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You Can't Tell the Players Without a Program

A Complete Guide to the Musicians of High Zero

By Lee Gardner | Posted 9/12/2001

Thomas Ankersmidt
Alto saxophone, computer, analog synthesizer

A Red Room favorite, Ankersmidt is one of several European saxophonists involved in pushing his instrument to its breaking point and beyond, into realms of pure sound. His collaborators have ranged from the American free-improv extremists of Borbetomagus to experimental composer Alvin Lucier.

Jim Baker
Arp synthesizer, piano

There's something about the bizarre sounds and sometimes peculiar interfaces of vintage synths that seems to attract experimentalists and improvisers. Baker's weapon of choice in the venerable Arp synth, along with other keyboards. A veteran of the bustling Chicago scene, this is his first High Zero appearance.

John Berndt
Saxophone, self-built instruments, electronics

Normals co-founder and Red Room/Red Room Collective founder, tireless organizer of High Zero, mahout of the Recorded label, erstwhile employer of many of Baltimore's best and brightest at his Web-design firm--Berndt's many contributions to the local experimental-music and -culture scene sometimes overshadow his considerable prowess as an improviser, experimentalist, and musical thinker. Anything he does on or to a saxophone during High Zero should already be anticipated as a highlight; his ongoing experiments with jury-rigged instruments and electronics usually impress as well.

Dan Breen
Bass, drums, clavinet, self-built instruments

One of many young Baltimoreans suckled at the teat of the Red Room, Breen is a self-taught, self-starting musician at home with funky jazz (as part of the Financial Group) as well as the outer reaches. His attack on the clavinet--the über-funky, no-longer-in-production keyboard favored by '70s soul stars like Sly Stone and Stevie Wonder--should be something to witness.

Michael Bullock

Hailing from the rich Boston improvising scene, Bullock has shoehorned his bass playing and improvisations into a wide variety of contexts, including collaborations with the likes of AMM's Eddie Prévost and fellow bassist Peter Kowald (see below).

Charles Cohen
Buchla synthesizer

A veteran of the first High Zero in 1999 and many Red Room performances, Cohen plays a rare analog synthesizer--a Buchla Music Easel--which he bought from synth pioneer Don Buchla in 1976. In addition to possessing an instrument any serious music nerd or member of Stereolab would kill for, Cohen (no relation to the City Paper contributing writer of the same name) has developed a beguiling voice on his patch-cord ax, maximizing the malleable voices and variable textures at his fingertips in a way that's as unique as his instrument.

Daniel Conrad
Flute, voice, Chromaccord light organ, self-built instruments

Speaking of unique instruments, there's Conrad's Chromaccord, a self-invented one-of-a-kind light organ with which he seeks to do with colors what music does with sound (Music, July 4, www. for full details). In addition to his visual work, Conrad is a flutist, a vocal improviser, and the creator of some interesting uncategorizable musical instruments, such as the oscillating Wild Waves.

Mike Cooper
Lap-steel guitar, electronics

Cooper possesses one of the more unusual curriculum vitae among the fest's participants (and that's saying something). Originally part of the British blues boom in the '60s, Cooper played acoustic slide guitar with scores of blues legends. During the '70s he began incorporating jazz, working with the likes of legendary South African players Dudu Pukwana and Louis Maholo, and, eventually, heading for the wilds of free improvisation, where he has frolicked happily for many years now, dragging the prosaic lap-steel guitar with him.

Helena Espvall-Santoleri
Cello, banjo
Stockholm and Philadelphia

From the High Zero Web site: "I've played classical music, Arabian music, been a theatre musician, a member of a silent-movie orchestra, and played guitar in rock bands, but playing free improvised music is what satisfies me the most."

Neil Feather
Self-built instruments

Sometimes a virtuoso musician might master two dozen instruments in a lifetime. Meanwhile, Red Room Collective member Neil Feather has invented more than two dozen instruments. He may not be their master just yet, but then again, most listeners are still grappling with his equally self-invented musical grammar for creations such as the Nondo (a piece of curved sheet steel equipped with strings), various Rotozithers, and an assortment of Former Guitars. A longtime presence on the local experimental scene (as a solo performer, as Berndt's duet partner in THUS, and as leader of the all-Feather-instruments group Aerotrain), Feather's High Zero performances with visiting musicians usually bring out the unusual in them and him.

Eric Franklin
Theremin, self-built instruments

Franklin, long ago a member of local what-the-fuh? rockers the Hassassins, is one of several improvisers who will be waving their hands in the air during High Zero, trying to get strange sounds from that suddenly trendy touchless electronic instrument, the theremin. Success is almost guaranteed.

