High Zero 2019

September 20th, 2019

The 2019 High Zero Festival featured four nights of experimental and improvised music performed by artists from Baltimore and beyond. The twenty-first edition of this annual event once again offered audience members the opportunity to witness spontaneous forms of expression through the combination of various instruments, voices, electronics, and movement. I attended the second night of the festival on Friday, September 20th at Theater Project, and the concert featured five sets of improvised music.

The first presentation was by the guitarist, Owen Gardner. Using creative technical and musical effects, Gardner was able to establish an impressive palette of sounds. There were moments that involved the use of feedback, scraping the strings, retuning strings, percussive attacks on the guitar, and a variety of articulation and timbre changes. At times, Gardner was demonstrating the guitar’s contrapuntal abilities by creating multiple moving voices within the variety of sounds present. I found the moments containing rhythmic stability to be most effective, as the sounds were given a driving force that suggested direction and conviction.

Following the solo guitar was a septet that featured many voices, bowed strings, and electronics. The performers were: Charmaine Lee, Bonnie Lander, Danishta Rivero, Kristen Toedtman, Biliana Voutchkova, Ledah Fink, and Samuel Burt. During this performance, nearly every member of the ensemble made use of vocal techniques that evoked tortured sounds and whispers from far and near. There was no discernible rhythm from any performer, and the cohesion was mainly achieved through listening and responding to the effects being produced. There were some painful moments of feedback from the electronic instruments, and the group created a strange visual presentation including a lot of convulsing and odd body movement. I think all of this added to the spooky, trance-like atmosphere that was the general result of the performance.

The third presentation featured Tom Boram playing a 24 tone equal tempered harpsichord (according to the announcer), and Forbes Graham playing the trumpet. These two performers complimented each other in wonderful ways. The articulate plucking of strings typical of a harpsichord was balanced nicely by impressive lip movement, breath sounds, and a variety of mutes used by Graham. Boram alternated between moments of quick perpetual motion and powerful chords on the harpsichord. Towards the end of the performance, there was even some comedic existential crisis of sorts demonstrated, but all of this seemed to speak to the two musicians’ ability to communicate; the presentation was both spontaneous and logical.

A quintet of musicians was next, and this group seemed to have the greatest variety of performance materials. Susie Kozawa made use of numerous objects, gadgets, and materials to create a diverse soundscape, while Le Quan Ninh performed on a bass drum surrounded by microphones and made use of other pieces of percussion to emphasize textures. Samuel Burt and Ledah Fink produced more high frequency elements and melodic content on daxophone and viola, repectively, while Clarissa Gregory responded to all of the activity around her through dance. Not only were the sounds diverse, but it seemed as though the activity was filling the room completely. Part of this was because Gregory was continuously moving about, and Kozawa even walked through the audience playing a wind instrument, but the ensemble seemed very conscious of the layers being created and how to highlight particular elements.

In contrast to the quintet, the closing trio was far more subdued and homogenous in total sound. The trio was made up of Sarah Hennies on the vibraphone, Bob Bellevue manipulating feedback, and Jeron White on the bass. The trio was mellow and slow evolving with a steady timbre being held in the bass by White. Hennies contributed some melodic content but also strengthened the subdued atmosphere with long-decaying chords. Bellevue created interesting sounds by amplifying vibrating pots and metal bowls. All of this did eventually reach a climax with fast bass notes and a general freak out involving throwing objects and kicking a bag of bells before the wall of sound died down and the violence receded.

Collectively, these five presentations were a highly diverse offering of sounds, textures, and experiences. As an audience member I enjoyed some moments more than others, but I also felt each performance was a little bit long as the shortest was just over twenty minutes and the longest approached thirty five minutes. Most audience members were engaged throughout, but I find it can be difficult to hold the attention of a listener with spontaneous, unstructured music for 20-30 minutes. Remembering, of course, that this is the point of the High Zero Festival, I would say the presentations were exactly right for the occasion, and if you are interested in this kind of experimental and improvised music on a smaller scale, it would be wise to check out some of the concerts held at The Red Room – a performance space dedicated to fostering this kind of experience.

Jeremy Lyons is a guitarist, composer, and writer living in Baltimore City. He is an artistic director of the contemporary music ensemble, Pique Collective, a performing member of the music cooperative, Mind on Fire, and he collaborates with artists of all kinds working in a variety of mediums. If you want to get in touch with him or suggest an event for him to experience, use his contact page.