Concerts at libraries are old hat, but Cincinnati librarian and boundless optimist Steve Kemple is blazing new trails with his “Experimental Music at the Library” performance series, held monthly at the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County’s main library. It’s a showcase for local circuit benders, sound sculptors, and noise mavens to let their aesthetic freak flags fly within an educational context. I asked Kemple for some background.
Tell me about the first show.
SK: David William kicked off the series. He incorporates identifiable avant-garde influences into his sound, especially early musique-concrete, giving me lots to work with in creating a display of library materials to accompany the performance—something I do for every program, experimental or otherwise. Before he started playing, I was a nervous wreck because almost no one showed up other than our wives, a few shelvers I had coerced into pretending to be audience members, and an elderly woman who spends most days at the library reading magazines.
The performance was harsh at times and beautiful at others. While [William] played, people came and went, and the seats gradually filled up with curious onlookers—many peered cautiously over the tops of shelves. The performance finished with a dramatic crescendo of bird sounds followed by an abrupt silence. No one knew what to do. The silence that followed was, for me, the most meaningful moment of the entire composition, the way it gradually gave way to a new awareness of the HVAC system, traffic outside, and my own breathing. It was a cathartic experience.
How are players and attendees reacting?
Overall, I would characterize responses as very positive. Library customers often take a minute to wrap their head around what’s going on before either sitting down to enjoy or moving on. After David William’s set, a woman came up to me and said, “Was that even music? What do you call that? I don’t dislike it…I just have no idea what to call it. I actually really enjoy it, it’s just like nothing else I’ve ever heard!” This was especially heartening because it revealed that it had created a new musical category for her; she has returned to almost every performance.
The musicians have been particularly excited to perform in such an unusual space and for the opportunity to bring experimental music to a new, potentially wider audience. One musician remarked that he was blown away that more than 150 people had just sat through what was essentially a noise show. It has also been an opportunity for musicians to network and forge new collaborations.
Do you tie in an educational aspect?
Absolutely. Before every performance I ask the artist(s) to list some of their creative inspirations, which I use to create a display of library materials (usually CDs, records, and books). Having the display provides a great opportunity not only to inform and educate but to supply something customers can take home and absorb at their own pace. To my surprise, the displays have also been of interest to musicians, who are occasionally unfamiliar with some of my selections.
Rather than formal talks, I have found one-on-one conversations to be the most effective way to educate casual listeners. If someone says, “I liked this about the performance, but I didn’t like that,” I can recommend a CD or two and talk about what the artist(s) may have been trying to accomplish, as well as point out the validity of their experience. I believe the biggest barrier facing new listeners of experimental music is the notion that dislike is tantamount to not “getting it.” I don’t believe there is such a thing as a wrong way to experience a work of art or to approach experimental music.
What’s planned for the future? Do you have any dream guests?
I’d like to reach out to students at the Art Academy of Cincinnati and University of Cincinnati’s (UC) College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning, as well as UC’s College-Conservatory of Music and School for Creative and Performing Arts. I’d also like to expand the multimedia component, maybe pairing musicians with video artists, dancers, poets, or performance artists. I like the idea of absurd collaborations. I have this crazy idea of using chance operations to plan future events, like the I Ching or Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies, which is a set of cards designed to fuel the creative process with instructions such as “Do something boring” or “Make a [blank] valuable by putting it in an exquisite frame.”
I have a lot of dream guests. Robert Schneider from The Apples in Stereo is doing some really interesting things with sound and mathematics, and he recently invented the world’s first mind-controlled synthesizer. An experimental set by Sam Prekop (from The Sea & Cake) or any of the guys from Tortoise would be cool. My emphasis will continue to be on local artists, but I’d really like to get touring acts. As a matter of fact, the November 13 presentation featured the Panoply Performance Laboratory, Valerie Kuehne, and Geraldo Mercado, all from New York City.