In the recorded history of Western music, there have always been those discontented with how music is created, bought, and sold. Unlike more mainstream genres such as rock, pop, hiphop, classical, straight-ahead jazz, and country, every form of radical, experimental music smashes or subverts the elements of mainstream music that can be easily cloned and co-opted for commercial consumption: a regular beat and unchanging tempo; the formulaic prominence of words; the predictable repetition of sections (intro, verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-verse...); typical timbral aggregates (here comes the guitar solo); steady dynamics (radio stations use compression to even out severely loud and extremely quiet sounds); and pitch patterns (the hook or the riff).
Of course, sonic subversion can take many forms: "Out jazz" refers to the vertiginous abandonment of the timbres, tonality, and forms found in mainstream jazz. Some consider out jazz a subset of free improvisation, but most agree that both forms strive for spontaneous coherence without predetermined forms, harmonies, licks, et cetera. Noise offers a timbral feast created by an inhumanly LOUD broadband sonic assault of electronic devices (including sabotaged electronics, guitar pedals, and amplifiers). "New composition" refers to composed music of almost any instrumentation that grapples with or at least betrays an awareness of the musical achievements of the last 50 years: the abolition of tonality and application of serial and/or chance techniques, new harmonic and tuning schemes, and the controlled allocation of sound moving in space. Instrument inventors build unique sound-producing devices that offer alternative tone-colors, tunings, and playing techniques, and look cool too.
What do experimental music makers have in common? Unlike those who adorn their songs with a dollop of the weird and enjoy a chance of commercial success (or at least subsistence) and popular (though often ephemeral) acclaim, experimental musicians take profound personal, artistic, and fiscal risks to beat a fresh path to the new.
Indeed, the radical, commercially resistant elements of experimental music-- protean forms, silence, poetic disorder, harsh textures, pure surprise, and communal action--suggest a utopian political vision and deeply intimate way of experiencing art that is unsuited to popular radio, clubs, or other mass-marketed, money-making enterprises. So where is this explicit sonic rebellion and implicit form of social and political rebellion happening?
Before the rise of the Internet, a music writer could point to a major city like New York, Paris, or London and say, "It's happening there." Today, many flavors of top-notch experimental music (out jazz, free improvisation, noise, new composition, and the invention of new instruments) can be found all over the world--including Seattle and smaller burgs like Olympia, which hosts its ninth annual Festival of Experimental Musics June 26-29 at Heart and Soul Dance Studio. You've probably seen the following names on posters or in calendar listings; here is a pillar-to-post portrait of our city's more compelling experimental musicians.
"I've always been interested in sound because it's invisible and reveals hidden stuff about ourselves to ourselves," reveals Wally Shoup, our burg's elder statesman of free improvisation and out jazz. Shoup, an alto saxophonist who transmutes the blues into incendiary, skittering, soul-wrenching melodies, suggests, "My music is about my other voice, the one I didn't know I had until I picked up a saxophone." Shoup's chief vehicle is the Wally Shoup Trio (with NYC-based bassist Reuben Radding and drumming phenomenon Bob Rees). Shoup's other arresting band, Project W, with cellist Brent Arnold and the gifted Greg Campbell, gigs from time to time too.
Other free improvisers include the collective of the Open Music Workshop--which includes deft pianist Gust Burns, agile clarinetist Adam Diller, and amiable junk- percussion explorer Matt Crane--and saxophonist Gregory Reynolds, whose mastery of slowly changing tones is not to be missed. "Open Music Workshop is mainly concerned with presenting music that is marginalized by current cultural machinery to a broader and larger audience," Burns explains. "We know that the potential audience for noncommercial music is immense. Likewise, the pool of potential noncommercial musics that the public could access is immense. It is a matter of demystifying so-called art music and getting rid of the idea that it is only for intellectuals. Everyone should consider themselves an intellectual, and new music asks to be listened to by everyone. The music of Morton Feldman and the music of Public Enemy have more in common than not."
Seattle boasts a large roster of exploratory free improvisers, including Bill Horist, who shoves cymbals, rods, utensils, and toys through, above, and below the strings of his guitar. When I interviewed Horist earlier this year, he described his work succinctly: "I spend a lot of time making the guitar sound as unguitarlike as possible." Eveline Müller-Graf is another sonic saboteur; an assortment of sawblades, mixing bowls, and bead necklaces compose her homemade percussion assemblage, dubbed "The Boeing." Angelina Baldoz dares to dip her trumpet in water, while trumpeter Jim Knodle leads Anansi, whose output ranges from chamber jazz to outright dodecaphony. Among several sublime and seldom-heard virtuosos are violinist Tari Nelson-Zagar, clarinetist Jesse Canterbury, and drummer (and drum-builder) Gregg Keplinger. Players who enjoy fame outside of Seattle are clarinet pioneer Bill Smith, monster bassist Mike Bisio, and Amy Denio, whose solo performances of high-flying vocal and electronic improvisations are not to be missed. Other vocalists to watch are Ivory Smith and Eryn Young, who process their voices into sumptuously frazzled static with Foot in Mouth, and Detonator Beth, who fuses operatic technique with over-the-top performance art. Two low-profile yet tender-souled players are Mark Collins, still treasured for his contributions to the now-defunct ...kagel..., and saxophonist Michael Monhart, who sometimes collaborates with trombonist and garden-hose maestro Stuart Dempster.
