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 Times succinctly 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.

“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.

“It was a 'two guys and a dog' reception at most events I organized in Salinas and Carmel,” Diaz-Infante says. “It was fun at first — the thrill of instigating nonconformity. But then it got depressing having to always defend my pursuits in experimental music. The locals, even other artists, would always be giving me a hard time about my music. The whys, the shoulds, bullshit. … It would really get confrontational with some people.”

Regardless of the bad vibes, Diaz-Infante started the first Big Sur Experimental Music Festival in 1999, which he still curates. The eclectic event features everything from free jazz to ambient electronic to unstructured noise artists, many of whom came to Diaz-Infante looking for an outlet for their music.

The prospect of being involved in a constantly thriving community brought Diaz-Infante to San Francisco in 2000, when he took over curating the “Creative Music Thursdays” series at the Luggage Store Gallery on Market Street. The following year, he also helped organize the first San Francisco Alternative Music Festival, which continues to bring needed attention to the experimental scene today.

Diaz-Infante's constant promotion has had positive effects on his own music. “I don't want to be pigeonholed into one area,” Diaz-Infante says. “Being a Mexican-American, I had no cultural connection with this so-called 'art music,' and for me it's an unknown space. The more I experience all these facets of music, I'm not scared to go in one room and make an ambient album and then next year make a noise record.”

With his overwhelming avalanche of releases, Diaz-Infante has proven himself completely unclassifiable. In bands such as the Abstractions and Rev99 — really more one-off conglomerations of improvisers than continuous entities — he tends to favor his wacky side. These groups play freaked-out jams with titles like “H-Bomb Transvestite Infiltration Bop” or “Spank My Piano,” consisting of blaring horns, electronic noises, vocal rants, and Diaz-Infante's own clanging guitar and piano. He's also released solo and collaborative work that flirts with jazz, dives into continuous drones, or highlights field recordings of window installers. His duo efforts with New York guitarist Chris Forsyth, documented on 2000's Left and Right and 2001's Wires and Wooden Boxes, are less zany, but no less abstract. The two musicians explore the sonic potential of the guitar and piano but rarely play them in the conventional sense. Instead, they use various devices to bang on, tap, and scrape the instruments, eliciting alien tone fragments. While often compared to the percussive guitar-improv of art-rock legend Fred Frith and frantic free-guitarist Derek Bailey, these records are buoyed by the occasional moments of calm and melody.

For all his collaborative activity, Diaz-Infante may do his best work in isolation. His four CDs of solo piano music — Itz'at, Tepeu, Ucross Journal, and Solus, all released on Pax — are stunning minimalist mood pieces. Influenced in part by the work of genius composer Morton Feldman, Ucross Journal is especially strong, built from slow progressions that consist of static chords which hang and resonate. All four releases were recorded while the artist served a 1998 residency at the Ucross Foundation in Wyoming, which, he says, has a great deal to do with their wide-open sound.

“First I was playing and playing all these notes,” Diaz-Infante recalls about those sessions. “Then I'd go outside, and the sky was vast and blue, and the music just wasn't working with the surroundings. Then I realized a chord just sounds good just on its own, so I played less.”

Currently, he has 10 new projects pending, including forays into actual songs with vocals and lyrics as well as a new CD of duets with Forsyth.

“People ask me, 'Why do you work so hard?'” Diaz-Infante says. “Time is precious. Every morning that I wake up, I'm setting up shows or trying to make that perfect album. Sometimes you think, 'I'm getting there,' but you can always do better.”

A huge audience isn't likely to flock to these gigs or CDs any time soon, but Diaz-Infante's “blanket the Earth with releases and e-mails” approach can't be easily ignored. He's received great reviews from Internet and print press outlets such as The Wire, All About Jazz, Ink 19, and All Music Guide, while Time Out NY dubbed him “a piano minimalist with an expanded sense of scale.” By the end of the year he'll have played everywhere from Olympia and Baltimore to Berlin and Amsterdam.

“I've got to the point in my career that everything I make, perform, record has passed my critical standards and is ready for public consumption,” Diaz-Infante says. “Even if the public is ready or not.”

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