Tuesday, January 15, 2013

In FFFocus: Crow With No Mouth 2013 series

(Jesse Goin, Keith Rowe, and Allie Goin; photo by Amy Myrbo)

The Twin Cities is blessed with an incredibly diverse, talented, and supportive music community. For fans of improvised and experimental music, the on-going efforts of the Tuesday Series at Madame Of the Arts and the annual Heliotrope Festival have been vital for showcasing local talent in a live setting. Through the work of crow with no mouth (cwnmpromotions, the scope of live performances within this area of music has widened considerably in recent years to include prominent national and international artists working in the field of electro-acoustic improvisation (EAI). Started in 2011, the cwnm series has slowly expanded into what will be a near yearlong series with monthly performances held at Studio Z in Lowertown, St. Paul. cwnm curator, Jesse Goin, who has written extensively about EAI on his cwnm blog, along with his wife, Allie, have assembled an impressive roster of artists for the 2013 cwnm series that includes the likes of Jason Lescalleet, Jon Mueller, Michael Pisaro, Joe Panzer, Vanessa Rossetto, Joe Colley and many more. We recently had a chance to ask Jesse some questions about this year’s series and about his motivations for doing this work.


What was your motivation for starting the crow with no mouth concert series in the Twin Cities? Why were you interested in presenting this as an almost yearlong series as opposed to just doing one-off shows for electro-acoustic and improv performers? 

I need to say crow with no mouth promotions is me and my wife, Allie, who contributes great energy and personal resources to the crow activities. I could not put the concerts together without her.

For the sake of the readers, let’s use the inadequate placeholder name EAI (electro-acoustic improvisation) as a referent for the music cwnm is presenting in its concert series.

There is no one presenting this area of music in the Twin Cities, period. There have been occasional events over the past decade that have brought a few of the musicians cwnm has booked to Twin Cities audiences, but very occasional, very few – and unfailingly, in venues less than ideal as listening environments. This is an area of music easily in its 13th year of development, comprising many, many brilliant musicians, producing way too many releases, and in an authentic sense, global in scope, and it is never heard here.

I complained about this for a number of years before deciding to do something myself to address this lack of an infrastructure for genuinely new, creative and, to date, inaccessible music. 

That is, of course, what every unfunded, non-commercial and, at least initially, difficult music requires in order to be presented properly - an infrastructure. For me that means nothing more or less than the interdependent relationships between a knowledgeable curator, a suitable venue, a schedule of strong musicians, and an audience keen on listening. Every one of those elements is crucial, and as simple as this appears on paper, is quite difficult to bring together. Everyone who has worked on facilitating such an infrastructure - and there are numerous people in the Twin Cities who have done so in the areas of jazz, free improvisation and other exceedingly unpopular music – has struggled with sustaining one or more of these elements in their efforts. Venues made for listening are next to non-existent for this music - most experimental music is played in bars, noisy bars, or, occasionally, in over-controlled, claustrophobic art venues; knowledgeable people who are engaged in a critical way with the music, and attend to the details that bring both musician and listener to the performance are rare as hen’s teeth. None of this is offered as a complaint – I have said, since presenting the first cwnm concert in May, 2011, that it has to be done for fun and for free. This is simply to acknowledge why this sort of effort seldom occurs for long. Any other motivation than this – to generate the infrastructure in which great, otherwise unheard music can be heard, and to do it for fun and for free, is asking for trouble.

I moved to Minneapolis in 1979, and immediately sussed out where the interesting local music was happening; at that time that meant primarily free jazz, non-idiomatic improvisation, and 20th century classical music (as well as a few rock bands). From 1979 to around 1999, that was where I invested my time and attention, and I invested a great deal of both. Most, if not all, of those venues and curators are long gone.

In the late 90s, those areas of music had been pretty exhausted for me – not entirely, but, critically, most of what I had been listening to for three decades was sounding played out, codified and stagnant, even, as saxophonist John Butcher put it, like “museum music.” (Nothing wrong with that, it is the inevitable, eventual, organic stagnation all music reaches in time). Anyway, this sense of the music I loved sounding enervated and predictable opened me up to my encounter with EAI, and for the past nine years or so, that has been my principal, though in no wise exclusive, area of musical interest.

(Michael Pisaro; photo by Yuko Zama)

To your question about creating a series – I conceived of what I was doing from the first cwnm concert in May 2011 as a series, albeit woefully unfunded and so a truncated one. In 2011, cwnm organized four concerts, comprising 10 musicians; in 2012, seven concerts, 20 musicians. The 2013 schedule, to date, offers 10 concerts, involving 28 musicians.

There are a couple of reasons I wanted to attempt a series approach: first - and a critical point with introducing EAI to new audiences – there is a real learning curve involved here. This is a continuum of music seldom heard in performance outside of a few hubs of activity and interest (New York, Paris, London, Tokyo, Berlin, for example), and, outside of Europe, is seldom the recipient of foundation funding. I am pleased that I was awarded a 2013 grant from a regional arts organization for the series, the first for this area of music. To engage new audiences with something they will never hear or hear about via the media, or read about outside of a clutch of dedicated blogs, takes time and patience. Additionally, a series offers the opportunity to present the scope of the music referred to as EAI, which is impossible to do with a smaller sample size, a one-off or very occasional events.

