The mid-Hudson Valley music scene may be too narrowly defined, if not even a little tyrannized, by one extravagantly glorious chapter, the one starring the Band, Bob Dylan, Albert Grossman, and so on. That tradition is of course not only still alive locally but thriving, fully restocked with a dazzling community of young players and contemporary roots-rock classicists. It does tend to hog our mythological bandwidth, however. Often overlooked is another musical tradition in which this valley has achieved an unlikely and disproportionate importance: the tradition of free jazz, avant-garde, experimental, and purely improvisational music.
Consider. In 1971, the late, great composer, vibraphonist, pianist, and nice guy Karl Berger formed the Creative Music Studio (CMS) here with Ornette Coleman and Ingrid Sertso. It was the East Coast’s answer to Chicago’s famous Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. In its workshops and performances CMS, preached an egalitarian, non-dogmatic approach to improvisation, welcoming non-musicians to its programs as happily as the jazz virtuosi drawn in by the luminary founders.
It is now under the leadership of the drummer Billy Martin of Medeski, Martin, and Wood fame.
The daring 20th-century composer Pauline Oliveros based her Deep Listening Institute in Kingston. Her friends, students and artistic heirs continue to populate the local scene across the arts, and her philosophy can be heard in action regularly in the racket raised by one the city’s premier bands, the groovy, cacophonous improvisational collective Ultraam.
The elite experimental jazz pianist Marilyn Crispell has lived, recorded and performed in Woodstock for much of her storied and ongoing career.
Up river, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) in Troy must be one of the best-funded and best-equipped programs of its kind, an international magnet for aspiring outré artists of all stripes.
Bard College is no laggard in this respect, either, and even SUNY New Paltz has established the Davenport Residency for New American Music, welcoming challenging composers for semester-long residencies and steering its program toward an open embrace of contemporary, global, and experimental classical music.
Wait, not done yet. For reasons unclear, the southern Dutchess and Putnam County region — Beacon, Cold Spring, Garrison, etc. — is home to a bevy of notables in the experimental scene, like David Rothenberg — the man who jams with animals — and the electronic trumpeter Ben Neill. Finally, the veritable theme song of provocative 20th-century avant-garde horseplay, John Cage’s 4’33”, was debuted by pianist David Tudor at Woodstock’s Maverick Concert Hall on August 29, 1952. Take that, Bethel.
Proximity to New York City is never the only explanation for anything luminous and weird about the mid-Hudson, but in this case it is obviously a central one. Experimental music, like all niche genres and rigorously acquired tastes, needs to hit a lot of heads in order to connect with just a handful. Also, the very nature of experimental music — provocative, contrarian, often begrudging with familiar pleasures — positions it somewhere between art and practical philosophy or critical theory. It thrives on urban foment, heterogeneity and confrontation. And when city artists and thinkers move upstate to nest and breed, you know they bring their strange ways with them.
Commercially, of course, it can be a tough sell — up here, anywhere. That’s why, at its poshest levels, experimental music is largely driven by grants and patronage, and also why it can be a genuinely underground guerilla affair everywhere else. Here we will look at three ongoing and very different programs of largely improvisational music, all thriving quietly, somewhat under the radar, ready to challenge and edify the willing listener with rich summer programming. But what do we even mean by experimental and improvisational? Buy my book, I guess, should I ever write it. For now, as John Cage famously said when being attacked over the scandals of his music, “Just listen.”
Catskill Harmony Guild
Every Wednesday, 7 to 9 p.m.
The Pines, 5327 Route 212, Mount Tremper. https://catskillpines.com/
No one is going to mistake Danny Blume’s Catskill Harmony Guild for jam rock — it is far too downtown and BK hip, with global stylistic range and sonics and traces of John Zorn and the Lounge Lizards, with whom Blume used to play. But if the term were a blank slate, carrying no deleterious cultural associations, jam rock might well be good name for what CHG does: they rock in a rainbow of ways, and they jam — liberated, expansive, out-on-a-limb ensemble jamming with Danny audibly (the Pines is a small, small room) calling out key changes, assigning solo spots, and even describing dynamic moves in real time. The band is rotating, but drawn from a small pool of really fine, industry-credentialed players like drummer Aaron Johnston, bassist Jeff Hill, and keyboardists Tyler Wood and Zach Djanikian.
