This was an underground music scene, combining Super 8 film, performance art, video art, and contemporary art, that had its beginnings during the late 1970s through the mid-1980s in downtown New York City.
The term became used in downtown New York City concurrent with the 1981 show, "New York/New Wave" that had been curated by the artist/curator Diego Cortez.
The term "no wave" was probably inspired by the French New Wave pioneer Jean-Luc Godard, with his remark "There are no new waves, there is only the ocean". The movement would last a relatively short time but profoundly influence the development of independent film, fashion and visual art.
No wave was not clearly definable as a musical genre with consistent features. Various groups drew on such disparate styles as Funk, Jazz, Blues, Punk, Avant-Garde, and experimental. There are, however, some elements common to most no wave music, such as abrasive atonal sounds, repetitive driving rhythms, and a tendency to emphasize musical texture over melody—typical of La Monte Young's early downtown music.
No wave music presented a negative and nihilistic world view that reflected the desolation of late 1970s downtown New York and how they viewed the larger society. Lydia Lunch noted "The whole fucking country was nihilistic. What did we come out of? The lie of the Summer of Love into Charles Manson and the Vietnam War. Where is the positivity?"
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In 1978 a Punk subculture-influenced Noize series was held at New York's Artists Space that led to the Brian Eno produced recording No New York, documenting James Chance and the Contortions, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, Mars, and DNA.
Sonic Youth made their first live appearance at Noise Fest, a noise music festival curated by Thurston Moore at the art space White Columns in June 1981. Each night three to five acts performed, including Glenn Branca, Rhys Chatham, Rudolph Grey, Robin Crutchfield's Dark Day, Off Beach and others.
No wave had a notable influence on the Noize and Industrial bands which followed, such as Big Black, Helmet, Ministry, Suicide, Live Skull, and others. Theoretical Girls influenced Sonic Youth, who emerged from the scene and eventually reached mass audiences and critical acclaim.
No Wave Art
Visual artists played a large role in the no wave scene, as visual artists often were playing in bands, and/or making videos and films, while making visual art for exhibition. An early influence on this aspect of the scene was Alan Vega (aka Alan Suicide) whose electronic junk sculpture predated his role in the music group Suicide.
An important exhibition of no wave visual art was Colab's organization of the "Times Square Show". In June 1980, more than 100 artists installed their work in an empty massage parlor near Times Square that included punk visual artists, graffiti artists, feminist artists, political artists, Xerox artists and performance artists.
No wave art found an ongoing home on the Lower East Side with the establishment of ABC No Rio Gallery in 1980; and a no wave Punk aesthetic was a dominant strand in the art galleries of the East Village (from 1982–86).
No Wave Cinema
No wave cinema was an underground film scene in Tribeca and the East Village.
Filmmakers included, Amos Poe, Eric Mitchell, Charlie Ahearn, Vincent Gallo, James Nares, Jim Jarmusch, Vivienne Dick, Scott B and Beth B, plus Seth Tillett, this led to the Cinema of Transgression and work by Nick Zedd and Richard Kern.