PAST: THIS IS WHAT I WAS DOING THEN
About, Pt. 1: Early Years 1988 - 2002
Baltimore / DC / Boston
Shel began playing music in folk groups in 1988 and then quickly got swept up into a succession of hard rock, punk, and indie bands beginning in 1989. For several years starting in 1992, he played guitar in a group called Butch with Mike Hilton, Zack Becker, Shawn Setherley, and Michael Sheppard and took part in several recording sessions across Baltimore including at the Hat Factory, Hound Sound, and Social Services in the Copycat Building. The group played out regularly and went out on two pre-Google tours. It is still unknown how they found their way home. Check out their 4-track cover of Joy Division's Day of the Lords to get a sense of what they sounded like live.
In 1994, Shel released a series of homemade cassette recordings (including an album recorded on the outgoing message of an answering machine) which garnered some critical notice — nationally at Alternative Press and locally in the Baltimore City Paper alt-weekly. For the next several years, Plock composed and recorded scores of lo-fi tracks — usually in the realm of psychedelic folk and noise, but with occasional forays into electronica and computer music. He also began painting — at the outset with a focus on a rough expressionism which later would evolve into something more conceptual. In 1997, along with architect MJ Wojewodzki — the two met at a gig at Baltimore’s 14 Karat Cabaret and were married in 1998 — Plock moved to Washington, DC where he played in a post-hardcore band and spent time shouting anti-folk from various DC and Arlington stages. During this time, he spent almost all of his time painting, his pieces growing both larger in scale and more outwardly concept-oriented in approach — showings of these increasingly outsized paintings of battle maps, astrological signs, and roughly hewn figures placed in quasi-religious and mythological scenes followed in DC, Baltimore, Texas, and NYC.
In 1999, the pair moved to Boston where Plock mostly laid low from playing music in public and instead focused on writing translations of Ancient Greek and Latin poetry and listening to Leonard Cohen. He did get out into the studio occasionally however, including taking part in a recording session of folk blues and lo-fi singer-songwriter material with artist Will Schaff which was released on AmBiguous City Records. And he sat in for a recording session with Dan Madri and Matt Savage on their acoustic pop project called Joy which was issued on the Shrimper record label. His most significant musical work from this period was Drug Warriors — a roughly recorded lo-fi musical narrative about a drug deal gone wrong on the Texas border. While it did appear on streaming platforms, the album was never officially released. Or maybe it was. Nonetheless, at least it did see light of day as opposed to dozens of ad hoc private recording sessions that occurred at home in Boston, almost none of which were ever released in any format.
As far as the Boston years went, Plock was focused mostly on his writing and on smaller works of visual art. The recordings were more of an afterthought, or a lingering bad habit. He started up an internet visual arts project in response to the events of the Balkan Wars and his interests started to become more wrapped up in issues of communication and technology — especially with regard to new technologies developed to further the studies of linguistics and philology. He began contributing visual poetry and language-based drawings to events taking part across the international mail art scene — usually under the pseudonyms “New Routines” and “Century Studios” — and he contributed work allied to art actions by the likes of Clemente Padin, Arte Urgente, and offshoots of the IUMA. As the oughts rolled around, Plock began close collaboration with Phillip John Usher on a series of poetry and film related endeavors including the publication of two volumes of Annetna Nepo, a multilingual poetry review sponsored by the Dudley House Writers Workshop at Harvard University where Plock earned a degree while attending night school and enrolling in classes in the graduate school as a special student.
In 2002, Plock and Wojewodzki returned to Baltimore. Plock took up a teaching job.
From Plock's pre-musical career as a right fielder
Shel Plock (aka Shelly Blake-Plock, aka R. Richard Wojewodzki)
b. 1974, New Jersey; moved to Baltimore, MD in 1984
Began guitar at age 14 and gave first concert 3 months later - played "The Girl from Ipanema" & "Spain"
Given a copy of The Inner Mounting Flame at age 15 and life was changed (for better or worse)
First rock band formed in 1989 - Plock plays a Silvertone Archtop through a Fender Champ
First studio experience in 1991 on TASCAM 8-track reel-to-reel
First gigs out on tour - 1992 during high school spring break
First 7" records released in 1993 when Plock and Jon Ewell start up AmBiguous City Records
First solo recordings released in 1994
About, Pt. 2: Transformation of Sound 2002 - 2008
Starting in 2004, Plock became increasingly interested in free improvisation and in merging improvisation with his lo-fi songwriting and recording techniques. This impulse had begun with Drug Warriors, but now was maturing into something more probing. Now with three children in tow, Plock and Wojewodzki bought a 19th century house in the old Maryland town of Elkridge. Plock met and began collaborating with the bassist Joel Grip, a Swedish free improviser who was study at Baltimore's Peabody Conservatory. He joined Grip and fellow musicians Devin Gray, Audrey Chen, and Tim Murphy in performance at the Peabody and later Grip and Plock starred together in a 48 hour long improvised music performance. At the annual Hagenfesten music and performance festival in Dala-Floda, Sweden, Plock played with Susan Alcorn and performed anti-musical music performances with Marcus Doverud and Andreas Werliin. He joined Grip's Jolly Boat Pirates and the piano-and-drums-driven Donkey Monkey on the Transformation of Sound tour including with stops at the Eskiltstuna Art Museum, Nya Perspektiva in Västerås, and at the legendary Glenn Miller Cafe in Stockholm. Frequent collaborators at this time included the pianist Eve Risser, saxophonist John Dierker, and trumpeter Niklas Barno. Plock also started performing often in Philadelphia — playing with musicians associated with the Fishtown folk and psych scene including in shows with folks like Sharron Kraus and Jack Rose.
