An Evil Clown and a Leap of Faith

Karl Ackermann By

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What is central to understanding the music of Evil Clown is understanding that PEK's long-held, but evolving, approach and philosophy are unique in creative improvisation. While attending UC Davis he studied aesthetics where he was required to evaluate a John Cage composition that consisted of what PEK describes as ..."cut-up tape splicing pieces on it." He recalls the Gage piece as being from a period where Cage composed scores ..."comprised of chance operations which determine how to select the next tape source and how to splice it to the work." PEK's assignment was to develop a discourse as to whether or not this was legitimately music. He goes on to say, "This blew my mind...I clearly remember my argument in the paper. I started by establishing elements that the music of my experience of the time is normally comprised of: melody, harmony, meter, harmonic motion, melodic/harmonic relationships, etc. and then compared the work I was examining to these criteria. Despite the incredible weirdness of the music to me at that time, I concluded that the work was highly organized: Art made of sound materials, but not music." Though PEK acknowledges that his reasoning has evolved, he believes that this thinking, outside the music box, has been a lasting influence on his own creative process.

The label's icon—Sparkles, the Giant Evil Clown—designed by artist Raffi Batalian, represents, in PEK's mind, the kind of complicated systems that are designated in the Chaos Theory of mathematics. These random systems correlate to the manner in which the music in the catalog of Evil Clown functions. The collective discards the necessity of conventional arrangements, opting for a system of sonorities. Combing these complex harmonic structures with a collective mindset and non-traditional instruments is what creates unique sounds. In executing these projects, the groups under the label may use instruments such as dulzaina, oboe, sheng, bass tromboon, fog horn, ms-20, boomwhaker, slide whistles, siren whistle, crotales, lead gong, metal, balfon, blocks, festival drum, daiko, chains, blocks, and taxi horn along with more traditional instruments.

PEK is strongly opinionated on genre labeling—most of which he rejects for his own music. While a number of the musicians in the Evil Clown stable have deep backgrounds in free jazz, he doesn't feel that the core ideas behind the label's music are compelled by any jazz approach. Similarly, the inferences of free improvisation are too unstructured to fit PEK's rule-based approach even if his music often seems to belie that fact. Avant-garde is a dated concept and "experimental" flies in the face of having developed a proven methodology. While he is somewhat comfortable with "collective improvisation," it is too wide a net for his liking. So what does that leave as a descriptor? PEK says, "A long time ago, I came up with the term "pure improvisation" to answer my above concerns with the standard nomenclature. It means that there is little or no advance planning in our approach (with some exceptions...)."

Leap of Faith/Thomas Heberer
Solution Concepts

PEK's creative process is evident in three selected Evil Clown releases with varying personnel. Sharing the billing on Solution Concepts is trumpeter Thomas Heberer who adds significant contributions on five of the six tracks. The album was recorded live at the Downtown Music Gallery in the Chinatown neighborhood of Manhattan on August 16th, 2015. Starting out and fits and starts like an extended warm-up, "Subgame" doesn't take much of its almost forty minutes to be convincingly harrowing. With barely the trace of a melody, the marathon number nevertheless captures some satisfying but inexpressible spirit of wild abandon. In very sharp contrast, Heberer joins the group on "The Great Hill," a study in finely developed improvisation with his solo cornet soulfully expressive.

"Teodoro" takes yet another tack as the experimental piece consists of noises drawn from the musicians pushing their instruments beyond their normal range and augmenting with distorted voices. The brief "Mongezi" and "Loose Ends" again feature Heberer and are less structured than "The Great Hill." Book-ending the middle four tracks—all written by Heberer—is another extended improvisation, "Information Sets," clocking in at over twenty minutes. Ranging from a whisper to near-chaos, the piece is strangely musical with Zbitnov's thundering beat supporting approximations of bagpipes and ethereal voices.

Heberer's presence on Solution Concepts makes it quite different from earlier Leap of Faith albums but true to the vision that PEK and Lomon first realized more than twenty years ago. The music on Solution Concepts is probing, intelligent and—in some instances—poignant.

Vortex Generation Mechanisms

On his Turbulence project, Vortex Generation Mechanisms, PEK leaves much of that unconventional battery of non-traditional instruments in the boot. Which is not to say that there is any shortage of musical tools in the mix.

The title track—a fifty-plus minute sonic voyage—is the sole piece on Vortex Generation Mechanisms. It seamlessly move across terrains that greatly vary in texture. At times PEK and saxophonist Norton lose each other in a tangle of notes but find their way back to a quasi-center. In other phases of the piece, languid lines, sometimes ominous, from the bass clarinet mix with rasping metal and other odd sounds. One can imagine air being let out of a balloon in the midst of bells and gongs and yet a musical quality incorporates these outlying elements as part of the imagery.

Vortex Generation Mechanisms veers between minimalism and an air-driven calliope coming off the rails. Despite employing a plethora of non-conventional tools, the music always has a sense of meaningfulness; it can be calming and disconnected at the same time. As a result, it is always more provoking than pacifying.

Leap of Faith Orchestra
The Expanding Universe

On The Expanding Universe the Leap of Faith Orchestra—true the album title—escalates with full (but non-conventional) ensemble of fifteen. At fifty-thousand feet, one could describe the overall vibe of The Expanding Universe as running the gamut from melodic to shambolic. The latter perception may be driven by the presence of more than four-dozen instruments/devices in the hands of these fifteen artists. The sole track (being the title track) is a sprawling epic at seventy-seven minutes and does indeed deviate between the austere and the chaotic, but as always, composer PEK has a higher purpose. Swerving whistles and a siren usher in the piece with no small amount of urgency building to a crescendo of noise before a lone tuba replaces near-calamity with dark mystery. Later, piano and alternate devices struggle for dominance, lopsided melodies collide with bells, blocks and cymbals in a musical representation of the album's stated theme.

PEK, whether with his Leap of Faith quartet or his large orchestra, brings together a like-minded collective having the gift of being able to discover music where it lives and one would be justified in believing that they could find aesthetic value in the rhythm of windshield wipers as certainly as with a saxophone. The Evil Clown supply closet makes space around the saxophones, bass, vibes or cello for the boomwhakers, fog horns, sirens and metal. All have a like relevance in the highly unusual creations that somehow come together in the hands of these "pure Innovators."

Photo Credit: Raffi


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