Negativland's Mark Hosler to perform rare solo set in Tucson on Friday

Machine sounds, noise, static, ear-splitting feedback, atonality, droning modulations — that on occasion bloom into something beautiful then just as suddenly can veer in unforeseen directions — are among the markers of experimental composition.

It originated in France, as early as the 1940s, in the work of composer/electronics engineer Pierre Schaeffer, who began incorporating tape music and West German elektronische musik, employing circuitry-based technology to develop musique concrète — a compositional form that utilized recorded sounds as raw material then assembled the processed signals into a sound collage. Self-described “brain boggler” Mark Hosler (co-founder of multimedia collective Negativland) continues to subvert convention in an improvisational performance at Golden Saguaro on Friday.

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On a recent telephone call, I found Hosler in Marshall, N.C., a town of 800 inhabitants in the Appalachian Mountains, where he now resides.

Hosler, on a on a 70 degree day, was excited about traveling to Tucson after receiving news of some rainfall.

“There will be flowers in bloom and the desert will be fat and sassy,” he said, enthusiastically.

He also owns a small adobe house in the Tucson Foothills that he is in the process of rehabilitating.

“I have an entire row of books dedicated to the Sonoran Desert — the ecosystem, its people, the history, the land, the animals and insects — I am obsessed with the desert.”

“If you listen to our records, I definitely like extreme contrasts.”

“Sonically, the way Negativland’s records are mixed, the way that they flow, the way I approach solo performances, I really love sonic scene changes that segue from one soundscape into another,” he said. “It feels like they’re taking you on a sound journey.”

Chasing the ephemeral, Hosler’s solo sets are completely improvised.

According to composer John Cage, a pioneer in indeterminacy in music, “an experimental action is one the outcome of which is not foreseen.”

“If everything is working, you get into a flow state in the zone and the state just kind of happens,” Hosler reflected. “It’s a crazy challenge. It is like a highwire tight-rope act.”

Despite trepidation, he feels no constraint.

“As much as I have horrific anxiety attacks everytime I do a show,” Hosler said, as his words trailed off into laughter. “For some reason I am drawn to doing it.”

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As a child, Hosler was obsessed with monsters.

“When I was 7 years old I read ‘Dracula.'” Then when I was eight I read ‘Frankenstein,’ and watched reruns of all the old Universal Pictures horror and science-fiction movies from the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s on TV.”

From there he became interested in animation. In particular the work of Raymond Harryhausen, a British-American animator and special effects creator, who created dynamation, a form of stop-motion model animation.

“I bought a movie camera when I was 11 with my paper-route money and started making animated movies in my bedroom,” Hosler said.

Necessity being the mother of invention, soon Hosler’s fascination with animation ignited an interest in creating soundtracks for his burgeoning filmmaking projects.

“Movie soundtracks led me to listening to more experimental music: Tangerine Dream, Michael Oldfield, Gentle Giant, King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Genesis, and Yes,” he recalled, fondly. “I then discovered music coming out of Germany: Kraftwerk, Cluster, and Neu!”

The 1970s was an exciting time, musically. Alongside the visceral cock-rock approach of heavy metal and the cerebral avant-gardism inherent in prog-rock, along with a gob of spittle hawked from the stage, punk rock surfaced on the front, with middle finger extended, as a reaction to it all.

“I liked the spirit and attitude of punk,” Hosler said. “When we did our ‘U2’ EP (SST, Seeland Records, 1991) — featuring kazoos and extensive sampling, the two mixes parodied U2’s number-one single ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ — that caused so much controversy and trouble, to me what we had done felt pretty punk rock.”

As punk rapidly evolved, Hosler took an interest in post-punk: Wire, Public Image LTD (Johnny Rotten’s coming-out project post-Sex Pistols), Pere Ubu, Gang of Four, Cabaret Voltaire, Throbbing Gristle and David Bowie.

“The first Bowie record that I heard was ‘Heroes.’ He recorded ‘Low,’ ‘Heroes,’ and ‘Lodger,’ working with Brian Eno. Those albums modeled a creative approach that said, ‘You do not stand still. You keep evolving and pushing the edges,” Hosler said.

