noisy people | improvising a musical life – a film by tim perkis ( dvd)


NOISY PEOPLE: Improvising a Musical Life – A Film by Tim Perkis ( DVD)
Featuring: George Cremaschi, Tom Djll, Greg Goodman, Phillip Greenlief, Cheryl Leonard, Dan Plonsey, Gino Robair, Damon Smith; also Kenneth Atchley, Laetitia Sonami.

Noisy People is a new feature length video documentary, presenting portraits of eight sound artists and musicians in the San Francisco Bay Area. Tim Perkis says about his film: “At first I thought I was simply stepping in to do a job I wished someone else had done, documenting a little-known musical scene with an interesting story. But it soon became clear that the film also touched upon a more basic question: what is the nature of a creative life, and how can one live it?”


Tim takes his camera and gets up close and personal. He follows each artist into their world. The age-old question of how one fashions a creative life is answered not only through the musicians’ words but in the way they choose to live their lives.

The musicians profiled are, interestingly, neither professionals – in the sense of making a living from playing music; nor amateurs – in the sense that they are only just learning to play their instruments, or playing music as a sideline. Indeed, several of the players – Robair, Plonsey, Djll, Leonard, Greenlief; as well as Atchley & Sonami (whose portraits are included in two separate short films on the Noisy People DVD) – have undergone professional music training, but have used it as a stepping stone to their own craft and creativity rather than as a tool to build careers with.

Some tried taking jobs as professional musicians, but couldn’t stand it. Saxophonist and composer Phillip Greenlief relates how he took a job for a time – making $600 to $700 a day – formulating music for an exercise video. He says “I hated the music!” And he tells us that all the people he knew who were professional musicians “hated music,” that the last thing any of them wanted to talk about in any meaningful way at the end of the day was music.

To Phillip – who makes reference to his Seminole heritage – music is a “sacred thing,” something to be offered and shared with people around you. That touches on one of the central themes that the players in this film articulate, namely that music, as Dan Plonsey puts it, is “a high calling;” Gino Robair says it is “a spiritual matter that informs your whole life.” George Cremaschi, who divides his time between Oakland and Tábor, Czech Republic (where he is an artist in residence), is emphatic in stating that his music serves a greater purpose than simply being the next fill-in-the-space “channel change.”

Other players speak of the music in more political terms. Staunchly outspoken bassist Damon Smith quotes legendary bassist Red Mitchell as saying that all improvisation is a political negotiation, that one cannot be too “selfish” or too “groupish” in playing but must find a balance between the two. Tom Djll’s orchestral music reflects his belief that it is the process of music and not its structure that is politically important; his orchestra is made up of pre-existing groups who may independently shape and set the music’s course as it is played. What these players’ music reflects is the type of democratically and consensually governed society they (and we) would like to live in.

While none of the players’ music is well known by big media, the inherently communal aspect of playing it and presenting it is fundamental to the musicians’ own appraisal of its cultural importance. You quickly glimpse that communal feeling when you see Tom Djll’s orchestra performing his ‘Mockracy, or see Gino Robair’s 40-piece ensemble playing and improvising his “opera in real time,” I, Norton.

Although not featured in Noisy People, equally important to the Bay Area community has been Moe Staiano’s Moe!kestra. Moe!’s gargantuan orchestral events have amounted to amazingly cohesive urban rituals that work, like the film’s highlighted gatherings, to cement ties between musicians who might otherwise never play together, and between them and the community they live in.

Dan Plonsey, in speaking of the aesthetic bent of his own occasional large ensemble, the singularly tuned Daniel Popsicle, relates that for him creating music is “more to encourage other people to create than it is about making things to listen to.” That, I would imagine, is as about as community oriented as one could get; to continually expand the grand circle of creativity until we are all finally standing in it together.

There is also a strong exploratory and experimental bent to each of the players’ work. For some, that starts right at the level of instrumentation. We see Tom Djll, for example, reinventing his trumpet to simulate electronic feedback; Gino Robair deconstructing and reconstructing everything he has ever learned about percussion; and Cheryl Leonard approaching the organic materials (like pine cones) she uses as “instruments” with the detached demeanor of an occult scientist.

Laetitia Sonami, in one of the separate short films that accompany Noisy People, relates how, out of an innate sense of curiosity, she is constantly reformulating everything. For her, it is working with a self-created black Lycra lady’s glove embedded with sensors that connect to a computer that generates sounds; the glove allows her a modicum of physical relation to the sounds she is making (approaching dance) rather than simply working motionless at a keyboard. Her goal is to use sound to create what she refers to as an “anti-space” that the audience may fill according to their own wishes and possibilities.

