Thirty years of Big City Orchestra's bent circuits, Beatlerape, and popcorn sounds
MUSIC "One, 1,000 ... two, 1,000 ... three, 1,000 ..." I'm counting down the seconds, by phone, between rare Bay Area lightning flash and thunderbolt with dAS, experimental composer and core member of Big City Orchestra. He's at the 30-year-old noise-collage collective's studio in Alameda, preparing for the BCO radio show, ubRadio, streamed live every Wednesday afternoon through a Web site in Amsterdam. "Maybe I'll just put a box of microphones out in the storm today," dAS says with a chuckle, to catch the air's anticipatory crackle
Big City Orchestra, an "art/anti-art organism," is a stunningly prolific entity boasting dozens of members and 130 hour-long releases on more than 100 labels. Its output ranges in diversity from collections of microtones coaxed from coffee beans and popcorn kernels to full-orchestral whirling dervish drones and bursts of nervy circuit-bending. Entrancing sculpted-static epics slither into its catalog next to winking pop cut-ups like now-legendary album Beatlerape (Staalplaat, 1993), which shoves the Fab Four into a blender with William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy and pushes "pulverize."
It's a deliberately omnivorous — and very Californian — aesthetic, sonically spanning the impish instrumental inventions of East Bay composer Harry Partch and the arcane postmodernisms of entropy-obsessed Hollywood sound conceptualist GX Jupitter-Larsen. (Jupitter-Larsen's wonderful quote "Imagine flogging a dead horse your whole life" seems to follow Big City Orchestra around the Internet.) The Orchestra came of age during the fertile underground mail art and cassette culture period of music history, where punk aspiration met industrial machination and hallucinogenic exultation. (BCO toured with Legendary Pink Dots in the early 1990s, and some of its more bitingly humorous compositions summon Butthole Surfers and Negativland.)
And did I mention funny hats? They're often in abundance at BCO performances, as are giant puppets, swirling backdrops, and arty projections. For the orchestra's 30th anniversary show, Sun/31 at Café Du Nord, all these elements will be in abundance, including a "reenactment" of Beatlerape. "We're going to squeeze 30 years of music into three hours with more than 20 guest perfomers and the whole works. Everything from building artforms to chainsawing trees," dAS promises.
The Orchestra began life in Southern California ("Oh, somewhere around Torrance, Hawthorne, Redondo — those kinds of places," says dAS) in 1979 as the "in-house music supplier" for a network of houses full of students who "weren't necessarily into prerecorded music." dAS himself studied at UCLA, and "probably benefited from or was cursed by having a father who was a rocket scientist and a mother who later became a psychiatrist." Nomadic in nature — dAS and his wife and musical collaborator Ninah Pixie often tour Europe via camper and couch — BCO "somehow found its way to the Bay Area," where has made a home in its Ubuibi studios (www.ubuibi.com ).
But dAS seems averse to discussing the past, or experimental music lineage and theory in general. As befits the restless nature of Big City Orchestra — or Big Seit Ohr_Kastra, or Pig Kitty Porkestra, or an infinity of other names the group has taken — the musical moment is always now, and the sound of now is the one most suitable to the situation at hand. "Look, we're all monkeys with thumbs, " dAS says, "and if I don't keep my thumbs busy, it's trouble. Yes, I've listened to 'serious' experimental composers — I know about that stuff — but I also love pop stuff. Seeing Devo at one of their first performances changed my life, and I think XTC is the best band to have ever existed."
"The Big City Orchestra approach is always project-by-project," dAS continues. "We take each case on its own merits, improvising on whatever materials are appropriate. It's more a matter of pulling a zany, hare-brained scheme out of one of our heads — we're currently doing a pirate record for kids. It's just circumstantial. Hopefully that derails a lot of theoretical questions."
OK, then, what are some of the circumstances? "I just got my hands on three harmoniums. Man, you can do a lot of damage with three harmoniums. Or sometimes we like to just confound expectations. At a recent NorCal Noise Festival, after three days of acts blowing out eardrums, we took everyone outside, sat them in a circle, gave them all teacups, and put the kettle on. Our contribution was the sound of water coming to a boil, and then serving tea."
Or how about this? "We do a TV show in the East Bay where we basically treat the TV as a light source, just playing around with different-colored lights. There's 2.4 million potential viewers, so you figure there must be at least 1,000 stoners who happen upon it and hopefully love it. Maybe it even means something to someone — who knows?
"Frivolity is important," dAS concludes. "Sometimes it's good to have art that just fills a hole in the wall. Or sometimes it's not."
BIG CITY ORCHESTRA 30TH ANNIVERSARY SHOW
8 p.m., $10
Café Du Nord
2170 Market, SF.