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John Berndt

The High Zero co-founder talks about expanding the festival and looking for a strong reaction

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One of High Zero's high jinx performances from last year's festival.


One person will think it’s the greatest thing they ever saw, the next one will think it was shite, the next one . . .

The 13th edition of the High Zero festival kicks off next Tuesday with an experimental dance program at the 2640 Space. Music, experimental and surely strange music, will be a part of it but the night is dance-driven. It marks a notable change for the yearly event, perhaps the city’s most unique and coveted sonic experience, centered around sounds and so often sounds alone. High Zero is branching out. The now six-day event also includes a night of experimental film at the Charles, in addition to the fest’s bread and butter of collaborative improvised sets at the Theatre Project and the High Jinx program of scattered sonic goofballery and sideshows (full schedule available at highzero.org). Last week, City Paper talked to John Berndt, one of the founders of both the volunteer-driven festival and its genesis, the collectively-run Red Room performance space in Charles Village.

City Paper : We’ve covered High Zero a lot over the years, but I’m wondering if we could take a step back for a minute. Can you explain briefly the principle behind the festival, for a reader that might be new to this?

John Berndt: One thing worth saying is that over the years, starting at the Red Room in ’96, in the really early days and even through the first three-quarters of the organization, there was a really, really strong emphasis on virtuosic free improvisation, which, in the total spectrum of experimental underground forms of music, it has a sort of strange status. . . . It’s simultaneously this form of music that’s very generative—a lot of things come out of it, a lot of people are influenced by it—but as a public form of music, I would say it’s about the most minority form of underground experimental music outside of, say, microtonal composition.

Despite that, there was a big upsurge in its audience in the U.S. very much so related to the rise of the internet in the ’90s. There were a large amount of people interested in free improvisation, but they were having a hard time getting together and the internet took that problem away. The Baltimore scene, as you know, has been really unusually strong, and . . . it’s just sort of a historical accident that Baltimore has wound up being a really strong city for this kind of music.

I’m taking the long way around here, but the High Zero foundation is about experimental music in the broader sense, but it’s unusual because it has as its core a form of experimental music that’s kind of like the lunatic fringe of experimental music. It’s a thing that people tend to like one or two pieces of, but as a genre it’s not necessarily a part of the culture in any significant way. Like how in New Orleans there’s this really strong jazz current that’s been there forever and inflects a lot of other things, I think in Baltimore there’s this really strong free-improvised music current, which is very out of place in the U.S. It’s much more a European thing, in many ways.

From our perspective, though, the festival has gotten broader than free-improvised music in a lot of different dimensions, particularly in the last couple of years—there’s a lot more composed music and minimalism and sound art and stuff like that. [The music] is really coming out of a very vital subculture. It used to be, through the ’90s and early 2000s, there were gigs but there weren’t very many venues. Now there’s so many places to play free-improvised music in Baltimore. There’s maybe eight venues that you can actively play at any given time, which is a very unusual situation, to say the least.

There are definitely things about [the music] that are really, really different from the rest of culture since people aren’t trying to recreate the same thing every time or at all in some cases. It creates an enormous, enormous amount of information that is potentially daunting. There are record collectors out there that are sort of free-improv completists, but in a way it’s sort of an insane endeavor because there’s always some new person making some kind of new structures or sounds.

CP : High Zero is branching out into dance and film this year. Can you talk a bit about that?

JB: As individuals, [the High Zero foundation members are] all involved in a lot more modalities of culture than just sound and music stuff, and generally we’ve all done some kind of curating in those areas. In the Red Room, we’ve had a film series over about the course of 10 years that’s been sporadic, and more performance-type stuff. We’re starting to view the mission of the organization more broadly as being about experimental culture, with music as the most developed wing of that. This year, since there’s finally over the last three or four years, thank god, an underground dance scene, which is something that Baltimore’s had a really hard time keeping going, [we’ve introduced dance]. I think after 13 years we’ve got our game pretty tight as to the rest of what we’re doing, so it’s time to branch out and do more things.

CP : After all of this time, do you find yourself still challenged by the music at High Zero?

JB: I think it’s a really legitimate question. After 13 years and 900 or something concerts at the Red Room, I’ve certainly seen a huge amount of free-improvised music. I think that the relationship between the audience and the sort of meaning that comes out of improvised music is a very active one. One of the things I personally love about improvised music is that you could have five intelligent people listening and one person will think it’s the greatest thing they ever saw, the next one will think it was shite, the next one . . . To me, that’s a sign of something really good.

I view it as an intensely mental music—not to say that it’s not physical, visceral, etc. It’s not just mental in a cerebral sense—it takes you somewhere, and you might really fucking hate where it takes you. So I’m disappointed when I spend time listening to music and [I don’t] have a strong reaction, but I have to say that the variety and the development of the music, and the development of the players, is fascinating and doesn’t get old. I do other things, other types of music, but when I come back to freely improvised music, it’s rewarding because it’s a pretty dependable altered experience of some kind. We’ll stop doing it when it stops feeling like it’s generating new experiences.

I think the improvised-music world is in a weird place at the moment. There’s a lot of people into it, a lot of coverage of it, but in terms of its sort of philosophical thing, it’s so different than what civilization is like. We’re all under an enormous amount of pressure in this civilization, not only economic but in terms of conformity. And social cohesion demands that people be really patterned and really conversant with all these other patterns that people have invented, and here’s this thing, this sort of ebullient unpatterning of people. It’s very questionable. It’s sort of a strange thing. How do you make an original gesture? How do you assure yourself that you’re not repeating yourself? I think there’s a space carved out in the culture for this kind of thing, but it remains to be seen how it will impact the larger culture. Not, like, on TV or anything like that, but is there a further dialogue that this kind of culture can have with the mainstream culture? There’s not a lot of reason to think that it will, but it’s an interesting conversation.

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