The Book Cooks
Excerpts from
The Other Night at Quinn’s/New Adventures in the Sonic Underground

Mike Faloon
Razorcake/Gorsky Press; Los Angeles)

 

This Big River
Jason Kao Hwang & Satoshi Takeishi

Develop the film of your life / Right now
Guided By Voices, “Vote for Me, Dummy”

 

Elapsed time – 0:00

James Keepnews strides to the stage and introduces the musicians, Jason Kao Hwang (violin, viola, electronics) and Satoshi Takeishi (drums, electronics). Unlike most Monday nights at Quinn’s, which offer two sets, this will be a “special one-long-set night,” which will be one long piece.

Takeishi turns the snare off and wields mallets, blurring the distinction among drums. Hwang runs his violin through an effects box. I look away and momentarily mistake it for a guitar. Takeishi fades out and Hwang delves into deep slides. He clicks his sticks against the rim of the kick drum, seemingly drops and fumbles them over the edges of the snare and toms, like a series of one-time motions, impossible to replicate. But then he repeats the sequence, manages to retrace his steps.

* * *

Driving to the show I see the slightest sliver of a crescent moon. It looks oddly familiar, that moon, smiling down from the bruised skyline that rests above the shadowed trees. The excitement for tonight’s show has me assigning meaning to everything. I feel like Neil from The Young Ones.

* * *

Elapsed time – 5:00

Takeishi reaches to the laptop on his left. Despite a clear sightline I can’t connect his motions and his sounds – what I see and what I hear are at odds with each other. Meanwhile Hwang is out of sight – I literally can’t see him. I have no idea who’s producing what and yet the further they go, the more sense it makes, the more things coalesce. Hwang trades a bow for plucking and Takeishi reemerges, laid back, then fading up on a kick/snare conversation.

* * *

I parked in front of the Beacon Wine Shoppe. There’s always a spot there. I suspect the “Condemned” sign posted on the front door helps. There’s a group of firefighters at the corner and light spilling from the adjacent street. It’s movie set-bright or, more likely, scene-of-a-fire bright.

“OK to park here?” I ask.

“Oh yeah, they’re tearing the building down tomorrow. Finally letting us do some roof training.”

* * *

I think of the moonlit sky again and realize where I’ve seen that image before: it’s the smile on the book jacket for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

* * *

Geoff Dyer wrote that looking forward to a show is better than the actual show. Anticipation eclipses experience. He was writing about rock concerts. What he said was this: “Nothing that happens subsequently can live up to those opening moments when all the power suddenly erupts, and you, emphatically, are no longer waiting for something to begin. Pretty soon, though, you are waiting for it to end.”

* * *

Elapsed time – 10:00

Hwang is sweeping his bow wildly from side to side, violently hacking away at his instrument. He bends this way, bops that. He must be producing a tremendous amount of friction – how hot is the hair on that bow? – yet maintains his composure.

* * *

Dyer was writing about a Def Leppard concert, a purely commercial enterprise, a cash grab. That’s fine. No judgment, not from someone whose E.L.O. collection is within arm’s reach. But it is different. Commercial music is like eating at Burger King, the craving, the fleeting consumption. Too often such experiences leave me with regret or in denial.

* * *

Today is Opening Day for the Mets. My anticipation for the new season hasn’t hit fever pitch, but it’s rising. It’ll only climb as spring transitions into summer.

First pitch is 1:10. In between classes I check the score online. The Mets put up a 3-0 lead against the Nationals’ Stephen Strasburg. By the time dismissal drags around, the Mets have blown two leads and cling to a narrow 5-4 advantage with two outs in the ninth.

The classroom empties and I follow the game pitch-by-pitch. The Mets’ Bobby Parnell faces Denard Span. Foul ball. Ball. Foul ball. Ball. Repeat until Span doubles in the tying run. Minutes into the first game of the season and the roller coaster is already whipping me about.

* * *

I’ve had experiences like Dyer’s, events that I’d rather think about before they unfold than live through. None come to mind today. Not the Mets game. Certainly not what Hwang and Takeishi are conjuring.

