Back Pages #2: Toychestra and My Brief Music-Writing Career
Toychestra & Fred Frith — What Leave Behind (SK, 2004)
Does that ever bring back memories.
For a couple of years starting in 2002 or 2003, I moonlighted as a music reviewer for the San Francisco Bay Guardian. I had a full-time job but thought it might be fun to write blurbs for the SFBG entertainment calendar in my spare time. That job opening was filled by the time I called, but they did need live-music writers. Do something on spec, and we’ll see what happens, they said.
That’s how I joined their stable of music freelancers. I took pride in the position and scrutinized calendars for suitable creative-music shows. My editor, Summer Burkes, held my copy to high standards, sending back drafts with stacks of questions poking holes in my writing — but she liked my work and kept nudging me for more. She even started feeding me assignments in the pop realm. (Ledisi was one.)
The sharpest review I filed, and the one that earned me a handshake from Burkes’ boss, was about the noise/drums duo Compomicro-Dexall. (Half of that duo was bran(…)pos, whom I just saw, for the first time in years, at KZSU’s Day of Noise.) That review ended with: “Bring earplugs and drink decaf.”
But my best and most satisfying story was Toychestra.
“Like Santa’s sleigh crashed into a garage sale” is how I described them, with their grandma’s-attic collection of instruments set on ironing boards, the Christmas lights threaded about the stage, and their crazy kitchy wigs and outfits.
Toychestra was a group of five female artists, mostly non-musicians, hammering out pre-written songs on toy instruments. The music was clanky and innocent but, because it was written without awareness of keys or modes, also bore an uneasy shadow: “It’s Miranda July conducting the Residents in the Twin Peaks Elementary School symphony,” I wrote.
Dan Plonsey, who curated the Beanbenders series of shows starting in the mid-’90s, has a taste for the absurd and took a liking to the group. He couldn’t resist pairing them with an improv pro who would appreciate their musical naivite — and thus, Plonsey wrote What Leave Behind, a concerto for Toychestra and guitarist Fred Frith.
The sounds are dry and mostly bassless, as you’d expect — these are literally toy instruments. But they’re in tune. Toychestra member Lexa Walsh told me one of their biggest challenges was finding instruments that played a true major scale. Toymakers, realizing most parents had no musical ear, had stopped bothering.
With coordinated rhythms and syncopated melodies, What Leave Behind plays out like a sinister circus overture. Frith’s contributions are subtle at first — a buzzing in the opening movement (“The Dub”), a choppy composed melody in the second movement (“Fellini”). He gets to cut loose during “3 Elephants and a Cow,” backed by animal-noise toys.
The 24-minute piece ends with the five women singing a ghostly melody.
I don’t recall the details, but Toychestra was compelling enough that Summer let me write it as a straight feature rather than a concert review. I did attend one of the live performances of What Leave Behind, at the Starry Plough in Berkeley, and interviewed Walsh afterwards. The resulting story is still viewable on Toychestra’s press page.
What Leave Behind, and two other Toychestra albums, are now available on Bandcamp.
After Summer Burkes left the Bay Guardian, I was still welcomed as a reviewer but wasn’t nearly as prized. This is normal when a publication changes editors, and I was OK with it. With a toddler and a grade-school kid at home, my showgoing needed to slow down anyway.
My final Bay Guardian review must have run at the start of 2006. I had gone dark by then, but one day, Summer’s successor sent a desperation email blast — she needed someone to find a review-worthy show during the week after Christmas. I wrote up the multi-instrumental duo of Chaos Butterfly — experimental stuff that involved Jonathan Segel of Camper Van Beethoven fame, giving my story a connection to mainstream readers. (The other player, Dina Emerson, is no slouch either.) My piece was good, but the experience confirmed that my heart wasn’t in it any more.
Mildly Amusing Epilogue: I talked to the Bay Guardian only once more — to the finance department. I was getting paid for my work, but between the day job, the kids, and my KZSU radio gig, I honestly didn’t notice that the checks had never arrived. The light bulb went on a couple of years later, when the IRS asked about a chunk of money that I’d never paid taxes on.
Turns out the Bay Guardian had transposed two digits of my home address. We figured this out on the phone within a couple of minutes, and they immediately issued a new check. They were iconoclasts and hellraisers, but the Bay Guardian that I encountered was also quite professional. I have fond memories of my short time with them.
For more on Toychestra, check out this edition of KQED’s Spark: http://ww2.kqed.org/spark/toychestra/.