Improvisers invade Baltimore -- Pink Martinis all around!
Saturday, September 16, 2006 at 10:02AM
Stephen Brookes

September 16, 2006
Oh, that's right -- I have a blog.  Knew there was something.  Sorry about the long delay -- all passengers receive a complimentary Glenn Gould De-Vocalizer.

Interesting week -- chats with Marin Alsop and composer Nicholas Maw at rehearsals for Maw's opera "Sophie's Choice", which is getting its American premiere on Thursday at the Kennedy Center -- a new production that promises to be tighter and brighter than the Covent Garden  production in 2002.

Thomas Lauderdale
Also spent an afternoon on the phone with smart, funny "musical archeologists" Thomas Lauderdale and China Forbes, who are bringing their supercool band Pink Martini to Lisner Auditorium on Thursday night. Lauderdale's a classically-trained pianist with a fervent musical curiosity, and the band's been a huge success overseas -- especially in France, where their song "Sympathique" has earned a place of honor in the national pop culture.

Should be a wild concert --"somewhere between a 1930s Cuban dance orchestra, a classical chamber music ensemble, a Brasilian marching street band and Japanese film noir" --  but may be sold out; check with Lisner.

Drove up to Baltimore ("Edge of the Known Universe") on Thursday for the High Zero Experimental and Improvised Music Festival, which is now in its eighth -- eighth! -- year, making it almost an ivy-covered institution.  Some spectacular performances and moments of great beauty and passion, interspersed -- inevitably -- with other moments of great noodling and fluff.

highzero.jpgBut what's life without risk? And one of the performances -- by the young Japanese artist Fuyuki Yamakawa, who controlled the pace of his own amplified heartbeat as a percussive base to his multiphonic throat-singing -- was one of the most astounding things I've ever heard.

Baltimore's carved out a real place for itself in the international improvising  community, thanks to the interesting minds behind the Red Room Collective, which puts on weekly performances of experimental music.  The High Zero Festival is a good place to get started with this music, and it continues tonight and Sunday -- well worth checking out if you can.

The Post had to cut my review  for length -- it's a cruel world -- but here's a fuller take on Thursday night's performance:

The Washington Post 9/16/06: 
Could there possibly be a better place for a festival of cutting-edge, improvised music than Baltimore? It’s 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 just 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 Theater 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.

Fuyuki Yamakawa
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 completely stopped his heart in 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 instrument builder Cooper-Moore, who performed on one of his own inventions – a sort of mouth-held, attenuated violin that he both bowed and sung into -- with a wonderfully evocative, meta-human 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, played with brains and considerable wit.

Baltimore saxophonist Rose Hammer was equally impressive in a radically different improvisation, with Stewart Motofsky and Dave Smolen on electronics, and Leonel Kaplan on trumpet.  The quartet painted a subtle, introspective landscape that was almost dreamlike in its delicacy, yet always focused and always engaging.

Not all of the sets came off quite as well; vocalist Lexie Macchi was disappointingly tentative in her improvisation, and her set (with oboist Kyle Bruckmann, Michael Muniak on electronics and Forbes Graham on trumpet) idled in neutral for twenty minutes before giving up the ghost. On balance, though, it was an impressive evening, and the festival continues through Sunday night -- with many of Thursday’s performers appearing again in new combinations. Adventurous ears, take note.

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