Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Poltergeist Percussion

The Frank Rosaly performance at Modified Arts with openers Static Announcements kicked off a bizarre weekend which found me piling into my car Sunday and driving in a big loop through Quartzsite, Parker, Twentynine Palms, Searchlight and back home. I was looking for Echinocactus polycephalus (pictured above)...a decidedly fierce beast found in the driest, rockiest, hottest deserts of the southwest. The plant has a certain ragged and fierce charm, symmetrical yet shaggy looking, tough as nails yet very challenging to keep going in cultivation, oddly fragile and given to either languishing for years or up and rotting.

A great metaphor for creative improvised music, in some ways. Rosaly was hosted by The Phoenix Creative Music Movement,, which, as Executive Director and Co-Founder Jen Rogers said at the show, has turned into more of "an occasional series of concerts." Perhaps the new direction at Modified Arts toward being a home for more cutting edge music will resuscitate Rogers' idea, which seems to have had a lot of energy behind it back when PCMM hit the scene, in 2005. It is no mean feat to host and produce performances of creative improvised or composed music in any area of these United States these days. In Phoenix? Home of the utterly derivative "wine bar" "jazz" experience? Very challenging indeed. The Phoenix area sometimes seems like a replica of a simulacrum of a city, and this even extends to the "arts scene," which as far as I can tell, centers around about 6 square blocks near Roosevelt and Central, mighty slim pickings for a metro area boasting more than 4 million people. In a few years of living here with my ear fairly close to the ground, this Frank Rosaly/Static Announcements show has been the only one of its kind that I have known of. The low attendance, despite a great write up in Phoenix's miserable rag of an "alternative weekly," spoke volumes about just how retarded Pheonicians can be.

Side note: I realize it has become a great American pastime, bitching about the cities in which we live. But Phoenix really does utterly suck. Everything is smash and grab fake, quick buck ugly. The people are not friendly or welcoming in the least. The air of "wannabe" Los Angeles is pervasive. Phoenix is as thoroughly tawdry as Las Vegas and as materialistic and shallow as LA, only minus both the history and charm. The arts scene around Roosevelt features some lovely stuff but is basically only truly alive a couple of Fridays a month. The music scene is almost entirely focused on really bad jazz (the worst of all music) and equally bad "indie rock" (oh man) or "death metal." The idiots who have watered the desert and stacked condo on top of hideous condo on top of puke colored strip mall after strip mall after completely disposable rectilinear street corner after street corner graced by everything that is hideous about Amerika have, at the same time, predictably ignored the cultural landscape of the city. In Tempe, the great "hip" strip is supposed to be Mill Avenue. "It's so funky and unique!" people said to us when we first moved here. Tell that to the minimum wage slaves working at Fatburger, American Apparel, PF Chang's, etc. along this outdoor shopping mall of a cultural shithole. So bereft of anything even resembling cultural curiosity that even the frikkin' BORDERS BOOKS AND MUSIC mega outlet right next to the UNIVERSITY couldn't manage to stay in business. But I digress.

I had been tipped off to Rosaly by my Santa Fe friends at High Mayhem, (ha, nice Wiki page folks!). The show there had involved a multi-percussionist piece featuring some of my favorite Santa Fe musicians. Rosaly came highly recommended. I have attended a very few solo percussionist performances. In fact, I think the only other one might be the absolutely transformational and gorgeous performance at High Mayhem a couple years ago by Tatsuya Nakatani.

Rosaly's performance was equally gorgeous. He uses a sort of hybrid, electro-acoustic drumset, featuring old Rogers drums and some pickups/transducer mics placed around the kit. I didn't get to talk with Rosaly either before or after the show, so I don't really know the technical details. I do know that Rosaly opened by creating some echoing, clanking and clattering textures using electrified mbiras on his floor tom. These forays into industrial machine percussion alternated with shitstomping, furiously fractured avant metal beats. Rosaly also did an extended meditation on some polyrhythms loosely associated around a 6/8 figure. His wonderfully honed technique and four way (actually, more like 6 or 7 way) independence and counterpoint were never flashy but always served some overarching musical idea. During the course of his energy-charged excursions, Rosaly made use of a wide variety of beaters, including hitting the drums with cymbals, a vibrator, a kitchen utensil that looked like a pasta server, etc. A wonderful boinging, chattering effect was created by a flexible glockenspiel mallet held across the head and rim of the snare drum and pulled up and released. Shproing wobblewobbleblblblblblb.

The timbral feast was rich and spicy, like a Thai hot curry. Overall, I was reminded of some of my all time favorite re-conceptualists of the drums, including Milford Graves, Han Bennink, Ronald Shannon Jackson, etc. Rosaly's gestural shenanigans were fun to watch as well, as if he felt a force field around the drums and was cagily and at times warily entering into a temenos, or sacred, magical space. Rosaly also sang a strange little tune at the end of his second piece, with inscrutable lyrics. This is risky stuff. But it totally worked. One of the delightful ironies of his performance was a final, direct and explicit reference to "jazz drumming" at the very end, where he settled into some Jack DeJohnette style time keeping and fills. It was as if it took him the entire hour of conjuring poltergeists, ghosts, demons, manic angels and fiery, alien landscapes to purge himself of the burdensome history of drumming and stereotyped vocabulary of the drumset in order to be comfortable enough to play some jazzy figures.

If you get a chance to see Rosaly in action, jump. I enjoyed Static Announcements too and hope to see them again here in Phoenix. I hope, too, that the Phoenix Creative Music Movement can continue in any form, even on life support. It is a sorely needed possible source for sonic adventures in this otherwise barren desert.


Dan said...

I'm glad you enjoyed Frank's drumming. He's a huge asset to the scene here in Chicago and I get the opportunity to see him regularly in a wide variety of contexts, but I've actually never seen him do a solo show. I'll have to make an effort to go next time he does one.

Mark said...

Ah, great to hear that Phoenix really does suck and it's not just me. We live in a tiny squat/performance space in Amsterdam where Frank has played 5 or 6 times in the last 2 years, maybe more.

My parents, however, live in Phoenix, so I'm there once a year or so, and every single time I visit, I hunt like mad for something musically interesting to do as either performer or audience member, and I've never found anything. I just assumed I was lost...sorry to hear that's not the case.