Pitta of the Mind at Lost Church, San Francisco

Today we look back at Pitta of the Mind’s set at Word Performances, which took place at the Lost Church in San Francisco. It was, in our opinion, one of our best performances. You can see and hear for yourself in this video.


[Video by Todd Siegel]

It was a short performance, but very tight, mixing the poems with piano, theremin and acoustic elements. I like using the percussion instruments along with the electronics, as it adds to the timbre and theatrics. We will definitely do more of that.

The evening featured readings and dance in addition to music. Our host Cybele Zufolo read some of her writings while dancing flamenco with Damien Alvarez.

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Colleen McKee read another of Cybele Zufolo’s pieces about her adventures as a show girl in Japan, in addition to some of her own writing. She even featured some singing in the set.

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Daniel Berkman performed a solo set on kora a visually and sonically beautiful instrument.

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Every set featured performative elements. For her reading, Zarina Zabrisky appeared as a super villain.

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Overall it was a fun night, and we had an overflowing crowd. Many thanks to Cybele Zufolo and Todd Siegel for hosting us and all their work putting these shows together, and to the Lost Church for providing such a unique space in San Francisco.

JERK, Future Death Agency + Amanda Chaudhary, Chani Bockwinkel

Today we look back at a a set of very unusual performances featuring friends by way of Portland and New York. When they came to perform at the Temescal Arts Center in Oakland, I was there to join them both as a collaborator and an audience member.

The evening began with a performance by Chani Bockwinkel in which she channeled the persona of Justin Bieber giving a TED talk.

Chani Bockwinkel channeling Justin Bieber

I have done my best to avoid sounds and sights related to Justin Bieber, but Bockwinkel definitely perfected the look and mannerisms of a swaggering young man steeped in sexuality and narcissism. The content of the fictionalized TED talk also seemed to dwell into aspects of his Christian faith, which itself seems intertwined with ego. There was also a mayonnaise taco. Bockwinkel’s performance was a well crafted presentation of an entirely repulsive individual.

Then it was time to take the stage as part of Future Death Agency. The set featured dance and performance by tippi and 3dwardsharp (aka Edward Sharp) for which I provided improvised sound from a Moog Sub Phatty, Mother-32 and Theremini.

Amanda Chaudhary and Tippi in Future Death Agency

One of the primary visual features during the performance was the dancers ensconced in garbage bags as the moved around the space, speaking backwards.

Garbage bag.  Future Death Agency

There were also numerous photographs scattered around the space, each of which had a handwritten statement on the back. 3dwardsharp and tippi occasionally read from these as they moved around, and also whispered some to members of the audience. Musically, I kept things fairly minimal, but trying to mix different textures and dynamics throughout. I looked for opportunities where I could match the sound with the movement, though as both were ever changing this could be challenging. We did have a few great moments of synchronicity that were frenetic and sensual. You can see the entirety of our performance in these videos.

Overall, it was a lot of fun to perform, and I was happy with the result especially after seeing how it worked with the dance from the audience’s perspective. (One item to note is that the woman who blurts out a question about the structure of the piece in the second video was not herself part of the piece. We simply reacted as best we could in the moment, as one does in live performance.)

The final set featured Alex Romania performing excerpts from his piece JERK.

Alex Romania performing JERK
[JERK. Photo by Daniela Sanchez]

From Romania’s notes on the piece:

This physically vulnerable choreography frames the male body between violence and pleasure — a microphone is bound to the body and swung from the pelvis evoking forms in the realm of BDSM, pornography, athletics, games, and flagellation. Through genital hypnosis and rigorous discomfort, this is a dance of (narcissistic) pleasure and (quiet) longing, (self) mutilation and (self) care. A dance to flatten and complexify the male body, to tenderize the flesh, to move beyond and to newly inhabit — a phallic solo to recompose the phallus.

From the start it was both provocative and physically rigorous, with Romania wrapping himself and tying himself in microphones and cords that were attached to effects pedals and a loudspeaker. The microphones against his body produced the primary sound of the piece. At first the sound was sparse and matched exactly his movement against the cords in the manner of BDSM play. But then he released some of the cords it took a more athletic direction as he twirled the microphones through the air using not his hands other parts of his body (e.g., pelvis and genital area), adeptly leaping over and ducking under the cords to avoid collision. There was a quieter, more textual and conceptual moment towards the end which I assume helped Romania recover from the tremendous energy of the main sections of the performance. The intensity of the experience was increased by the otherwise silent room with flat white lighting.

