As the High Zero festival prepares for its 15th iteration next week at the Theatre Project, one could argue that the celebration of avant-garde and experimental music and culture is not even on the fringes of Baltimore's culture anymore but, instead, has come to occupy the center of the city that improvises. Long before Rolling Stone declared that Baltimore had the best music scene in the country, avant-gardists the world over knew about the Red Room collective, which gave birth to the High Zero Festival. And now, not only have instances of High Zero's improvisatory, avant-garde approach multiplied with Out of Your Head, the Baltimore Boom Bap Society, and the Transmodern Festival, but its DNA has infected all areas of Baltimore culture, from indie rock to the Baltimore Club scene.
Looking back on how Baltimore became a hub of free improvisation and musical experimentation, it is difficult to overstate the role of John Berndt. In fact, Berndt, a polymath with a broad range of deeply philosophical interests, might just be the smartest man in Baltimore. He was one of the original owners of Normal's, and a founder of its adjoining Red Room and the High Zero Festival. We met Berndt at Normal's and our Q&A quickly became an A. He claimed to be sleep-deprived due to what he later called "my devil-may-care, do-it-all lifestyle," referring to his work for the Berndt group, a consulting firm he owns, the task of organizing High Zero and managing his various musical projects. Berndt talked with great eloquence about the origins of the city's avant-garde music scene and the attempt to "get meta to the culture" one occupies. Berndt's story begins when, as an 11-year-old, he becomes involved with the experimental scene of the 1970s and '80s.
John Berndt: The history of the festival goes to a couple things. There was a particular kind of extreme, unusual, and virulent experimental music scene in Baltimore in the '70s and '80s, but it was very, very marginalized. It was interestingly far out, but it was the same 10 people in the audience, if there was anyone in the audience, kind of thing. It was massively on the defensive culturally, contrary to, like, bar-rock, which culturally was the dominant form in the '70s and '80s in Baltimore-with a little New Wave thrown in.
Things really started to get going in the late '80s. There started to be a lot of ad hoc and pop-up venues in Baltimore. I had been doing experimental music since I was very young; I started when I was like 11 years old doing avant-garde music. My interest crystallized pretty early. I'm a synesthete so I have pretty intense synesthesia, which lends itself well to sound experiments because synesthetes have a richer-than-normal sound experience or whatever. But my mom was a neuropsychologist and she had these tape recorders and I was just really interested in sound and I just started making these compositions long before I knew what music concrete was. I was also fascinated with synthesizers and feedback, and before I had ever gotten my hands on them I had like three years' worth of notebooks. It's hard to really say where that comes from. But I developed these interests-broadly experimental interests-not just in music but all kinds of activities, and I was always sort of drawn toward activities that were non-conforming and self-validating, that were not sort of validating the normal identities that people had, but getting in the cracks of the large universe of things that are not included in those things.
Going back to the '80s, there was this great radio station at Johns Hopkins that only had a five-block radius, WJHU, which became WYPR after it sold and it was a classic college station. So one night, just turning the radio dial, I came across a show called "Fingernails on the Blackboard," and I remember the first piece that I heard was a really strange piece where there was this really long sequence of little girls giggling and occasionally a gong sound, and it went on for a really long time and it was really evocative and really creepy and interesting, and so I did a strange thing. I packed up the master quarter-inch reel tapes of a bunch of my compositions and I mailed them to the radio station. And a week or two later, I tuned in and my music was playing on the radio, and for an 11- or 12-year-old kid, when you know you have interests that are very far out and you suddenly find this resonance, it is powerful. And through that and a bunch of other experiences in Baltimore, being a small town, I found my way into a very weird and sophisticated, kind of intellectual, Bohemian experimental scene that existed in the '70s and '80s, and I became the youngest member of it and became very connected collaboratively with older artists. So by the time the late '80s rolled around, the pendulum was swinging back the other way. There was a lot more activity and venues. Down by the Charles Theatre there was a thing called Bauhaus, and 14 Karat Cabaret started in probably 1990 or 1989 or something like that. And there started to be a lot of performances and an audience, and there were certain key people at that time like myself, tentative, a convenience-he was one of the founders of Normal's, he's a very eccentric and difficult but kind of brilliant guy who lives in Pittsburgh now-John Dierker, Neil Feather, Jon Eaton, and a couple other people, and so there was this nascent experimental-music scene that was less inward-looking in that it started to have an effect on the culture.
