Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Orange Soda, Cheap Guitars and Other Assorted Whatnottery

I've rediscovered orange soda. When I was a kid, that was the thing: orange soda. And root beer, and grape soda. They tasted good, they tickled your tongue and your nose, and all the other kids loved them too, because they were fun to drink. Oh, I like a good cola once in a while, and I really enjoy ginger ale (occasionally with a splash of tonic water), but orange soda tastes like...playtime, and I like that a lot.

So I have a couple of new projects that I'm getting under way and about which I'm pretty excited.

One of the projects is my birthday present to myself, so I'm not going to talk about that until April.

The other one is something I've been wanting to do for a long time: a Cheap Guitar Club (and Junk Band). The idea is that you get together with a bunch of other cats once or twice a month with your cheapest, weirdest, quirkiest guitars (and whatever other toy instruments, home-made instruments, or found-object noise makers you have), and you make music. Now, most of your cheap guitar clubs (no caps—that means “generic”) get together and play play old rock and roll tunes or blues tunes or show tunes (probably somebody does that), and that's not a bad thing, but we've decided to go off campus entirely and make music that's entirely improvised. No songs, no I IV V blues/rock jams, no “rehearsing”, just some nice lads gathering to show off our wacky bottom-feeder instruments and make music that's about sounds and textures and grooves and experimentation. And so far, the sessions we've had have been great fun.

Not everything works, and it's a little too easy to be self-indulgent about a pet sound or pattern or riff you may have found, but something always happens and it's always fun. We've just had four people for the first couple of jams, but I'm hoping to gather a little larger crew for the next time and see what happens. What I love about this process is no time is spent trying to teach (or learn) that complicated song or chord sequence, and “chops” are irrelevant—if you can make a sound and you can listen, you can contribute. It's very democratic, and even the more cacophonous jams have some nuggets of beauty. We've found some jazzity grooves, some funkity grooves and some completely atonal bits that would make John Cage proud.

There are some refinements I'd like to see, such as a bit more emphasis on the “junk band” aspect (that said, when you've got a room full of cheap, quirky guitars and goofy, crappy little amps, it's hard to want to pick up that pill bottle maraca or the silverware xylophone—which I keep telling myself I need to build), and, with several more people expected to join the mix, we'll need to become better listeners and allow more space between the notes, but my original concept of a “chamber ensemble” comprised entirely of musicians playing cheap guitars and found objects, and performing only improvised music appears to be a sound one.

Another great aspect about this concept—aside from the music itself—is the visual and theatrical esthetic of people making wonderful, weird music on...well...junk. And socially, it's just stupid good fun to crow proudly over an insanely cool (or coolly insane) piece of gear that cost next to nothing and makes terribly sweet (or sweetly terrible) sounds. We plan nothing. We rehearse nothing. We show up, we show off our goofy gear, we make music, and we go home.

I'm excited about the social aspect. I'm excited about the experimental aspect. I'm excited about the prospect of building my own sound-generating devices and making outrageous music with them. I'm excited about working with people who are interested in making music outside of the conventional idioms of western middle-class neo-tribal dance music and then finding new and exciting ways of exploring those very idioms. I can't wait to take it out in public. Stay tuned.

In the mean time, I encourage you (if you're not already doing it) to experiment with sound. Pop open a can of orange soda and start banging on a pan, or plucking the spokes of a bicycle wheel, or building an atonal marimba out of 2x4's, or become a wind-chime virtuoso. It's fun.

I also encourage you (if you haven't already done so) to expand your musical lexicon:

I encourage you to listen to the music of John Cage.
I encourage you to listen to the music of Morton Feldman.
I encourage you to listen to the music of Earle Brown.
I encourage you to listen to the music of David Tudor and Henry Cowell, and Morton Subotnick, and Milton Babbitt, and Louis and Bebe Barron, and Vladimir Ussachevsky, and Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Hugh LeCaine, and Harry Partch, and Bulent Arel, and Alvin Lucier and on and on and on.

More to come. Keep listening...always, and be excellent to yourselves.