Monday, July 19, 2010

Open Mike, Tim Noah's Thumbnail Theater, Snohomish, WA, 7-16-2010

So the oft-asked question is, “What is an avant-gardist doing playing at an open mike?” The answer of course, is, “What are avant-gardists doing not playing at open mikes?” The music needs exposure. Open mikes are usually full of musicians playing various types of folk and traditional music (including acoustic versions of current and not too distant pop) but I’ve never known them to throw a classical, jazz, world music, or experimental musician off the stage (in fact they usually welcome these). …And I might add that most of the “traditional” musicians are really good.

I’ve been to the Thumbnail several times before. Though about a half-hour’s drive from where I live (if there’s no traffic), it’s well worth the slight inconvenience. It’s a quaint, intimate little performance space, with just enough room four or five people to play guitars or mandolins at one time, along with a baby grand piano and about twenty audience members. Or at least it was like this – on Friday I discovered (after not having been there for a couple of months) that it’s expanded. Now they’re holding it in the large hall of the same building (the building is a former church, so the large hall was the sanctuary). There’s room for about fifty people, and it seemed nearly full.

I came early to sign up (once or twice before I hadn’t gotten there on time and wound up playing last), then realized how things had changed. The baby-grand piano is still in the smaller room, with the upright in the large hall – and I got a well-deserved chew-out from the MC for stupidly trying to “prepare” the upright and nearly demolishing it in the process. I’d planned to do the one prepared piano piece that I was going to play in the upcoming “Discarded Poems” concert (see my previous two postings), but thought better of it at this point. The upright piano had no damage once I got it back together.

Wandering out in the hallway, saying hello to some of the regulars that I recognized, and wondering what to play instead of what I’d planned, I came across a Harry-Partch contrivance sitting unobtrusively in a corner. A round column of wood, with two doughtnut-shaped wooden resonators, strung with piano wires and held together by a crescent moon sounding board – it looked like something I’d like to give a try. There was a bow sitting on one of the resonators. I drew it across several of the strings. It made a thin, quiet, but not inharmonious sound. Obviously it wasn’t in tune, but that didn’t seem to matter. I got more interesting sounds out of it when I took out my percussion mallets and hit the strings in the manner of a dulcimer or cimbalom. Then on a whim I decided to try playing it during the open mike.

I asked the MC about it. He called it a rondolin, and said that there had been several of them made by someone there in Snohomish some years back. The historical society had the rest of them. And yes, I could take a stab at it. So two of us hauled it up on stage (“Don’t grab it by the resonators!” the MC shouted protectively – apparently it’s not as sturdy as it looks) and left it there in the corner until it was my turn to go on.

I played the piano (the prepared piano piece with an “unprepared” piano) and then tried the rondolin. I’d met a Celtic harp player, Francois Pernel, before the open mike, and asked him if he wanted to improvise something – and then, at the last minute, I called for anyone who wanted to play the djembe drum that they had on the stage too. This made an improvising band, and (if I do say myself) we did a pretty good job of ad-libbing on something that at least I’d never played before. The drum started, with a vaguely African beat (that morphed into reggae, and then hip-hop, at least once); Francois added rhythmic sounds on the harp (mostly untuned, behind the bridge) and I played the rondolin with the percussion mallets. The result sounded raw, “primitive”, and unrehearsed; but it also had odd shades of Harry Partch (of course), Lou Harrison, Foday Musa Suso, and Stravinsky. I made a recording of it, and (on playback) heard lots of maracas and shakers from the audience. They loved it, at least if the wild applause at the end is any indication (or maybe they were just glad that we’d finished).

Anyway, the rondolin turns out to be an interesting instrument, and the question looms: is there any way to get one into the StormSound Cycle? It might work, still untuned, for those atmospheric drone and percussion passages in some of the pieces.

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