The 2009 "Is That Jazz?" experimental-music festival takes place in Seattle Jan. 8. 15 and 22, with artists Krispen Hartung, RadioSonde, Elliott Sharp and Triptet.

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When does sound become music and when does music become jazz? This is the artistic and philosophical question the participants in the first “Is That Jazz?” experimental-music festival have posed to their audience.

The series of three performances, which started Thursday at the Chapel Performance Space in Wallingford, features six artists and groups playing a variety of conventional instruments in unconventional ways. More than a performance, the “Is That Jazz?” series is also a discussion.

Audience members will be invited to join musicians after each concert to discuss the music during an informal reception. They can fill out questionnaires contained in the programs. And anyone interested in reviewing the shows or addressing the key question — “is that jazz?” — can also contribute to the festival blog (

“The answer to a question like that, is … ‘it is if we decide that it is,’ ” said Tom Baker, festival organizer, guitarist and music professor at the University of Washington. “We’re trying to ask, ‘What can be jazz? How far away can you get and still have something reminiscent … something that retains that connection to a body of work?’

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“So if you ask yourself, is that jazz? Or is that chamber music? Or is this a symphony? It is if I say it is, if the audience says it is and if history says it is.”

At the kickoff concert, violist Christian Asplund, a music professor at Brigham Young University, performed a solo set using alternative objects as bows — items like paper, cardboard, plastic sheet covers, file folders, pencils and elastic bands. (An office-supply suite, if you will.) He was followed by the violin-clarinet quartet Cipher.

The festival continues the next two Thursday evenings with more improvised music played in both solo and group form. Thursday, Krispen Hartung will play a miniature, electroacoustic guitar, and the group RadioSonde will combine five dancers with four musicians.

Headlining the three-week event is New York guitarist Elliott Sharp, who performs by himself Jan. 22. The trio Triptet, featuring Baker, saxophonist Michael Monhart and percussionist Greg Campbell, will follow Sharp to end the festival.

The musicians will work at times from scores and compositional structures, but will improvise most of the music. Most have or had a relationship with traditional jazz and first found inspiration in it.

A recording by John Coltrane is what moved Sharp to pursue music.

Whether he listened to jazz or rock or blues, Sharp tended to notice musicians who went to “sonic extremes,” be it Jimi Hendrix or Jeff Beck.

In his Jan. 22 show, Sharp will play an acoustic guitar with an internal microphone, and manipulate the sound with an electronic bow and a laptop computer. But mostly, he says, he will stick to “what I can do with my fingers,” in an effort to induce a “psychoacoustic, chemical change” in the listener. Sound, he believes, is a physical force, and unlike other forms of art.

“Those of us who work in this style of music also need to make sure it’s accessible at all to people,” Baker said. “If it’s not hum-ability or familiarity, it should be something that allows them to connect to it. I don’t want them to be alienated by the music.”

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