When it comes to running a free-improvised and experimental music scene, Pittsburgh can learn a great deal from Baltimore. Since the 1980s, when the fringe in Baltimore consisted of a few pioneers like instrument-builder Neil Feather, conceptual artist tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE (who moved to Pittsburgh) and saxophonist/electronic musician John Berndt, that scene has steadily expanded. Now, there are more than 40 active players in Baltimore's burgeoning experimental community; in Pittsburgh there are fewer than 10, most playing only rarely, and in obscure situations.
Berndt is one of the busiest players and promoters of experimental music around. He's part of a collective of eight enthusiasts who administrate Baltimore's Red Room series, which has produced more than 600 stimulating avant concerts since 1996; he also founded High Zero Festival in 1999, now one of the largest East Coast experimental-music fests. Berndt also started Recorded Records, which features performances from the High Zero, including a CD with Pittsburgh's own electronics hero Michael Johnsen.
On top of that, he's had time to congeal Geodesic Gnome, a supergroup of avant-garde musicians specializing in the most high-concept, theatrical performance of music you'll probably ever see. Six of them will appear at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts at 8 p.m. Sun., Aug. 12, as part of Edgar Um-Bucholtz's "In-Tent" series.
Berndt's pieces are very "meta," as he explains them. "They tend to involve self-reference -- for example, there's one where the instructions are to not realize the piece. The group deals with breaking your brain in a different way from what flows logically or naturally." Whether it's amplifying the creaking of a stage instead of the instruments, or basing a performance on a 13th-century Chinese text none of the musicians has read, all of Geodesic Gnome's techniques are packaged with a liberal sense of humor. There's also what Berndt calls "gnomic utterances" -- spoken phrases that seem fraught with meaning, yet are semantic nonsense.
So what has made such willfully esoteric art so successful in Baltimore? "There's been inspired nonconformism here for a long time," says Berndt. "The [Red Room] series' broad definition of experimentation embraces activities that would otherwise be separate cultures," such as mating noise musicians with jazz players. A distinct lack of infighting and consistent, non-defensive audience-building have been key. "We're presenting this stuff in an aggressive manner to regular people as something they should know about and be interested in, rather than something that's socially exclusive or necessarily going to be unpopular."
For more information on the "In-Tent" series, call 412-361-0873.