It was July 12, 1998, and Trans 001, the first installment of the Transmissions experimental music festival, had gone pretty well so far. After almost three days of improvisation, noise, sound art, and post-rock in collegiate Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the organizers were readying the venue, a sports bar called Bub O'Malley's, for the final sets--a series of collaborations between Eugene Chadbourne and three other improvisers. "They had said we could stay there until about eight or nine o'clock," says director and founder Keenan McDonald. "But as we were setting up...the owner turned on all these TVs to watch a pay-per-view pro wrestling match. We realized that Transmissions was over at that moment."
The event had been a grassroots effort from top to bottom: McDonald, then a grad student in communications, and her two primary co-organizers, Ethan Clauset and Julie Shapiro, relied on the generosity of more than a dozen friends and acquaintances to pull it off. All three had dabbled in promoting shows, but none had ever planned anything on such a large scale--they spent months negotiating with artists, finding venues, obtaining a sound system, and arranging lodging, and while the festival was in full swing they managed to stream most of the nearly two dozen performances over the Internet using a single dial-up account. McDonald ended up about $400 in the hole.
Since then Transmissions has grown considerably, becoming arguably the most cutting-edge electronic and experimental music festival in the country. Trans 004, which runs from August 6 through August 12, is by far the most ambitious edition yet. And it will take place in Chicago--where McDonald, Clauset, and Shapiro, who are all in their late 20s, moved last summer. (Shapiro is now the assistant director of the Third Coast International Audio Festival, a radio-feature competition hosted by WBEZ, and McDonald and Clauset work for Internet companies.) There will be no repeat of the Bub O'Malley's fiasco here: among the Chicago institutions and venues involved in presenting Transmissions are the Chicago
Cultural Center, the Chopin Theatre, HotHouse, Subterranean, and Rednofive. Twenty-four artists from eight different countries will perform; among the biggest names are electroacoustic composer Carl Stone, New York improviser and no-wave legend Ikue Mori, and Austrian laptop-music pioneer Pita. The schedule also includes four programs of experimental film and video (all at the Chopin), curated with the help of Abina Manning and Blithe Riley from the Video Data Bank at the School of the Art Institute.
At its inception Transmissions focused on experimentation in the analog realm, highlighting the droney space rock of Azusa Plane, the fractured rock of Storm and Stress, and the raggedy free jazz of the Gold Sparkle Band; over the years it has grown increasingly digital, and now almost every performer uses computers in some way. This year's schedule is the first to embrace club culture: an impressive bill next Saturday, August 11, at Rednofive features three major figures in Europe's abstract techno scene, Hecker, Dettinger, and Monolake, all of whom manipulate the fierce synthetic pulse of techno into remarkably organic music. But many of the other artists this year, from La Monte Young-affiliated composer Michael Schumacher to electroacoustic percussionist Jason Kahn to microscopic-sound artist Richard Chartier, are unabashedly cerebral, sometimes creating music with no discernible pulse at all.
All in all, the program paints an impressively broad picture of the current experimental music landscape, although Clauset insists that it still isn't all-inclusive. "We're not so concerned with representing the range of current work as we are in putting together a bill that we would like to see ourselves," he says. Considering the level of experimental activity around town, it's perhaps surprising that this includes only three local acts--Kevin Drumm, Ben Vida, and the duo of Helen Mirra and Ernst Karel. According to McDonald, this has angered at least one better-known Chicago electronic-music artist, whom she declines to name. "I kind of expected that in a small place like Chapel Hill," says Shapiro. "I guess, naively, I didn't expect it to be the same here."
Transmissions did present a number of "pre-series" events this spring, which were designed to raise festival awareness and to involve locals. "We tried to focus more attention on local people, but consequently some people have felt like they were relegated to just this series," says McDonald.
The unfortunate reality may be that Chicago audiences have come to take local experimenters for granted--they perform too regularly at places like the Empty Bottle and the Nervous Center to draw enough people to a special event. And McDonald has too much riding on the festival to play the booster: her out-of-pocket losses over the last two years total nearly $6,000. Previous Transmissions festivals were long-weekend affairs, but this year's program stretches out over a week, and the budget has tripled since last year. McDonald admits that the success of the festival this year will determine whether or not it returns in 2002. "I've had to put in a lot more money on the front end than I've ever had to before," she says. "This year is definitely a turning point."
For more information about the festival and the performers, visit the Transmissions Web site, www.transmit.org. For a complete schedule, see the sidebar in this section.
After five years as associate editor of the Illinois Entertainer, former New City columnist Ben Kim has been promoted to editor, taking over for Michael C. Harris, who'd worked for the Entertainer in some capacity for 16 years. Harris left to work as communications director of APTE, an Evanston-based educational software publisher. Kim says he has no major upheavals planned, but he hopes to devote more coverage to world music and rock en espanol.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Andre J. Jackson.