Tuesday, November 1, 2011

What I Did On My Summer Vacation (Play With Donald Miller, Bhob Rainey, Damon Smith, et al.)

Last week I was in New Orleans. I have been there many times on tour and my main contacts remain the legendary entertainer Mr. Quintron and puppeteer extraordinaire Ms. Pussycat. I have known Quintron since 1993, when we were both part of the embryonic "Chicago No Wave" scene (you can blame that one on me) centered around pre-Yuppie-infestation Wicker Park in Chicago. Since then we have stayed in touch to the extent that when I show up at his shows on tour, he usually has me come on stage at some point and do something stupid while all the people in the audience wonder who the hell I am and where did I come from. I have also marched in his red and white uniformed 9th Ward Marching Band during Mardi Gras - one particular highlight was playing saxophone in a brass arrangement of Heart's eternal "Barracuda", marching down the street in the middle of the night before finally running into master trombonist and Flying Luttenbacher alumni Jeb Bishop at a bar around six in the morning. In the '90s, Quintron's neighborhood was pretty rough, but recently it has become a hipster haven, overrun with drunk-ass party people on the weekend. Ten years ago, said boozers would have wound up with slit throats and stolen wallets . . . ah, how the cities have changed.

The main reason I came down was to participate in an art installation called "The Music Box". Essentially, a group of artists from New Orleans and abroad built a system of small housing structures containing sound generating devices in an empty lot next to another house. The instruments in this shanty-town included: an apparatus to filter keyboard sounds through percolating water pipes; a primitive eight-pad sampler built into a wall; a swinging chair fitted with electrified cables; a metal staircase leading to nowhere with steps that trigger organ pipes; an automated gamelan; amplifed, creaking floorboards and more. I was slotted to play a percussion kit made from various remnants of the original building torn down to make the lot. It featured a number of large frame drums with clingwrap heads and a series of soft metal pipes. This makeshift junkyard drum kit was problematic ergonomically, but after some minor repairs and adjustment of technique, I was able to deal with it. The two performances held during the evening of October 22 were conducted by Mr. Quintron and they were made at chamber music volume, with very little amplification in front of a large crowd seated in bleachers in the courtyard. The music was not particularly about the individuals involved, but rather the inventions themselves; we were just operating them to highlight their sonic potentials.

The night before this performance, I made a duo with veteran noisenik Rat Bastard at the Mudlark Theatre. The Mudlark is known primarily for being a hotbed of puppetry, but apparently they are more than friendly to various weirdo musicians in town as well. The duo of Donald Miller (guitar, of Borbetomagus infamy) and Witchbeam (synthesizer, of Telecult Powers) played a loud, drone-based electronic piece before us, at one point incorporating a random guy who walked in off the street. The two musicians didn't flinch when the dude walked up and started twisting some synth controller knobs. After a few minutes, he lost interest, took a bow and walked out the door. I clapped for him because he had a lot of moxy. Sometimes I think improvised music is improved by audience participation - not that these two needed it, but this welcome element of chaos helped make their set even more memorable. Rat and I came vitually unprepared - not in the sense that we were improvising, but we actually had no instruments with us. Essentially we figured out what to do once we entered the room and saw what was there. Rat did have two transistor radios with, so he played those, but spent most of the time braying and howling about the dangers of overextended credit card balances in this downward-heading economy. Over the blistering white noise of the twin radios, it just sounded like a lot of crazy yelling. I was set up on the stage and I wound up doing a sort of live dub mix with the p.a. head while amplifying a few cymbals and a metal stool with a live microphone. It was a pretty great set and actually contained moments of very coherent structuralism. Enough talk . . . listen to the full set, if you dare . . .


Three days later I returned to the Mudlark Theatre again to play in a duo setting with soprano saxophonist Bhob Rainey. Bhob and I last played together in 1999. That particular quartet, presented only once ever as part of the weekly Myopic Books Improvised Music Workshop series, also featured trumpeter Greg Kelley (who can be heard on several of my solo releases) and late, lamented Flying Luttenbachers William Pisarri on bass guitar and clarinet. At the time, my crude, loud approach - shared with Bill - was the exact opposite of the epicurean, detailed improvisational style Bhob and Greg were cultivating (under the band name Nmperign), so many in attendence seemed to consider this performance a disaster. I never felt at odds with quieter and sparser improvising, and in the meantime I have explored methods to play high-energy percussion at every volume level from pinprick to holocaust. I was definitely looking forward to this rematch with Bhob and it turned out to be quite fruitful. We began with an almost Noh Music-like strategy of dry sounds and abruptly occuring spaces of long duration. We communicated within the architecture of well-placed silence alternated with very pointed or complex isolated events. Of course the playing eventually moved into other densities and volumes, but mainly the dialogue had a lot to do with the tacit understanding of NOT PLAYING as an asset. I believe one of the personal goals for myself within a context like this is to maximize the effect of fewer sounds with the same impact and velocity I might normally reserve for more multilayered and continual playing. Bhob's command of extended techniques on the curved soprano is stunning. His control of split-tones and multiphonics is absolutely startling. He coaxes incredibly alien timbres from his horn and pays very specific attention to the attack and decay envelopes of his sounds. It's somewhat tough for most drummers to operate in such an abstract, non-idiomatic setting without resorting to well-worn cliche (emulating innovators like Eddie Prévost, Sean Meehan, etc.) but I still see a lot of potential in drum set as a structural scaffolding for this kind of music while utilizing traditional techniques. I was very happy with the dynamics of this performance and the lively counterpoint we were able to create. There was no pretense here and we wound up joking around with the audience before and after the set.

