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Neon Marshmallow Test 

Underground experimental music has a small audience almost by definition—can a huge festival devoted to it break even?

Dan Smith and Matt Kimmel

Dan Smith and Matt Kimmel

colleen durkin

Last October Dan Smith played a show at the Viaduct Theater with his solo ambient synth project, Red Electric Rainbow, and a few other artists. It was in some ways just another show, but it was the first he'd set up himself instead of just asking a booker for a slot for his band—and it opened the floodgates for him. Within a month he was working to organize something much more daunting: this weekend's Neon Marshmallow Fest, also at the Viaduct, an extravaganza of experimental music featuring more than 90 acts spread across four days.

Smith, 27, got the idea when he arrived at the Viaduct for that October gig, before he'd even played. He'd been to a concert there before, but now he found himself on a different stage in a different room, and this discovery about the venue's size set him to thinking. "I had a moment when I was there where I thought it would be great if they had an experimental-music fest," he says. That same night he e-mailed Viaduct co-owner Whitney Blakemore, who reacted with some enthusiasm, and Smith was off and running.

He first reached out to Brooklyn sound artist Carlos Giffoni, the organizer of New York's acclaimed No Fun Fest (last year he also put together a version in Stockholm, Sweden), for advice. Giffoni told Smith he should expect to lose money. But he also provided some artist contacts and a few tips about logistics. Last winter Smith enlisted Matt Kimmel, 28, as an accomplice; they'd met in July after Smith e-mailed about playing at Kimmel's now-defunct DIY space, Century Village. Smith liked Kimmel's website, Acid Marshmallow, where he archives video of live experimental music—it currently hosts more than 700 full sets, shot in New York and in Chicago.

The city already has its share of festivals that accommodate experimental sounds, most notably September's annual Adventures in Modern Music, presented by the Empty Bottle and British music magazine the Wire. But Neon Marshmallow is unique in its devotion to the deep underground, where ultralimited cassette releases are the primary currency. The DIY aesthetic binds the sprawling lineup together more than any musical commonality—the artists performing cover a wide spectrum, from harsh noise to free jazz to warped pop to murky ambient to electroacoustic improvisation.

Initially Smith and Kimmel planned to book about 20 acts and include perhaps one international artist. But their ambition got the better of them, and the huge roster they ended up with features five overseas artists, among them England's Astral Social Club (the solo project of former Vibracathedral Orchestra leader Neil Campbell) and Switzerland's Dave Phillips, a key member of confrontational noise crew Schimpfluch-Gruppe. Smith estimates the total expenses (including plane tickets for those five) to be about $12,000, nearly $4,000 of which has come out of his own pocket.

Still, he's cautiously optimistic that the event won't, in fact, lose money. Most of the American acts are playing without guarantees. Smith and Kimmel have sold some ad space in the free fest zine they're producing with artist and musician Steve Krakow (aka Plastic Crimewave, whose strip the Secret History of Chicago Music runs biweekly in this paper), which will include blurbs on the bands and a complete schedule. And though advance ticket sales had barely cracked three digits when I spoke to Smith last week—he says it'll be "amazing" if 250 people come—they've included more than 70 four-day passes at $75 apiece. He knows of fans coming from as far as Minnesota.

Complicating Neon Marshmallow's attempts to break even is the hard truth that the strange and difficult music it showcases has a small potential audience. The audience it does have, though, is unusually devoted and famously fond of collectible merchandise, and Smith has done his best to take advantage of that. Several artists, including Giffoni and Astral Social Club, have provided him with music for exclusive release, and he's put it out on cassette in limited editions of ten to 50 as part of a series he calls Neon Blossom. So far there have been about 30 cassettes, and all proceeds have gone toward the fest. By the night of the first show Smith hopes to have several more editions ready, including cassettes by Phillips, Noveller (see below), and legendary Japanese noise collective C.C.C.C.

It's too soon for Smith and Kimmel to know if they'll try doing this again. "We've really set the bar high for our first go-round," says Smith. "So much time and energy have been put into this, and I'm sure everyone involved has high hopes for it to be a success. But I know Matt and I would love to do more of these."   

The Neon Marshmallow Fest consists of five shows in four days: Thu 8/19 at 7 PM ($20), Fri 8/20 at 7 PM ($25), Sat 8/20 at noon ($20) and 7 PM ($25), and Sun 8/22 at 3 PM ($25). The early show on Saturday is all-ages, but the others are 21 and up.

Artists perform on two stages, Acid and Blossom, throughout every show, with overlapping sets staggered so that it should be possible for fans to see at least 20 minutes of everyone. The full schedule is at neonmarshmallowfest.com, with each show's lineup listed headliner first. (Set order is very much subject to change.)

To be honest, most of the acts are new to me, but there are still plenty I know to be notable, including New York weirdos Excepter (Sat 8/20, 7 PM, Acid Stage), Boston experimental kingpin Keith Fullerton Whitman (Thu 8/19 and Fri 8/20, Acid Stage, and Sun 8/21, Acid Stage with TV Pow), Charalambides cofounder Tom Carter (Sat 8/20, 7 PM, Blossom Stage), Nate Young of Wolf Eyes performing as Regression (Sat 8/20, noon, Blossom Stage), and Japanoise veteran Government Alpha (Thu 8/19, Acid Stage in a trio with Skin Graft and Jason Soliday, and Sun 8/21, Acid Stage).

