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Rock and a Hard Place showcases ‘ethereal’ talent

Halie Johnson

The experience of the first of the series Rock and a Hard Place at the Mills Concert Hall on Sept. 8 was at once ethereal and grounding, improvisational and constructed. If music could be considered a spiritual link to God, the most talented of musicians become holy men, translating God’s presence for the listening audience. The connection the audience feels to the spiritual presence depends on the talent of each holy man or woman. Judging by the mix of ages in the crowd and their reactions to each set, some were more able and willing than others to give and receive from these particular transcendent musical scholars.

Grey heads bobbed and swayed to the first two sets, the duet of Yuka Honda and Fred Frith and the a cappella trio of Charming Hostess, while sweatshirt clad students sat motionless as if they didn’t know how to get up and leave. Most stuck it out until the end of the second set, but was it difficult to herd everyone back into the hall for the final performance. For those who remained, it was hard to ignore the audience as they trickled back out after experiencing mere moments of eRikm’s noise-art.

The show began with a duet between Yuka Honda and Fred Frith. Honda, a multi-instrumentalist well known for co-founding the band Cibo Matto, has collaborated with a diverse assortment of musicians. Frith is a veteran songwriter, composer and multi-instrumentalist and as Professor of Composition at Mills, specializes on improvisation. While their set definitely had improvisational elements, shown by the Frith’s dropping necklaces into round tins precariously laid on the strings of an electric guitar, the performance maintained a clear focus from beginning to end.

As a listener, one had to pay attention to the story unfolding through the length of the set. The sounds were at once familiar and exotic, beginning with a feeling of galactic noise traveling through space on a faint radio signal. As the set progressed, the feeling of directed travel unfolded, tribal and rhythmic, with a gradual introduction to what felt like an ancient traditional melody. The sounds of industry whispered like birds until eventually the exterior noises fell away leaving only the peace of the melody. The story has traveled away from the city, and deep into the quiet core of being. Honda and Frith made their audience work to find entrance into the story, making it all the more rewarding to have listened and connected.

Second to play was Charming Hostess, an a cappella trio of women, and one only occasionally accompanying man. The brainchild, in a very literal sense, of Jewlia Eisenberg, this trio is “intensely physical” using a full range of women’s bodily noises such as beat-boxing, handclapping, heartbeats, sex-breath sounds and even spoon percussion.

The three, Eisenberg, Cynthia Taylor and Jess Ivry engage an intellectual history of war and communism with a vocal history of music. They look for larger concepts of how people relate to one another “through humor or sexuality or spirituality.” They introduced many of their songs with translations such as “communism, but sexy” and more seriously, “tragedies exist but are too large for the heart.” They expertly transformed these ideas into upbeat wanderings through passion. The conversation between each song was as enjoyable if not more so than the songs, which were succinct and stunning.

Most of the audience must have either turned into pumpkins after the elation of Charming Hostess’s set or they knew what was to come, because over half of the audience disappeared before the third act.
French turntable master eRikm described his aim as approaching a subtle abstraction while weaving an easy to follow music without excluding his listener, yet his performance remained enclosed and un-enterable to those less experienced with his craft. He remains aloft in an elitist talent that the average person may find intimidating. A determined dance accompanied the manipulation of his electronic table of instruments, leading one to believe that he is the embodiment of man meets machine, lost in his own consciousness without his audience.

Although I was one of the ones to leave within the first ten minutes of eRikm’s noisy set, the first Rock and a Hard Place show was definitely an exciting and successful showcase of talent. Look for the next one and expand your mind.