The Week of Playing Dangerously: My Two Live Art Shows

To get this month started on a hectic note (or cluster thereof), I played two live shows, bookending the week. They were: Sunday, April 1 at one of the empty storefronts in downtown Chicago which have been converted into temporary visual arts studios; and Saturday, April 7, at a café in northern Chicago.

Both shows involved working with live art painters. For the most part, I was pleased with how the music turned out. There may even be a nugget or two that’s fit to release on a live album down the road. Time will tell. You can hear two clips of highlights from these two shows, over 32 minutes of music, on my website’s Music page.

I also learned a ton about what works and what doesn’t, in both hardware and software setup, which kick-started an evolutionary process in the rig. One more good reason to leave the safety of the studio and venture out there!

Two things in particular stand out:

Loop Station RC-300, by Roland1) the software looper on which I was relying simply doesn’t work as advertised, so I was forced to buy a hardware one – a much better outcome. It’s a dreamy Roland Loop Station, which I’ve named Quincy (fellow Chicago residents will be able to figure it out); and

2) circumstance forced a new layout for the first of these two shows, which worked so well that I’ve adopted it for the studio as well as live playing. That will be a separate blog post, probably the next one.

eyes cast down Plays Live, April 1, 2012 at Paint in Action, Chicago

Photo by Dasi

The April 1 show was a collaboration with artists Royce Deans and Tali Farchi, who have been working with live musicians for five years. I met them through a mutual friend (thanks, Eve!) and learned about their Colorboration Project, which was just what I was looking for: a chance to play with visual artists, all working live in a spontaneous, improvisational setting. We arranged the gig on just five days’ notice, the day after I met them.

This is the piece Royce painted to the music:

Painted by Royce Deans April 1, 2012 with music of eyes cast down

(c) 2012 by Royce Deans. All rights reserved.

As if the ante wasn’t upped enough already, I didn’t have time to get brand-new Quincy out of the box until the day before this show. But he instantly became an essential part of the rig. I use him for both guitars and percussion. One of the many cool consequences of using him is that it’s really easy (with the ability to run three independent loops) to crossfade/segue from one piece to the next so the music doesn’t have to stop. Now I want to get a second one, so I can devote one to guitars and the other to percussion and voice – which will actually simplify things. Well done, Roland!

This was Tali’s response to the music:

Painted by Tali Farchi, April 21, 2012

(c) 2012 by Tali Farchi. All rights reserved.

To exploit the spontaneous nature of the interaction with Royce and Tali – and to add to the “jumping off a cliff” factor – I decided that I would mostly improvise the music on this day. The only composed piece I played was First Day Apart. For other pieces, I had ideas of what to use, and sometimes elements set aside. Everything else came up in the moment, which was an extra bonus.

Case in point (and one of the high points of the day): Mystic Memory. I tuned Electra (my Danelectro 12-string) to Alexander Scriabin’s famous Mystic Chord. None of the usual unison or octave intervals usually used in 12-string tuning were happening here – and I started playing with a slide, which I’ve never done much until now. This piece went into some surprising, almost avant-garde territory. The slide is quickly becoming a fixture.

The other highlight for me was Om Hari Om, a largely percussive soundscape featuring voice samples from a friend, actor David Ludwig. I was really pleased with the five-minute-long fade which brought the performance to a serene close. Royce remarked that it sounded more like the music was moving away from us, rather than simply fading out. Perfect.

Set list:
Kinkakuji
First Day Apart
Fading Angel
Desert Oasis
Resounding State of Silence
Mystic Memory
Om Hari Om

The April 7 show took place at Royal Coffee, one of our favorite cafés, in East Rogers Park, Chicago. This show was about evenly divided between improvised and composed pieces.

Ghost of the Green Forest by Walter Palmer Burrows

(c) 2012 by Walter Palmer Burrows. All rights reserved.

Two artists were involved, again: paintings by Walter Palmer Burrows were on display for the evening, and Phoenix Heller painted at least half a dozen pieces to the music.

I began both shows the same way, with a Zen-like percussive zone, Kinkakuji, named after Kyoto’s famous Temple of the Golden Pavilion, which was immortalized in Yukio Mishima’s novel of that name.

eyes cast down Play Live, April 7, 2012 in Chicago

Photo by Dasi

The highlight, this evening, was easily Arvo Pärt’s Fratres. If not for two small mistakes, it might have been good enough to release. But I’ll get there. It’s definitely slated for my album of cover pieces, but that’s a year or two away.

Touchstone Array, a version of a piece with Chris Russell on our in-progress Memory Palace album, escalated into a slide-guitar-and-hybrid-groove frenzy. Rebuild From Memory did the same with just guitar. In both cases, I was using Pat, my high-strung Squier Strat.

This is one of the pieces that Phoenix painted that night:

Painted by Phoenix Heller, April 7, 2012, to music of eyes cast down

(c) 2012 by Phoenix Heller. All rights reserved.

After a tempestuous Mystic Memory, a plaintive Radha’s Tears wound down the evening.

Set list:
Kinkakuji
First Day Apart
Touchstone Array
Rebuild From Memory
Om Hari Om

Fratres (Pärt)
Mystic Memory
Radha’s Tears

Many thanks to everyone who turned out, and to all four artists for really bringing it – and for their enjoyment of the music. Work from all four of them graces our apartment now, and I look forward to working with all of them again. The next event with Walter Burrows – the opening of his month-long show at Royal Coffee – is already booked for May 12. Details at my website’s Events page.

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