By the end of next month, I’ll have been playing gamelan for eight years. I started out very timidly in the UC Davis Gamelan Ensemble, jammed once with the Evergreen State College instructor in Olympia, twice with the Geidai arts university in Okinawa, a year with the Los Angeles consulate, and now over a year at the Indonesian Embassy.
At the embassy, we’ve been practicing this epic wayang theater piece, Andhe Andhe Lumut, for several months. In May I challenged myself to the gongs, the largest and loudest instruments—which is fun for me as the smallest and quietest member. Sometimes it takes a bit of contorting to reach every kempul and some juggling with three different mallets, and that’s why I love it.
This recording is just an excerpt, but it’s some of my favorite parts. It sounds pretty echoey in the embassy’s ballroom instead of our basement practice space.
Our trip to Europe was full of highlights, but one serendipitous night stands out. By chance, our time in Italy matched the tour schedule of Tom Brosseau, a folk singer from North Dakota via Los Angeles who often played in Davis and put out a record called Grass Punks this year on my pal Michael Leahy’s label.
Tom played in a little co-work studio called CO+ in Padova, a river town 25 miles inland from Venice. It was such a treat to see a familiar face and hear a familiar voice (speaking a language I speak!) 4,300 miles from my home, 6,100 miles from the last place I saw him!
I made a request from the new album, “Tami”:
But my favorite song of the night was an oldie, “West of Town”:
Keep an eye out for this guy on both U.S. coasts this winter (some dates with John C. Reilly) and another record out on Crossbill in February.
On a search for new sounds, sights and smells in Bologna, Italy, I found the bulk of buskers in Piazza Maggiore, the center hub of the radial Roman city. This brass duo was pretty good. Mostly I like seeing tubas out in the wild.
The accordion player was not bad either, although I gave him some euros and he didn’t even smile! By that point he was being drowned out and I was being lured away by these guys across the plaza…
Electric guitar with battery-powered amp, and a drum set of a bucket, paint can, busted coffee can, metal disc, and Tibetan singing bowl. This Eddie Veder soundalike and dreamboat of a drummer attracted the biggest crowd, stationed in front of the Fountain of Neptune. It took about the length of this recording to feel like I had fallen in love.
Every time I turn on my recorder at a show, it’s a gamble if I’ll like the following song enough to want to record and then share it. At this show at the Black Cat last weekend, I got lucky!
First, I started recording just as Death Vessel began playing “Block My Eye,” the very first song I ever heard by him and played on my radio show. (Some party girls were talking too loud though, so I scrapped it.) I would have been happy to capture all of Mirah’s set, but on a hunch I switched on just in time for the first of only maybe three classics out of mostly new songs.
Her new album, Changing Light, came out in May on K Records / Absolute Magnitude Recordings, and it’s lovely as always! Here’s one of the new ones.
“Turned the Heat Off”
Hey West Coast, she’s still on tour! Maybe you’ll get lucky and hear your favorites too.
The only reason I started going to experimental shows in California was that my friends played experimental music. I went to support them and to hang out. And after a while, I couldn’t tell if I liked the music or if I just liked watching my friends play the music. And after another while, I realized it doesn’t matter. Music = friends = community. You know?
So that’s why I went to the opening night on the 2014 Sonic Circuits Festival on Friday night, to explore that community in D.C. Sonic Circuits is a local experimental show presenter, and they’ve been hosting this annual festival since 2001, with a variety of sound art, film and other performances.
My favorite moment of the night was from Mind Over Matter, Music Over Mind (or MOM²). Thomas Stanley played these ostinatos on a contact-miked mbira while Luke Stewart laid on the effects. Sorry I only had my phone recorder!
I also really liked when this girl Lazurite played that ladder with a bow and made it sound good. Looped with a thumb piano and clarinet, actually quite pretty.
There’s a drum circle in Washington, D.C., that meets (nearly) every Sunday afternoon at the top of Meridian Hill Park. According to legend (a.k.a. this Washington City Paper article), some newly freed slaves danced and celebrated emancipation at this park in 1862. The weekly tradition began after the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965.
I carried my bike up like a hundred steps to see them a few weeks ago. They stalled until a guy named Lizard or Owl or something rolled up on a bike with a conga on his back and a full-sized marching band-style bass drum on his handlebars. It was pretty jammin’.
I would have jumped in with some samba school breaks, but no one offered me an instrument! Next time I’ll come prepared.
My last couple of trips back to Davis have perfectly coincided with glorious gamelan gatherings. In October, I made it to town just in time to see the giants of the UC Davis and UC Berkeley ensembles perform a free noon concert in the lobby of the Mondavi Center.
Gamelan has a huge range in sounds, dynamics, instrumentation, performance setting and number of performers. This particular version, gamelan gadhon, is the classical chamber music style of Central Java, and this ensemble was only six players plus the singer. Traditionally ensembles and repertoires were divided into “loud” and “soft” styles; most modern groups combine the two, but this group featured the soft instruments.
You can read about the performers in the program notes (and… ignore the “Audio or visual recording is prohibited”).