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The Next 10

As High Zero Celebrates a Decade in Existence, The Red Room Looks Ahead

Michael Northrup
Dan Conrad

By Bret McCabe | Posted 9/3/2008

The cat is out of the bag, and now everybody knows what we spoiled locals have known for what feels like forever: The freaks run amok in Baltimore making all kinds of art racket, and--gasp--not only is it compelling, but people pay attention. We like it. And, yes, sometimes it's young guys in unironic cartoon T-shirts making a neon-pink barrage of noise or bearded men who look like they smell of fusty LPs and out-of-print books making bent metal sound like birdsongs, but just as often it's women making the scene onstage, in the audience, and organizing the events. And when even the plywood slats at Rolling Stone take notice, well, you know, the pigs are flying over Pigtown, a snowball's chance in hell just exponentially increased, and other cliché yawns.

So come, all ye circuit-bending alchemists, vid-game music hot-wirerers, techno-files, utopian art-school grads, DIY theater go-getters, virtual conceptualists, digital explorers, freak-flag-flying folkies, electronics margin walkers, and other new-media and old avant-garde enthusiasts who may have migrated to Baltimore because it sounded like some kind of batshit promised land. Welcome to the nearly anything-goes warehouse you've only read about.

Yes, that's right: Bring it. "There are great scenes out there, but one of the things that makes me continuously excited about the scene here is that it sort of manages to make the dissolution of boundaries seem really effortless," says local experimental culture spark plug John Berndt, one of the co-founding members of the Red Room Collective that organizes the High Zero Festival of Experimental Improvised Music, which begins its 10th incarnation Sept. 16. A native Baltimorean, Berndt has been in the local fringe-art scrum since his teens, in the early 1980s, so he's seen and created his share of out-of-pocket experiences. "And, of course, because it's improvised and experimental, it's not all great. Nobody ever claims it's all great. What people do claim is that by this method you can get really amazing experiences that you can't get in any other way."

First launched in 1998, High Zero's scattershot early years (ask the organizers and performers themselves) gelled into an intense crucible in 2000 when it anchored its evening performances at Theatre Project after two years of rotating venues. Having a home base for the festival's main concerts--where, each night, four newly formed groups made out of a mix of local and visiting musicians who more than likely have never played with each other before improvise a set of music--freed the organizers to focus on spreading its beloved mischief, in the form of the High Jinx street performances that begin about a week before the festival starts, to as many citizens as possible. And every early fall since, a group of national and international solo artists invade Baltimore for roughly a week of inspired mayhem and social experiments that you can watch come together into something beautiful or fall apart before your eyes.

Some arts organizations might mark their 10th anniversaries with a self-congratulatory celebration. While High Zero 2008 does expand to five days and include some marquee names, the Red Room Collective is seizing the opportunity to dissect its own identity and purpose. It is a rotating group of individuals who have curated nearly a concert per week since 1996, usually at Normals Books and Records, and who are committed not only to its own survival but some idea of forward experimental progress as well. And so as the festival turns 10, the Red Room is welcoming new members--longtime local improviser Tom Boram, who performed in the first High Zero and is making his fifth appearance in this year's incarnation; experimental wordsmith/performer Ric Royer; and musician/experimental foodie Shelly Blake-Plock (a City Paper contributor)--and thinking very seriously about what to do next, whatever that may be.

"One of the dangers that I, at least, see is that scenes, when they reach a certain point, will sort of fragment and become very inward, and you simultaneously lose the potential audience expansion, which is in some ways the most exciting part, because people who don't have any background in these things may actually make really interesting contributions," Berndt says. "What we set out to do semi self-consciously [with the Red Room] was to create an opportunity to have a really strong collaborative situation in Baltimore, and really strong presentations to the public, and to have enough gigs to really support musicians staying in Baltimore and being able to work on their work. And that's what's been successful and been accomplished. So the question is, what makes us relevant in the next 10 years? Is it more infrastructure? Is it archives? Is it a better venue? Is it a combination of all those things? Is it better places to stay and more frequent residencies?"

