High Desert Soundings, a far-flung festival of experimental music and sound art, points our attention towards small sounds and unique resonances in the California desert.
WONDER VALLEY, CA—The audience at High Desert Soundings sits among scattered groupings of sun-bleached pews, van benches, and dumpster-dived school chairs that are symbiotic with outdoor gatherings in the Southwest.
The first sound we hear: rocks jumbling around wooden wine boxes artfully shaken by Tasting Menu.
Unamplified, the trio stays within the bounds of the stage but as far apart from each other as they can get. There are slow minute shifts in density and position until the band crowds around a too-small table. Slight scrapes, plucks, and rattles push through speakers intended to project as far into the desert as possible.
It’s mid-October 2023 on the first evening of High Desert Soundings, and I’ve found myself at a bar in Wonder Valley, California, to perform and attend the annual festival of experimental sound and music that has included appearances by Wolf Eyes, Sarah Hennies, Audrey Chen, Phil Minton, Palberta, Jeph Jerman, and many others.
HDS, founded in 2017 by T.J. Borden and Daniel Meyer-O’Keeffe, takes place in and around The Palms, the only establishment for miles that’s a roadhouse of sorts with a shifting assortment of locals, regulars, and drifters who surprisingly pack the place. The showcase of experimental music—with its many nooks, crannies, slipstreams, and eddies that’s a shoreline that resists accurate cartography—takes place on an outdoor stage that looks like it could have been refuse from the nearby Marine base in Twentynine Palms.
I was asked to perform at the 2023 festival, which took place October 13 and 14, in a trio with Douglas Osmun and Marc Perez, two musicians I wasn’t familiar with and had never met before. Both musicians arrive minutes before our set that opens the festival, with no time to do more than shake hands before we’re on stage together, sounding. The brunt of my performance practice focuses on improvisation so the ad hoc approach suits me.
For me, uncertainty and novelty make for an exciting and engaging performing experience, though the music sometimes lags. In this case, the grouping is thoughtful—I share similar interests with Marc in quietude, texture, and silence, which balances the density of Douglas’s jagged electronics.
Tim Feeney, Tasting Menu’s percussionist, is a long-time friend and collaborator as well as a professor at the California Institute of the Arts. Owing to the festival’s roots in Southern California avant-academia, a healthy portion of the festival’s performers have ties to CalArts or the University of California San Diego, whether as faculty, alumni, or current students. Invariably, during some of the festival’s best sets, Tim appears over my shoulder, whispering appreciatively about a current or former student of his who happened to be on stage.
After my set with Osmun and Perez, there’s a single half-drunk voice murmuring under Wilfrido Terrazas’s delicate solo flute. Terrazas—whose incredible circular-breathing extended technique produces a single, ten-minute breath—manipulates the resonance of the space between the instrument and his mouth. His breath seems to encapsulate the atmosphere of a whole world with a single pitch at its core. Terrazas achieves something rare in music: a performance stunning in its virtuosity and still aesthetically engaging and deeply moving.
Despite the focus on improvised music, not everything is spur of the moment at High Desert Soundings. Some of the work presented is fully composed, some loosely arranged around compositional sketches. Even fully improvised performances are informed by the players’ years of experiences on and off stage.
Cassia Streb, Tasting Menu’s violist, tells me the band chose the table that was a few sizes too small to encourage less active improvisation. Streb strikes a single uneven tone on her instrument, responding to the rough textures created by the rest of the group, forming a timbre that turns like the topography of the ridgeline in the distance.
Before HDS begins its second night, Tasting Menu, which has been asked to install an art/sound piece in addition to its opening-night performance, arranges small paper spheres across a small swath of desert sand just outside of the performance area. The sound installation runs through the festival’s second night, silently audible in the very quietest moments from the stage. A low rumble and clatter of gravel and slate emerge from the lithosphere, inhuman and dense from a wide-angle view, but gestural and human from within the outcropping. It’s a contraction rather than an amplification.
When the music starts on the closing evening of HDS, another ad hoc trio gathers on stage. Lauren Sarah Hayes commandeers a table of electronic equipment, flanked by Ethan Marks on trumpet and Gleb Kanasevich on bass clarinet. The audience faces east while Hayes, in sunglasses, leans into the sunset. Earlier that day, a solar eclipse covered that same sun in an unnerving gauze, creating shadows with feathered edges. Marks uses a bare speaker cone to activate the inside of his trumpet. The unfamiliar resonance of an impossibly small space implies a similar displacement to Tasting Menu’s lithosphere murmuring in the distance.
Later in the evening, Vinny Golia surrounds himself with a wider swath of horns than I thought possible. Nearby is tubist William Roper, whose penchant for surrealism and intensity adds anticipation to the first-time duo performance.
Roper begins the set hidden in the darkness outside of the stage lighting, blowing through an animal horn while perched on a sun-bleached pile of debris. Golia and Roper improvise through the gap between acoustic and amplification, stage and backdrop. Sound without a room lacks muscle—the density of the sand absorbs spare frequencies and holds them, nullifying any sense of resonance almost entirely. By the time Roper finds himself on stage in front of a microphone, he speaks.
“Space, the final frontier, the real high desert,” he says. “I can walk around in the desert and all I see is high, all of those with eyes, we see that they high… I feel comfortable out here in the desert because I look up in the sky and all I see is space.”
Los Angeles-based quartet Agriculture, which plays after dark and towards the tail end of High Desert Soundings, firmly plants both feet in black metal—it’s all blast beats and pained wailing that indulges the joy of amplitude. I’ve always thought of black metal as music drawing power from the earth, something akin to Tatsumi Hijikata’s definition of Butoh: “A dead body risking its life placing its feet firmly on the ground.” It’s strange to hear the insistence of metal without the resonance of a concrete room, half-stacks instead blasting into the sand and cool evening air. There are fragile moments during the set, with vocalist (and HDS festival founder) Meyer-O’Keeffe’s cracking voice singing, “There’s always plenty of water.”
At the end of the night, I catch a warm gust of air as I drag my feet through the sand to sleep in the back of my truck that’s parked on Bureau of Land Management land conveniently next to The Palms. Now that I’m out of earshot, there’s a familiar kind of exhaustion that I feel coming on—a ringing in my ears and a tightness in my back. There’s also a comfort in the feeling that’s full of sound, new encounters, and musical approaches.
I’ve spent most of my life deeply involved in underground music of all stripes, gravitating towards improvised music as the most exciting, the most resistant to my own expectations. While High Desert Soundings is only a slice of experimental music activity in North America, the breadth of possibilities presented at the festival has been affirming and uplifting. The music is pushed forward not for the sake of itself, but to expand our capacities and uncover what sound can show us about the world.