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Shock of the New

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Oblique Strategies: Experimental percussionist Moe! Staiano embraces new musical directions.

Bay Area creative music venues search for new sounds

By Mark Athitakis

'Be extravagant," the 3-by-5-inch notecard commands. Splayed across the stage of Beanbender's, one of a number of creative music venues in the Bay Area, are other cards, dropping hints as to what the musicians assembled on this night should do next: "Turn it upside down," "Retrace your steps," "Don't be afraid of things because they're easy to do." These cards, titled "Oblique Strategies," were created by rock producer and ambient music pioneer Brian Eno in 1975 as suggestions for paths improvisatory musicians should take. Purposefully vague in their recommendations, they force the musicians--in this case the five members of 024c ("Not to Foresee")--to approach their music and instruments (saxophones, drums, cello, an array of electronic gadgets) in ways they'd never before considered. Or wanted to consider.

That approach, that embrace of new musical directions, is one example of what's been happening at Bay Area venues devoted to what's been called creative music: experimental and avant-garde composition, improvisatory jazz, pure noise and just-plain-weird sounds performed on everything from children's toys to oil barrels. Over the past couple of years, a healthy group of performance spaces has quietly sprung up, from Beanbender's in Berkeley to the Luggage Store in downtown San Francisco to the Sweatshop in the Mission District. The Tenderloin pub Edinburgh Castle has been hosting Wednesday night shows on its second-floor stage, and occasional one-off creative music shows pop up randomly but frequently in places like SoMa's Venue 9 and Richmond's Javaholics, as well as the campuses of Mills, Stanford and Berkeley. At a time when Bay Area rock clubs are shutting down, the creative music scene finds itself struggling as well. The expectations are lower--crowds are smaller, bookers and musicians take less profits, if any--but it thrives on a sense of true musical community, built on a network of fans, musicians and supporters, perpetually eager to test musical boundaries with limited resources.

None of which answers the question of what "creative music" actually is. Dan Plonsey, local saxophonist and one of the five people who manage and book the Sunday-night shows at Beanbender's, gropes for an answer himself. "It's anything that's improvised or has ..." He pauses. "It's impossible to define, but most people who do it know what it is." What it is includes anything from the somber, atonal piano compositions of Dana Reason to the absurdist avant-garde country-folk of Eugene Chadbourne, to the work of local experimental percussionists like Gino Robair and Moe! Staiano, to the jazz excursions of the Rova Saxophone Quartet and guitarists Henry Kaiser and Wadada Leo Smith. It embraces international music styles, as well as free-jazz traditions established in Europe, Chicago, New York and here in the Bay Area. While the establishment of performance spaces is a relatively recent phenomenon, the focus on creative music itself here isn't a new one, according to Plonsey. "It goes back at least as far as the hippie days. But the Bay Area's always had a reputation for being an open place, where anybody can come and be part of a community. I think it's that the people here are more open-eared."

That sense of community is precisely what brought Philip Gelb to the Bay Area from Florida a year ago. Gelb plays the shakuhachi, a sweet-sounding Japanese flute. There are "not many opportunities for shakuhachi players in Florida," he says, laughing. He gives lessons on the flute--he currently has 12 students--and finds the Bay Area fertile ground for musicians willing to take chances and experiment. He gives much of the credit simply to local diversity, noting that the large number of Asian musicians specifically has made his own work as a musician more approachable. Gelb is planning on starting his own music series in the theater district's Meridian Art Gallery this fall, and while he thinks that the Bay Area can sustain another creative music venue, he's running into the same brick wall many other musicians, bookers and venue owners are running into: money.

After all, this isn't mainstream pop we're talking about. Recordings are released on small but highly respected labels like Tzadik, ACM and local imprint Vaccination (many of which are readily found in the "new music" section of Amoeba Records). Three-figure record sales are common; four-figure sales are causes for celebration. And the venues want to keep the music affordable and accessible--shows rarely cost more than $5. The audiences and fans are supportive and quite obsessive, and their number is higher than in most cities, but that combination doesn't always translate into successful spaces. Plonsey himself admits that "the Bay Area's strength is a very large number of musicians; its weakness is not very much money." Gelb says that some spaces--he refuses to name names--aren't being diligent enough in filing the grant applications to garner money to stay afloat. But Damon Smith, an acoustic bassist who books shows at the Luggage Store, notes that the solution involves more than just hitting up people for more money. It's crucial, he says, to allow musicians to find room to grow as improvisers.

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Upcoming shows.

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"I try to focus on musicians who are working hard and serious about their work," Smith says. He notes that venues can enjoy modest success "if it's done well, and it's run well, and it's advertised properly, and if you have quality groups coming through." What Smith is hinting at is the differences in philosophy about improvised music at the venues, and the ways the venues themselves are run. And more crucially, he hopes that the quality of improvisation at the spaces will improve, with the musicians taking a more schooled and planned approach to live music.

The next few months will be an acid test of how well the creative music scene can sustain itself in the near future, both creatively and financially. Beanbender's announced recently that it will most likely be forced to leave its current space in downtown Berkeley in July and look for a new home; at the same time, the owners of Edinburgh Castle are considering selling the bar, which leaves in doubt the status of the Wednesday evening shows there. Both occurrences provide object lessons in the collision of art and commerce: the collective creativity of the musicians is there; so are the spaces and audiences, at least for now. Regardless of what happens next, though, it will most likely follow the path that yet another "Oblique Strategies" card suggests: "You don't have to be ashamed of using your own ideas."


Addresses: Bay Area Creative Music Calendar Web site; Beanbender's: 2295 Shattuck, Berkeley, 415/621-1967; Edinburgh Castle: 950 Geary, SF, 415/885-4074; Javaholics (Audible Method Series): 449 Balboa, SF, 415/831-8922; the Luggage Store: 1007 Market, SF, 510/597-1769; the Sweat Shop: 1943 Mission, SF, 415/487-1903.

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From the June 15-28, 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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