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Microtonal tuba, homemade electronics, ambient textures, circuit-bending, string duos, tape collage, left-field pop, electroacoustic feedback, experimental sacred music, and a balloon. That’s just a few of the sounds you can hear this weekend at the 18th annual Sonic Circuits Festival—the District’s longest-running and internationally renowned festival of experimental sounds and forward-thinking music.
Since the first Sonic Circuits in 2001, the festival has roamed all around the city, under the steady guidance of festival director Jeff Surak. The itinerancy, Surak says, is intentional: The festival is “always in flux and it’s all part of a long-term composition of a sonic experience with no particular destination.”
In that sense, Surak curates the fest with a space in mind—what works acoustically, logistically, and “how many acts … can physically cram into a room.” This year, for the second year in a row, the festival has landed at RhizomeDC; an old two-story house, complete with front porch and a serene backyard, kitchen and upstairs bedroom art gallery. In the past few years, Rhizome has become the cozy home for D.C.’s most innovative, challenging, and out-there music. In other words, a perfect fit for what Sonic Circuits has been bringing to the District for nearly two decades.
Over the years, Sonic Circuits has taken place at venues all over the region, in rock clubs, museums, and everywhere in between: Black Cat, Velvet Lounge, the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the Warehouse Theater, Pyramid Atlantic, Union Arts, the Atlas Performing Arts Center, Strathmore Mansion, La Maison Française, Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, Flashpoint, and the Goethe Institut, just to name a few.
Sonic Circuits wasn’t always a Jeff Surak production. Though the festival is now independently organized by him and a slew of volunteers, its origins actually stretch back to 1992, in Minnesota. There and then, the American Composers Forum (ACF), then called the Minnesota Composers Forum, launched a traveling festival of new music and new media called, you guessed it, Sonic Circuits. (This author performed at the Logan Fringe Arts Space in 2016 as part of the Sonic Circuits Festival).
The driving focus of the festival was to highlight new technologies in music composition and performance. ACF collected submitted recordings from all over the world to create a pool of musical options. Local chapters of ACF would pick selections from the pool, as well as their own artists, to create a unique version of the festival in that town.
In the 1990s, the festival included a radio component; a transcript of the 1996 Sonic Circuits radio program in Toronto says of the festival: “Thanks to the portable nature of music on tape, festival programs can easily travel to venues within North America and overseas. In this way the festival acts as a traveling curated show, analogous to those in the visual art world.” Iterations of the festival have taken place in at least a dozen cities around the U.S., as well as internationally in Austria, the U.K., and Australia. In 2000, thanks to a $32,500 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, Sonic Circuits expanded to eight new cities, including D.C. and Baltimore.
A D.C. native, Surak had organized many shows—and played a few music festivals in Europe—before he took on Sonic Circuits. He “had [his] own ideas of what a festival should be, and what it should be for a capital city,” he says. Unlike some other festivals, Sonic Circuits “doesn’t concern itself with having “big name” artists and has a diverse lineup,” Surak adds. “I like to push boundaries and challenge expectations.”
And what drives him to keep putting the festival on? “Insanity. And the desire to make something weird happen in a very straight and bland town.”
In 2009, free jazz and new music luminaries Evan Parker and Ned Rothenberg drew a certain kind of sophisticated audience to Sonic Circuits. To the delight of some attendees—and shock, and departure, of others—Surak programmed the proceeding set to Dutch noise artist Odal, who wore “nothing but a hockey mask and a ‘thong’ made of electrical tape,” he recalls.
“The tape didn’t really do the job of keeping things in place, and during his set everything started hanging out and swinging around … It was a great set.”
Sometimes, the combination of different acts can create a little friction, but getting, er, exposed to something totally new and unexpected is what Sonic Circuits is all about.
Skip back to Aug. 13, 2001: The first night of the first Sonic Circuits in the District took place at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage. One of the artists who performed, Vivian Adelberg Rudow, manipulated multiple CD players as a mode of creating sound and, as the Baltimore Jewish Times noted in a feature of the performance, “simulcast live on the World Wide Web.” Cool and revelatory at the time no doubt, but that wording now renders as dated and, well, hilarious.
