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Players to watch out for at High Zero

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Shana Palmer

Don’t consider the following list some sort of qualitative judgment about the best or most interesting players at the 13th annual High Zero festival. There are more than two dozen musicians scheduled (there’s a full list at, and inevitably the HZ organizers will have discovered someone we’ve never heard of who makes us never hear the same way again. Consider this a menu of some of the players you’ll encounter and their general deal as just a teaser of what sort of experience lies in store.

Thomas Lehn
You may recognize Thomas Lehn from his trio Konk Pack, an in-demand trans-Atlantic improv trio of frequently molten percussion, electronics, and synth. As a soloist, his work focuses on two poles: piano playing of all varieties, and analog electronic synthesis, which is, crudely, making electronic music “from scratch.”

Katt Hernandez
A great thing about the violin is that some 500 years after its modern birth, it is still an open playground for sound. Whether it’s a bow-on-bridge shriek, a radical microtone, a haunted suboctave, or a variation yet to be brought forth, the instrument’s palette delivers more bang for buck for a willing sonic explorer than most. And erstwhile Baltimorean Katt Hernandez is a most worthy violin explorer, exemplified marvelously on her recent Ehse Records release Unlovely, a record that travels from cat-in-cage to cat-on-lap (no pun intended, for serious) or from faux-electronic wail to clean drone to tremolo outburst almost too comfortably.

Shana Palmer
High Zero foundation co-founder John Berndt uses Shana Palmer as an example of the festival’s evolution, a performer who might not identify as an “improviser” within her solo Childe Bride project but who is nonetheless creating music no more restrictive. Dark-side noise tempest, conjured of voice and electronics, would be a more accurate descriptor. Palmer’s work in a group improv setting is one of those unknown quantities that makes the festival great.

Dorothea Schurch
As an avant-garde vocalist, you might consider Zurich’s Dorothea Schurch in the company of greats like Jaap Blonk. At High Zero 2011, however, she’s singing with a different instrument: the saw. Having very few musical conventions of its own—it’s a saw—and a tonal range that can party with a saxophone just as well as a circuit board, the instrument, and player, are natural fits for improvisation.

Zeena Parkins
New Yorker by way of Detroit’s Zeena Parkins is hardly the only rock(ish) music figure in the year’s lineup, but her experimental roots run quite deep, performing with early-’90s English avant-rock trio News from Babel, Fred Frith’s bands Keep the Dog and Cosa Brava, and a good number more. As a soloist, her work consists of intensely layered and processed harp. Yes, harp—there should be nothing surprising about a harp in avant-garde musical improvisation if you’ve read this far.

Tom Boram
Baltimore’s music scene does not lack for merry pranksters, but Tom Boram is on a whole ’nother plane. It’d be nice to describe the Snacks member’s approach to his electronics, but his penchant for impish unpredictability makes that tough. At a 2000 High Zero appearance, he played a sitar for a set before smashing it on the floor, a move that seemed to unnerve a good number of his fellow improvisers. If you can freak out the freakers-out, that’s a good sign.

Gerry MakWhen avant composers or improvisers reference metal as an influence, the question arises (around here, anyway) whether they’re sincere heads or just dilettantes rationalizing easy shock value. Gerry Mak, at least, boasts proper cross-genre bona fides thanks to membership in doom-metal group Bloody Panda. His Cookie Monster/throat-singing-inspired vocal prowess needs no justification either way.

Jason Willett
It seems kind of silly to refer to a guy as laid-back and wry as Jason Willett as a titan of local experimental/WTF music, but the title fits. He’s a wily multi-instrumentalist likely to go for an amplified rubber band as much as a stack of circuits, and like Lee Dorsey, everything he does is gonna be funky—in any number of senses of that word, in his case.

Katie Young
We haven’t heard as many bassoon jokes as viola jokes, but we’re sure they’re out there. Still, the instrument bears an intriguing throaty appeal in its most straightforward mode; hearing it expanded into a pure soundmaking device (complete with amplification and effects) by busy Chicago-based composer/performer/improviser Katie Young is a prospect not to be passed up.

John Butcher
British saxophonist John Butcher arrived on the European free/avant scene after the first wave of pioneers was well on its way, but he has carved out a body of work that stands up alongside that of almost any of his peers. Working solo, in collaboration with other improvisers, or in more established settings (Polwechsel, his own John Butcher Group), the former physicist brings cerebral rigor to his music, but also ethereal, lyrical beauty.

Kaffe Matthews
It’s been a given since the days of John Cage that there’s music all around you at all times. British improviser/sound artist Kaffe Matthews embodies that in her work, which often draws from environmental sounds (not, like, birds, but the squeaking of the audience’s chairs) for her electronic folding, spindling, and mutilating. She can also be more proactive: the High Zero site credits the HZ veteran with “tuning forks” for this year’s festival.

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