Death of a Piano

Screen Shot 2018-08-08 at 8.57.47 AMMoe! Staiano is reviving “Piece No. 1: Death of a Piano,” a piece that really does culminate in the destruction of a piano, via sledgehammer. He’ll be talking about it on the radio Thursday night, Aug. 9, in a interview on KFJC sometime between 7:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m. Pacific time, during Max Level’s show.

As the name implies, “Death of a Piano” was Moe!’s first long-form composition for a large ensemble. I can’t remember if he was calling the group Moekestra at the time, but that’s the name that eventually stuck. Incarnations of the piece that I’ve seen have featured lots of electric guitars, along with a smorgasbord of other instruments — horns, strings, drums. The upcoming performance sounds like it could be different, as it features The San Francisco Third Eye Orchestra Long Tone Choir using pitched percussion.

The performance will be on Saturday, Aug. 18, at 8:00 p.m. at First Church of the Buzzard (2601 Adeline St., Oakland).

The piano above looks small, but other performances have included grand pianos or upright pianos. It all depends on what kind of decrepit, disposable piano is available.

Regardless of size, these pianos are pretty darned resilient and take longer than you’d expect to dismantle. The soundboard, in particular, doesn’t always come apart. And surprisingly, the orchestra can overwhelm the sound of the sledgehammer. But there’s always some fun destruction to be had. I still have a light piece of wood that I keep at my desk — a piano-key hammer from a past performance.

The first time I saw Moe! perform, he took a sledgehammer to a TV set, sending powdered glass all over the stage to end his show. Afterward, he thanked the audience and noted, “I always clean up after myself” — which he did, diligently tidying up the stage. Likewise, Moe! wears safety goggles while attacking a piano. It’s a responsible kind of destruction. I like that.

Moe Staiano & the Switchboard Music Festival

Moe Staiano has something interesting in the works: a 40-minute composition for nine electric guitars, bass, and drums. It’s called “Away Towards the Light,” and he’s presenting it on May 28 as part of the San Francisco International Arts Festival, at Gallery 308 in Fort Mason.

Moe is a percussionist, and lately he’s been active with his rock band Surplus 1980 (see here), but he’s also led some intriguing projects with the large group Moe!kestra. Some of those pieces have a performance-art element — the most obvious one being “Death of a Piano,” in which Moe would demolish an old piano while the orchestra “accompanied” him.

While his music tends to favor big, loud sounds, he’s dabbled in chamber music, too. Here’s a nifty piece written for Sqwonk, the bass clarinet duo of Jon Russell and Jeff Anderle:

That performance was part of the Switchboard Music Festival, an annual, day-long series of concerts. I’ve never managed to attend, but the lineup is always intriguing, sitting loosely in the realm of new chamber music with shades of pop. Part of the idea is to present music that’s not easy to categorize.

Switchboard is gearing up for a 10th anniversary festival on June 10 at Z Space (450 Florida St., San Francisco). Kronos Quartet is going to headline, and the organizers are hoping to crowdsource some of the costs — you can find the campaign at

In past years, Switchboard has used Soundcloud to post short interviews with the musicians. I liked that idea, and I’m hoping they do it again this year:

To close out, here’s a set of random Switchboard links I collected a couple of years ago, a mix of previews and reviews:

New Music Box:

I Care If You Listen:

SF Civic Center:

SF Classical Voice:

It Was Half of 20 Years Ago Today

Recently I found this: a promo bookmark from the Hotel Utah, a cool little bar and music venue in San Francisco’s SoMa district:


I believe it’s from 2007. Click here for a full view. Then take a closer look at this entry:


Search my blog, and you’ll find references to three of those four bands. This would have been one amazing show: punk energy (Mute Socialite, led by Moe Staiano and featuring Ava Mendoza), tangly free jazz (Go-Go Fightmaster, who are the same people as Lisa Mezzacappa’s Bait & Switch), fast-and-fluid prog (miRthkon). I’ll give Mezzkill the benefit of the doubt and assume they were awesome, too.

Don’t take my word for it. Check them out on Bandcamp! Mute Socialite, Go-Go Fightmaster, miRthkon.

Hell of a show. Wish I’d gone.

mutesocialite2007 predates this blog, so this seems like a good time to mention I had an older, primitive site — basic HTML text — where I used to recap my KZSU radio playlists. You’ll find, for example, a short writeup about Mute Socialite, complete with a ghastly formatting error.

In fact you can look up these bands on my old KZSU playlists by using the Find It! utility on Zookeeper, our music database. Type a word or phrase, and it will call up lists of artists, albums, and songs from the KZSU library, as well as relevant playlists. Give it a whirl.

Lastly — Special shoutout to Aaron Novik’s Kipple, who can be seen at the top of the bookmark. They’re on Bandcamp, too.