Had you done much in the way of organizing and promoting shows prior to this?

No – I helped set up a few shows prior to starting crow with no mouth, but nothing like what I have done the past two years. As I said, I spent an enormous amount of time from 2004-2011 investigating this music as a listener. In 2010 I started writing about EAI for several on-line and print journals, as well as starting my blog – yes, crow with no mouth – which is dedicated to feature-length, critical pieces about this music.

Perhaps for the uninitiated who might read “a concert series of electro-acoustic composition and improvisation” as something more buttoned-up and academic, how would you characterize the range of music that you are presenting in the 2013 series?

The range is extraordinary, sufficiently so, as I suggested before in calling EAI an inadequate signifier, to initially (and importantly) confuse new listeners. I am confident whatever criticisms, or simply descriptors, one might have about the music in the crow series, “buttoned-up and academic” will not be among them. This, despite the fact that a number of the participants in the 2013 series hold academic positions, some in music departments, some in other disciplines. There are equally a number of musicians who are as far outside the academic realm as can be imagined.

The music offered by the musicians I have invited to perform, whatever the divergences, stylistic tensions and contrasts (and there are, happily, many) is characterized, for me, by an essential vitality. This is a quality impossible to convey with limited space and time, of course. But it is this vitality I sought when I had reached the point of exhaustion with other approaches to improvisation, such as jazz, so it is essential for me, in order to connect with any music, that I feel that vitality is present.

The more overt characteristics of the music in the 2013 series are elements that I considered in my planning; for example, the dynamic continuum of volume - there are participants who make music so quiet you must change your way of listening to make that connection, who privilege space and silence as co-equal with intentional sounds; and there are musicians who create intensely dense, super-saturated sound fields that can push a listener as far as they would wish to be pushed.

Then, the business of improvised and composed music; EAI confounds that distinction with sometimes brilliant results. The 2013 series will present musicians who work in both through-composed and unfettered improvisation, and occasionally bend and braid those twin disciplines in ways listeners new to EAI often find compelling, and, crucially, confusing.

Finally, limiting my reply to only a few of the overt characteristics one can discover in the series, there is instrumentation. The 2013 season will present music made from sound generators as familiar as the vibraphone, grand piano and cello, as well as from cartridge-less turntable, hacked tape machines, computer programming written by the performer, and noise sourced from location recordings, sine waves and feedback.

I go to some length to describe the sorts of sounds the series comprises to return to the unifying principle for me, as curator – an essential vitality, a quality heard across the great range of styles, sound-sources and individual disciplines and origins of the musicians involved.

On your crow with no mouth blog, you borrow a quote from Michael Ventura and James Hillman’s book We’ve Had 100 Years of Psychotherapy and The World’s Getting Worse that reads:

. . . And our job, every single one of us, is to cherish 
whatever in the human heritage we love and to feed 
it and keep it going and pass it on, because the Dark 
Age isn’t going to go on forever, and when it stops 
those people are gonna need the pieces we pass on. 
They’re not going to be able to build a new world 
 without us passing on whatever we can – ideas, arts, 
knowledge, skills, or just plain old fragile love, how 
we treat people, how we help people: that’s something 
to be passed on… and all of this passing things on, in 
all its forms, may not cure the world now – curing the 
world now may not be a human possibility – but it keeps 
the great things alive . . . 

Has this been sort of your guiding principle in your work with crow with no mouth, both the concert series and blog?

That is very intuitive, your asking that - here is a brief story as to why that particular quote owns a certain power for me, where the crow activities are concerned: in October 2011 the fantastic trio Haptic played the last crow concert of that year. Haptic – Joseph Clayton Mills, Steven Hess and Adam Sonderberg – were house guests of my wife Allie and I. As happens often with visiting musicians, we sat up following the concert into the wee hours engaged in conversations that link favorite authors, painters, filmmakers, philosophers, even musicians. Personal and more abstract pleasures and experiences are in those mixes, encounters as important in their way as the concerts that serve as the occasion for our meeting. Anyway, towards morning, Allie, Sonderberg and I were talking a bit about our engagement with the Occupy movement activities happening at that time in the streets of Minneapolis. In a way I cannot adequately convey here, the three of us – with quite divergent views on the efficacy of such actions as Occupy, and similar direct actions we were engaged in – came to a point where we agreed that, as Sonderberg put it, it is also in nights such as this one, in encounters such as we were enjoying, in the endless small occasions of sparsely attended experimental music shows, for example, that important things are sustained, kept alive – it was an indelible moment, one I have enjoyed many times with friends near and long-known, but was now discovering with people traveling here to play whom I would only know a few hours, before we’d all return to our regularly scheduled lives. I have enjoyed intense moments like this with, for example, Keith Rowe, Will Guthrie, Jeph Jerman, Nathan McLaughlin, and Joe Houpert…enough to realize that when I stopped complaining and started working on an infrastructure to support events that own the sort of vitality I look for in this music, what Hillman describes comes about.There is that old anarchist principle about making the world you want to live in, not waiting for someone else, not expecting anything to happen, not reacting to the enervated scenes around you – simply make something happen with like-minded individuals, for fun and for free.