This nexus is what enticed both Boram and Royer to become Red Room members. Both had been asked to join before, but the idea that the Red Room can and should change is what made them want to take part. "I think it will be different," Boram says of the Red Room's future. "I think new people will inspire new ideas, and they're going to try to offer new things. It will change as the city changes. And that's one of the things that convinced me to join--that what it's been for the last 10 years, the next 10 years are likely going to be a pretty big shift."

Boram, the Leprechaun Catering ecstatic familiar to High Zero habitués as a versatile multi-instrumentalist, cites the community of musicians fostered by the Red Room/High Zero as integral to his own development as an artist. "All the musicians that I've met in the last 10 years have made all the difference," he says. "I've been influenced by everybody that I know--this city has been great to me. I've had fantastic experiences because of music, but mostly because of the community that creates it."

And the flexibility of this community is what enticed Royer to join. One of the three co-organizers behind the annual Transmodern Festival of performance art, Royer was initially skeptical of the invitation. "Not only do I not do not so much music anymore, but I don't do much improvising anymore," he confesses.

"I said, `Look, if I'm involved, experimental and improvised music is not going to be my main focus,'" Royer continues. "And that's why they asked me. All the reasons that I was concerned about why they wouldn't want me were reasons why they wanted me."

And he is very excited about the possibilities of where the Red Room may wander. "I really like what they have on the web site," Royer says about the Red Room's home page. "A `laboratory for paracultural revolution.' I like what that does to my head and the images that that conjures and the type of events that that suggests--it transcends definition. And a lot of times the events do transcend definition. And in a way that's a starting point for me going into the collective. If I walk into this room, am I going to see a laboratory for paracultural revolution or am I going to see a storage room in a bookstore with some people goofing off? Sometimes, it's a coin flip when you walk in there."

He looks down at the tape recorder and laughs. "I know I shouldn't be saying this with that on, but this is me being a maverick politician," he says. "There's the answer that I feel compelled to give as a promoter with great allegiance and loyalty to the people involved and their intentions, and that is that it's great and that it is very diverse. And then there's another side of me that wants to say that I would like to see it be more, as a week-to-week event. Its week-to-week purpose, I think it's stale. And I know it's hard--especially when you have a collective full of very active people, active solo work. And so, yeah, instead of sitting back and thinking, This could change, I thought I might see what I could do instead of just complain about it."

And it's the continued, involved commitment of Baltimore's creative well that has always fueled the Red Room's vitality. Just looking at its current membership--Berndt, Samuel Burt, Audrey Chen, Chiara Giovando, Rose Hammer, Stewart Mostofsky, Mike Muniak, and Paul Neidhardt--and past members (Dan Breen, Neil Feather, Eric Allen Hatch [a CP contributor], Andy Hayleck, Ian Nagoski [an erstwhile CP contributor], Catherine Pancake, Evan Rapport, Kate Turney, and Bob Wagner) charts a roll call of not only some of the more prolific and interesting artists to come out of Baltimore in the past 15 years, but people who have given so much of their own time in creating opportunities for other artists and art ideas here. Just as High Zero is a music festival that breeds social expansion, the Red Room is an experimental music collective that has always been about community building and pushing their art to try to go wherever it hasn't yet.

The Red Room and High Zero are "just an expression of three factors that are really key identity factors of Baltimore," Berndt says. "One is the collective/collaborative mind-set where people just assume that they're going to be doing things with one another rather than holding them close to their vests. The second thing is sort of disinhibition or nonconformity, people being willing to do things that people may not already know if they're cool or uncool. When Tom Boram smashes his sitar or Dan Conrad gets up and does his thing, there's not really a protocol of whether that's good or bad.

"And the other thing is this sort of mixing of cultural levels, which I think is probably more and more true nationally, but I think Baltimore has been sort of avant-garde in this, where you have people who are really conversant with trash culture but also really conversant with really difficult and really cerebral culture, and their interests kind of range anarchically over those areas," he continues. "So the sensibility is really hard to pin down because it's not a destructo, fuck-everything type of sensibility, but it's also not an academic sensibility. It's a sensibility that sort of has this noblesse-oblige feeling, like, `We own it all.' And why wouldn't you want to have intense catharsis and humor and difficult intellectual problems? Isn't that what life should be about?"

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