Loud Noises: The Sonic Circuits Festival

September 15, 2010


The experimental music world can sometimes feel like a foreboding place.

The Screech und Drang of clashing of notes and rhythms is no cuddly Justin Bieber hug or even an Arcade Fire caress. No, experimental music is more like a firm, manly handshake or a kick to the head, even to the most sonically adventurous person.

But under all the noise, the common denominator in many experimental scenes is the melodic sense of community among its impassioned participants. Once you get over your initial fear and let go of your ringing ears, you’ll find a warm alliance of believers who find energy in avant sound.

Washington boasts a long and committed experimental scene. And what it might lack in numbers it makes up for in the dedicated sense of purpose among its adherents — many of whom start as fans and end up as performers, promoters or both.

The touchstone of the D.C. scene is Jeff Surak’s Sonic Circuits organization, which books concerts throughout the year. But other fixtures include show bookers such as Jeff Bagato (Electric Possible), Ed Ricart (New Atlantis Jazz Festival) and Transparent Productions, as well local labels Cuneiform and Sockets.


“Sonic Circuits has a very broad audience, and it’s reflected in the D.C.-area artists as well as in the community,” Surak said. “Students and retirees perform in the same bands and go to the same shows, as well. So, a bedrock entity like Cuneiform and young label like Sockets all thrive off the energy here. Sonic Circuits presents artists from both those labels, and we all support one another.”

“There has indeed long been an ongoing experimental scene in D.C., stretching from at least the 1970s,” said Joyce Nalewajk, who runs Cuneiform Records and Wayside Distribution in Silver Spring with her husband, Steve Feigenbaum. “What is new — and very exciting — is that recently, the various DIY D.C. experimental-music scenes have begun working together more, collaborating more. Everyone in non-mainstream music in D.C. has long known and respected each other’s work, but now there are more concerted efforts to share volunteer labor and advice and resources.”

The scene’s annual group hug is the Sonic Circuits Festival, which welcomes artists from around the world into its feedback-y embrace. Now in its ninth year, the fest is set to top all its previous incarnations.

Headlining is legendary ’70s French prog-rock band Magma, whose combination of classical, jazz and the self-created phonetic language Kobaian conjures the vibe of some epic sci-fi narrative. The band is a rare, huge get, but this year’s fest features other international noise-rock names, too: a collaboration between Japan’s Merzbow and France’s Richard Pinhas; Belgian chamber-rock progenitors Univers Zero; brilliant Austrian bliss-glitch guitarist Fennesz; Russian electro-noise rockers Astma (Alexei Borisov and Olga Nosova); and Italian-born minimalist composer and percussionist Andrea Centazzo.

“The festival is truly a once-in-a lifetime chance to experience many of these artists live, because chances are they will never be in D.C., or even the U.S., again,” Surak said.

Surak said international artists rave about D.C. “Performers tell me all the time that the D.C. audience is one of the best in the world. They listen, they focus and are engaged,” he said. “The audience here is very diverse, as we attract people of all ages and backgrounds. And they’re educated and well informed about music.”

North American acts include industrial music veterans Illusion of Safety and Controlled Bleeding, Montreal chamber-prog rockers Miriodor, and electronic experimentalists Keith Fullerton Whitman, Corridors and Expo 70.

But the majority of this year’s festival consists of artists from our city’s own thriving scene, including Surak’s own Violet, the aggressive drones of Blue Sausage Infant, Cuneiform prog vets the Muffins, and Sockets recording artists Hume (avant indie) and the Cornel West Theory (outre hip-hop).

“I don’t know of any other experimental music festival whose programming is as broad and as well balanced between overseas and local artists,” Nalewajk said.

“Sonic Circuits is one of those weeks that is truly tough to experience at any other time during the year here in Washington, D.C.,” said Sockets chief Sean Peoples. “You get to see some of the world’s most interesting sonic innovators at play, tinkering away. And the best part about this festival is that it keeps getting better every year.”

Feedback hugs all around.

» Various locations, Sept. 18-25; visit DC-SonicCircuits.org for tickets, time and venue information.

Photos courtesy Sonic Circuits and by Marc Tessier

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Clinton Yates · September 15, 2010