My first time at the Red Room’s improvisation sessions

By JAE CHOI | February 6, 2020

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COURTESY OF JAE CHOI The improvisation sessions featured many diverse instruments and players.

On Sunday night the Red Room hosted its monthly Volunteers’ Collective, where people from the community can bring their own instruments and engage in improvisation sessions with other musicians. 

The Red Room is a volunteer-run creative space situated within Normal’s Books & Records near Waverly. It hosts experimental music concerts, improvised concerts, film screenings, philosophical lectures and various other types of performances. 

This was my first time at the Red Room, but I had known about this space for a long time. I remember first hearing about it when I took an intersession class freshman year. 

My professor had studied at Peabody, and amid conversations about the experimental music scene in Baltimore, he mentioned the Red Room. I also later found out that one of my English professors performed there. 

My interest in experimental music goes kind of a long way. In high school, I remember hearing the John Adams Violin Concerto for the first time in concert, which left a deep impression on me. From there, I began listening to more music by 20th-century composers and was astounded by the breadth of their musical creativity, as well as their scientific and mathematical approaches to things like musical form and harmony. 

I devoured readings and scores by György Ligeti, Olivier Messiaen and Morton Feldman. I even visited the Rothko Chapel in Houston, a non-denominational chapel for which Feldman wrote one of his pieces, took lessons from a composition teacher and even considered going to music school. 

But then I came to Hopkins and those interests fell mostly by the wayside. Until I entered the Red Room on Sunday night. 

As soon as you enter the Red Room, you are surrounded by shelves of books and eclectic groups of instruments around the edges of the room. The lighting is low, but the strong, bright blue color of the walls remains a vibrant fixture, imbuing the air with a kind of nervous energy. I thought it ironic that, for a place called the “Red Room,” the space was actually quite blue. 

After asking the person in charge of that night’s event why this was the case, he told me that the people who helped found the Red Room were fans of David Lynch’s TV show Twin Peaks, which I thought made sense: The Red Room in Twin Peaks is an interdimensional portal between locations, in which earthly notions of physics break down. In this way, the Red Room can be conceived as a place where conventional notions of “music” are broken down and redefined — a place where listeners can be transported to musical landscapes that may be totally foreign. 

To start off the event, the person in charge, Sam Burt, welcomed everyone present to the volunteers’ collective and suggested that all the instrumentalists begin with a group improvisation session. 

He introduced two conditions. One, instrumentalists were to gradually join the group at any point during the six-minute session instead of all instruments coming in at once. Two, all were instructed to develop a musical idea for as long as possible, ceasing to play once that idea had run its course. 

There was an impressive array of instruments featured over the course of the night, including a saxophone, a violin, a piano, a drum set, an electric guitar, a drum machine, an electric keyboard, an amplified flute and a vibraphone. There was even a daxophone, an electric wooden instrument that can be played with a bow, usually the kind used for a double bass. 

Instrumentalists at the helm of all of these diverse instruments faded in and out of the group during the first improvisation session. Beneath the constantly shifting drone of the amplified flute, you could hear the saxophone and the violin contribute short passages in the higher register, while the vibraphone weaved in and out of the ensemble with soft, ominous chords. 

The drums came in intermittently with abrasive effects, making frequent use of the resonance of the cymbals. For such a diverse ensemble, the music they made was remarkably cohesive. The musicians played well with each other, complementing one another’s sounds — communicating without speaking, so to speak. 

After this first session Burt reminded instrumentalists of the first rule of the volunteer’s collective: to be mindful of other players by not playing over them. On that note, Burt then assigned the saxophonist, the drummer and the guitarist to start off the next session, which would involve short performances from trios composed of various instrumentalists around the room. 

This session started with saxophone, drums and electric guitar, which made for a remarkably rich combination of sounds. The saxophone started off with rapid flutters of melody, while the drums and guitar gradually came in. The group eventually rose to a piercing crescendo, then fell together, ending with a beautiful wash of harmony from the electric guitar. Next were the vibraphone, keyboard and violin, which created equally interesting results.

One of the more interesting combinations was a trio made of a drum machine, violin and daxophone. The synthetic samples from the drum machine made a nice contrast to the organic, “analog” timbres of the violin and daxophone. 

After the performance by the drum machine-violin-daxophone trio, the flautist, Dan Conrad, noted that he could barely hear the drum machine. He then spoke on the importance of balancing dynamics, or variations in loudness, while playing in ensembles.

“It’s so hard to do, but it occurred to [me] as you were playing, that one way to solve that is to try to play too loud and see if that’s working, and then back off and try different levels as you’re playing,” he said. 

After several more trios, the performances then shifted to duets of instrumentalists. 

What was most impressive about these performances was that each instrumentalist not only had their own style but also accommodated to the styles of others. Each instrumentalist had to struggle with trying to produce a favorable alchemy within their groups in ways that were never very clear, especially because they weren’t actively trying to conform to a particular key or a single, unitary style of playing. 

Another thing that struck me during the event was that at the heart of these performances there was an emphasis on totally free expression. The beauty of improvisation is that nothing can really go wrong, and with experimental music there are even fewer restraints. 

Coupling this freedom of expression with the process of striving to communicate and mesh well with others makes for a moving demonstration of how music can bring people together. As Conrad said, playing with others can be a difficult thing to manage, but it can certainly lead to interesting results and a strong sense of community.

My time at the volunteer’s collective helped me reconnect with an older self that I thought didn’t really exist anymore. But I’m hoping that I’ll be able to visit that space again one day, perhaps with my own violin in hand. 

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