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Big Band, Unbound

Charm City's Improvising Musicians Take on the Ultimate Challenge--Creating a Free-Form Orchestra

By Bret McCabe | Posted 1/8/2003

"One of the things that preoccupies me is the whole issue of whether or not there is a Baltimore sensibility or Baltimore sound," says John Berndt over lunch the day before the last day of 2002. The preceding 363 days formed a typically busy year for the 35-year-old musician whose involvement with the local experimental music community over the years has been integral in shaping whatever a "Baltimore" sound may be. He's one of the seven members of the Red Room Collective that sponsors exploratory weekend shows at the cozy space next to Normals Books and Records. The collective's fourth annual festival, High Zero, drew more than 900 people over four days to witness music from the outer limits of the brain. And Sound/Shift, the 36 hours of continuous improv spread over three days during the this past summer's Artscape festival that Berndt curated, went off better than it really had any right to.

For all the activity that the Red Room has brought to Baltimore, however, what Baltimore has brought to American improv remains elusive. Other cities--Chicago, San Francisco, Boston--have produced styles, ideas, or performers for whom name-recognition is automatic in certain circles. That hasn't happened here. And it's something that makes Berndt, who has been playing free improv around the country and Europe for more than 10 years, wonder: What is the Baltimore sound?

"I guess ultimately that is sort of a stupid question because it's reductionist in a way that's unhelpful," Berndt says. "But I think one of the things that is really defining of the avant-garde music scene here is that it is more collaborative than competitive, and that people are more interested in the content than they are in individual careers. . . . The first question isn't, 'How much do I get paid?' Or, 'What's my billing going to be?' And I feel that that's been sort of an ever-growing thing here."

That collective-vs.-competitive spirit is going to be put to an extremely formidable test Jan. 15 when Berndt and Eugene Chadbourne, a pioneer of American avant-garde music, stage a 20-person ensemble improv at the Theatre Project. "Second Nature" brings together local and national musicians of various musical stripes for a daylong preparation that culminates with one evening performance whose outcome nobody can predict at all. And that uncertainty is what excites Berndt and Chadbourne.

"After High Zero, John sent out a little message asking people to make comments," Chadbourne says from his home in Greensboro, N. C. "I thought it was a pretty great event, especially in terms of improvised music and what's available in America. But I mentioned to him that I thought the only area nobody seems to be concentrating on is large groups of people improvising together. I think [that is] because the results are really hard to get a handle on.

"There's always a kind of emphasis in the arts on making something supposedly of 'quality.' Like, all the plays this season are really great or the concerts are going to be really good. And an event like that is really hard to decide, even by the end of it, if it was really good or not. But as a musician, that's not a reason not to try to do it, though."

Most musicians have felt that the nebulous terms of success and failure have been a very good reason not to do it over the past decade or so, actually. Large-ensemble improv remains what Berndt calls the "research field of improvised music" precisely because of the numerous problems the format poses. More players introduce more variables, which in turn makes the difficulties of small-group improv--overplaying, music that never develops, a lack of coherence--increase exponentially. Think of each instrument in a quartet as a single color applied to a canvas. An inspired combination of each in various brushstroke combinations could yield an abstract thing of beauty. Too much of everything churns out a muddy brown panel. Now, imagine the same painting with 20 colors.

More daunting is the fact that musicians have experimented with large-group improv for almost 40 years now, and only a small percentage of it has satisfied the harshest critic: the test of time. The big band itself was an American jazz riff on the tightly structured symphonic music of Europe. By the time free jazz bubbled out of early-'60s New York, European free improvisers were ready to try it out in large-format groups, such as the Spontaneous Music Ensemble. In the 1970s, large groups splintered improv into its furthest extremes--such as Miles Davis' jazz-rock behemoths or outer-body conceptualists like the Los Angeles Free Music Society--and left some feeling that the reins needed to be pulled in if it was going to be coherent at all.

The most common approach was to impose some structure upon the performers to organize the music. It wasn't a score per se--performers didn't read sheet music--yet structured improv did provide musicians with a few guidelines for when to play or not, how long to play and how long to remain at rest.

Structured improv's most recognizable force was John Zorn and his game pieces in the late 1970s to the mid-'80s in New York. (Chadbourne played on a number of these.) Zorn's experiments in large-ensemble composition involved a set of prompts that musicians memorized in order to create a piece as he "conducted." This strategy created music very indicative of its time and place--it often unfolded at the breakneck pace of American punk, was as clamorous as NYC no-wave, and appropriated textures, rhythms, and motifs from nonjazz music as freely as the downtown visual artists borrowed imagery for their pastiche/collage esthetic. Unlike other art of the day, though, the finished music, even something as immediately startling as Zorn's Cobra, never transcended its own time.

"I feel like a lot of the game-theory structured improvisation produced a lot of music that is not of lasting value," says Berndt, who participated in one of Baltimore's little-known game-structured ensembles, the "Official" Project, from 1990-'92. "It's stuff that sounded really amazing on first listen, but there's a spiritual aspect that's missing. If your ultimate commitment is to structural cleverness, it's very rare to come up with music that is profound at the same time. . . . I want the structural variety and range of possibility like Zorn, but I want it to be in the service of something more than, 'Look at what I can do.'"

Berndt believes that the selflessness of Baltimore improvisers is what makes the city a good place to tackle such an ambitious undertaking. "Free improvisation, I think, to do well requires a certain egolessness," he says. "It's not about somebody getting up to see how chopsy they are. People have to be open to stuff that comes out of parts of their mind that they don't tap into that often to be really interesting. And [Second Nature] is sort of an attempt to see where that gets you in terms of if everybody is really more invested in creating an ingenious experience than in proving that they can noodle effectively."

For Second Nature, Berndt and Chadbourne are inundating its member musicians with writings about the problems of large-scale performance by the likes Karlheinz Stockhausen, Cornelius Cardew, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, just to prime everybody who's considering it. The day of the performance, they will have one long rehearsal, followed by a discussion of issues that arose from it. And then later that night, they will perform. Despite the preparation, it's an experiment in what Berndt calls the "pure thing": no imposed structures, no imposed rules, no imposed guidelines, no strings attached.

"I think it's an incredible challenge," Chadbourne says. "And to me that what's interesting about music. There's a definite course set to totally avoid any of that simple structural idea that someone could come up with. We're avoiding things like that and coming to grips with the fact that we're going to have 20 people there, some of whom don't know each other, and we don't have anything planned. It's just, 'Let's do it.'"

John Berndt, Eugene Chadbourne, and their cohorts will perform "Second Nature" at Theatre Project on Jan. 15 at 8:30 p.m. For tickets and more information, call (410) 752-8558 or visit

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