An oxymoron is “a figure of speech that combines two normally contradictory terms.” When I look back at the electronic music performance at the Acoustic Coffeehouse a couple of weeks ago, that’s the first word that came to mind. However, this eclectic stage has quickly become the most curious places to visit in the Tri-Cities and you’ll never really be sure what you’ll find, but it will certainly be worth talking about – despite the fact my friends had a terrible time.

Nothing serious happened, it just wasn’t their vibe. Besides, electronic/ambient music is not for everyone. No vocals, no drums and an audience vibe that is more reminiscent of a classical recital than a tribal shake-down.

Nevertheless, I was interested to hear the music and some of the new gadgets promised earlier in the year by organizer Mark Mahonney. Mark is a Kingsport native who has been working the music scene for several years and most recently cultured a distinctive collaboration with keyboardist and songwriter Michael Peck. Together, they have been producing local electronic music shows to showcase their music as well as others. They craft much of this in their living rooms looking across a sophisticated array of synthesizers and other electronics and on nights like this, we get to hear the fruit of their union. This was the second “Night of Electronic Music” and this year they included a couple of new artists including David Sieg who presented the ethereal graphics and Howard Moscowitz from Asheville, NC.

This unique stage is located on 415 West Walnut Street a few blocks down from the ETSU campus and “next door” to a popular campus laundermat. Coffee is just the beginning for this gathering spot though. You’ll find sandwiches, import beers, vegan items and a small stage where they regularly feature acoustic artists. One side note – this place is pet-friendly and don’t be surprised if you share your experience with a few canines looking curious and waging their tail – not to mention many hippies young and old who visit almost every night of the week.

We were late for the show and I guess the scene was a bit abrupt for my guests. Usually when you walk into a club to hear a band, silence is the last thing to expect, except of course during a classical or jazz performance. There was a $5.00 cover and just inside the door, at the back of the room, there was a musician hunched over his keyboard making strange sounds while psychedelic mutations of light and pattern oozed on the screen behind the stage and the audience – zombies – lost in a transcendent dreamscape, but my friends I’m pretty sure thought it was weird.

I bought a beer and shared a handshake with Mark and Michael. Mike told me the artist on the stage was from Asheville and one of the originators of the vocoder. That’s an electronic synthesizer that models the human voice through a series of knobs and frequencies. I was intrigued by his keyboard and was gushing over that with Mark who told me about the Nord G3 – I have a fondness for red keyboards.

Bob Hoffman was out front. He’s a big electric music fan and regular voice on WETS-FM and Big Jim Larkins made an appearance before leaving. He said, “gotta do the Jesus job in the morning.” My guests were already bored and moved outside for a cigarette and I recognized Jared’s shadow on my shoulder as we listened to Moscowitz play the notes from his last set. The music was slow and lumbering like a morning fog and the sounds were equally as eerie as the artist spoke a refrain of words into a synthesizer bank that made him sound like a chorus of machines.

At the break, I squeezed my way past the tables and gear to speak with Kingsport Digerati elite – Dave Sieg. Dave – a Kingsport native and digital pioneer. We met in the mid-nineties and his work at the time was honored with two Oscars for animation work he completed for Disney and plenty of other movie productions. He moved to Hollywood, came back home, raised a family, started the first Internet company in the region (TriCon) and continued to develop a major software company – ZFX.

We were partners for several years developing publishing systems for the newspaper and I still consider it a privledge to have worked with this local artist. We’ve played music together, partnered our business and enjoyed several interesting episodes as our lives have crossed paths here in this city. As usual, Dave’s brilliance was working its way out tonight too as the images transported fans into the Netherworld behind the music.

Dave continues to stay busy with ZFX and “digital distribution” and we talked a few moments about his gear which consisted of a couple of DVD players, a Winamp controller and a small television switcher. Always the genius of gadgets – he was one of the crew tonight along with Zane Whitson who was running sound and another geek in the back streaming audio over the Internet.

During the break, everyone seemed to be gather outside and next door at the Acoustic Coffeehouse. They really have two stages there, one in the main venue where you’ll find sandwiches, drink, etc and the annex called mockingly ‘Next Door.’ Seated on a stool in the crowed coffeehouse, there was a solo songwriter singing anthems to a crowded room of attractive young lesbians – at least so it seemed. There was clearly a distinctive difference in the two audiences and although most everyone seemed to be comfortable with the defiant yet playful rowdy audience, I was eager to return next door.

Mark Mahonney is a another of Kingsport’s creative culture and I’ve known him for several years. Our paths originally crossed during his years as a videographer. He worked for Charter for several years too and produced a lot of freelance work as well. We share employment at Times-News too where he used to be a photographer and I was amazed to watch him fall deep into music as he learned to play guitar and now keyboards. At present, he’s working toward his Masters in Education and he’s an inspiring creative force.

Several years ago, Mark teamed up with Michael Peck after exchanging their interests in electronic music on the Buzz music forum. Michael is a regular contributor promoting many of the Indie acts appearing at A Hideaway in Johnson City, but his interest in electronic music was a bit surprising to me in the beginning, but over the years he’s sculpted his sound into a original force that continues to recreate itself.

Mahonney announced the group would begin a second set together with Peck and Moscowitz and in a few moments, they slithered their way back among their computers, synthesizers, cords and cable. Peck moved to the front of the stage and wrapped his hands around his theramin.

A theramin is an interesting musical device that models sound by responding to hand placement. It looks like a metal stick, but in the hands of an artist like Peck, the instrument becomes a melodic tone that morphs from a whisper to a scream and it was interesting to watch him create a futuristic solo inside the music. Some of my favorite work tonight was by Peck who helped blend some percussion into the music and that’s probably my best advice because this seemed to engage the audience a bit more than the ambient and somber nature of the performance.

Mahonney was great coming up with original sounds and together with their guest from Asheville, they lived up to their promotion of creating music from both heaven and hell, but with a bit more pulse, I think the unfamiliar audience would appreciate the music more.

Fore me, I had a great time and enjoyed what little bit of their set that we had the chance to experience. We had to leave early for another party, but in many ways, I wish I could have caught the rest of the performance, but from what I can tell they will gather more artists at a later date for ‘A Night of Electronic Music – Part III” and that will be sometime in the fall and I look forward to joining the guys as they continue to grow this niche audience fascinated by electronics and music.