The Sounds of Science

April 7, 2010
Flagpole Magazine

The AUX Festival Turns 4
By Christopher Joshua Benton

Heather McIntosh lives in one of those homes marked with a half-address that makes visiting tricky for a newcomer. She has bangs with brown hair that catches the yellow florescence of her kitchen light when she turns her head to laugh, which she does a lot. In all, she’d be pretty unassuming if it weren’t for her black Orange Twin hoodie—the older one that seems to signify participation in an exclusive club of creative types and now slightly old-school wiz-kids. McIntosh is so humble and unassuming, in fact, that it wasn’t until our meeting that she realized it was probably she (and a group of really dedicated collaborators) who started AUX, the experimental music festival, which will be in its fourth iteration this week: “It wasn’t just me; we did it.” So, what exactly is AUX? For its founder, at least, “AUX is a circus-y romp of experimentalism—not as a genre but the physical act of experimentation. Like science… but fun science.”

AUX started four years ago as a festival, a day of wild multi-media experimentation. A compilation CD/ art book was planned, too, supplementing the ephemera with a physical artifact (and get excited, ’cause this year’s compilation includes one of the first new Olivia Tremor Control songs in forever). Over the years, though, AUX has become the music publication and performing branch of ICE (Ideas for Creative Exploration, in effect, UGA’s interdisciplinary community arts fund), often putting together experimental shows, including last year’s unbelievable Faust and Circulatory System concert at the 40 Watt. This year the day-long AUX Fest will occur at Ciné and Little Kings Shuffle Club. It will feature live music, visual art and sound installations, film screenings and an artists’ market put on by the same people behind the Indie Craftstravaganzaa.

If most music can be arranged into tiny boxes, experimental music is that polygon mechanized to entropy—antagonistic to its own shape. And like the avant-garde postures that influence it, experimental music’s abstract expressionism is just as fun to philosophize over as it is to hear.

“Experimental art gets a rap for being less attainable or a bit pretentious, but it is really a place for improvisation and a place where a lot of the best new artistic and musical ideas come from. Make some new sounds,” McIntosh says.

Or listen to Will Kennedy, drummer for the local so-called “atonal, serialistic experimental noise band” Geisterkatzen, who will be playing AUX: “Experimental music gets down to the fundamentals of what is sound. It pushes the limits of what is considered music… We as people classify music in so many ways and we should challenge those ideas.”

Even by its name—experimental—the implication is more of an interest in the means than its own ends. So, naturally, a band like Geisterkatzen started from its own processes of wonder and experimental alchemy: “We started circuit bending Furbies and old toy Casios and then we moved on to traditional instruments that you’d use in a band,” Kennedy says.

In all, dozens of local bands and one-off combinations will perform in short 20-minute mini-sets; but look out for two groups of visiting heavyweights, who’ll play longer, headlining shows. Prog-psych-indie-hyphen-hyphen-hyhen Chicago trio Michael Columbia is one of the big guns. In its short life span the band has already played the well-curated P4K Fest in 2009 while also garnering the title of “Chicago’s Best-Kept Secret.”

Also playing is the duo of Mary Halvorson and Jessica Pavone. These two prolific New York composers and ensemble-grads have both recorded with avant-garde legend Anthony Braxton, while navigating the academic possibilities of being musicians. Pavone’s discography spans over 30 records. Together, the women make chamber music on the fringes of pop: “Ideally, experimental music challenges listeners, and introduces them to new ideas, hopefully encouraging them to be creative and think outside the box,” say Pavone and Halvorson.

Of course, since its inception, AUX has been about more than just music. To wit, McIntosh promises 2010 will bring even more art installations and video work. You may already be familiar with one of the video artists: Ray Burg of the local collective EYEGATE, whose setup includes the type of projectors you used to watch funky slides on during grade school, paint and found images to make surrealistic “moving collages of color.” If you haven’t seen it yet, EYEGATE complements good music like wine to cheese. And Burg is well aware, as he emailed in near-manifesto: “Music should be accompanied by visual forms of art. Sound and light go so well together, and the current over-use of computer-generated ‘pre-programmed’ images does not do justice to the freedom of sound that live music offers.”

He’s right. The organic flow of EYEGATE’s live projections is more analogous to the improvisational freak-out or the steady drone tessellations of experimental music than the type of imagery typically made by computer-aided projections.

More than audiovisual, McIntosh just wants to bring the cross-sections of Athens locales together; but AUX is as much about supporting the creative needs of the artist as it is about entertaining an audience.

“Say you always want to do a shredding, thrash-oriented experimental guitar symphony—why not? Give it a try, even if it’s different from the pop you normally make. It’s an opportunity to do something divergent from your day-to-day artistic path,” says McIntosh. Because really the two—performer and audience—are auxiliary to each other.