Two weeks ago, internationally renowned experimental musicians were heard Downtown in the Cultural District. Merzbow (the Japanese champion of noise), Ryoji Ikeda (minimal sine-wave electronics) and Amon Tobin (Brazilian down-tempo/IDM king) all played. So did acclaimed British new music ensemble Icebreaker, performing a piece by composer Michael Gordon that owes a debt to both Philip Glass and prog-rock.
The music wasn't live, though -- it blasted through the PA system at the Byham Theater, accompanying England's Random Dance company. Experiencing the unusual sonic barrage was a nearly sold-out crowd -- from Point Park and Slippery Rock students to the usual assortment of wealthy dance matrons. Some looked like they didn't know what hit them.
"Eighty percent of the people I talked to hated the music," says Paul Organisak, executive director of the Dance Council as well as programmer for the Byham and its environs. "So what? I'm sorry it's not your thing, but I'm not going to be presenting pretty music show after show." He cites Italian choreographer Emil Greco, coming April 14. "Not only is that one going to be challenging musically, but there'll be full nudity for the entire time."
A Carrick graduate who first worked for the Dance Council at the turn of the '90s, Organisak returned in 2001 to head the institution, and has witnessed steady audience growth despite an aging base and declining population. "Dance in this country is not doing well, so our success is almost unheard of," he says. "I'd like to think it's because of programming, but I don't know for sure."
But Organisak does sense crowds are tiring of old dance standbys and hankering for newness, which Random Dance provided in spades. If so, could some of that same core cultural audience -- the 20 percent that liked it -- be cultivated to appreciate similar avant-gardism in music? Collaboration between, say, Organisak, Wood Street and The Warhol to present such music Downtown on a regular basis could raise Pittsburgh's profile in the modern experimental genre.
"I wish something like that could start tomorrow," says Organisak. "I have a 1,300-seat theater, so it'd be financially irresponsible to do a show there that would only draw 200," he explains. "But we do have the Cabaret, which seats 240." Removing the Cabaret's seats could double that capacity -- younger audiences certainly don't mind standing. "Audiences love it," he enthuses. "You can have a drink and listen to some music. We have the space now. So how do we maximize its use?"