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.
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.
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.
"Getting away from common assumptions is nothing new," he says, whether you're talking about the creation of new chamber music for classical instruments, or the electronic music on tap during Sonic Circuits. "It's essential for our survival . . . that we appeal to people working in all kinds of music."
The audience for the forum's more traditional programming -- they sponsor an ongoing "New Music Salon" series -- hasn't proven itself overwhelmingly eager to venture into the electronic-music territory of Sonic Circuits, says Morris. But the organization is reaching an ever-expanding new audience for its most avant-garde work. Festival attendance has doubled over its first three years, Morris says, reaching 800 people last year.
"People are listening to an incredible diversity of music," he says, thanks to the "crumbling" of traditional music distribution channels in favor of the Internet, through which experimental artists can easily share their work with listeners.
What was heard at the festival preview -- much of it improvised -- may not ever become commercially viable to a mass market, Morris admits. (How about a CD of that apple-chopping performance? Anyone?) But he sees signs of those kinds of sound manipulation being incorporated into popular culture. Think Radiohead, Sonic Youth and Wilco and you'll get Morris's point.
"It seeps in," he says. "It's an exciting time."
Derek Morton, a 34-year-old Web developer, started out as a rock guitarist before venturing into the realm of sound art in the mid-'90s. He performed at last week's preview, improvising sound manipulation for Jane Ping, the apple lady. He'll be featured during the festival in a solo "sound installation" at Pyramid Atlantic arts center in Silver Spring.
"It's not instantly recognizable," Morton says of the laptop-controlled textured noise he creates. "It may not affect you and make you happy like a Beach Boys song."
But if you take time to sit down and close your eyes, Morton says, it becomes "immersive and compelling" nonetheless. At Pyramid Atlantic he'll use six speakers to create sounds he hopes will make listeners feel like water is rushing over them.
If it doesn't turn out as expected, though, that's fine with Morton, who finds electronic music to be as much about process as product. "It's okay for it to suck," he says. "That's the very nature of experimenting."
Sonic Circuits, at various venues, Sept. 1-30. For schedule and ticket information, call 202-315-1315 or visit www.composersforum.org/dc.