* * *

Elapsed time – 15:00

For the first time, Hwang settles into a recognizable pattern. It’s pleasing, though eerie. The repetition suggests a movie, a quiet countryside shot that pulls back to reveal a car chase, demise imminent.

* * *

Leaving work I flip on the radio and catch the Mets score – Washington 9, New York 5 – just before they cut to commercial. I reach for the volume as a couple begins arguing over whose burger has crispier bacon. Is this how we react in the face of tragedy? The Mets are choking, have choked, blown their first chance of the new year and all we get are soggy pork products?

* * *

Are the Mets a Burger King team? Is following baseball a Burger King pastime?

* * *

Elapsed time – 20:00

I’m lost in a strangely satisfying way; I can’t keep track of what’s transpiring. Like a surveyor without a theodolite, I can’t monitor the vertical or horizontal planes. I’m not sure how much orientation matters at the moment.

On the way home I listen to Hwang’s CD, Symphony of Souls. It’s credited to a 40-piece orchestra billed as the Spontaneous River. The name reminds me of a Mike Watt quote. Speaking of an early Minutemen record he said, “They [the songs on The Punch Line] weren’t supposed to stand on their own. They’re supposed to be part of this big river.” Hwang and Takeishi harness a similar dynamic.

* * *

Elapsed time – 25:00

Takeishi taps away on his laptop. He samples and loops Hwang’s violin. James Keepnews swoops in, excitedly sharing that this is real-time sampling. Meanwhile Takeishi picks up his sticks. He solos, darting in and out, around the snare. With his left foot he maintains a swing beat on the hi-hat. It’s a one-person dialogue: his drumming is out there, free, while his use of cymbals is traditional. A perfect example of how complementary these styles can be.

* * *

A counter argument – one that supports Dyer’s point – is that Hwang and Takeishi’s performance is an extended, heightened sense of anticipation. We’re stuck in a state of “What’s next?” What’s coming up is greater than what is. This show, this piece of music, is so rousing. Every nerve ending feels open and aware. What’s best is what’s now.

* * *

Elapsed time – 30:00

Hwang reverts to the wah wah sound. Takeishi is right there every step of the way.

A few years ago, watching the Milwaukee band the Catholic Boys, my friend Pete said the band’s drummer played lead drums – not just rhythm, not just solos, but lead drums. Takeishi has that.

* * *

Another counterargument: it’s a matter of tension vs. release. The anticipation, the build up, is the tension. The experience, the event, is the release. Tonight’s session alters that. The tension is in the experience, the event, and there’s no release in sight. That’s what sustains it.

* * *

Elapsed time – 35:00

There is a momentary nod to classical music, albeit a buzzing, swarming sound as Hwang dive bombs between the peaks and valleys of his violin’s register. After the show he says, “We generate wild mood swings.”

Even though I’m watching the clock, I’ve lost track of the passage of time. The hands move but the numbers don’t carry much meaning, passing through my field of view like mile markers on a late-night drive.

* * *

Elapsed time – 40:00

Enter the gong. It’s a small gong, the size of a salad plate. Takeishi holds it while still playing with a mallet in each hand. He bangs the gong against the other drums, then pulls it across the snare and floor tom. Forty minutes in and Takeishi is still pulling tricks out of his bag.

So is Hwang. His sound rockets to eleven. It’s piercing, too loud, ringing my ears. It’s the first sign of excess and it bear traps our attention. There’s applause from the tables in back. The counter crowd is stunned. We’re still except for the guy two seats over who shakes his head in disbelief.

* * *

Elapsed time – 45:00

Hwang sets aside his bow and plucks again. Takeishi runs the length of a drumstick along the edge of his ride cymbal. It’s subtle but he manages to sample it with the mic mounted above his kit. His ability to cast a narrow, targeted net is remarkable. More like spearing, I suppose.

* * *

Elapsed time – 50:00

Takeishi switches to brushes. Hwang to viola. It’s as if he is playing backward. Like an optical illusion, I can see his right hand move one way yet his sound moves another. I wish I’d paid more attention in high school physics.