Concurrent to his musical endeavors, Plock began what would become decades-long research into how learning and technology intersect. Plock earned a masters degree from The Johns Hopkins University, and towards the end of spending nearly a decade as a classroom teacher, he began designing and teaching courses at Hopkins on the educational uses of participatory media. Eventually, over the following decade, he would help to start up several projects both commercial and non-profit. Partly influenced by his work on participatory media and language, Plock’s music at the time began morphing into a form of quasi-narrative ensemble-based free improvisation. In 2007, he released an album called The Violencestring featuring a broad cast of experimental musicians including Carly Ptak, Jenny Graf Sheppard, Lyle Kissack, Ben McConnell, and Twig Harper.
“It was during this time,” said Plock, “That I came to understand myself more as an editor than as a writer. Or maybe I had realized that early, but was becoming more comfortable with the idea. Because the way I approached music was as a collector of ideas that would eventually be edited into something cohesive. I did not have to be the one who controlled the manifestation of those ideas into artifacts. I could let other musicians and artists, or even machines, do that. I was sort of the archaeologist. I found what others had left behind. Another way to look at it is that the way I approached recording and production was as if I were carving out of stone — as opposed to assembling and building something. I was carving. Clearing out the dirt and the imperfections. Maybe some imperfections would remain. But I was uncovering what was there. I was confronting the whole that was before me and slowly notching it down to what was essential. What was essential was already there. I had nothing to do with it other than bringing it into focus. To paraphrase Michelangelo: there was an angel there in the stone all this time. I just had the right tool with which to uncover it. To let it loose on the world. Sometimes it worked, and often it did not. But the process itself became a part of who I was and it has guided the way I’ve worked on every project since.”
Plock returned to Cambridge at this time to present and read his book-length poem — Baltimore — at Dudley House. This would be the first of four books (including three novels) that Plock would write and then shelve unpublished by the end of the decade.
Västerås :: Nya Perspektiv :: Solo Electric Guitar
Malmö :: Jericho Music :: Free Improvisation
Dala-Floda :: Hagen :: Home of Umlaut Records
Stockholm :: Glenn Miller Cafe :: Small Ensemble
About, Pt. 3: Free Improvisation 2008 - 2013
Joining Baltimore’s Red Room Collective, Plock spent much of the next five years supporting and co-organizing the annual High Zero Festival of experimental free improvisation. Appearing on stage with the likes of Jennifer Walshe, Kenta Nagai, Dan Deacon, and Wobbly, Plock’s musical output became increasingly inscrutable — often consisting of the absence of instruments or the purposeful undermining of expectations. Mentions of his work appeared in Wire and on NPR Music. Entering the research frontier of experimental music, he performed as a member of John Berndt’s Second Nature Orchestra and appeared often on the experimental scene in Baltimore, sharing stages with members of Microkingdom, with Sam Burt, Lexi Mountain, Bob Wagner and more.
"I consider my time with High Zero to have been especially important in how it forced me to think differently about the nature of performance," said Plock. "In addition to musical growth, I also experienced substantial social and emotional growth through the whole thing. The people that I met and the folks I had the chance to share the stage with became part of a rotating cast of characters that populate the conversations in my head to this day. Additionally, my time with High Zero corresponded with the ballooning of social media — and at least in those early days we saw this as something that could be leveraged in the interest of creating a less parameterized art scene. Little did we all know what we were in store for."
