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Here, Theremin, and Everywhere

October 4, 2007

The High Zero Festival of Experimental Improvised Music is one of modern Baltimore’s great cultural treasures. Now in its ninth year, the fest is gradually earning institution status. And it’s in the festival’s painstakingly scheduled and organized structure that the inherent chaos of the music is allowed to thrive. But four consecutive nights of that chaos, each featuring more than a dozen musicians, is a great deal to digest, even for someone who’s been to High Zero almost every year. So after taking in nearly every night of last year’s festival, it was somewhat relaxing to check out only one concert this year, the festival’s final night, Sunday, Sept. 30.

One of the great things about the High Zero concerts at Theatre Project is that you never know what you’ll see walking down Preston Street, as invariably one of the festival’s guerrilla High Jinx performances happens outside the venue before the main event. On Sunday, the High Jinx pregame was a kazoo symphony, with four musicians–including, arguably, this year’s highest-profile participant, TV on the Radio guitarist Kyp Malone–haphazardly getting the most sound they could out of the feeble instruments, with High Zero co-founder and host John Berndt playfully standing in front of the quartet waving his arms like a conductor.

Inside, the solo performer that began the night’s official proceedings was a bearded, energetic young man calling himself ID M Theft Able, whose instrument was credited in the program as “mouth, frictions, textures, etc.” Seated before a glass table surrounded by microphones, he knocked and scraped objects against the tabletop and each other. And, indeed, he made a variety of sounds with his mouth; wheezing and lip-smacking and hollering, occasionally holding up his right hand as a cue for everyone else in the room to mimic the sound he was making to the best of their abilities. Sing-alongs are rare, if not nonexistent, at experimental music performances, but ID M Theft Able found a way to tap into audience participation without sacrificing the spontaneity of improvised music. He was by far one of the most memorable performers at High Zero in recent years.

The first group performance on Sunday was the must-see set of the festival for one reason: beatboxer and one-time City Paper cover star Shodekeh. Last year, Shodekeh was the unexpected star of High Zero, initially only performing at an outdoor High Jinx event, until the organizers realized his versatility and capacity for experimentation and invited him to close out the festival with an incredible unannounced duet with Japanese throat singer Fuyuki Yamakawa, who wordlessly freestyled over the beatboxer’s rhythms. Unfortunately, this year the last night of High Zero didn’t harness Shodekeh’s talents quite as well, and the electronics and white noise provided by Donna Parker, Jeff Carey, and ex-Wolf Eyes member Aaron Dilloway were so earsplittingly loud that Shodekeh could do little but provide a subtle rhythmic pulse underneath it all.

From a visual standpoint, one of the most exciting aspects of High Zero has always been the variety of musicians playing unique, idiosyncratic, and often self-invented instruments. Unfortunately, that element has been diminished somewhat in recent years, as more and more featured performers’ instrument of choice is a laptop or electronic console, which may make some amazing sounds but is invariably boring to watch. And Neil Feather, a High Zero veteran who in the past could be depended on to show up with a wild invention or two, didn’t participate in any of the concerts this year. In fact, Berndt announced that Feather had been injured in an auto accident two nights previous and would hopefully show up later as a spectator, which he did, walking with a cane.

At least one performer showed up with an impressive invention this year, though: Massimo Simonini from Italy, who played a “prepared theremin.” Theremins are, of course, one of the oldest electronic instruments and remain more commonplace in experimental music than in any “structured” genre. And while Simonini’s theremin–which, according to the program, he’d been developing for the past two years and was debuting at High Zero–had the same two motion-sensitive antennae common to traditional incarnations of the instrument, the difference was immediately clear to anyone familiar with theremins.

While most versions are capable of producing a single tone, which can be manipulated in pitch and volume by hand movements in the vicinity of the antennae, Simonini’s prepared theremin had been merged with a sampler and programmed with a wide ranger of sounds, including distinct single notes and even percussion sounds cued by the player’s hand. During the course of Simonini’s group performance, which also included Berndt and cellist Audrey Chen, his theremin sounded like a harpsichord, an array of cymbals, and something that resembled an accordion. What we saw of the rest of the night was perfectly good, although it didn’t quite match the thrill of Simonini’s innovation. While experimental music isn’t the most competitive artistic environment, one must wonder if Eric Franklin, who played in the following set with a more traditional theremin, was marvelling at Simonini’s invention or fuming about having such a hard act to follow.

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