Preaching to the Disconcerted

Local artist, label honcho, and festival organizer Ernesto Diaz-Infante sings the gospel of the experimental scene

The Bay Area experimental music scene is a small one: small clubs, small groups, and most often small crowds. In this microcosm, one local man is making a big noise. Not only has pianist/guitarist Ernesto Diaz-Infante recorded and performed with such luminaries as Blaise Siwula, Jeff Arnal, and Borbetomagus' Donald Miller, he's also released tons of music on his Pax Recordings label, curated weekly shows at the Luggage Store Gallery, and organized several important "creative music" festivals. The Los Angeles Timessuccinctly describes him as "a composer and performer with an instinctive way of creating sound paintings," but that's not nearly adequate to describe the breadth of Diaz-Infante's work or his relentless crusade to perpetuate experimental music.

"Ernesto is a one-man [juggernaut], with mailing lists connecting Bay Area reviewers, musicians, spaces, and labels to New York, Texas, Berlin, Santiago, London, Olympia, Boston, Chicago, Warsaw, etc.," New York avant-saxophonist and poet 99Hooker says of Diaz-Infante. "Ernesto is organizing festivals, bringing international musicians together. He is recording and distributing these sounds worldwide."

Only in his mid-30s, Diaz-Infante has already done the work of 10 career musicians. From 1997 to 2000 he released 12 improv-guitar CDs on the tiny Zzaj Imprint; since then, he's put out a dozen more via labels such as Staalplaat, Seagull, Bottomfeeder, Evolving Ear, and oTo. His work ranges from deep piano meditations to free-form noise to chamber pieces, all of such high quality that Signal to Noise, the journal of improvised and experimental music, has labeled him "a big talent." But for all his efforts -- both in performing and promoting -- Diaz-Infante still finds it difficult to bring attention to this genre of music.

Akim Aginsky


Thursday, June 13, at 8 p.m.

Diaz-Infante also plays as part of the Nunns on Thursday, June 20, at 9:45 p.m. at the Luggage Store Gallery

Tickets for both shows are $6-10


The Luggage Store Gallery, 1007 Market (at Sixth Street), S.F.

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"I usually get a crowd of 20 to 30 people at the Luggage Store," Diaz-Infante says, "but I recently put on a show for some artists who came a long way to play, and only six people showed up. These career experimental musicians were all right with it. They were used to having no audience, but to me that's just not OK."

If Diaz-Infante sounds a bit like a politician, he should. Before he committed himself to experimental music, he worked as a political activist focusing on Latino issues. Now, however, he channels that zeal into creating and promoting a music he feels needs to be heard. It's as if Mr. Smith had taken a detour on the way to Washington, and proceeded right into the outer reaches of space and sound.

A native of Salinas, Ernesto Diaz-Infante started playing music at a young age. Then, during his undergraduate years, he discovered a new passion: politics. "I was involved with one particular group in college called Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán, a national Chicano student group on college campuses," Diaz-Infante says during an interview at his Richmond District apartment. "I was chapter president of this group at Hartnell College in Salinas in 1989. When I began pursuing music, I found myself shut out a bit. Anything outside of the environment was not cool with them. It didn't necessarily have to be avant-garde music -- anything that was not mainstream Latino music was not supported. So I had no choice but to leave Chicano politics and pursue my path of unclassifiable music."

But the activism never quite faded. "It creeps into my work," he says. "As an independent artist you have to go out and create awareness. People ask me, 'How do you organize all this stuff?' But it goes back to organizing canned food drives and conferences. It's a parallel: not just promoting my music but also having the drive to be creative."

After earning a B.A. from UC Santa Barbara in 1994, Diaz-Infante landed at the prestigious California Institute of the Arts. He focused on modern avant-garde works, studying with jazz trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and noted composer Stephen L. Mosko on the way to completing his M.F.A. in music composition in 1996. Soon after, while spending time as composer-in-residence at the Centre International de Recherche Musicale in Nice, France, he met a number of artists who had been releasing their own music. Realizing there was an alternative to the tradition of composing works and finding large ensembles to perform them, Diaz-Infante returned to California, moved to Monterey with his wife, and started Pax Recordings as a way to release his own work and that of like-minded artists such as Rotcod Zzaj and Andre Custodio.

"It's a nonprofit; it's losing money, but it's important to have a document," Diaz-Infante says of the label, which has nine releases to date but acts as a distributor for many more. "The challenge is getting the CDs to the right people and not having 20 boxes in your closet, and that's fun for me. It's an investment in touring, traveling, and meeting friends."

Besides starting Pax and becoming music director of Monterey's KAZU- FM (90.3), he participated in almost a dozen artist residencies throughout the U.S. (The residencies, which he refers to as "the colony junkie tour," are basically subsidized working holidays that give artists a chance to work in an environment that's conducive to creativity.) In between trips, he organized experimental music series in Oldtown Salinas and posh Carmel, probably the first shows of that kind in those places.

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