Sounds from the avant-garde music scene in WNC

UNUSUAL SOUNDS: Xpress explores WNC's avant-garde music scene, spotlighting some of the acts that are contributing to the area’s eclectic mix. Featured, starting left, Min Xiao-Fen, Tashi Dorji and the group Okapi. Photos of Min and Dorji, courtesy of artists; photo of Okapi by Steve Miller

Nathan Duvall, a local deejay at Asheville FM, notes that the station’s nonprofit status lends itself to less commercial music. And while Asheville is rightly seen as a hotbed of bluegrass and a magnet for touring jam bands, he adds the city is no stranger to less familiar sounds.

“Most of the programming on Asheville FM is free form by nature,” Duvall says. “It’s our mission to balance professionalism with an ability to give the underrepresented — or even misunderstood — a voice in our community.”

In similar spirit, Xpress explored WNC’s avant-garde music scene, spotlighting some of the acts that are contributing to the area’s eclectic mix.

Behind the pipa

Min Xiao-Fen relocated to Asheville from New York City in 2020. At that point in her career, she was already an established, in-demand, world-class musician. Min’s primary instrument is the pipa, an ancient lutelike stringed instrument from her native China. Once she emigrated to the United States in 1992, she fell in with an adventurous crowd of fellow musicians.

Her work to date has included collaborations with John Zorn, Jane Ira Bloom and Björk, among many others. White Lotus, her original score for The Goddess, a motion picture from China’s golden age of silent film, has been released on CD, and Min mounts live performances (with the film projected behind her) around the country, including a 2021 showing at The Orange Peel.

Min’s music deftly combines classical, ethnic/folkloric and avant-garde elements. Along with upcoming performances scheduled in New York City, Germany and Washington, D.C., Min will perform alongside Asheville-based percussionist River Guerguerian on Thursday, June 22, at Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center.

Despite her latest string of shows, the musician says her schedule is less hectic than it was in her New York days. “Because New York is such a big city with so many musicians, it’s always ‘Let’s do this project,’” she says.

Still, since relocating to Asheville, Min has found the smaller local avant-garde music scene remarkably welcoming. “I’ve played at Isis Music Hall, The Orange Peel, the Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center, The Grey Eagle and Static Age Records,” she says.

Min notes that the Static Age show — part of the 2022 Catalytic Sound Festival — was especially inspiring. “There were lots of young people there, and they were really into it all,” she says. “I was so encouraged. I moved to Asheville, and I’ve never regretted it for one second!”

Collaborations, not concerts

Experimental guitarist and composer Tashi Dorji is initially nonplussed when asked how receptive Asheville audiences have been to his brand of avant-garde music. “I don’t consider what I do ‘entertainment’ music,” he explains. “Most of my solo work is a practice of collaboration, the pursuit of ideas.” He characterizes a recent local engagement as “a drone series/installment” rather than a concert.

And while Dorji is happy living in Asheville, he doesn’t connect it directly to what he does musically. “With the music that I pursue, geographical restrictions or cultural boundaries really don’t matter,” he says. “Music is completely free from those things; I could be here, or I could be in Algiers or Bhutan or wherever. It’s about sound.”

Dorji’s collaborators are indeed located across the globe. Alex Zhang Hungtai, a Taiwanese-born Canadian musician, Danish saxophone player Mette Rasmussen and Washington-based musician Aaron Turner are among the many artists he’s worked with.

“Aaron and I recently collaborated at a festival in Porto, Portugal,” Dorji says. “That record will come out soon.”

Additionally, he and fellow local musician Thom Nguyen make up the group MANAS.

Despite his global interest, Dorji emphasizes that the Asheville arts and music community is very supportive. “The Catalytic Sound Festival was the first curatorial thing I’ve done in this town,” he says. “And I felt very supported. It was great to fly all those artists to Asheville, plus having some local artists play and collaborate.”

He adds that the event required direct financial assistance from local businesses, including synthesizer company Make Noise. “They were like, ‘We support you. What do you need?’” Dorji says.

And that kind of encouragement for his decidedly noncommercial musical endeavors has inspired Dorji. “There’s support [in Asheville] for experimental music in general. New venues are asking me to curate events. It’s really encouraging, and I’m really looking forward to doing Catalytic again next year, maybe even bringing more interesting musicians.”

Rocking to seek truth

Cellist Lindsay Miller and upright bassist Scott Gorski make up Okapi. Originally based in Chicago, the group launched in 2012. While the pair describe their project as a rock duo, the music they make doesn’t conform to most people’s ideas about the genre.

Their sound, says Miller, “isn’t going to get as far trying to connect with people who see themselves as highbrow people who just want to hear Bach for the 5,000th time.” For Okapi, rock — or their version of it — is the medium for their message. “Rock has always been a way of expressing what the current times are,” she says.

Miller sees Okapi as a vehicle for the pair’s shared life philosophy based on the teachings of Jiddu Krishnamurti: “Dismantle what you feel is the truth, and seek to find the truth for yourself,” she explains.

Okapi’s current catalog includes 2018’s Carousel, Part 1 and 2021’s Carousel, Part 2. But the duo’s highest-profile endeavor to date has been scoring The Wake of Dick Johnson, a transgressive and controversial one-man play and film by Luke H. Walker. The collaboration, notes Gorski, worked nicely. Okapi’s mysterious and occasionally unsettling music proved an effective pairing for the production.

“People are either intrigued by something they can’t understand right away and embrace the challenge,” Gorski says, “or they’re deterred by it.”

Between day jobs and touring, the pair do stay busy. Upcoming local shows include performances on Saturday, March 25, at Revolve and a Thursday, April 20, show at The Grey Eagle.

“We try to do local shows, tours and one-offs,” Gorski says. “Things where we can drive back that night, so we don’t miss work the next day.”

Be curious

Back at Asheville FM, Duvall emphasizes that avant-garde music purposefully redefines what society declares as the language of music. He stresses that the rewards are potentially great for listeners who step beyond the ordinary.

“Curiosity and a willingness to explore boundaries that make folks uncomfortable — that’s avant-garde,” he says.

And with a thriving local avant-garde musical community to explore, Duvall recommends that approach for listeners, too: “Be curious.”


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About Bill Kopp
Author, music journalist, historian, collector, and musician. His first book, "Reinventing Pink Floyd: From Syd Barrett to The Dark Side of the Moon," published by Rowman & Littlefield, is available now. Follow me @the_musoscribe

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