When versatile, polished, ace players like this go completely uncorked, tuned in to each other and intent on making moments happen collectively, it can be exhilarating for everyone in the room. “CHG uses familiar tunes as springboards,” says Blume. “We’ll deconstruct and mashup with reckless abandon. The fact that the audience will recognize a melody draws them in and keeps us anchored as well, giving us a strong place to return when returning is called for.”
The bars in and around Woodstock have always been good for the occasional incongruous sighting — walking into a small club and finding it’s NRBQ rocking therein; checking out a jazz brunch of the kind every community has, but discovering Jack DeJohnette or John Abercrombie serving up the jazz that day, for the hell of it. CHG shares a bit of that energy. You start asking yourself how cats so heavy landed in a room so small.
“This is all about the joy of playing music and nothing else,” says Blume. “I called people I have been recording with recently, get along with well, whose musicianship I love, and who always deliver the goods. They’re well known for their ability to back up singers and support and enhance what the vocalist is doing. As players and producers, that’s our stock in trade. I want to keep CHG mostly instrumental and let the musicians shine. We’ll always sing a couple songs, and Jeremy Bernstein [Pines owner and respected local rocker] usually joins us for a few, but that’s secondary to the instrumental aspect. I think that years of focusing on being in a supportive role has made all of us listen to each other and not overplay — even when there is freedom to do so. The focus is on the feel, groove and ensemble over showboating.”
Noise Salon: The Climb Series
Green Kill Art Space, 229 Greenkill Avenue, Kingston. https://greenkill.substack.com/
The Noise Salon series of musical encounters is curated by Guided by Voices bassist Mark Shue and the well-known local music agitator and Chrome Cranks front man Peter Aaron. The brand was launched by Shue in Brooklyn more than a decade ago. His concept is simple — bring together a variety of musicians and sound makers for some on-the-spot creations and negotiations, guided by the smallest footprint of an advance structure and some chance processes that Cage and William Burroughs would approve of.
Next, see what happens.
The character of each performance will vary dramatically based on who is in this month’s cast and through the agencies and strange dialects of extemporaneous interaction. Like all performances at Green Kill, the Noise Salons are livestreamed and archived. While the results are as diverse and abstract you’d expect, they also speak to the paradoxical notion that “free” does in fact have its own dialects, common sources, and performance traditions. There are, in fact, accepted and expected ways of being free.
“I first created these Noise Salons in a limited series I curated at Secret Project Robot art space,” says Shue. “I had been out touring earlier that year playing bass guitar with Kid Millions [John Colpitts, the drumming force behind NYC psych-rockers Oneida] in his new project called Man Forever. We would enlist different musicians in each city on tour to join us to perform a live rendition of this 30-minute-long piece of music that Kid had birthed. Sort of an old Chuck Berry pickup band concept, but applied to much more abstract music. I was inspired by the chaos and the magic that could take place when different musicians, many of whom had never played together before, were brought together to create a piece of music, using just a simple structural framework to guide them.”
A lot of the art is in the casting, the recipe. “We try to mix players that come from a wide range of musical backgrounds, Shue says. “I find it exciting to combine musicians who are seasoned in the improvisation and noise circles, along with musicians who might hail from more ‘traditional’ musical backgrounds. For each Noise Salon, we try to create some loose concept of a “band” — typically consisting of some healthy mix of percussive elements, melodic elements, and a general diversity of instruments and approaches.”
