Jeff Bagato, who organizes the monthly Electric Possible concert series (held in Room B120 in the basement of George Washington University's Phillips Hall, 801 22nd St. NW) doesn't just present experimental and improvisational music; he plays it under several guises.
There's Tone Ghosting, which is solo Bagato playing vinyl LPs with a small hacksaw while incorporating looping effects, live remixing and abstract vocal sounds. There's Spaceships Panic Orbit, an improv trio incorporating "laptoptronix, free jazz, homemade instruments and power electronics." And there's Croniamantal, a collaboration with postcard poet Buck Downs and a half-dozen improvisers from various Washington ensembles.
But Bagato's most-comfortable role may be as founder of Electric Possible two years ago.
"I always suspected there were a lot of people doing experimental music and weird stuff, but there just wasn't any place to play," Bagato says. "When suddenly a forum became available, people started coming out of the woodwork."
There were some precedents to Electric Possible. Local musicians Chuck Bettis (Measles Mumps Rubella and solo project Trance and the Arcade), Derek Morton (Mikroknytes) and John Rickman (EBSK) presented experimental music shows at the Black Cat, but mostly with touring acts. What Bagato envisioned was a venue that would foster a scene, and for that, he had two models: concerts put on locally by Transparent Productions, and the Red Room, a Baltimore space that presents vanguard arts of all kinds and whose monthly Crap-Shoot is a free-for-all for interested improvisers.
Bagato saw that Transparent had been using the GWU room regularly for shows, thanks to the support of Peter Fraize, director of the school's jazz studies and leader of his own jazz trio. "Transparent was bringing Matthew Shipp, William Parker and all these people from New York, Joe Morris from Boston," says Bagato, who adopted the Transparent principle by which all ticket money (usually $10) goes straight to the artists. Hopefully, the low price encourages the curious and the risk-takers.
"The general public may perceive this music as difficult," he concedes, "but when you go to these shows, you can see the people playing the music and feel the energy of the music and get something emotional out of the music. Live, it becomes very real and more understandable, even if you're not used to it."
The next Electric Possible event is Oct. 2, with Matt Weston, a free-improviser who uses trap-kit percussion and electronics; the Cutest Puppy in the World, a free-improv quartet using a variety of sound sources; Jakuta & Carl (Joe Jakuta sings, Carl is his laptop); and Bagato guesting as Tone Ghosting. For information, visit www.panicresearch.com, which offers information on Electric Possible, a number of local experimental ensembles and other Bagato projects.
For years, Derek Morton has been a tireless promoter of experimental electronica, both creatively (he's half of Mikroknytes with John Coursey) and as organizer through Techclub of special events such as Pedal Fair ("for inventors or people wanting to do portable electronic music, people experimenting with GameBoys, renegade software people, homebrewed software and music production") and Open Minijax, an electro/improv version of singer-songwriters' open mikes. The latter ventures are intended to build community among like-minded artists and musicians. At a recent Black Cat event, Morton says, there were "20 different acts, from techno to free-form electric improv. And you got to see people from the basement that never got to play out, ever."
Morton, who discovered the joys of improvised sound manipulation and laptop art in the mid-'90s, tours with a laptop and Audiomulch software, processing live events. Thanks to the Internet and a special Web-based computer application called Visitors Studio, Mikroknytes last year engaged in a three-continent digital audio-visual jam with England's Sawtooth and Australia's Stalker, the whole thing mixed and projected on a wall, on the spot. For upcoming Techclub events, visit www.techclub-dc.com.
J. S. Adams, who works under the sound-art pseudonym BLK w/BEAR, performs Saturday at 2 at the Warehouse Theater as part of the 13th annual Arts on Foot festival. Adams does turntable installations and laptop compositions, digitally sampling and looping vinyl recordings and "dead media" such as Voice-o-Graphs (those 25 cent two-minute arcade recordings) and Recordio discs (DIY recordings popular in the '30s and '40s). At Warehouse, he'll offer an audio-visual improvisation, "The Seventeenth Periodicum," based on the periodic table of elements, using five turntables and getting help from local cellist Doug Poplin and bassist RH Bear from the New York industrial noise band Bile.
