Atypical equals typical at annual coloring outside the lines
Published: April 27, 2011
For more information visit transmodernfestival.org
Music plus art equals the avant-garde, i.e., boring and/or indulgent and/or inaccessible. It’s an equation with too many causes to fully account for—music as tradition/communal practice, music manufactured by corporations as commodity, art in its broadest sense connoting something elite and, thus, unattainable—and it’s an equation that, however false, hurts music and the culture that music exists to serve. You could break the misconception down as such: Music serves culture, while art music serves itself.
Music has a strange role at the Transmodern Festival, a multiday arts blast radical in creed and practice. It’s a different role than at a radical music fest like, say, High Zero, which trades in pure sonic experimentation. Here the task is finding the music that excels at proving that equation wrong, that can please at a pop level within the context of a fast-forward-thinking arts fest. Music like Dan Deacon, avant-garde composition’s prince of pop, or Matmos making deliciously fun electronic music—at a Transmodern fundraiser—that is quite unlike anything else in electronic music. Or the freeform electronics of San Francisco’s Blectum from Blechdom, as grin-inducing as it is weird (or radical).
This happens to be a sort of music at which Baltimore excels. See: Deacon, Matmos, or lesser-known acts like Leprechaun Catering, Teeth Mountain, and DJ Dog Dick. And the list keeps going, reaching, eventually, Celebration (Saturday, Floristree), a band that cuts way closer to the traditional “indie” side than anything mentioned above, making a kind of soulful psychedelic pop that has little interest in being challenging or difficult.
Celebration is one of the banner names at this year’s festival. There are no hot-wired electronics or subversive imageries here, but Celebration at Transmodern is as “but of course” as just about anything that’s played in years past, though in a rather different way. In its years since ditching the usual indie band circuit of making albums for brand-name label 4AD and touring because that’s just what you’re supposed to do, Celebration morphed into something bigger, an art project that just happens to have music as its central element.
One could look at that quick evolution as more than just a band being sick of a system, but as a band that’s through with the notion of being a band. Finally, after almost four years, there’s a new Celebration album on store shelves beside other albums, but for a year and a half before that, the somewhat amorphous ensemble centered around husband/wife Sean Antanaitis and Katrina Ford was releasing its songs as part of its much larger Electric Tarot: Every addition to the project came with an accompanying video—done by Celebration—and a very particular place within a thing much larger than a collection of songs that would eventually be put together in an album.
And Celebration hasn’t been content with typical band shows either. Its record release in March found a room dressed up in the imagery of the album, clouds fashioned from cotton and hung from the high arched roof of 2640 Space, with even more sky projected via video onto the walls. Its earlier shows over the past couple of years, meanwhile, have all been multimedia packages depicting the various elements of nature. None of it came across as dressing, but more a sense of this is what Celebration is now. It is a unique something else that fits quite well alongside Deacon, Matmos, and others selling candy at the musical frontier.
Also find Electric Junkyard Gamelan (Friday, Floristree), a New York four-piece that makes for a counterpoint to the usual avant-gardeness with sheer giddy adventurousness. An electric rubber-band-strung harp called Big Barp, a horn made from copper pipe called a Terraphone, a tuned clay pot called a Clayrimba, and a stage’s worth more of home-made whatchamacallits making something well beyond the genre namesake gamelan. A great deal of wide-eared intelligence lies underneath this all-in sonic junkyard.
Past these festival centerpieces, find Rose Burt’s Soft Circuits Sound Installations, soft sound-producing sculptures that ply the deliciously unexpected territory between literal baby toys and electronic soundscape (Saturday, Fifth Dimension). Then there’s the glittery music/performance art camp of Dazzlestorm (Friday, Floristree), doing “Make It Rain on My Parade,” referencing “marching bands, beauty products, strippers, Barbara Streisand, and all things fabulous and disastrous in Baltimore.” On the other side of the contorted Transmodern spectrum, find Ian Nagoski (Friday, Tyson Alley) spinning records for and by immigrants to the United States in the first half of the 20th century.
These are all things as radically different at first glance as they are Transmodern-style radical. They are all more than music in different ways, with that “more than” being the common Transmodern thread: a constructive, unifying radicalness. Which is, of course, the very best kind.
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