May 24, 2007

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When you hear the phrase 'experimental music', what do you think of? maybe something along these lines?

Or maybe it's more like this?

Andrew Fenchel, founder of the Chicago-based organization LAMPO describes
experimental music this way:

AF: - if you got to a museum and you see an all white or all black painting, you might say 'I don't get it. it's not a painting. where's the picture? where's the fruit?' and for me experimental music is almost like that all white all black painting. some of the things that you expect to hear in what you think of of music aren't there.
Or there in such abundance that…it doesn't seem normal.

And Andrew should know. Since 1997, LAMPO has been one of the few but steady organizations presenting experimental music in Chicago.

Ninety-nine different musicians from around the world have performed electronic, improvisational and sound art concerts through LAMPO.

Now maybe you're wondering ‘just what happens at an experimental music concert?' The answer is...everything and anything MIGHT happen. Here's one example:

AF: This is an interesting and often told story about an event that failed in the eyes of the audience, as well as the artist, but to me was a supreme success. there is an artist named achim wolffschied from germany, and what he wanted to do was cook potato pancakes for the audience. and he was going to mic some of the kitchen equipment that he was using, and he also set up some mics to hang down in the center of the room to pick up some of the ambient sound of people eating. and he had a computer program that would take that sound and sort of cycle it back on itself, and process it and play it through the speakers. and I believe that he had some concepts about the role of the artist and the audience – the artist as producer and the audience as consumer – and he wanted to make that literal by cooking. and the problem was that too many people came. and he wasn't able to cook fast enough. and people were waiting in line, they wanted their potato pancakes, and they were pissed. where are my potato pancakes? and he became anxious that he couldn't cook fast enough for them. the irony was completely lost on achim and the audience, that this was a better example of the artist and audience / producer and consumer, than if it had gone right. I thought, I thought it was a great success.

Andrew himself first wandered into the world of experimental music back in 1996, when he went to a show by musician and composer Joe McPhee.

Joe Mcphee

The experience was an unexpectedly powerful one for him. After that Andrew wanted to find a way to create the same, memorable experience for other people, and so... LAMPO was born.

It's hard to put into words why hearing live experimental music is so intense, but here's how Andrew feels when he listens:

AF: for me, listening is sometimes it has a kind of narrative. and I listen to the sound and I see images. and it's like a soundtrack for a movie that I'm making up in my head. other times it's very contemplative, and I think about things that are going on personally, and other times it's more analytical, and I think about 'what is this performance situation saying to me about my expectations as an audience member, and a traditional performance, about the role of the artist…and other times it's not about any idea at all, it's just pure physical sensation, and I like the way the sound rattles my teeth.

David Behrman lives in New York, and is a

David's been making music since the 1960s – most of it involving homemade electronics and computer-controlled systems. He first played a LAMPO show in 2003.

For a long time I've been interested in technology. and that's led through the decades through some very different territory. I started in the 60s building little transistorized circuits for music with my friends. and that led to a very different situation now, where most of my work is with software.

And Jessica Rylan lives outside of Boston (layer tape)
She just played a LAMPO show last Fall. When people ask about her music...

Well if I'm in a funny mood I'll just tell people I play noise, and if they say 'what's that' I say CHHHHHHCHCHC (but that's really not even what I'm doing.) and then if I'm going to talk about it more with people I would say that I'm really interested in sounds in the world and my relationship to those kinds of sounds.

So how would you define experimental music?
DB: well…I think one definition would be…music the result of which is not completely known. the result of performing and hearing the music is not completely known. might be a JC quote, I think he put it in better words than I just did.

JR: guess one way to define experimental music would be a kind of music that's looking for something else and that can come from starting with this blank slate and asking this questions, what  COULD music be, or it could come from this formal background of 'which direction can we move in now, to expand  what we're doing?'

David and Jessica agree that how the audience reacts at experimental music shows is a huge part of the equation. Listeners should be open to hearing new sounds... and feeling unfamiliar emotions during a performance.

At a recent LAMPO show sound artist Joseph Hammer gave an, hour-long, mesmerizing performance, using computerized sound sources and a vintage reel-to-reel player. Graphic designer Rick Valisenti was in the audience, and while he's relatively new to the LAMPO scene, he's already a big fan of what the concerts offer:

RICK: to a newcomer the experience that I've had related to new music is one where I really feel like I'm doing something for the first time. in our life we are so programmed with familiar ideas .

gone are first bike rides, gone are firsts, this has a good reward of newness.

It's hard to describe the actual sound of LAMPO concerts, because each one is different from the next. According to Rick and another LAMPO regular, Angie Evans, some shows are extremely loud:

ANG: felt like the sounds and noise was rumbling through inside of body. very physical show. one of the most memorable. my stomach was churning from how loud the sound was. so…closed my eyes and tried to experience as much as I could

RICK: second show was so loud, it was excruciating, I took advantage of the ear plugs that were provided. and with my ears shrouded, I just shook. to the core. that buzz was great.

And as Andrew Fenchel explains, some LAMPO shows are extremely...quiet:

AF:– there have also been concerts where the sound was imperceptibly quiet. and people ask 'I couldn't hear anything. what was wrong? so I think if there's any lesson it's that experimental music, as it's defined, pushes the boundaries of what is expected, and sometimes that means loudness and sometime that means…what's the opposite of loudness…

AF – well I wouldn't presume to say what's important about lampo or experimental music. I can only tell you why it means something to me. a simple thing to say would be I like the way it fills my head, and empties my head. and I don't expect everyone, or even a lot of people to like it. and it's not my goal to persuade people who think they wouldn't like it, to try to like it. it's really up to you.

For Eight Forty-Eight on Chicago Public Radio, I'm Julie Shapiro.