* * *

Elapsed time – 55:00

Hwang plays, then pauses. The show is nearly over. I haven’t thought of it until now, haven’t wanted the performance to end, but Hwang and Takeishi are clearly about to close.

* * *

Takeishi sets down his sticks and rests. Hwang finishes, slowly, quietly, tenderly, closing the cover at the end of a great novel. It’s over and far better than expected.

 

All Going Out Together
Jason Kao Hwang’s Sing House

“And everybody gets a little piece of the pie”
The Arrivals, “Simple Pleasures in America”

 

Andrew Drury picks up a small, metal object, part of a sink faucet he found on a construction job. He leans over his floor tom, places the faucet on the drumhead and exhales. He works with care and precision, a jeweler placing loupe to gem, magnifying what lies within, revealing mournful, voluminous sounds. A solo sans sticks.

Sing House listens and waits. Bandleader Jason Kao Hwang brings his violin to his chin. Trombonist Steve Swell raises his mouthpiece to his lips. Drury continues. Hwang and Swell start nodding to the implied beat, they’re ready to come in. And Drury continues. Hwang and Swell rest their instruments. Everyone has a voice in Sing House and right now Drury has more to say. It’s a different way to give the drummer some.

* * *

The stage is crowded, more so than usual. I’ve seen a lot of duos and trios at Quinn’s, along with a handful of quartets. This is the first five-piece. More important than the number of names on the scorecard, though, is the scope and range of the personalities, and when everyone is playing, thumping and bumping and wailing and flailing, there is so much to take in, so many places for the eye and ear and mind to go.

Yet for all the activity, the scene takes me back to one of Adrian Chi’s Bite the Cactus comics, a particularly pensive one called “Drawn to the Desert.” The panels depict the before and after of Chi’s move from the city of Toronto to the suburbs of Los Angeles, from stimulating to numbing. Then she makes friends and starts taking weekend camping trips, discovers Joshua Tree and Matilija Falls, Death Valley and King’s Canyon. “The incredible majesty of these places made the suburbs seem far away and insignificant. There’s an indescribable ecstasy sitting in the desert, hiding in the shade of a boulder, that draws me back again and again.”

* * *

Steve Swell’s eyes are closed, his face clenched. His right hand, bandaged from a recent surgery, looks like a boxer’s before the gloves go on. He jabs rapidly, desperately pushing and pulling the slide on his trombone. But there’s more to Swell’s brand of the sweet science than just the number of punches thrown. Location and impact count too.

I run into Swell a few weeks later. He asks, “Those other things you write about, are you thinking about them while you’re listening to the music or do they come to you later?”

I’ve been writing these essays for months. They’ve occupied so much of my thinking, but no one’s asked so directly about one of their basic components. His question surprises me more than it should. He says the pieces are like schizophrenia.

“I don’t mean schizophrenia in all its bad connotations but, I believe this, there can be ‘good’ schizophrenia. When we play music or write poetry we are dealing with everything we already know or have been exposed to up to that moment just before the actual act of making music or writing poetry. It’s all we have to work with. We shut off the learning part and turn on the working part. All the information, disparate as it may seem, comes to the fore when we are creating.”

* * *

Chi’s comics appear in Razorcake, a non-profit punk magazine based in Los Angeles. Razorcake captivates me for a number of reasons. Their contributors embrace and repudiate the stereotypes of punk culture. They cover loud, aggressive music filled with no-holds-barred lyrics. They also bring to bear considerable intelligence and a willingness to contemplate. In a recent column Razorcake co-founder Sean Carswell used the phrase “Meditate on this with me.” Not “react with me” or “get angry with me,” but rather “think with me.” The zine offers an invitation to explore and reset.

* * *

Bassist Ken Filiano solos. The fingertips of his left hand shift in small increments, balancing on the strings beneath. His right hand goes Nadia Comaneci, leaping above and below his left – low then high, high then low, faster as he goes – plucking harmonics with each perfect landing.

