Some complain about the middlebrow stagnancy of U.S. culture; others do something about it. Chris Heenan, Jeremy Drake and David Rothbaum, for instance, run the Line Space Line improvised-music series every Monday at Silver Lake's Salvation Theater; they're celebrating its first anniversary this weekend with a four-day festival.
The series is a great example of turning limited resources into maximized art. A tiny box that can shoehorn maybe 75 bodies, the Salvation has bare walls that magnify every nuance of sound. This means if a standard drum kit were featured, it'd bust your tympana, but you can experience each vibrational ridge of a bass clarinet or an acoustic guitar. The point here is sharp focus, not sensory overload.
Drake, a guitarist from Canada via Tennessee with a USC music degree, sits with Heenan (absent is series Web-site designer and multitasker Rothbaum) in the theater amid Cerveza Corona folding chairs, a pink padded restaurant-booth bench and an old church pew. "I've always been curious about sounds, and always experimented with instruments and non-instruments," says Drake. "After playing rock & roll and studying different styles of music, I started doing field recordings, and that draws you in and takes you into the details."
Heenan blows alto sax and bass clarinet with everybody around town. Originally from the D.C. area, he discovered John Cage while hanging around Chicago, studying with sax twister Ken Vandermark; that opened the door to investigating new-mode composers such as Milton Babbitt and Christian Wolff, as well as "low-dynamic" improvisers. "I never thought of close listening as being radical," he says, "but perhaps it is, in this culture."
Line Space Line was given birth by the universal mother, Necessity. Heenan and Drake were booking an improvised-music series at the Smell downtown, when they had a chance to bring in the great Chicago violinist Leroy Jenkins for a solo performance. But they couldn't see subjecting the septuagenarian Jenkins to the Smell, where his lone sawings might have been smothered by the unpredictable jukebox in the joint next door. Drake remembered playing a gig at the Salvation, and checked it out. Centrally located and cheap it's managed by a pair of actors, Christine Burke and Gary McCleery, who hold workshops, music shows and performance events there the theater turned out to be just about what they were looking for. And the Jenkins show set a propitious tone.
Drake: "It was hot, the room was packed, and they didn't have this air conditioning in here yet, so the air was thick, and we had hot lights on."
Heenan: "He was running late, too, so there was a little bit of anxiety."
Drake: "Then he and Wadada Leo Smith came walking up the street, all relaxed. So he just got up there and started playing. His energy level was so high . . ."
Heenan: "He turned on, and he didn't build up, he was just kind of there."
Drake: "All of his pieces were so different and so cohesive. I think by the time he finished, over an hour after he started, he was just giving the audience a break, because he didn't look fatigued at all. He was having a great time, and everybody was drenched."
Heenan: "They were all riveted, too."
Drake: "It was exactly why we wanted to find a place like this to have that kind of energy transmitted between performer and audience."
Though some of the earliest concerts, in addition to Jenkins', have featured out-of-towners such as Germans Wolfgang Fuchs and Torsten Mueller (both returning for the festival), the aim of Line Space Line has been to showcase SoCal edge-pushers, who've lacked a consistent weekly venue since the New Music Mondays instigated by Nels Cline ceased several years ago.
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"It's kind of plugging L.A. into the rest of the improvised-music world," says Drake. "Because it's been overlooked by everybody."
When you love your art, you support it. Heenan, Drake and Rothbaum must love it a lot, because they work like mules and don't make a dime everything goes back to the artists and the necessities.
"When we're not exhausted about it," says Heenan, "we're excited about it."
The Line Space Line Festival, featuring Kraig Grady, Albert Ortega, Rick Potts, Emily Hay, Bruce Fowler, Cory Wright, Lynn Johnston, Leticia Castaneda, Rod Poole, Vinny Golia and many others, in 20-minute small-ensemble and solo sets, runs at the Salvation Theater, 1519 Griffith Park Blvd. at Sunset Boulevard, Friday through Monday, April 11 through 14, at 8 p.m. Visit www.linespaceline.org.