There is electricity in the air in the 400 block of Southeast 6th Avenue on this warm summer night.
It's not caused by a wealth of street lamps but, more likely, from a lack of them. The block's dim lighting casts shadows over young people wandering around, moving equipment, sitting in doorways. Something is happening here, but where and what? By all accounts, not much should happen here at night. This is a decidedly industrial neighborhood: no houses, no nightclubs, not even a Plaid Pantry.
This buzz of quiet excitement comes from the 411 Collective, perhaps Portland's only studio devoted to all things improv. The space is essentially an old warehouse converted into a more bohemian enterprise: Artists' space, performance space, a communal hub. The people lingering outside tonight will end up inside its walls.
On this night, 411 hosts experimental jazz percussionist Chris Cogburn, and he performs an hourlong set of abstract jazz music, all of it improvised, with the help of a saxophonist and a guitarist. The next group performs with a guitar and a violin while one woman dances. It's heavy stuff--electric guitar played like a violin, violin plucked, at times, like a guitar. They make music that sounds like a bustling nightscape: the humming of a truck, the creaking of a floor, the opening of a window. There's no rhythm, no studied beat, and lots of feedback, but there are moments of harmony in which one forgets that this sound has never been practiced before.
In between sets, it's hard for a stranger to feel welcome. A freestanding bar boasts no beverages, and there are the occasional, apprehensive glances from those who seem to "belong." There are surely secrets lurking behind a host of white curtains that will forever remain a mystery to these alien eyes.
It's an intimate space, to be sure, and though there are some things I'll never see, it's amazing that I--who have nothing to contribute except the $5 I plopped in the donation jar--have been let so far into this world.
Luckily, 411 offers opportunities to participate, to be involved in this collective project, as an artist. Weekly gatherings host musicians and dancers improvising their art, together. It is in this spirit that the energy outside this warehouse pulses with promise.
411 Collective, 411 SE 6th Ave., 239-3829.