Road to Aacheron

Photo: Sandra Yolles, from

Rent Romus’ theatrical project, “Road to Aacheron,” got a couple of performances last weekend in Berkeley. It’s a story built around a series of arias — improvised vocal monologues, mostly in made-up tongues — telling a story influenced by the sci-fi and horror writers of the 1930s (think H.P. Lovecraft).

Sifting through an ancient book discovered by a colleague, a professor finds a portal into (of course) a mysterious and dangerous world, a planet populated by a civilization whose technology and hubris are on the verge of rending their universe apart.

The production fit nicely on the relatively small stage of Berkeley’s Finnish Kaleva Hall, with simple but effective lighting creating a pocket of eerie darkness around each performer. The story is mostly driven by the narrator (Roderick Repke, Romus’ uncle) who was standing to the side of the audience at a mic’ed lectern. The 10-piece musical ensemble started at the foot of the stage and extened outward, to the side of the audience — Kaleva Hall is cavernous and had plenty of space for all this.

The story starts with the professor, played by Dean Santomieri singing in the grave, steady tones you’d associate with opera. His part is in English and is pre-written, tracing his exploration of the book and his colleague’s notes, and his growing sense that something troubling is happening.

The other characters are various denizens of Aacheron — the high priest, the scientist, and so on — singing in gibberish and sound conveying a sense of an ancient language but also reflecting the characters’ motivations and emotional states.

Musically, what drives the production are the mini-ensembles backing each vocalist — subsets of the musicians, chosen to convey particular moods. Santomieri’s narration was accompanied by an oboe adding curt, angular responses — a nice foil that added a sense of foreboding and mystery, but also a voice of pert curiosity.

Another aria that people liked was Polly Moller’s role as the high priestess of Aacheron, accompanied by a group featuring flute, recorder, and (if I’m remembering things right) vibraphone.

That segment was a cool oasis after the spiky intensity of Bob Marsh’s character, Sareith, the High Priest of Aacheron, dressed in the awesomely abstract costume you see in the photo up top. He dug into his role with relish and fervor.

Mantra Plonsey was deliciously mad as the architect of Aacheron, reciting bits of English accompanied by saxophone. (“I cannot pay the rent!” “You must pay the rent!” It’s from W.C. Fields, Tom Djll told me later.) And quite a few of the musicians in the audience said Kattt Achley’s airy soprano aria was their favorite, portraying the scientist who might have a way to avoid catastrophe.

Romus performed an aria-less version of “Road to Aacheron” — using a quartet of instrumentalists, with Romus narrating — during KZSU’s recent Day of Noise. You can find that performance on the Day of Noise archive — it’s number 19 on the list. Romus has extracted part of it on Soundcloud as well.


Outsound 2011, #4: Thingamajigs

The Outsound New Music Summit takes place July 17-23, 2011, at the Community Music Center, 544 Capp St., San Francisco.

Let me say this first: I wanna see the percussion ball in action.

I mean, come on! It’s a soccer-ball-shaped wooden object with vacuum-cleaner hoses connecting opposite faces. If you don’t already know, unconnected vacuum hoses make the coolest sound, a plastic, reverberating thonk if you slap the palm of your hand across the opening just right.

The other cool thing about the percussion ball? It’s made to tumble, bringing back fond d20 memories from geekier days. (How geeky? Enough that I love (and understand) this T-shirt.)

The percussion ball is just one of the wonderfully strange musical instruments being showcased in Sonic Foundry Too!” target=”blank” (Sat., July 23), the last of the four concerts in this year’s Outsound New Music Summit. The whole show is about invented instruments. It’s like a prelude to the Music for People and Thingamajigs Festival that’s coming in September.

Who can you see? Terry Berlier, creator of the percussion ball, won’t be there, but David Michalak will be on hand to play the instrument, part of his duo with instrument inventor Bart Hopkin.

There’s also skatchbox inventor Tom Nunn, who plays with Michalak in T.D. Skatchit. I described skatchbox here and here; it’s a percussive instrument built on the surface of a closed, thick cardboard box, and it makes quite a racket. Skatchboxes have been a fixture of the Outsound Summit for some time, and a workshop about building them was a featured event last year.

