Degenerate Pleasures

A decade-old performance troupe continues to find new ways to shake up the senses.

Rehearsal has already begun when I slip into the back of the church basement. While Mike Min seems to be conducting with large, dancelike gestures, he's actually behind the musicians. Korby Sears and Craig Corvin, Min's Seattle School colleagues, are transmitting his instructions, dashing among the players and echoing his gestures.

Degenerate Art Ensemble director Joshua Kohl bounds over to me.

"How do you want this piece to end?" he asks.

I go blank for a moment. It's up to me?

"Um, like 'A Day in the Life,'" I say. "A big crescendo for everyone, then a sudden cutoff."

Not terribly original, but what would you have suggested? Kohl tells Min, who mimes the info to his subconductors and, a minute later, the piece ends just that way.

This is performance-art troupe Seattle School's Market Research Symphony, an exercise in group improvisation, bureaucratic communication, and classical music sociopolitics that'll be one of 10 works the Degenerate Art Ensemble—or Degenerate Art Orchestra, as they're calling themselves for this concert only—will present at the Moore Theatre (8 p.m. Saturday, March 19; 206- 292-2787). By gathering a 45-piece orchestra, the DAE, a company for which dance and drama are now as important as music, has come full circle from its birth a decade ago as the Young Composers Collective, put together by Cornish College composition students and instrumentalists hungry for opportunities outside academia.

Concertmaster/composer Tom Swafford accepted the monumental job of recruiting the players for this concert, and grants from 4Culture and the Aaron Copland Fund are paying them and the commissioned composers. Also on the program are composers who date back to YCC days: Tim Young (whose flamboyant co-composition with Paul Moore is "Spandex baroque," according to Kohl) and Ian Rashkin, with a somber, ritualistic piece titled Outside, 5762. DAE co-director Haruko Nishimura is contributing a dance/vocal piece—if anyone can do both simultaneously, she can—set to original music by Kohl. Eyvind Kang's piece includes a part for Jessika Kenney, the evocative vocalist for Gamelan Pacifica.

Kohl calls the evening an "art feast."

The rehearsal next turns to Ben McAllister's Bizzy Bizzy, with Kohl on the podium. Much of the piece is underpinned by a repeating rhythm in the cellos and basses, and Kohl decides to start there. They play just one funkily syncopated bar before Kohl stops them.

"That should be pizzicato," he says (i.e., with the strings plucked rather than played with the bow). The players pencil it in.

"Ben, what do you mean by these slurs?" Kohl asks, referring to the phrase markings in McAllister's score. McAllister explains—he wants cellos and basses to play two different notes, sliding from one to the next, with one pluck of the string. The players try it.

"Wait," McAllister says, having second thoughts. "Nix that."

Recomposing in rehearsal is a DAE tradition. Whereas most classical players balk at the idea, expecting composers to arrive at the first rehearsal with their work in polished final form, DAE musicians relish the chance to provide feedback, with some pieces ending up almost as composer/player collaborations. But, since such a process with 45 musicians is far less efficient than with the DAE's usual contingent of five to 15 players, decisions sometimes must be made without the luxury of prolonged experimentation.

Kohl has always had a talent for sensing when to stop and dissect a piece and when to keep a rehearsal moving. Even with the slurs removed, the bass line isn't coming out as clearly and strongly as he wants. He asks the percussion section to join in, and against their steady groove the cello/bass syncopations fall into place, now that the musicians can hear their part in context.

Bizzy Bizzy's eclectic influences reflect McAllister's varied experiences in rock, classical, and film composition. Over the bass line and percussion rhythm, he has written a soulful oboe melody, a second-violin counter-rhythm, and an ethereal but intense first-violin line, all punctuated by horn blurps and sudden frightening thwacks on the tom-tom. Later on in the work, McAllister brings in two tables full of found-metal percussion (saw blades, pot lids, and the like); sharp full-orchestra chords that sound like quarter-second slices of Wagner; verbal texts for each player to mumble and whisper ("the sound of talk radio invading your dreams," as he explains it); and, to end the piece, a Japanese melody, given to the harp, taken from a childhood music-box toy. A film by William Weiss will accompany it in performance—a surrealist collage of bowling instruction films.

Leave it to the DAE to treat the well-worn recipe of the orchestral concert with the same irreverence and boundary-erasing imagination they bring to composition itself.

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