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Editorial Review

Redefining Music
Sonic Circuits Festival Marks Its Ninth Year of Championing Experimentalism

By Lavanya Ramanathan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 18, 2009

On Tuesday, Washington's Sonic Circuits Festival of Experimental Music will launch its ninth annual multi-day showcase of blip-makers, droners, laptop wizards and classical ensembles drawn from the world's experimental music community.

Nine years, and yet, the musicians and organizers say, the festival still elicits a certain amount of skepticism: Washington has an experimental music scene? And what to make of the laptops and the wires and the performances that can range from one performer asking the audience to write on his back to another flinging himself down the stairs at the Velvet Lounge (one of the festival's venues)?

"Experimental music as a genre or a label tends to scare people off," says Jason Mullinax, a percussionist who performs under the moniker Pilesar (pronounced PILE-eezer).

"It's always, 'This is weird,' " adds festival director Jeff Surak. "What does weird mean? Turn on the TV and see these reality shows -- that's weird."

The truth is, the definition of "experimental" is astonishingly fluid: This year's festival includes classical music (the Arlington-based Twenty-First Century Chamber Ensemble), slightly-left-of-center pop (Los Angeles rockers Health) and art-rock trailblazers (Faust). The Kennedy Center and Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center are among the venues that will host Sonic Circuits performances. And scene stalwarts are buzzing about appearances by more esoteric (but legendary) performers Jandek and Tim Hecker at Velvet Lounge.

"The music has always been there," Mullinax says. "It seems like more people are starting to pay attention to it, and all these pockets of people doing things are mobilizing. In D.C., you have your free improv guys, your jazz guys, your ambient guys, your laptop guys. Everybody is just getting more momentum."

By last year, the festival built up enough interest and support that it began hosting monthly events at Silver Spring's Pyramid Atlantic Art Center, drawing a mix of local and international artists looking for a stage. And the region also has a long-standing monthly event called Electric Possible. Both have been drawing new audiences with each show.

Zach Mason, who plays a digital synthesizer and performs as Soft Pieces, speculates that people are pushing for new music and are that much more inclined to look up artists such as John Cage or Jandek. (Even actress and singer Mandy Moore recently tweeted about her interest in Jandek.) "You have the explosion of Internet research," Mason says. "I think people's influences, like roots on a tree, they're sort of reaching out further."

He recounts a recent performance that drew newcomers: "People were asking, 'Is there going to be a Q&A? Is someone going to explain this to me?' "

"This type of music, it puts a lot of responsibility on the listener," Mullinax says. "With experimental music, you don't know what the sound sources are, you don't know where it's going. . . . It forces you to think, it forces you to be an active participant. You can't just turn it on and do the dishes."

Sonic Circuits Festival of Experimental Music Tuesday-Sept. 27. For the full schedule, visit http://www.dc-soniccircuits.org.

Highlights: Saturday: Pre-festival event with Second Land, Nine Strings, Soft Pieces and Twenty-First Century Chamber Ensemble at Pyramid Atlantic Art Center. 7:30 p.m. $8.

Tuesday: Elliott Sharp; Annea Lockwood and Tom Buckner; Never Work; BLK w/BEAR and VJ Poppins at Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland. http://www.claricesmithcenter.umd.edu. 7 p.m. Free.

Wednesday: Nine Strings and Pilesar; Twenty-First Century Chamber Ensemble; Mind Over Matter Music Over Mind at the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage. http://www.kennedy-center.org. 6 p.m. Free.

Sept. 26: All-day showcase featuring Jandek, Tim Hecker, Soft Pieces, Pilesar and 12 other acts. Velvet Lounge. http://www.velvetloungedc.com. 2 p.m.-2 a.m. $20.

Sept. 27: Faust, Health, Pekka Airaksinen and others at the Black Cat. http://www.blackcatdc.com. 8 p.m. $15.