I've been to plenty of experimental performances, noise symposiums and otherwise heady fringe music events. I won't paint with broad strokes, but the results of these events tends to vary greatly from the truly illuminating to the aural equivalent of novocaine as someone fidgets with a mess of cables and inputs for roughly 15 minutes before they seemingly give up—and then five more acts repeat the process. Very rarely do I see a project in that nebulous sphere of experimental music that I walk away from thinking, "Wow that was fun." After seeing the improvised music group Apps awhile back at Ghost., however, that was my exact takeaway.
Formed in 2016 by Kristen Keilman and Andrew Dixon, Apps was born out of both extreme emotional states and a half-joke. The half-joke was whether or not the two could perform music made solely from noise-making apps on smart phones; the extreme emotional states were that the two were "freshly in love" according to Dixon, who was also battling serious health problems at the time.
"Literally our first show … two days later I underwent major surgery to have cancer removed from my face," he says.
Those highs and lows were just the starting point for Apps, though, and their entirely improvised sets still rely on Dixon and Keilman's emotional states, as well as that of the audience, the space and any number of unknowable variables. The performance at Ghost. had humor, dissonance, melody, poignancy and
multitudes of nuanced human emotion captured in moments of performance art that quickly flitted away and morphed into something new.
The duo has since augmented their aural toolkit, and though they still use smartphones, they've added live drums, guitar, viola, voice and other such
surprises. They've also expanded to include Mark Ettingoff, one of Santa Fe's most sought-after musicians. (Full disclosure: Ettingoff and I have played in several bands together, though his membership in Apps was a revelation that came well after I started to write this piece.)
For a group that sets almost no parameters for itself, expanding the sound could put them in danger of muddying their output, but Apps' strength lies in its members' ability to listen and adapt to one another.
The songs have structure and are built on rhythm and melody, while the mix of live instrumentation, most notably traditional drum kit and sporadic
electric guitar, add touchstones of rock and psychedelia punctuated with
electronic influence and stabs of dissonance and noise. Of course, this is based purely on one live show experience, and any given performance could yield something completely different.
"We all have played very structured music," says Keilman, a graduate of the since-closed Santa Fe University of Art and Design's contemporary music program, "and we're really good listeners—that makes it almost feel like we know what we are doing. We actually don't."
And that is what makes for great improvised music—a knowledge of and respect for melody, structure and rhythm, but the drive to break from it and see where the music leads; the best improvisers, from noise rockers to jazz-heads, often convince listeners there was a plan in place all along.
According to Keilman, "We kind of don't really practice anymore, it's all about the show, the moment, the experience."
Living in the moment aside, Apps does plan to record in the near future.
"It would have to be captured in the same way that our shows happen," Dixon cautions.
To that end, the group would likely be best served recording live, capturing a performance as a singular piece of art.
And how has time affected the weight of those early moments, when Apps was conceived and Dixon and Keilman were awash in love and tumult? Now, with Dixon in better health and an uptick in their emotional lives, Apps has not
mellowed in its fierce approach to catharsis and expression.
"We've been going through a lot of positive things in our life when we play a show, and it's great," Dixon tells SFR. "But then, when we're having kind of a hard time and we play a show, that's also been great. Either way, it's a release for us."
It's this constant pursuit that makes Apps one of Santa Fe's most promising and engaging collectives of weirdo improvisers and experimenters. While noise and improv acts can often seem like they are building barriers around themselves, Apps invites its audience for a shared and very human experience, even with its tech-based angle.
Apps with FeMaLe GEniUs and Lisa Kori
7:30pm. Sat. Aug. 3. $10.
903 Early Street