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It's just after 10 p.m. on a Sunday, and 42-year-old Scott Sommers is right where he's been, more or less, once a week for the past 20 years: in the DJ booth at Pacifica radio KPFT/90.1 FM, hosting one of that station's longest-running programs, The Avant-Garde Show.
A slightly paunchy man, Sommers is wearing khaki shorts, a tucked-in sports shirt, tennis shoes and large, round glasses, making him look a little like the stereotype of the off-duty lawyer that he, in fact, is. Sommers has got a tote-bag filled with CDs, cassettes and vinyl LPs from his home collection, and to make a statistically educated guess, you've probably never heard of any of them. Sommers' specialty is experimental and electronic music, mostly from World War I through the 1980s. He got turned on to the stuff in junior high school, when a visiting teacher came to class to discuss Dadaist art and music. As Sommers recalls, what that teacher had to say "flat floored me."
It also started an obsession that has rarely flagged over the intervening decades. Sommers began feeding his passion for music that walks the outer edge of the comprehensible by haunting record shops looking for something he thought must be titled "Dada Music." Finally, he stumbled across a collection of the works of composer Walter Carlos. From there his listening spread to the work of benchmark avant-garde composers Edgar Varese, Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage and beyond, into ethnographic music and contemporary electronic noise.
In '76, he began The Avant-Garde Show to introduce others to what he found so engaging. Not that he has any delusions about how many people tuned in either at the beginning or now. Though he doesn't really know the size of his show's audience, he suspects that it is, to put it politely, "marginal." From 1976 to 1986, Sommers doubled as a concert promoter for the avant fringe, but finally stopped trying in the face of popular disinterest. But while the local listeners haven't always been there, the local artists have been: during a three-year period from 1988 to 1991, described by Sommers as a high-water mark for the city's experimental music, he was dedicating two shows a month exclusively to Houston material.
Presently, the local material isn't quite so available, but even so, on this late-April night, Sommers' show is busier than usual, perhaps because big plans are afoot. Within days, City Hall will be hosting a brief April 30 ceremony in honor of Sommers' 20th on-air anniversary. For the following weekend, Houston's DiverseWorks gallery has organized "SonicWorks '96," a three-day concert event featuring rare live performances by local, regional and national musicians. Commerce Street Arts Warehouse is also in on the act, offering late-night performance parties all three nights.
Local experimental music-making institution Ure Thrall is one of the performers on the SonicWorks bill, and on this Sunday evening he's dropped by Sommers' show for a visit. He has a friend with him, a 20-year-old sonic artist who calls himself Jay who pulls a DAT tape out of his shirt pocket and asks if Sommers will play it on the air. With barely a pause, Sommers says sure. But first he wraps up a live phone interview with Elise Kermani, an experimental musician who was a presence on the Houston scene until four years ago, when she moved to Brooklyn. Following the interview, Sommers cues up a tape of Trousers, Kermani's three-woman group. He'd planned to play one track, but, tuned in to a conversation with Thrall and Jay, he misses the dead air that signals the end of track one, and the tape rolls on into track two.
"Oh who cares," he says when he finally takes notice. "The audience doesn't know the difference."
Sommers is probably right; most of his listeners likely don't know the difference. "Experimental music" is a slippery term to define, but as a field, it seems to share some basic assumptions, if not necessarily sounds. Assumption one is that all sound, noise included, may be regarded as musical. Assumption two is that if a new piece of technology can produce a sound that couldn't be produced before, then that technology is inherently valuable. Experimental music explores the world of sonics in search of the new and the strange, and for the most part, it dispenses with traditional musical conventions such as melody and rhythm. Improvisation is highly regarded, and you can sometimes hear experimental music veering toward the outer limits of free jazz.
Experimental music is performed by dedicated composers, self-indulgent wanks, gadget freaks, sound fetishists, basement tinkerers and ritualists of every stripe, but because it's stridently outside of accepted musical formats, it's never gained more than a tiny, cultish following. That hardly matters to Sommers, or to most of the musicians and composers trading tapes and interviews in an expansive subterranean information network around the globe. The point for Sommers is "to create a different sort of space from what people normally encounter."
And although Sommers will tell you that, outside of Europe, there's only negligible popular support for such experimentalism, the fact remains that Houston manufactures more than its fair share of sound-as-music.