The ensemble resumes, frenetic movement abounds. Just when they might become too divergent, overextended, Filiano repeats a phrase, reshapes and redirects, like Hercules digging a trench to reroute a river.

Between sets Filiano and I talk about books. Larry McMurtry’s Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen comes up. McMurtry writes about being in his sixties, still trying to balance life as a reader with life as a writer; when he reads a lot he feels that he’s neglecting his writing and vice versa. Filiano recommends Lonesome Dove. “He doesn’t create his characters, he listens to them.”

Jason Kao Hwang mirrors this with his Sing House compositions. It’s remarkable how well this cast of characters functions together. In that sense Hwang reminds me of Gabriel Byrne’s character in The Usual Suspects, orchestrating a group of diverse personalities. I’m tempted to match up the five members of Sing House with their counterparts in The Usual Suspects but who’d be Stephen Baldwin?

* * *

Christopher Forbes sits at his keyboard, momentarily on the periphery, sizing up the situation, contemplating his options. He pulls his fingertips across the keys, one brush stroke at a time. Then a surge, playing at incalculable, reckless speeds, but always sure footed; nimble within the turmoil, a dazzling combination of velocity and grace. The classic game is set aside for blitz chess.

Visually, Forbes fits the image I have of Lenny Angrush from Jonathan Lethem’s Dissident Gardens. It’s the combination of beard and glasses, upturned porkpie hat and jacket less than pressed. Lenny’s a chess hustler and well-read idealist. He’s also a baseball fan who tries in vain to convince the new Queens-based team (the soon-to-be Mets) to adopt a pro-labor song as their anthem. But Lenny never finds a place where his efforts as a provocateur are welcome. Forbes, on the other hand, is fortifying a place where his are essential.

* * *

Jodorowsky’s Dune is a documentary about director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s quest to make a film adaptation of the Frank Herbert science fiction novel. The project never made it off the launch pad but in the mid-‘70s Jodorowsky and his collaborators spent months recruiting cast members, including Salvador Dalí, Orson Welles, and Mick Jagger. They also drafted a shot-by-shot breakdown of the proposed movie. “Fever dream” might be more apt – the book was comprised of 3,000 illustrations and the film-to-be had a running time of fourteen hours.

* * *

Explaining the band’s name, Hwang says, “Sing is a common sound in the Chinese language. Depending upon the tone, inflection, context, and dialect, the meanings and the calligraphy vary greatly. I hear Sing as a sound.”

“So in that sense it’s like a syllable,” I ask, “a building block, a part of a larger whole?”

“Yes,” Hwang replies, “I should ask a linguist as to what sonic unit this sound would be categorized.”

* * *

As with any book-to-film adaptation, Jodorowsky wanted to make changes to the source material. Among them was an alternate ending in which Duke Leto’s son Paul was killed. Paul’s consciousness spread among the masses and sparked a rebirth of the planet. Dune was transformed from a desert to a garden, vast and verdant. From one can come many.

* * *

Hwang leans into the beat as he counts off. There are plans afoot. Follow me. His fingers slide along the strings, inward, toward him, evoking the highest, faintest, most fragile of pitches, the smallest specks of paint that prompt a closer look at the canvas. I’ve been so focused on Hwang’s role as composer and conductor that I’d momentarily lost sight of the performer.

Then there’s an explosion. The band in full force. They’re in one place physically but sonically scattered, like a Sol LeWitt wall drawing, so many lines radiating, yet carefully placed within the larger piece.

* * *

Jason Kao Hwang: “The music is a house, with the score’s quintessential melodies, rhythms, harmonies, and textures offering rooms in which musicians extemporaneously sing. In this dramatic architecture, the unique voice of each musician is empowered to individually interpret and also transcend interpretation to become an originating spirit that is inextricably unified to the composition’s destiny. This is how music grows greater than the imagination of one to become a meta-language of memories, dreams, and hope. This is how my compositions house imagination, identity, and greater purpose. This is the jazz of Sing House.”

The Other Night at Quinn's by Mke Faloon

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