Last Sunday, folks watching the Discovery Channel docudrama "The Flight That Fought Back," about the final moments of United Airlines Flight 93 before it crashed in Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, 2001, heard several tracks from the album "Wish for a World Without Hurt," a poignant meditation on 9/11 and its aftermath done last year in collaboration with the Discovery film's scorer, Mark L. Beazley.
THE CAUTION CURVES
On Friday, the Caution Curves will participate in the Black Cat's (1811 14th St. NW; 202-667-7960) 12th anniversary party with such bands as Citygoats, Les Trois Malheures, Eyes of the Killer Robot, Facemat and others. It's not really a genre-focused show, more of a celebration featuring Black Cat employees and their bands, including laptop musician Rebecca Mills. A few years ago Mills began composing "organic sonic landscapes" ("whatever that means," she says with a laugh) with her laptop and samplers. Last year, she was introduced to singer-guitarist Tristana Fiscella, and though they'd never practiced together -- much less heard each other's work, Mills and Fiscella gave a spontaneous performance at the Warehouse Next Door and found that their mutual musical interests augured well for the future. Eventually, they brought in drummer Amanda Huron, who'd played in several local punk bands, and formed the Caution Curves.
"Amanda and Tristana improvise what they do around loosely based song structures, and we trade off vocals -- nonsensical vocals, yelling and yawning and screaming and other ethereal-sounding noises," Mills says, accurately explaining the very odd sound of the self-titled EP released earlier this year and produced by Derek Morton.
NEW MUSIC SALON
The New Music Salon, operated by the Washington chapter of the American Composers Forum, kicks off Friday with a performance by PulseOptional, a North Carolina-based chamber group with electric guitar, bassoon, oboe, violin, piano and percussion. Their motto: "not the same old new music!"
The ongoing New Music Salon series is at the Patricia M. Sitar Center for the Arts in Northwest Washington. The community arts education facility's new theater seats 80, and Jonathan Morris, director of the American Composers Forum's local chapter, is looking forward to staging the whole season there.
"It's beautiful, with a grand piano and nice recording equipment," Morris says, adding that the venue's size is probably just about right for new music. "We choose small venues because we anticipate having fairly small audiences. If we get 40 or 50 people out, that's tremendous."
Using the name Jonathan Matis as a writer and performer, Morris combines composition and improvisation in his work; he is also co-founder of the DC Improvisers Collective, a quartet that melds jazz, contemporary composition and experimental music. Morris describes the American Composers Forum as "a service organization geared toward conservatory-trained musicians and the creation of new chamber music, whether for classical or electronic instruments. In plain English, we're trying to provide support for composers working and living in the area while also generating public interest in what they do. We're trying to make a connection between people and new music. For some reason, there's a disconnect there."
As to what constitutes new music, "that's the million-dollar question," Morris concedes. "Typically, our constituents are composers coming out of the classical tradition, and they're probably writing notes on manuscript paper, or some digital equivalent. But that's starting to change. Computer musicians are generating audio that is the finished product, as opposed to generating a score that's a finished product."
Morris admits he has one thing in mind with his improv-minded comrades at Transparent and Electric Possible: "Every step of the way, we're dependent on people taking a chance, right down to every audience member who's going to buy a ticket, because nobody knows what they're getting when they walk in the door."
New Music Salon concerts are at 8 at the Sitar Center Theater in the Patricia M. Sitar Center for the Arts (1700 Kalorama Rd. NW, Suite 101; 202-797-2145). Tickets are $10. Call 202-315-1315 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
21ST CENTURY CONSORT
The 21st Century Consort has championed contemporary music for 30 years; since 1978, it has been the resident new music ensemble at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Under the leadership of artistic director and conductor Christopher Kendall (who concurrently founded the "old music" Folger Consort), the group offers works by innovative 20th-century composers while presenting, often in world premieres, works by leading and emerging American composers.