But one person’s “anti-space” is another’s physical space. That would be Greg Goodman’s (“Woody Woodman’s”) Finger Palace, the Bay Area’s longest running (since 1978) presenter of avant-garde music and theatre, where $25 might get you a banana for a “ticket” and a “something-close-to-tinker-bell” down-the-rabbit-hole experience. You might also catch the brilliant Goodman playing “unprepared” piano!

The pursuit of artistic originality rather than a defined musical career might be considered either “passion or pathology,” as sound, video, and installation artist Kenneth Atchley puts it. But whether or not most people have any empathy for or awareness of this type of activity, Sonami flatly states that it is “what is keeping society breathing.”

Noisy People, as well as being the “love letter to the Bay Area music community” that Tim Perkis envisioned, is an uplifting tribute to musicians and sound artists everywhere who are intently exploring the edges of sonic reality.

Henry Kuntz, June 2007


(Thanks to Martha Winneker for editorial assistance.)

Also available are DVD copies of the film, a CD of music and sound clips from the film, digital images and an essay on the filmmaker here… or click below on the Noisy People banner.

Musicians profiled in Noisy People:

gc_thum.jpgGeorge Cremaschi was born in New York City, and studied jazz at Jazzmobile in Harlem, composition at Greenwich House Music School in Greenwich Village, and improvisation at countless Downtown dives. Recent years have seen many performances and collaborations in the US and Europe with such renowned musicians as Evan Parker, Marshall Allen, Andrea Parkins, Gert-Jan Prins, Mats Gustafsson, Paul Lovens, Nels Cline and Saadet Türköz among others. As a composer, he has written nearly 100 pieces for chamber groups, small ensembles, solo contrabass, electronics, cinema, spoken word, dance and theater. He divides his time between Oakland and Tábor, Czech Republic, where he is an artist in residence, curator and administrator at Cesta, an international arts and cultural residency center.

td_thum.jpgTom Djll, born Indiana, 1957. Studied music at Berklee School of Music, the Colorado College, the Creative Music Studio, and Mills College with Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell, Karl Berger, Lester Bowie, Leo Smith, George Lewis, Pauline Oliveros, Alvin Curran, and many others. Tom has spent over twenty years (ab)using the trumpet as an analog flesh synthesizer. He has made a lifelong study of the art of improvised music, and has been performing since age seventeen. He has performed with Natsuki Tamura, Andrew Voigt, Biggi Vinkeloe, Chris Brown, Gianni Gebbia, Steve Adams, Fred Frith, and many many others. Tom Djll also writes about music for The Wire, Signal To Noise and other publications. Please visit Tom Djll’s web site here…

gg_thum.jpgGreg Goodman is one of America’s most distinguished improvising pianists. He is just as distinguished when he is in Europe. He was also very distinguished when he was in the Soviet Union in 1989, but it is still not clear whether or not Russia is part of Europe, or if it should be. This ordinarily would not affect Greg Goodman, or his distinguished career; at least, not in his opinion. For the purposes of this biography, Greg Goodman has worked with many of the world’s leading improvisers, including John Cage, Nicolas Slonimsky, and his Mother; he has also worked with many who did not lead. When not working, he is the proprietor of Woody Woodman’s Finger Palace, the San Francisco Bay Area’s longest running (since 1978) presenter of avant-garde music and theater. He also runs (from) the famous Beak Doctor Records. Currently, he is writing this sentence. Please visit Greg Goodman’s web site here…

pg_thum.jpgPhillip Greenlief, since 1982, Saxophonist/Composer. He has performed internationally in a variety of settings. Greenlief’s recordings and performances have received critical acclaim in many national jazz publications (Down Beat, Jazz Times, 5/4, Cadence, Modern Saxophone, All About Jazz, The Los Angeles Times, etc.), as well as residing on many Critics Top 10 lists. His duo recordings of improvised music with bassist Trevor Dunn and drummer Scott Amendola received 5 stars in the 1999 Music Hound Jazz Essential Album Guide. Phillip is the founder of Evander Music, an independent record label that presents original composition, improvised music and new jazz. Please visit Phillip Greenlief’s web site here…

