A few days after I completed my master's degree in 2000, one of my professors invited me and my classmates to her vacation home on the northern California coast. We drank wine from a neighboring vineyard, ate fresh food from the garden and talked grandly about our worthless MFA***image1*** degrees amid nervous laughter. As the early evening approached, we hopped in our cars and drove to the nearby beach. Once there, I meandered on the coast until my professor approached me and asked what I was looking at.
"The ocean," I replied. Then I pointed to the water and asked, "How can we write poems when that exists?"
"We write poems because that does exist," she said. As stupid as it may seem-considering all the money, time and pride I swallowed during two years in the MFA program-that tiny exchange informed me of all I needed to know about art.
For three days last week (Sept. 21-23), the 7th Annual High Mayhem Emerging Arts Festival presented the music and visual spectacle that it's been refining throughout its relatively short history. This is the first year I went to the festival and having seen a few shows at the High Mayhem Studios on Lena Street, I had an approximate grip on what to expect. Suffice it to say, I wasn't surprised by any particular act that participated, but I was surprised by the environment that participants created.
Of the things that I had heard and read about the festival, the most prevalent was its proclivity toward experimental art, a term that can make people nervous because it connotes exclusion, obfuscation and emphasis on theoretical underpinnings rather than actual stuff. Interestingly, two of High Mayhem's founders, Yozo Suzuki and Max Friedenberg, refute this description, noting that the idea of exclusion, specifically for emerging artists, actually exists by design as a result of the pop culture machine, and the festival ultimately facilitates and promotes art forms unencumbered by prepackaged ideology.
The festival happened to fall on the same weekend I moved out of my house, celebrated my wife's birthday and experienced a series of tragic family events; so I missed the opening day, which is regrettable. The way people were talking about the set by improvisational jazz group Cleveland Trio, you would have thought the sky had fallen. But it didn't really register until I saw Re-Wired, a tricked-out version of the local band The Late Severa Wires, featuring "Dino" JA Deane and Molly Sturgis. The Satruday set was, quite frankly, everything live music should be: loud, raw, engaging, intuitive, sexy. The band could have been in a darkened cellar and it would have played with the same vigor. Drummer Mike Rowland, for example, was in another galaxy completely; watching him writhe, snap and throw his entire body on his drums during the band's improvisational compositions just killed me. To be sure, judging from my wife's disdain after the set, this sound is an acquired taste.
I may be stretching it here, but the fact that both my pulse and my mind were racing signaled what audiences may have noted about Bertolt Brecht's plays; the audience isn't an invisible spectator, it's part of the performance. So rather than play at the audience, the group managed to create a sensory experience that went beyond mere entertainment.
Later that night, GK Duo, a bass and drum duo, left everyone a bit stunned, to put it mildly. The Chicago musicians are New Orleans transplants who have played and recorded at High Mayhem Studios before. Bass player Matthew Golombisky and drummer Quin Kirchner burned through their set and encore with furious compositions and a deceptively simple looped sound.
"You're a ringer for the bass player," Freidenberg tells me, referring to bass player for Mute Socialite, arguably one of the most aggressive and tight groups I've ever seen.
"These guys are punk rock as fuck," Suzuki says before the Socialite set. Guitarist Ava Mendoza shredded and absolutely screamed between two drummers and my doppelganger bass player, Alee Karim. The sound was somewhere between King Crimson and Bad Brains, but faster.
On Sunday, among the notable acts were Ësthöm, a duo made up of local musicians Roland Ostheim and Vadi Grontis. Although I didn't find the music quite as engaging-the live looping felt excessive, but perhaps that's point-Ostheim's guitar work and vocals managed to shape and blend the duo's sound atop steady beats that carved, clinked and clacked from vespers to crescendos.
It's hard not to overanalyze this festival. This isn't art for art's sake or the result of a bunch of art students trying to validate their degrees. This is a concerted effort to change how we experience music and is, to some extent, an affront to indoctrinated thinking about the world without risk or repercussion. And although the sight and sound may be jarring to the senses, and it's true that there were a few times I felt self-conscious-as if I'd missed the joke-and yes, some of it did blow, I was moved by the entire experience. And the ocean was, at least for now, not staring blankly back at me.