By Mike Faloon
I knew I was spacey long before I missed the turn for Quinn’s. Semi-hypnotized yet functional, aware of my surroundings but operating with a heightened sense of what to hang onto to and what to let go off. I spent all yesterday outdoors, splashing around at a water park with my kids. Today I kept my classroom windows open all day, lulled by the steady rain.
Needless to say I’m in the right frame of mind as Jessica Pavone warms up. Viola pinched between chin and neck she focuses on electronics, the gear at her feet. Echo. Tons of echo, slowly building. Maybe the performance has begun. We watched Mothra vs. Godzilla over the weekend so I’m seeing monster movies as the pitches bend and shift.
Pavone lets a minute or three pass before feeding new info to the effects box, just lets it wail with the sounds of invading alien hordes. Usually that kind of work-to-noise ratio sends me fleeing, but Pavone knows when to pull out of the nose dive, when to switch back to the viola, push fresh sounds into the loop. My mental narrative cuts to grainy black and white footage of flying saucers descending upon the hollows of Western Kentucky, no dialogue.
The next number loses me. Pavone plays two beats on, two beats off. I hesitate to say “rest” because she seems to be scheming at every moment, riding one sound or steering into the next. The pace quickens, feedback changing tones rapidly, like flickering images in an experimental film. But conceptually, I’m on board. It’s the anti-solo solo. It’s not about how many or how fast. It’s about volume and texture, dropping huge blocks of sounds that jolt the landscape.
One of my students asked me to explain the difference between a stereotype and an archetype. I struggled for an answer. My immediate thought was that stereotypes make me squirm. Archetypes don’t. I resist stereotypes. I avoid trafficking in them, and I don’t want to personify them. Me, the bearded, bespectacled guy taking notes at a jazz show so that I can blog about the experience, I’m the one who thinks he rises above stereotypes, the guy sitting at the counter cluttered with tulip glasses of Belgian ales and needlessly hoppy brews, and baskets of snap peas. Who could label that?
Meanwhile Pavone kneels, hunches over her effects gear and slowly, gently, fades out, giving the piece a soft landing. Before a hush can settle she’s tapping her bow on the strings, bouncing, dribbling. Sharp piercing sounds zip across the room. No attack, no decay, just the piercing synth-like sound of pure peak. But it’s the rhythm that sticks, almost like Morse code. A distress signal of sorts. She drops the bow, slaps her palms on the strings. The feedback wails. But again, the rhythm sticks, keeps at bay any sense of “noise for the sake of noise.”
She closes with a simple sign off: “Thanks, I’m Jessica Pavone. Pretty Monsters are up next.” After kicking our collective can with immeasurable heaps of noise, stepping on our throats and swiping our wallets for good measure, it’s the most concise of endings.
A lot of the regulars aren’t here tonight. But odder than who’s here and who’s absent is what’s being said. Two stools to my left I hear this: “You hear that (meaning Pavone’s set)? You didn’t miss anything.” Older gent. He’s visibly, verbally displeased. He reminds me of Walter from The Big Lebowski, looking for support with full throttle belly aching. (“Am I wrong, Dude?”) He notices Jessica Pavone within earshot and retreats. “It’s not for everyone.”
True, but that’s why I come here, to hear something I’ve never heard before and won’t hear again, something one-time and worth talking about. Comments like Walter’s aren’t the norm here. I assume they happen often, that every Monday night sparks at least one heavy duty “What was that?” reaction, but I’ve never heard one.
Another gent takes the seat between Walter and me. I overheard this other guy earlier, talking about a Thelonious Monk biography. He’s long haired and bearded. He chats with Walter, puts Pavone’s performance in context, makes peace, plays the Dude to the cranky one’s Walter. (“No, Walter, you’re not wrong. You’re just an asshole.”) This is where archetypes help.
I’m also a hybrid driving public school teacher and card carrying union member who’s recently cut meat and dairy out of his diet, partly because my cholesterol is running high and partly due to ethical concerns. Stereotypes? I’m a Star Trek box set away from completing the picture. Or maybe Dr. Who would suffice.