cl_thum.jpgCheryl Leonard. Glass shards and pinecones, glaciers, boxspring mattresses, a flock of accordions, circular saw blades, viola, the erhu, hyenas and whales and elk, Cheryl E. Leonard’s works explore subtle textures and intricacies in sounds not generally considered musical. These investigations often include the creation of instruments, primarily from found materials. She has been awarded residencies at the Djerassi Resident Artist Program, Engine 27, Villa Montalvo, and The Lab (with RK Corral), and has been honored in New Langton Art’s Bay Area Awards Show. Recordings of her music are available from Ubuibi, Great Hoary Marmot Music, Pax Recordings, Apraxia Records, 23 Five Inc, Old Gold Records and The Lab. In addition to her musical endeavours Leonard is a mountaineer, studies aikido and Chinese landscape painting, and collects pinecones with handles. Please visit Cheryl Leonard’s web site here…

dp_thum.jpgDan Plonsey is known as a composer, saxophonist, concert presenter and teacher of mathematics at Berkeley High School. He has written music for the Bang on a Can All-Stars, Toychestra & Fred Frith, Santa Cruz New Music Works and the Berkeley Symphony, but most of his music has been for his own ensembles, as documented on a dozen CDs. He has performed and recorded with Anthony Braxton, Eugene Chadbourne and Tom Waits, but more frequently with local greats John Schott, John Shiurba, Robert Horton and many others. Plonsey is currently at work on an opera, in collaboration with Harvey Pekar (of American Splendor fame.) Please visit Dan Plonsey’s web site here…

gr_thum.jpgGino Robair is a percussionist, music journalist, and published composer living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Gino frequently tours North America and Europe as a soloist and often improvises in ad-hoc groups. He has performed and/or recorded with Anthony Braxton, Tom Waits, John Butcher, LaDonna Smith, Otomo Yoshihide, Eugene Chadbourne, John Zorn, Nina Hagen, Thinking Fellers Union Local 282, Myra Melford, ROVA Saxophone Quartet, The Club Foot Orchestra, and he is a founding member of the Splatter Trio. Please visit Gino Robair’s Rastascan web site here…

ds_thum.jpgDamon Smith, born Damon Jesse Smith on oct. 17th, 1972 in Spokane, WA. Did “freestyle bmx” bicycle riding (a much more dangerous forshadow to “freestyle” music!) from age 13 to 23. Started music in 1991, under the influence of Mike Watt (Firehose & The Minutemen) on fender bass. Lead several punk/art rock combos until 1994. Upon receiving Peter Kowald’s landmark lp “Duos;Europa,” Damon sold the fender bass and concentrated solely on double bass and free music. Damon’s music is rooted in the tradition of “free jazz”, and has worked with many of the leading voices in that idiom, including Cecil Taylor, Peter Brötzmann, Frank Gratkowski and Joëlle Léandre. Please visit Damon Smith’s web site here…

Musicians profiled in DVD bonus films

ka_thum.jpgKenneth Atchley is a sound, video, and installation artist who fashions and performs works ranging from pure-tone and noise hymns to distortion-studded, richly harmonic, electro-acoustic devotionals. Since 1997, his work has included the use of fountains as sound-sources, objects, environmental and metaphorical elements. His work continues to be informed by and abstract that work and study. Atchley’s music and installations have been featured in venues ranging from U.S. hardcore-noise dungeons and New York dance lofts, to art galleries and performance cellar circuits of Europe. Atchley’s CD of solo, electro-acoustic-noise works Fountains was released by Auscultare Research. His duet with John Bischoff has been released on Bischoff’s 23Five CD “Aperture”. profile of his work was included in the June, 2005 issue of The Wire (#256). Please visit Kenneth Atchley’s web site here…

ls_thum.jpgLaetitia Sonami was born in France and settled in the United States in 1975 to pursue her interest in the emerging field of electronic music. Since 1991 she has developed and adapted new gestural controllers to musical performance and composed works with these materials. Her unique instrument, the lady’s glove , is made out of black lycra and is embedded with sensors which track the slightest motion of each finger, the hand and the arm. The performance thus becomes a small dance where the movements shape the music. he has been performing in numerous festivals across the United States, Canada, Europe and Japan, among which the Ars Electronica Festival in Linz, the Bourges Music Festival in France, the Sonambiente Festival in Berlin, and the Interlink festival in Japan. She lives in Oakland, California and is currently guest lecturer at the San Francisco Art Institute, and Milton Avery Summer program at Bard college. Please visit Laetitia Sonami’s web site here…


