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A Musical Blind Date Makes Sense of the High Zero Festival of Improvised Music

  • Lawrence Lanahan

The High Zero Festival of Experimental Improvised Music takes place in Baltimore, Maryland, every October. It is billed as "highly unusual and surprisingly popular." Surprisingly popular, indeed.

High Noon. This term brings to mind the chaotic gunfights of "spaghetti western" movies. High Zero, Baltimore's festival of experimental improvised music, is a chaotic convergence of musical personalities shooting from the hip. When they take the stage, you never know what you're going to get.

The improvisation at High Zero does not fit neatly into any musical tradition. It's not even free jazz. It is free improvisation-free of known musical styles and conventions.

John Berndt organized the first High Zero in 1999. This year, he and his army of volunteers brought together musicians from Baltimore, the rest of the United States, and Europe in front of sellout crowds numbering in the hundreds.

John Berndt Track: "We take about 25 to 30 musicians that are our favorite improvisers, we organize them into about 22 sets of music in different combinations, trying to find combinations that are ones that will not have predictable outcomes, musically. And also typically, where the people haven't played together before or played together that much before. Then people improvise, and the resulting music is extremely varied."

High Zero was originally an outgrowth of a small, tight-knit community of musicians and enthusiasts. Word is spreading, however, as performer Catherine Pancake recently found out when she heard a local college student discussing the festival.

Catherine Pancake: "He was sort of talking in a loud voice, he was like 'I just moved here from Chicago,' and he's going to Johns Hopkins. He was talking about all the Chicago popular musicians, and he was just sitting there and all of a sudden in a really loud voice, he said, 'Yeah, that High Zero, that's the deal, right? You gotta go to that, you gotta go to that one!' And I was like, 'Yeah, you should!' I have no idea how he heard about it, but as soon as he got to Baltimore, that was on his list of things he needed to see this year, the High Zero festival. And I realized it had grown beyond the group of people who were organizing it, and whatever P.R. we've's sort of taken on a life of its own. So that's really cool."

Ian Nagoski moved to Baltimore from Philadelphia four years ago to be closer to the world that has grown around this music. He has performed at High Zero, and he hosts experimental music concerts at his new record store, The True Vine: "This is a situation which is fairly unique. Somebody-Karen Stackpole-last night said that she'd just flown 3,000 miles for the world's biggest musical blind date. Which is about right. You could wind up with spaghetti sauce all over your lap and crying at the door, or you could wind up very satisfied. Either one."

The blind date doesn't always work out so well. Loren Boyer came down from Boston with a friend who was performing at High Zero. At the previous night's show, he'd found himself having trouble enjoying one set involving Philadelphia guitarist Jack Rose.

Loren Boyer: "The woman playing violin was bothering me a lot because she was drowning out Jack, and I liked what Jack was doing much better."

Carlos Guillen is the translator between the performers and the audience. As sound engineer, he must mix the sounds so that everyone can be heard. I spoke to Carlos at a coffee shop down the street from the festival.: "I'd heard the music. But actually having to run sound at a four day festival, four hours a night, with a three hour matinee on Saturday, turned my brain into mush. It was just so much to handle. I had no idea what I was in for."

The performances were fascinating. One musician used a handmade violin bow to draw whistling melodies out of a metal saw, then stood up and began sawing into the milk crate he was sitting on. Another performer heated cymbals, pots, and pans on a small stove, then pressed them against a block of dry ice. This created varying pitches depending on the rate at which the metal expanded. Somehow, these sounds worked together. It was like watching a small society collectively inventing a language, communicating with it briefly, and-with a shrug-abandoning it forever.

Jim Smith, a first time High Zero attendee who usually listens to opera and classical music, was impressed.

Jim Smith: "My favorite one was the second set, although I liked the third set a lot, too. The second one had this really cool percussionist who did a lot of neat kind of rough sounding things against a fantastic little trumpet player and this guitar player. They were very smooth and a little bit polished, and then there was this real contrast with the percussion guy."

Kevin Corbin, who has been to several free improvisation concerts, can only take it in small doses: "Once you've seen it once, I kind of feel like you've seen it, and it may not be worth seeing again until you forget it…Each one's different but they're all the same in the fact that there's just cacophony…I just don't feel like it's communicating anything very deeply to me…I say I might go back because it really is-it just completely juxtaposes the way you think about performance in general and musical ideas; musical performance specifically."

For Le Quan Ninh, a percussionist from Toulouse, France, free improvisation is about allowing the listener to take a personal journey: "And it's so great because so many shows or so many concerts-it's a unique way of thinking or a unique way of feeling. But this kind of proposition, everybody can make his or her own journey in the forest. So it's great because you can discover that there are 1,000 different paths in the forest, not only one."

Perhaps Joe McPhee, the "fantastic little trumpet player" of whom Jim Smith was so enamored, sums up High Zero best.: "I think you just have to be open, you just have to let yourself be open and not get caught up in categories and that sort of thing. You come with open ears. For example, I don't think anybody would have to tell you if you saw a sunset whether or not it was beautiful, or a flower, or heard a bird sing. You know that sort of intuitively. And you trust your own senses. You put one foot in front of the other, you see if the ground is safe, and you walk on it. That's the yardstick that I use."