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The Same Old Totally New Thing

High Zero Makes A Virtue Of Unpredictability For A Ninth Year

Michael Northrup
TOEING THE LINE: John Berndt likes to take risks in his playing, and with the festival he founded and runs.

By Bret McCabe | Posted 9/26/2007

High Zero

Sept. 27-30 at Theatre Project.

High Jinx performances are probably running somewhere right now.

Saxophonist Chris Heenan isn't sure why he was asked, but he's very happy to be taking part--in whatever it is. "Quite frankly, I was kind of surprised I was invited because it seems like they're kind of not necessarily into somebody who plays saxophone," he says of Baltimore's ninth annual High Zero Festival of Experimental Improvised Music by phone from Berlin, his on and off home for the past few years. "They're kind of into multi-instrumentalist totally self-made people. I mean, I got a master's in music, but I didn't start out that way. But there's a real Baltimore aesthetic of homegrown, do-it-yourself, right down to making your own instrument thing, and I don't really fit into that category. I play an instrument that everybody and their grandmother plays. I'm not even sure I understand [the festival], but I'm in it."

Chicago-bred, New York-based saxophonist Matana Roberts hadn't even heard of the festival before she was invited, but the attitude of the invitation itself lured her to Baltimore this weekend. "I actually wasn't familiar with this festival until I got the invite," she says by phone. "And I just don't say `yes' to every invite. The reason I said yes to this one is that it just sounded really interesting in terms of the setup and in how they were wanting people to come out as solo artists. And then [the festival format of] grouping people together who may or may not have had a chance to play together a lot before. And you had to commit to the four days to be there and they could pair you with whomever. I just thought it sounded really cool."

Eight years after Scott Moore inaugurated Baltimore's ambitious festival for unheard music in 1999 by setting off a bag of alarm clocks in East Baltimore's now defunct Lodge, the High Zero festival isn't only a treasured local event that unleashes ribald and fun sights and sounds on the city via its evening concerts, sound installations, and the impromptu, roaming, and downright entertaining High Jinx performances throughout the city. The festival--by its very setup, attitude, and immersive experience--has earned a deserved reputation for the absolute focus it puts on its titular music--experimental and improvised. Since its inception, High Zero has invited national and international musicians to come to Baltimore to work with local artists for a weekend of workshops, intense collaboration, recording sessions, and the festival's evening concerts, where the High Zero organizers place musicians in groups with other musicians, often with people with whom they have never played.

This year 15 artists from around the world--including German percussionist Matthias Kaul, Dutch vocal improviser Jaap Blonk, dancer Asimina Chremos, and TV on the Radio guitarist/vocalist Kyp Malone--join 13 local artists, from reeds player John Dierker to beatboxer Shodekeh, for High Zero 2007. And, as with every year, it's absolutely impossible to guess just what you might witness at the shows. It's a high-wire act that has smelted bizarre and beautiful results, and would absolutely not work if the organizers weren't as committed and confident that this crapshoot of an idea can and will work.

That confident attitude has been word-of-mouth passed around by former participants and is imbued in the tone of the initial invitation. Chicago trumpeter Jaimie Branch also hadn't really heard of the festival before she was invited, but asked around her peers as soon as she was earlier this year. "A lot of people that I know do know about it and were like, `It's really cool,'" she says by phone. "A lot of people from Chicago have played it in the past. So they told me a little bit about the types of experiences that they've had, and it seems like what [High Zero is] trying to do is something that is really worthwhile.

"They kind of stressed how they really want to have new things happen, and those kind of new things are separate from stature as a musician, people who are more well known," she continues. "That doesn't matter--everything doesn't matter, gender, race, whatever. Most festivals aren't like that. So from their very mission statement, they're very different from other things."

That's been the goal from the beginning. Red Room/High Zero member John Berndt recalls being in the workbench aisle at a Home Depot in early 1999, and "I had all of a sudden the idea that the Red Room Collective should do a festival," he says with a laugh by phone from his day-job office in Hampden. "That we should do a festival, that the poster should be a picture of Neil Feather riding a horse, that we should only invite individuals, that it should be four days long, and that it should have this particular format."

