Wednesday, October 10, 2001

“… NWEAMO has quietly become one of Portland’s most cosmopolitan and innovative cultural events.”
The Future of What?

A brave young music festival strains at the boundary between the conservatory and the dance floor.

by Zach Dundas

The beats could move the floor at any dance club, but no one’s dancing. The visuals–a jerky video panning from wires to the dense ink-black grooves of a spinning record–seem like they’d be a brainiac’s version of porn, but few eyes watch them. And the DJ, with his hair cropped short and his warm-up jacket by Kappa, doesn’t lay a finger on his three turntables.

Instead, the stars of the show are the three metal axles, like squat columns, that hold the spinning turntable decks a few inches above the body of the DJ set. On these axles, the tables spin, stop on a dime and reverse direction, creating the same collage of samples and grinding, ripping needle noise as a human wax-spinner, all at the push of a button.

According to the official program of the third annual Northwest Electro-Acoustic Music Organization (NWEAMO to friends) Festival, DJ I, Robot “is the world’s first random-access, fully analog robotic DJ system…three high-speed robotic turntables, an rs-485 network, and a custom C++ based improvisation and composition system.”

And that may be true. To the rapt audience gathered at B Complex for the two-night NWEAMO Fest last weekend, these mechanical marvels just seemed like another sparkling facet of music’s brave new world.

For the three years of its existence, NWEAMO has drawn an international field of artists with a powerful concept: that the artificial boundaries between the academic world of avant-garde classical music and earthier electronica are dissolving. As it both celebrates and drives that fusion, NWEAMO has quietly become one of Portland’s most cosmopolitan and innovative cultural events. This year’s edition drew artists from across the United States and from Japan, Korea, Germany and Canada. Some of these disparate tinkerers came from academia, others from the innovative edge of club culture. Others, like I, Robot creator (and MIT faculty member) Chris Csikszentmihalyi, thrust boldly into both realms.

“There are all these things happening in experimental, avant-garde classical music and all these things happening in nightclubs,” says Joseph Waters, the NWEAMO’s founder and the festival’s artistic director. “There are people pushing the envelope from both sides, and this festival makes an attempt to bring those two movements together.”

Waters started the festival three years ago when he taught in the music department at Lewis & Clark College. Last year, he says, the conservative atmosphere of L&C drove him far south to San Diego State University. However, encouraged by Portland’s response to the first two runnings of the festival and bolstered by enthusiastic students he left behind, Waters decided to keep NWEAMO here.

Certainly, the receptive audiences that studiously filled rows of folding chairs last weekend on the club’s erstwhile dance floor appreciated the lessons NWEAMO offered on the power of applied technology. On Friday, Waters, manning a small electronic console, and vibraphonist Joel Bluestone collaborated on a ringing piece reminiscent of Balinese gamelan. Frank Niehusmann manipulated sounds he recorded on magnetic tape in the industrial ruins of his hometown in Germany, grabbing and spinning the reels of an old tape machine like a DJ would vinyl records. Saturday night, Californian Mike Silverman, a.k.a. That1Guy, held forth on an amazing stringed instrument fashioned out of towering iron water pipes.

The NWEAMO Fest left little doubt that the transformation Waters describes is, indeed, overtaking avant-garde music. The conservatories of the late 21st century may be filled with students as eager to build their own instruments as to master those perfected 200 or 300 years ago. At this point, many of the festival’s acts have yet to transcend gadgetry for gadgetry’s sake. At what point does technical innovation become less important than the sound it creates? That is the key question in the revolution Waters envisions.

In any case, Waters feels the campaign is going well, and given the success of last weekend’s festival, it’s hard to argue.
“Believe it or not, the idea that classical avant-garde and electronic music are coming together is still controversial with a lot of people,” he says. “I get hate mail from people who say that I’m ruining electronic music, that music should not have beats, because that’s so pedestrian. When you’re getting hate mail from people in academia, you know you’re doing something right.

“I came to music through rock and roll, which is a completely valid way to start. You’re in the basement or the garage, playing around with the raw material of music. Now people are in their bedrooms with computers and turntables, doing the same thing we did back then. If you come to music that way, and you end up wanting to know more, the university is a natural place to look. My goal is to make the university welcome–not just tolerate–those people.”