Things really shifted into higher gear in the '90s, largely, I think, because of the Cabaret being a regular monthly gig. Laure Drogoul, who runs the Cabaret, was my girlfriend at the time, and I was a stagehand and so I saw directly how-well, maybe not the best practices, but I got some sense, I was very young at the time-of how one runs a club. I don't know if everybody would agree with this, but a lot of musicians started coming through town and the combination of record stores, the networks started to coalesce with underground records, started to coalesce into actual performances, and so we started to become a slight destination, three or four times a year, for musicians from out of town, and that was inspiring.
Out of that nascent avant-garde scene, a group of improvisers developed and founded the Red Room in 1996. With a performance by Jack Wright which Berndt calls a "conversion moment," the group began to join together a wide variety of improvisational musics, now including free jazz. Berndt sees the Red Room as a place where "there was a lot of cross-pollination between jazz musicians and free improvisers and lots of exchange of information and vital music happening that was really hard to pin down that wasn't really jazz but wasn't European-derived free music." The Red Room collective acted as a "neutral broker" between various avant-garde factions and functioned with the idea that "this should be really inclusive and we should cultivate players even if they weren't good players yet" so that a scene could develop.
When we started Red Room, it was essentially me going to the other owners of Normal's-I was one of the owners of Normal's-and saying, "We've got this room, can we run a series in here?" I ran it by myself the first year, which was 1996. I didn't have very much money at the time. I basically impoverished myself by paying large guarantees to well-known musicians, and it was not a bad strategy because it generated an audience and got people out, but the philosophy was always to put the strong local artists on a similar footing [as the out-of-town artists]. I wasn't so much interested in reifying a canon of players, though it's a complicated matter, because to some extent everybody has their own taste, their own canon, and I've certainly expressed my canon over the years, but it was sort of self-consciously trying to build up the Baltimore scene, and it really exploded in '96 and went very strong for about a year and a half. Essentially what happened was a jazz club tried to start on Greenmount Avenue, and the community association shut that down, and in order not to be perceived as racist-because it's a black club-they shut us down. The next community association meeting, I and the other organizers of the Red Room tripled the size of the community association with people from the neighborhood and the decisions were all overturned and we got a permanent waiver to have a space here, so we had a sort of big triumph early on against zoning laws essentially.
There were key people involved early on, like Eric Hatch, who wrote for the City Paper, Neil Feather, Bob Wagner, who is one half of Jason's Megaphone record label, and Catherine Pancake, who was my best friend and went on to found the Transmodern. And we started doing nonstop concerts but we also started doing this monthly workshop originally called the Crap Shoot, and about three years later we started calling [it] the Volunteers' Collective, which was the outreach aspect of it, because we wanted not only to have good music shows and challenge ourselves musically and experience music that no one had ever heard before, that would take you to rooms in the mind you haven't been in before, but also to foster that activity in the culture at large.
That was very successful and has been going continuously ever since as a monthly thing, and literally thousands of musicians have been through it. It is a simple format, people come and play very short five- to 10-minute pieces for each other in relatively arbitrarily chosen groups. So it is really an exercise in the opposite of getting excited about playing with your band. You come and you have no idea who these people are and you try to make something interesting and it either happens or it doesn't or it sort of does. But you spend a lot of time listening to other people doing that and developing a sensibility about it. Out of that process of a thousand musicians, we distilled 25 or 30 more musicians who are like the core of the improvised-music scene in Baltimore and 10 to 15 other people who are in it moved from out of town, so Baltimore ended up, for a relatively small, impoverished city, having this very large pool of players and an ethic surrounding it . . .
