Z’ev, Percussionist and Industrial Music Pioneer, Dies at 66
Posted December 26, 2017 7:31 p.m. EST
Z’ev, a percussionist, performer, composer, instrument builder, visual artist, poet and theorist who explored visceral and mystical dimensions of sound — becoming a pioneer of industrial music along the way — died Dec. 16 in Chicago, where he lived. He was 66.
His niece, Ororah Bell Neisler, said the cause was pulmonary failure.
Performing solo and with others, Z’ev improvised, surrounded by homemade percussion instruments. He delved into attacks and resonances, propulsion and meditation. He worked with found objects and later with digital processing. He was intrigued by the properties of materials and by the paths linking sounds, images, the body, nature and spirituality.
In a globe-spanning career, he collaborated with musicians, dancers, poets, performance artists and visual artists. His discography includes more than 70 albums as well as multimedia work.
In the 1970s and early ‘80s, Z’ev gave room-shaking, strenuously athletic solo performances that he came to call “wild style.” Shirtless or wearing protective gear, with a cigarette hanging from his mouth, he flung metallic assemblages through the air or dragged them across the stage, rattled heavy chains and shook long, whooshing strips of sheet metal, some with sharp edges that bloodied his hands. The concerts were templates for punk-era industrial music.
“I don’t actually consider the majority of my performances as ‘music’ per se,” he wrote on his website.
Z’ev was born Stefan Joel Weisser in Los Angeles on Feb. 8, 1951. He was banging on pots and pans when he was 3 years old, and he assembled his first drum kit at 6, using cardboard tubs salvaged from an ice-cream parlor.
He attended the California Institute of the Arts, where he studied traditions from Africa and Asia, wrote sound poetry, made sound sculptures and worked with members of the Fluxus Group. From 1978 to 1988, he was in a San Francisco-area electronic-music group, Rhythm and Noise, with other CalArts alumni.
In 1978, when the classical avant-garde, the art world and the adventurous fringes of popular music were forging alliances, he also began performing as Z’ev, part of his Hebrew name. (Although he renounced Judaism, he studied the Jewish mysticism called kabbalah.) His wild-style percussion concerts, with brutal physicality underlining their sonic impact, were performance spectacles as well as acoustic explorations.
In a 2016 documentary by Ellen Zweig, “Heart Beat Ear Drum,” Z’ev said he saw his performances as interactions: “There’s me, and the instruments, and the space they’re being played in, and the time of day and astronomical time they’re being played in, and the audience.”
Z’ev performed at clubs like Mabuhay Gardens in San Francisco and Irving Plaza and Danceteria in Manhattan, as well as at experimental-music havens like the Kitchen, in lower Manhattan.
The goth-rock band Bauhaus booked Z’ev as its opening act on a 1980 European tour. Glenn Branca, who composes symphonies for massed electric guitars, featured Z’ev extensively in his 1982 “Symphony No. 2 (The Peak of the Sacred).” For a 1982 single, Z’ev recorded an explosive, barely recognizable percussion version of the hit 1963 surf instrumental “Wipeout.”
In 1984, Z’ev set aside his “wild style” and returned to playing percussion with mallets, while continuing to create his own instruments. On his website, he wrote, “Both performance modes (wild-style and mallet percussion) have been described as cacophonous when considered in traditional Western musical terms, because of the dense elemental acoustic phenomena these instruments produce.”
In the early 1980s he moved to Amsterdam, where he taught composition and improvisation at the Theater School for New Dance Development while performing around Europe. From 1986 to 1990 he was a member of the Bow Gamelan Ensemble, which used salvaged junk as instruments.
He also started what he called Yantra-Tantra, percussion concerts performed in complete darkness. Selections from “Yantras,” a series of drawings he started in 1987, were purchased by the Amsterdam Tattoo Museum; he used similar designs on his later instruments.
In 1990, Z’ev began working with the Dutch house-music producer DJ Dano on high-speed tracks that presaged the hard-edged underground dance music genre called gabber. His book “Rhythmajik: Practical Uses of Number, Rhythm and Sound,” based on kabbalah and other esoteric systems, was published in 1992 by Temple Press UK. After the company went out of business, he gave away digital copies.
Z’ev returned to Los Angeles to care for his ailing mother, and left music in 1994 to work as an aide at a home for quadriplegics.
His re-emergence, in 2003, was welcomed by avant-gardists who went on to collaborate with him, among them keyboardist Charlemagne Palestine, Japanese noise musician Merzbow, composer and guitarist Oren Ambarchi and composer and saxophonist John Zorn, who released some of Z’ev’s albums on his Tzadik label.
During the 2000s Z’ev grew increasingly interested in electronic percussion and digitally processed live sounds. He also started what he called Cine-cussion, projecting images of liquids vibrated by complex wave forms, and produced audiovisual poems for video.
Returning from a New Mexico performance in 2016, Z’ev was on an Amtrak train back to Chicago when it derailed in Kansas. He suffered five broken ribs and a punctured lung. Yet he continued to make music and perform internationally. Days before his death, he had returned from a residency in Portugal as a guest of the new-music organization Sonoscopia.
Many of his instruments will be housed at APO-33, an experimental arts organization in Nantes, France. No immediate family members survive.