Area improvisers offer summer experimental music and video classes for the young | Pittsburgh City Paper

Area improvisers offer summer experimental music and video classes for the young


Experimental music in Pittsburgh is often banished to the back rooms of art spaces and trapped in obscure academic settings. But recently, funded dot-orgs have been placing electronic musicians and free improvisers front and center in some well-publicized situations. With more people getting a chance to experience these kinds of events, more are asking the fundamental question: "How -- and why -- do you guys make those weird sounds?"

Generation Y can find out for themselves this summer, when two veterans of the local experimental music and film scene -- Michael Johnsen and Matt Wellins -- teach the first area classes on the subject available for young people.

Under the auspices of the Annie Seamans Media Art Lab -- a joint venture of Pittsburgh Filmmakers and the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts -- Johnsen is offering "Experimental Video" in June, and a July course he calls "Methods in Sound and Music."

For Johnsen -- a self-taught builder of electronic sound devices whose track record extends from myriad presentations with avant-film bastion Orgone Cinema to a European tour last spring with saxophonist Jack Wright -- it's not about introducing a whole new musical genre, but rather easing students into untried approaches and techniques.

"It's a technical approach to help people understand their work better," Johnsen says. "That would include rock guitarists who don't know how their effects work, techno and hip-hop artists who dissect what goes into layering and generating sounds, [or] video artists dealing with the sound part of video making. If this leads them to doing more experimental work, that would be gratifying to me."

Wellins, whose high school epiphanies included attending performances by Johnsen's group of local free-improvisers, will focus more on music than materials in his "Instant Composer Workshop," in August. If that conjures an image of a roomful of young John Zorns and Anthony Braxtons, all the better. "We'll formulate different approaches to notation and organizing sounds," he says. "These will be younger kids, so I'll shy away from in-depth analyses and give them the chance to develop their own musical language."

"Culturally, there's a lot of these 'givens' we feel we need to be part of the discourse -- like you need a guitar to rock, or you need to write lyrics about love. These kids can do something that's more relevant to their actual lives, and feel validated by it, because there's a good chance that'll be more interesting, anyway."

Parents interested in registering children for these classes can call 412-361-0445 or visit