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The Third Annual High Zero Festival Makes It Up

By Lee Gardner | Posted 9/12/2001

Where is the musical avant-garde in the 21st century? If you live in Baltimore, it's all around you every day. "I've personally met over a hundred local players into [free] improvisation," says John Berndt, restless musical explorer and founder of the Red Room performance space at Waverly's Normals Books and Records. And thanks to the Red Room Collective's regular concerts and workshops devoted to free improvisation and other sonic experiments, Berndt adds, "A month doesn't go by that we don't meet some new, great [local] musician."

Each fall for the past two years, the city's burgeoning experimental-music scene has been showing the world what it's made of with the High Zero Festival of Experimental Improvised Music. The Red Roomers have brought improvisers from around the country and, increasingly, around the globe to town to play with--and off of--the local talent, which has more than held its own. The first two years drew press attention from fringe-oriented music magazines such as Cadence and The Wire, but the fest also won the notice of more mainstream outlets such as The Washington Post and National Public Radio's All Things Considered. But more importantly, each festival provided several days and nights of cataclysmic, creative music, improvised on the spot by players who had often just met. From sonorous tone poems to raucous squonk fests to sounds so unusual that they seem fresh to the planet (to all three in the same set), the music of High Zero has proven a feast for any adventurous music lover.

And now High Zero 2001 looms on the horizon: five shows over four days, Sept. 13 through 16, at Theatre Project. The third edition of the festival is bigger and broader. The lineup features 27 musicians performing in various combinations in 20 sets, including several European stars whose presence on this side of the Atlantic is rare indeed (see below). There are roughly double the number of electronic musicians compared to past years, and this year's model promises even more unexpected delights--from a series of guerrilla street performances (soon to be posted on the festival's Web site, to an opening-night set featuring local musician Catherine Pancake leading an ensemble of musicians wringing sounds from cakes of dry ice.

The beautiful part is, even if you sat through every note of the previous two festivals, the music of the third will be a totally new experience, even if some of the same players are involved. "Staleness is one thing we never worry about," Berndt says, "as long as we keep focused on pushing our own limits as players." Bringing together "all the wildest and most inspired musical minds we know," he says, the organizers try to arrange the configurations of players for each set based on maximum unpredictability and creative foment. "In a way, this is the only 'composing' that goes on, except instead of notes or chords, we, the organizers, get to combine personalities and approaches."

One thing is for certain about High Zero--neither the festival nor Baltimore's experimental music is going anywhere but up anytime soon. "Our feeling is we haven't even gotten started with this musical revolution," Berndt says. "So much is left to be done, universes are opening up . . . "

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