On a club stage during an Asian and North American tour, Zev Asher growled and crooned to a bass-and-drum rhythm while a renowned Japanese adult film artist in traditional kimono slowly performed a striptease. On film, he put together image-rich and provocative documentaries, most notably on a seminal group of noise musicians and an animal art project that went sociopathically wrong.
But off the stage or away from the camera, Mr. Asher was shy: He dreaded job interviews and was uncomfortable in many social situations. His wild personas, artful recordings and aesthetic confidence not only helped him find the perfect respite to societal pressures and personal angst, but gave him the international respect of musicians and filmmakers who applauded his cool demeanour, his courage to experiment and his commitment to art.
Mr. Asher died on Aug. 7 at the age of 50 in Montreal from graft versus host disease, a condition brought on by his body’s rejection of a 2009 stem-cell transplant to treat his chronic lymphocytic leukemia. News of his death spread from Tokyo to Vancouver, from Shanghai to Zagreb, four of the many cities where the Montreal-born experimental artist had lived. Countless tributes acknowledged him as a pioneer in the noise music scene, and as a unique documentary voice.
His recordings used a vast sound palette that could include Neil Sedaka schmaltz, construction noise, a tai chi how-to audio clip and haunting trumpet melodies. His musical stage personas ranged from eerie to lewd, witty to barker-like, influenced by other boundary-pushing artists such as Nick Cave, Tom Waits, Iggy Pop and Captain Beefheart.
Tim Olive and Sam Lohman, his bandmates in Nimrod, remember a man adept at mixing noise and film elements with accessible melodies and rhythms. His stage antics often forced them to look away lest they break into laughter. “He was a very funny guy, but he also felt things very deeply,” Mr. Olive said. “Despite Zev’s love of abnormality and deviance, he could never escape from the fact that he was a fundamentally good guy.”
His documentaries included What About Me: The Rise of the Nihilist Spasm Band, a comprehensive look at the London, Ont., outfit believed to be the world’s first noise band. Founding member John Boyle said Mr. Asher was a thorough interviewer intent on unearthing historical footage and not missing any key performances. “Wherever we went to play we would encounter someone sent by Zev to get some new footage of us on location.”
Mr. Boyle posits that Mr. Asher’s social awkwardness helped him speak for those residing on the margins and in turn find a way out of his shyness. “He chose subjects and people who were outsiders like himself. He found it natural and easy to defend and promote their stories.”
Another of his documentaries, Casuistry, made international headlines after it debuted at
the Toronto International Film Festival in 2004. It brought death threats to the festival’s programmer and 150 protesters outside its screening. Some misinterpreted the film’s subtitle, The Art of Killing a Cat, as a manifesto rather than its intended play on words about an art project that involved animal cruelty.
The film gave the perpetrators enough proverbial rope with which to hang themselves, but protesters vilified Mr. Asher. Asked if he believed in the idea of animals being harmed in the name of art, the filmmaker aimed his trademark wryness at those who went so far as to compare him to serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer: “I think harming certain animal rights activists for the sake of art could be okay,” he told Vancouver writer Allan MacInnis.
At the time of Casuistry’s screening in the East Village, Dana Stevens wrote in The New York Times: “Mr. Asher’s film is likely to leave viewers eager to discuss the limits of artistic freedom and the extension of human rights to animals.” The local ASPCA gave Mr. Asher the final word on the film’s merit by using it as a training video.
Zev Moses Asher was born May 9, 1963, in Montreal, the first of three children of Stanley and Sharon (née Segall). He grew up in Chomedey, a bedroom community just north of the city, in a house with a basement crammed with books, film and music.
Given piano lessons at a young age Zev excelled in music, doing well on his McGill Conservatory exams at age seven. He lost interest in the piano not long after. His sister Judith Asher recalls him buckling under the pressure he felt. This would be a recurring theme throughout his life, added his sister Beth Asher. “He didn’t like expectations being thrust upon him.”
His CEGEP-teaching parents led trips to Greece, Belgium, France, England and Israel, and brought along their three children. Zev, barely a teenager, was permitted to go off with older students to concerts and film festivals, sojourns his sisters say marked him on a musical level and planted the seed for his eventual wanderlust.
As a teenager, his closet shelves groaned with record albums, and he served as a tastemaker for friends. He was a regular at Montreal’s repertory cinemas and eventually got a job at the now-defunct Seville Theatre. He dropped out of film studies at Concordia University.
Mr. Asher developed the stage persona Roughage and, aside from Nimrod, was involved in several other bands including Flying Testicle, Bustmonster, the Sleazy Listeners and Starlet Fever. He collaborated with several filmmakers, but mostly did solo projects. Aside from What About Me, which showed at TIFF in 2000, and Casuistry, he looked at artists surviving war in RAT ART: Croatian Independents (1997), and the changing mores of China through a noise band called Torturing Nurse in the film Subcultural Revolution: Shanghai (2010).
He earned residency spots at both the Canadian Film Centre, the prestigious school founded by filmmaker Norman Jewison, and the Vancouver Film School.
In spite of illness, Mr. Asher tried to not let the disease stop him from being his usual self. But cataract and hip-replacement surgeries, and intense medication regimens, eventually led to his long-term admission at Maisonneuve-Rosemont hospital.
From his hospital room he shared his music with orderlies, burned DVDs for nurses and watched movies with his partner, Joanne. Before his death, he had been making a movie about his hospital ordeal: interviewing doctors, collecting the images recorded from inside his body and editing in an earlier Venice shoot and sounds from the isolation room he was required to stay in because of his immunosuppressed state.
In a eulogy, his sister Beth told a story about her brother hallucinating from an infection in his brain. He was seeing old friends who were noisy and not letting him sleep. “I lost it and yelled at all the friends I didn’t see to get out so he could sleep. Zev, through a fog of illness, after a day without a rational moment, looked at me and said, ‘That was some ghost busting.’ And we laughed.”
Mr. Asher is survived by his parents Stanley and Sharon, his sisters Beth and Judith, and his partner Joanne Shiller.