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Sunday, September 26, 2021

The Catalytic Sound Festival with Ken Vandermark and Brock Stuessi

By Paul Acquaro 

We are excited to have had a chance to touch base with Ken Vandermark and Brock Stuessi of the Catalytic Sound co-operative about the Catalytic Sound Festival. The second edition of the festival will be taking place in October, in Vienna, Haarlem, Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Chicago, NYC, Trondheim, and Washington D.C. - and mostly viewable online.

Paul Acquaro: Last we spoke, the first Catalytic Sound Festival 1 was in the works. I know it was a while back now, but how did it go? Any surprises (good ones, ones to learn from)?

Ken Vandermark: The first Catalytic Sound Festival was originally intended to be an in-person set of concerts taking place during July of 2020 in Chicago, but because of the pandemic, we retooled the event to be streamed online. This necessary change actually yielded many positives. Because everything was online, there were no travel costs and we were then able to present all of the co-op musicians on the festival (plus guests), who reside in both the United States and Europe. This was one of the first times the collective was perceived as a group by the public. In addition, we all learned a lot about presenting streamed material, that pre-recording audiovisual pieces could be easier and more effective than running the performances completely live. From the standpoint of reaching an audience, the CSF 2020 was a tremendous success, with more than 200 viewers a day over the 3-day festival.

This led to the recent Catalytic's audiovisual 2x27, presented in August of this year, in which almost all of the co-op artists submitted a 2-minute film, many of which ranged far beyond conventional performance footage. So I believe these events helped musicians develop and experience new strategies for how to create music for online presentations, which were needed alternatives to playing conventional, in-person concerts during the more than 18 months when those kinds of performances were impossible.

Brock Stuessi: While Sam Clapp was manager during Catalytic Sound Festival 2020, I was beginning work on my master's thesis in ethnomusicology about Catalytic Sound. Because of this, I had a unique outside/inside perspective as someone who had worked with Catalytic Sound during 2018-2019 and transitioned to researching and writing the project in 2020. To expand on what Ken mentioned, I think the festival in 2020 was one of the first times both the musicians and the public caught a vision of Catalytic Sound as much more than record store. The incredible creativity and community on display that weekend was a strong testament to the power of what is going on at Catalytic Sound. Specifically, I think the festival made clear to everyone involved that we are thirty musicians and a few staff collaborating to create better circumstances and situations for the creative improvised music scene through the direct support of those who appreciate the music.

PA: This year it seems a little different - maybe a more international affair? As far as I know, it's a pretty unique approach to a festival (in person, live-stream, and multi-continent). Can you elaborate a bit on the plans? Who are your international collaborators?

KV: As mentioned above, the first CSF was completely international as well. However, what Catalytic is tackling this year is something unique in my experience. There are many festivals that present an international program, but what we've organized though 6 events in 6 different cities, both located in the States and in Europe- I haven't seen this before. And we will combine the in-person concerts with online streaming, learning from what has been developed over the last year and a half, to be able to best present the music to listeners who can't attend the performances.

Because we always work with an extremely tight budget, Catalytic realized early that the original goal of bringing musicians from Europe to the U.S., and vice versa, wouldn't be possible. This created the idea of presenting "regional" programs curated by Catalytic musicians based in Austria (Christof Kurzmann), Netherlands (Andy Moor, Terrie Ex, Ab Baars, Ig Henneman, Jaap Blonk), Norway (Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, Paal Nilssen-Love), New York (Brandon Lopez, Zeena Parkins, Nate Wooley), D.C. (Luke Stewart), and Chicago (Tim Daisy, Dave Rempis, myself). In each location, the focus is on the Catalytic artists who reside in those areas but also musicians from the incredible pool of talent based in these places, many who audiences may not know about yet.

The events will take place each weekend in October with at least two nights of concerts in each location, starting in Vienna, then Netherlands, Chicago, NYC, and on the last weekend of the month, both Trondheim and D.C. will present their programs, Trondheim during the day (in the States), and D.C. at night. There is also a special pre-recorded performance by Akira Sakata and Nana Omori, created specially for the CSF through grant funds from the Japan Foundation, and this will be streamed between sets at one of the nights of each of the NYC and Chicago events.

BS: I think the uniqueness of the 2021 iteration of the festival reflects the uniqueness of Catalytic Sound writ large. While there have been many collectives and cooperatives in the history of improvised music, all that I am aware of, perhaps with the exception of something like the New Music Distribution Service, have been local or regional. Catalytic Sound is bicontinental, dispersed, online, and, through our network of musicians, has connections with many different scenes. Turning to the festival, these connections are key, because, as Ken alludes to, we have allowed the musicians in each respective scene to plan their dates pretty much autonomously. We even have local visual artists making posters for the events in Chicago, Trondheim, and New York. Centrally planning an event like this, especially with the resources we work with, would be a herculean task. Thankfully, as the project manager, I’m not in charge of that and have time to focus on things like the overall budget, fundraising for the US shows, and promotion.

PA: How can people see the shows?

KV: If people cannot attend the shows in person, as many of the concerts as possible will be streamed live (there are some complexities with a few of the venues in Europe), and these will be ticketed events that people can purchase for access to the programs though the Catalytic Sound Festival 2021 website. In addition, all Catalytic members will get full access to the streamed concerts through their subscriptions on Patreon. So it's a good time to become a member!

PA: The Catalytic Sound Cooperative roster seemed to expand a bunch this past year - why do you think that is?

KV: In the spring of 2020 we added a half dozen musicians, and there was a final round of artists that we wanted to invite to participate in the collective in January. Thankfully, they were all interested, and we now have an incredible pool of brilliant individuals that all have a huge range of creative interests that often extend beyond music, which are helping the co-op find better ways to put more economic power into the hands of artists.

BS: I think a big part of that expansion had to do with the circumstances of the pandemic. Because Catalytic Sound mostly deals with selling and distributing records online, our model was fortunately not very affected by the circumstances of lockdown. In fact, we saw an increase in both sales and membership during the time of Covid. However, as I think we are all well aware, the musicians themselves, who make most of their income through performance fees, were not so fortunate. Since we operate on a profit-sharing model, we saw an opportunity to share the successes we were experiencing with as many people as possible. Part of this was expanding the roster of musicians — the other part has to do with trying to share and spread the model of Catalytic Sound to other groups of musicians. This last point became clear with the realization that Catalytic Sound can only represent so many musicians, it feels like it is currently at its limit. However, we did not want to be a gatekeeper within the scene. As a response to this sentiment, we are currently working on the late stages of a book that documents Catalytic Sound’s history and philosophy. We hope it will be a playbook of sorts for building cooperatives that leads to more situations like Catalytic Sound.

PA: Is everyone in the collective a part of the festival?

KV: Tomeka Reid and Nate Wooley's schedules made it impossible for them to perform, but they're only musicians out of the 30 in the collective who couldn't make an appearance.

PA: This year you released digitally audio recordings of the sets from the last festival for sale on the CS band-camp site, do you have plans to do this again?

KV: There are plans to record as many of the performances on the CSF 2021 as possible, with the hope to let the musicians utilize them for release, and to also create new documents digital and hopefully physical to issue through Catalytic Sound.

BS: We are currently in the process of rethinking our membership service to include access to more exclusive content from the musicians in the collective. In the vein of the Catalytic Artist Albums we have been doing and the access for the festival streams, we hope to add things like the CSF 2021 recordings into this patron support system. As Ken said earlier, it’s a great time to become a member! 

More about the festival: