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5-year experimental music documentary project comes to a close

Two eyes peer out of a red field and an alligator rests below celestial machinery in the collaged cover of Rhizomatic St. Louis 5
Provided by Nathan Cook
Cover of Rhizomatic St. Louis 5 tape designed by Jeremy Kannapell

For electronic musician Nathan N. Cook, abstract soundscapes, nature recordings interwoven with voices, and harsh noises, aren’t just intellectual experiments in audio editing. Instead, he finds them places of human connection.

Five years ago, Cook decided to mix those elements into recordings that capture a community of local musicians — and to share that connection with others. He launched the Rhizomatic St. Louis series, an annual album release of 10 distinct, avant-garde and experimental musicians.

More than 50 musicians have contributed to the project, which is released on cassette in boutique editions of 100 copies. But after years of soliciting bands, gathering recordings and producing, Cook is planning to retire the project.

“It’s been an organic process, and because of that, I would not want to force it and continue to do it just because I’ve been doing it every year,” he said.

The Rhizomatic series has left its imprint on St. Louis, from its distinct sounds to album cover art created by local musician Jeremy Kannapell. Each release has been marked by a performance rolled into “Bruxism,” Cook’s regular concert series at the Schlafly Tap Room. He said the work has been an intriguing ride.

“I’m enjoying experiencing what all the artists have to offer, being part of the community,” he said. “If you’re doing something you truly love it doesn’t seem like work.”

VFull set of Rhizomatic St. Louis tapes produced by Nathan Cook. Covers by Jeremy Kanaple.
Willis Ryder Arnold | St. Louis Public Radio

Cook sees the series as a personal art project and audio documentary that captures a new group of performers as it evolves.

“It’s really a measure against self-isolation and a way to foster the community and to let people know that this incredibly creative, interesting work is there,” he said. “It’s not something that’s necessarily a members-only type of thing.”

Contributors to the project have included Charles “Bobo,” Shaw, a founding member of The Black Artists Group, an influential 1970s art collective; Van McElwee, an internationally acclaimed video artist and Guggenheim Fellow; electronic music composer Travis Bursik; and saxophonist Dave Stone.

Although the experimental music community is ever-changing and regularly produces new musicians, Cook said the project must come to a close. Having captured the contemporary sound community in recent years, he wants to wind down before he’s forced to rely too much on established performers.

But even though there may no longer be a concerted effort to preserve and encapsulate the music, the creative work isn’t disappearing. Cook will continue his Bruxism series at the Schlafly. Kannapell is still running the New Music Circle, another boundary-pushing local musical organization that focuses on presenting live events.

Joseph Hess’ Wrong Division blog catalogs and previews live experimental performances, releases and additional media produced from the intersection of experimental, punk and DIY music.

The Rhizomatic St. Louis 5 release show will take place March 30 at Schlafly Tap Room. 

Follow Willis on Twitter: @WillisRArnold

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