The following night, a frequent West Coast cohort of mine, bassist Damon Smith, joined myself and Donald Miller in a stripped-down trio formation. We wound up having to follow an overly long and meandering set by a trio of electronically-augmented percussionists, so by the time we could finally play, we were in particularly surly form both personally and musically. With our simple tools and hot blood, we burst through the gates roaring, each one of us vomiting forth molten lava with sickening violence. We maintained this cruel momentum for the duration of the entire 30 minute piece without faltering. The ghost of Takayanagi was definitely in the upstairs room of The Blue Nile that night and we fought his hauntings with all our mortal might. I was there to kick ass and did so with maniacal impunity, spitting like a lizard and showering everybody in my sweat. I don't really get many opportunities these days to play such balls-out, take-no-prisoners improv, so I relished this chance to raise holy hell and stomp on everybody's skulls with my gore-caked jackboots. Damon wrenched every hellish groan possible from his trusty contrabass and Donald coaxed endlessly spiraling eddies of pestulence from his axe. Everybody who had the balls to stay and take the punishment loved it, while various soft-eared wimps slinked away to crawl back into the soft, fuzzy musical blankies they came out of.

The next night, our murderous cabal was pushed straight over the edge of insanity into oblivion with the addition of extra guitar wrangler Rob Cambre at the Allways Lounge. Rob was singularly instrumental in arranging the four improvised music gigs I got to play on this trip, so I am very grateful for his efforts and support. An unflagging promoter of new music in New Orleans, he's no slouch on his instrument either! His approach is extremely sympathetic to Donald's on many levels, but he also inserts fragments of angular melodicism as well as a completely different set of electronic treatments and preparations, eliciting an even wider array of textures for the ensemble. We were slated to follow an often unintentionally hilarious program of "erotic" spoken word (often executed by not-very-attractive people) which ran overtime, so once again, we were a bit anxious to get the show on the road, as they say in show-biz speak. It's funny that all these "erotic" folks spend so much goddamn time talking about orgasms orgasms orgasms, but when a real fucking MUSICAL ORGASM actually takes place (such as our own catastrophically cathartic display of wanton sonic libertinage), they scatter frantically like cockroaches after the kitchen lights are flipped on in the middle of the night. It always seems like S/M adherents generally have shitty, wimpy discofied taste in music too, so I guess this disconnect translates across many avenues . . . they wring their mitts with fiendish glee to Passolini's Salò, but then retire to the boudoir to relax to the dulcet sounds of  Kenny G. or bad gothic rock. I don't get it, but then again, there's plenty about this retarded world I don't understand. Regardless, our quartet tirade easily topped the previous night in terms of variation and manic intensity. In these kinds of relentless settings, I'm less interested in proving that I can mindlessly play the whole time, but rather, I like to utilize the full possibilitity of the drum kit for its diverse orchestral potential. I might stop on a dime at any given point: not because I'm exhausted, but because I believe that if you have a bunch of great players not everybody has to play all the time. It's a classic, elegant tactic, really. If you're already on the borderline of becoming a dull-roar, why not play with the concept of levels and degrees of obnoxiousness instead of one stale flavor? I believe this has long since been one of my fortes! Sure, I enjoy playing fast and loud, but there's also quiet and loud, quiet and fast, medium volume and fast, loud and sparse, medium and sparse, fast silence, medium silence, etcetera and so on. I can say exactly what I want in the company of a lot of different players without resorting to one-dimensional schtick and I'm pretty proud of that. After all, if I just wanted to play drum solos, I could just stay at home and do that all day. To me, the discursive possibilities of improvisation are paramount, even when performed at the peak of clusterfuck annihilation. To make a lot of crappy noise is no victory. To make a great piece of music out of a lot of crappy noise is godliness!!!!

I ate a lot of 'Po Boy sandwiches on this trip. I'm glad to be home again.

Weasel Walter, 11.1.11


Serena WmS. Burroughs said...

"Levels and degrees of obnoxiousness"! Heh, heh...

brian roosjen said...

thanks for the rat bastard / ww set! going to shock my office now.

keep rockin! i see you're going to do the 319(thats the right number i think) scholes. always wanted to hit that place up, their previews look radical. some of the best modern art ive glimpsed!

-mr. b