The following night, the festival filled up the house at the Levine School of Music, featuring work by six composers, most local but two from afar. Even in that first year, Sonic Circuits was all about pushing boundaries.
Even under the umbrella of the ACF, Sonic Circuits was as much a community effort then as it is now. It was, and has always been, the work of a handful of volunteers with a little grant funding and/or city support here and there, but mostly sweat and dedication to music and performance that rebukes convention.
A volunteer for the first year, Jonathan Morris ended up becoming the director of the D.C. chapter of ACF in 2002. He recalls how he got the Kennedy Center hookup through a college buddy. Composer Steve Antosca notes that he must have been involved with organizing that night because the lineup was composed of all of his pals and former classmates.
Antosca worked at the Levine School, where he had helped to design and build the school’s Kunen Theater as a hybrid performance and studio space. Back then, the school was a welcoming community space that frequently hosted outer sound concerts.
In 2002, Surak’s “band,” called v., was a part of the second Sonic Circuits Festival in D.C., alongside such artists as Mark Applebaum, Kim Cascone, and Richard Chartier. That year’s festival took place over four days at the artist-run space Decatur Blue, George Mason University, and again at the Kennedy Center and Levine School. Surak recalls two problems from that year: His band had split, and no one told him. Unfazed, he played solo.
After playing Sonic Circuits again in 2005, Surak started to get involved with organizing the festival. By then, the ACF was barely involved except for Morris’ leadership as the local chapter director, a part-time job. By 2008, the D.C. chapter of the ACF dissolved entirely, eliminating Morris’ job, and he drifted onto other endeavors. Sonic Circuits just kept going.
Following ACF’s dissolution, Surak took the reins, and he’s been the director of Sonic Circuits ever since. In July 2008, Sonic Circuits started to do monthly shows at Pyramid Atlantic Art Center, then located in Silver Spring, at the invitation of former director Jose Dominguez, whom Surak describes as kind, generous, and open-minded—and to whom Sonic Circuits owes a lot.
Matt Boettke, a musician who performs as Scant and the proprietor of Brooklyn’s brick-and-mortar noise store called Thousands of Dead Gods, fondly remembers playing the 2012 iteration festival. The festival took place entirely at the Atlas Performing Arts Center that year, with an incredibly stacked lineup over the course of three days.
Until that point, Boettke had mostly just played his noise music in basements and DIY venues, so the opportunity to play on a serious stage like Atlas was huge for him. It meant that his music was being taken seriously on a totally new level. Nothing against those dingy basements, but that validation was clutch. It’s an example of one aspect that Sonic Circuits has become known for: consistently supporting young, emerging artists and musicians. Just as it was for Boettke, that encouragement can mean the world to someone trying to find their way in the farthest realms of music.
Bill Hill, a painter and frequent Sonic Circuits attendee over the past decade, insists that he has “the best time, each time,” but 2012 was also a standout year to him. The first night ended with The David Behrman Ensemble; six years later, Hill is still starstruck about the opportunity to meet and shoot the shit with Behrman—a legendary composer and pioneer of computer music.
For Hill, these personal interactions with amazing artists are what is at the heart of Sonic Circuits. Many of these artists who come to D.C. to play the festival might play in larger venues in other cities, but in the District, they’re hanging out on the porch, having a beer with fans and fellow music heads.
“There’s no better way to get to know these kinds of musical forms that might puzzle people than sitting down and talking to the people who just played it,” Hill says. He describes Sonic Circuits as “an unbroken chain of cool stuff of a stunning variety.” And he’s always found that the musicians are genuinely cool and happy to chat.
For Surak, Sonic Circuits is just the right size and shape for Rhizome. It’s a lot, but it’s digestible—especially compared to its three-week span in 2007 when, according to Surak, “there were few survivors after the sonic carnage.”
The 18th annual Sonic Circuits Festival takes place Sept. 28-30 at RhizomeDC. 6950 Maple St. NW. $20-$50. dc-soniccircuits.org.