Noise bands are harder to find because few clubs are willing to subject their sound systems to speaker-shredding feedback. Three of our burg's noisiest acts are inBOIL, Mutant Data Orchestra, and Monster Defiance Headquarters. MDH is the most theatrical of the three, concluding a recent fun, rowdy performance by smashing a TV and flipping the bird to the audience. Using amplification, sampling, and looping, inBOIL aurally magnifies a small, often-overlooked sound, like a tinkling bell or a drop of water, into a turbulent, thunderous tsunami. The Mutant Data Orchestra is a rotating group of collaborators--usually including analog synth aviator Ffej--assembled by installation artist John Bain, who rewires obsolete devices (like old Casio keyboards) into manic data-spitting machines. Noggin, the duo of violinist Michael Griffen and guitarist Eric Ostrowski, has been pummeling ears with impassioned scree for over 10 years. Recent L.A. transplant komafuzz serves up spirited, scrunchy noise too.
Less loud electroacoustic improvisers include the venerable Climax Golden Twins, whose work ranges from all-acoustic avant rock to compelling electronic collages. Regarding the roots of their diverse sonic palette, CGT's Rob Millis recalls, "I was always and endlessly fascinated with the sounds in movies and on TV... the foley sounds, footsteps, rain, creaks, echoes, et cetera. To this day, I tap and scrape objects, find the murmuring crowd before a movie more enjoyable than the movie, test natural reverberation, and listen more closely to the sounds around me than to the person speaking to me." Another veteran is Jeff Greinke; a cult figure in ambient music since his 1985 LP Cities in Fog, Greinke deftly evokes a sonic landscape of lonely drones and distant wails. Years ago, an eclectic clutch of players coalesced around the SoniCabal, a freeform group of electronic musicians; I haven't been active in the group for some time, so I'm heartened to see xaxis wye, bios+a+ic, R. S. Pearson, TCOR, and others still making the group's collective gigs happen.
Other collectives in town include the Monktail Creative Music Concern, a rotating cast of a dozen or so free improvisers who play under assorted monikers, including Special Ops and Non Grata. This protean arrangement has musical benefits, too; MCMC honcho John Seman elaborates, "The folks involved get together under different aliases contingent on their predilection within any situation that permits them to exist. Groups range from two to 10 players generally, and have free improvisation/spontaneous composition as their underlying principle. These specialized ensembles present the group members with the unique opportunity to improvise in many different contexts--a performance of one particular unit organically mutates into another, offering the listener the unparalleled, or at least amusing, experience of live, acoustic, sonic gymnastic hallucinations. It's a gas."
Several energetic composers have banded together to stage concerts as Sound Currents. Core member Korby Sears explains the idea behind the group: "In the tradition of all successful composers (Strauss, Liszt, Cage, et cetera), Sound Currents came about when a small group of local composers realized that the best way to get your music heard is to put on your own damn concert. You can't wait for grants, praise, and canonization to come your way in a mystical, perfumed pink mist: You have to make the first move--if not the second, fifth, 20th, or maybe all of them." Aono Jikken, which includes the sometime solo artist Suzie Kozawa, makes experimental music from toys, dried kelp, and other neat stuff. Another collective of sorts is the hard-to-classify Degenerate Art Ensemble. Co-led by Joshua Kohl and Haruko Nishimura, the DAE fuse jazz, punk, noise, and general sonic anarchy with butoh-inspired dance. Their performance of Nymph at On the Boards was an elegant spectacle truly worthy of the adjective "surreal."
Composers enmeshed in new composition are the UW's JoËl-François Durand (disciple of New Complexity god Brian Ferneyhough) and Eric Flesher and Michael Rook, who bring a taste of European modernism to Seattle. Christopher Shainin adorns his scores with exotic instruments without succumbing to world-music clichés. Both Wayne Horvitz, an alumnus of the late-'80s NYC downtown scene, and Gavin Borchert, chiefly known as the Seattle Weekly's classical music guru, deploy avant-garde devices within expertly fashioned traditional forms. Cornish is lucky to have Jarrad Powell, who not only composes for gamelan ensemble but cooks up some compelling electroacoustic music for dance, too. Roger Nelson, another Cornish roustabout, recently knocked me out with two vocal pieces that used humming and mocked my ancestors, the French. I also hope the UW can hang on to Richard Karpen, creator of several classics, including Terra Infirma and Eclipse.
