By Mike Faloon
Andrew Drury picks up a small, metal object, part of a sink faucet he got from 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. Drury continues. Hwang and Swell rest their instruments. Everyone has a voice in Sing House and right now Drury has more to say; a different way to give the drummer some.
* * *
I ask Drury how he thought to play drums like that. He says he wasn’t interested in a “grandiose display of cleverness.” He had a gig with cellist Peggy Lee in Vancouver. She couldn’t find her pick up and had to play unamplified, “which meant disaster…drum sets always bury cellos and (make) for some really boring-to-listen-to music.” Drury decided to focus “on all the quiet sounds…that drum sets make, like when you sit down and something creaks. I think I might have used sheets of crumpled paper as drum sticks that night.”
* * *
The stage is dense tonight, more so than usual. I’ve seen a lot of duos and trios at Quinn’s, along with a handful of quartets. Sing House 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’s playing, thumping and bumping and wailing and flailing in wonderful unsynchronized unison, 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 L.A., 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 is clenched. His right hand, bandaged from a recent surgery, gives him the appearance of a boxer before the gloves go on. He jabs the air, strikes the space before him, 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, especially when playing within the ambitious blueprints laid out by Hwang.
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 columns for a year. They’ve occupied so much of my thinking, but no one’s asked so directly about one of the basic building blocks of these pieces. I think he says something about 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 music that is loud and aggressive and filled with emphatic, thump-the-table-rattle-the-utensils 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.” They offer more than escapism; an invitation to engage in a search, one that resets, redirects.
* * *
Bassist Ken Filiano solos. The fingertips of his left hand move in small increments, shifting and 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 in all directions. Just when the whole thing might become too divergent, overextended, Filiano repeats a simple phrase, provides just enough foundation, doesn’t reign in the others but provides the background, the context, that offers shape, like Hercules digging a trench to redirect a river.
Between sets Filiano and I talk about books. I mention Larry McMurtry’s Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen in which he writes about being in his sixties, still searching for a way 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.”
I wonder to what extent Jason Kao Hwang mirrors this approach with his Sing House compositions. It’s remarkable how well this cast of characters functions within Hwang’s structures. In that sense he reminds me of Gabriel Byrne’s character in The Usual Suspects, orchestrating a group of disparate personalities. I’m tempted to match up the five members of Sing House with their counterparts in The Usual Suspects. But who’d be the Stephen Baldwin?
* * *
Christopher Forbes sits at his keyboard, momentarily on the periphery, moving slightly, sizing up the situation, contemplating his next move. He enters quietly, pulls his fingertips across the keys, one sensitive brush stroke at a time. Then he ramps up, plays at incalculable, seemingly reckless speeds, but always sure footed; nimble movements within the turmoil, a striking 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 building 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 makes it off the launch pad but in the mid-seventies Jodorowsky and his collaborators spend months recruiting cast members, including Salvador Dalí, Orson Welles, and Mick Jagger. They also develop a shot-by-shot breakdown of their proposed movie. “Fever dream” might be more apt—the book is comprised of 3,000 illustrations and the film-to-be has 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 wants to make changes to the source material. Among them is an alternate ending in which Duke Leto’s son Paul is killed. Paul’s consciousness spreads among the masses and sparks a rebirth of the planet. Dune is transformed from a desert to a garden, vast and verdant. From one can come many. Sing House inverts that dynamic: within the one there are many.
* * *
Hwang motions, 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 you to step closer to the canvas. I’ve been so focused on Hwang’s role as composer and conductor that I’d momentarily lost sight of the performer; overemphasized his ability to work Cerebro and overlooked what an asset he is in the throes of battle.
Then there’s an explosion. The band’s back in full force yet diverging. They’re in one place physically but sonically they’ve scattered, to each his own pursuit, like a Sol LeWitt wall drawing, so many lines radiating from a series of single points 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.”