Sound Alternatives
By Cheryl Gobbetti Hoffman

sound alternatives
Steve Baczkowski.
Photo by Jessica Kourkounis.
The man behind the music at Hallwalls, Steve Baczkowski, has designed a 2001-02 season that opens with a bang, delivers a double whammy, and then rocks the hall’s walls with some of the best music you’ve never heard before. Reflecting the times and passionate concerns of its community (artists, members, staff, audiences), music at Hallwalls is alive and well. The season? “No question—it will be brilliant,” Steve promises.

Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center has led Buffalo down divergent paths for almost twenty-five years. It’s devoted to serious fun and self-expression—a charismatic space that remains a traditional choice for the avant-garde. Hallwalls the alternative was birthed as an ad-hoc congregation of like-minded friends and artists gathered in an apartment on Essex Street to support and sustain new vision. A collective enterprise, Hallwalls the organization shape-shifted its way into a new home in Buffalo’s Theater District before moving to the comprehensive arts complex it created and presently occupies in the Tri-Main Building. Its nature reflects grassroots.

Art has proven itself instrumental in moving ideals toward new realities. Much more than simply entertainment, it can become the means by which individuals increase and share social and universal awareness. Musical art is not a commodity one can have or hold. Do we like it? Is it important? Can we afford it? Planners are plagued by these questions, but a production is staged ultimately because someone believes in it.

The so-called ‘culturals,’ be they mainstream or slightly off center, can play major roles in shaping individuals; as agents of transformation, they’re ideally ambitious and hopeful. That’s the vibe that rules at Hallwalls, a house where ideas find wings and fly.

sound alternatives
Felisha Norton of the
Jenkins/Norton Duo.
The Andy Warhol Foundation recently validated the Hallwalls phenomenon with an invitation to join twenty-three other arts organizations nationwide in applying for only eight available grants funding technological initiatives. The application was well received and the money is on its way, facilitating the purchase of hi-tech video and recording equipment, as well as staff training in the requisite protocols. Steve Baczkowski, director of all things musical at Hallwalls, feels he’s blessed to find himself sharing this fortunate position, and on the way to realizing a dream of recording and producing a “Live at Hallwalls” series at the center.

Baczkowski’s is one of Buffalo’s better stories. He picked up the sax in the third grade following in his big brother’s footsteps. A skiing and skateboarding kind of guy during Springville childhood days, he aimed for good grades, jazz band, and hanging out in the Griffis Sculpture Park. Relocation to the City of Buffalo and acceptance at the Academy for the Visual and Performing Arts moved him in his right direction.

When Meet the Composer Inc. and an AVPA initiative brought Baczkowski to Hallwalls in 1993, introducing him to musical thinking and voices beyond his life’s experience to date, a devotee was born. Hallwalls became his hangout.

sound alternatives
Lee Renaldo of the Glen Hall Trio.
In the meantime, Baczkowski graduated from high school and entered an American studies program at UB that introduced him to ethnomusicology (world music) and the burning desire to know the diverse instruments and music of global folks more intimately. A living testament to the potential for life and fun in musical Buffalo, he remains a tad overwhelmed to find himself positioned as a leader in the current generation of the Hallwalls family.

“It’s immense! The gig legitimizes my efforts (blowing in tubes, following errant fancies) and grants me permission to play and conspire with peers and legends alike. Hallwalls 101 has taught me how to see possibilities, identify resources, energize production and facilitate work. I feel blessed to have found my way toward successfully balancing administration, curating, and producing musical art. I have an outlet and can function as an outlet for others,” Baczkowski says, once again with the infectious smile.

Discussions about music at Hallwalls invite contemplation of jazz, free improvisation, versatility and creativity in players, legends (past, present, and future), open playing, screaming electronics, abstract and spiritual energy, crossover artists, the avant-garde, classic twentieth century music, and more. Sounds like heady stuff, promising adventure and provocation. Let’s pause to consider some of those terms, thwarting hasty judgment calls or avoidance syndrome.

Improvisation is an essential element in all orally transmitted music, from the social music of aboriginal peoples to the artistic traditions of Indian classical music.

(It’s interesting to note Albert Einstein considering improvisation an emotional and intellectual necessity, in telling Alexander Moszkowski in 1919 about longingly caressing his piano’s keys upon each return home, to easing himself of the tonal experiences that compounded inside as he journeyed away from home.)

Improvisation can be a trained response to a given, the development of an idea held in memory, an impulsive action during performance, a cadenza in a classical concerto, an interpretation-elaboration-variation, or simply an impromptu creation. Defined in these terms, improvisation becomes not quite so new in anyone’s experience.

