Friday, September 1, Works @ Wonder
Fred Frith/Zeena Parkins/Ikue Mori
Guitarist Fred Frith
(Henry Cow), harpist Zeena Parkins
and drummer/laptop wizard Ikue Mori
(DNA) have all evolved individually into near-legendary status as musicians pushing the boundaries of both forms and instruments, so it was a hell of an exciting thing to get to watch them all work together in an improvisational context. The question becomes: who leads and who follows, or do they all go toe-to-toe?
It soon became clear that this was really Frith's show, that the main meanderings and jags and spirals were to be dictated by him. Much the better. He moved between coaxing new, strange or mysterious sounds out of his instrument—shaking things around or sticking them into the fretboard, throttling the guitar's anxious cries, running foreign sounds through the pickup—to nurturing rapturously warm guitar tones in foreign sonic environments, channeling at times the fragmented country urgencies of Duane Eddy, Bill Frisell's "High Plains Drifter", and the latter-day John Fahey. Throughout, he remained very much in control, a standing rebuke to the notion that music belongs to the young. Just as in blues and jazz, in music's more "out" reaches it's almost always the old bastards who really know what they're doing.
Mori provided the dominant textures, tonally holding the compositions together, while Parkins switched violently from accent to accent, making the harp thunk or shriek or moan. That or she just played with her beads in front of the microphone.
Needless to say, despite the expertise of the players, this routine didn't go over well with all members of the audience. Behind me all night, four drunken 50-somethings loudly requested Bob Dylan songs and wondered aloud whether the band was just tuning their instruments. It's hard to make a generational conflict out of this, when at least one of the people pissing off your metaphorical parents is older than your parents. So instead, I treated the wayward audience members like children. I'm happy to report: they seemed to respond the same way.
Ten Tiny Dances
Works @ Wonder
Saturday, September 15
I went into the Ten Tiny Dances
show in high spirits, ready to see what Portland's dance crews could do with such a tight constraint. The notion: create fully choreographed dances with multiple participants confined to a 4x4 raised platform. So I was willing to live with the fact that my view was confined to the oval formed by the curves of two people's necks. The Wonder Ballroom was packed and groaning with people, all craning to see the dancers on the box, which was situated in the middle of the floor rather than on the raised stage. Still: a constrained view is much less of a problem when the stage is so small. The space between two necks is all you need to see everything you need to see.
But despite all the elaborate props—flowers and swings and monkey heads—there sadly wasn't much worth seeing. Only one of the dances seemed to have any serious intent: "Everything All the Time," a piece by choreographer Zoe Scofield
that included two figures creating a stilted, disturbed form of asexual sex amid falling white sand, while a yellow-fabric path was led away by a third. Most of the rest, unfortunately, were the kind of Dada-Ball-caliber, crowd-pleasing schlock favored in previous years of TBA, the stuff that previously made me avoid this fest before it came into its own this year as a national-caliber showcase.
So we had "Hold Me Closer," Hand2Mouth Theater
doing Yankee Doodle karaoke in drag to the tune of "Tiny Dancer"(get it?), near-offensive monkey dances ("Evolver," by Summer Morgan), ham-handed burlesque in which a pre-revolutionary strumpet receives paper airplanes like bon bons from a pre-revolutionary Nigel ("Fair Weather," from local perf group Hot Little Hands
), and twee island captives waiting for popsicle delivery (Daniel Addy's "Milk and Honey"
). Of these, the best realized was probably Jono Eiland and Hannah Treuhaft of Sojourn Theater
's vaudevillian turn at a 1930s wedding in "Cake,"
largely because the performers played their hammy roles joyfully and engagingly without ever overselling their broad gestures; of course, it was disposable theater, but one also that's largely disappeared, and a welcome relief after an evening of faux-clever and faux-risqué.
The PICA crowd, I should mention, exhausted by "art", loved the whole show. The point of crowd-pleasing schlock, after all, is to please crowds. They laughed and cheered rapturously, especially, during the Elton John karaoke. That is, all of the crowd except for two impeccably dressed men outside the theater, whom I overhead during a smoking break. "Why do we have to go back in there?" said one to the other. "It's a waste of our time, and I hate it, and it's an insult." "Because we have friends in the show?" said the other.
"That's not a good enough reason," said the first, as they both trudged reluctantly back up to the dancing. "That's not a good enough reason at all."
Aki Onda/Some Cats From Japan
Works @ Wonder
Sunday, September 16
They had the performers mixed up in the program, so I didn't know what I was getting. The stage was pitched to near-black, and the performer was wearing all black, was long-haired and heroin-skinny, with a microphone—was it?—attached to his nose, right at the sinus. He grasped the main microphone with both hands and just started breathing. His voice would rasp into the breath sometimes, and you could hear another, lower sound beneath the breathing. I never found out what it was, but I think it might have been his sinus' primal tone, congestion's restful Om.
Within seconds, he had moved from breath to distorted, shattering voice that occasionally devolved into pure tone and feedback. Where was the mic this time? I wondered.
As I'd arrived, the employees at the Works had foisted earplugs on me earnestly, insistently, with the admonition I'd probably need them. I hurriedly pulled them out of my pocket and popped them in. Fuyuki Yamakawa
, the performer, moved on to a percussion routine that involved slapping his head (bass drum) and champing his teeth (snare), then yanking strangled sound out the back of a modified guitar, before his main event: a sound and light show formed largely around the beating of his heart, which was amplified loud enough to fill the room, while Yamakawa pulled inhumanly deep sounds from his throat in a technique borrowed from Tuwan throat singing (of which he is considered one of the word's premiere avant-garde practitioners.) "Now I know what Linda Blair felt like," said a man nearby, once it was over. "Great. I'm probably possessed by a demon now," his neighbor responded.
The unabating intensity of Yamakawa's performance—schooled perhaps by the ex-goth's natural flair for the dramatic—proved unmatched by the next performer, who spent 20 minutes filming directionless games with washers and magnets. Ho hum. Both the intensity and the aura of the new were picked up more effectively by the final performer of the night, Atsuhiro Ito
, whose chosen instrument was the OPTRON, which consisted of a fluorescent light tube stuffed with microphones and filtered through a house-made amp, not to mention a vast array of effects pedals. The overall effect was either the ultimate spirit of metal or the ultimate spirit of rave, because the sounds were limited to distorted one-note "riffs" and pounding beats and chirps. A friend of mine at the show, a music critic for WW
, was ecstatic, but I have a feeling he'd have formed a different impression if the exact same performance were given at the front-deck of a warehouse full of kids with glowsticks (where it would have been well-received.)
, the organizer of the event, probably had the reception of his performance hampered somewhat by these surroundings. While most of the other performers had hung their hat on surface innovations and the shock of the new—in Yamakawa's case to bracing effect—Onda was using old technology (tape recorders) and an old idea (ambient documentary) to create moving scapes of sound, washes of half-heard marches, wind hitting buildings, sand shifting, conversations, all of the variegated vocabularies of surface, arranged to symphonic effect. And while it is true that they were doing this sort of thing in Berkeley in the 1950s, well, they were also playing rock and roll in St. Louis at about the same time. What matters is what new is tapped from the form. And for my money, the greatest rewards of the night were the whisperings and patter of Onda's well-documented life, remade into something else entirely.
Photo of Fred Frith courtesy of pica.org.