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Washington, D.C.'s Musical Experiments
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Washington, D.C.'s Musical Experiments


Washington, D.C., is better known for its suits than its creativity. But the city's been home to a diverse range of music - from Duke Ellington's jazz to hard-core punk to go-go. Today, in the latest installment of our series "Home Grown Music," NPR's Neda Ulaby introduces us to a different D.C. scene: experimental music.

NEDA ULABY: I'm watching a slim, young woman named Bonnie Jones manipulate circuit boards and digital delay pedals at the Velvet Lounge, a dark, little bar with blood-red walls that lurks on the fringe of D.C.'s super trendy U Street corridor. Tonight, it's hosting an experimental music festival called "Sonic Circuits."

(Soundbite of musical piece "Sonic Circuits")

ULABY: Bonnie Jones was born in South Korea and raised by New Jersey dairy farmers. She's one of 60 musicians from eight different countries performing at the festival. Music writer Marc Masters is my guide to the scene this evening.

Mr. MARC MASTERS (Music Writer): There's going to be stuff here that actually sounds like a rock band but not like a rock band that writes songs.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MASTERS: There's going to be stuff here that sounds like something you would hear in a movie, except it's not trying to mimic the images. It's just trying to generate moods on its own.

(Soundbite of music)

ULABY: If this kind of music happens to be your thing, D.C. is a surprisingly good place to live.

Mr. JEFF SURAK (Director, Sonic Circuits Festival): It's a very strong, close-knit community that's very open.

ULABY: Jeff Surak directs the Sonic Circuits Festival. He says about half of this year's talent comes from around D.C.

Mr. SURAK: We're not limited to genres. People play in different types of groups, everything from sort of free-noise rock to very harsh noise, ambient electronic music to drone and everything in-between.

ULABY: In D.C., these types all mix together, unlike New York or Chicago, where the scenes tend to be cliquey, says Surak. His own solo project, called "Violet," makes music he describes as irrational.

Mr. SURAK: My acts, per se, if you want to call it that, would be an autoharp that has been - has seen better years. It's pretty much warped. And I removed all the keys on it, and it's never been tuned.

(Soundbite of music)

ULABY: Jeff Surak says D.C. benefits from a sophisticated, international audience willing to take chances on music like his. And because the city itself lacks a major music school, it's not jammed with students and professional musicians competing for fame and gigs.

Mr. JONATHAN MATIS (Guitarist; Composer): When the stakes are low, everybody can get along.

ULABY: Jonathan Matis is a guitarist and composer who also runs two small nonprofits that support experimental music in D.C.

Mr. MATIS: There is no incentive for anyone to not be welcoming or encouraging or open to whatever anyone else is doing.

ULABY: After all, it's not like anyone is making any money on this. Case in point - a monthly gathering of diehard experimental music junkies. The Electric Possible meets in a basement at the music department at George Washington University. About 20 guys are thoroughly involved with their gear - modular and analogue synthesizers, theremins and electronic didgeridoos. They are swapping tips and cables, and helping each other find the all-important wall outlets. Jeff Bagalo works at a law library. He's the group's organizer.

Mr. JEFF BAGALO (Organizer, Electric Possible): It's a really friendly scene, and it's really like the nicest music scene that I've ever been part of here in D.C.

ULABY: Some of the musicians here tonight are former punks who've aged out of the hard-core club scene. Some are pocket-protected, Popular Mechanic-type hobbyists. Some are both, like Dave Rickert, a 43-year-old dad with a very D.C. day job.

Mr. DAVE RICKERT (Government Contractor): I am a government contractor working with devices that keep people safe from roadside bombs in Iraq.

ULABY: Rickert plays in a Moog-heavy duo called RDK with another musician named Davis White.

(Soundbite of music)

ULABY: One of the things Rickert appreciates most in D.C.'s experimental music scene is its lack of trendiness or pretension.

Mr. RICKERT: There's just a lot of people that kind of do their own thing, which kind of keeps it interesting because it's more of - just an extension of their personalities rather than trying to do what other people are doing.

ULABY: And that's what makes it fun, Rickert says. Whether or not you like the music or even consider it music at all is secondary. This scene values imagination, ingenuity and originality, all things this capital city could use a lot more of. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: And you can hear more melodies from D.C.'s experimental bands at

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