“That left a big impression on me as a teenager.” With the exception of Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” (EMI America, 1983) album — the English shape-shifter’s 15th studio album which propelled him into superstardom — that Hosler loathed.

Often considered the quintessential testament to No Wave — a short-lived but highly influential movement in fashion, avant-garde music, and indie film that emerged from the underground in Downtown New York — 1978’s “No New York” (Antilles Records), a compilation album curated by Brian Eno, shook Hosler to his core.

No Wave reflected an abrasive, in-your-face attitude, and nihilistic worldview.

New York City’s Suicide have been cited by Pitchfork as having “the biggest influence on No Wave.”

“I used to play Suicide at school. Kids were so freaked out they threatened to kill me,” Hosler recalled, laughingly. “It was so frightening to them. It was too intense.”

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An autodidact, Hosler is musically illiterate.

“I kind of know the name of a few chords,” he said in a tone that was at once playful and defiant. “I took a couple of guitar lessons when I was 11.”

Saving Blue Chip stamps earned from purchases at the gas station, eventually, he was able to order a guitar.

“An Astro. Which I still have.”

Now something of a rarity, Astro was a guitar brand during the mid-1980s, based in Port St. Lucie, Fla.

“In fact, I have been planning to do some performances using my childhood guitar.”

Hosler also took piano lessons for two or three weeks before realizing that he had no interest in formal music education.

“I didn’t want to learn how to play properly. I just want to screw around,” he said, breaking into laughter.

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Although Hosler’s involvement with Negativland dates back to 1978, his experimentation with sound began in the confines of his bedroom some time before.

“I was hearing little bits of things that I wanted to hear more of,” he said, attempting to pinpoint the intangible. “There was like a record [playing in my head] that I wanted to find, that I just couldn’t find.”

On the cusp of 17, he set out on a quest.

“I borrowed synthesizers from my high school and instruments from a local music shop, again using my paper-route money.”

“I had a drumset, saxophone, bass guitar, electric guitar, electric piano, a Korg synthesizer, a string ensemble synthesizer, and some microphones all crammed into my tiny bedroom,” he recalled. “And I just started messing around with sound.”

During the course of his experimentation — drawing from the familiar, ambient and environmental sounds, also audio from TV and talk radio — Hosler became fascinated with repurposing; taking sounds from one context and placing them in another.

“There was something that felt exciting, electrifying, new, and different collaging with sound.”

“Shortly after I started doing that is when I met David Willis (aka ‘The Weatherman’) and Richard Lyons, while working at an after-school job calling people up asking questions about a television pilot.”

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Appropriating their name from a track off of “Neu!” (Brain Records, 1972) — West German krautrocker’s self-titled debut album following their departure from Kraftwerk — since their formation in Concord, Calif., during the late 1970s, Negativland’s output includes records, CDs, video, fine art, books, radio and live performance.

A voice from the underground, Negativland’s self-titled debut album was released in 1980, while some of the members were still attending high school.

A vinyl reissue is in the works.

“We made one record. We never thought that we would make more,” Hosler said.

“But, there was a lot of interest in what we were doing. So we kept going.”

By the third recording, Ian Allen entered into the fray. He became an important part of the evolution of Negativland’s work.

“Ian was the one who really pushed us.”

“Allen said,” Hosler recalled, ‘If you are going to continue to do this sound collage and appropriation stuff, what about thinking more deeply about what you are appropriating and what you want to do with it.”

“So, it is not just playing with sound.”

Taking Allen’s words to heart, the band realized that collage (as an art form) could be taken further, becoming more pointed and conceptual, and used as a vehicle to express deeper thoughts and opinions.

“So, from our third album, ‘A Big 10-8 Place’ (Seeland Records, 1983) — the first recording with Don Joyce — every record we ever made has been a concept album.”

Trouser Press called the album “as much a loving tribute as a scathing indictment of suburbia’s soulless facade.”

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Over the course of their career, their work has led to legal imbroglios and dust-ups with international rock icons U2, Island Records, SST Records, in addition to spoofing American mass-media corporation Clear Channel and multinational corporation PepsiCo.

Subsequently, after being sued, Negativland became more publicly involved in advocating for reforms to our nation’s copyright laws.

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In a career that has spanned over four decades, time has taken its toll. Brothers have fallen.