[Berndt's phone rings, he leaves the room and comes back three minutes later as if there has been no break]
So there has definitely been this musical ethic that developed in that scene in Baltimore which was simultaneously very promoting of individuality and non-conforming but also weirdly collectivist at the same time and kind of self-consciously so-people encouraging people to do their best work, critically so, but not being competitive. I think part of it was the roots of the activity were more-if they were tied to anything they were tied to the visionary departures of radical politics rather than, like, a jazz career. If you are really trying to affect a change in the cultural frame of reference or in the boundaries of meaningful culture, it seems a little self-defeating to expect all of the rewards of playing by the rules at the same time. But on the flip side, it doesn't have to be that bad. In Baltimore, for musicians of this music, there are, and there have been for more than a decade, lots of good gigs all the time. You may not be able to make a living at it, but you can get lots of the rewards of music.
The Red Room has had a very important creative function because it's a place where people can go [play], and people who have listened to enormous amounts of related stuff listen to them and experience what they are doing and react. I think for people who do avant-garde work, if they're not charlatans, there's something hugely valuable about that, because you may be in a debate with yourself with the outer limits of some aspect of experience you are working on, and it's great to not do it in isolation and have other people responding. But it's a heterogeneous situation because a lot of what's associated with serious virtuosic free music, which is the core of what we do, is a crushing seriousness and in fact the culture around High Zero and the Red Room is anything but. It extends out into all kinds of kooky nonconformist activities. There's a lot of cross resonance between 14 Karat Cabaret and Transmodern Festival and High Zero Festival. There are differences in emphasis, but it's almost like on different days there are differences in emphasis.
Three years after founding the Red Room, Berndt was shopping in a big-box store and suddenly, in the aisle that sold benches and anvils, he had a vision for "a big international festival called High Zero."
I brought the idea [to the Red Room] fairly fully formed, but there was financial risk in the initial edition of the festival because we were bringing people from out of town from pretty far distances. It was spread over three days and all these locations. The very first night was at the Creative Alliance, which at the time was in Fells Point, a much smaller venue, and I had no idea if anybody would come, but it was sold out, with lines around the block, and it was this weird moment of inversion of my perception of experimental activity as something that was on the defensive-certainly in a statistical sense it's [still] marginal but I stopped thinking of it as something that had to be on the defensive culturally. It was clear that there was a lot of appetite.
And the first edition was very extreme. The music was sonically shocking, not just in a loud-noise kind of way-like, Scott Moore opened the festival by setting off 10 crankable fire alarms that created this moire pattern through the entire space with all these frequencies, and it wasn't unpleasant but it was extremely disorienting, and the whole thing just stepped off the edge into the pool from there. But it was a big success and we did it again and the second year was more thought-out and together and more artists [came] from farther and we risked more money.
By 2001, which was the third year, with Catherine Pancake on the poster, the whole thing shifted into a different mode where, instead of being something we just managed to pull off for two years, it became this thing that we were all doing collectively and had to think about the next thing. We standardized in the Theatre Project, which is a perfect venue for us because it's large enough to have a good crowd which validates the music, but it's only 175 so it still remains quite intimate so you can hear a pin drop. We started to have much larger, much broader audiences. If initially we were drawing from hardcore experimental-music enthusiasts, which was much more than we expected, also there were fans of progressive rock and free jazz and electronica, and then we started to get people who weren't even into that, fueled partly by good press coverage, but also because it was so heterogeneous, and a lot of it was so unusual that it caught people's attention. We would regularly get on the morning chat shows-sometimes to hilarious effect. One time Neil Feather and I were performing on a WBAL show and the host was so disturbed by what we were doing, because it was like microtonal music, that he jumped in and began rapping to bring it back down to earth. There was nothing unpleasant about what we were doing except that is was ignoring certain boundaries of our civilization.
I think some of the success and popularity of it all-which I keep coming back to because I could never have expected it-I think it has to do with the novelty, but also I think people are hungry for something that is the opposite of the direction that the civilization is going in. It's hard to sum up the direction of a civilization from within, but certainly there is this phenomenon of contracting attention spans, and certainly there is this phenomenon of things being more controlled and repeatable, and certainly there is this phenomenon of people throwing over visceral experiences for experiences that are more remote or virtual-and more of them gluttonously. And High Zero is a counterpoint to that because it is very mental. It is very social and it's very fragile in the moment-it can easily fail in the moment and everybody knows that.