Nunn’s set isn’t just skatchbox redux, though. He, Michalak and Steven Baker will be playing lukie tubes, resonace plates, bridgerod mothic, berimbau, bells, and springs, according to the program. No, I don’t know what all of them are — they key point is that they’re made-up instruments and will hopefully produce sound combinations that you’ve never experienced.

Bob Marsh will perform in something called Sonic Suit #1 (which looks like it’s acoustic; see photo at left), in a duo with Brenda Hutchinson playing the Long Tube. And there are a couple of other musical pairings on the schedule — 10 instrument builders/players in all. It’s going to be a visual feast as well as a musical one, so you’ll want to bring a camera.

Like every concert in the series, “Sonic Foundry Too” will include a pre-show Q&A with the musicians at 7:15 p.m. — great opportunity to ask things like “why” and “what the-” and “you get sounds out of that?” — followed by the show at 8:15 p.m.

Previous Outsound 2011 posts:

UPDATE:  I’m told that the percussion ball is big — about twice the diameter I was thinking! It sounds like a grown man can lift the thing but can’t reach his arms all the way around it. Cool.

Emergency String (X)tet

Rent Romus and Bob Marsh (sax, cello) perform Sunday, Jan. 9 at 7:30, at Musicians’ Union Hall (116 9th St., San Francisco).

The Emergency String (X)tet Meet Rent RomusEmergency Rental (Edgetone, 2010)

Off and on for 15+ years, cellist Bob Marsh has convened what used to be called the Emergency String Quartet, an improvising all-strings band. The results, although based in the same camp as sax-heavy “jazz improv,” come across like experimental classical music. The strings tend to converge into a nervous chatter, with some long bowed notes or sudden trills adding to the “classical” feel.

The transient nature of improv groups (and of impovisation itself) prompted Marsh to recently adopt the (X)tet name, which is not only flexible but pretty darned cool sounding. On Emergency Rental, we get a particularly dense version: three violins, two cellos, bass and bass koto, plus special guest Rent Romus on saxophone.

It would be easy for Romus to play the lead role over the needlepoint of the string sounds, but the group makes this choice only in spots.He grabs the reins for a jazzy vibe on “6th Street” (an ode to the Luggage Store Gallery), pulling the string ensemble into a busy, upbeat fluttering. He also tends towards a soloist’s role on “Something Wonderful,” where he’s a melodic tonic above the Morse code flutterings of the bowed and plucked strings.

But it’s a group effort, not a spotlight. Later, “Something Wonderful” sees the strings work their way into a sour-toned drone of rising tension, a voice Romus eventually joins — a nice example of how like-minded musicians can spontaneously create form. And frequently throughout the album, Romus drops into periods of quiet, short tones, blending into the underbrush.

There’s a patience and maturity to the group’s sound. Rarely do you hear all seven strings going at it at once; contributions are plotted and placed with care.

A good example is “Waiting by the Window,” which opens with some strong violin tones in a sparse setting, very classical. This develops into a creeping phase, with spare violin scratches and an occasional plucked bass note as grounding. Romus eventually breaks the spell like a small bubbling fountain, joined by tiny extended-technique sounds (creaks, clacks, scrapes).

Further reading: See the East Bay Express review of an earlier (X)tet album, Meridians, on the Italian label Setola di Maiale. Here’s a link to that CD’s page.

Photo by Michaelz1 on Flickr. It’s taken from a live show that might have been the source for Emergency Rental.