Ian Allen, Don Joyce, and Richard Lyons, former and co-founding members of Negativland, have all died.

Joyce died of heart failure in Oakland, California, in 2015. He hosted “Over the Edge,” a weekly radio program on KPFA (94.1 FM) in Berkeley, Calif., for more than 30 years. Two grams of his cremated remains were included with the first 1000 CD copies of “Over the Edge Vol. 9: The Chopping Channel” (edited from Negativland’s weekly radio show).

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Taking original materials and miscellanea annexed from mass culture and environs then mashing them up into a musical essay, often to hilarious and chilling effect, has garnered attention.

Hi-Fructose magazine has hailed Negativland as “arguably the preeminent audio collage collective of our time.”

“I am surprised that it is still interesting to us,” Hosler said. “We keep finding new ways to use appropriation and collage to talk about the world that we live in.”

“Which these days is completely insane and dark.”

“The show that Negativland is doing this year is about us looking at the state of things in America leading up to the election. It doesn’t literally address the election,” he said. “But, it is clear that it is about right now.”

“I am excited to do these shows.”

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“Clearly, there is this rise of authoritarianism happening globally. Things are happening in the world that are so frightening to people and unnerving to a certain percentage of people that an authoritarian leader can say, ‘All these things that frighten you, I am going to destroy them for you and protect you,'” Hosler said.

“Usually, if it’s in America, it is followed by, ‘And here is what you should be scared of: Those brown people coming across the border.'”

“You see this horrifying appeal. It is a very human thing, when people get scared, to want a father figure who is going to tell them, ‘That everything is going to be okay.'”

Hosler also noted the destabilizing effect that climate change and wars are having on countries, creating a mass movement of humans trying to get to a place where they can live, leading to a rise in xenophobia.

“Most of the people coming across the U.S. border are not coming from Mexico. They are coming from countries to the south that we helped to destabilize.”

“There is a disconnect in the story. After decades of us supporting authoritarian governments and drug cartels — creating conditions that are so violent and so dangerous — families are traveling a 1,000 miles on foot just to get to somewhere safe, because they don’t want to die.”

“There is a cause and effect, but those connections get lost the way that it’s portrayed in the media,” Hosler remarked. “So people end up blaming [refugees] instead of realizing that we have a lot to do with why these conditions are that way.

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“As I have grown older — and this is true of everyone in Negativland — I wouldn’t have said that I was an anti-capitalist when I was younger. But I am now,” Hosler punctuated his comment with a laugh.

“It’s clear — if you want to zoom out to a bigger picture — what is driving the destruction of the environment, use of resources and all of the things causing climate change, ecosystems collapsing, mass migrations of humans trying to escape,” Hosler mused before concluding, “It’s money. It has to do with money and power.”

“I don’t see myself as being anywhere on the political spectrum (neither left or right).”

Hosler sees himself simply as someone who is “trying to look at what is going on” in the world, and assess situations as best that he can.

“Capitalism, by its very nature, is a Ponzi scheme. It is based on endless growth and is unsustainable.”

Using cancer as a metaphor, Hosler paraphrased ecological philosopher Edward Abbey who declared in “The Journey Home: Some Words in Defense of the American West” (1977) that “growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.”

“We are beholden to a system that is completely unsustainable,” he said, his voice filled with passion. “And it is killing its host. That is us. That is our planet.”

“There is a track off of the album ‘True False’ (Seeland Records, 2019), ‘Destroying Anything,’ divulging about capitalism.”

“We’ve received a few messages from fans who don’t like that the work has shifted and become more pointedly critical of what is going on with capitalism, media, technology, surveillance, and information.”

“The world has changed. Artificial intelligence is creating a world where we simply have no idea what is true and what is false. This could be the new reality that we are in forever,” Hosler contended. “It is very disturbing and worrisome.”

“We try to make it so that the work is never didactic. It’s inviting you in for your brain to converse with what we have made and to come to your own conclusions.”

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So, what lies ahead for Mark Hosler?

“We have just announced a bunch of shows that Negativland is doing this May and June in the Southeast and through the East Coast,” Hosler said. “We are going to do a little Pacific Northwest tour in August. Then a Midwest tour in September and October.”