OUTSIDE THE COMFORT ZONE
High Mayhem goes deep inside the noise
his weekend, High Mayhem Emerging Arts wraps up its Fall Series, four concerts showcasing local and national experimental, improvisational, and avant-garde music acts. It’s the first fall concert series at High Mayhem’s studio space on Siler Lane, which was improved to make the setup and breakdown of equipment for music showcases less of a chore and to make the space more inviting to casual listeners. The last concert in the Fall Series is Saturday, Oct. 16.
“Are you willing to sit through up to 40 minutes of what you may consider just random noise before something deeper reveals itself to you?” series curator and participating musician Carlos Santistevan told Pasatiempo when asked if it takes a special breed of individual to appreciate what many people have a hard time calling music.
When people unfamiliar with experimental music hear it for the first time, their reactions often remind Santistevan of a die-hard hamburger eater being offered sushi for the first time. “They think, Eew, it’s raw fish!” he said. “But if you can get them to forget their conditioning ... they might actually discover an incredible new flavor and sensation. It’s the same thing with music. You put something new in front of people, and the reaction will often be, ‘What’s this fancy frou-frou stuff?’ because it’s unfamiliar. But I think most people who say they like music really don’t. They think they do, but if you ask them what they like, they pretty much like the songs from when they were teenagers, or they like what the media and popular culture tell them they’re supposed to enjoy. It’s creative suicide by overexposure — a lifetime of settling for ground chuck. Many people just don’t branch out and listen to new things. But you absolutely have to put yourself in an uncomfortable environment in order to learn and grow these days.”
Santistevan, a science teacher at the Academy for Technology and the Classics charter school and a longtime member of the decade-old High Mayhem collective, believes it takes a willing, active listener to “get” what he and other experimental musicians do. “Oftentimes, the music isn’t about a hook or a lick,” he said. “You just have to sit there and try to discover the unique space the music creates. It — and nobody and nothing else — is going to do it for you.”
So how do you make experimental music palatable to someone who only likes hamburger music? “I don’t honestly know if you can or should,” Santistevan said. He recalled an incident that occurred this summer, when he participated in a teaching workshop at the Santa Fe Institute: “It was this really heady thing. I did my presentation on using these algorithms to create music, applying principles of network science being studied there. I dropped these agents into the algorithms, and they would become these different instruments.”
When Santistevan presented his project to workshop participants, half of them were upset, he said. “You know, ‘How can you possibly do this, and how can you possibly dare call this music?’” The other half loved it. “The same thing happens when my band, Late Severa Wires, plays on the road,” he said. “We generally get only two responses. People are either completely into what we’re doing and think it’s some of the most profound art and music they’ve ever seen or heard, or they have to run out the door screaming, pissed off or totally confused.”
Because this year’s Fall Series spans four weeks, organizers were able to pick acts from a broader pool. Santistevan’s Late Severa Wires replaces Chinese composer/multi-instrumentalist Li Tieqiao, who canceled his American tour after the Chinese government denied his application for a travel visa. Joining them is Cloacas, a project developed by Damon and Sabrina Griffith of local group Bull Seal. “They decided they wanted to focus more on an acoustic project, so they put Cloacas together,” Santistevan said of the Griffiths. “They play these really short, twisted Americana songs — they’re beautiful pieces
The Things That Are Heard