Prog Out on Sunday, Dec. 14

Interesting progressive-rock-related bill coming up Sunday night, Dec. 14, at a venue I’m not familiar with: Leo’s Music Club (5447 Telegraph Ave, Oakland):

MiRthkon is a prog band mixing heavy guitars with saxophones and bass clarinets, a mix of rock intensity and cerebral whimsy. My last mention of them was a show with Kayo Dot. Here they are live in a more recent show: Rock in Opposition 2013.

Surplus 1980 is Moe! Staiano’s post-punk band, a spastic loudness that’s gleaming with intelligence. They’ve been on hiatus; the band’s most recent output was a 10″ vinyl record that’s available at Squidco, among other places.

Jack o’ the Clock — which mixes the bucolic and the highbrow in a stew of prog, folk, classical, and jazz, is the band I’ve seen the most often out of these three. They’ve been taking a break as well, woodshedding new material, according to the emailer they sent out. Here’s some audience video of a performance from September a year ago.

Surplus 1980: Update

Moe! Staiano is raising funds to do a 10″ vinyl release by his band, Surplus 1980.

This is the same 10″ mentioned previously, when I’d stopped by his Amoeba Records in-store appearance. It would feature seven songs.

The Kickstarter project Moe has launched asks for a modest $3,000 to produce two colored versions of the 10″ along with corresponding CDs.

Rewards range from the obvious (vinyl and CDs) to a live concert of the band, at your beck and call within 75 miles of Oakland.

WordPress is “disappearing” my attempts to embed the Kickstarter video, so you’ll have to go over there yourself to see Moe’s depictions of the musicians on the album, including players of percussion, keyboards, oboe, and clarinet. As with the first Surplus 1980 record, Moe is taking advantage of the local music ecosystem to build something beyond your average rock band.

Thirty Loud Minutes With Surplus 1980

It was just a half-hour show, but hey, it’s not as if Surplus 1980 plays all the time, and I’ve been wanting an excuse to spend some time at Amoeba

Moe Staiano‘s rock band got the stage at Amoeba Berkeley on Sunday afternoon, playing tracks from the album, Relapse in Response — plus one new song that’s earmarked for a 10″ vinyl release Moe is considering.

Neither the stage, nor the crowd, nor the pay (Amoeba gift certificates) are large, but I’ve always thought in-store record shows were a neat “community” thing to do, both for the stores and the musicians. Come to think of it, I seem to remember Moe doing a solo performance at Radio Free Records, a short-lived store in a strip mall down here in Campbell, Calif.

Anyway, Surplus 1980 this time had five members: Moe, Bill Wolter, and Thomas Scandura (the guitarist and drummer I’d seen at the band’s Starry Plough show) an added guitarist (a woman whose name I didn’t catch, sorry!), and Vicki Grossi on bass (who appears on the Relapse album).

It was a nice set of pounding, complex rock. See below for a few pictures — at angles that obscure Grossi and Scandura, unfortunately.  And from Moe’s Soundcloud page, here’s one track earmarked for that 10″.

The set covered a lot of the album, including some of my favorite tracks — “Let’s Put Another One There,” the instrumental title track (with guitars taking over the Morse-code horn line), the amusing “M.E.S. Shoe Contact,” and the Diagram Brothers cover “Aggravation.”

Help Moe Put Another Beautiful Noise on Disc

Moe Staiano is up on Kickstarter again, this time hoping to commit a very special performance to vinyl.

For years, he’s been building large improv/orchestral pieces for Moekestra, a varying but always large and loud ensemble. The group began more than a decade ago with the epic “Death of a Piano,” and the concept reached a pinnacle in 2010 with “End of an Error,” a piece performed in Wels, Austria, at the Music Unlimited Festival.

For a while, it looked like that might be the final Moekestra appearance, and it certainly would have been a fitting finale. (Moekestra did reconvene this year.)

Finale or not, the fact that the band got an invitation all the way from Austria made this performance a special occasion.

The Kickstarter funding would go towards a vinyl release of those recordings. So, check out the proposal, and help produce a cool musical souvenir if you’re so inclined.

(For details on Staiano’s most recent Kickstarter-funded vinyl, check out Surplus 1980.)

Moe!kestra and Surplus 1980

Moe! Staiano has back-to-back shows of note happening in just a couple of days.

Source: Moe on FacebookTuesday March 13: Moe!kestra comes to The Uptown in Oakland, performing “Piece No. 9: When Terrie Had Six.” The title refers to Terrie Ex of the Dutch band The Ex, whose songs served as inspiration for the piece. Expect a mass of 30 or so musicians following instructions written out by Moe. He’s a very physical conductor, so the piece will probably be visually as well as musically dynamic.

On Facebook, Moe is hinting that this will be the last Moe!kestra ever. That turned out to be untrue when he said it in 2009, but given the logistics of putting together a project like this and the difficulty of finding a venue that’s both capable and willing, you might want to assume (or at least pretend) he’s right this time.

