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Hail to the Mischief

Is That A Free Improviser In Your Coffee Shop Or Is High Zero Just Glad To See You?

FOLD, SPINDLE, MUTILATE: Audrey Chen tosses paper airplanes as part of High Jinx.
High Jinx participant Fred Collins
"The Rooftop Assault" including Rose Hammer (third from left).
Stewart Mostofsky
Twig Harper and Jenny Graf

By Bret McCabe | Posted 9/14/2005

High Zero runs Sept. 22-25. For more information visit

High-Jinx street performances make merry Sept. 16-25. For clues to their whereabouts visit

Two things would make local musician Bob Wagner the happiest man on the planet. One, if somebody could figure out how to hold a concert with both performers and audience underwater. And two, if he could convince two people to fake sex in the back of his pickup truck.

“Underwater Music is totally a pipe dream I want to see happen in my lifetime,” Wagner says to the approximately 20 people sitting around the True Vine record store’s intimate concert area, each person following along a list of performance ideas Wagner passed out. “And I would gladly tear these pages up and disregard everything else here if we could figure out how to make Sex Music happen. I’m thinking two scantily clad people—a man and a woman, a man and a man—having mock sex on an amplified mattress wired to an amplifier in the back of my truck.”

A few chuckles run around the room. Nobody says anything immediately. Not because they’re being coy—they’re just letting thoughts marinate a few moments before throwing out an idea spitball.

“Could we hook up some red lights to shine down on the mattress?,” somebody offers.

Wagner’s eyebrows arch as he nods his head and almost everybody lets out a resounding yes. Pencils and pens start jotting notes on paper. Little confabs break out as people bounce ideas off each other. Welcome to the organizational meeting for High Jinx, the street performance mini-festival tied to High Zero, the locally organized, international festival of experimental music that kicks off its seventh installment this month.

High Jinx has been around nearly as long as High Zero, but really started bleeding around the city once HZ found a stable venue base at the Theatre Project in 2000. “Originally people were just doing things outside of the Theatre Project on the sidewalk,” Wagner says over a beer after the meeting. “And at some point in time in the organizing of [High Zero], I decided I wanted to back out of playing in a lot of the festival and felt that these street events are a mini-festival in and of themselves. And in some ways it sustains the edgy energy of the early festivals. The festival still has that, but it’s very stable in place and time, and these events are not.”

These events start up Sept. 16 and run intermittently through HZ’s close Sept. 25. On paper they read like cursory Fluxus compositions-cum-conceptual practical jokes; experiencing them can range from actual practical jokes to disarming moments of absurd beauty. Some of the events are designed purely for the social experience—the Free Music Parade, which takes local and visiting HZ artists on a musical tour through Fells Point. Others are more giddily infiltrative, such as the Guitar Center Band, a plan to have musicians enter a local Guitar Center one at a time, talk to a sales representative about some item and try it out, and eventually have a small group of people freely improvising in the store—ideally with one or two more musicians than sales staff. And others are even more elaborately obtuse—see Underwater Music and Sex Music, above.

HZ’s profile has spread in experimental-music circles far and wide over its six years, and 2005’s crop of visiting minds includes Lebanese trumpeter Mazen Kerbaj, veteran British improviser Phil Minton (who stages a large vocal ensemble during HZ’s Sept. 24 matinée), Los Angeles Free Music Society legend Joseph Hammer, and Boston vocalist Liz Tonne. The format remains relatively the same—a musician performs an opening solo set prior to a cycle of four collective ensembles, typically matching performers who have never played together before. Its emergence as the only experimental-music festival of its size and scope on the East Coast has rewarded High Zero with a formidable reputation, enabling its Red Room collective organizers to attract a stronger caliber of musician.

High Zero maintains its vitality by putting its emphasis on the freshness of the ideas and musicians, and as such restricts the number of consecutive years musicians can be in the festival. High Jinx offers a way for Baltimore’s many offbeat performers and musicians to take part in HZ’s annual off-the-map activity each and every year.

