An avant-garde music happening is taking place on Commerce Street next weekend. The KNOB New Music Festival, now in its 16th year, has a reputation for spotlighting underground and emerging musical talent. It’s a three-day festival at Fisch Haus gallery featuring new sounds that mix classic, jazz, rock, folk and experimental melodies.
Founder and music director Mark Foley said a key element is making music more accessible to the masses. As an academic, it’s an issue he is sensitive to. Foley is professor of bass at Wichita State University’s School of Music.
“I’ve seen art music become really compartmentalized, but we are at a point in history where you can listen to all kinds of music critically,” he said. “There’s electronic music that people are doing in their basement that is really profound. A big goal of KNOB Fest is to enable people to listen to any kind of music critically.”
A wide range of local and traveling acts will perform Thursday and Nov. 8 and 9. Foley said that there is something to satisfy nearly anyone’s taste, and that each night the style, tempo and genre will jump around. It’s a format that has proven popular with festivalgoers over the years and one that is not always typical.
“The key to it is that the audiences are so awesome. You give them anything and they’ll go with you,” Foley said. “It’s weird because music is the most conservative art form, really. People have such strong feelings about it. Music is just so strongly embedded in our culture. We are able to open people up to the idea of new music and break down some of those barriers here.”
This year’s lineup kicks off Thursday with a mix of classic, bluegrass and jazz. Courtney Long, the Chris Reichmeier jazz group and Craig Owens and the Bodo Ensemble are slated to perform. Also, Zack Stanton will do a clarinet/bass piece called “Stompin’ Grounds.”
“While bluegrass and jazz are obviously improvisation-oriented genres, my piece is completely notated,” Stanton said in a statement about his work. “However, it takes a performer with fluidity in bluegrass and jazz to pull off the right feel. You have to be able to play in the pocket. I named the piece ‘Stompin’ Grounds’ because when I was writing it, I felt like I had returned to the old homestead. This was my territory. The end product is definitely not straightforward bluegrass or jazz, because it is informed by all of my musical interests from folk to classical.”
A fusion of modern classical, rock and electronica is planned for Nov. 8. Aleks Sternfeld-Dunn, WSU’s assistant professor of music theory, composition and technology, will perform a classical piece on a wood Musical Instrument Digital Interface controller, while Mark Foley will follow with a debut of electronic music he’s recently composed. He said its sounds are a blend from the pop and EDM, or electronic dance music, realms. One-man rock band This Is My Condition will round out the evening with a heavy, intense, yet freely unstructured rock set.
On Nov. 9 the festival will reach a crescendo with performances by Portland-based musician and writer Nick Jaina and the award-winning H2 Quartet, which has released three critically acclaimed albums. Jaina has a foot in pop music, while also being incredibly arty in his approach. His performance at KNOB Fest will feature a string ensemble, according to Foley. H2, a saxophone quartet, has traveled around the world and played at venues such as the Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles and the National Concert Hall in Dublin. The quartet’s jazz-influenced sound is a mix of traditional, minimalist and experimental.
Performances each night start at 8 and will go until around 10:30. Foley said that anywhere from 50 to 400 people attend on any given night and that the crowd is diverse in age.
“The vibe is really chill,” Foley said of the atmosphere at KNOB Fest. “The place is perfect because you have the classic art gallery, exposed brick, a homemade feel to it. It’s not intimidating at all. You can just come, hang out and listen to music.”
KNOB Fest debuted in 1998. Its inception came after Foley performed at the similarly themed BONK Fest in Tampa. He was impressed by its effect on the local music scene there and decided to produce a similar event in Wichita. With the letters inverted, a new music event was born after the Fisch Haus originally got a grant to start the festival.
Foley said that in some ways, KNOB Fest is like a musical manifestation of a visual arts exhibition. Noting that many find comfort in familiar sounds and songs, he said it’s an experience that breaks down that wall.
“When you see a work of art, you want it to be different than what you’ve seen before. It’s a little different with music. We are breaking that boundary. It’s all about playing for people who are really interested in that kind of visual arts aspect of music. When you go to a gallery, you want the work you see to be new, you don’t want to keep seeing the same things.”