In jazz, a primary theme (tune) sets the framework for improvisation with rhythmic substance providing a decisive factor. “Free” jazz steps away from this tradition. Free jazz and twentieth century classical music differ mostly in their actual method of creation: classical musicians usually set their ideas in print, while free jazz-ers improvise the meaning as they go.

sound alternatives
Matthew Shipp
What of the avant-garde in music? (The term comes from the French for warfare, the “vanguard” forces at the fore.) Another relative category, to be sure, yet truly fascinating. Sound installations and contemporary instrumental techniques are right at home here, along with electronic and taped music, music generated by digital computers, live electronics interacting with acoustic instruments, the pattern music of Phillip Glass and Steve Reich, narrative and experimental (even video) opera, meditative music in altered and expanded time, music based on natural phenomena (sonic blasts from sand dunes, plant response to emotional and telepathic stimuli, whistling “sferics” from outer space, intense amplification of environmental sounds, a bat’s echolocation system, brainwaves, etc.), collective improvisations, and aleatory or “chance” music—music not about something, but music that is the thing itself.

Did you know that Mozart threw dice and played billiards to choose his certain materials as he composed music for dance? Ben Franklin is said to have invited “contemporary playing techniques” by writing a quartet for players who only bowed, never touched, their instruments’ strings. America’s “Beethoven” of the mid-1800’s, Anthony Philip Heinrich, experimented with composing by translating visual geometry directly onto his orchestral scores preceding today’s graphic notation, and called for free flows of massed inflected gestures long before the so-called avant-garde symphonists of the twentieth century came along. As is often the case, he’s been called a deluded amateur as well as a prophetic intellectual.

Suffice it to say the amount and variety of musical possibilities available to today’s society is simply staggering.

Music at Hallwalls begins Friday, September 7 with the Glen Hall Trio, featuring guitarist Lee Renaldo of the cult rock group Sonic Youth, the phenomenal trombonist Ray Anderson (“An unbelievably versatile and creative player,” says Baczkowski), and leader Glen Hall, a saxophone and bass clarinet man from Toronto. This screaming electronics event, co-produced by Big Orbit Gallery, is followed by pianist Matthew Shipp (Catch Continuum, Why the Jazz Establishment Can’t Stop, a documentary by Patrick A. Gaucher) christening Hallwall’s newest acquisition—a grand piano. Alto saxophonist Rob Brown collaborates for some uniquely blended, technically proficient, and openly stylish playing.

Conference Call visits Hallwalls Friday, September 14, featuring drummer George Schuller (son of Gunther), bassist Joe Fonda, pianist Michael J. Stevens, and bass clarinetist Gebhard Ullmann. Jazz and the Mark Helias Trio come September 28, and the Jenkins/Norton Duo headlines October’s roster of talent. Violinist Leroy Jenkins’ abstract and freely improvised stylings set the stage for dancer Felisha Norton.

Saxophonist and pianist Charles Gayle is coming home, playing Hallwalls with his trio Friday, October twelfth. Born and raised in Buffalo, Gayle worked the steel mills of Buffalo before making his way to the streets and subways of New York City. Discovered and celebrated as a diamond in the rough, Gayle’s tenor sax playing is characterized as spiritual, aggressive, and gut-wrenching. It speaks eloquently to the strong Buffalo connections Baczkowski intends to maintain throughout the 2001-02 season.

sound alternatives
Charles Gayle.
Another Buffalonian, John Bacon, appears at Hallwalls Saturday, November tenth, bringing a Sun Ra tribute. Sun Ra, a consummate showman who espoused a highly personal and cosmic spirituality in his music and poetry died in 1993; John Bacon’s tribute features works by Sun Ra, Duke Ellington, Ornette Coleman and Charles Mingus performed by Buffalo-based musicians Greg Millar on guitar, Greg Piontek on bass, and saxophonist Rey Scott (who performed with Sun Ra) along with others.

Baczkowski is especially pleased to present the internationally active and eclectic drummer and musician Bobby Previte, born in Niagara Falls, in town for a two-to-three week residency sometime this spring. After moving to New York City, Bobby became well known internationally through his compositions for the Moscow Circus and a noted transcription of Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew fusion music. During the Hallwalls residency, he’ll conduct workshops at Buffalo schools, rehearse a ten-to-fifteen piece band assembled by Baczkowski, and lead performances of works from Bitches Brew.

Multi-world instrumentalist Kali Fasteau, a free improviser on the New York scene who wails on soprano sax, Japanese shakuhachi, Persian ney, cello, percussion, and her own vocal chords—along with sculptor/visual artist/musician Ken Butler and his Voices of Anxious Objects—remain on Baczkowski’s wish-list, along with Baristravaganza, Terry Riley, and the Charles Mingus Big Band. A move toward presenting twentieth century classics is in the works, along with the intention to open the hall to student and local performers whenever possible. Let us all have nothing but good things to say about Steve Baczkowski and Hallwalls, and echo James Emery talking to Consider the Alternatives, 20 Years of Contemporary Art at Hallwalls in saying, “Live long and prosper.”

Flutist Cheryl Gobbetti Hoffman is a member of the Music Performance Faculty at the University of Buffalo and was previously a tenured musician and Board Member of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.


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