“Plus, the Crap Shoot is bringing in all these young kids who I don’t know, because I don’t go to Crap Shoots as often as I should,” Wagner says, referring to the Red Room’s monthly improvisation workshop the Volunteers Collective Crap Shoot. “But there’s this whole new undercurrent of improvisers and experimental musicians. They come to the Red Room during the Crap Shoots and maybe they’re a year or two away from being in High Zero, but they need a venue. I want to see them.”

One of those new personalities is 23-year-old baritone saxophonist Rose Hammer. The Peabody Institute graduate jazz and computer-music student was exposed to the Red Room and free improv through bassist Evan Lipson, finding her way into the local free community—she now plays in John Berndt’s Multiphonic Choir and the Baltimore Afro-Beat Society—through the Crap Shoots. She performed in High Jinx 2004 and makes her High Zero debut this year.

“I volunteered last year and missed only one night, and it was amazing,” Hammer says. She speaks with a calm seriousness, finding her words carefully, and in person she looks delicate, even though you know it’s only an illusion of her youth. Onstage she manhandles her baritone sax, a woodwind that requires the same sort of physical and lung strength as a big, unwieldy bass clarinet. “Previously, somehow I just didn’t know High Zero was happening. I had been going to school here for three or four years and I just didn’t know about it or I didn’t realize what it was,” she says. “And it totally blew me away. It was just really amazing to see so many people playing with such musicality, just coming to the situation with no prior experience, playing with these people, with no idea what the music was going to turn out what to be like, and just playing and listening and developing some really interesting sounds.”

Hammer is part of a contingent of Peabody students who have found their way to the Red Room circle lured by the music itself. “I think the very contemporary classical music and jazz have a lot in common with experimental music and improv,” Hammer says. “They’re interested in different ways of structuring music, different kinds of sounds. And I think the people who are interested in those types of music tend to be intrigued by the goings-on at the Red Room and High Zero. I feel like the people who are interested in contemporary music will be a lot more open to free, experimental music.”

This new blood is a realization of one of the ideas that has run through the Red Room since its inception in 1996 and Baltimore’s experimental-music community since before then: the idea that the music is the best advertisement for itself. All people need to do is hear it.

“The art and experimental-music scene was a big part of why I wanted to move to Baltimore,” says Washington native Melissa Moore, who moved to Baltimore one and a half years ago. Though she has played the clarinet on and off for years, the 29-year-old Bryn Mawr School chemistry teacher freely admits that she has only been playing “this music” for about 2.5 years, and she now has the distinct honor of opening High Zero 2005. And she might never have been asked to do that had she not discovered the Red Room through a friend.

“There’s a lot of indie stuff, of course, in D.C., but nothing like what I was looking for,” Moore says. Whip-smart, direct, and instantly affable, Moore becomes animated when recalling her road to improvisation. “To give you an example of how desperate I was, when I finally went to the Red Room for the first time I talked to [Baltimore musician] Catherine Pancake, and she invited me to a night of women improvisers. And I rented a car, just for the night, to come to that little thing, because I was so desperate to have that kind of musical interaction with people—and it was great because they were all women, too. And after that, I was just, ‘I have to move here.’”

Moore says that it’s only been in the past eight to nine months that she has arrived at that place where she knows what she wants to do with her music, which involves field-recording projects, a comfort level reached because she has been able to play with people and exercise ideas more freely since moving here. It’s all still a little new to her, so much so that at first she was a little nervous about opening the festival.

“At first I was just like, ‘Wow, I can’t do this,’” she says. “I actually called John [Berndt] and said, well, no. And a few days later it was like, alright, I can do this, and I started thinking about what it was going to be. And now I’m just really, really excited.”

And that fear of the unknown is precisely the fecund area of the musician’s mind High Zero and High Jinx taps into, mirthfully encouraging performers to bite off more than they can proverbially chew. “I’d rather overshoot the possibility and have some things not quite happen,” Wagner says. “That’s a lot of what I like about the festival and what I like about music—having goals that are nearly unattainable and doing all you can trying to get there and stumbling beautifully along the way. It’s why we have these meetings to get people involved and have them take an idea and run with it, because, ultimately, after organizing High Jinx for four years, I would love to just attend events that other people have planned. That would be my dream—just wake up early in the morning and run around the city and watch people do crazy stuff.”

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