One of Canada’s experimental talents, the filmmaker, artist, and musician Zev Asher, passed away at the age of 50 in Montreal, last week, suffering from leukaemia and related complications. Over the past several days, a legion of Asher's fans and collaborators have posted memories and tributes online, including stories of his profound presence in their music worlds (such as his work with Vancouver’s Scratch Records label), personal lives, and communities through film and other projects.
Asher carried a significant profile in Montreal and Vancouver underground noise scenes in the 1980s and '90s. He was one of the driving forces behind noise band Nimrod, and, as is the case with many experimental noise artists, Asher found himself playing in a number of other groups, including The Sleazy Listeners, Bustmonster, and Flying Testicle. Traveling throughout North America, Europe, and Japan, Asher collaborated with numerous like-minded artists, including Merzbow, Masonna, KK Null, and Seichi Yamamoto, through his improv project Roughage. Each of these conceptual collaborations aligned Asher with musicians who shared his unique perspectives on where cacophony and melody could meet, humor and deep-listening collide. Chaos, as ever, would briefly ascend into order and then gloriously dissolve any such self-imposed parameters.
As Asher began to pair his music with visuals, he also dove deeper into the art of longer-form filmmaking. His second documentary film explored the genre of music he’d been immersed in for years: “What About Me? The Rise of the Nihilist Spasm Band” (see clip below) had its world premier at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2000, reinvigorating a world-wide interest in the London, Ontario band. Perhaps only Asher could make a documentary strange enough to capture the essence of the Nihilist Spasm Band, pioneers on the Canadian noise music scene and widely-cited as an influence on rock, punk, and noise musicians worldwide, from Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore to guitarist Jojo Hiroshige of Japanese free-improv group Hijokaidan. Asher’s film, while experimental in its aesthetic, maintains a narrative. It covers the band’s emergence in 1965, with homemade instruments and a penchant for disrupting the sonic status-quo, then moves through its many incarnations over the years, as band members came and went, among them artists Murray Favro and Greg Curnoe. In May of 2011, Montreal’s independent and now-defunct Blue Sunshine cinema space would give the film its due, screening "What About Me?" with Asher on hand to discuss his approaches to filmmaking and music.
Asher's 2004 documentary “Casuistry: The Art of Killing a Cat” also premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, this time accompanied by a cadre of angry animal-rights protestors. The film crossed established boundaries, caused controversy, and, like much experimental art, was misunderstood by a public who missed its deeper criticality. Asher's last film, the 2008/10 “Subcultural Revolution: Shanghai” returns to underground music and alternative ways of life, featuring “China’s most ferocious underground band,” Torturing Nurse. As an artist, Asher followed his strange and subversive intent, made creative connections that spawned new art, and welcomed controversy, which he lived to challenge.