According to Berndt, as the festival has developed, it has remained fresh because "rather than focusing on getting the most famous people in and getting really excited about that, our excitement has been more about the people who are really doing it and getting them together with people who seem to have a lot of potential, over and over and over again, and in a way it never gets boring because it's always a different set of combinations." He is especially excited by the festival's younger performers.
It's a really good group this year, and I'm also just excited because the dance and film aspects-there's a thing that happened in the history of the Baltimore scene where all these good things about the Red Room and the music scene coalescing and all the enormous focus on improvised music, which led to a lot of good things, the price that was paid for it, a lot of other types of activity that were more diffuse . . . . It was kind of like the avant-garde in Baltimore got involved with these kinds of things so there was a lot of language and film and some dance stuff that was going on, but the involvement of the Red Room has been moderate. But over the last couple years, since the 10th anniversary, we incorporated those kinds of activities into the festival. It started to feel inauthentic because improvised music is really-the people who are involved in it have really broad intellectual interests and cultural interests. I don't think I've ever met somebody who was a serious improviser who didn't [have broad interests], because they are people who are trying to get meta to the culture that they're in and "more meta than meta" is the sensibility and there were people looking at things through a lot of different lenses.
Festival Schedule Sept. 19, 8:30 Solo:
Jaimie Branch (trumpet)
Andrew Bernstein (reeds, electronics), Angèlica Castelló (paetzoid, tapes, electronics) Misha Marks (guitar, baritone horn)
Weasel Walter (drums) , Sharon Mansur (movement), Jesse Haas (saxophone), Peter B (invented instruments)
Will Schorre (modular synthesizer), Walter Kitundu (inventions), Angèlica Castelló (paetzoid, tapes, electronics), Sabine Vogel (flute, electronics)
Susan Alcorn (pedal steel guitar), David Moré (saw, electronics) Bonnie Jones (electronics, language), Patrick Crossland (trombone)
Sept. 20, 8:30 P.M. Solo:
Gino Robair (miscellany)
Sabine Vogel (flute, electronics) , Kelvin Pittman (saxophone), Birgit Ulher (trumpet, radio, speaker, objects), Andrew Bernstein (reeds, electronics)
Samuel Burt (daxophone, bass clarinet, computer), David Moré (saw, electronics)
Karen Stackpole (gongs), Birgit Ulher (trumpet, radio, speaker, objects), Magda Mayas (clavinet, piano), Rose Hammer Burt (reeds)
Peter B (invented instruments), Tom Boram (thocolate tynapple panipulator, epiglottal trills), Karen Stackpole (gongs), Tomomi Adachi (voice, electronics, self-made instruments)
Sept. 21, 1 P.M. Improvisation Minus Music
Gino Robair and David Moré
Sharon Mansur, Peter B, Jesse Haas, Andrew Bernstein, Bonnie Jones, Samuel Burt
"Just Waves," a vocal composition by M.C. Schmidt.
Live Soundtracks to diverse short silent films.
Sept. 21 8:30 P.M. Solo:
Tomomi Adachi (voice, electronics, self-made instruments)
Tom Boram (thocolate tynapple panipulator, epiglottal trills), Weasel Walter (drums), Rose Hammer Burt (reeds)
Sharon Mansur (movement), Angèlica Castelló (paetzoid, tapes, electronics), Kelvin Pittman (saxophone), Karen Stackpole (gongs), Bonnie Jones (electronics, language)
Samuel Burt (daxophone, bass clarinet, computer), Patrick Crossland (trombone), Birgit Ulher (trumpet, radio, speaker, objects) , Will Schorre (modular synthesizer)
Alvin Fielder (percussion), Jaimie Branch (trumpet) Misha Marks (guitar, baritone horn), Gino Robair (miscellany), Christina Blomberg (tenor saxophone)
Sept. 22, 8:30 P.M. Solo
Magda Mayas (clavinet, piano)
The Night of Randomization
Fourteen performers will be divided into four sets, randomly.
For more information on theater, dance, and musical performances please visit highzero.org