Thingamajigs Mixes Modern with Ancient

Lou Fancher on September 21, 2016
Festival highlights include a performance of Continuum featuring 1,000 poems written and performed by Stephen Ratcliffe (left), the Thingamajigs Performance Group, and others.

Two of the most interesting aspects of the hands-on, “new” music performed by the exploratory collective known as Thingamajigs in the Bay Area are how old the music is and the distance from which it has traveled.

“When we work with people who are immigrants — people from Ghana, the Middle East, and other faraway areas — we show them our techniques, our instruments,” says Edward Schocker, co-founder with Dylan Bolles of the Oakland-based group. “They say, ‘Oh yes, people in our villages have done that too, and have made instruments with found objects forever.’ It’s funny. Even in this country, it’s only in the last 150 years that we’ve been buying instruments at a store. Before that, you went to a craftsman or made them yourself.”

Bart Hopkin and one of his invented instrumet

In an interview prior to the Oct. 1 opening of the 19th Annual Music for People & Thingamajigs Festival, Schocker says music that Bay Area audiences consider experimental is instead a continuation of established lineages. “We get that ‘new’ music conversation all the time. But long-duration performance, non-Western tunings, handmade instruments, and other things that we do arrive from traditions that are centuries old.” Using found materials to fashion instruments isn’t “tinkering with junk,” he insists. Inventing instruments and establishing unique tunings requires deep historical investigations and thorough scholarship. “When I perform, I want the unusual materials to fade away. I want audiences to know I’m going somewhere with reason.”

The two-week festival connects Thingamajigs’ roots that formed in the 1990s amid electronic music’s rise. The two Mills College students were counterculture, finding themselves enamored with creating acoustic sounds using alternative, low-tech materials and collaborative practices and methods that crossed geographic boundaries to draw connections between cultures worldwide. “Synthesized music wasn’t satisfying to me,” says Schocker. “It was like other people were shifting when I thought there were still things to be done acoustically.”

Doug Carrol's Animal Sounds Project

Among the “things” that stimulate Schocker, Bolles, and their band of fewer-laptops-more-found-sound affiliates, are instruments made with household items — bowls, glassware, utensils — and organic materials found in nature. Additionally, tunings that are determined by where holes are placed in a handmade bamboo flute, for one example, offer relational synergy when played with a second one-of-a-kind instrument. Instead of a mass-produced instrument that follows exactly the temperament of a piano, the bent notes and unique resonances of two custom-designed instruments offer relationships and harmonies that open a colorful sound world. “It’s like the difference between watching a low-res, black-and-white TV, versus watching a full-color, hi-def television,” says Schocker. “All kinds of variation and intricacies can be found.”

The festival offers a gamut of opportunities. A first phase, titled Continuum, features Thingamajigs Performance Group and 1,000 poems written and performed by Stephen Ratcliffe. Part of an ongoing project, the 14-hour, sunrise-to-sunset show held in a military bunker at Mare Island Preserve in Vallejo is the series’ fourth iteration. “Stephen wrote 1,000 poems in 1,000 days. We loved the practice of something done daily and had no idea what was going to happen the first time,” Schocker recalls. “We thought it would be eight hours. Stephen read the poems and walked off the stage and we thought we were done — and that we’d done it beautifully. Then, he walked out with a pack of 500 more. He’d only read 500. It’s like we thought we’d finished the marathon and then found out we were only half way through.”

Schocker says they were like abandoned children: exhausted, lost, not sure what to do next. Pushing on, they found a new space that was thrilling and left them asking, “When do we get to do this again?” About the Mare Island location, he says its cavernous spaces will emphasize the distance musical notes can travel, a fascinating link to the science of sound. “When we’re working with students or in schools, we sometimes are teaching as much physics, science, and math as we are music. If you’re building an instrument that involves water, for example, there’s a lot of science. Studies showing the vibrations of sand on a metal sheet make specific patterns that are as beautiful to look at as they are to hear.”

Artists Rae Diamond of Long Tone Choir and inkBoat’s Shinichi Iova-Koga provide added dimension to the performance with breath control and physical motion perspectives.

Terry Berlier's Percussion Ball

Thingamajigs doesn’t reject technology, another misconception about the group. “Throughout the years we’ve had musicians who build or fuse their electronics in some way with their sound. It’s part of today’s world. What we do, when we listen to electronic music, is that someone will say, “I can make that same sound by taking a rock and rubbing it on a certain surface.” We find we can make the same sound without using a computer, but we’re not against using low electronics like using pedals to put together different chords to make controlled feedback.”

Music that includes electronic elements is most likely to appear during the second phase. Market Street Prototyping events Oct. 6–8 allow spontaneous collaborations to form when members of the public become part of the “Play Hear” orchestra led by artists David Samas, Bart Hopkin, and Peter Whitehead. At Berkeley’s Starry Plough Oct. 6, a “pure rock” show, Rock Music in Alternate Tunings, presents ’Fraid o’ Freyja; Vegan Butcher, composer-lyricist John Shiurba’s trio playing songs written using a nine-note scale; and speed-metal duo Winner’s Bitch.

Saving the big shebang for last, a performance Oct. 16 at SoleSpace in Oakland by Bay Area percussionist Willie Winant honors the legacy of composer Lou Harrison. Winant will play a special bell instrument designed by Harrison and his partner Bill Colvig. “Lou Harrison’s 100th birthday is the same as Thingamajigs 20th anniversary,” says Schocker. “We’re launching a year-long project that will finish a year from now at our 20th festival.” Grants from New Music USA and the Zellerbach Family Foundation will partially fund commissioned pieces to be presented during the season. Schocker says a fundraising campaign will be necessary to fulfill the original vision — 10 commissioned works to add to the “new-music/non-Western-tuned” library — but even five new works would accomplish the goal. “We want this to propel us for the next 20 years. There’s not a lot of music written for these instruments. Creating a broader repertoire is our future.”

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