The Scale of the Things We Talk About When We Talk About High Zero

by Megan McShea

The Red Room collective is in the more or less full-time year-round business of producing a vast collection of lived and recorded sounds and collaborations of sound-producing innovators, and every year in September since 1999, they co-locate a big group of these innovators, local, national, international, in the city of Baltimore, and they produce an impossibly complex collection of sound experiences for anyone who wishes to participate. 

A few numbers begin to express the festival's arrangement: 5 concerts of five sets each over 4 days, 26 street performances (called High Jinx by their organizer, Bob Wagner), and 4 sound installations occurring throughout the week.  Among the core collective and visiting musicians, 6 recording sessions and 2 workshops were arranged, bringing the number of experimental music events during the festival to 43. 

If we count multiple performances by single musicians, we get 29 musicians, during 5 concerts of 5 sets each producing 76 acts of participation; 26 street performances involved approximately 200 acts of participation by persons not involved in the evening concerts, mostly local musicians, some visitors, a French-Canadian street theater operation, and at least one incoming Peabody student freshly arrived from Sweden.  This brings the acts of participation up to approximately 276 for concerts; Counting installations, recordings, and workshops we might count roughly 24 additional acts, bringing our rounded figure to 300.  (I know this fat, round figure is hard to believe, but it is roughly accurate according to several accounts added together.)  If we divide the acts of participation evenly over 7 days (which they were not) this leaves us with an average of 42 to 43 acts of participation per day.

Approximately 800 heads were counted at the Theater Project and elsewhere, witnessing these acts.  Of course, with passers-by on foot, in cars, on the light rail, and sleeping neighbors to street performances who may have had their dreams if not their days interrupted by High Jinx, this figure is harder to pin down.

If one could really measure the effects of such an effort, I believe one would be tempted to make grand analogies to describe them.  The building of a cathedral, for instance, which in the old world was the collective achievement of generations of artisans, laborers, etc. over a period exceeding most if not all of the lifetimes of the participants.  One could use this analogy for just about any area of human endeavor they care about.  I am not sure it describes a singular quality of the High Zero festival, but I do believe it describes its scale.  I have just had the pleasure of taking in the 2003 festival to the tune of 5 concerts, 7 street performances, 3 sound installations, and an endless stream of conversation with old friends and total strangers about the festival and the city of Baltimore.  In the hyperbolic spirit of the festival, then, I will let this analogy stand. 

An Archives of the High Zero Experience

I think it's only natural for persons coming upon an enormous collection of evocative material to want to make use of it somehow, to exploit its potential.  A certain personality will also be driven by a longing for authorship as well.  My day jobs for the last 10 years or so have involved working in vast collections of images in libraries and archives.  As much as I am driven by a longing for authorship and a desire to create the ultimate representation of potential narratives lying dormant in the excessive multiplicities of the collections I have been privileged to access, I have had to concede that the true potential of a collection is only expressed by the collection itself, in its entirety, over its lifetime as a collection and the histories and futures of all its individual items and the people who use them.  

There is an element of regret in this capitulation because it means that no individual, including myself, can fully absorb and appreciate it holistically, its enormous universe of nuances and qualities, its echoes and patterns and singular statements that have never before been made and will never be made again.  Such knowledge can only be held collectively, and is never fully communicated among its participants. 

This is sort of how I feel about the collection of experiences that make up the High Zero festival.  No one who participated, watched, or otherwise encountered it can know it in its entirety.  I immersed myself and still missed almost 20 performance events.  So what follows are impressions that begin to express part of this cathedral-like endeavor, one that I never tired of attending, even if I occasionally found myself at a loss for words.

Autobiography of a listener

I have a writing habit.  I do improvisational, experimental writing.  I prefer to write with a typewriter, and usually do it at home in a sort of cloud of language.  I have a stack of typewritten pages that go back to about 1994. 

Because of this practice, when I started going to the Red Room, I felt a kind of solidarity with the players there.  As I saw it, we were all sitting down to our instruments without preconceived notions of what would happen.  And as an antidote to the impossibility of ridding ourselves and our language of preconceived notions, we would bring along to our improvisation our hammers and explosives and our willingness to destroy those preconceived notions along the way, in the field, without a moment's hesitation.  I've watched this happen at the Red Room and at the High Zero festival again and again and to me it is always a joyful event.  And it relates to what I am always trying to do by myself at home: make language do something new in the spirit of right now.

"Music then is a problem parallel to that of the integration of the personality, which in terms of modern psychology is the co-being of the conscious and the unconscious mind, Law and Freedom, in a random world situation.  Good music can act as a guide to good living--."  -John Cage

Bebop does a lot of its own brand of breaking down and building sound notions, blowing them away.  But bebop uses a web of standard tunes thatched with 12 tones.  Arguably the web fuels the freedom of the music, and sets its own standards for virtuosity. 

The auronauts this festival features chart a different territory, on continuae of simultaneity and sequence, nearness and contrast, strangeness and familiarity, figure and ground, in rhythm, pitch, texture, and physicality.  The raw materials are nothing but bodies, sounds, sound-producing objects, and time.

"The imagination is a kind of electronic machine that takes account of all possible combinations and chooses the ones that are appropriate to a particular purpose, or are simply the most interesting, pleasing, or amusing." 

-Italo Calvino, "Visibility"

The Bit About Language as a Sound-Producing Instrument

There is rarely a pure sound in language because there is always meaning hanging onto words.  Because of this sometimes unfortunate quality of language (as opposed to sounds), using words for raw materials in experimentation is something like trying to juggle birds. 

