Hal Rammel: Edifying our ears with experimental sounds

To say that Hal Rammel grooves to the beat of a different drummer doesn’t really do justice to his devotion to alternative sounds. The 70-year-old invents his own instruments, and he improvises alongside violinist Linda Binder. But he is perhaps best known as the founder of “Alternating Currents,” a radio show that spun off into a live concert series.

Soon after moving to Milwaukee in 1992, Rammel befriended WMSE station manager Tom Crawford, who offered him a Sunday radio spot. From the outset, the show was unapologetically avant-garde.

“The series focuses on what broadly might be termed experimental music,” he says. “Free jazz and freely improvised music, more experimental forms of contemporary classical and chamber music, live electronic music …composed or improvised.”

And, while that kind of music doesn’t appeal to everyone, Rammel found a dedicated following, of all ages and backgrounds. “I got a call from an elderly woman who recognized a piece of solo piano music I was playing,” he recalls, explaining that the woman was idly turning her radio dial when she heard American composer Henry Cowell’s “The Banshee,” a piece played by stroking the insides of a piano to simulate wind and whispery voices. “She had wanted to play the piece at her student piano recital in the 1940s, but her instructor wouldn’t let her because he felt it was too extreme. She was very grateful to hear it again on the radio that night after so many years.”

A few years into the program’s radio run, the founders of Woodland Pattern Book Center, Anne Kingsbury and Karl Gartung, invited Rammel to curate a music series in the Riverwest store’s gallery.

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His transition from radio producer to concert impresario was a natural one. He had already established relationships with many top jazz musicians playing in Chicago – such as violin virtuoso Leroy Jenkins – and had little trouble luring them north of the Illinois state line. He had played music at venues like Woodland Pattern before, too.

Rammel continues to host “Alternating Currents Live” six times a year, though he passed his radio baton to Jason Wietlispach and Robert Szocik in 2014.

The two now take turns hosting the show, alternating weeks as well as currents. Szocik, a Milwaukee Public Schools teacher, says that Rammel is “a high mark of Milwaukee’s improvised music scene.”

“Alternating Currents Live” audiences would agree. ◆


World-renowned jazz flutist Nicole Mitchell plays Dec. 10 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $8 general admission, $7 students and seniors, $6 WP members. 720 E. Locust St.

‘Sonic Disruption’ appears in the December 2017 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning November 27, or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.

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