It's easy—and important—to lament what Seattle's Teen Dance Ordinance is doing to scores of nightclubs. And it's even easier to lament what the policy has done to the Speakeasy, the Internet cafe that's become something of a cultural hub in Belltown. After all, the Speakeasy is community-minded, and wired for public good with Internet connections, Web-page hosting, and the like. But what's easily forgotten is the toll the TDO and the crackdown on the Speakeasy—which has been forced to cease presenting live music as of May 29—takes on the arts that'll never pass muster at the nearby Crocodile, or the Sit & Spin, or almost any other nightclub in town.
To a good many Seattle music fans, the Speakeasy has become synonymous with one of North America's longest-running series of experimental-music showcases, Other Sounds. After recent elbowing, the Speakeasy first announced it was closing, and later retracted a bit, making a pitch to stay open as a cafe. But what was stripped away were the Other Sounds gigs, which, since the venue was barely a season old, had filled the back room every other week.
So the series' organizers—Matthew Sperry, Wally Shoup, and Dennis Rea—are out of a home. "We're the primary loser in this scenario," says Shoup, noting that the loss of the Speakeasy hits Other Sounds disproportionately hard. Anyone who's caught the series' gigs knows this is true, for the music is resolutely keeled on expressiveness and discovery and not a mandate to socialize, drink beer, or "be seen."
Shoup describes founding the series in late 1995 as a way of extending an open door to musicians and composers in the avant-garde jazz, 20th-century chamber music, electronic composition, and free-improvisation worlds. "We wanted a regular series focusing on adventurous music, presented respectfully—in a quiet room, where the music and not the scene would be foremost. A sort of laboratory to see if interest in non-commercial music in Seattle was sincere when the music was presented properly."
The response, Shoup and Rea agree, has been great. The earliest Other Sounds gigs all included Shoup, an alto saxophonist and leader of the lauded Project W combo, and/ or Sperry, a bassist with monster credentials and the respect of the international creative music community (he's currently on tour with John Shiurba and Sean Meehan). Eventually the series expanded. "We began curating the gigs biweekly," Shoup recalls, "presenting gigs for others who we felt were pushing the sonic envelope and who were making music that demanded close listening."
The Speakeasy's 100-seat back room has been ideal for Other Sounds, allowing an intimacy that's too infrequent around town, with attendees able to simply slip out for all the comforts of a cafe. "Music that requires intensive listening rarely comes off in such traditional music venues as bars and rock clubs," Rea notes, "which is why we've been so fortunate in having a comfortable and sympathetic performance environment."
Ambiance aside, however, the loss of the environ is minor compared to the potential damage to the creative music scene. "Over the course of three and a half years we've presented almost 100 concerts," Rea points out. The series has included a number of internationally respected players: British saxophone improviser John Butcher, German clarinet improviser Wolfgang Fuchs, American guitarist Davey Williams, American viola improviser LaDonna Smith, Stuart Dempster, and others. "These may not be household names," Rea says, "but they are recognized leaders in the new music sphere."
Both Rea and Shoup point to the strong contingent of local musicians who've also found space to stretch out in the series. Drummer Andrew Drury, violist and composer Christian Asplund, cellist Brent Arnold, violinist Eyvind Kang, composer/bandleader Lynette Westendorf, and dozens of other Northwesterners have performed in the space. While these may be some of Seattle's most recognizable names in music, Rea notes that the music Other Sounds presents is far from everyday fare.
"The fundamental problem with marginal art forms," he says, "is simply that they don't generate the sort of broad-based profits that presenters and promoters demand. This leaves two options: sucking up to the arts establishment for grants, or scaling down your expectations, sticking to your guns, and getting comfortable with the idea that small is beautiful."
If the notion of marginal music induces headscratching, consider how Shoup, Rea, and countless others see the music's function. "What this music does," explains Rea, "is engage the listener on multiple levels—aesthetically, intellectually, and viscerally. It's for people who want to explore the mystery of sound and, by extension, their own interior spaces. It brings to the foreground aspects of music that have been made increasingly subservient to image in our society. This is not music to show off your haircut to."
For the time being, it's also not music that you can expect to find in a reliable locale after the Speakeasy closes for its remodel on June 1. Shoup and Rea are quick to point out that the Speakeasy has been constantly, doggedly supportive: "They stand behind and support our mission," Shoup says, "understanding that certain music doesn't generate a lot of cash or pop status but that it deserves to be heard."
So without much fanfare, an organic, regularly scheduled outlet for music that gets little commercial exposure will possibly disappear, forced out by regulations aimed at quelling underage drinking (or is it an underage presence?). Gotta rid the streets of those aggro, street-scrapping free jazzers. They're vicious.