Taking Improvisation to Heart at High Zero

By Stephen Brookes
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, September 16, 2006

Could there possibly be a better place for a festival of cutting-edge, improvised music than Baltimore? It has long been a breeding ground for experimental artists -- this is the home of the American Visionary Art Museum, after all -- and there's an anything-goes energy to the arts scene there that puts Washington to shame.

So it's not surprising that when the High Zero Festival -- four days of wildly adventurous and completely extemporaneous music -- opened its eighth season on Thursday night at Baltimore's Theatre Project, the packed house heard some of the most intense new music being made anywhere, on everything from oboes and one-of-a-kind instruments to the human body itself.

And there were some unforgettable performances. The pale and wraithlike Fuyuki Yamakawa opened the evening in total darkness, his heart beating loudly through microphones taped to his chest. With intense concentration and control, he slowed his heartbeat and sped it up again, altering the dynamics and rhythms into a disturbing percussive background, then began a dark incantation over it using an amplified Central Asian throat-singing technique.

As a few bare light bulbs -- synced to the beating of his heart -- pulsed like a ritual fire, the effect was powerful and deeply strange, like a shamanistic ritual from the 23rd century. And at the climax, when Yamakawa drew his breath in and stopped his heart, creating a sudden, horrifying silence, the impact was devastating -- as if we'd all just stepped off a cliff.

By comparison, the rest of the evening -- half-hour improvisations from combinations of more than a dozen musicians -- seemed nearly conventional. But it showcased some of the most creative figures in the new music community, including an instrument builder who calls himself Cooper-Moore. He performed on one of his inventions -- a sort of mouth-held, attenuated violin that he both bowed and sung into -- with a wonderfully evocative sound.

Cooper-Moore teamed up with the ferocious British percussionist Roger Turner, Japanese guitarist Uchihashi Kazuhisa and Baltimorean Michael Formanek on bass for a virtuosic, take-no-prisoners set. Despite a breathless density at times (there were moments that sounded like everything Iannis Xenakis ever wrote being played at the same time), this was smart, satisfying playing -- a whirlwind of imaginative instrumental color and texture, performed with brains and considerable wit.

The festival continues through tomorrow night -- with many of Thursday's performers appearing again in new combinations. Adventurous ears, take note.

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