I went to the Wordless Music show in Prospect Park last night, featuring Metropolis Ensemble and Deerhoof. I had heard good things about the Rite Remixed project (Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring arranged for electronics, percussion, and brass) and I’m a big Deerhoof fan. Make it free and booyah!, I’m there. Nice.
Let’s start with Deerhoof. Fucking awesome. There. Oh wait, more? Ok. Well I’ve been spending practically all of my time arranging The Little Death for a five piece rock band for an upcoming performance in about a month (I’ll post an official announcement soon), so exploring the colors of a standard rock ensemble has been my modus operandi like fer sure. Jesus. Deerhoof. 4 people. Two guitars playing a lot of unison, a bass, and a 3-piece drumset. But what a huge fucking sound. Damn. I felt like I was in school the entire time, learning how to create a massive sound from limited means. I’ve been stressing over hihats and rides and crashes and shit, and their drummer just killed it with a kick, a snare, and a ride. Pretty incredible. See ’em live if you get a chance.
K, so The Rite Remixed, The Rite Remixed… Let me preface this with the fact that I was in a pretty bad mood when I first arrived at the concert, for reasons I shan’t delve into. My mood definitely affects my perception of a performance, a bad one can amplify my cynicism and make me less skeptical of a performance/concept/performer. So, in the aftermath I’ve been analyzing my thoughts on the project and trying to be honest with myself about how I feel about it.
Ok, so the performance of the Rite consisted of a full brass section (well actually a few people short of the original), extra percussion, and two guys on laptops a-doin’ their thing. The brass and percussion sounded great, straight-up. There were several good friends of mine in the horn section, who I know as killer players. I think it was mostly Juilliard alumni, with some Manhattan Schoolers sprinkled in. Really strong loud brass playing, although the there were some balance issues related to the sound system/guy. It was kind of hard to hear the trombones, ironically, and I could have used a bit more percussion.
It soon became apparent though that this performance was not about the brass and percussion. The two guys on laptops, who arranged the piece, were the focus, both visually and musically. One was sitting (Leo Leite I think), and the other was standing and essentially being ‘laptop performer extraordinaire’ (I believe this was Ricardo Romaneiro, but since I’m not positive I’ll refer to him as LPE). So LPE came out just before the performance and I let out an involuntary “Oh, goddamnit!”. He was decked out in full hip hop attire: Kangol hat, preppy polo shirt, black sunglasses. Now if there is one thing I despise in classical music, it’s when classical people try to act cool. Just… just, don’t. Embrace your inner geek. Being a classical composer will never be cool. Sorry. For the entire performance LPE played the role of the… well, of the Laptop Performer Extraordinaire. He bopped with the rhythms as if he was DJing at a deep south crunk party. He did the customary tweak-the-knobs-as-if-you-are-trying-to-save-a-child’s-life thing (ya know, how they’ll grab the knob of their MIDI controller – likely controlling a simple filter-sweep – and turn it like it weighs 300lbs). He generally acted as different, and above, the standard black-clad musicians behind him as he could.
Now, I know what you’re thinking right now. ‘Damn Matt, that’s, um… that’s just kind of bitchy. Tearing apart the appearance of a performer at a concert? That’s so Gawker.’ Well, Dear Reader, I believe I prefaced this “review” by saying I was generally in a bad, sour ass mood when I saw the performance. My little rant was just to indicate my thoughts on the overall appearance of the performance, which was one of minimizing the contributions of the brass and percussionists – to be honest they looked like ringers or a back-up band, rather than part of the Ensemble – and focusing on the soloists. The problem with the performance musically, was that this focus became apparent in the music as well.
As I said, despite my minor gripes about a couple sound issues, players sounded fantastic, but they were constantly being buried underneath the electronic arrangement. The backing track – there seemed to be an attempt to make it appear live, but it was primarily on track, with some minor tweaks here or there (filters sweeps, cuts, etc.) by LPE – consisted of the orchestral parts of The Rite of Spring, played by analog-modeling soft-synths. I mean these were serious old-school sounding synths. Whoever did the primary programming and sequencing has a hardcore analog fetish. And most of the synths sounded good, but they were way too high in volume, essentially burying the orchestra. Couple this with the fact that many old school synths sound to most people actually quite silly (sorry synth geeks!), and it made for a strange overall timbre for the piece. Pretty much the entire backing track was synthesis, and all of it these audacious old school sounds. After about halfway into it I had reached synthesis overload. I wanted to hear some beats, some noise, some samples, something other than what my Moog-freak friends would get off on.
The overall effect seemed to resemble a Wendy Carlos-style Switched-On Bach synth arrangement, but with real brass and percussion in the background. The synths were so loud, and LPE was so much the focus visually, that it resembled more of a vanity project than an effective arrangement. Many sections sounded really cool (I mean, I am kind of a synth geek myself), and at times the combined timbre created very unique textures. I thought to myself: ‘Maybe the fact that they “remixed” this in such an old-school fashion is actually really far-out’, ‘Maybe I’m just being a sourpuss’. I’m not sure though, which I guess means I’m not convinced. Its audacity was certainly admirable, both in ambition and in style. I asked Mell, who was with me what she thought. “It sounded comical” was her take. I have to agree, the whole thing came of as comical: sonically, because of the overemphasized silly analog-style synths; in appearance, because of the obvious attempt at impressing the cool hipsters of the crowd who, for the record, seemed to be somewhat entertained by the spectacle, but mostly eagerly awaiting Deerhoof. Btw, Deerhoof kicked ass.