Noise addicts

Fifteen years on, Seattle musicians still living the improv-able dream.


447-6144, $10 On the Boards Studio Theater, 100 W. Roy, 8 p.m. Thurs., June 27- Sat., June 29; Polestar Music Gallery, 1412 18th, 8 p.m. Sun., June 30

WHEN YOU'RE DEALING with some of the most esoteric music on the planet, it's helpful to be in an open-minded town.

"I'm amazed how many people will show up, just to see what's going on," says saxophonist Wally Shoup, who's helped organize the Seattle Improvised Music Festival (SIMF) off and on for the past 15 years. No song forms, exploded rhythms, probably not even notes as they're usually understood—SIMF instead explores noises, colors, and rare effects, much of it deliberately at odds with your very expectation of "music," and all of it invented on the spot, in the moment, with inspiration its only source.

"Even partisans of the music told us it wouldn't work," says guitarist Dennis Rea, recalling the first time that he, Shoup, and several other players staged a five-hour free-for-all in February 1988. Two hundred listeners filled the New Melody Tavern (now the Tractor) that night, and an annual event was born. SIMF organizers claim this is the longest continuously running festival of its kind in North America, maybe the world. "I think people enjoy watching this stuff basically getting plucked out of the air," says organizer Henry Hughes, whose new Central District space, the Polestar Music Gallery, will host one of four SIMF concerts next weekend.

Though critics tend to associate free improv with jazz (usually assigning—ahem— the jazz critic to write about it), Seattle festival organizers deliberately steer away from that link. "It's not a jazz fraternity kind of thing," says Rea, sitting at the foot of Polestar's tiny stage. "We've drawn on people from all streams of music."

While free jazz emerged alongside the black consciousness movements of the '60s and '70s and is still rooted to blues, bop, and a distinctly African-American sound, free improvisation was fostered largely by white, sometimes classically trained musicians in Europe, who were aiming to avoid not only the shackles of jazz, but those of any idiom. "It's not just a willful turning away from structures and tenets," says Peter Monaghan, a longtime proponent of new music in Seattle who helps run SIMF. "It's a recognition that when you do that, new expressive possibilities open up."

Most music, Shoup observes, "tends to narrow the rhythms down to something people can recognize and feel comfortable with." But free improv goes in the other direction, and this year the festival will present several drummers who approach rhythm "as texture, as sound."

Danish drummer Raymond Strid performs with the quartet the Electrics, and Henry Hughes calls him "one of the greatest drummers on the planet, a very big guy who commands the stage and is hysterically funny. He never studied any idiomatic music, he didn't come out of anything." Also in the Electrics is Axel D�r of Germany, who, Monaghan says, is "reinventing what the trumpet is capable of"—exploring all the microtonal gestures and minute sounds that are generally used by conventional players only for passing effect.

There will also be a strong electronic current to SIMF this year: Sunday night's show features Bay Area violinist Carla Kihlstedt, whose signal will be processed, modified, and multiplied by New Yorker Shahzad Ismaily; Seattle electronic duo rebreather will perform as well.

OVER THE YEARS, SIMF organizers have wearied of the faintly dismissive terms used by the media in reference to their festival: "risky," "experimental," "wild," "anything goes," "free for all" (whoops!), "chaos" . . . "no rehearsals!" These descriptions "belie the fact that it can be music of incredible beauty, stillness, depth," says Rea.

For the mostly local players who participated in the early days, SIMF may have been their only improv gig all year—and there was even a 20-minute time limit on each performance, just to keep the players "focused"—but the festival has evolved into a vaunted stage for musicians, like Shoup, who make free improv their primary practice year-round. And SIMF has lately been bringing in some of the true giants of improv's tiny, unsung universe, such as Fred Van Hove, Barre Phillips, and John Butcher. "These are some of the greatest musicians in any genre," says Monaghan.

"There's always so much made in the press about how risky this music is," complains Shoup, "like, 'Oh you're taking a big risk going to this gig.' And I have to say, some our early festivals, they were risky. What we've done over the last four or five years is get people who are going to deliver some really great music, whether it's your cup of tea or not. [That's] not to say the music won't be challenging. Of course, you have to come with an open mind because it's music that hasn't been performed before. But these people know quite well what they're doing."

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