Improvisational musicians tend to lead double or triple lives. Many of them play in fairly traditional rock bands by night and conduct workshops or teach music at schools during the day. But their true passion, the one that they can’t shake, is exploring the possibilities of pure sound and creating music on the fly.
Of course, finding an audience - not to mention a venue - for such a spontaneous, tonality-for-tonality’s-sake approach will always be a challenge in a world that values crafted, arranged songs. That’s where Chris Cogburn comes in. An Austin-based avant-garde percussionist and music educator, Cogburn created the No Idea Festival (so named because the performing musicians had no idea what form their performances might take) in Austin five years ago, with the intention of uniting the improvisational communities he’d found in Austin and Houston. Cogburn became fascinated with improvisational music because he saw it as “the articulation of a creative process,” and he’d been inspired by Houston trombonist Dave Dove, who created an improvisational-music organization called Nameless Sounds.
“I was just driving back and forth between Houston and Austin a lot, because I really wanted to play and I was pretty new to improvised music,” Cogburn recalls. “I’d go to Houston a lot to work with Dave: to play, to perform, to teach, to put on concerts. So I met all these amazing people and there was a really thriving community that was just starting to assemble around him.”
In 2003, the No Idea Festival reached a “pretty small but really concentrated” audience, according to Cogburn. “There was a lot of excitement because there was something really new about it. It was acknowledging that there are fantastic improvisers and experimental musicians in Texas,” he adds.
From 2003 to 2006, Cogburn brought the festival to Austin and Houston, but last year he approached Salon Mijangos curator Ben Judson about shifting the festival’s final night from Houston to San Antonio.
“I basically met him because I was bringing some of the same people through San Antonio that he was bringing through Austin, like `Japanese guitarist` Tetuzi Akiyama,” Judson says. Akiyama opened his 2006 U.S. tour in San Antonio, and Judson organized that show, with Cogburn subsequently bringing the guitarist through Austin.”
Salon Mijangos drew an enthusiastic local audience of between 40 and 50 people last year, and this year they’ll again bring the four-day event to a close with a February 17 San Antonio gathering, after one night at Austin’s Figurative Gallery (February 14) and two nights at Austin’s Blue Theater (February 15-16).
“Working in a gallery space allows us to present kinds of music that just wouldn’t work in a club atmosphere,” Judson says. “Bringing it into the gallery space and presenting it more as an artistic event than entertainment is something that attracted me.
“The whole idea of purely improvised music appeals to me in the sense of exploring different ways that people can interact with each other on a larger social level. When these groups play, there’s no real hierarchy, there’s no predetermined structure, although there are definitely themes that run through all these shows. But they tend to be more meditative.”
No Idea’s early editions focused primarily on Texas artists, but Cogburn has broadened the geographic and cultural range of the festival considerably this year. The Tokyo-based Akiyama brings a fascinating resume to the festival. A pre-teen metal enthusiast who developed a flair for shredding, he also developed a deep love for the blues, and his 2003 solo album, Don’t Forget to Boogie!, would surely make sense to fans of early ZZ Top. On the other hand, he’s a committed avant-garde improviser who once recorded an album using a Samurai sword on a prepared resonator guitar.
Baltimore guitarist Bonnie Jones makes an art of manipulating the circuit boards of digital-delay pedals, while Santa Barbara, California’s Kurt Newman has been lauded as an experimental Django Reinhardt, and New Orleans-based Rob Cambre creates spontaneous symphonies from guitar feedback and distortion. Juan Garcia, a Mexico native who now lives in Phoenix, will explore the improvisational possibilities of the double-bass. The festival will also include three accomplished Boston eccentrics: Greg Kelley (trumpet), Bhob Rainey (soprano sax), and Liz Tonne (voice), who leaps from bird songs to vocal emulations of percussion instruments.
While improvisers will always struggle to find supportive, nurturing venues to present their ideas, the future of the No Idea Festival seems secure. This year, for the first time, Cogburn
received funding support from the City of Austin (through its Cultural Arts Division), and he also received a grant from the Texas Commission on the Arts and an award from the National Endowment for the Arts. At least for four days a year, these musicians can hang out, perform, and exhange ideas, fully aware that they’ll find an appreciative audience.
“It’s not necessarily a specialist’s music,” Cogburn says. “I do workshops and teach, and you get some of the best music in that context. You get somebody who has a very personal language, who’s spent a lot of time on their instrument and they’re playing with somebody who just picked up their guitar a couple of months ago, but, whether it’s chemistry or the energy and dymanic between the two, something great happens.
“The idea that it’s about virtuosity, and that virtuosity leads to choice, I don’t really agree with that.” •
No Idea Festival
8pm Sun, Feb 17
1906 S. Flores