New Venue, Same Experimental Trip: D.C.’s Sonic Circuits Festival Returns

By Joe Warminsky

Some of the artists at the 2016 Sonic Circuits festival, clockwise from top left: Sleep Talk (Natalia Steinbach & Dave Grollman); Zlimrah; Chester Hawkins; and the Hay-Liebig Duo.
Some of the artists at the 2016 Sonic Circuits festival, clockwise from top left: Sleep Talk (Natalia Steinbach & Dave Grollman); Zlimrah; Chester Hawkins; and the Hay-Liebig Duo. Courtesy of Sonic Circuits

When the arts organization Pyramid Atlantic moved out of its Silver Spring home earlier this year, the disruption extended to one of the D.C. area’s long-tenured music festivals: Sonic Circuits, an annual multiday celebration of experimental and underground sounds.

While Pyramid Atlantic is still settling in at its new Hyattsville location, Sonic Circuits has found a new site for 2016: Logan Fringe Arts Space, the Northeast D.C. home of the Capital Fringe organization. The festival takes place Friday through Sunday.

Using the space was a “no-brainer,” says festival director/curator Jeff Surak. Sonic Circuits has a few basic needs, he says, and the Capital Fringe organization — which has its own music series — met them.

“Just a space where will no one will bother us, where we can do our own thing without any restrictions,” Surak says. “It’s hard to find that kind of space — and ideally, one that doesn’t cost anything. We are a zero-budget operation.” (It’s not the first time Sonic Circuits has tried a new festival venue — as recently as 2013, the Atlas Performing Arts Center on H Street NE was ground zero.)

Surak says the 2016 edition will stick to its core mission of presenting noncommercial music — some of it noisy, some of it not — made by people who buck traditions or invent new modes of making sound. Improvisation and oddness are valued, and outright chaos is always possible. The recipe has given the festival an international profile among experimental musicians.

“It’s always different, and the way the festival is put together, it’s not just going to see a collection of artists, like you’re going to some other music festival, where you know [a band] … It’s an entire experience,” Surak says. “People are put together in a certain order to either complement or contrast one another, and you’re taking the audience on a trip.”

That trip might include theramin (Pamelia Stickney), guitars and electronics (Eyryx), analog synthesizers (Analog Tara) or a dude who made an instrument out of a bicycle wheel (Zilmrah).

“Often the ones that you never heard of, and you’re clueless about, are the ones that leave the biggest impression on you,” Surak says. He likens the festival to a buffet, but he advocates taking the full three-evening excursion if possible.

“Afterwards you spend a week, or a couple weeks, or months — or even a year — trying to unpack everything you’ve just experienced,” he says. For anybody who wants more outside of the festival itself, Sonic Circuits also stages smaller shows throughout the year.

Bandwidth readers might recognize some names on the 2016 bill, including Janel Leppin and Anthony Pirog, who both perform Sunday. Surak says it’s crucial to celebrate home-grown talent.

“D.C.’s not a cheap place to live, so you don’t have that sort of artist-driven underground — warehouses and squats and those kinds of hotbeds for creativity,” says Surak, a longtime performer himself. “It’s more that you have people who have good jobs, are established in their careers and besides having their 9-to-5 gig, they have another life that probably would shock their co-workers.”

The 2016 Sonic Circuits Festival of Experimental Music runs Friday through Sunday at Logan Fringe Arts Space, 1358 Florida Ave. NE.