Alex Romania performs JERK

[JERK. Photo by Daniela Sanchez]

It is interesting to note that both the first and final sets focused on a single character who embodied male sexuality, but in very different ways. “Justin Bieber” in his TED talk was all swagger, narcissism and unwavering self-confidence even with his vaguely provocative dance during the mayonnaise-taco part of the set. Romania’s persona in JERK was both frighteningly powerful and vulnerable, more adept and genuine in his movements but also projecting a bit of uncertainty.

I was happy to have been a part of this unique evening of performances and hope to work with everyone again.

Kearny Street Workshop Auto(SOMA)tic Bus Tour

A few weeks ago, our friends at Kearny Street Workshop concluded their Auto(SOMA)tic program with a performance bus tour around the South of Market (SOMA) neighborhood of San Francisco. Regular reads of CatSynth will know that SOMA is our own neighborhood in this city – it is a place I have grown quite fond of, and I have watched the rapid changes here with a mixture of openness and apprehension. The tour featured performances at several locations around the neighborhood, all of which were geographically and visually familiar, but contained surprising and diverse cultural histories.

In terms of format and style, the event borrowed heavy from KSW’s SF Thomassons Performance Tour back in 2010 (which I also attended). This included having Philip Huang as our host, joined this time by Allan S. Manalo.

Philip Huang
[© Kearny Street Workshop/Mido Lee Productions]

Our first stop was at the intersection of Russ St and Minna St. This otherwise modest intersection in the middle of a larger block was a center of Filipino-American life in the neighborhood, and the street is closed off to form a community park. Here we saw a performance by MeND Dance Theater combining dance with song and spoken word.

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There were moments of minimalist form, and others that channeled the thoughts and ambitions of young women who could have easily lived on this block. The performance certainly captured the attention of those of us on the tour.

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[© Kearny Street Workshop/Mido Lee Productions]

We then moved on to St. Joseph’s Church on Howard Street, a site that was also on the Thomassons tour in 2010 because it is a maintained but unused building that closed after the 1989 earthquake. This time it was setting for a performance featuring Cynthia Lin and Rachel Lastimosa.

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[© Kearny Street Workshop/Mido Lee Productions]

The musical performance featured arrangements of songs vaguely related to activities of the former church such as prayer. But the highlight of the set was a lively gospel tune with the refrain “Come on in” that started straight but quickly because a satirical play on the rising costs of living and working in the neighborhood, and the problem of displacement in the midst of the tech boom. ”If you can pay the rent, then come on in!”

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[© Kearny Street Workshop/Mido Lee Productions]

Next we stopped at a large vacant lot at the corner of Harrison St and 8th St, which was once the location of Gordon’s Sugar Works, a large sugar processing plant founded by George Gordon. A nearby alley (coincidentally adjacent to the Stud club on Harrison) bears his name. However, we were here to see a performance by Hālau o Keikiali’i, a performance and cultural group dedicated to preserving and nurturing traditional Hawai’ian culture, particularly hula kahiko (ancient dance).

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[© Kearny Street Workshop/Mido Lee Productions]

The performance was energetic but also had a very serious quality to it, with its invocations of gods and respect for the land. Indeed, part of the connection to the tour was a tribute to the land that has been industrialized and redeveloped many times. At the corner itself was a ‘Ōhi’a Lehua tree – I had seen that tree plenty of times and never realized that. The performance ended with an offering at the tree and an invitation to us to do the same on our own “land”.

We then headed east across the breath of SOMA, even passing quite close to CatSynth HQ, before coming to the Embarcadero and a bayside park at the site of the former Pier 36. Here, we were met by Anirvan Chatterjee and Barnali Ghosh of the Berkeley South Asian Radical History Walking Tour.