anthony braxton 12 + 1tet


9 COMPOSITIONS (IRIDIUM) 2006 Firehouse 12
Compositions 350 to 358, 9 CDs, 1 DVD, 56-Page Booklet

Anthony Braxton / alto, soprano, and sopranino saxophones, clarinet, and Eb contralto clarinet; Taylor Ho Bynum / cornet, flugelhorn, trumpbone, piccolo and bass trumpets, mutes, and shell; Andrew Raffo Dewar / soprano and c-melody saxophones, and clarinet; James Fei / alto and soprano saxophones, and bass clarinet; Mary Halvorson / electric guitar; Steve Lehman / alto and sopranino saxophones; Nicole Mitchell / flute, alto and bass flutes, piccolo, and voice; Jessica Pavone / viola and violin; Reut Regev / trombone, flugelbone, mutes, and cymbals; Jay Rozen / tuba, euphonium, mutes, and toys; Sara Schoenbeck / bassoon and suona; Aaron Siegel / percussion and vibraphone; Carl Testa / bass and bass clarinet.

Recorded: March 16-19, 2006.

Anthony Braxton’s Ghost Trance Music has not only encompassed but fundamentally transformed (“trance-formed”) his entire music system. His GTM compositions can scarcely be considered “compositions,” at least not in any usual sense of the word. They constitute what Braxton call “a continuous state music…a trans-temporal music that can be played in any tempo and a trans-idiomatic music in terms of its structural postulates….Each composition becomes like a melody that doesn’t start and doesn’t end.” (Braxton to Graham Locke, Notes to Composition 192, Leo Records)

In other words, linear form has been set aside in favor of ritual form. Necessary structural determinants (in terms of overall movement from A to B to Z) have been let go of in favor of duration (time), the only underlying determinant of ritual form. In the Ghost Trance Music presented at the Iridium, an hour glass was turned over at the beginning of each piece to set a general time parameter. (Duration doesn’t tell us what music will be played but it sets the open framework within which music can take place.)

This shift in musical form (change in essence) mystified almost everyone when Braxton first presented it in 1995. Drawing on his studies of Native American music and Ghost Dance rituals of the late 1800s, Braxton’s “first species” GTM was built on a steady stream of eighth notes that simulated the repetitiveness of Native American drumming. The GTMs have gone through three subsequent permutations, each interjecting new irregular rhythmic complexity into the steady line, culminating in the latest “accelerator class”/ “accelerator whip” GTM forms that are the basis of the nine pieces presented on the Iridium box set. These compositions, the last of the Ghost Trance melodies that Braxton intends to write, have become so complex now (speeding up, slowing down, twisting and contorting) that one might be hard pressed to identify them as even related to the first species forms.

Jonathan Piper, in his excellent notes to the Iridium set, points to this development of the melodic line as the main distinguishing feature of the different classes of GTM. That is true enough, but equally important in their evolution was Braxton’s decision (late in first species GTM) in the pieces he presented at Yoshi’s (1997) to open the music up in unprecedented ways.


Photo: John Rogers

It is helpful to recall that one of Braxton’s first intentions with the Ghost Trance Music was to access the Ghost. From his conversation with Francesco Martinelli, Sextet Istanbul 1995 (Braxton House): “I believe that one of the problems of this time period is that we don’t understand the old Ghost, the old masters. We have been given a viewpoint of the masters that takes away the aura of the Ghosts. All of it looks like artifacts and more and more children are not able to gain some sense of the real culture. But trance music means that individuals can do individual experiences and they can tap into anything, including the essence of the masters, of the old masters.” (Within the Ghost Trance pieces, Braxton seems at times to be playing from another state of being; his solos, especially on alto, are right on the sonic edge.)

In order to allow that “tapping in,” Braxton had already built into the GTM points in the melodic line where players could move into improvisation, another composition, or into other ritual states (factoring in elements of theatre, body movement, stage placement, and so on). Yet until the Yoshi’s dates, these open elements were well in the background of the main repetitive melodic line. You could hear them beginning to come to the forefront near the end of Tentet New York 1996 (Braxton House), but at Yoshi’s, for the first time, they take center stage.

As he had done previously with his quartet, Braxton actively moved to include (as possibility) within the Ghost Trance Music all of the music that he had ever composed! But the implications of such a move with the GTM were more far reaching than with the quartet, for the effect was to now place all of his music within ritual time rather than within linear time; and whereas with the quartet, the different compositions that were played together almost always ran alongside each other, now pieces of pieces began to move continuously in and out of the music, restructuring the trance form along the way.

Concurrent with this, Braxton began to break down the Ghost Trance Music hierarchically; subgroups of three and sub-leaders were designated within the larger group who could make decisions about when and where and which parts of which pieces were to be included within the main compositional form. (In what would become standard practice, Braxton also provided the players with “secondary” compositional material, miniatures for trios, that they could opt to include at any time.) As much or more than any transformation of GTM species lines, this change marked the actual beginning of the new reality of where Braxton’s music now stands. With good reason, Braxton refers to the Ghost Trance Music on the Iridium box set as “THE point of definition in my work so far.”