In addition to his musical output, Plock began working to promote the Baltimore experimental music community — providing support for the experimental label Ehse Records and eventually curating the first formal gallery exhibition of Baltimore sound art in a show called Sound Artifacts that featured installations by Alessandro Bosetti, Paul Neidhart, Bonnie Jones, Mike Muniak, Peter Blasser, and others on display at Maryland Art Place. It was during this time that Plock and Wojewodzki began hosting the annual El Boh Festival and the Summer Solstice Picnic at Glen Artney. Performers included Lawrence Lanahan, Microkingdom, Sam and Rose Burt, Tom Boram and Dan Breen's Snacks, Stewart Mostofsky, and many more.
w/ Lily Susskind , Jennifer Walshe , Khristian Weeks
W/ Rose Burt, Kenta Nagai, Kate Porter, Will Redman
W/ Dan Deacon, Ju Suk Reet Meate, Ayako Kataoka, Hans Koch
W/ Thomas Dimuzio
About, Pt 4: Pseudonyms of Pseudonyms 2014 - Present
Eventually burning out on the peculiar demands of these engagements, Plock largely disappeared from the world of live free improvisation and spent the following years intensely studying and (occasionally) performing in tightly idiomatic forms of honky-tonk, extreme metal, composed computer music, and jazz. Plock worked on his country-and-western chops in an ensemble with Lawrence Lanahan, Bob Wagner, Mike McGuire, and Harry Bartelt and the group played Baltimore's ArtScape as well as the annual Shakemore Festival. And Plock would eventually come to collaborate on a project called SIGINT with Matthew Welch and guitarist Billy Shade — both of whom had been close musical colleagues during the early 1990s in Baltimore. This recording project would be the closest thing to a rock record that he’d been a part of since those early Baltimore/DC days.
“After years spent outside the farthest edges of form and format, I found that I needed to dive into music that was the exact opposite — that is, music that adhered religiously to conceits of genre, worked within self-contained idiomatic languages, and which forced an analysis of form that appreciated structure and a set of systems. Music that was built on a geneology of rules and regulations rather than starting from a completely unpackaged perspective,” said Plock. “In diving into Western Swing and Be-Bop, as examples, I came to appreciate this sort of contract that exists between players. I wasn't technically proficient enough to play in these forms in the way that I wanted to, but I learned great musical lessons in the attempt to hang with them. Then, MJ and I got into writing short songs. Stuff like Minutemen and early Hüsker Dü. Just because we could. Because we wanted to. I'd spent years outside of song and now I was drowning in it. Drowning in the language of song. The shared experience of song. Because ultimately it is another way to share experience with other musicians — and, by extension, with music listeners. It also got me thinking about the semantics of aesthetic and the semantics of experience. It got me thinking about the operation of systems and shared experience within systems. And that set me down a whole other track.”
In 2014, Plock started work leading the development of new technologies in the space of semantic data — eventually becoming a principal investigator for research into event-based analytics and data simulation. Contributing time to the development of several new global data standards, Shelly tried to find a way to make relatable and relevant many of the disparate and otherwise tangentially-minded aspects of his thinking, interests, and experiences. His work since has examined ways to express human experience in machine readable forms and ways to structure related and requisite ethical strategies for dealing with artificial intelligence.
“I think that as my approach to the technical challenges matured, not as a developer but as a theorist who had the opportunity to experiment with real things in the kettle of applied research, so too changed the way I was thinking about my musical output,” he said. “Whereas when I was younger, I had trouble on account of a self-imposed tendency to hyper-categorize things, my work on experiential data actually opened me up to a view of the world that was much more widely distributed, much more rhizomatic, and much less dependent upon a superficial sort of external categorization. It was much more cognizant and meta-relational and evolving and tolerant of an emergent view of meaning. And it was a process. In the beginning, it was cool just to bring new ideas to life. Over time, it became more directed in intention and everything became focused through a lens of research and intent.”
While publicly his technical work became seen as a priority over his output in music, starting in 2015, Plock began quietly releasing recordings from his post-improvisational work in extremely limited batches and almost always under a series of anonymous names. MJ and Shelly produced a number of one-off and quick things. Sometimes downloadable streams would appear for only weeks before disappearing forever. The recordings included lo-fi country-and-western, highly composed synthesizer scores, art punk, extreme metal, deconstructed club music, and dark ambient music.
In 2022, partly in an attempt to shake off the frustration of the pandemic years, Plock decided it was time to return fully to the musical fray. He did so with the album Arcade Moon Echoes. On it, he found a middle ground — using jazz and improvisation as the best way to re-emerge. The album leverages instrumental beat-driven improvisations as a way to explore place — in this case, the place is an old haunted amusement park.
By 2023, Plock's thoughts had turned again to heavy music. Recording and releasing Grave Domain on the Weirdjazz label, Plock entered a new phase of his musical life.