Improvising on the scrap heap
by James M. Manheim
Avant-garde sometimes equates with in-your-face, but the avant-garde music of Frank Pahl manifests an innocent enthusiasm for pure sound. When I heard Pahl perform with a backup band of three at Kerrytown Concert House a couple of years ago, I came away calm and a bit wide eyed. His music was lyrical, rhapsodic in a word, beautiful.
Pahl sat at a piano keyboard but mostly played a battery of other instruments that surrounded him. The printed program sheet thanked yard sales and flea markets, because that's where most of them came from. There were zithers, toy keyboards, tinkling, shimmering pieces of metal being used as percussion instruments of various kinds, many of them somehow rigged up to run automatically. One of the keyboards was sounded by several rotating wheels that produced slowly changing chords and seemed to suspend the normal passage of time. Pahl also played a Melodica, blowing into it through a tube, and from time to time he pulled out a euphonium (a close relative of the tuba). It was a one-man sound world to rival that of America's greatest musical individualist, Harry Partch.
When Pahl set the music in motion with a waltz or another simple tune and was joined by the other players an electric guitarist, a bassist who mostly played with a bow, and a keyboardist on an early synthesizer of the sort that musicians are starting to collect a shimmering improvisatory soundscape began to form. The music grew more intense as unusual sounds were added, but it was never loud. When forceful elements a vaguely 1970s dance beat, a few blasts on Pahl's euphonium did occasionally appear, they were so unexpected that the audience laughed.
The atmosphere held to the magical-thrift-shop theme, with strings of blue lights draped around the various instruments and a lamp with a blue-sky-and-clouds shade resting on top of a speaker. The powerful overall impression of the performance as a whole
was of detritus cohering into beauty. In some ways, Pahl's art is akin to that of electronic music, which is constantly in search of new sounds, and to that of hip-hop, which seizes musical technology and puts it back within reach of the streets. But Pahl goes in a different direction: he is interested in what has been discarded. Technology in his music is not just humanized, it is rendered positively charmed. Pahl uses a digital sampler occasionally, but his collection of flea market instruments really amounts to manual sampling of a sort.
At any rate, there's no banging on a can, no eyeballs being sliced open, no confrontation. This is the most affirmative avant-garde creation you are likely ever to experience. At the end, Pahl said, "I don't know what time it is, but we're probably done."
Frank Pahl showcases his music and instruments at the Gallery Project on Friday, October 14.
[Review published October 2005]