One strategy you'll find in experimental writings is the short-circuiting of meaning by putting words next to each other that make the simple understanding of a word impossible.  Another is the telling of broken stories.  Broken stories have contours and rhythms that remind us of stories, but they don't distract us from language by forcing everyone to watch the author's imagination come to its own conclusions through conventions of plot or character.  Our imaginations can be entirely loosed by the behavior of language as it carries us along on familiar cadences, the longer or shorter chains of words that somehow bind to each other, mysteriously, freely, changing each other. 

The ideal, when I'm thinking in ideals (usually not caring exactly how or how much they bear upon reality) would be to keep multiple meanings active not canceling out certain interpretations but suggesting meanings that might be buoyed up or colored by alternative, co-existing meanings.  The piece becomes a somewhat closed system not that it only refers to itself, but that the internal dynamic is the locus of its richest imaginative play.

I've always suspected that my approach to writing is analogous to the High Zero approach to music-making, and in that sense I feel somehow qualified to write about the High Zero festival even though I am not a musician, a critic, or a musicologist of any kind.  Each set I listened to used extraordinary means to generate its own closed system.  The words "system" and "machine" come up again and again in my writing because the musicians fused, even as they expressed their own personal genius, into a single, world-making animal.

"An incomplete dramatic action figures forth a shadow, or limb, that completes itself variously like the flinch response to a pulled punch in the imaginary space of an audience member's active awareness."  -Mac Wellman, "A Chrestomanthy" in Cellophane

Rain Anecdote

This morning it began to rain. 

At first I thought it might be my neighbor's sprinkler, but was able to discern that it was rain by the rhythm of tiny, perfectly-spaced drops that began falling on the steps outside my door.

The rain is welcome; my neighbor's sprinkler is not (I harbor a trite, if muted, animosity towards my neighbor's incursions over our shared fence, which are numerous and varied power tools, sawdust, light FM).  By observing and listening and recognizing the rain, I could welcome it.  I were forced to spend a few hours in this state of not-knowing suspense, unable to know whether to welcome the rain, or to curse my neighbor's sprinkler, I would feel handicapped, unable to know, through my own sensory abilities, what was happening.  I would have to go somewhere else.

When a person begins to think it might be raining, it is pleasant to spend a few moments in suspense, waiting to see what develops, in a state of heightened receptivity.  "Is it raining," she wondered.

There are discernable events in improvised music that effect me much like this morning's rain.  This writing about the High Zero festival started off with the goal of finding ways of discerning certain things that are happening, so that we can maintain our receptivity, welcoming those events, recognizing them like rain.  What it has become is more of a record of my own attention and receptivity as it grew strained and was refreshed by an exercise in active listening unlike any other experience I have ever had. 

"art is not a business--Art is a way of life.  It is for all the world like taking a bus, picking flowers, , sweeping the floor, getting bitten by a monkey, reading a book, etc., ad infinitum--.

The old pond,

A frog jumps in,



-John Cage

Before the festival, in anticipation of this project, I wrote a few things down to get in the mood for this project.

Words to use to write about music:

Describe like a painting: short lines, long lines, heavy outlines, bright colors, dark colors, understated
Describe like a person: brittle, friendly, angry, muscular, oblique, frantic, flabby
Describe like an interior: plush, bright, sunny, dim, crowded, spare
Describing actual sounds: (the intentional and the unintentional)
animal noises: barking, chirping, cooing, purring, growling, belching;
Mechanical noises: scraping, clicking, pounding, whirring, racheting
Describing movement: a rotation, an absorption, a gallop, a trot, a walk, a send (a movement with an object, but the object left unnamed), a fall, a freefall, a careening, a jaunt, a collapse
Sounds are things that people do.
Sounds are verbs and nouns and adjectives at the same time.
A sound is a sentence
A sound is a verbs with an object: polishing apparatus, Hiding the silverware
Describe sounds like weather: cloudy, breezy, rising pressure, hot, cold, chilly, windy

When sounds are really more nouns than verbs: an amputated limb, a fine layer of dust, a shiny penny (abandoned by or set apart from action)

When sounds become something that gets on ones' calendar: an appointment (a theme), a party, a dinner party (themes are scheduled events, but they occur rarely in improvised music and sometimes are left hanging like missed appointments)

Laying down themes like propositions to a particular audience, such as proposing a road trip to a roomful of invalids or a flower garden (fanciful, yearning).

Thinking in different idioms: sci-fi is a handy one for describing unearthly sounds, or earthly co-mingling with unearthly.  Then there's the theological idiom the believers, the agnostics, the cynics.  When the players start like they're not sure what they believe and then get to a place of pure belief they can really take you with them to an exalted place.  When they start as believers, sometimes they leave the audience behind [or just me?], leaving them the cynic's role, or the anthropologists.

"What this nonintentional music wants to do is--to make it clear to the listener that the hearing of the piece is his own action."  -John Cage

The Kind of Heart Musicians Bring to the High Zero

Bob handed me a trombone and I stood by the steps to the water alone.  Michael Johnsen showed me where to look for Tom who would give the signal out at the end of a long pier. 

When it was over, I was unsure whether anything had happened at all.  I could only hear my weak trombone sound a no one else, not Bob's conch or MJ's saw or the others.  I didn't know if anyone had heard anything but saw Bob and MJ walking towards me from their positions so I guessed it was over.  The old question popped in my head about trees in the forest.  Not even the ducks were stirred.

We reconvened and stood there by the harbor debriefing for a few minutes.  We were supposed to be playing wind instruments, since the note was supposed to be one breath long.  Not knowing about this condition, MJ had played his musical saw, but not without careful consideration.  "I felt bad," he said afterwards. "But I held my breath."