Playlist: July 31, 2009

KZSU playlist highlights for Friday, July 31, 3:00 to 6:00 p.m.

source: yoshis; pic by peter gannushkin, used w/o permission….. The Mary Halvorson set was a treat: I played one track from Dragon’s Head, then one each from her bandmates, Ches Smith (drums), and John Hébert (bass), then capped it off with the soothing end track from Thin Air, her duo album with Jessica Pavone. That very trio is coming to Yoshi’s Oakland on Aug. 4, for one 8:00 set. After hearing all the acclaim for Halvorson over the past several months, it’ll be great to see her live.

source: CDbaby….. I’m also pretty excited that Go-Go Fightmaster is playing on the 10th, at the Ivy Room in Albany. (And bummed that I’ll be out of town that day.) Their song “Buffy Is Dead” opens with a dark, stomping guitar march and needling saxophones. The rest of their self-titled 2003 album goes all over the place, with lots of free jazz and some Monk, sometimes staying inside, sometimes veering wildly outside. The personnel are the same as for Lisa Mezzacappa’s Bait and Switch, which is pretty amusing and gives them all extra reason to stick together.

source: long song records….. Acoustic Guitar Trio is Nels Cline, Jim McAuley, and the late Rod Poole, all plucking and scraping and bowing away at their instruments. It’s marvelous, dynamic work with lots of quietude amid the jangling, and it’s all the more poignant given the circumstances around Poole’s passing. (It’s interesting and nice to see that Poole’s tribute Web site makes no mention of that at all.)

source: public eyesore….. The Emergency String Quintet — really, the (x)tet, depending on how many guests pop in — is an all-strings improv project that Bob Marsh gets together occasionally. The results are sublime, producing abstract work that sounds awfully close to composition sometimes. They’ll be playing at Flux 53 tomorrow night.

….. I was going to play the Steve Martin banjo CD, The Crow, someday, believe it or not. But today, the producer, Jim McEuen (of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band), randomly called during my show and offered himself to the station for interviews, which jogged my memory about it. We’re talking about the Steve Martin, doing an album of original banjo songs (and a CD booklet stuffed with liner notes written by him). A massive cast of studio musicians (KZSU fave Matt Flinner among them) makes it the “most expensive banjo album in the history of the universe,” or words to that effect. It’s in the liner notes. It must be true!

You can find the full playlist here.

Spirited Music in San Jose

I might as well be honest: I had a dread of being the only audience member at Works San Jose last night, where Jim Ryan brought in a couple of improvising bands.

But the show drew a handful of people, including some passers-by who saw and heard the music from the sidewalk — a very pleasant surprise. Downtown San Jose deserves credit for having some edgy art museums downtown, Works being one of them, but they’re overshadowed by the children’s museum and the Tech museum, and on weekends, by the dancing-and-alcohol nightlife that’s just blocks away.

Still, a few people showed up and seemed to like the experience. That’s great. Quite a few more onlookers lingered by the windows, one or two at a time.

They were drawn in by the music and the promise of an experimentally jazzlike band, but a few theatrics helped too.

The aesthetic behind Ryan’s Left Coast Improv Group includes improvised poetry and vocalizing, and Bob Marsh got up from his cello to deliver a poem about revolution. (“Is it in your socks? Do you wear it on your wrist?”) He then brought up a couple of audience members for an improvised faux-ballroom dance, showing off a little whimsy.

The Improv Group consisted of sax/flute, bassoon/sheng (Michael Cooke, from the SFCCO), two cellos (Marsh and Doug Carroll), trumpet (Darren Johnston), and Ryan drawing from a collection of small percussion. They played sublime stuff, mostly longer pieces. Carroll and Johnston took advantage of the gallery’s big, empty spaces by wandering around (yes, Carroll plays cello).

The first set came from the trio The Spirit Moves Us, with Ryan on sax/flute, Marsh on cello, and the one-named drummer Spirit. And Spirit does play a huge role in the band’s sound, with his free-jazzy style of long drum-rolling statements, often tough and stabbing.

It was terrific stuff, with the drums filling the echoey space. (In actuality, that can be a problem; I’ve seen shows where the drums eclipse everything because of the acoustics. But in a trio setting, with amplifiers for Marsh and for Ryan’s flute, it worked.) They did quieter pieces, too – Spirit busy on brushes, Ryan improvising on flute.

Ryan has put out a CD for The Spirit Moves Us on his own Jimzeen label. Hoping to give it a listen soon.