Alex Cunningham, a violinist from St. Louis, is in a trio that will most likely never play at a mainstream festival. Their music is an acquired taste.
Cunningham had no notes to memorize when he played with a trio made up of a saxophone player and a drummer at the dimly-lit Café Berlin last Friday. Their performance is completely improvisational. He said the trio aims to make spur-of-the-moment music. And the result, he said, is chaotic.
The energetic frenzy of dissonant sounds last minutes before slowly winding down. But eventually, the chaos came to a slow, and then a stop. The crowd applauds.
Cunningham/Bucko/Adams is one of many experimental groups that played at Columbia’s Experimental Music Festival, a three-day event dedicated to experimental and adventurous music. It’s the group’s second year playing at the event. He said the music fits right in.
“It’s really nice to have people into niche music coming together,” Cunningham said. “That’s why events like this are really great, because you can curate music that is not going to be played on the radio.”
The festival was hosted by Columbia tape label and nonprofit Dismal Niche. Matthew Crook, program director of Dismal Niche, hosted the event. He started the label with his friend Ben Chlapek in 2013, and he’s involved with the do-it-yourself scene, commonly referred to as DIY. It’s a community of artists that make music independently. Typical venues for a DIY show include houses and basements.
For years, an underground music venue called the Hair Hole served as a center for Columbia’s DIY scene. Musicians played in the building’s dark, moldy basement. It was torn down in 2013.
“The scene was really thriving,” Crook said. “Once that got torn down, a bunch of people kind of dispersed to the winds. So, we started the label to try to kind of keep our community together.”
The festival started in 2015 as a showcase of artists on the Dismal Niche label. Since then, it’s expanded to be a showcase of experimental music around the region and country. This year the festival hosted over 20 artists. Crook describes the event as a shot in the arm for Columbia’s DIY scene
Ryan Hall runs a label called Whited Sepulchre Records out of Cincinnati and is a festival sponsorship coordinator. Hall said part of the festival’s funding strategies this year involved getting support from other labels.
“There’s all these interconnected scenes, you know, throughout the country, throughout the Midwest, throughout the world that are all kind of exploring the edges of music and really using
their platforms to promote some really amazing artists,” Hall said. “So, we felt it was really important to showcase some of those labels.”
Columbia musician Steph Foley, who played with the Devin Frank Vanishing Blues Band at the festival, said she met a lot of musicians at the Hair Hole. Since its closure, the scene has changed.
“We don’t have a place to play, we don’t have a place where we can turn up and be loud. So that’s kind of a hard thing,” Foley said.
But Foley learned lessons from the Hair Hole, like being prepared for shows. When it started raining during the last day of performances at the Rose Music Hall, the musicians adapted and moved inside. Foley said the festival captures the DIY spirit.
“I think it’s that DIY aesthetic — is that you’re all the things,” she said. “The sound guy, you’re the roadie, you’re the performer. You’re also the promoter, and you’re the audience members for the other bands.”
People crowded Eastside Tavern to listen to a Portland musician called AMULETS. The solo project by musician Randall Taylor involves tape looping to create ambient music. It’s a technique that’s been used and experimented with since the 70’s.
“If they’re coming through your town you’ll connect them with someone you know or do it yourself,” Taylor said. “It makes it feel like a nice smaller DIY community that people really care about.”
Inevitably, not everyone will enjoy some of the music presented at a festival like this. Crook says a note handed to him during a show reminded him of this. The note read:
Feedback from Ukrainian girls: no offense guys, but please, look for harmony inside you. You will enjoy it more.
Crook chuckled and took a picture of the note, showing it to friends. He said the music is supposed to challenge listeners.
“If they can come and hear something and see something that maybe they’ve never really experienced or seen before,” Crook said, “maybe that’ll charge some neural pathways in their brain to think more experimentally about different things in their lives.”