Since late 1996, the Red Room has produced approximately 50 concerts of experimental, improvised, and harder-to-describe music each year (you do the math). It is one of the most vital and longstanding experimental music series on the East Coast, merging Baltimore's unusually and unihibited experimental community with the best performers from around the world. Run by a stable collective of occasionally changing membership (formally The High Zero Foundation (a 501(c)3 nonprofit group)), the space is intensely connected with The High Zero Festival of Experimental Improvised Music, a number of vital local music labels, and with a larger network of experimental venues on the east coast.
This text was written in 1998 to explain the Red Room's early history:
Normals Books and Records was brought into existence in 1990, by a group of seven friends, with virtually no startup capital. Though times were tough at first, over the years, the bookstore became a very stable and established business, and is now considered by many to be one of the strongest book or record stores in the area. Normals was very much the product of an inspired "utopian" influenced social scene active--not in any way strictly defined or limited, and influenced by a wide variety of non-conformist sensibilities drawn together because they are invisible to the mainstream & involve an investigation of the possibilities of life uncluttered by modernist naiveté or post-modernist cynicism. What was crucial was the arrived possibility to motivate a mass of thoughtful people to act on ideas that had no reverberation in the mainstream. Examples of the currents running through this milieu would be certain radical political critiques, the black humor of writers like Dr. Al Ackerman and John Franklin Bardin, the influence of musical scenes like the L.A.F.M.S., European and AACM free improvisation, subversive direct action, Neoism, the Hollow Earth Movement, Clown Paintings, Isaac Ramos, and so on. Everyone involved in the bookstore had (and have) many cultural projects ranging across music, film, writing, performance, and the like. On a straightforward level, the bookstore was always intended to function as both a cultural collective and a structure for survival, but it took many years to have a stable enough business that we were able to do more than provide a space for the rare concert.
There was a vital but small scene for experimental music in Baltimore before 1996, including tENTATIVELY a cONVENIENCE, Neil Feather, John Eaton, John Berndt, John Dierker, Scott Larson, Jason Willett, and others; and a complementary scene for film involving tENTATIVELY, Rebecca Barton, Martha Colburn and others. What is perhaps interesting in retrospect is that these experimental forms actually flourished in a sophisticated fashion, despite being somewhat on the defensive for public exposure and without funding. A large scale big band know for short as "The Official Project," directed by Neil Feather and tENTATIVELY, was a major project which involved both scenes, produced and LP record, and toured north America as a culture export of vibratory Baltimore Around 1997, Normals rented the space next door and renovated it, launching The Red Room as a performance space, intended to give something tangible and subversively intelligent back to Mother Baltimore. The mission of The Red Room was simply to promote and support experimentation at the margins, non-conformist experimentation, and to ignore received wisdom about what was culturally possible or not.
The first year the space was essentially run by John Berndt alone, and presented such a number of concerts of local, national and international experimental musicians that it apparently changed the perception of what was possible in Baltimore. Surpassingly, a critical mass of new and brilliant improvisers, sound-artists and film-makers came out of the wood-work in response, making the scene around the Red Room (arguably) one of the richest in the country. A monthly open workshop for Freely Improvised music at the Red Room (The "Crap Shoot") serves as way for musicians to meet each other, form collaborations, and creates a space for discussion and development of the music outside live performance. Since 1998, the Red Room has been run as a collective of Stewart Mostofsky, Neil Feaher, Catherine Pancake, Eric Hatch, Kate Turney, Evan Rapport and John Berndt. The collective uses its personal resources and energy to bring what they consider to be the most interesting artists to The Red Room, which has so far resulted in over a hundred concerts in front of an extremely broad and intelligent audience.
Some notable concerts of non-Baltimore folks have included Jack Wright, Kaffe Matthews (England), Gianni Gebbia (Italy), Matts Gustaffson/Jaap Blonk/Michael Zerang, KK NULL (Japan), Eugene Chadbourne (NC), William Parker (NYC), Bradford Reed (NYC), Sean Meehan (NYC), Toshi Makihara (Philadelphia), tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE (Pittsburgh), Peter Kowlad (Germany), John Butcher (England) and Gerry Hemmingway (NY), film makers Anne McGuire and Peter Rose, and countless others. Almost every show is different, the common thread being to find ways out of preconceived ways other thinking, acting, hearing seeing, and being and to explore possibility. Inspiration for the Red Room also came from a variety of outside sources. First, the incredible avant-garde saxophonist Jack Wright (from Philadelphia and now Boulder) happened to play repeatedly in Baltimore, pushing the discipline and standards of Baltimore players. An incredibly generous spirit (as well as an unrecognized major voice on his instrument), Wright did a lot to energize improvised music in Baltimore. Second, meetings with Pittsburgh's "Orgone Cimena" collective provided a model for a highly organized collective presenting the strangest stuff with a straight face. Importantly, an underpublicized imrprovised music festival in Philadelphia in 1995, INFEST.
Indeed, the participants in that festival have maintained strong ties with Baltimore musicians since then, and many will perform in HIGH ZERO. The establishment of a yearly HIGH ZERO festival by the Red Room may mark a new phase for us. We also have plans for a possible "radio" station using real audio to document live performances and special projects. Since it is the content, and also the process of improvisation that fascinates us, the time we put into organizes effectively steals from our own work. However, the benefits of having an inspiring milleu are high, and we are energized by the positive public response which we would not have anticipated for such challenging work.