After 20 years of working with and playing at the Olympia Experimental Music Festival, organizer Jim McAdams still can’t define experimental music — and he’s not trying to.
“Every year, people ask us that, and I don’t know,” he said. “I wrote about a 20-page paper on experimental music for my thesis when I graduated from (The) Evergreen (State College), and I don’t think I came up with an answer because there are so many interpretations and ways that people define it.”
What the festival has been doing for the past two decades is helping to redefine music.
“We bring in artists who are pushing the boundaries of what audio can do and what people listen to,” said McAdams, who is part of Olympia’s Dead Air Fresheners, playing Saturday at the festival.
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To celebrate the 20th year, McAdams worked to bring back many artists who played at the first festival and at subsequent festivals over the years, but the festival’s biggest name — Elliott Sharp — is a newcomer to the event.
Sharp, a multi-instrumentalist and composer, has been a central figure in the experimental and avant-garde music scene since the late 1970s. While he’s never played at the festival before, he did play in Olympia in 1995, the year the festival began.
“It is a really big deal to have Elliott Sharp playing this one,” McAdams said. “He is one of the early major influences on what everyone is doing here.”
“In the 1980s, he was the height of New York City cool, a central part of the experimental music scene there,” NPR’s Jackie Lyden said in a 2012 piece about Sharp. “But Elliott Sharp has an alter ego. … With his side band Terraplane, he transforms from New York avant-garde aesthetic to down and dirty Chicago bluesman.”
“He can be quite melodic and quite noisy, and yet he has a very consistent aesthetic,” McAdams said. This diversity parallels the range of experimental music, he said.
“I can think of some great experimental dance music,” he said. “I can think of people who play music that’s pretty and quiet and then there are people like Overdose the Katatonic that just play pure noise.
“I try to include both sides of that spectrum and bring them together.”