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Sonic Pioneers, Taking Music In a Direction Beyond Measure

By Jonathan Padget
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 26, 2004; Page C01

Fans of experimental electronic music gathered recently at the downtown arts center Flashpoint for a preview of Sonic Circuits, the festival that showcases performers who are pushing aural boundaries in the new century.

The goings-on throughout the theater and gallery space were certainly eye- and ear-catching, though if you had to explain the scene to a random passerby, you'd have your work cut out for you.

The Caution Curves -- Rebecca Mills on laptop, left, and Tristana Fiscella on microphone -- perform at Flashpoint. (Julianne Brienza -- American Composers Forum)

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Okay, see the woman over there in the white robe and veil, chopping red and green apples with a cleaver and sewing the halves together before ripping fabric into strips to wrap the apples in? She's working with one of the laptop sound artists, who has a microphone on her so he can manipulate the sounds into an on-the-spot creation with his computer and all this amplification equipment.

Your passerby pal might ask, "Where are the instruments?"

Well, see the three guys with laptops sitting at the table on the stage -- the ones who look like they could just as well be Googling sports scores and drinking lattes? They're performing, and their laptops are their instruments.

Finally comes the inevitable music vs. noise confab.

Oh, that motorcycles-with-busted-mufflers sound? Or the high-pitched drone that people are mistaking for a fire alarm? That's the music the laptop guys and their ilk specialize in.

Sound appealing?

The actual month-long festival, which gets underway next week at multiple sites around town, promises a wider range of performance styles, says Jonathan Morris, director of the D.C. chapter of the American Composers Forum. (That is to say, if you prefer some melody with your experimental music, the festival will deliver at times.)

Last Thursday's Flashpoint event served as a festival preview and as a fundraiser for the forum, which is sponsoring Sonic Circuits for the fourth year. Morris says the preview raised $450 toward the $3,500 cost of the festival.

Morris, 32, admits that even he wasn't quite sure what to expect from the preview, which drew about 50 people. Only two of the acts are booked for the festival. Others had responded to an open call for volunteers, and everyone was free to present anything that falls within the markedly loose parameters of the "electronic music" label used to identify Sonic Circuits' programming.

"It's hard to make a general term," Morris says. "There's such a wide diversity of styles. But technology is the common thread."

Electronic influences in music are nothing new -- synthesizers and reverb effects, for example, began to impact popular music in the mid-20th century. But use of the Internet and increasingly sophisticated portable computers has altered the landscape of how new music is created and shared, who qualifies as a "musician" and the very nature of music itself. Meter, melody, instrumentation -- all are up for redefinition these days.

If you're surprised to find the staid-sounding American Composers Forum -- a service organization geared toward conservatory-trained musicians -- with a hand in all this experimentation, Morris says you shouldn't be.

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