If you think of the bands who have pushed the popular genres into new directions, you can often trace a line back to some unconventional, lesser known artists. Woody Guthrie once wrote a fan letter to experimental music pioneer John Cage. One of David Bowie’s favorite albums was Steve Reich’s minimalist masterpiece, Music for 18 Musicians; Paul McCartney participated in the New York noise scene; Kanye West collaborated with contemporary composers like Caroline Shaw; Frank Zappa’s favorite band was the Shaggs (seriously, look them up if you haven’t heard them). There is the highly visible music world and then there is the lesser seen world that changes rapidly, evolving and taking daring leaps away from convention. This happens in the schools, the art spaces, the “DIY” venues and in the bedrooms of creative and restless musicians. You can go your whole life and never hear a note of the music produced in these spaces. However, these ideas find their way to other, more conventional musicians and influence small changes in the music that makes it to the masses. They are a huge influence that often gets overlooked. It begs the question, why isn’t this music getting more attention? The simple answer could be familiarity. Experimental music is, by its nature, very different from what we’re used to and it takes a lot of brain power to allow new ideas in. The not so simple answer is accessibility. Where do you hear this music? What do we need to know going in? What if I don’t like it?!
To get a little more insight into this hidden world and to answer some of these questions, we talked to Elizabeth Kennedy Bayer, the founder of Oh My Ears, a non-profit organization that presents experimental and “new music” in the valley. This weekend, they are holding their 7th annual music festival, hosting composers and performers from all over the country in a variety of spaces, playing a WIDE variety of music.
SW: Tell Me about OME! How do you describe the music that OME highlights and how would you describe that music to someone outside of the world of “new music?”
EKB: OME highlights traditional Western instruments, making sounds you did not know were possible and non-traditional Western instruments, such as the Japanese overblown flute, or the shakuhachi performed in modern settings. The best definition of new music, I’ve found, is music that expands the definition of what you consider music. This could mean new techniques, developed for existing instruments, new ways of interacting with electronics, or even new ways of accepting and thinking about silence.
SW: How is the “new music” listening experience different from a more conventional concert experience and how do you think a listener should approach that experience? Do they need to have a degree in music theory?
EKB: Our music doesn’t need you to have a degree to “get it.” Just know that the weird stuff you are hearing is made with such love. If you come to our show with a very open mind, you are going to love it.
SW: In the intro for this piece, I talk about the relationship between popular music and experimental music. Can you give us your thoughts on that relationship?
EKB: Sometimes I describe “new music” as the music your favorite band rocks out to. I honestly think it’s a matter of new experimental music not being as commercially viable because it’s harder to play on the radio or dance to. It’s not that people won’t love it. Experiencing experimental music often means going to a specific place or hearing stuff on specific equipment, which can be a little bit intimidating.
SW: So, is it worth the effort?
EKB: Experiencing new art, new types of art and allowing yourself to have a first hand experience of that art, helps all of us understand one another more. I know that may be cliche, but going to a new art show, a new music show…it’s almost a form of vulnerability and I think that opening ourselves up is a good thing.