It's funny how much can happen in a year. Last summer, Steve Gotcher, co-owner of local recording studio Audio for the Arts, forged a connection with sax man and composer Patrick Breiner, who'd stopped by to book a session. The two got to talking, and pretty soon they'd mapped out a blueprint for an avant-garde performance series.
"I had always wanted to have a concert series at the studio, so I told him we could record a concert and have an audience of 20 to 30 people," Gotcher recalls. "But I had no idea other people would get so excited about it."
Surrounded by Reality - a local collective co-helmed by Breiner that books free jazz, experimental and improvisational music - jumped on board, and by fall, the studio was hosting performances by musicians from all over the nation.
Sons of Daughters, a free-jazz trio with Wisconsin roots and members in New York, Boston and Madison, took their jamming skills to Audio for the Arts in December. Another cross-country collaboration, the NYC-and-Chicago-based trio Tres Hongos, visited in January, blurring the lines between jazz improvisation and rock experimentation. This month, the studio went international by hosting Luis Lopes, a groundbreaking guitarist from Portugal, and his genre-bending quartet of drums, saxophone and double bass.
Gotcher recorded the performances, and Surrounded by Reality videoed some of them and posted clips to its Wordpress blog. "We had 20 people show up at the first one and got a really nice recording," Gotcher says. "After that, musicians in places like New York started hearing about us, and we developed a bit of a reputation as a cool little laid-back spot to play. We've become this place that avant-garde musicians get excited about playing."
Located at 7 S. Blair St., Audio for the Arts thrived in the shadow of now-defunct Smart Studios for years, even though they tend to target a different audience. While rock engineering was Smart's claim to fame, Audio for the Arts has served Madison's classical-music community, recording symphonies and chamber ensembles, and making musicians' mouths water with a Yamaha C6 grand piano. The studio has also recorded quite a few jazz combos, student audition tapes and rock bands.
Some local podcasts and TV shows record their musical guests, but few are as well equipped as Audio for the Arts. As a recording studio, it's filled with both gear and gearheads. Plus, its size makes the shows more formal than a house show but more intimate than a standard club performance.
Though Audio for the Arts hasn't officially released the series' recordings, some of the participating musicians have added the tracks to their albums. But Gotcher's not about to let these tracks slip away. "We might put it out on a podcast or release it on a compilation CD, or it could even end up on the radio," he says.
The studio, says Gotcher, "gives us enough space for two dozen people and lets us serve snacks. People like to hang out in the lobby and chat; it's fun and gets people talking about music."