“Borbetomagus: A Pollock of Sound” tells the story of NY noise-rock pioneers of the extreme

By on September 21, 2017

Borbetomagus: A Pollock of Sound — now streaming over on Night Flight Plus — is the first-ever feature-length documentary about the New York noise-rock pioneers of the extreme whose metallic monolith of sound outpourings have defied description for the past nearly-four decades.

Filmmaker Jef Mertens’s low-budget doc includes rare archival footage and photos, and previously-unreleased free improv recordings replete with thick, roaring waves of static and lacerating, obliterating bursts of electronic noise.

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Rock critic Byron Coley — who penned columns and reviews for Forced Exposure in the ’80s — has written extensively about Borbetomagus.

In Spin magazine’s November/December 1987 issue, he wrote:

“These gentlemen are capable of producing an infinite array of sounds with instruments so basic to the whole musical process that it’s tough to believe that they’re the first ones to stumble across so many new frontiers. But they are. Pioneers in the extreme (and of the extreme), their blare is free and loud and will never be the province of those toads who would suck at the ‘hind of Ollie North.”

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Read more about Borbetomagus below.

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Borbetomagus are a free improv noise-rock trio from Nyack, NY, who formed in 1979.

The core members are two saxophonists, Jim Sauter and Don Dietrich, and guitarist Donald Miller, but they’ve also been joined onstage by bassist Adam Nodelman, electronics maestro Brian Doherty and guests musicians like Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth.

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Don Dietrich (left) with Jim Sauter

Sauter and Dietrich first met in kindergarten in Nyack, NY, a Rockland County hamlet located on the Hudson River some sixteen miles north of NYC.

Sauter took up the saxophone in the fourth grade; Dietrich, meanwhile, had started off playing guitar, taking lessons starting at age nine.

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Since they lived in different geographical zones, they ended up going to different grammar schools, but were reunited in middle school a few years later.

Dietrich was soon playing in a few high school rock combos, occasionally asking Sauter to sit in on sax.

They parted ways again after high school, reconnecting years later after Sauter returned to the Nyack area after college (he’d gone to Syracuse; Dietrich went to Parsons).

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In early ’79, Dietrich told Sauter about Donald Miller’s Friday afternoon show on a local NY FM station, WKCR.

Miller — originally from Washington D.C., then a student at Columbia University — had joined WKCR’s classical department because the jazz team wouldn’t let him play avant-garde free jazz records.

After listening to show his show for a few weeks, Sauter called the station to ask Miller where he and Dietrich could buy some of the records he’d been playing.

Miller, who played guitar, asked Sauter if they were musicians, and learned they both played sax, so he suggested they get together to jam in his huge apartment, located on 101st Street on NYC’s west side.

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At the time, Miller was in a No Wave band called Sick Dick and the Volkswagens, who had a minor cult following. He’d wanted Sick Dick to be more experimental, especially in live settings.

By this point, Sauter and Dietrich — playing in bands together, including Industrial Strength — had already discovered what happened when they put the flared bells of their horns together, forcing the sound to find another ways to escape.

Miller loved how it sounded when he added the guitar techniques he developed by then, scraping across the strings of his laptop guitar with raspy files and pieces of sheet metal.

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Sauter and Dietrich sat in with Sick Dick a few times, and were invited to join the band, but it wasn’t really clicking for them.

Miller he’d been wanting to break away from Sick Dick anyway, and so he talked to Sauter and Dietrich about forming a new band.

That band was Borbetomagus, who are probably best described as a cacophonous, bone-crushing noise-rock soup where the twin wailing “bells together” saxes and squalling guitar combine to create some of the loudest, densest, most ear-piercing squall you’ll ever hear.

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Borbetomagus — named for a Catholic treaty between the pope and a government, but it’s also a Celtic word for the name of an ancient city, Worms, located on the west bank of Germany’s Rhine River, which is why there are photos of them holding boxes with earthworms — ended up mostly playing in lower Manhattan clubs like CBGBs, the Kitchen, the Knitting Factory and Inroads, where they developed a following among musically-educated audiences interested in loud, distorted noise-r0ck.

There were times, however, when their frenzied sonic landscapes created negative confrontational situations with club goers who chose to leave rather than continue listening.

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In 198o, they began recording and releasing the resulting records on their own record label, Agaric, which they’d later find in NYC record stores, filed away under Jazz, Electronics, “Improv” or that weird “Other Music” section.

They played whenever and wherever they could, organizing some of their own events or festivals, or simply created their own venues.

Some of their biggest fans, it turned out, lived overseas, and occasionally promoters paid their air fare in order to get them to come over to play for European audiences, or in Japan and other far-flung foreign countries.

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Filmmaker Jef Mertens (photo by Jed Niezgod)

Merten’s  Borbetomagus: A Pollock of Sound, filmed over the course of at least six years, lets Sauter, Dietrich and Miller tell their own stories.

Their narrative is supplemented with poignant insights by the aforementioned Moore and Coley, free jazz drummer Chris Corsano, Toshiji Mikawa and Jojo Hiroshige of the groundbreaking Japanese noise-rockers Hijokaidan, as well as members of Switzerland’s masters of “cracked electronics,” Voice Crack.

Borbetomagus: A Pollock of Sound premiered at Brooklyn, NY’s Spectacle Theater on October 14, 2016, but you can now watch it streaming over on Night Flight Plus!

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.