Paint the Town Red

by Carlos Andujar
If you were to ask someone in a band to describe their sound nowadays, chances are you’ll hear “experimental” mentioned somewhere in their description. Just look on Myspace and you’ll see that the number of bands listed under the experimental category amounts to over 640,000, way more than the number of bands listed under 2-step and reggaeton. I KNOW right?! But someone familiar with a “traditional” understanding of what constitutes experimental music might be disappointed seeing Bobby Valentino (R&B/Neo-Soul/Experimental), the Deftones (Metal/Rock/Experimental), and Thrice (Rock/Experimental) listed within that category. But before I start sounding like an elitist, allow me to explain the basis for my (and many other’s) perception of experimental music.
Experimental music was officially coined by the “godfather” of experimental music, John Cage, in the 1950’s. His writings explain that “an experimental action is one the outcome of which is not foreseen” in regards to performance.
That aside, when I found out about an experimental show in my own backyard, I eagerly attended, wanting to experience the local culture. My wife and I arrived just in time to catch St Augustine’s Reptile Theater’s soundcheck. 30 minutes later (seriously, no lie), the performance began with pounding drums, a distorted drone, and several members removing their pants (literally). One hammered away at an acoustic guitar with a plumber’s wrench while another blared spastic, Ornette Coleman-esqe riffs. Their set was reminiscent of acts like Joan of Arc, Captain Beefheart, and other Chicago art-scene acts. Afterwards, I spoke with the sax player, referring to himself as Salad Fork. When asked if Ornette Coleman influences him musically he responded, “Not really musically, but more on a spiritual philosophical level.” A young bearded man by his side, referring to himself as Olatunji (or as I called him, Olaf for short), echoed a similar non-musical sentiment.
“The earth,” he responds. “The earth is still here and still provides a lot for people such as ourselves to get into.” Broad sentiments though they be, further characterize these artists and their approach to their craft.
Interpretation, I feel, also characterizes this genre. Take for example Milwaukee’s Peter J. Woods and Gainesville’s Ironing. Woods’ performance was one of the more interesting performances of the evening. My cousin and his wife had met up with us that night, and I couldn’t resist a little internal laughter as I watched her during the set. As shrieks and piercing spikes of distortion erupted through the PA speakers, her facial contortions displayed obvious discomfort. To be fair, I understood how she might have felt. Many would dismiss the performance as sheer noise with no purpose or point. However, I felt like I was able to relate with his performance to a degree, despite it seeming over-the-top at points. While his body gyrated to the fuzz he created, you could almost visualize the pulsating sound crawling over his body, resulting in orgasmic expressions. Music enthusiasts and musicians might relate with that description and feeling. On the other hand, his performance could have easily come across as contrived, self-indulgent, and over-the-top. It all depends on your frame of mind and perspective, which, is part of the beauty of this kind of music.
Shortly afterwards Ironing took the stage. Not surprisingly, Ironing’s setup consisted of an analog radio tuner, two turntables, and random mixing devices on top of two ironing boards. While tuning into R&B stations, swapping records from his turntables, and splicing it all together with random rushes white noise, it felt appropriate to dub him “experimental DJ” of the night. His material is the sort of thing that I would expect to hear at a rave which, he in fact has performed for in the past. I felt that the few high moments in his set weren’t enough of to keep me interested. Instead, the set seemed to repeat itself. However, for the sake of argument we could reason that this was deliberate. Maybe the repetitiveness highlighted with sheer noise was intentional, reminding us of what lies beneath the mainstream media concoctions? Or not.
The main focus of the evening was the theater production, Paint the Town Red. The event was part of Milwaukee-based Insurgent Theatre’s 7-day Southeast winter tour supporting the production. Written and performed by Rex Winsome, Kate Pleuss, and John Kuehne, the play spanned across four acts performed between musical performances and is described by them as “…the tale of an inspired revolutionary, the perfect family who loves her, and the man who slaughters that family… to set her free.” Revolving around three main characters, Nadia, Red, and Arthur, the group incorporates Shakespearean methods to develop the story and the polarization between Red and Arthur which leaves Nadia somewhere in between struggling with appeasing them both. From start to finish, the audience is fixed in attention as the story opens and dramatically climaxes. My interpretation of the play was that of satire of the current social state of society as a whole.
This is discussed in Winsome’s written theory, Toward A Practical Revolution. The theory describes an already-occurring social, political, and economical revolution. “The revolution is already beginning, I am not aiming to instigate it, only to describe it and participate in it,” he explains. This revolution will be practical, “…pursued methodically and scientifically.” To Winsome, previous revolutionary ideologies are long, drawn-out excuses and ultimately useless and as it stands, we can contribute to the decline or success of real progress. Despite his “post-revolutionary” ideas, Winsome’s friendly and intelligent demeanor gives him an approachable, non-intimidating persona that may not be visible in many professors of radical change.
The man partly responsible for organizing the event was Travis Johnson. Johnson, mentioned earlier, seemed satisfied with the turnout. “I actually was expecting more people tonight, especially because of the nice weather, but I’m still pretty happy with how things turned out.” He plans on organizing more events and increasing turnouts in order to garner more appeal for events similar to Paint the Town Red.