rvw: Sissy-Eared Mollycoddles

Every so often, we in the Chicago new music scene get together and ask ourselves: how many more new music ensembles do we need?  Just like what John Luther Adams said about kinds of Scotch: the answer is always one more.

A relative new-comer, Sissy-Eared Mollycoddles gave a concert Sunday at the Green Mill, which proved their worth and relevance in an already overcrowded scene.
The program Sunday was organized not around a style or a concept but around an instrument--the Saxophone. Each piece involved two or three members of the Sax family, a rhythm section of bass and drums, and often singer and keys.  The instrumentation might lead you to believe it was a Friday night Jazz set, which it clearly wasn't; in fact, it was much more akin to an indie-rock show at the Bottle--minus anything remotely punk.
The program was surprisingly coherent stylistically, flowing as if from Pandora based on the opening song, Have an Orange, an Elephant Fruit--a song by the Mollycoddles' Artistic Director, Ben Hjertmann.  Pandora might label it with: "saxophonic hocket", "angular, dissonant vocal melody", "changing time signatures", "minimalist elements (without a minimalist affect)", "repeated atonal elements (an intimation of tonal center)", and "irregular funk grooves".  And if Pandora were really on top of it, it might latch on to the handful of stylistic/temporal jump cuts between various sections.
The changing funky beats in the introduction gave the piece an ear-catching rhythmic energy and drive without the hypnotic regularity of real funk.  At times, however, the irregularity got in the way of the "feel", a momentary lack of ensemble tightness resulting in a sudden loss of momentum; when the rhythmic clarity hinges on nearly every note being perfect, it requires even more rehearsals.  Once the vocals came in, the drive gave way to an uncomfortable stasis in which Hjertmann's expressionist vocal lines could wail.  There was something of a stylistic conflict between the vocal melody, the lyrics, and the rest of the music; something theatrical, even operatic, was happening in, around, and between the music, each fighting for predominance.  [Little did I know, this theme would lie dormant only to reemerge with a vengeance.]  (6.3 / 10)

The second piece, Beasts and Birds by Lee Weisert, was similar but a bit more subdued--with 15% more folk influence--and for some reason reminded me of Sufjan.  The vocal line was still fairly angular, making it difficult to understand the words.  Unfortunately, that's all my notes say; my mind was still pretty fuzzy from the all-weekend Halloween.  I remember not disliking it, which means it must have been over a 5 on my random logarithmic rating scale.
Next was something relatively different: Drill, Baby, Drill by Ian Dicke.  I pretty much despise politics and music mixing (unless its Rage)...but...while this piece makes repeated-chinese-water-torture reference to that infamous political talking point, it steered clear of anything too polemic.  The trio of saxophones engaged in a motorhythmic texture interrupted and accompanied by a tape part consisting of concrète drill sounds and verbal sound bites (mostly "drill, baby, drill").  You might expect the composer to go all Steve Reich (or Scott Johnson?) and mimic the melodies of the sound bites in the instruments--cliché.  But this only happened (overtly) at the end as a nice surprise.  (6.8 / 10)

The fourth piece, 60-year Jolly Bottles by Patrick Liddell, buried in the middle of the concert, may have had the least successful performance, but I couldn't figure out whether to blame the ensemble or the composer [or the Jameson].  So it is with new music.  The central problem lay in the vocal part and its awkward symbiosis with the synth part.  Behind that, though, were a couple interesting layers of rhythms in the saxes and bass and drums with potential for goodness.  (~5 / 10)

Things get really fuzzy between here and the end--a result of the pieces sounding so similar--so here's a quick summary of my notes:
  • The Road to Vara Blanca by Luke Gullickson: the most poppy song on the program but still totally deconstructed and disfigured; very listenable; not lame.
  • Imagined History by Hjertmann: more jump cuts; (I want more transitions!); too long?; synth bass line from an 80s pop song; Tool.
  • Isis by Luke Gullickson: tasty falling minor 2nds; rondo-like? tangents and returns.
Which brings us to the last piece on the program, which was one of the longest 10 minutes of my life.  The Mysterious Disappearance of Dr. Corbeau by Alex Temple is a theater piece of a radio show of a horror movie.  Campy.  Cheeseball.  Lame.  Reminded me of the Muffin Man.  And, like a good horror movie, just when you think it's over, it's not: turns out the band was playing a band playing a song about a rampant mutant [which they did with total sincerity; chapeau!] It's just one of those love it or hate it things. As for me: (1.2 / 10)  [...I suppose it was Halloween, and we deserved something like that--though I would have rather a treat.  I was so done with Halloween already.]
To be clear, there is not always room for more new music ensembles.  There can't be too much overlap; each ensemble must stake its own territory.  Ensembles like dal niente, eighth blackbird, fulcrum point all have their schtick and do it well; best not to try to compete.  This is only the second time seeing the SEMCs, so I can only say that this concert, unlike the other one, filled a necessary hole in the stylistic landscape in Chicago: coming from a Classical world but incorporating many elements of jazz/funk/indie-rock/electronics.  I would go see many of these pieces performed again [many of them deserve a more solid performance], but they would perhaps benefit from a few more instances of stylistic variety to help the audience tell the pieces apart.  Why not do the same program at different venues?  Chicago is very big for my friends who don't bike; they might like to see this concert downtown or back in Wicker.  In fact, I would recommend it.

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