Sonic Circuits & Amma House

Some background on Monica Burgin’s project on Sonic Circuits & Amma House

This semester, Monica became interested in exploring the DC experimental music scene, specifically Sonic Circuits. Over time, this grew to encompass other venues, specifically Amma House. The two venues often hosted similar artists, but they presented two interesting sides of the DC experimental scene. By showcasing these two venues, Monica hopes to depict the DC experimental scene from opposing angles.
Monica first heard about Sonic Circuits through Professor Marc Medwin of the Performing Arts Department at American University, in a conversation about drone music. Her original questions were along the lines of, why DC? What does DC have to offer over Baltimore or New York? What does DC sound like?

The narrative and audio clips:

Sometime towards the end of last semester, I found myself engaged in conversation with a professor on the topic of drone music. Though I had heard of drone events, I wasn’t sure where to go to hear this wonderful music live, which is when he directed me to Sonic Circuits. As a fan of experimental music, I was delighted to find out that such a huge festival of experimental music was held annually in DC, where I was and am currently living.
Now headed by Jeff Surak, Sonic Circuits was originally a touring festival of electronic music, with DC as one of its many venues. As time went on, however, the festival lost support from the American Composers Forum (the founders of the festival), and in 2005 it made DC its permanent home. At this point, Jeff Surak took over, and the festival’s focus changed from electronic music to experimental music, especially by local artists. In addition to the yearly festival, Sonic Circuits also holds smaller shows throughout the year. Originally held at Velvet Lounge, these have mostly relocated to Pyramid Atlantic, a printmaking gallery in Silver Spring.

Though I was originally confused by the connection between Sonic Circuits and Pyramid Atlantic, it works very well as a show-space. The upstairs is spacious and there is room to accommodate the performers, audience, and all the equipment needed to produce this music. Though Pyramid Atlantic may have little to do with experimental music otherwise, compared to other venues it makes sense. Lost Civilizations, a local experimental band, performs monthly at Dynasty Ethiopian, a small restaurant on 14th street. This partnership arose out of the Sweet Tea Pumpkin Pie festival as a way to fill the otherwise empty restaurants and to attract an audience for some lesser-known bands.

Though Sonic Circuits is definitely the more professional front of DC’s experimental scene, the audience is as diverse here as it is at smaller shows, such as those at Amma House. While Amma’s crowds are generally younger, both Amma House and Sonic Circuits audiences span wide age ranges and come from diverse backgrounds. The scene is diverse and very close-knit, and everyone seems to know each other.

Because the experimental scene in DC is so close-knit, this makes it very conducive to smaller, more personal shows, such as those at Amma House. My first experience at Amma House was easily one of the most memorable nights of the semester. I heard about the venue through an interview with Luke Stewart, the bassist of OOO. Finding the address was difficult, as the residents of Amma House try their best to keep it a secret. Upon arriving, we were surprised to see that Amma House was actually a house, located in the middle of suburban Alexandria. After arriving, we headed down to the basement, a dark room with comfy chairs and beanbags. Among the decor I noticed a book of Sesame Street songs in German, a gas mask, and a copy of the book, Everyone Poops. The show began with about seven musicians on various instruments (mostly guitars) participating in a long, drone jam. About halfway into the set, a member of the audience stood up, adorned a giant shell necklace, and began to drag a cello bow along one of the walls of the basement, producing an eerie effect. I would later find out that these are piano strings, nailed to the walls.

After a few minutes, he passed the bow on to someone else and started handing out various percussion instruments to members of the audience. Though shows at Amma house are largely experiential, the music was fantastic as well. I was lucky enough to speak with one of the members of Amma House who manages the booking as well.

Shows have been going on for three or four years.

Naturally, there are problems that come with holding weekly experimental shows in the suburbs of Alexandria, and Amma House is very conscious of this. Their Facebook page lists the following rules:

  • Do not advertise our address. It’s a secret.
  • Do not park on our street. There’s plenty of parking on Taney. The spaces in front of the house are for loading in instruments only.
  • Don’t chill in the front yard and do put your cigarettes in an ashtray.

The residents of Amma House say they’re iffy about publicity because while they want more people to come to the shows to pay the bands, at the same time they’re afraid of who’s going to show up.

Another concern with booking experimental shows in your basement is that many of them tend to be loud. The police have been called on Amma more than once, though at Candle Haus, a more noise-oriented basement venue in Fairfax, the problem is worse. It is easy to see how a more official venue like Sonic Circuits in downtown Silver Spring could avoid this issue. Still, there are advantages to holding shows in your basement.

Though it is generally the same people at Sonic Circuits and Amma House shows, the vibe at Amma House is definitely more personal. Often, there is home cooked food, and audience members are free to interact with the bands as they please. Apparently, the basement at Amma has a long history as a meeting place.

Though Amma may seem very different from Sonic Circuits, their mission is the same: to provide a venue for local experimental musicians while bringing together like-minded members of the community. The two venues often book similar artists, and Jeff and my contact at Amma House have played each others’ venues. Though experimental music is tricky to define by nature, everyone I spoke with seemed to agree that the DC experimental sound is somewhat distinct, with a lot of drone and improvisation involved. The small, close-knit nature of the scene allows for a lot of freedom.

How the project changed over the semester

The project changed most dramatically after Monica’s first show at Amma House. It presented an entirely different perspective on what she had seen at Sonic Circuits.

Credits

Monica would like to thank Luke, Jeff, and the residents of Amma House for letting her interview them.

Below are some links.

Organizations and venues:

Sonic Circuits: http://dc-soniccircuits.org/
Amma House Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/AmmaHouse
Candle Haus Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Candle-Haus/106223792792291
A Yahoo group with information on other experimental shows: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/dc-improv/messages?o=1
Showlist DC (not experimental music specific, but still quite useful): http://www.showlistdc.com/

Media:

District of Noise: http://districtofnoise.org/
Sonic Circuits’s SoundCloud: http://soundcloud.com/sonic-circuits
Videos of Amma House shows: http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL44BF4C30CBCA14B2

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