Photo: John Rogers

What do the nine Iridium pieces sound like? They are nothing less than new orchestral archetypes. The Ghost Trance Music compositions are the most formally complex of any, and they are the most structurally open. In the new “accelerator whip” pieces prepared for the Iridium dates, Braxton included additional points in the written lines from which players might choose to “exit” into improvisation or into some other music (“strategy”). That means there is more space for the players, working from their non-hierarchical vantage points, to improvise and to create the total form of the music from the ground up.

Each GTM composition suggests some type of rhythmic direction and movement that influences, ever so subtly, the way a piece will take shape. But the way the melodic line sounds is open to considerable interpretation by the players, each of whom is able to play it in any clef or tempo. In the later compositions, the players veer more toward the unisons we became accustomed to hearing with earlier GTM forms, but there’s always some contrary pull and tug from somewhere in the group. The first evening’s pieces, “350” and “351,” open with wonderfully out-of-synch and disassociated ensembles that inform the players’ dense approaches to the compositions. I love these! Piece “350” especially maintains a spirited sense of invention throughout.

The orchestral range of the 12+1-tet is underlined by its broad instrumentation; it is the most varied of any group to have played the Ghost Trance Music. The music itself, as players navigate in and out of the main compositional line, takes shape through motivic and textural addition and subtraction. That sounds simple, but the players must make the choices of what to add or what to subtract in order to create engaging music. That they succeed in doing so throughout nine pieces of music over four evenings is a tribute to their musicianship and resourcefulness.

It is difficult to characterize any individual piece, as each one moves through so much musical territory. But certain things stand out. On the first evening, Thursday, we feel the players’ emotional edge, the underlying passion and enthusiasm for what they are doing; the music is a little wild! By the final evening, Sunday, that edge has settled into crisp execution; we sense the players’ full-blown confidence in their abilities. Rich and tonally varied orchestral voicings emerge, and there is even a brief fantasia-like sequence midway through the closing set, piece “358.”

Friday evening’s compositions feature notably fast thematic renditions; the second piece, “353,” nearly hits a groove! That happens in no small part from the way in which earlier Ghost Trance Music forms find their way (as optional inputs) into the new accelerator class GTM; rather than define and virtually contain the musical space, as they did previously, the repetitive melodic lines now provide momentum, here and elsewhere, to propel the music forward.

Saturday’s three consecutive shows physically tax the players’ creative powers; they respond with a highly organic opening set that moves from ensemble density to a near meditative state. Piece “355,” next, is likely the “quietest” of all the Iridium sets; the music feigns this way and that, deliberately pacing itself, then interjects some boisterous Mingus-like ensemble work near the final section. The third set, with the players in “dreamtime,” features a staggered opening that sets the piece’s tone; the music expands contracts, slows, stops, rides propulsive waves toward a calm conclusion.


Photo: John Rogers

Giving over to the orchestral flow, Braxton’s moments as soloist are fewer and shorter than usual. He occasionally chooses, however, to offer subtle musical direction to the group, like contrarily suggesting a neo-romantic vision in the midst of some dense ensemble; other times, while circular breathing, he squeezes out raspy, throaty horn vocalizations to give the music a much needed edge. Yet these new realizations of Braxton’s music are not so much extensions of instrumental language or technique as they are extensions of the logic of orchestral form (Orchestral Ghost!).

What is interesting is how that logic may transfer back into individual improvisation; for once linear form has been interrupted at the overall level of what we have heard (and internalized), players may find it emotionally unsatisfying to return to more usual ways of formulating sound. In that case, “trance-formation” would have come full circle.

Henry Kuntz, June 2007


Note: The DVD included in the Iridium box features Jason Guthartz’s hour-long film of Mr. Braxton at Columbia University outlining the theoretical basis of the GTM. A performance film of “Composition 358,” the last of the nine Iridium pieces, is also included and is essential viewing. The players musical decision-making processes are illuminated, and we see how much fun they are having bringing the Ghost Trance Music to life.


Aaron Siegel and James Fei Photos: Peter Gannushkin


Jessica Pavone Photo: Peter Gannushkin


Mary Halvorson and Nicole Mitchell Photos: Peter Gannushkin


Reut Regev and Steve Lehmann Photos: Peter Gannushkin

Taylor Ho Bynum Photo: Peter Gannushkin