New concert series pairs internationally renowned experimental musicians to perform as duos

Oct. 13—"Every music tradition started off as an experiment. And those experiments tend to germinate from the question 'what if?'" Bill Shoemaker says.

What if I take this string and I bend it over this piece of metal and I start scraping something across it?

Or what happens if I take this African instrument and I refit it and retune it to Western tuning and use my fingers to pick it?

"Boom. You have the banjo," he says.

A longtime music journalist and author specializing in jazz and experimental music, Shoemaker moved from Montgomery County to Frederick about seven years ago and has wanted to see experimental music folded into the local music scene ever since.

On a personal level, he got tired of always having to drive — or, in some cases, fly — to attend the concerts he wanted to hear.

"The drummer Paul Motian, who played in Bill Evans Trio, told me once that back in the '50s, he would walk eight blocks to a gig that he would have for eight weeks. When I interviewed him in the '90s, he said he would fly eight hours to play one concert for 80 minutes. And I was kind of in a similar situation. I would go to London to see an orchestra that would never come to the United States, or I'd go to Berlin to see a great orchestra play chaabi, post-war Syrian secular music that has just really great rhythms and great singing and instrumentalists."

He also wanted to give Frederick audiences a taste of something new and contribute to bringing an international scope of music to town.

National Endowment for the Arts C.A.N. Recover Grants, offered to Frederick County artists through the Frederick Arts Council earlier this year, provided Shoemaker with that opportunity. With only a few days to compile a proposal after hearing about the grant opportunity through a jazz buddy, Jeff Cosgrove, Shoemaker got busy formulating an outline for a fall and spring concert series — locating a venue, tracking down artists he'd like to see in Frederick, factoring in costs and feasibility — and submitted his paperwork.

He ultimately received a grant, which would be the impetus for his forming the Frederick Experimental Music Association, or FEMA, and funding its first concert series, IF: Improvisers Forum.

The first concert of the series will bring pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn and flutist Robert Dick together for a show at the Y Arts Center on Oct. 15. All concerts are by donation at the door; no tickets will be sold in advance.

"The YMCA are great supporters of live music in the city, and their room is, I think, going to be recognized very soon as a really crucial listening room in Frederick," Shoemaker says.

He's a reputable source. Shoemaker has frequented music venues around the world since he began writing about jazz in the late '70s, and he continues to catch concerts and write about music in his online quarterly journal, Point of Departure.

"It's a room that has reminded me of some other listening spaces I've been in," he says. "It reminds me a lot of a place called the Western Front in Vancouver — wood floors, plaster walls, big windows — a great-sounding room like this room at the Y."

The concert series seeks to introduce audiences to experimental and improvised music, music created without the use of formal templates. He chose the name Frederick Experimental Music Association because work by a diverse spectrum of musicians could fall under the umbrella term "experimental."

"I wanted to expand the scope of what we do with experimental music generally. I wanted to do that so that if there were, for example, contemporary classical music artists that wanted to present, they would be under the umbrella. If there were people completely beyond category, I could put them under the umbrella, too."

What's perhaps even more fascinating than the accomplishments of each individual music artist in the series is that Shoemaker pairs them to perform as duos in Frederick, sometimes for the first time.

Alcorn, an accomplished artist in her own right who has become renowned for her innovations on the slide guitar and recently won a Baker Award, will perform with Dick, who's been touted as the Jimi Hendrix of the flute, for the first time onstage. What the two will ultimately create together in their performance won't be known until the audience experiences it for themselves.

Alcorn is phenomenal, Shoemaker says.

"She did a whole record of arrangements of Astor Piazzolla compositions ... and his compositions are the most intense, soul-searing stuff you'll hear today," he says. "She's one of these people — she hears something, and she can make it work on a pedal steel guitar. I mean, seriously: You gotta leave your cultural baggage at the door when you go hear Susan. If you think she's gonna be your stereotype of a pedal steel guitarist, you're just outta luck."