Even though he's played with the improvised music legends, appeared on more than 250 records, and lived in California all of his life, Henry Kaiser, whose under-the-Antarctic-ice shots can be seen in several Werner Herzog's films, says that he's 80 percent Antarctica research diver and 20 percent American experimental guitarist.
"In a strange way, I consider myself from Antarctica rather than from California, which is silly because nobody is from there," says Kaiser by phone from his place in Santa Cruz, where he's lived for the past two years after spending most of his life in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The 61-year-old first visited Antarctica in 2001 after procuring a National Science Foundation Antarctica Artists and Writers Program grant. Following the initial two-and-a-half month deployment, Kaiser, a former research diving instructor at the University of California, Berkeley, has returned to the South Pole nine additional times to shoot footage for motion pictures, engineers, biologists, and scientists.
"Before I started doing outreach, seal scientists had never dived before," says Kaiser, who will present his underwater video from 10 seasons of diving under the Ross Sea ice at 14 Pews on Thursday and Friday, November 14 and 15. "Underwater, the seals sound like 1950s electronic music. It's kind of like Forbidden Planet."
His gorgeous cinematography can be seen in Herzog's The Wild Blue Yonder as well as Encounters at the End of the World, which Kaiser produced and earned an Academy Award nomination. Kaiser and David Lindley (who has worked with Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon, Dolly Parton, and Curtis Mayfield) co-composed the score for Encounters; the just-released soundtrack will be available at Thursday's and Friday's concerts, which marks Kaiser's Houston debut.
The guitarist, who won a Grammy for the Stephen Foster retrospective compilation album Beautiful Dreamer, also produced the music components for Herzog's Grizzly Man.
"It's like being in a science fiction novel that you read in junior high," says Kaiser about living and working in Antarctica. "There are all sorts of crazy people, interesting scenery, and giant challenges."
When Kaiser is on assignment, he lives in a field camp in McMurdo Station, which hosts folks working for the U.S. Antarctic science facilities. The McMurdo base also contains two music clubs that has played host to thrash, bluegrass, and blues bands. "I've played there before," says Kaiser. "Music people can dance to."
Most people know Kaiser as an accomplished guitarist who has played more straight-ahead fare with Lindley, Richard Thompson, and Wadada Leo Smith as well as left-of-field offerings with Sonny Sharrock, Fred Frith, Derek Bailey, Jim O'Rourke, and Rova Saxophone Quartet. Along with a prolific solo output, Kaiser has traveled to Madagascar and Norway and collaborated with musicians in those countries.
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Damon Smith, a Houston bassist, visual artist, and 100 Creative who started playing with Kaiser approximately 20 years ago in the Oakland scene, says that Kaiser is a big deal because "he is one a of a very few first generation American free improvisors. He is also an extremely informed musician, something all scenes, Houston included, could use more of.
"He values improvisation beyond aesthetic principles," continues Smith. "He has pushed me into areas that no other musician has. In the early years, I would get uncomfortable. Now, I just trust his judgment."
At 8 p.m. Thursday, November 14, and Friday, November 15, Henry Kaiser will present his Antarctica videos at 14 Pews, 800 Aurora Street in the Heights. Kaiser will also play solo guitar and collaborate with Houston-based musicians, including Damon Smith, David Dove, Sandy Ewen, Ryan Edwards, Rebecca Novak, and Chris Nelson.