The format was a response both to the Red Room's traditional booking practices, which tended to invite bands/groups, and a Baltimore vibe that was particularly receptive to offbeat instrument and personality combinations. "We were always really interested in unusual combinations of players--Toshi [Makihara] and Neil Feather or whatever," Berndt says. "That seemed like a specific form of content that Baltimore was particularly open to. Sort of the idea of, not that the music wouldn't be powerful and great, but that it wouldn't be commodified in the sense that you can go out and buy 10 Toshi/Neil records, shifting the attention onto the individuality of the players and onto the possibility of collaboration--because a lot of the whole [festival] is sort of a utopian experiment in trying to cut the continuum between the individual and collective [that] is normal in this civilization."

It's an attitude the visiting musicians get a feel for even before coming to Baltimore. "I'm from Houston, and we don't have anything like it here," says bassist Thomas Helton. "There's no real scene for the experimental music, so any festival that exists for this kind of music is going to intrigue me. But I like the concept that they've developed. It gives us a playing situation where we get to meet these people and interact on our creative levels rather than just like a meet and greet."

And that social aspect--that possibility of figuring things out as players and people--is something that is becoming increasingly more difficult to find for improvisers. "In Europe there used to be a better situation for improvised music, but it's deteriorated a lot and it's very difficult right now in European countries to do improvised music," says Jaap Blonk by phone from his home in the Netherlands. "It has to do with the fact that the commercial aspect has become much more important in Europe and because of the media and radio and television don't pay as much attention to it anymore. There used to be--and I'm talking about my country of Holland--there used to be a radio program for adventurous jazz and improvised music, but there's much less, or they're after midnight."

Younger generations of free-jazz and experimental-music fans often romanticize exactly what Blonk is talking about: that period in the late 1960s and into the '70s when forward-reaching music and culture felt like they were on the same page, when aesthetics and politics collided in the hope of finding something new and better. "There used to be an active audience for the music, like thinking, as you could say, with the music--finding yourself in the same situations," Blonk says. "I remember when I went to the university in the early '70s about when it started. There would be lunchtime concerts, from free-jazz to sometimes other kinds of music. And it grew for a little while. A union for improvised musicians was founded in Holland at that time, and at some point there were nearly 35 clubs in this small country where you could do improvised music. Now it's only two or three."

Holland isn't the only country in which this is happening. Any veteran--or even up and coming--noncommercial musician knows how hard it is to make a living while making this sort of music. And it's up to festivals such as High Zero--and the camaraderie and vibe of the local artists who sustain it--to reinvigorate the energy that drives the musicians. High Zero isn't merely an utterly unique local festival anymore; it's a vital event in experimental and improvised music at-large.

"The thing that we hear constantly from players is that it's so great to be somewhere where the vibe is so open and noncompetitive," Berndt says. "Everyone's trying to do their best work, but it's not a competitive, cutthroat vibe. We also hear that it's great to be somewhere where the music's not on the defensive but at the same time it hasn't been totally professionalized. That's what I think is the secret sauce, we're not on the defensive at all about what we're doing because we have big audiences and because our audiences cut across lots of different types of people, but at the same time we're not presenting it like, `Don't you sneeze during the performances.' It has a sort of community vibe."

The festival has rightfully earned that reputation. "Sometimes they put people in really tricky situations that are a bit hard on the players," Heenan laughs. "And I think they do this intentionally. I think they feel these are potentially hazardous situations.

"Other festivals might do this, but never quite this ornery," he continues. "I think a lot of festivals tend to present groups that are already fixed. The music may be very open, but the elements are known. And I think High Zero is trying to move away from the known elements, but you'd have to ask them about their expectations, if they have any. I don't know. People playing Speak and Spell with a guy who plays tuba and then someone who's a tap dancer: That's not happening so much in Germany, but I would not be surprised if that's a High Zero set."

Massimo Simonini is an Italian theremin and electronics player participating in High Zero 2007, and he comes closest to capturing the festival's vitality--despite his apology for his poor English in a recent e-mail. "What I can say from here is that reality like High Zero are important, are like part of a big-subtle-invisible constellation that is a good counterbalance for today's world." We couldn't have said it better ourselves.

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