Opening will be the free-jazz quartet of Mark Clifford (vibraphone), Anton Hatwich (bass), Aram Shelton (clarinets), and Jacob Wick (trumpet).

Wednesday March 14: I love it when the Hemlock Tavern (San Francisco) opens its backroom stage to jazz/improv acts. This is going to be a great show:

  • Surplus 1980, at the Starry Plough in BerkeleySurplus 1980 — Moe’s avant-rock band, pictured at right. Read about them here; listen to them here.
  • ReCardiacs Fly — The Cardiacs cover band that I keep writing about (with Moe on drums). More here.
  • PG13 — The (apparently rather loud) trio of Thomas Scandura (drums), John Shiurba (guitar), and Phillip Greenlief (sax). They’ve played together quite a bit, and while I’ve never heard them, I’ll point out that Scandura and Shiurba were in the last version of The Molecules. So, they’ve got loudness-and-craziness cred.

Surplus 1980

Surplus 1980 [Moe! Staiano] — Relapse in Response (Dephine Knormal, 2011)

If you know Moe’s solo percussion act — relentless energy, loud and fast but high-precision — you have an idea where this music is coming from.

The word that comes to mind is “manic.” Even when the tempo isn’t that fast, Moe F-I-L-L-L-L-S the space with drums. Fast, loud, madcap drums. He also packs the room with guitar blasts and some evil, rubbery bass.

As mentioned before (see links below), Surplus 1980 is a rock band, the second coming of the instrumental punk band Mute Socialite. Surplus 1980 is a thicker brew, this time with vocals, horns, and strings added here and there, courtesy of a host of Bay Area talents. It puts an out-jazz touch on the punk ferocity, but this is still a high-energy rock band at heart.

That he hangs out with these folks shows in the composing, too — complicated single-note guitar riffs or repeated odd-time-signature blasts. Much of this is played by Moe himself, but he does enlist other guitarists and bassists to flesh out the sound, or just to provide another point of view.

Some of the lead vocals consist of overdubbed Moes, barking out the words. Self-deprecation is a common theme. “M.E.S. Shoe Contact” is basically about the awkwardness of trying to write lyrics; “Trying to Succeed, Waiting With Little to No Results” is pretty self-explanatory. “Let’s Put Another One There” is a good piece of satire about overbuilding and anti-environmentalism, told in aggressive punky blasts.

Relapse includes some covers that seem worth researching. “The Gooseneck” is one I know, from Amy X. Neuburg, here turned into a buzzing and raw fast-forward dance. I’m not familiar with the spiky no-wave sound of Diagram Brothers (“Aggravation”) or the almost ska-sounding Bogshed (“Excellent Girl”).

As far as the music writing goes, the pinnacle might be “The Mechanics of Mathematical Courtings,” a madcap clockwork with lots of interlocking parts. Strings and horns pop up in tiny blips  among the guitar, the percussion, and yes, those drums (maybe less so than on other tracks).  I also liked a middle segment of “Ed Saad” where thick pulsing bass (Vicky Grossi) becomes the backdrop for some cool guitar effects from Ava Mendoza. It’s a nice little departure.

The album appears to be buyable through Moe! at, and you can hear many of the tracks on Soundcloud.

See Also:

Cardiacs Fly Again

I forgot to bring my camera to the ReCardiacs Fly show at The Starry Plough last Friday. Dang.

Luckily, Michael Zelner has posted some photos. Hooray!  There was video filmed as well, so hopefully some of that will get posted eventually.

It was a great time, with the band tightly charging through some fast, complex Cardiacs songs. Highlights included “R.E.S.” — which tops a lot of Cardiacs fans’ lists, I think — and “Tarred and Feathered,” which I don’t think they played at their first concert.  (Links go, respectively, to videos of the previous concert and the original Cardiacs.)

Polly Moller hammed it up on stage, playing the role of quirky, aggressive Tim Smith. Moe! Staiano did a sharp job on drums; it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen him play on a drum kit before, not in a rock setting, anyway.

Lots of people were asking if they’d be doing more shows — which I think they’d like to do, but of course, they’ve got other musical projects to concentrate on as well. That includes Reconnaissance Fly, the band that’s the core of ReCardiacs Fly.

A couple of people said they’d be interested if the band were to make a CD. But I think the band would prefer that you go to iTunes and just buy the original Cardiacs albums. It’s a way to send a few extra dimes to Tim Smith, Cardiacs’ leader.

Apologies to Wiener Kids and Dominique Leone, who’d played earlier in the evening and probably did some Cardiacs covering of their own.

(What’s the big deal about Cardiacs? Read here.)

UPDATE 12/11: Videos from the show are up. Find them on ReCardiacs Fly’s YouTube channel. “A Wooden Fish on Wheels” came out really well, but I can’t help embedding “R.E.S.” yet again. They’ve gotten quite good at that one.