Music like nothing anyone has ever heard

High Zero Festival about improvisation and experimentation

September 26, 2002|By Lori Sears | Lori Sears,SUN STAFF

If just the mention of the words "improvised experimental music" brings to mind a man tapping a spoon against a couple of tin cans, chances are you've probably never been to the High Zero Festival.

The four-day event, running through Sunday at the Theatre Project, breaks all those preconceived notions about the instruments, the music and its supposed simplicity. The festival features roughly 30 musicians from all over the globe, performing on-the-spot collaborations of improvised experimental music. And not just with spoons and tin cans.

"The whole experience is blowing the lid off the top of music," says John Berndt, a participant and one of the organizers of the festival. "These are all people whose musical lives are devoted to free improvisation and to improvised music. And they'll be playing together for the first time."

Spread over four nights, including a matinee on Saturday, will be five shows, each promising to be as diverse as musically and humanly possible. The festival will open with seven musicians all playing a single 20-foot-long piece of wire, as they improvise, explore sound and musically connect.

The weekend's music can be split into three categories. First are the musicians who play conventional instruments in imaginative ways. Then there are musicians who play completely invented instruments. Then there are musicians who explore sound art through elemental means, such as capturing and manipulating sound with underwater microphones or electronics.

"On a given night of the festival," Berndt says, "you might see one piece where there is a quartet of people who play essentially one droning sound for a half an hour. Or it might be a group of people who invented their own instruments that sound like they're from another planet. ... Others have superb conventional chops and just love to improvise."

Bring it together, and you've got yourself the High Zero Festival.

"The distance between what they're all doing is enormous, but there are sometimes these wonderful moments where something really gels - and there really isn't a name for it - but it's still really inspired and interesting. And that's really why the festival exists," says Berndt.

Adds musician Bob Wagner, who works with drums and electronic percussion, "All of the musicians are trying to look at sound and sound-producing materials in a new way. They could be using a traditional violin, but playing it in as simple as just an arrhythmic way, or it could be played in a whole new way, where it's just the vibrating tone of the body that's being [heard].

"Experimental music doesn't make you feel like you're at home," he adds. "Oftentimes it's not comfortable music. It can be very jarring, oftentimes disorienting. Oddly, it can even include phrases and bits of popular music. It's not unheard of for someone to break into some phrases of a waltz, or make some reference to a Madonna song in their music. But it's also possible that while that person is playing that cliched bit of popular music, someone else could be making some shrill vibrating tone over top of that. Or there could be some arrhythmic drum going on top or some inexplicable sound from some other source."

The festival was born out of the Red Room at Normal's Books and Records, on 31st Street, a space that's presented more than 400 experimental music concerts and films since its opening in 1996. And while Baltimore may seem an unlikely hub for experimental music, the musicians are far from surprised.

"I think this kind of energy has been bubbling and brewing in Baltimore for awhile," Wagner says. "And the High Zero Festival really gives it the stage it's due. It's often very exciting just knowing that the big, bustling scenes, like the New York improv scene, are right around the corner, but in so many ways, I find the concerts and musical happenings going on in Baltimore much more interesting."

In addition to the daily performances, free workshops are scheduled on "Electro-Acoustic Improvised Music" and "Spatial Electro-Acoustic Music" at the University of Maryland Baltimore County and on "Interactive Electronics in Free Improvisation" at the Johns Hopkins University. There are also sound installations, which change daily, at a gallery at 405 W. Franklin St., plus various street performances and outdoor concerts throughout the city, including a unique opportunity to ride on Port Discovery's Hi-Flyer balloon 500 feet in to the air, as string players do their thing for a very captive audience.

"It's hard to express how unusual this event is," Berndt says. "It's way, way, way unusual. It's very typical for people to come up at the end of the concert and just say, `I've never seen anything like that in my life.' It's a very heavy dose of a lot of very developed musical ideas and directions that you could easily go your whole life and never knew existed."


What: High Zero Festival

When: 8:30 p.m. today, tomorrow, Saturday and Sunday, with an additional show at 1 p.m. Saturday

Where: Concerts at Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St. (Workshops take place at 1 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. tomorrow at University of Maryland Baltimore County, Music and Fine Arts Building, 1000 Hilltop Circle, Room 508, and at 1 p.m. Sunday at Johns Hopkins University, Charles and 33rd streets, Digital Media Center, Mattin Center, Room 101. Installations take place at 4 p.m. daily at 405 W. Franklin St. Street performances take place throughout the city.)

Admission: $12 per concert; $45 for all five concerts. Workshops, installations and street performances, including the Hi-Flyer balloon rides, are free.

Call: 410-539-3091 or 410-752-8558


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