IT'S FUNNY HOW well those clichéd Hollywood movie adages work. When I asked Old Time Relijun frontman Arrington de Dionyso what he's learned about the slippery business of music festivals during his 10 years as curator and organizer of the Olympia Festival of Experimental Musics, his reply was, "If you build it, they will come."
This year's festival, which hopes to stretch the coming weekend into a four-day carnival of exploration, innovation, silence, and cacophony, includes over 25 acts from as far away as Italy and as near as the K Records headquarters. Culled from a pool of over 100 applicants, experimenters like Jacopo Andreini, who will conduct a large ensemble set to feature members of Seattle's Billy Tipton Memorial Saxophone Quartet, will perform alongside former Some Velvet Sidewalk singer/guitarist Al Larsen and poli-punk K Records veterans Mecca Normal. De Dionyso insists that each of the performers agree to attend all four days of the festival. He says this weeds out artists who are just looking for exposure, and it helps engender the atmosphere he's after, one where the audience and the artists are equal participants.
It's a very Olympian goal, but because of the broad spectrum of performance styles, the open-ended properties of these performances, and the small-town setting and its DIY legacy, it might not be overly lofty. While Andreini, who has made it his business to learn just about all of the world's instruments, will play and conduct his own compositions based on Sicilian brass band marching songs, we might expect strangely generated hip-hop beats and bright, metallic washes of garage-influenced noise from Larsen and stream of consciousness scat punk from Mecca Normal.
Or not. By its very nature, the festival invites the subversion of what is usual and customary—even from artists whose aesthetic is already unusual. Although he's deeply hesitant to provide any kind of generalized definition of what "experimental musics" might encompass— because "there is such an extraordinary diversity of sound art that could be defined as such"—de Dionyso says that he is personally attracted to music that reaches him on an "archetypal level." He's referring to the Jungian reading of that word in which a pattern of images and thoughts from some vague, faraway collective unconsciousness manifests itself in our individual minds. For these artists, experimental music is primordial stuff; it's inborn and instantly available to each of us. But the rest of us know that it doesn't always feel that easy. Because experimental music lacks the recognizable elements of the stuff most of us grew up on, the tendency is to think too much and listen too hard, searching for whatever it is we're supposed to be hearing. The trick of it is to give up that self-conscious searching. Instead of overthinking, it might be wise—and fun—to try underthinking.
Take, for instance, one of de Dionyso's favorite memories of festivals past: a 15-piece orchestra playing instruments made of only Styrofoam and plastic drinking straws. He says the sound was, as you might guess, "indescribable"—and it would be a shame to spend too much time analyzing something as eccentric and potentially enjoyable as that.
"Let's think about it using a food metaphor," says de Dionyso, whose latest release, with Old Time Relijun, is an excellent clash of loose pop structures and tough, sinewy extrapolation. "A great pop song reaches out to the masses like a great soda, like great potato chips. These are foods engineered to appeal to the largest number of people in a given market. Enjoying experimental music is like eating raw foods—it takes getting used to, and it might be hard to chew on sometimes."
CANADA'S PAUL DUTTON is also slated to perform. It sounds like his set might require some of that chewing, and it might include some chewing, too—or at least what might sound like chewing. Using not just words or vocals but "mouth percussion" in his performances, Dutton is a sound poet who has performed at esteemed jazz, poetry, and new-music festivals in cities like Munich, Rotterdam, Berlin, and Vancouver. It took two years for de Dionyso to figure out how to get Dutton—and Andreini—all the way here so that he could add Olympia to that list. In fact, he's ardently attempting to get our capital's city council to officially sanction an "Olympic Experimental Music Week." Who knows—if the festival's participants make enough noise, or at least the right noise, he just might do it.
The Olympia Festival of Experimental Musics takes place Thurs., June 24, and Fri., June 25, at Traditions Cafe, 300 Fifth Ave., Olympia, 360-402-6263; and Sat., June 26, and Sun., June 27, at the Midnight Sun, N. 113 Columbia St., Olympia, 360-402-6263. 7 p.m. all nights. $8 opening night/$7 other nights/$23 full four-day pass. Full schedules at www.krecs.com/shows.