Monday, August 8, 2011

Open Mike, Tim Noah's Thumbnail Theater, 8-5-2011

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; in this case, folk musicians and singer/songwriters who give perforances that are both skillful and deeply felt.

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. The open mike is in the large hall of the building (a former church, so the large hall was the sanctuary). There’s room for about fifty people. There is a homey, family atmosphere, a lot of humor, and friendly “regulars” who join in spontaneous bands. Basically it’s a lot of fun.

No, this is not actually the open mike that I’d written about a couple of postings ago that actively encourages experimental music. But they don't discourage it either. Highlights of this time included:

1. Wayne’s guitar work, both solo and (new for him) with other players. His solo pieces, all originals, are “new acoustic” music but so much more than that label would seem to indicate. For his group performances, he graced other songs and compositions with magical runs and filigrees, always understated, and always at exactly the right moment between verses or at other pauses in the singing.

2. Dawn singing rock songs. Her loud, gritty, powerful voice is somewhat reminiscent of Linda Rondstadt when she was singing top-40 rock (though of course Ms. Ronstadt’s voice is capable of any style of music she wants to sing). I commented to Dawn that, since Ms. Ronstadt has moved to singing classical, opera, and jazz now, that there was a gap in rock music that Dawn might be able to fill. Anyway, she sang one song a capella, then asked for a band. As happens frequently at this particular open mike, it was an audience participation extravaganza. No less that eight of the “regulars” jumped up on stage to form an impromptu band (with accordion, dobro, two guitars, mandolin, piano, bass guitar, and djembe). Dawn “conducted” this jam session while singing, like a true leader of the band, and everyone (including the audience) had a blast.

3. Jim and J.W., both regulars, both singing and playing Celtic-inspired ballads (on guitar, with Wayne as a second guitarist). J.W.’s was an original song, based on his own family history.

When it came to be my turn, I continued the prevailing Celtic atmosphere for the first piece. This was my arrangement of “Song of the Seals”, a Scottish ballad that I’ve actually only heard sung a capella by Jean Redpath. For my piano arrangement I added (rather basic) chords, usually rolled to sound like a Celtic harp; to highten this effect I pluck the melody directly on the piano strings at the beginning and end of the piece (though several people have suggested that the latter sounds more like a koto than a Celtic harp). There was a little time left, so I played a (very brief!) excerpt from my 9-hour “StormSound” Cycle, in the solo piano arrangement that I’d played in February at the Jack Straw Composers’ Spotlight. This particular excerpt attempts to reconcile “experimental” and “mainstream” music in a way that I’ve ofen attempted (though I’m never sure if I’ve actually succeeded) – the piano realizes a graphic score as a modal melody over a drone-minimalist piece (electronic, played on a speaker attached to my iPod). The end result doesn’t really sound “experimental” but it’s certainly not rock, hip-hop, or easy-listening. Judging from the audience response, they liked it.

Next time I might try something a little more shocking at first hearing. Since I’ve recently revisited my old set of piano pieces based on Japanese wood-block prints, I might try one of these. Two of them are “atonal” in the classic sense (i.e. twelve-tone in the manner of Webern), and one draws its inspiration from Morton Feldman. I’ll give one of these a shot. Just for fun. Stir things up a little.

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