I know that Michael Pisaro had debuted a new composition at a cwnm performance a few years ago and I see that right out of the gates in this year’s series you’ll be hosting Hong Chulki from Seoul, which will mark his first performance in the U.S. Are there any other noteworthy performers/performances/compositions unique to this year’s cwnm series that you’d like to or can mention at this stage? 

I can honestly say that I am excited to present all 28 musicians in the 2013 series; in 2012 I presented a local musician in his first public performance, and Keith Rowe, and I am confident both would say they felt that their work, and my preparation for their appearance, was treated with the utmost respect and enthusiasm.

One reason I introduce each set is to establish that ground in the room; I have gone to too many shows where the inexorable, sometimes subtle, sometimes overt creep of hierarchy is felt in the presentation of the participants. The key to maintaining equanimity towards all the music/musicians in the crow series is in this ground being established up front. For example, I recall shows locally in which local musicians were informed at the show that the touring musician would get the door, as they were, after all, touring. Hierarchy creeps into the damndest situations, so pervasive and inculcated is the rock star sensibility. I realize how silly this reads, as we are talking about concerts of maybe 20-30 attendees, with musicians paid from the door. Nonetheless, I see this hierarchical system play out on music boards, in small venues, and the like.

Do I have preferences, and anticipate some performances more than others? – of course! The practice of equanimity sits alongside my personal preferences, but I hope is never evident in the concert situation.

(Jason Lescalleet; photo by Yuko Zama)

World premieres (the Pisaro concert), Minneapolis/St. Paul debuts (Rowe, and many others in the crow series) are very satisfying. Also immensely gratifying are aspects of crow shows that specifically challenge the performers in ways that may not be clear to attendees, though I try to reference those dimensions in my introductions. For example, I was after bassist Brian Roessler for a couple of years, before I had a venue to accommodate it, to play a solo set of completely improvised music. He had never done that, until his stunning set in the 2012 series. Similarly, saxophonist Scott Newell has never offered a solo set before our December 2012 concert; I started attending Scott’s gigs in 1982! Thirty years later, we got that done; very gratifying for me, and, from the feedback I received, for Scott and the audience as well. My correspondence with Rowe was two years of exchanges; I drove to Chicago in April of 2012 to hear Jason Lescalleet and Olivia Block share an evening, but also to meet them and to encourage their appearing in the Twin Cities. (I have no doubt some of this year’s participants regard me as a pest).

You mention Hong Chulki’s appearance – his first visit to the U.S. will comprise only 6-7 cities, of course it’s fantastic we will host him here. I have corresponded with one of my favorite contemporary composers, Jurg Frey, who resides in Switzerland, intent on getting more music from the Wandelweiser composer’s collective into the crow series. He has graciously provided numerous piano scores for Shannon Wettstein, the pianist with the St. Paul-based Zeitgeist new music ensemble, to perform. Each musician owns a personal quality for me in this series that I want to share with listeners. Each musician merits this sort of explication and advocacy, or I wouldn’t have invited them. The only pangs I currently suffer are about the musicians with whom I have discussed appearing in the crow series, but cannot presently confirm, as I have exceeded our budget already. This is as good a place as any to mention these musicians, maybe 6-7 at this point, will be presented, should I be successful in gaining additional financial support. The current schedule stops at mid-October, so we have a couple more months in 2013 in which I hope to present more concerts.

If I thought your readers would indulge it, I would offer a concise paragraph on every musician appearing this season as to why I am stoked they have agreed to perform in the series. I don’t imagine many would indulge that; I am writing a little about each performer prior to their concert, as I have already done on Hong and Jason Zeh. Those updates can be found at http://cwnmconcertseries.wordpress.com/.

Finally, I assure you there will be some unique offerings this year, aside from many more debuts (Michael Pisaro and Jason Lescalleet, for example) – I want to hold some of these close for awhile, the element of surprise is potent.

The 2013 cwnm concert series schedule: 

February 15: Jason ZehHong Chulki (two solo and one duo set) 
March 23: Jason Soliday / Jon Mueller 
April 12: Bhob Rainey / Bonnie Jones (solo and duo) 
June 7:  Tetras (trio) / Brian Roessler / Christian Weber (duo) 
October 5: Adam Sonderberg / Olivia Block (duo) / Shannon Wettstein (performing a Jurg Frey composition) 

*Solo sets, unless otherwise indicated.
*All concerts at Studio Z, in Lowertown, St. Paul


Joe Houpert said...

Awesome dude, awesome series...wish I was local!

Free Form Freakout said...

In my mind you're a local.

jesse said...

i look forward to presenting your music here again,joe.