Wednesday evening at the Salvage Vanguard Theater, The Church of the Friendly Ghost presented the fruits of the hard won "Meet the Composer" grant with an evening of improvised music, orchestrated by Chris Schlarb. He collaborated with nine other local and traveling musicians to create a live rendition of his Twilight and Ghost Stories (TMT Review) album, a concept piece built using unfinished snippets of music and word, donated by artists around the country.
With one foot in the art scene and the other foot in the dive, The Church of the Friendly Ghost keeps you guessing about what the sound will be at any given show. So I was sheepishly surprised by how melodious, accessible, and downright pretty the 39-minute performance turned out to be. It challenged my subconscious association of improvised music with free jazz and demonstrated that creative music can draw from many styles. The performance was a true pastiche, ranging from electroacoustic to country to indie rock, reflecting both the variety of influences of the collaborators involved and the variety of contributed fragments in the original recorded piece.
Aaron Russell on electric guitar and Nick Hennies on vibraphone took inspiration from Schlarb's vision, while still keeping the off-kilter chromaticism that is so distinctive of their band, The Weird Weeds. Diane Cluck married her rural mountain crooning with the wispy bedroom indie of Bill Baird, for a duet so tuneful and sweet that the other musicians were more concerned with listening than playing. Jon Doyle's Dixieland clarinet-puffing caught the frequency edge of Chris Cogburn's bowed cymbal experiments for a pulsing, off-tune beat that filled the room with purrs. Steve Bernal's classical cello vibrato meshed with the reverb-blanketing of Alex Keller's gadgets to form a warm foundation of sound. And Ken of KOOP 91.7's Last Ever Radio Extravaganza was in typical form with his laptop, mixer, and palette of samples that included sources from the Twilight and Ghost Stories recording itself.
All in all, it was a subdued, understated affair -- and downright wistful. This piece was built of the unfinished creative fragments that somehow never found their song home, the abandoned orphans of the songwriter's mind. The inspiration behind it imbued the event with a decidedly bittersweet hue, made all the more so by the peculiarly sad fragments of tune that opened and concluded the piece, played by Schlarb himself on finger-picked guitar.
I spoke to Chris Schlarb after the show and learned that this hint of sadness had deep roots in the inception of the work.
How were you originally inspired to come up with the concept of this album?
To get super personal, I was going through a divorce at the time. My ex-wife had taken our two children and moved out of the house. I went from coming home every day to a house full of my family and the sounds of love, to being not only unemployed, but completely alone.
I was sitting in my apartment all the time, trying to figure out what's going on? How did this happen? What do I do? The weeks wore on. Then we had a massive rainstorm that came out of nowhere and lasted for two weeks. I ended up just setting up two microphones, one out of the eastern window of my house, and one out of the western window, and I just recorded exactly what you heard in the background tonight: the sound of the rain and the cars going back and forth.
Then I thought, if I want to write something, I could put over the rain at any time interval as I want. Normally when you compose music, you experience everything from the beginning to the end. So with this, I could go out of the order of normal chronology. I started asking musicians, and saying "hey I'm working on this piece of music," -- part of the allure was working with strangers who I didn't have to explain my situation to -- and I started asking for fragments, mistakes, and things that weren't fully realized.
The live show was a little wistful, a little sad -- was this intentional?
There is a melancholy. The guitar parts I played were the same parts that bookend the album. I don't know how much any of the other musicians know about the backstory of the album. As far as their participation, I try to give them minimal direction. I tell them this piece is about fragments, contrast, cacophony, and euphony. Things butting up against each other and things beautifully meshing.
If you want to read into it, those are the things that were going on with me personally. The album begins with my family leaving me, and by the time the album was put out, I was married again and seeing my kids. Sort of like a story and a restoration. It spans that entire experience.
As far as the live performance is concerned, I really try not to over-analyze to the musicians in the ensemble. They know that I am controlling when they are playing with the lightbulb cues, but not how they react -- and that is a randomness that is perfectly acceptable me. Just like I didn't change what people sent me for the album in the mail.
You controlled when people began playing and finished by toggling their lightbulb. How was the lightbulb sequence related to the album?
If you open up the album, there's a chart that maps out when one music enters and crosses out with the exit of another. I just explained to the musicians about the lightbulb scheme, and that the lights are not a hard start or hard stop.
"This piece is about fragments, contrast, cacophony, and euphony. Things butting up against each other and things beautifully meshing."
Your concept reminds me of Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony. Are you classically trained?
I'm very much into classical, especially modern classical. Robert Ashley has a piece called "Automatic Writing." It's Robert Ashley and this woman talking, and it sounds like pillow talk, like they're laying in bed. And there's all this dance music as if muffled through the wall. It's really soothing to listen to. He's whispering to her in English, and she's speaking in French. There's a lot of recorded voice, talking, and sounds of chores woven into Twilight and Ghost Stories, too.
In terms of your live performances of this, over the three you've done so far, can you compare and contrast the shows?
The biggest thing that holds the piece together is my guitar playing, and the sound of the rain. That gives some continuity to each performance. Of course, the different kinds of musicians you put together, you get different results.
In San Francisco, I played with Vijay Anderson, a very propulsive, bombastic drummer. Chris Cogburn is more textural and tonal. In the Athens performance, that one was very interesting because that was the only one that I had another guitar player that I played together with, which gave it a kind of thick harmonic and rhythmic meat to the performance. I didn't do that here, because I wanted everyone to be free and open. And the other guitar players that were here were operating with their own space. They were interacting with themselves.
Obviously, depending on who you bring in, you get different results. But I'm very particular about who I ask to participate.
And what was your review of this show?
You want me to critique my own show? [Laughs] I was really proud of everyone. Most humbling is that all these people gave up their time. It's not a money-making proposition. This isn't pop music, not commercial stuff. When you ask somebody to participate in something like this, and you have a rehearsal and a performance, that's a lot of commitment you're asking for.
I intentionally withheld some stuff at rehearsal. I didn't want the musicians to get into a routine of doing the same thing and planning “oh that's what I'll do.” I enjoy creating collaborations on the spot, where the people have no choice but to improvise with each other. From what I gather, every one of the musicians had a great time.
Why such a short run?
I'm super busy. Currently, I'm working on a video game score and a string quartet composition for a documentary. My main group is called I Heart Lung -- a duo with myself and Tom Steck, a drummer. We have a drone album coming out at the end of September on Asthmatic Kitty called Interoceans, with Nels Cline contributing.
I'm almost sold out of the Twilight and Ghost Stories CDs, which I give away at each performance. Not going to repress them. Why keep doing the same thing over and over again? Six performances will be a good run. Then it will be time to move on to the next idea. I want to constantly be doing something different.
It's sad that I have the light box controller, though. I think, what am I going to do with that thing?