Passing the puzzled pair, Ven Voisey smiles, watching art and life collide in the world's trendiest furniture store.
Voisey, who records and performs under the alias V.V., is a noise musician and all-around sonic prankster. At the Emeryville IKEA he's engaged in one of his favorite tricks: walking through a store with a tiny tape-player emitting a high-pitched squelch from his pocket. The noise -- like what you hear when you pinch the opening of a full balloon -- is just soft enough to blend in with the natural sounds of the store. The effect is that the shoppers stop what they're doing and concentrate, if only for a few seconds, on the sonic character of their environment -- which is more or less the point to all of Voisey's work.
Later, Voisey relaxes on the floor of his Oakland studio, as a well-worn Johnny Cash record pops and slithers in the background. He begins the difficult task of explaining what exactly noise music is about, but he doesn't get very far.
"Most of this stuff is pretty incoherent," Voisey admits.
Unless you have a master's degree in recording or a set of ears trained to hear the subtlest sonic details, most noise music sounds like, well, noise -- or, rather, a collection of unruly, disparate sounds. To make matters worse, watching noise performances is often akin to being stuck in traffic; i.e., there's a lot of activity but you never feel like you're moving.
Voisey is aware of these deficiencies. In fact, they're the very things he's placed in the cross hairs of his artistic sight. Unlike many of his peers' shows, his live performances are interactive, multidimensional installation pieces that challenge the static, often bland nature of his chosen genre. In other words, his work is more than just coherent -- it's an entirely different kind of noise.
Ven Voisey isn't the sort of guy who looks like a genius. Upon first glance he seems more like a trucker or, perhaps, a chicken farmer. For the interview, the 26-year-old East Bay native wears a plaid felt cap and a black Mötley Crüe T-shirt with the sleeves cut off, an outfit that hints at his days in middle-school metal bands.
By the time Voisey had gone off to San Francisco State in 1996, he'd ditched his metalhead bandmates and taken up composing on the computer. His early solo performances were visceral but shtick-ridden, relying on screaming, distortion, and general scariness.
"It's somewhat pointless to present something when people are just gonna turn off," Voisey explains. "You get a kick out of it the first few times. It's like, 'Yeah, I drove everyone out of the room!' But then what?"
Luckily, toward the end of 1999, Voisey scored a job working with children at Lake Merritt's Nature Center.
"One of the exercises was about just sitting, listening," Voisey recalls, "and that kind of got me to listen in a different way than I had before and begin to hear natural compositions occurring. And that's when I realized that all the sound that's all around is better than any record I had."
So Voisey started experimenting with more subtle techniques. Carefully tweaking field recordings on his computer, he would transfer the material to tapes and place cassette players around a room to create something of a virtual environment. The idea was to instill audiences with the kind of sensation Voisey felt on that fateful day at Lake Merritt. But trying to convince most people to use their imaginations is tougher than it sounds. Simply getting them to sit through a performance can be hard enough.
Voisey quickly realized he needed to resort to some kind of trickery during shows. For starters he began performing in total darkness, ensuring that anyone who tried to leave would trip over his neighbors. He next experimented with hiding tape decks all around a room and using found objects such as a venue's telephones as sound sources.
As Blake Edwards, owner of the Chicago noise label Crippled Intellect Productions, puts it, "With his live performances Ven's successfully incorporating and exploring elements that a lot of sound artists don't, such as the use of the space and involving the audience in ways the audience may not expect."
For his recent East Coast tour, Voisey constructed small lockboxes outfitted with modified tape players and handcuffs. Before each set he attached certain audience members to the contraptions and turned out the lights. The machines began serenading the crowd with sounds that formed a dense, intricate composition, like a piece of classical music but more abstract. Meanwhile, the captive members were committed to listening, since they were literally chained to the sound sources.
"I came up to them and told them that this was this precious thing, this precious object," he explains. "Because really experiencing something is pretty damn precious. You just gotta do it."
Although Voisey's been selling his work on his Web site, www.throat.org, since he began recording, he's excited to see his most recent CD, Note, put out by an established label. (Crippled Intellect released the album in March.) Still, more than anything else, Note helped Voisey to understand exactly what his art is about.
"When I received the CD I realized this ain't my focus," he says. "[CDs] don't give a context."
And context is the key to Voisey's work. Note is an interesting listen -- an orchestrated collection of unrecognizable sounds that flows from gentle droning to white noise to more prickly field recordings -- but it's not the kind of thing you'd put on at a party or even use to fall asleep. Since the album doesn't come close to one of Voisey's performances, it serves as little more than a distant artifact, like owning the long-extinguished torch with which a performance artist set himself on fire.
Good noise music -- what Voisey's doing -- exists somewhere between consumerism and high art. At its most digestible, the genre is a commodity, potent but diluted like Radiohead's Kid A; at its most abstract it's masturbatory, an intellectual pursuit at best. Voisey is a bridge between noise's conceptual ideas and the accessible presentation required to get those ideas across. If more people start to listen, he hopes, they might learn something -- not just about a genre, but about the extent to which they listen throughout their daily lives. In some cases, they might not have a choice.
"[I'm thinking of] doing small installations on the street or hiding a tape recorder in a mailbox so when [the person] opens the mailbox there's just a little whisper or something," Voisey says. "It's the moment of getting people to go, 'Wait a minute, something's different.' And hopefully, maybe, the next time they hear that sound they'll notice it in juxtaposition to a car driving by, and maybe they'll think, 'Wow, that was really amazing.' I mean, that's life, you know?"