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A generation apart, two San Antonio painters make the transition into sound

Nine out of 10 pop culture historians agree: Punk killed stadium rock, and it was a mercy killing. But even punk, as a genre, was built upon pre-established formalities - the hook, the refrain, acceptable

Digital musician and artist James Cobb sits in his home studio with several of the digital and analog tools of his sonic explorations. Photo by Mark Greenberg
keys with predictable changes, and standardized time structures. Music that rejects these prescribed conventions is far more revolutionary in concept than punk ever aspired to be. Such work is closer in theory and practice to contemporary art than popular or modern classical music. It seems natural that visual and conceptual artists are exploring the medium of sound in growing numbers.

Locally, painters James Cobb and John Mata have made this creative leap, only to find that the fraction of society open to unconventional visual art may not come along for the ride. Although a rejection of formalist structures in the visual arts is perceived as risky innovation, when those same anarchic principles are applied to sound, audiences get downright fidgety. Listening to music is a traditionally passive, escapist experience. The average listener does not expect be intellectually challenged by what he hears.

This creative double standard reveals itself most clearly to those who travel both the local contemporary art and experimental music circuits. "I find that contradiction constantly true," says Cobb, "and it's absolutely baffling to me." Several years ago, Cobb abandoned a successful painting career to pursue music, a move that was confused his friends, fans, and collectors, who wondered what would motivate an artist approaching age 50 to abandon one difficult medium for another. Cobb admits that it was not the act of painting that drove him away from the medium, but rather the social elements that are inextricably tied to it. "There is so much hyperbole connected with visual art, so much bullshit. When I was painting, I had a career, I had a résumé, and I really felt like I needed to take all that out in the backyard and kill it - do something that would guarantee my obscurity. Doing that has been very liberating."

Cobb's current projects range from frenetic, experimental solo recordings to more traditional saxophone and drum appearances with everyone from the meditative Pseudo Buddha to the rowdy post-punk Boxcar Satan. His solo recordings are digitally created sound experiments, aural sculptures that reject formal classicism in much the same way as European "ear film" makers Jonathan Coleclough or Christoph Heemann - pure sound culled from the depths of the imagination, artfully complied to create a soundscape. Cobb's various projects, much like his reasons for making the shift from painting to music, are personal and voluntary.

Still, the perceptive gulf that exists between visual art audiences and sound art acceptance is problematic to him. "When I first started to get into sound more seriously than painting," says Cobb, "I kept thinking that there had to be a crossover between those two worlds and ways of thinking, but they really don't intersect. I've sent recordings to other visual artists, and quite a few of them acted like music nazis. They told me, 'Well, James, your stuff is really weird.' Well, yeah!"

Twenty-five-year-old painter and performer John Mata floats back and forth between visual art and experimental music. His flirtation with sound did not surface in reaction to the strains of the visual art world, but with the medium of painting itself. "It's not that I am frustrated with visual art," admits Mata, "because I just haven't been involved in the art world long enough to get that frustrated. But I think I'd gotten to a point where I had hit a plateau with painting. I began to see the picture plain as somehow synthetic. Painting doesn't exist purely and organically, like sound does. It doesn't move, doesn't travel in the same way. With sound, the experience doesn't have to be so direct. People do not have to be standing right in front of you to be effected by what you are doing."

Currently, Mata's musical collaboration, Is It To Get, occupies the bulk of his time. The group fuses the underlying aggression of popular post-punk with a heady disdain for the genre's underlying

When painting, I used to build an image in layers and then tear parts of it away. What shows up underneath is often the most interesting part of the painting. Music software works in much the same way. It's the creative accidents that are the coolest part.
— James Cobb
adherence to convention. The band drifts from one sound to the next, taking cues from each other, the environment, and the audience in a non-narrative, seemingly haphazard fashion. He and his bandmates have grown accustomed to playing to rooms full of people who stare in slack-jawed semi-confusion, wondering whether they are witnessing an impromptu band practice or a musical exorcism.

Although Mata may be less than frustrated by the politics of the art world than Cobb, he is conscious of its contradictions. Lately, he has made audience-related observations strikingly similar to Cobb's: "I think audiences are more willing to accept risky visual art because, at least locally, visual art has become relatively fashionable. But are we looking at contemporary art objectively and because we get it? Maybe people don't understand it, but going to shows has become something trendy to do."

What of his fellow art and music students? Is his generation more receptive to true experimentation than those who proceeded them? It is still difficult for artists immersed in the language of painting and sculpture to engage with the medium of sound. "Maybe it's because there is nothing tactile, nothing tangible that connects them to that active experience. I think people are so conditioned, so into the mundane aspects of the popular culture that traditional music comes from, that even visual artists can't determine any context for audio art."

To make a perceptive shift from painting to sound-making, an artist doesn't have to unlearn everything he knows and start from square one. Besides the obvious differences between the physicality of painting and sitting in front of a computer monitor, artists approach music in much the same way as painting. For Mata, who leans toward the analog end of the technological spectrum, archaic four-tracking is his preferred method of recording. Four-track recording is tedious and time consuming. It requires, in other words, the patience of a painter.

Cobb, on the other hand, favors new recording technology. With the coming of the digital age, he was able to successfully marry accessibility and functionality in making his music. Digital audio software, like oil painting, is a process approached in layers. "Once I got comfortable enough with the computer," says Cobb, "the process became facile and second nature. Both painting and digital music making take place in your head. They materialize before they are realized. When painting, I used to build an image in layers and then tear parts of it away. What shows up underneath is often the most interesting part of the painting. Music software works in much the same way. It's the creative accidents that are the coolest part.

"I used to feel that the art world was more insular than the music world, but that is not entirely true. When I tried to put out a CD, I realized the biz end of it is just one bottlenecked dead end after another. I'm aware that I'm not doing anything that the general public particularly wants to hear, and that will probably only get worse. I made the switch, even though I don't see anything remotely resembling a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. I just do it to feel freedom without any hype connected to it at all." •

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