Conjurers Anonymous

One can’t help but approach anything dubbed a ‘collective’ with caution. Whether a surname for spacey nudists eating macrobiotic food outdoors or an arbitrary descriptor tacked onto an indie rock noise outfit, collectives are often self-righteous caricatures masquerading as community. However, once in a while, a cooperative group shunts aside ego in order to create or celebrate the cause that brought them together in the first place. Take for instance Baltimore’s Volunteers’ Collective.

Hosted by affiliates of Baltimore’s High Zero Foundation and housed at The Red Room, Volunteers’ Collective is “a monthly improvisation workshop with a focus on listening and ad hoc collaboration.” Membership is free, participation is encouraged, and pretension is virtually nonexistent.

Attendees run a gamut from seasoned High Zero veterans to more novice experimentalists, from closet-improvisors with bland day jobs to *ahem* a Brine Contributor taking notes and pictures on his iPhone. Regardless of whom, regardless of what instrument, all are welcome to drop in (capacity permitting), unlike the High Zero Festival, which, for performers, is an invitation-only affair.

Think of Volunteers’ Collective as the Chalmun’s Cantina to the High Zero’s Jedi Council. The only way one can ascend to the ranks of High Zerodom is by proving him or herself in live events such as the Volunteers’ Collective. Note: dreams of ascension are NOT required.

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This was my first encounter with Volunteers’ Collective and, by extension, High Zero. Where they meet, The Red Room, is a venue focused on “promoting highly unusual material including experimentation, free improvisation, [and] non-idiomatic musics”. Red Room shows are provocative but never alienating, marginal yet never pretentious. Based on my love for Normals Book Store, which houses the Red Room, I felt that the Volunteers’ Collective would not disappoint.

I discovered shortly after arriving that what I’d shown up to was NOT a concert but, ACTUALLY a workshop. This was a low-key meet up for experimental musicians to exercise skills on otherwise unconventional instruments (or methods of playing them). I was not turned away but instead invited to observe the workshop that night.

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The hosts were Samuel Burt (Daxophone) and Paul Neidhardt (percussion), two multi-instrumentalists involved with High Zero and workshops since 2004. In attendance were CK Barlow (mixed electronics), Konley Aschenbach (theremin, trumpet), and Marya Schesyuk (bass, pedals). Samuel divided the room up into ensembles of two or three and then picked one of the groups to begin a piece.

Each lasted between 5 and 10 minutes, the sonic personality determined by the interaction of instruments involved. For example, when theremin, percussion, and electronics filled the space, I pictured aliens invading a Buddhist monastery. A trumpet, bass, and Daxophone piece brought to mind a lone jazzman standing on the beach at dawn, moderating ethereal conversations between whales and the cosmos. Another number, heavy in percussion, trumpet, and Daxophone, felt like Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis getting sucked into a wormhole, teleporting through a series of frantic cartoon barnyards, and then disintegrating into specs of pixilated dirt.

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Each piece presented moments of discord yet never disorder. The musicians knew how best to complement their fellow performers without drowning one another out while keeping the piece compelling. It was a fascinating process to behold, so much so that despite my not contributing musically to the session, I felt as connected to the music as the performers were. I didn’t mention this to them though for fear that they’d call me a fraud and kick me out.

My only complaint about the experience that night was its brevity and freakish laid-back-ness. Participants were so demure and polite that, at times it was miraculous anything took place at all. Decisions were made out of what seemed like consensual shrugs rather than definite agendas or opinions. It was only when the music took over that strong personalities emerged. Then again, crossing difficult social barriers through wordless means is what may have drawn these individuals to music in the first place.

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Juxtaposing ultra-casual atmospherics with engrossing music, the refreshing spectacle of an experimental improvisation show devoid of snobbery or bureaucracy, and the truly communal aspect of the Volunteers’ Collective process made this a truly special experience.

Those interested in seeing a workshop should check out the Red Room’s calendar, although, out of respect for the Collective, attending an official Red Room event would be a better suggestion.  If the workshops were to become overcrowded with performers or observers, the casual intimacy of the experience might suffer, not to mention be a fire hazard. Then again, as long as those present continue do so out of love for creating unique music in an open-minded environment, the venue and Collective will adapt accordingly. Or at least start charging at the door.

Alexander Rubin lives in the suburbs and loves in the city– Baltimore city. He is a writer, filmmaker, & music composer.

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