What's in a name?
Well, if it's music and is deemed "experimental," "improvisational" or "avant-garde"; presaged with "free" (as in free jazz), "anti"-something or "post"-anything; dubbed "noise" or the less offensive "new"; strays from conventional notions of melody, harmony or rhythm; and otherwise challenges commonly accepted ideas of what music is, it can mean great expectations but, most likely, small audiences and limited opportunities.
Whether such music is edgy and abrasive or cool and meditative, it's unlikely to become commercially viable with mass-market audiences. Yet its long-term existence on the margins has improved in recent years. Much of that is because of the Internet, which has allowed musicians who push the boundaries of sound and art to build substantial communities outside mainstream media channels.
Here, much of the credit must go to local presenters, many of them nonprofit through intention or circumstance, who refuse to let such music be ignored. They include the volunteers at jazz-focused Transparent Productions and technology-inspired Electric Possible and the forward-looking classical musicians of the 21st Century Consort and the Contemporary Music Forum.
The scene in the Washington area may be small, but it's diverse and loose in its definitions of what constitutes new and experimental music. It can entail an extension, or rejection, of traditional music through unconventional composition or instrumentation. It can mean new and creative uses of technology, which seems to be expanding month to month. It can mean inventing instruments, such as the "Fources" -- an analog brain-powered synthesizer that video and sound artist sc:all (Scott Allison) performed on during last week's Electric Possible concert. They're built by Baltimore's Pete Blasser, whose other wonderfully whimsical creations ("shinths," "din datan duderos" and "ambraziers") can be found at ciat-lonbarde.net.
Is it a challenge? Exploratory art of any kind usually is, though some listeners might dispute that certain elements of experimental music are music at all. In the end, it's reminiscent of what Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said more than 40 years ago when he conceded the difficulty in trying to define obscenity. "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced. . . . But I know it when I see it."