Noise Club: Membership in the all-volunteer avant-garde ensemble has more than doubled since its inception. Credit: (Photograph by Charles Steck)

You can get a lot of great stuff on Craigslist for cheap—gently used baby equipment, outcalls from Arlington-based “tansexuals”—but when you put together an avant-garde noise ensemble via one of the service’s free ads, prepare for some bumps in the road. Oboes drown out bassoons that are keeping a beat. Musicians don’t have time to practice their parts in full conceptual regalia. And members cancel at the last minute when paying gigs pop up.

But lucky turns have outnumbered the unlucky ones for the Great Noise Ensemble, assembled by composer and music director Armando Bayolo in the summer of 2005. From seven original members, the ensemble has expanded to 16 instrumental performers, two singers, and a bullpen of in-house and on-call composers. The latter have established a symbiotic relationship with the cash-strapped group—the Great Noise Ensemble performs their works; the composers in turn perform on one another’s pieces, such as Ken Ueno’s Vertical Features Remake 1, for which Catholic University composer and instructor Andrew Simpson played the four Diet Coke cans that comprised the percussion section before switching to piano for his three-part suite, Chamber Concerto.

“I practiced with the mask a couple times,” says pianist (and executive director) Kristen Williams, describing her part in David Cutler’s Superpowers, another piece the group played in January. She played piano; so did her accompanist, who played the inside of the piano, bashing the guts under the lid with mallets. The piece called for her to don a cape, wig, and leotard, while her partner dressed like a lucha libre wrestler. “I wish I had practiced with the wig,” she says. “I did practice playing on my stomach”—referring to a section that required her to lay across the bench, as if she were a flying, piano-banging superhero—“but the performance was the first time I got it right.”
John Adams’ 1996 composition Gnarly Buttons, scheduled for the group’s inaugural season, required something harder to find than eclectic instruments or wacky costumes: money. “Just to rent [the sheet music] would cost $638,” says Heather Figi, the group’s artistic director. “We did the research; we had a whole season based on masterworks of contemporary music. Then we realized we had no operating budget.” Gnarly Buttons didn’t get performed.

Financial pressures have eased somewhat lately. The Great Noise Ensemble’s focus on emerging composers has landed it admission as the 2006–7 ensemble in residence of the Washington Chapter of the American Composers Forum—which means that not only does the ensemble get free ad time, two of its programs are paid for.

The ensemble kicked off its residency with a tribute to minimalist composer Steve Reich, whose process-oriented work features spliced tape loops, readings from Wittgenstein, and microphones swinging in front of amplifiers. The Great Noise Ensemble assembled a program of Reich’s work, including Electric Counterpoint, a piece for guitar accompanied by loops of prerecorded guitar.

Figi and Williams take a fairly expansive view of what makes for good music. Asked about their current obsessions, Figi notes Avishai Cohen, an Israeli jazz bassist. Williams mentions Marin Marais, a late-17th-century composer who wrote for viola da gamba. If these interests seem so wide-ranging as to be arbitrary, that’s nearly by design.

“It’s what’s happening in the world,” Figi says. “Blue eyes are going to become extinct. Everything is melding, merging, like collage.” Audiences seem to agree. The Reich performance was “packed, absolutely packed,” Figi says. “It proved to me there’s a fan base for new music.”