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The Kitchen Sink

By Lee Gardner | Posted 8/16/2000


The Red Room at Normals Books and Records, Aug. 5


The small stage area at the Red Room looked like a musical Island of Dr. Moreau, populated with creations that were half instrument store, half Home Depot. A black tubular stand originally designed to hold several synthesizers instead supported a series of long steel strings, a bright metal triangle dangling from each. A long tube festooned with more strings lay ready to spin on an ad hoc lathe motor; a bright red billiard ball suspended on a wire dangled over the tube, looking like a cherry on top. A sheet of what looked like rusty metal roofing bowed into a curve thanks to a series of steel filaments joining the two ends. A pair of trashed guitars sported foreshortened necks and rude new components--six-string Frankenstein's monsters with their proverbial neck bolts plain to see.

Baltimorean Neil Feather created this collection of instruments himself over more than 20 years of accumulating and reconfiguring scrap, musical detritus, small motors, and cheap guitar pickups. Feather has been improvising solo on his brainchildren for years, but when he stepped in front of the small audience at the Red Room, he was not alone. Local musicians/experimentalists John Berndt, Catherine Pancake, Andy Hayleck, and Eric Franklin took their places amid the purposeful clutter for a concert of four Feather pieces, composed for his own homemade orchestra. Each performer wore an orange T-shirt and a black, vaguely military-looking hooded vest. Some of the vests were emblazoned with a single word: AEROTRAIN.

Like the paradoxical group name (a flying locomotive? a jet hugging a downhill grade?) and the chimerical nature of Feather's instruments, the first piece, "Panic," confounded conventional expectations. Berndt (on "Former Guitar") and Hayleck (on "Nuguitare") built up a contrapuntal pulse of notes, joined by Franklin on the Sporadica (the former keyboard stand), Pancake on the Nondo (the curved, strung steel), and the leader himself on the bass-meets-carpenter's-level Divineaxe. Feather swayed slowly along as the fuguelike intro built slowly into a polyrhythmic, polytonal tide of sound (complete with a few call-and-response sections) before drawing to a close.

Unlike most conventional instruments, designed to be played one particular way and produce one particular sound, Feather's instruments are as open-ended in approach as in construction. After a short delay (even Former Guitars suffer from broken strings), "My Graham Crackers Have Blood On It" (sic) centered on several duets for Sporadica and Nondo. Franklin struck the Sporadica's strings with a small mallet and moved the triangles to change pitch, but he also struck the triangles themselves. Meanwhile, Pancake coaxed muted metallic tones and low harmonic whispers and rumbles by working on the Nondo's strings and shifting its curved metal body. During a tone poem, "Jelly Prince," she rolled a metal dowel along the strings to create another form of drone. Occasionally, Feather activated the spinning tube of his Contraption, which produced several different types of whirrs and signals. It was sometimes difficult to tell which sound emanated from what instrument.

Of course, a degree of bewilderment was par for the course, thanks to the unfamiliar sounds and the unfamiliar grammar of the compositions. But the performance made clear that Feather is part of an American tradition, one that encompasses everyone from Harry Partch to the Residents: artists who create their own personal sonic worlds, apart from the usual conventions of staff paper, legit performance standards, and factory-built instrumentation. (The peaked black hoods each musician wore gave the group the entirely appropriate appearance of a band of nerdy monks devoted to a strange faith.) This evening Feather proved there is ample method behind the mad-scientist look of his instruments. Many listeners would probably find Feather's musical world forbidding, but this reviewer can't wait for another visit.

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