Uniquely among musicians, avant-garde, experimental and noise artists are always expected to justify, rationalize, and defend their mode. It must get wearisome (although I suspect Cage felt that the heated debates were part of the compositions — words like rain on the roof). But Shue and Aaron step to the plate in this regard. What’s in this music for someone who is not familiar with the sounds and pathways of free music?
“Improvised music is just abstract expressionism for the ears,” says Aaron. “If you like Jackson Pollock or weather formations or the way a wild garden looks — and think of that stuff when you’re listening, I bet you’ll dig it. It certainly has a lot of psychedelic elements. Mark and I and the other musicians involved in the series love to listen to and play structured music as well. Gotta have that stuff, too, for sure. But always being grounded can get boring. And there are certainly already plenty of local musical events happening that focus on great linear music and actual songs.”
Upcoming Noise Salon performances:
Friday, July 14 at 8 p.m.: Ryan Jewell (drums), James Richardson (guitar), Al Margolis (electroacoustics), Zach Lehrhoff (baritone guitar), Tom Law (electronics), Peter Aaron (bass).
Friday, August 11 at 8 p.m. Lineup TBA
Elysium Furnace Works
Extreme music booker/promoter, established 2016 in Beacon
Founded by the guitarist/promoter James Keepnews, Mike Falloon, and founder emeritus Steve Ventura, Elysium Furnace Works continues to serve the region with its healthiest share of “out” music and fully-pushed envelopes. EFW itself and its principals have also been integrally involved in the nightly weirdness of Quinn’s in Beacon, perhaps the area’s only music club with a commitment to experimental music (though the wonderful Tubby’s in Kingston might quibble).
“Elysium Furnace Works grew out of a separate series I started in 2016 for music that was too out even for Quinn’s,” says Keepnews. “It was originally called Orthogonal Hustle Industries Unlimited.
Keepnews is frank about the commercial realities of the music he loves and serves. “Building an audience that consistently supports uncommercial, uncompromising music remains a challenge for us. We pay our artists decently but far from lavishly. That cost, in addition to renting our truly exquisite performance spaces and promoting our concerts via ads on social media, has almost invariably meant we do not break even on these events. Achieving this most modest of goals is something we have yet to figure out. That said, we are fiercely proud of our independence and, if this is the price of DIY cultural production, without concession or institutional interference, we’re more than happy to pay it.”
“I recall when I was much younger listening to jazz and having zero appreciation that any of the music was being improvised,” continues Keepnews, sounding what might well be the keynote for all the series discussed here. “It’s not even that I thought it was completely notated, either. I simply had no conception of composition or improvisation as separate methods, or of there being any methods involved whatsoever; it was just music. Ideally, that’s the experience I’d love for audiences to come away with from a great concert or recording of improvised performance: that it’s simply great music. One of the many pleasures I’ve had presenting music in the Hudson Valley over the last decade-plus are the raised eyebrows that occur from listeners when I tell them the music they’re in the middle of enjoying immensely is being composed in real-time.”
Upcoming EFW Performances:
June 25: Improvised guitar duo with James Keepnews and Billy Stein, 8 p.m., Dogwood, 47 E. Main Street, Beacon.
July 22: Bridge Bass Quartet featuring upright bassists: Che Chen, Dave Hofstra, William Parker, and Dave Sewelson. Ballet Arts Studio, 107 Teller Avenue., Beacon. https://www.balletartsstudio.com/
September 23: A duo featuring Peabody Institute professor of both computer music and music engineering and technology laptop artist Sam Pluta, and director of both Electronic Music and the Princeton Laptop Orchestra at Princeton University, analog synthethist Jeff Snyder VBI Theatre at Cunneen-Hackett Arts Center. 12 Vassar Street, Poughkeepsie. https://cunneen-hackett.org/12-vassar/
October 21: Sana Nagano’s Smashing Humans — Brooklyn-based noise-jazz violinist Nagano leads her adventurous ensemble. VBI Theatre at Cunneen-Hackett Arts Center