. We're doing this because we really just want to know what happened like a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang. We want to know that. And to do that, we have to build a bigger detector to push back farther in time and higher energy to understand this. And that's really the only reason why we're doing this, because we're curious.
Satomi, how did you feel about before coming to CERN?
Satomi Matsuzaki: I had no idea what was gonna happen before Deerhoof arrived. Accelerator? Dark matter? Making a black hole? Something crazy must be going on at CERN; that was my impression. After we got there, we totally tuned in to CERN's open-minded high energy. Deerhoof is the same too. We super collided to each other and tried to break the barrier between music and science. It doesn't matter how your creative fields are categorized. We are same people who like to adventure. I felt welcomed and at home almost immediately.
James, did you give them any parameters for the performance?
Beacham: I wanted to give them some kind of structure so they had some kind of framework that they could grasp upon, but I made that somewhat physical. So we showed them like, this is your spot—for instance, [guitarist] John [Dieterich] in the upper left hand corner spot [of the video], we put him on top of this scaffolding. I thought it would be a cool visual thing, and also, it was intriguing for me to see what would happen because there was no way we could get his amps up there too. So basically it would be just him with his pedals, whereas his amps and his speakers were down below, so he really couldn't control the levels.
It was really fantastic to see the way that the band members collectively responded to each one of them individually being asked to understand and inhabit a space and then improvise within that space.
How did you feel about the end result?
Matsuzaki: It was such a surreal activity to be in the most cutting edge science facility and play our music. I was surprised that our music was harmonious to CERN's creative atmosphere and noises that their machines made there. I felt a spark hearing echoes of my bass distortion sound in a large high ceiling room with bunch of metal pipes that changed the world.
Beacham: I hope that we inspired them by both the urge to understand and explore like what we do here and how that might feel similar to what they do as artists. In the end, that's what we're trying to do: we're trying to get people that might think CERN is only a completely cerebral thing, when in fact a lot of what we do is coming from a very basic urge to better understand the world and explore beyond what you see. That's really why we do what we do.