So if I’m surrounded by Walter and the Dude where does that leave me? Donny, always asking questions and sharing observations that fall on deaf ears? The Stranger, wisely looking in, cool and stoic? Maybe bits of both? Or Smokey.
Walter’s fingers are knuckle deep in his ears when Katherine Young’s Pretty Monsters come to life. (“This aggression will not stand!”) Young bombs the room with bassoon blasts. She’s joined by Erica Dicker on violin, Owen Stewart-Robertson on guitar, and Mike Pride on drums.
Most of the room marvels. Walter gripes. Then I notice the table behind me. Twenty-somethings out for drinks, talking over the music. Pretty common stuff at Quinn’s but the talkative types usually know to sit at the back tables. The Dude says this group was yammering throughout Jessica Pavone’s set, too. He’s surprised that I didn’t notice. Young and dumb and vocal is one way to wobble through life but it does nothing to enhance my Monday night. Bubble headed and unaware, they’re a bunch of Bunny Lebowskis. And the Nihilists, they have some of those louts in them, too—tossing marmots into the bathtub of an otherwise satisfying experience.
Bunny and the Nihilists are soon buried by the avalanche that is Pretty Monsters. Drums and shards of guitar, violin up high, bassoon down low. I see sheet music on stands and watch the band’s eyes but can’t tell when they’re reading and when they’re improvising. Like a glacier, their sound is wide and high and pushes aside anything in its way. The other players move in and out, spokes around Young’s eerie, leviathan tones. It’s a fascinating choice of sonic center points, moments of such startling contrast. Yet other times when I look away the sounds blur, I can’t tell bassoon from violin from guitar.
There’s also a lot of white space in their sound, places for single instruments, subdued passages, though not quite solos, quiet to offset the noise. Or rather where quiet is intended. Instead it’s filled by the yammering of the Bunny and the Nihilists who move from the periphery to the forefront.
Later I see Jessica Pavone and apologize for the sparse, distracting crowd. She shrugs it off, says it’s a Monday night at a bar. True, but usually it’s more. Quinn’s is capable of better and I’m disappointed that that’s not evident.
Walter stands and covers his ears. He turns away, looks to the back entrance, but there’s no cavalry coming. The band plays on, unfazed. They’ve weathered worse. Later Erica Dicker tells me about a festival she played, in Eastern Europe, with an all-female quartet. The crowd had a certain set of stereotypes in mind and made it clear that Dicker's group was the wrong gender and race (maybe age, too). "They were not expecting a bunch of white girls,” Dicker says. The atmosphere was unsettling. She says that show was a “nine or ten.” Tonight rates a mere four.
Pretty Monsters play on. They take turns in the spotlight, with tempos that are slow to mid. I’m waiting for the band to wail full on, in conjunction, sandblast the room, clear the place. But the hick-ish portion of our response isn’t enough to alter their course. They’re too determined. They’re also heavy and dense and cacophonous, restrained too—hinged and methodical.
Between songs the Dude turns and grins with a look of, Whoa, this is out there! “I wouldn’t want to live where they live mentally,” he says.
Dicker opens the next piece. Young looks down, nods, turns her head side to side. She can hear patterns, perceives this as an on ramp, leading purposefully to a place. I don’t have that level of focus. My mix still has the sounds of Bunny and the Nihilists seeping in. I give them a look. So does the Dude. No use. They have their own agenda. (“We want the money, Lebowski!”)
Then Stewart-Robertson and Dicker change lanes, pouring out tuneful, easy to discern lines that intertwine. Pride breaks out a xylophone, Young’s bassoon bubbles up, and before our eyes something of a pop song melts. This flows into a piece that’s subdued and conversational. Ironically, I think this is when Bunny and the Nihilists clear out.
At first the next piece seems suited for a funeral or memorial, looking back and mourning. I’m looking in the right direction but misreading the tone. This is more celebratory—the loudmouths have vacated. It’s probably a coincidence, but I’m assigning intent, at least for now. Pretty Monsters brought their avant chamber assault to the hinterlands and plunged their flag into the turf, fending off the naysayer and the ninnies. I'm annoyed by the reception they received, but they're choosing to kick back with drinks at the bar. Strikes and gutters.