Noise, or Art?

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.

Ure Thrall, for one, has been making and distributing tapes for years. Chuck Roast, owner of the Vinal Edge record store, is a principle in Turmoil in the Toybox. Bonnie McNairn and Jim Wilson -- first as Esoterica Landscapes 7 and currently as Voice of Eye -- have moved from industrial noise to rhythmic, ritual sonic landscaping over the past seven years, making an international name for themselves in the process. Chad Salvata's E-Coli project delved into avant-opera before Salvata left town for Austin, then New York, and Houston's Awefull Records is eight volumes into the ongoing Manifestation series of CD compilations, gathering like-minded experimentalists from around the world. Lazy Squid Records founders and Sad Pygmy bandmates Carol and Sean Kelly are responsible for the 51-track "noise collection" Cataclastic Fracture.

In Baytown, Richard Ramirez pumps out homemade cassettes as if on an assembly line, and collaborates long-distance with recognized Japanese noise artists Merzbow. The Dave Dove Paul Duo takes off from a free-jazz tendency for parts unknown, and Charalambides keeps moving farther afield from anything that might sit still under a label.

Even the tape that Thrall's friend Jay has given Sommers to play on The Avant-Garde Show -- an edit, he says, of fragments of practice jams by his now-defunct rock band -- fits the bill, although the casual listener may not be thoroughly enlightened by Jay's observation that the music is the result of a process in which "there are two envelopes going at once, and they're both dynamically sensitive."

One point of common ground in this maelstrom of sound has been Sommers' program. But now, he admits, there's a new generation of sonic sculptors and noise artists that he's unfamiliar with. In the old days, composers would be lined up outside his control booth, tapes in hand. These days, he doesn't count on local performers showing up at all. Part of the problem, he says, is that "the new stuff is awfully hard to find unless you're wired into the network." And networking gets harder as other duties and desires grow. On the Friday before the show Thrall and Jay visited, Sommers missed out on seeing the first ever Texas performance by 30-year-old British improv trio AMM at Rice's Hammon Hall. He was downtown instead, at Jones Hall, listening to Andrea Marcovicci cabaret her way through the songs of Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern.

But if Sommers' show isn't the one-stop experimental shop it once was, that's partly because the scene has expanded from the home base he gave it. Voice of Eye's McNairn now hosts a similarly conceived show called Genetic Memory on KTRU/91.7 FM. And local artists have scattered in search of greener pastures -- and sometimes found them -- in avant citadels such as San Francisco and New York.

Some of those artists will be coming home to Houston to celebrate the 20th anniversary of The Avant-Garde Show as part of the SonicWorks program. For a brief time, the spotlight will shine into the nooks and crannies of the experimental music underground, causing celebration among fans, confusion among non-initiates, and intrigue among curiosity seekers. Maybe a few previously unexposed folks will undergo the revelation that here is music that demands a different kind of listener, one with an ear tuned to texture and pure sound instead of melodic hooks and song craft, and that avant-garde music's practitioners are perhaps best understood, in one fan's words, as mathematicians who derive their pleasure from working out the most unlikely problems.

And as a result, perhaps experimental music will make a small comeback in Houston's public consciousness. Or maybe not. Either way, come the following Sunday night, Scott Sommers will be back in the DJ booth at KPFT, conceiving his show the way he always has: "Just having a bunch of people over to listen to some records."

"SonicWorks '96" runs May 35 at DiverseWorks, 1117 East Freeway, and late evening May 3 and 4 at Commerce Street Arts Warehouse, 2315 Commerce Street. DiverseWorks shows tickets are $12, $7 for students; festival passes are $20 for students. CSAW Performance Party admission $5, $2 for festival pass holder. For reservations and info, call 228-0914.

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Brad Tyer