Below are my top five picks. —PM

Burning Star Core Cincinnati electroacoustic violinist C. Spencer Yeh, who often performs under the name Burning Star Core, sculpts his roiling, abrasive din with an unusual sensitivity to nuances of space and density. For the recent Papercuts Theater (No Quarter) Yeh created a mind-blowing sound collage by overlapping fragments of 66 live recordings made between 1997 and 2008 with regular collaborators like Robert Beatty (Hair Police) and Mike Shiflet as well as guests like Chicago saxophonist Dave Rempis. The surprisingly cohesive four-part opus ranges from meditative to brutal, alternately propelled and plunged into mayhem by free jazz-style drumming from a series of different players. Even the more, um, serene passages are loud as fuck, but Yeh's careful layering preserves an amazing richness of detail no matter how punishing the music gets. Though his set here will almost certainly be more modest—to the best of Smith's knowledge, he's playing solo, and of course he won't be stacking several performances a la Papercuts Theater—his rigorous aesthetic should still be fully evident.  Sat 8/21, noon, Acid Stage, as Burning Star Core and in a trio with Tom Carter and Meg Clixby

Emeralds Cleveland drone trio Emeralds have churned out nearly 40 releases in the past four years, mostly limited-edition cassettes and CD-Rs, but they've also had a handful of more polished and better distributed albums, including the new Does It Look Like I'm Here? on the respected Austrian label Editions Mego. The group's brand of ambient music—lush melodic synth washes, waterfalls of insistently cycling arpeggios, snake-sleek electric-guitar lines—harks back to the early days of Krautrock, particularly the more meditative output of artists like Klaus Schulze and Tangerine Dream. The new record is also sneakily aggressive: beneath its hazy, spaced-out surfaces, multiple layers of simultaneous movement give it an energizing bustle, and the synth tones manage to be both plush and piercing. Sat 8/21, 7 PM, Acid Stage

Carlos Giffoni Born and raised in Venezuela and now living in New York, Carlos Giffoni could be called the spiritual godfather to the Neon Marshmallow Fest. Not only has he organized the similarly stylistically omnivorous No Fun Fest since 2004, but he's also embraced and supported a wide variety of underground musicians via his label, No Fun Productions—he's released everything from the post-Tangerine Dream synth ambience of Emeralds to the unhinged noise rock of Hair Police to the assaultive sound art of veteran Swedish-Israeli experimentalist Dror Feiler. In his own work he displays a similar range and restlessness—you never know what you're going to get from him. It could be lacerating digital noise, grimy acid techno, or wrist-slitting dystopian minimalism like his recent album Severance (Hospital Productions)—a collection of funereal low-end squelches and brooding long tones produced on old-school Buchla and Serge modular analog synths.  Sat 8/21, 7 PM, Acid Stage, and Sat 8/21, noon, Acid Stage with Astral Social Club

Nmperign with Jason Lescalleet Maine tape-music artist Jason Lescalleet and pioneering electroacoustic improvisers Nmperign (aka Boston-based trumpeter Greg Kelley and New Orleans-based reedist Bhob Rainey) have been collaborating for more than a decade, and in 2006 they released the stunning two-disc set Love Me Two Times (Intransitive), whose sprawling diversity of textures and noises seamlessly combines live instrumentation with tape loops. The music is purely improvised and radically abstract—though there are occasional recognizable instrument sounds, there's nothing you could call melody, harmony, or even meter—but the players control their dynamics so finely and respond to one another with such quicksilver sensitivity that it remains engrossing throughout both CDs. All three men are playing their own sets at Neon Marshmallow (Kelley Thu 8/19, Acid Stage; Rainey Fri 8/20, Acid Stage; Lescalleet Sun 8/22, Acid Stage), but I'm most excited about seeing them together again. Sat 8/21, noon, Acid Stage

Noveller Brooklyn guitarist Sarah Lipstate, aka Noveller—who's worked briefly with Parts & Labor and Cold Cave and served as a foot soldier in Rhys Chatham's guitar orchestras—tones down the otherworldly noisescapes of last year's Red Rainbows (No Fun) on her new Desert Fires (Saffron). But what the new album lacks in volume and aggression it makes up for with a heightened sense of composition and a fuller, more nuanced palette of tone colors. Most of the tracks use a foundation of sparingly employed loops or lush, droning ambience, and Lipstate's foreground action includes bowed washes of sound, strummed chords, and conventionally played single-string melodic lines. Her pieces are concise fantasias that combine tuneful fragments with an iridescent sonic radiance that seems to linger in the air forever. Lipstate will play a set alone and collaborate with Unfact, the newish solo project of Jesus Lizard bassist David Wm. Sims. Sat 8/21, 7 PM, Acid Stage, and Sun 8/22, Blossom Stage with Unfact   

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