Of the younger generation, Tom Baker plies the shadowy territory between form, isolation, and silence. "I like to think of my work as 'nook and cranny' music," states Baker. "I'm interested in the spaces between sounds, between silences. Music that is about the in-between, interstitial spaces." The reclusive Matt Shoemaker concocts cryptic soundscapes of musique concrète, field recordings, and electronic tones. Even younger is Luke Allen; the extensive filtering, ratcheting rasps, and digital spikes that filled his score to the dance performance Echo left me envious. Composer Keith Eisenbrey's masterful Slow Blues exploits the slow, complex resonance of the piano's strings. Chiefly known as the proprietor of the cult label and/OAR, Dale Lloyd also creates alluring electronic pieces he describes as "mostly quiet yet often mercurial electroacoustic deconstructions that often employ amorphous soundscapes and drones." Even more obscure is Toby Paddock. Don't pass up a chance to hear his amazing magnetic pickup field recordings or the vintage modular synth minimalism of atlatl.
Outside the general continuum of composers lurk David Mahler, Meri von Kleinsmid, and Jay Hamilton, all of whom find unique uses of space and silence and allow spoken text to influence their music. Text is the main working material of Staggered Thirds, who use poetry, essays, advertisements, menus, national anthems, and other printed effluvia to create funny, engaging, and arresting vocal pieces.
Composers who do double duty as instrument inventors include Ellen Fullman, whose Long String Instrument is currently in storage. Next time she does a gig in Seattle, don't miss it; she produces what's aptly described as "suspended music" with the up-to-90-foot-long LSI, which shimmers like a chorus of glass violins. "I am interested in space," avers Fullman, "in somehow playing the trick of building a dimensional form with sound." Trimpin, whose installations use mechanical means to make acoustic music, is equally well-known. He refuses to make recordings, so the only way to experience his ingenious constructions is live. Trimpin's recent Klavier Nonette, a coin-operated vending machine, used nine mechanically driven toy pianos.
Others who work with strings include Dave Knott, Steve Barsotti, Phillip Arnautoff, and Troy Swanson. Describing his work as "experiments in sonic curiosity" and "dialogues between chaos and control, nature and invention," Knott fashions stringboards by mounting various kinds of piano and guitar strings on scrap wood. Barsotti's primary instrument is the Springframe, a series of interconnected frame-mounted springs amplified by contact microphones. Arnautoff, an instrument builder in the tradition of Harry Partch, composes and performs with a home-built version of Partch's Harmonic Canon. Swanson performs on an appealing contraption dubbed the "corpus callosum," reminiscent of the piano-meets-gamelan creation of John Cage's prepared piano. I would be remiss if I didn't mention Ela Lamblin, who has constructed an arsenal of attractive instruments, including the melancholy stamenphone.
Of course, some artists perform so infrequently that they might be considered missing in action. The out-jazz pranksters Tripod haven't been heard from in some time, and I'm hoping Dennis Rea puts another gig together for Seattle's avatar of avant jazz-rock, Stackpole. It's also been a long time since two of the founding fathers of freely improvised music in Seattle, contrabass clarinetist Paul Hoskin and Greg Powers, have done a gig. Also scarce on the scene is producer/engineer Tucker Martine's group Mount Analog, a down-home blend of porch-swing Americana and avant electronics. Another producer/engineer, Doug Haire, presents his trove of field recordings to the public all too rarely. And just to show that you can't hear everything, despite their two decades of albums and gigs I have yet to hear the Sun City Girls, who do but one or two gigs a year. Lastly, soon to be MIA is the Texas-bound Alex Keller, whose composing, improvising, teaching, and multifarious musical organizing on behalf of many other Seattle musicians will be missed.
Of course the questions remain: Why listen to this music? Why seek these names out? Apart from superficially satisfying a need for the new, experimental music soothes the seeking soul with invention, discovery, and the chance to rearrange how you listen to the world.
Christopher DeLaurenti is a composer, improviser, music writer, and freelance sound designer. He covers experimental music each week for The Stranger in his column The Score. Christopher performs Sat June 21 at 8 pm at the Polestar Music Gallery with the hacked-electronics duo rebreather and the Mutant Data Orchestra. For more info on the Festival of Experimental Musics, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.