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[© Kearny Street Workshop/Mido Lee Productions]

The introduced us to the history of South Asian immigrants to San Francisco in the early 20th century, focusing in particular on one young man who came to study at UC Berkeley. He encountered racism and xenophobia, but also a community and the chance to encounter progressive ideas that he and others put to use organizing support for eventual Indian independence from the British Empire. Look for a report from the Berkeley South Asian Radical History Walking Tour here in the future once I finally have a chance to attend.

Our final stop was, at least in my own opinion, not in SOMA at all, but south across the Mission Creek in the partially developed Mission Bay neighborhood. Here, in a construction site on the edge of the new UCSF Mission Bay campus and housing developments, we were treated to a series of skits by Granny Cart Gangstas.

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[© Kearny Street Workshop/Mido Lee Productions]

This all-women-of-color troupe “pokes fun at pervasive media representations of women, pop culture, and consumerism in our daily lives.” One of the more amusing ones centered on a young woman convinced she was Ariel from the Little Mermaid.

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Overall, it was a fun afternoon, and provided some interesting ideas and information as I continue and wander the neighborhood where I live. Thanks to Kearney Street Workshop and co-presentedShaping San Francisco, and to our hosts Philip Huang and Alan S Manalo for a successful event.

The Book (Part 2) at SOMArts: Avy-K with Ken Ueno and Matt Ingalls

A week ago I attended a performance of The Book, a monthlong project by Avy-K Productions at SOMArts as part of their Commons Curatorial Residency prorgram. Avy-K, founded by long-time collaborators Erika Tsimbrovsky (choreographer/performer) and Vadim Puyandaev (visual artist/performer), specializes in multidisciplinary pieces combining contemporary dance, live music, live painting and evolving installations. The Book used these elements to present a framework for audience interaction and narrative.

From the online program notes:

The Book is an installation-performance series accompanying an ongoing exhibition based in experimental non-theater dance. Each performance is a random page from The Book, and each invites a different guest artist to enter the structure, created by Avy K Productions and collaborators, in order to destroy it and give it new life.

Matt Ingalls and Ken Ueno

The performance featured live improvised music by Matt Ingalls and Ken Ueno. I have of seen both of them perform in a variety of venues on numerous occasions, but never together as duo until now. There were many moments where Ingalls’ wind instruments and Ueno’s extended vocal work matched perfectly. In fact, the timbres of the voice and instruments were close enough to seem indistinguishable at times. Both performances held single pitched tones, with only slight variations the led to pronounced beating effects. At other moments, clarinet multiphonics were set against low intense growling, or Central Asian (i.e., Tuvan) throad singing. There were also percussive notes passed back and forth between the performers in sparse rhythmic patterns – something that worked well with the movement of the dancers. I was interested in some of the more unusual uses of instruments, such as Ueno’s combining of a clarinet bell and snare drum with vocalizations or Ingalls’ decomposition of the clarinet into subsections.

 

The dancers costumes featured “dresses” made of black-and-white patchworks that seemed to resemble newsprint on top of black – this costuming was used by both the male and female dancers. It matched the starkness of the room and the displays, which were mostly white with black text or markings. The music, dance movements and costumes provided plenty of empty space, which seemed in keeping with the stated mission of The Book for “artists and audience members [to] allow their personal stories to enter the performance space, creating a collective public diary.” The main source of bright colors were large paintings at various places on the wall – their significance would become apparent as the performance unfolded.

The dance began very subtly and quietly, with long pauses and brief motions that matched the soft percussive sounds from the voice and clarinet. The motion focused on dancers interacting in pairs or individual dancers interacting with the large white panels set up throughout the room, the floor, or their costumes.

As the dance continued, Vadim Puyandaev emerged in all black and began live-painting a new large-scale mural on one wall of the gallery. The painting used vibrant colors and it became clear that the colorful paintings I noticed earlier must have been the result of previous performances. As the painting progressed, the dancers gradually set down in close formation facing Puyandaev, as if in prayer or meditation. The music appropriately moved to a long clarinet drone and throat singing.

[Photo by Elena Zhukova, reprinted courtesy of SOMArts.]