According to Christopher Patton, Consort composer and managing director, "our programs are designed to be welcoming and invite people into what we feel is a very exciting world of music." The season opener on Nov. 5, "Homage," features the Consort with mezzo-soprano Milagro Vargas and local baritone William Sharp. Among the works: Paul Schoenfield's "Camp Songs," using text by Aleksander Kulisiewicz, a Polish political dissident who was imprisoned in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, and "Personnae #VI," a solo piano piece by Nicholas Maw, the acclaimed English composer who lives in Washington and teaches at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore.
The 21st Century Consort often presents programs related to Hirshhorn exhibitions and in June gave a concert at the Washington National Cathedral in conjunction with "Visual Music," an exhibit exploring synesthesia, in which aural and visual senses combine in such a way that musical sounds evoke specific colors. It featured the world premiere of Patton's "Out of Darkness," a multimedia collaboration with Daniel MacLean Wagner, chairman of the theater department at the University of Maryland. The Feb. 11 program, "Time and Memory," will celebrate an exhibition of Japanese-born American photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto; it will feature the world premiere of "Dream Palace" by Scott Wheeler, whose "Democracy" was premiered to great acclaim earlier this year by the Washington National Opera. Kendall was recently named dean of the University of Michigan School of Music but will commute to continue his association with the Consort.
Concerts by the 21st Century Consort are held at Marion & Gustave Ring Auditorium, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (Independence Avenue and 7th Street SW). For a season schedule, visit www.resident associates.org/perf-arts/consort.asp.
CONTEMPORARY MUSIC FORUM
The Corcoran Gallery of Art also has a resident new music group, the Contemporary Music Forum. Its chair, composer Steve Antosca, says the Forum presents music by "young, energetic American composers right on the edge of modern music and avant-garde. We present a lot of music that involves computers and electronics, an integral part of modern American music and thus of our concert series."
Sunday's season-opening concert will include the world premiere of Washington-born composer Jeffrey Mumford's "an expanding distance of multiple voices," performed by violinist Lina Bahn; Mumford, a Forum composer and the first composer-in-residence at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, will attend.
Antosca says: "We all think of ourselves as classical composers -- we're all conservatory-trained and write for classical instruments. The music is written out for ensemble playing from scores, but we also interact with computers, real-time electronics and video."
For instance, during an April concert, world music percussionist Tom Teasley and Antosca performed the latter's "something else." The score, Antosca explains, "was a sheet of paper with instructions -- no written notes, just a structure and a clear idea of how it starts, a processional manner and lots of sections of improv. I would trigger samples and process what Tom played in real time as he was improvising." The concert also featured Robert Gibson's "Brood X," computer-processed audio work juxtaposing buzzes, whirs and chirps recorded during 2004's cicada invasion. In April, the Forum will present works by Antosca, Frederick Weck and Douglas Boyce, a former punk rocker whose chamber music bridges the medieval and the modern; all are Forum composers.
The Contemporary Music Forum performs Sunday at 4:30 at the Corcoran's Hammer Auditorium (17th Street and New York Avenue NW; 202-333-4529). For a season schedule, visit www.contemporary musicforum.org.
AT THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
Also worth noting are the vanguard chamber music and jazz concerts that are part of ongoing music presentations at the Library of Congress's Coolidge Auditorium, continuing a legacy that dates to the 1930s. In fact, John Cage, the godfather of American experimental music, earned his initial national recognition after a percussion concert at the library in 1943.
Not only has the library presented concerts -- always free -- it has commissioned many new works, the best known being George Crumb's "Ancient Voices of Children," a 1970 work based on the poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca and scored for soprano, boy soprano and an assortment of instruments, including mandolin, musical saw and toy piano.
A highlight of the new season will be an Oct. 8 concert of chamber music by Japan's Toru Takemitsu, who bridged Eastern and Western traditions. It's part of "Mirror of Tree, Mirror of Field: A Celebration of the Life and Music of Toru Takemitsu (1930-1996)," which will include free screenings at the Mary Pickford Theater of 10 films scored by Takemitsu. Among next year's programs: electronic music innovator Morton Subotnick performing "Until Spring Revisited," a surround-sound laptop work tracing technological breakthroughs in the history of the genre. For a full schedule, call 202-707-8432 or visit www.loc.gov/rr/perform/concert/05-06preview.html.
Richard Harrington is the music writer for Weekend.