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On a warm L.A. night, a large group has gathered in an Arts District loft to listen to Lewis Keller coax unconventional sounds from his electric guitar. To do so, he uses a variety of tools: a tuning fork, an electric fan, and a Walkman cassette player. These are just a few of the items that invoke buzzes, whirs, and crackles. The atmosphere is intimate, but not stifling. Far from it -- Keller is sitting on the floor, and the audience is loosely assembled in the open space: some sit on a comfortable couch, some in folding chairs; others stand, or sit on the floor, all seemingly absorbed by the broad range of sounds emanating from the amplifier.
This surprisingly relaxed-but-serious concert setting is par for the course at the wulf., a nonprofit organization dedicated to presenting experimental music and arts. Comfort is actually part of the point. Co-founder Michael Winter explains that the wulf. is a place where people can "listen on their own terms" and also leave behind the formalities often associated with concert attendance. Arriving late? No problem. Not interested in the music and want to leave? That's okay too.
"There's nothing keeping you in," Winter says. "And there's nothing stopping you from coming in. That was a large part of our thinking. We wanted it to be really an open place."
Winter, a composer and software designer, and violinist/composer Eric KM Clark founded the wulf. in 2008. They met several years earlier at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) as students of electronic and computer music composer James Tenney. When they both eventually ended up back in Los Angeles after graduating, they decided to share a place where they could also share music.
"At the time, we were playing a lot in galleries," Winter says. "We were playing a lot in L.A., but in these places that we didn't have a lot of relationship with, and there was art at these places, that again, we didn't have a relationship with. So we figured -- 'wouldn't it be nice to have our own place to do music?' And sure enough, a month later, this place was available. The landlord's lowest was our highest, and we moved in."
With the name -- the wulf. -- Clark and Winter pay tribute to their friend, and fellow CalArts alum, Harris Wulfson, an innovative composer, multi-instrumentalist and software engineer who died tragically at the age of 34. The wulf.'s opening concert would consist largely of Wulfson's works. "He was a great friend and honestly, he was extremely talented and creative, and his mind was very unique," says Clark. "His death really affected us. It seemed natural to do this in honor of him."
Once the wulf. was open for music-making, it was embraced by the local experimental music community, aided by the fact that both Clark and Winter have ties to CalArts. The school has played host to a who's who of pioneering composers and thinkers about music. John Cage visited, and along with Tenney, (one of Cage's cohorts), other noted names associated with composition and experimental practice at the school have included avant-garde jazz composer/instrumentalist Roscoe Mitchell, ambient composer Harold Budd, electronic music composers David Behrmann and Morton Subotnick, and Serge Tcherepnin, composer and inventor of this. Even today, with faculty members including performer/composer Wadada Leo Smith, media artist Sara Roberts and composer/guitarist Michael Pisaro, founder and director of the Dog Star Orchestra and a composer/performer in the influential collective Wandelweiser, the adventurous spirit continues.
Events at the wulf. began to be scheduled regularly, with composers taking advantage of the opportunity to have works performed. "I think people wrote more music because they had a place to prototype it on a short turnaround," Winter says. "There was none of this waiting to have a piece played."
Being a part of the community is one of the essential ingredients to having music performed at the wulf.. You won't see touring acts, or performers who aren't somehow connected to it. As Clark and Winter tell it, they don't really choose pieces to be performed at the wulf., they choose the people behind the pieces. "We want people who are going to come if they're in town," Winter says. "And if they're in town they're going to somehow not be strangers." L.A. roots are not mandatory at this space either. Winter cites British composer John Lely, who performed at the wulf. while visiting LA in 2009. After being introduced to the community, Lely was inspired to take works composed by those associated with it back to the UK, where they were later performed.
Another key element of the wulf. is that every show has no cover fee. No one has to pay to get through the door (though people can donate to help offset operational costs). Both Clark and Winter say not charging admission was their intention from the beginning. However, with no money coming in, no money goes out either: musicians are not paid to perform. This wasn't a part of the initial plan, according to Winter, but is a policy that has stuck. It has provoked complaints from a few, but not all. Heather Lockie a composer and violist with years of experience playing the rock club circuit says, "the wulf. is a very different kind of environment; you're still playing/listening to original music, but there's no 'promoter as pimp' foundation. They simply provide a space for new music to happen, and that feeling infuses the performer and audience alike."
For those who find the sounds, textures, musical structure, or even instrumentation of new music unfamiliar, the genre could prove challenging, maybe even intimidating. "That's a response," says Clark. "I'm not saying there's a reason to be intimidated, but that's personal. If someone is, they can come talk to any one of us, they shouldn't feel excluded."
In the spirit of the experimental arts, the wulf. invites everyone to be a part of the experience. "I think what's important is that people should feel comfortable to have their own thoughts," Winter says. "New experiences in general....when you're doing new things, that's an uncomfortable place, but that's a good place. A bad uncomfortable is when people feel threatened or when people feel uncomfortable to have opinions. I'd like to think people feel comfortable at the wulf.."
Top Image: Artist Lewis Keller performs an untitled work for guitar and electronics at the wulf. | Courtesy Lewis Keller.