As the next section of the performance began, the audience was invited to gather around one particular set of curtains. The shadowy figures of two dancers could be seen through the curtain, with the outline of their bodies coming in and out of focus. They emerged very gradually from underneath the curtain, first a foot poking out, then a head and neck, squeezing out like a caterpillar, As they fully emerged, the two dancers came together in slow, undulating and curving motions. This part of the performance was, to say the least, rather sexually charged. After continuing for a period of time, the dancers separated and retreated behind the curtain.

Photo by Elena Zhukova, reprinted courtesy of SOMArts

The final section of the performance was more heterogenous in terms of content, with a greater variety of motions and interactions with the space. Large rolls of paper were spread out on the floor – a dancer proceeded roll himself up in one of these. Square holes were cut in some of the white curtains to create windows that performers peeked through. A large circle was created which some dancers followed as if on a monorail. Over time, the dancers one by one exchanged their costumes for “street clothing” – basically, the sort of things one might wear when to attend a serious art performance like this but remain casual. Were it not for the deliberate nature of their motion, they would have been indistinguishable from the audience. It was clear that it was coming to an end as the all gathered in one spot and the music went silent.

[Photo by Elena Zhukova, reprinted courtesy of SOMArts.]

So the question is how how successful the piece was at allowing audience members to enter their own stories? For me, I found myself focused on the literal elements of the visual design, music and movement. Even as the piece evolved over time, I was drawn the elements as abstractions – perhaps not surprising for someone who gravitates towards abstract music and art. Particularly through the costumes and overall shapes of the installation, I could also connect to the urban landscape.

The Book continues at SOMArts with additional performances, including a free closing event on July 29 where one will be able to see how the gallery space was altered over the course of the series.

The Line Between in The Bowls Project

Today we look back at I performance I saw in July, an early performance of “The Line Between” in The Bowls Project, an installation at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. Although the performance took place in the white domes set up for The Bowls Project, it was really a separate work.

The Line Between is collaboration of musicians Jason Ditzian, Suki O’kane, and Frank Lee with Shinichi Iova-Koga and Dohee Lee of inkBoat. Like other butoh performances that I have seen, such as the Emergency (X)tet at the Meridian Gallery in July, it involved very slow and deliberate motion, stark white coloring and an absurdist quality. This performance also including vocals, which was an element I had not heard before. Set against the minimalist musical background of percussion, bass clarinet and portable electronics, the dancers played with the space of the domes and the audience, who sat on various cushions arranged throughout. Some of the motions were very slow and serious, and in time with the rhythms of the music. Others were more playful, such as climbing on the outside of dome. The music provided moments of steady drumming, tonal and extended-technique sounds from the bass clarinet, and bits of noise from the electronics. There were lots of empty and silence spaces in which the dancers could take the audience by surprise.

In keeping with the stark nature of the performance itself, I think it is best reviewed through images:


[Click images to enlarge.]

In the two photos looking upwards, one gets a sense of how this unique performance and setting is still situated within the surrounding landscape of the city.

Look for one more to appear this Wednesday.

Although this performance took place over two months ago, it is in a way a timely review. Dohee Lee will be appearing in PURI 5: “SPoRA” at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center on October 16, an event I am looking forward to attending.

Emergency (X)tet, Meridian Gallery (and The Candy Store)

Last Saturday I attended a performance of the Emergency (X)tet at the Meridian Gallery. Unlike a normal string quartet or quintet, the number of performers in the (X)tet is variable. And on this particular evening X was equal to 7, with Adria Otte, Angela Hsu, and Jonathan Segel on violin, Bob Marsh and Doug Carroll on cello, Kanoko Nishi on bass koto, and Tony Dryer on contrabass.

All Emergency (X)tet performances involve free improvisation. But like all good free improvisation, a structure emerges within each piece. Some sections focused on short tone bursts, others on long harmonics, and others on extended techniques such as striking the body of the instrument. I particularly noticed the use of “prepared violin”, in which objects were inserted between the strings of the violin to change the timbre and performance characteristics (similar to a prepared piano). At various points the violins as well as the contrabass were all performing with various rods inserted in between the strings.

