Joseph Waters, a skinny and intense man with a gray crew cut and thick, wild eyebrows, takes the small stage at San Diego State University's Smith Recital Hall. He introduces himself as Jozefius V. Rattus, invites the crowd to squeeze in closer, and begins poking fun at the anti-evolution theory “intelligent design.” The crowd of mostly students and faculty giggles and applauds. Two hip-looking cats in their late 20s join Waters on stage-Todd Rewoldt (aka Saximus), with his shiny alto saxophone, and Felix Olschofka (aka Fiddlus), with his violin. Collectively, the three go by the name Swarmius.
Waters leaves the stage and heads to the back of the recital hall, where he'll be working the soundboard and playing music from his laptop. Rewoldt and Olschofka kick things off with “Suite for Violin and Saxophone,” a lovely piece of chamber music written by composer Adolf Busch. The violin is near perfect and the sax never sounded so classy.
The second piece is a Waters original—he splits his time as a composer and associate professor of music at SDSU, where he holds the title of director of electro-acoustic and media composition. The piece is called “Vivaldi Fireflies” and it's a hell of a lot different than the first. Rewoldt and his sax leave the stage. The violin is plugged in, and explosive electronic sounds sweep in and out. The sounds are manipulated field recordings of instruments, streams, bugs and pretty much anything you can imagine, and they are being generated by Waters' laptop. He's written a software program that lets him strike the keys of the computer as if it were a musical instrument.
The music is intense, crammed with dramatic crescendos followed by abrupt pauses. It's gorgeous, but un-definable. It makes you wonder: Is there an audience for this?
Rewoldt and his sax reenter for the third piece. It's another Waters original called “Intelligent Designs,” and it's got soul-you can hear it when a sample of Ludacris' hip-hop hit “Roll Out” is pounded out in chorus by the electronics, violin and sax.
After the show, the question—Is there an audience for this strange music?—is answered. One woman runs to the front of the recital hall, bangs on the stage and tells Waters the show was “phenomenal.” Two younger women approach him a little later. “That was, like, the most amazing thing I've ever heard!” one of them shrieks. “Will you sign our programs?”
So, there's at least a small audience for it.
But don't let the enthusiasm fool you. Waters' music is still a far cry from the gushing waters of the mainstream. Positioned on the outer banks of the avant-garde, his electro-acoustic music is considered experimental—the word itself scares most people away. They immediately think weird and never even give it a try.
Waters wants that to change. Describing himself as a “populist composer,” he wants to “make love with popular culture.” He says his dream is to break his music from its constrictive shell-he wants to bring experimental music to the masses.
“I knew that I wanted to start some type of experimental who-knows-what,” said Waters, “something to do with weird art and interesting music.”
Waters' dream has taken shape as the New West Electro-Acoustic Music Organization (NWEAMO), a festival showcasing experimental electro-acoustic musicians and composers from around the globe. Now in its eighth year, NWEAMO has grown from its beginnings as a small, underground music gathering in Portland, Ore., to a full-blown, multi-city music festival-albeit still underground-drawing in relatively big-name performers. The Nortec Collective has been in a past lineup, and this year, Bradford Reed of the Blue Man Group will perform.
The festival is traveling to Portland this week, San Diego next week and New York in the first week of October. Waters says he wants to attract bigger, more diverse crowds than in years past. He says he's sick of playing music for the same old electronica-loving music nerds.
“I really want to reach into popular culture but keep that aura of experimentation,” Waters said.
It's no easy task, especially in San Diego, where the only venue he's ever been able to secure is the Smith Recital Hall.
“Now it has the stigma of being held at a university,” said Waters, “which I really want to get away from.”
To help loosen the mood of the festival, Waters clears the chairs from the first few aisles of the recital hall. He leaves room for dancing and puts down air mattresses close to the speakers so people can kick back, close their eyes and get the full experience.
“When it's all happening, it's such a blast,” he said.
The music you'll hear at NWEAMO this year can't be easily put into one nice little musical-genre box. On the more conservative end, you'll see performers like Adam Raquesa using his voice, piano and laptop. On the more radical side, you'll see guys like Canadian composer Maxime Rioux, with his army of 40 automates-tiny robot-like instruments built from pieces of instruments and second-hand household items.
The one unifying factor is the festival's theme this year-the influence of African music. Most of the showcased compositions will be more rhythmic and beat-oriented.
Lukas Ligeti, the son of famous composer Gyorgy Sándor Ligeti—whose works have helped score some of Stanley Kubrick's films—will be performing his African-influenced music, compositions he describes as a mix of “Western jazz, improvisation and African traditional.”
“My music is unusual in a lot of ways,” said Ligeti. “But a lot of people can relate to it.”
Swarmius will be playing their Ludacris-inspired piece at the festival, too.
“It's beyond what you'd hear on the dance floor,” explained Waters. "It keeps the idea of beats, but it pushes it to a more interesting level.”
NWEAMO will be held at the Smith Recital Hall on SDSU campus Thursday, Sept. 28, through Saturday, Sept. 30. $8-$12. www.nweamo.org or call 619-594-1696.