Johan Nystrom programmed a Saturday evening series in March showcasing local experimental improvisors, called Why Are Music. (Like this column's title, it's a pun on U.K. music mag The Wire.) He's chosen to advertise it with only a series of stark, cryptic fliers.
The venue is no less mysterious: a glass-blocked building at 3634 Penn Ave., in Lawrenceville, with no sign to indicate it's called Monk's, and almost no previous history of public events. And Nystrom, a Duquesne philosophy grad from York, Pa., is OK with that. "This doesn't work in a bar or club [where] the atmosphere wouldn't be conducive to fairly long pauses or complete silence, or something acoustic. Experimental music expects more of the audience and needs to be in a low-key place that's not worried about draw."
That's no problem at Monk's, where 20 people can fill the gallery-style room. The series kicked off on March 7, with a dozen people watching Dave Bernabo play solo guitar with nods to Derek Bailey, and the Veras duo of Doug Cronin and Nick Painter. It also featured Nystrom himself, dueling on friction-derived percussion with electronic musician Margaret Cox, who uses an old magnetic card-reading machine. The next Saturday, saxophone stalwart Ben Opie ripped solo in Braxtonesque fashion, while Nystrom joined bass clarinetist Kenny Haney and stand-up bassist Spat Cannon (both of improv orchestra HiTEC).
The final two concerts promise to be equally illuminating and adventurous: at 8 p.m. Sat., March 21, Table of the Elements recording artist Melissa St. Pierre plays her prepared piano, then joins Nystrom, violinist Ben Harris, and HiTEC organizer tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE (a.k.a. "Tent") for an interpretation of graphic scores á la Earle Brown or John Cage. Tent concludes the series on March 28 with a live soundtrack to a video called "The Triple-S Variety Show," billed with the solo 'tronics of Michael Johnsen and the newly minted A Collaboration -- a trio of young guitar shamans Josh Beyer, Mike Tamburo and Mike Kasunic (a.k.a. Tusk Lord). Admission is $3-5 on a sliding scale.
Nystrom hopes that interest will overlap between the DIY experimental underground he's spotlighting and other related scenes in Pittsburgh such as academic composers, art professors or multimedia artists. If nothing else, such a series can offer an opportunity in a time of recession when grant money runs thin. "It requires organizing on the part of the musicians, though," he warns, "and there's no possibility to make money, just a self-sustaining community based on artists working to promote each other."