In the second half of the performance, the string (X)tet was joined by Kinji Hayashi performing butoh dance. Butoh dance emerged in post-World War II Japan. Most performances of butoh that I have seen involve very slow and deliberate motion, usually in white make-up and has an overall dark or absurdist theme. As with the purely instrumental pieces, the dance movements were improvised in response to the music, but it had an overall structure. Hayashi first emerged from the hall covered in newspaper, forming a sort of a sort of “newspaper monster” or large mass moving slowly. Every so often, one could glimpse his hands or face underneath.


[Click to enlarge image.]

The slow movements were punctuated by dramatic or even comical fast motions (at one point, an audience member’s purse was pulled underneath the newspaper). As the piece unfolded, more and more of the newspaper was cast away to reveal the dancer in full traditional costume, with dramatic movements along the full length of Meridian’s performance space. As with many improvised pieces, the ending came at an unexpected moment.


On display at the Meridian Gallery during the performance was the exhibition The Candy Store featuring the work of John deFazio and Leigha Mason. DeFazio’s 100 Xerox collages based on cantos from Dante’s Divine Comedy was on display in the music room, and was probably the closest aligned to my artistic interests, featuring graphic and text images in black and white. Some were abstract, some featured cultural or historical references, others included disturbing imagery. He also designed several large funerary urns with very whimsical designs dedicated to mythical figures as well as popular culture. The title piece for the exhibition was Mason’s life-size candy shop installtion. The resin and sugar objects are bright and translucent, and seem very inviting, until one gets closer and sees the hair and fingernails embedded within. Mason seems to play upon this mixture of invitation and revulsion, which also was apparent in her accompanying drawings that featured children with grotesque faces expressing joy, perhaps that of “kids in a candy store”.

Double Vision: Hysteresis

A couple of weekends ago, I attended the premier of Hysteresis, a performance described as “70 minutes of non-stop, innovative dance, sound, lights, and costumes informed by a residency at the Museumsquartier in Vienna, Austria.” It was a production of Double Vision, a group known for performances combining dance, music and technology, and took place at Dance Mission Theater here in San Francisco.


[Photo courtesy of Double Vision. Click to see larger version.]

Hysteresis explored the theme of “being alien or observing that which is alien to oneself.” However, for me the performance did not feel alien at all. Indeed, each of the artists’ approach to alien-ness via dance, music, choreography and lighting ended up creating something that felt familiar for me and comforting in its sparseness. The choreography had a feel of individuals going about their business in a city environment, sometimes moving about in wildly different directions, sometimes very static. The lighting had a very geometric and architectural feel. The dancers’ costumes also had an architectural or industrial quality and consisted of simple tunics stitched together from geometric gray and black swatches of cloth and black leggings.

The music held together these elements with industrial and percussive sounds punctuated by references to popular music idioms, as one might hear passing buildings and cars in between traffic and construction. It started with short percussive notes, mostly struck metal and block. At first the sounds were very sparse but later on they formed into complex polyrhythms, sometimes with more standard percussion instruments like kick drums and snare drums mixed in. The sparse texture was interrupted by other sections of music, such as short samples from big-band music, classical (or classically inspired) string music, and passages that sounded like show tunes or brass bands. It was not clear these were found musical objects or composed from sratch. Towards the climax of there piece, there were more sounds that one might consider more “electronic”, such as noise, synthesizer sweeps and sub-bass tones. However, even as the idioms and timbres changed and the music became quite dense, the sparse rhythmic texture from the beginning of the piece kept going, like machinery of a city that never stops. Or almost never stops – there were a few moments where it cut out entirely, and the silence was quite startling.


[Photo courtesy of Double Vision. Click to see larger version.]

The often sparse texture of the music allowed one to focus more on not only the movements of the dancers, but also the sounds they made in terms of the movement of their bodies and breathing. After one particularly loud section everything fell silent, the dancers moved off stage, and one rectangular patch of light kept flickering. This light seemed to be of particular significance (it was the only one that cast a rectangular shape) and appeared occasionally throughout the piece.

The final section began with what sounded like machine or car sounds and moved towards what sounded like an elegant party with piano music, and the faded to silence. It was a strange ending after the very industrial sound throughout the rest of the piece, but it provided an interesting contrast.

Choreography for the piece was by Pauline Jennings, music by Sean Clute, lighting design by Ben Coolik, and costume design by Andrea Campbell.

