Twisting The Lines Between Composition And Improv With Microkingdom
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It's a cold December night and Micro-kingdom has assembled in the quiet neighborhood of Gardenville for band practice. Or not. "It turns into a YouTube evening and beer fest. We play music for like half an hour," percussionist Will Redman laughs from his living-room armchair, pint glass in hand. Which sounds, of course, like any whatever-blah-bar-band-USA. What makes Microkingdom different is its pedigree. Redman holds a Ph.D. in music composition, guitarist Marc Miller hails from acclaimed math rockers Oxes, and frequent collaborator John Dierker, a jazz saxophonist, is renown for his work with Lafayette Gilchrest and the Swingin' Swamis.
Microkingdom is known for its noirish improv--think free-jazz with rock leanings--though often the group riffs off intricate compositions written by Redman. When performing together, there's a tautness to the chaos; each knows when to hold back and let the others wild out. Skittering drums recede beneath a swell of sax squeals, the soft strumming of guitar staggers to the forefront. The sound is by turns subdued, eerie, and deliriously manic.
Improv, though, is a fraught term, conjuring up images of self-indulgent freakouts. And while Redman, 32, has been involved with the improv scene since his undergraduate days at UMBC, from 1993 to '98, he is a touch ambivalent about Microkingdom's freestylings: "While it's fun, it [is] always this question of but what are we doing?"
It's a question both he and Miller, 29, have yet to fully answer. Still, after years of rigorous study for Redman and touring for Miller, the looseness of Microkingdom is a welcome respite. "I became more comfortable doing variations on the same thing, night after night," Miller says, referring to his stint with Oxes. "I slowly, surely, wanted more in my musical experience. I feel like the playing that I do now is the most natural thing that I have ever done. Just finding ways to fuck around and make it happen for me in a satisfying way, [so] that I can feel like I'm myself. "
Redman, too, seems to revel in the ambiguities. While pursing his doctorate, Redman delved deep into avant-garde styles--bebop, free-jazz, and contemporary classical music. He gave up playing rock beats for several years--and even performing publicly--instead immersing himself in composing. Laughing, he recalls, "I got way into spending hours at the desk writing really intricate classical music that no one wanted to play."
These days, while Redman continues to compose, he's picked up drumsticks again. "I play as much as I can," he says. "For me, the free-improv thing, [it's] like the DIY punk thing. I think that `punk' is still there in what we're playing."
A little over a year ago, he moved back to Baltimore after grad school at the University of Buffalo and reconnected with Miller. Redman says the genesis of the group was simple: "It happened that we both wanted to play music." For their first few months, they molted monikers together after each show, settling on Microkingdom, a combo they pulled from two different running lists of words. Miller describes the name as "just an umbrella," and one they riff on as much as they do Redman's compositions, changing it whenever they play with a different set of musicians. With Dierker, their most frequent collaborator, it's Microkingdom Pro Hour. Then there's Microkingdom Family Day, a tradition that pre-dates the band. For more than 10 years, Dierker has played the Red Room around Christmastime. For the past few years, Redman has joined him, along with pianist Jonathan Vincent.
Even with their many collaborations, at the core of the group is Miller and Redman's 15-year friendship. Under their wisecracks, a mutual respect bubbles up. When Redman waxes humble about his education, Miller is quick to point out his doctoral degree, quipping that that wasn't the only thing Redman picked up at school. It's the sort of crack that hints at where they met: a Catonsville high-school cafeteria in the early '90s.
Miller was a freshman, honing his skills in a power-pop band. Redman, a senior, drummed in a grunge outfit. Over the years, they often played shows together at local rock clubs, like the now defunct Loft. But it wasn't until they were attending UMBC, where both played in the school's New Music Ensemble, that Miller and Redman formed a band together, International Soundscape Internationale, described by Redman as "[an] avant-rock art theatrical thing."
International Soundscape Internationale performed its last show in 1998 at the old Ottobar--now the Talking Head. And it was on that stage, late last year, that Microkingdom played its first show. The significance of this was not lost on Miller: "It was important to me that my first time playing in public with Will [again] was in the same room where I had last played with him."
In February, they plan to release a limited-edition 12-inch as Microkingdom Pro Hour. The material, recorded at the end of the summer with Dierker on sax, features two pieces of about 10 minutes each. One side is unadulterated improv, and the other is a remix, what Redman describes as "chopped up and edited." Both have a drunken, hazy quality. "Double Abacus" evokes the jumbled glee of taking one shot too many, while "Wrenches: My Heart" is more languid, perfect for long nights warming barstools.
The inclusion of the improv track is a bit of an anomaly. Lately, the band has been busy recording compositional pieces. "The things that we put together in interesting ways aren't the things we can replicate live," Miller elaborates. Fond of impersonations, he slips into Marlon Brando's Godfather voice: "If ya come see us live, ya can see us do what we do live, right? If ya pick up a record, you know, ya gonna get something different. But, for this first record, ya get a little of both. Just a slice that we are offering up to the world."