“I actually paint on a treadmill,” the man wearing a paint-spattered suit and tie says, “and make drinks.” He’s standing on stage in front of a studio audience and a panel of celebrity judges, though “celebrity” is a relative term for David Hasselhoff, Piers Morgan, and Sharon Osbourne. The man proceeds to get on a treadmill, in front of which an easel stands, starts jogging, says he’s going to paint a portrait of Hasselhoff, and begins with a brown Motherwellian brushstroke. The judges don’t merely look underwhelmed, they’re borderline hostile. Morgan tells the man, “You remain, indisputably, incredibly irritating.”
Los Angeles-based painter and performance artist John Kilduff’s appearance on the 2007 season of “America’s Got Talent” remains, alongside Pinkish Black vocalist Daron Beck’s indelible “American Idol” audition, one of the few sublime highlights from reality television competitions. Back in 2002 Kilduff, a grad of both the Otis College of Art and Design and UCLA’s MFA program, started a cable-access television show called “Let’s Paint TV.” It began as a how-to-paint program and evolved into Kilduff doing a bit of everything at once. In between talking about how and what he’s painting he might make blender drinks, play pingpong or chess, cook, make a gingerbread house out of sushi rolls, or any number of other non sequitur activities.
Multitasking became Kilduff’s creative medium. During a phone interview he says he had some experience with improv theater/comedy, adding “I watched a lot of TV, short attention span, all that kind of stuff,” he says. “So a how-to-paint show quickly went awry in terms of, let’s throw the kitchen sink in it.”
It’s an energetic, inspired improvisation he’s done all over, solo and in collaboration with musicians, from Australia to the Electric Eclectic festival in northern Ontario, Canada and even “The Tyra Banks Show.” Kilduff livestreams new programs regularly on weekdays, and he makes his Baltimore debut in a little more than a week as part of the 2014 annual High Zero Festival of Experimental Improvised Music. From Sept. 18-21, 13 artists from around the country and world and 14 local artists will be combined into improvising groups to see what happens.
Over the 16 years of the festival’s existence, sound has always occupied the marquee spotlight in discussions about it, but from the very start the spectacle of its participating artists has been a crucial element to its wow factor. On the evening of Sept. 24, 1999, the festival was born in the barrage of tuba-player Scott Moore setting off alarms and wind-up noisemakers that remains an indelible memory to the people who witnessed it. (This writer didn’t, but it has come up in conversations with Red Room members and High Zero attendees many times over.) High Zero is a multiday laboratory where musicians collide and possibly unheard sound combinations are discovered, but the things musicians do in search of those moments often sear images into the brain.
Basically, this music festival has quite often been just as much a performance-art extravaganza. The “High Zero Foundation invites many people who are particularly risk taking—it’s a major aspect of decision-making for us,” writes John Berndt, one of the founders and a current member of the Red Room Collective/High Zero Foundation that curates the festival, in an email interview. “I think the visual elements are part of the ambient culture of experimental music; the same sort of crust that accretes with other forms of music, in terms of imaginative visual conventions.”
Such imaginative visuals can come from the creative vocabularies of artists invited, such as previous HZ dance/movement performers Asimina Chremos, Ayako Kataoka, and Lily Kind, or artists whose approach to their instruments takes unusual forms: At the 2004 festival a trio of dancer Nicole Bindler, cellist/vocalist Audrey Chen, and French percussionist Le Quan Ninh featured Chen’s cello swinging from a rope connected to the ceiling while curled up on the floor and emitted guttural groans. Bindler moved around her as if comforting a felled animal and Ninh scored it all with a brooding thunderstorm of rumbles, clashes, pings, and thwaps.
“Experimental music is a pretty broad catch-all term for people who do a lot of different things and performers known for doing more than just music,” says Andrew Bernstein, a Red Room collective member, electronic composer, and percussionist/saxophonist in Horse Lords. As an example he mentions artist/trumpeter Mazen Kerbaj’s solo set at the 2012 festival, and the memory of it summons a strong visual image. “He does a lot of stuff like hooking up tubes to his trumpet and playing the trumpet with a saxophone mouthpiece and putting objects onto the bill—it becomes like one of those machines you see at the Maryland Science Center where it’s blowing air to levitate a ball or something.”
Kerbaj also performed a live comics drawing during a set in 2012, the same year local filmmaker and Red Room collective member Margaret Rorison made her HZ debut. She staged a solo performance of projections and sound, and during later group collaborations she set up in the back of the Theatre Project and projected films.
She wasn’t entirely satisfied with the results. She tried to respond to the performers but feels that her projections “didn’t feel improvised and they didn’t feel very well choreographed, it felt in somewhere between,” she says. “I don’t really improvise that much with my projections—I don’t manipulate the film stock or scratch the film or anything like that.”
She’s participating in this year’s fest too, and she’s thinking about treating her projectors more as sound and possible light sources. “I’ve been working with electromagnetic pickups and contacts mics and using that as the sound source,” she says. “When I performed in 2012, I thought [film] is my language, this is what I do, but I felt inhibited by that. I want to challenge myself more this time. With High Zero, it’s a different way of thinking.”
That creative push is one of the dependable joys of watching HZ sets: They become a crucible for artists to go someplace they haven’t before. The fest’s format has been tweaked here and there over the years, but it remains largely unchanged since 1999: put musicians who may not know each other, much less have ever played with each other, onstage and see what happens.
“I would say what is unusual about Baltimore/High Zero in this regard is the combination of seriousness and lack of inhibition, and I think that has been very inspiring to many people,” Berndt writes. “I’ve played at festivals in Europe where people were talking about it [as] ‘The Baltimore Thing,’ by which they meant very serious eccentricity.”
This year’s lineup includes a number of performers who hold the potential for just that. In addition to Kilduff, the roster of visiting musicians includes British audio-visual collage and sampling artist Vicki Bennett, whose “Notations” found-footage film, to be scored by improvising musicians, occupies the first half of HZ’s Saturday matinee performance; German turntablist/sound artist JD Zazie, who has put together DJ sets from electroacoustic and free-improv recordings the way hip-hop DJs might mine jazz and funk records; turntablist/electronic artist Wendel Patrick, Baltimore’s own Jimi Hendrix of the sample; and New York-based cellist Okkyung Lee, whose 2013 album “Ghil” showcased an improviser who can make an acoustic string instrument feel as hair-parting heavy as a stack of Orange amps.
Who is going to be the person who stretches outside their comfort zone remains to be seen.
Rorison recalls that at the 2012 festival, violinist and throat-singer Gerry Mak felt that the set he participated in earlier on didn’t have much energy and decided to do something about it. “He started off one set just screaming,” Rorison says, explaining that participating in the festival encourages artists get to know each other through their art and find ways to get something out of their collaborations. “People list what their tools are but then over the course of the festival you develop a language together. We become familiar with each other and there’s an intimacy that there wasn’t at the beginning.”
And so far the artists keep finding ways to surprise themselves and each other, making great sounds for the eyes. “By all rights [the festival] should be stagnant given the age, but it hasn’t felt that way at all in recent years,” Berndt writes. “I think if anything it is just constantly surprising, with a constant eye on how the organizers themselves are changing, by virtue of aging and having different outlooks. . . . But for now, it still feels both vital and radical.”