Containment Scenario: FUEL, Luggage Store Gallery

This performance, entitled FUEL, was part of the Containment Scenario performance series “which explores the current environmental situation through the lens of improvisational music-dance-theater.” This was the third part of a five-part series adopted from the book Containment Scenario: DisloInter MedTextId entCation: Horse Medicine by M. Mara-Ann, who also directed this performance.

This was a multimedia piece with voice, text, instruments, dance and reactive video (Luke Selden). It began with the vocal leads (M. Mara Ann and Sarah Elena Palmer) sitting down in the front of the stage with computer printouts, loudly ruffling and connecting them up with packing tape. As video of bucolic grass scenes and a close-up of a human are projected on the walls behind them (and onto their reflective white dresses), we hear their voices come in, speaking words disjointed and percussively. The voices gradually become more melodic, but all the while the “paperwork” continues. The other performs move slowly onto the stage, all wearing white shirts. As they take their positions, first the guitar (Noah Phillips), then the electronics (Travis Johns), then violin (Emily Packard) and percussion (Anantha R. Krishnan) all came in.

Musically the texture remained very gradual, interspersed with vocals, though the words became clearer and louder over time. This was aided by the fact that the text (presumably from the Containment Scenario source) became synchronously part of the music and the projected media. Text scrolling by on the right video projection was recited in various musical styles, harmonic, percussive, expressive, while the vocalists took turns typing their words into a laptop that would project onto the other screen, sometimes mixed with other videos. During this section, the instrumental music was much more sparse, often silent as the written and spoken words became the focus.

Later textual recitations returned from the video to the computer printouts. At times the words came out as whispers, sometimes more melodically, with the instrumentals returning into the mix. As the performers moved around the stage, there were dramatic visual moments where they became part of the video projection, their white shirts and dresses becoming screens on which the video was reflected and distorted and combined with the flat background.

The dancers (Julie Binkley and Rebecca Wilson) eventually took the printouts used for the back screen and began to wrap each of the musicians in a cocoon of paper. First Travis Johns on electronics was encased, then the each of the others in succession, eventually binding the two vocal leads into a bundle of their own printouts. The piece concluded with the dancers bringing out large number signs (I’m not sure what these were about), and handing them to the vocalists, after which the sounds and words gradually stopped.


The performance of Containment Scenario: FUEL was preceded by two fun sets of improvisational music.

The first set was by Drew Ceccato, playing an electronic valve instrument (EVI) by Steiner and an analog synth by Crumar – a beautiful and intriguing instrument. The set began with a low rumbling, which joined with “watery” sounds and pitch modulation expressively controlled by the EVI to create a subtle rhythm. Over time, this become louder, with wider pitch modulations, beating, percussive sounds before returning to the low rumbling. The music then changed completely for more traditional “analog sounds” with traditional pitched notes, like a conventional wind instrument, though with extremely high pitches at times. It was a very brief, and very intense set, without a moment wasted.

Ceccato was followed by a duo of Gino Robair and Christopher Riggs who was playing “guitar and a box of cool looking stuff”. Of course, Gino Robair had his collection of cool stuff as well, analog synthesizers along with metallic resonant objects and various means of exciting them. It started with a metallic roar, which I believe was created by Riggs’ rubbing the guitar strings. This was combined with the chaotic sound of the Blippo Box and other synths. The two performers appeared to come to an equilibrium of sorts, with sounds repeated and played off one another. Indeed, it was sometimes hard to tell who was playing what sound – and this is a good thing. Robair moved on from the synths to cymbals, with loud dramatic resonances set against the guitar rhythms. I heard a plaintive brass synth set against a more “chattery” guitar; a styrofoam instrument that was “insect-like” in both its appearance and sound; a funny voice vaguely like throat singing made with a tube and a coffee can; and more metal objects excited by motorized fans crawling along the floor. After a climx with angry resonances and a metal on metal thud, lots of motion, convulsing and fast scraping, the sounds faded out.


The turnout for this particular evening was quite impressive, it seemed that all the seats were filled, even the extra “kiddie seats” that the folks at the Luggage Store often put out.