Jimmy Joe Roche on a billboard on Greenmount. Original photo by Stewart Mostofsky.

Currently in its 14th year, High Zero is an egalitarian, dogmatically improvisational Baltimore music festival whose format is something like the international experimental music community’s version of a corporate team-building exercise. The performers play several sets over the course of the festival, thrown together in various ad hoc collaborations. Often, the players haven’t even met each other before entering into a spontaneous musical partnership.

If that all sounds to you like a recipe for a marathon of interesting musical failures, then you’ve obviously never been to the festival, and you’ve probably never caught any of the laudatory press High Zero has received over the years from the likes of NPR, the Washington Post, Signal to Noise, and Wire. This homegrown avant-garde invitational is one of free improvisation’s greatest and purest arguments for legitimacy. Not that the festival’s organizers have a persecution complex about their commercially nonviable tastes. “Ecstatic” and “utopian” are the words most often used to describe the feeling at High Zero.

Though High Zero routinely welcomes far-flung American and international musicians, of the festival’s 28 performers 14 are always culled from Baltimore’s own fertile creative music scene. One or two of those performers are chosen to appear on High Zero’s official poster. This year that performer is 31-year-oldBaltimore filmmaker and electronic musician Jimmy Joe Roche. In addition to seeing his face peering at you from fliers across the city, you’ll also catch his likeness larger than life on a billboard at Greenmount and 25th.

I put some questions to Jimmy and to one of High Zero’s organizers Shelly Blake-Plock.

Performers from a previous High Zero (L to R): Amy Cimini, Rose Burt, and Katt Hernandez. Photo by Stewart Mostofsky.

After 13 years has the size or format of the festival changed at all? Has it always had a consistent split of Baltimore musicians and out-of-towners? What was the impetus for the first festival?

Shelly Blake-Plock: This is the 14th year of the High Zero Festival, more or less in the same format we’ve followed all along — though over the years we’ve added a night of experimental film and video as well as a night of dance. We’ve had a lot of success with our Philosophers’ Union series at Red Room over the last year, so this year we’re also adding an evening of conversation — it’ll take the format of a sort of “High Zero Talk Show.” And it will destroy your mind.

We’ve always gone for the kind of synergy you get when you bring international folks in to play with Baltimore’s homegrown artists. That’s been there from the beginning and it’s the secret sauce to the festival’s success, really. In fact, as I understand, the entire festival appeared to [Red Room curator] John Berndt whole-cloth in a dream he had that included players from out of town and players from in town playing completely free improvised music together onstage in front of an audience minutes after first meeting. The festival still pretty much lives up to that ideal, give or take. Oh, and in the dream Neil Feather was riding a horse.

Any favorite moments from years past? Any sets you are particularly looking forward to this year?

SB-P:I generally spend the entire festival completely blown away by the creative energy. Like in a state of perpetual shock. Some highlights for me were the Jenny Graf matinee performance a few years back where she made a multi-course meal for the entire audience, the insane Jaap Blonk vocal takes on Dadaist poetry, and the night Dan Breen sawed Stewart Mostofsky’s shoe in half mid-set.

I tend to be in the more conceptual vein of things; I like seeing real experiments happening on stage — even when things go awfully wrong. I know some folks really get sucked in by the spontaneous beautiful moment — the perfect cymbal crash, the ideally placed fuzz-blast; I tend to prefer the chaos and when everything goes wrong and the human element of spontaneous collaborative creation. I like when it gets dense, messy, and difficult. That’s what I consider beautiful.

How many times are you performing at High Zero this year? With whom?

Jimmy Joe Roche: People play in three improvised sets. So there is no practicing except in the bathroom mirror. I’m playing Thursday with Jeff Carey (computer), Walter Kitundu (invented instruments) San Francisco, and Mario de Vega (electronics). I’ll probally use my noise vest instrument that I’m wearing in the poster on that Thursday set. Friday I’m playing with John Dierker (saxophone, clarinet), Owen Gardner (violoncello, guitar), Darius Jones (saxophone), Paul Neidhardt (percussion), Angela Sawyer (voice, toys, electronics), and Davindar Singh (baritone saxophone). And I’lll probally do live video and electronics. Saturday I’m playing with a cartoonist around lunchtime. Not sure what I’ll use in my set on Saturday.

Can you explain to us your rig as seen on the billboard? Who built it? What’s in your mouth?

JJR: The rig in the High Zero poster was designed and built by me with lots of help from the awesome hardware and software designers at Harvestworks in NYC. During the summer I did a New Works Residency at Harvest. The recipients are commissioned to create a new work in the Harvestworks Studios and Lab Workspace. So they funded and supported my project. The thing in my mouth is a contact microphone.

How did your current setup evolve? When did you make the move from film to music?

JJR: It was a slow move and I’m still moving and discovering how I want to mesh the two together. Sound in a room is evocative in an entirely different way that images are projected on a screen . I find working with sound very satisfying almost spiritual. I guess I first got into sound when I started teaching myself the software program Max/Msp some years back. In max integrating sound and video so that they to are essentially generated in in tandem is a feature built into the logic of the program.

From there I started trying to teach myself about basic electronics and physical interfaces and got into using electrodes ( attached to my face) to control video and sound. After that I became inspired by composers such as Éliane Radigue and really started my journey into an obsession with modular electronics.

Has anyone recognized you from the billboard? Do you just want to go check it out all the time?

JJR: A couple people have told me that it freaked them out when they saw it on the way to work. People keep telling me I look like the Marlboro man or that I should be selling deodorant. I don’t own a car so I don’t go down to Greenmount and 25th very often.

High Zero 2012 runs from September 17 – 23 at various locations in Station North, Charles Village, and Mt. Vernon. For more information visit the official website.