Lafayette Gilchrist

Gilchrist is best-known around town for leading his uncategorizably funky-yet-jazzy ensemble the New Volcanoes, and for his budding career as pianist-on-call for modern jazz titan David Murray. But his dense, arpeggiated piano style also worked its way into several free-form sets at High Zero 2000; Gilchrist returns for another round this year.

David Gross

A cohort of Baltimore-based bassist Vattel Cherry, saxophonist Gross ignores the thin line between free jazz and free improvisation, having played with free-jazzers such as Glenn Spearman and Raphe Malik as well as nonidiomatic improvisers ranging from AMM's Eddie Prévost to microtone specialist Bhob Rainey.

Andy Hayleck
Guitar, electronics, self-built instruments

Another local High Zero first-timer, Hayleck divides his time between improvisation and stints with everything from a ska band to Neil Feather's Aerotrain.

Katt Hernandez

Violinists have had a tendency to get overshadowed at past High Zeros. Hernandez's long and varied résumé, which encompasses starting an improvising program at the University of Michigan, involvement with the Zeitgeist Gallery in Cambridge, Mass., playing the music of the Ottoman Empire, and performing with New England-based improvising godfather Joe Maneri, promises otherwise.

Peter Kowald
Contrabass, voice
Wuppertall, Germany

If such an amorphously democratic event as High Zero can be said to have a headliner, Kowald is it. One of the founding players in the European jazz avant-garde, he first scourged attuned American ears as the bassist on Peter Brötzmann's legendary 1968 free-jazz blowout Machine Gun (a distinction surely worth a healthy stipend and a nice brass plaque somewhere). Since then, he has teamed his probing, powerful free playing with a who's-who of new-music luminaries, among them saxophonist Evan Parker, trumpeter Leo Smith,and free-improv dean Derek Bailey.

Keenan Lawler
National steel guitar, electronics
Louisville, Ala.

Lawler bears the distinction being the second-best-known improvising steel guitarist at this year's event. The prospect of taking the instrument of a thousand bucolic rural soundtracks and setting free its wispy atmospherics and piercing tone sounds most promising.

éric LéTourneau
Computers, various

Létourneau's art and music activities sprawl across so many international and interdisciplinary borders that they defy blurbification. Suffice to say he is very smart, very talented, and seemingly very busy.

Lukas Ligeti
Drums, electronics
New York

Another globetrotting musical omnivore and Red Room favorite, Ligeti combines elements of jazz drumming, computer and electronic music, African rhythms, and modern composition in his work.

Kaffe Matthews
Live sampling, theremin

As anyone who has witnessed one of her past Red Room performances can attest, Matthews can fill a whole room with . . . the sounds of the room, sampled, filtered, looped, and sculpted into dense layers. She literally changes every situation she works in, which is more than many improvisers can claim. Her appearances promise high points in the making.

Christopher Meeder
Tuba, voice, percussion
New York

Meeder takes the dowdiest brass instrument there is and puts the free-improv whammy to it, with extended techniques galore.

Ian Nagoski

Nagoski's shifting, shimmering dronescapes have become a prominent part of the Baltimore experimental scene since he moved here from Philadelphia last year. His first CD was titled Warm, Coursing Blood, which just about covers his pulsing sound. In his spare time, Nagoski contributes articles about music to City Paper.

Catherine Pancake
Percussion, dry ice

Filmmaker Pancake so loved the experimental improvised music she first heard in Baltimore's underground some years ago that she taught herself how to play drums. She has since developed formidable chops as a player and improviser and branched out into wresting sound from dry ice; she leads a dry-ice orchestra to open this year's festival.

EVAN Rapport
Reeds, piano
New York

Until recently Rapport was one of Baltimore's most chameleonic saxophonists and most prolific musical agitators, co-founding the Mass Particles label and leading sharp avant-jazz units Companion Trio and Krill. He recently moved to New York to pursue an advanced degree in musicology, but he returns to lend his unpredictable, breath-oriented art to his third High Zero.

Leslie Ross
New York

The foremost free-improvising bassoonist in the world.

Jason Willett

When Willett says "anything," he means anything--from an accordion to a theremin to a heap of electronics to an amplified rubber band. Willett is one of Baltimore's best-kept musical secrets; here is yet another chance to find out why.

Jack Wright
Reeds, piano
Boulder, Colo.

Wright is a de facto Red Room patriarch, a three-time High Zero participant and the man festival organizer Berndt describes as "the Johnny Appleseed of free improvised music." He is not only a profound influence on any number of HZ participants past and present, he is a saxophonist of such technical skill and emotional power that it's easy for even a layperson to hear why.

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