Define Music

Q: How would you describe what you do?

A: “Curator and devotee of experimental, classical, electronic, and improvised music,” says Bonnie Wright.

Since 1995, when she opened the doors to the Spruce Street Forum, Wright has made the avant-garde her daily work, selecting and inviting experimental music to San Diego. The Forum gained an international reputation during the next seven years as a venue for the free-spirited expression of anything resembling music.

Wright describes her transformation into a promoter of the art-music scene as a midlife epiphany — something of a musical awakening, decades ago — when her daughter took her to a show by experimental art rocker Laurie Anderson. Afterward, Wright became interested in artists such as David Byrne and Grace Jones. “Remember Grace Jones?” she asks.

“In 1989 I asked myself an important question: what do you do when nobody’s looking? A light bulb went off in my head,” she says. Recently retired from corporate sales, she knew the answer was music.

Wright enrolled at UCSD, where she mingled with avant-garde musicians like George Lewis. She later became his road manager and then went on to grad school.

“My thesis, if I ever finish it, is [going to be] titled ‘The Effect of Rhythm and Blues on White Girls in the ’50s.’ ”

Wright’s first concert at the 140-seat Forum, which also served as an art gallery and meeting hall, was a duo percussion event with Steve Schick and Vanessa Tomlinson. In the following years, by her estimate, Wright’s Fresh Sounds Concert Series produced 150 concerts.

Critics might point out that the kind of performers Wright has featured — artists such as Peter Brötzman, Jackson Krall, or Derek Bailey — are not very musical. She laughs softly when I say this.

“That’s very interesting. What is the definition of music anyway? Is it sound? Is it one-four-five and a four-four beat?” She pauses. “Not necessarily.”

Was the Spruce Street Forum and its eclectic lineup ever profitable?

“Oh, God, no. I owned the building, so I didn’t have to pay rent. I didn’t pay myself a salary. Half the income came from grants, and half came from art sales and ticket sales.”

Why, after seven years, did it close? “The fire department made demands on changing the exits that cost more than I could afford. I sold the building to a design firm, and then I started a label called Henceforth Records.”

On the difference between music and artistic noise: “It may be the intention. It may be the concept and the passion behind it. I think there’s a lot of noise that can be really interesting, even if you can’t dance to it. I like art to have a point of view. I like art to have something to say. I don’t like every note I hear, but I want to hear it. I want to hear what’s happening, and then I want to decide whether or not I want to hear it again.” She laughs.

What, based on what is being played on the radio, do you think is the current pulse of San Diego’s collective listening taste?

“My problem is that I don’t know what to listen to here. I try to listen to KPBS at night, but they play, in my opinion, boring mainstream old classical stuff. I listen to KSDS, the jazz station, and I love Miff Mole because he’s pushing the edges a little bit. But I don’t know where to find indie rock. Who’s playing Sigur Rós? I can’t find it.”

So what was the effect of R&B on white girls?

“This was post-WWII, during the late ’40s and early ’50s. We had transistor radios in our bedrooms for the first time, and therefore we didn’t have to listen to our parents’ music any longer. That was independence. We could listen to Wolfman Jack out of Long Beach. That’s when we started listening to black music. There was really no teen culture before transistor radios. In a sense, by listening to black music, we white girls learned to listen to what the black community was saying, and when the Civil Rights movement came, we heard them. White girls had been made promises just like the black men had been made promises, and they never came to fruition. White girls were expected to take jobs like teaching, cooking, cleaning, secretarial, taking care of everybody. Our education was not particularly useful, except to find a husband. I know that’s old news, but it still resonates with me.”

Bonnie Wright turned 70 last year. Following a three-year hiatus in New York, Wright is back in San Diego. She is currently the curator of a music performance series at the Sushi Gallery in the East Village called the Fresh Sounds 2009 Music Series. It is held on the second Tuesday of each month.

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