Conceptual music ensemble HiTEC brings situational games and chance to the Hazlett | Music | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Conceptual music ensemble HiTEC brings situational games and chance to the Hazlett

The next time any self-important musician brags about making it in the million-to-one crapshoot that is the music industry, tell them to go into HiTEC instead. And I don't mean moving to Silicon Valley.

HiTEC, The Histrionic Thought Experiment Cooperative, is the brainchild of the conceptual artist and "usician" known as tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE -- "Tent" for short. The 22-piece group, trained to play situational games, debuts this Friday at the North Side's Hazlett Theater. An earlier version was first conceived in Baltimore with a different group, as documented on his 1993 LP Official Wafer Face Record. "I wanted to do it again, but logistically it was very intimidating," says Tent, a History Center exhibit tech and Warhol Museum projectionist.

Here's how it works: Tent took a handful of his improvised music works and augmented them with eight pages of musical instructions, filling 32 spaces on a "Wheel of Fortune." When the Wheel, the piece's inanimate conductor, lands on a number, the performers -- termed Systems Managers -- "manage" the results. The orchestra is split into four "affinity groups," and each votes on whether to follow the action or reject it by moving the Wheel one number up or down.

In case that wasn't complicated enough, some Wheel stops can't be voted on, and some independent actions taken by group members are "meta-systems" which alter the systems that the players try to manage. For example, "Birds" causes short phrases to be repeated or "mocked," while "Avian Flu" infects the bird callers with a sickly demeanor. "Dictator," devised by saxophonist Ben Opie, gives one person conducting rights until he or she abdicates or is dethroned in a popular uprising.

Some choices are potentially hilarious, such as Opie's "Yourself" ("consider every part of yourself that can create events") and percussionist Johan Nystrom's participatory "Say AHHH!dience" (where audience members pretend to be astonished at a player's creativity). One of the more intriguing is "Infinite Monkey Theorem," which specifies, "Perform isolated notes. Stop when you're fairly sure you hear a combination you've heard before."

"The likelihood of a recognizable melody occurring is almost zero," theorizes Tent. "Yet when we've done it, [pianist] Melissa St. Pierre called out 'Sweet Georgia Brown' and [banjo-uke player] Dani Simmonds called out 'If I Were A Rich Man.'"

With all these permutations, one might wonder how anyone could pull it off in a live setting. That's where a tedious but necessary aspect of Tent's work comes in -- practice. "In classical music, everything is specified by the composer, but with pieces like this which deviate from that tradition, people learn to approach the material in a new way, creating a fresh set of challenges," Tent says. He's attended 46 of the group's 49 rehearsals. "I had to break into smaller groups to rehearse at my house, and then get the big group together to rehearse at CMU. It was like a 40- to 60-hour work week."

Placing the idea of HiTEC into an artistic lineage, however, is less taxing for Tent. You might think of John Zorn's Cobra or John Cage's chance-determinism, but Tent mentions Karlheinz Stockhausen's "intuitive" Auf Den Sieben Tagen, Fluxus artist George Brecht and aleatoric game pieces by Mauricio Kagel. "They're distant cousins, but I give them credit because I love their work."

He's also excited that musicians from disparate segments of the scene have converged under the HiTEC banner. "In some cases, they have a deep knowledge of experimental or classical music, but others are just freethinkers. Like [trombonist] Erok, who's a bicycle activist, or [zitherist] Stuart Anderson, who's a roboticist but can appreciate what we do from a logic and systems perspective. Then there are people like Ben Opie and [trumpeter] Roger Dannenberg, who are great musicians and understand where this comes from."

At the Hazlett -- which Tent praises for patience and tech support -- affinity groups will congeal for the first time in public, but Tent doesn't want it to be the last. He hopes to stage HiTEC again in the summer, and says that St. Pierre (a Table of the Elements recording artist who recently moved here) may help scare up gigs out of town, though transporting a 22-person group is no mean feat. The best prospects might actually lie overseas, where erudite European arts funding could recognize HiTEC as high art.

However, after getting this ensemble off the ground DIY-style, without any grants or commissions, Tent's expectations are pragmatic for the time being. "I'd like to see Pittsburgh musicians get more recognition in other places. Whether that happens as a result of HiTEC is another story."


HiTEC 7:30 p.m. Fri., Jan. 9. New Hazlett Theater, Allegheny Square East, North Side. $10 ($12 at the door). 412-320-4610 or

click to enlarge One wheel, many affinities: HiTEC
One wheel, many affinities: HiTEC

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