The High Zero Foundation, a Baltimore-based organization dedicated to promoting improvised and experimental music, held an online concert on March 25. The foundation hosted the event over the livestreaming service Twitch as part of its ongoing The Red Room in Your Room series. Despite the collapsing of geographic constraints afforded by online events, the series has continued to foreground the work of Baltimore-based artists, and the March 25 concert was no exception.
The concert began with some pre-show music featuring selections from Wide Open Spaces, an album of digitally manipulated country and western music by People Like Us, Wobbly and Baltimore’s very own Matmos (of which Hopkins English Professor Drew Daniel is part). There was also a video accompaniment by M.C. Schmidt (the other member of Matmos) that featured chopped-up scenes from classic western movies.
Sounds of animal noises and warped voices over disfigured honky-tonk music complemented sequences from Don Siegel’s The Beguiled and Monte Hellman’s The Shooting. At one point the video featured multiple superimposed moving images on low saturation. The atmospheric pads in the background lent the video a somewhat futuristic air.
A user by the name of bodytunnel humorously remarked on the video’s Westworld turn in the chat box:
“What is this footage?” bodytunnel said. “Is this Cyberpunk 2077?”
User HighZeroFoundation (who I’m assuming was someone from the High Zero Foundation) gave an amusing reply.
“Steampunk 1877,” HighZeroFoundation said.
The pre-show music ended, and Tom Boram, a Baltimore-based musician and host for the night, gave some introductory remarks.
“Welcome to The Red Room in Your Room,” he said. “I’m kinda letting it all hang out tonight. Had my second COVID shot yesterday and feeling kinda dead inside.”
He then introduced the three performers for the night: Claire Rousay, Clint McCallum and Safra Tadesse.
Rousay was up first. The only non-Baltimore-hailing artist on the program, Rousay has performed all across the world and received praise from media outlets such as NPR and Pitchfork. Her performance took place in her San Antonio apartment.
For her half-hour performance, Rousay improvised music using a Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) keyboard, a microphone and an assortment of objects laid out in front of her — a pen, some paper, some cymbals and even what looked like Chinese Baoding balls. Rousay also incorporated recordings of birds chirping, dogs barking and traffic noise into her performance. Sounds of animals in the Texas outdoors were accompanied by deep, rolling basslines on the keyboard and scratching noises from her writing on a piece of paper. She would also periodically mutter into the microphone, tap on the cymbal, shake the Baoding balls and turn the dials on her keyboard to change the qualities of the synthesizer’s sound.
What struck me most about her music was its very warm, hand-worn quality. There was something very intimate about it — in the way she was able to incorporate all these everyday sounds into a coherent musical composition. At the end she stood up, took her headphones off, took out a drink from her fridge and turned on her lamp.
Someone by the name of CodyAriel said, “Kitchen solo!”
McCallum is a musician from Baltimore. He stood with his keyboard in front of a video of his bearded mouth. He began with some simple, pulsing synth chords while singing monosyllabic words in rhythm. Though his performance seemed somewhat more minimalistic than Rousay’s, it was just as arresting. He electronically filtered his voice in interesting ways while adjusting its raspiness and quality, with the synth sounds and the background visual gradually becoming more frenetic and expansive as the performance went on. At one point the background visual turned into a video of fish swimming through outer space, and McCallum entered into an exasperated monologue.
“I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do. Another lonely night. Another lonely night. Stare at the TV screen. I stare at the TV screen, and I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do. I need a rendezvous. I need a rendezvous,” he said.
There were some technical issues with the stream glitching during his performance, so Boram restarted the stream, but the glitches persisted.
People in the chat were very encouraging (bodytunnel: “Clint you're too powerful”). Boram promised that he would replay McCallum’s performance at the next The Red Room in Your Room event to do it full justice.
Boram then gave some remarks before the final performance.
“I must tell you this is a pretty epic set. I saved it for last because it is one hour long,” he said.
Tadesse is a Baltimore-based singer-songwriter, dancer and artist. She began her performance with a written tribute to the lands of the Paskestikweya people in Baltimore City.
“I would like to acknowledge that we are on ancestral territory of Turtle Island. This performance was recorded on sacred homelands that belong to the Pasestikweya (Pist-ka-tanh-wah) people in Baltimore City. We pay respects to the original caretakers of the land,” she wrote.
She then launched into her set, which featured experimental post-metal performances alongside some ambient pieces.
The hypnotic visual aesthetic and colorful lighting of her performance space nicely complemented her charged guitar riffs and singing on songs like “BEAST” and “Sitting in the Middle.” Some of her slower songs were mesmerizingly beautiful. She also began to incorporate dance and various props into the second half of her set, when the music was softer and didn’t require the use of her guitar. On her song “Tunnel Vision,” high-pitched, metallic synthesizer melodies and chords accompanied the sounds of bar chimes and what sounded like some sort of pipe organ.
Tadesse’s way of maximizing her engagement with the environment around her, as well as with the physicality of music and dance, made her performance compelling and memorable.
In February of last year, when The Red Room wasn’t in my room but at Normal’s Books & Records in Waverly, I visited one of its group improvisation sessions and was impressed by the friendliness of the community and the enthusiasm with which everyone embraced new and unfamiliar music. That was definitely still the case with the online format of The Red Room in Your Room, and I’m looking forward to continuing to attend this series in the future.