The Consortionist (aka my elder brother, Howard Ryan) curated a Quarantine Concert on 10/25/20, presented by the Experimental Sound Studio in Chicago. Here’s the full-lineup:
3:00 - - Cecilia Vicuña (NY)
3:10 - - Jen Baker (NY)
3:30 - - Makoto Kawabata (JP)
3:50 - - Tatiana Lubovski-Acosta (SF)
4:00 - - Robert Stillman (UK)
4:20 - - Sidney Chen (SF)
4:40 - - Tom Weeks (OAK)
5:00 - - Greg Beaver (NJ)
5:10 - - Charalambides (TX)
The first artist really set the tone. Cecilia Vicuña sang a song with the repeating refrain:
Your data is being used against your will
Your data is being used against your soul
Your data is being used to kill the story
Your data is being used to destroy the world
Et cetera. It was scored for quiet, wounded vocals, spooky electronics, cymbal, and cow bell. The visual was similarly unsettling. For me it perfectly paired the, “What am I looking at?” to go with the, “What am I listening to?” The visual was sparkling, glistening silver and white, with hits of gold, on a black background. The cumulative effect was one of wisdom and dread. Not like a fortune teller you’d see on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, but an authentic Roma woman who really CAN see the future and it ain’t pretty.
Jen Baker performed a trombone solo unlike anything I’d ever heard. Again the word that came to mind was “unsettling.” She played a mixture of ordinary “toot toot toots” on the trombone, plus some squeaking from the slide, plus some Shirley Temple-on-acid giggly noises. Sometimes two or three of those things at the same time. Later it seemed to have a Carl Stalling/Bugs Bunny quality, the score for a missing Looney Tunes episode in which Bugs eats some magic mushrooms. It was a tour de force unlike anything I’d heard before, completely original, awe-inspiring, and yes, unsettling.
Makoto Kawabata played bowed electric guitar. Ya ever even heard of that? The sound was a mixture of the new, the ancient, and the extraterrestrial. I was expecting that Howard’s programming would be wildly varied from artist to artist, but I was shocked at the variety of sounds being made by each individual artist. You sure don’t hear that in a Schubert piano trio.
Tatiana Lubovski-Acosta read a few of her poems. I don’t feel that I can really react to what she wrote because could hardly hear her. I had the sound turned all the way up but some jerk on a chopper was vroom-vroom-vrooming down my street. Bad timing.
Robert Stillman introduced a welcome element of sheer ecstatic beauty to the lineup. Again, I wasn’t quite sure what I was hearing, I didn’t know what was live and what was prerecorded, but it seemed that he was playing live electronic keyboard over a prerecorded sparkly, fragrant, mystical keyboard and electronic base. Later it settled down into something more earth-bound, but still luminous. Things seemed to get a little unfocussed towards the end, but he was still one of my favorite artists on the bill. Did he really fall asleep at the end of his set, or was he just pretending?
Sidney Chen played two of the Satie *Gymnopédies.” He played the recording on a wind-up music box. It was magical, I might even say bewitching. He did a little explanation and demo of how the recording was made - - the music is programmed on a long narrow strip of paper with holes punched into it, like a player piano roll, but for a music box that’s maybe only four inches wide. Talk about analog! This was how he spent the lockdown. Certainly more productive than binging *Ozark.*
He played a few of the Bach Goldberg variations. The first movement had a charming, offbeat quality, since the doodles in the ornamentation didn’t exactly line up with the greater rhythmic scheme. It was fascinating, it felt like a reimagining of the original piece, rather than just a transcription. The second variation was faster, and it was fun watching him really go to town in turning the crank on the music box. The final piece had the same offbeat rhythm as the first, it was nice to hear that again.
We had those two excursions to the Land of the Lovely and Tom Weeks took us back to the Land of the Strange, playing a brain-grating solo on the alto saxophone, relentlessly fast, squeaky, and manic. It calmed down a bit later on, but not enough for my taste. The most interesting element of his performance, for me, was watching the mechanics of circular breathing up close. He played for eight minutes straight without a pause, and since the camera was filming him so close, we could see his neck gulp for air and how amusing that his eyebrows went up every time. I think that’s an optional add-on, I’m not sure it’s essential to the process.
Greg Beaver introduced his set by saying that Howard had asked him to play Bach. He tried to figure out what Bach he wanted to play, of the 32 movements Bach wrote for solo cello. He played the prelude and the sarabande from the fourth cello suite. Full disclosure - - Greg is a dear friend of mine, he was my first roommate when I moved to New York. He brought out the searching quality of the prelude, it seemed to be the perfect music for the pandemic. He said in his intro that it had been three years since January 1st, and I could hear that in his performance! The sarabande was elegant and deeply felt.
The final performers were The Charalambides, an electric guitar and singer duo. The spooky aura of their set was heightened by the candles on the floor and the mirror reflecting the ceiling fan in the next room. Also the bottom of the frame was slightly blocked by something blurry and amorphous. What was I not seeing? That gave me a *Twin Peaks* vibe, entirely appropriate. The guitar was atmospheric and spectral, the singing was sometimes haunting, sometimes pleading, often keening. It made a perfect bookend to first set by Cecilia Vicuña, over two hours before.