Saturday, June 12, 2010

Bridging the Venue Gap

A pair of underpasses along Atlanta's proposed Beltline become improvised amphitheaters for drumming duos.

by Mark Gresham

OVERARCHING THEME: Keith Leslie and Klimchak improvise in front of a lively mural gracing an abutment under the Virginia Avenue Bridge. [Photo: Mark Gresham]

The former bed of a Southern Railway line and the arch of a concrete bridge over it offered a unique outdoor venue for over an hour of percussion duo improvisation this evening.

Composer/percussionist Klimchak and Keith Leslie, drummer of the Fourth Ward Afro-Klezmer Orchestra, kicked off the first in a series of percussion duo improv concerts being performed under bridges along the path of Atlanta's proposed Beltway light rail system this summer. Klemchak, who organized the "Percussion Discussion 5x5" series under the auspices of the new "Art on the Beltway" program, performs on five consecutive Saturdays, improvising in duos with a different notable Atlanta-based percussionist each time.

The five free Saturday evening programs alternate locations: under the Virginia Avenue Bridge on the city's east side and the Ralph David Abernathy Bridge on the west side, to coordinate with the other "Art on the Beltline" program which likewise alternate focus between east and west sides.

In addition to this evening's program with Keith Leslie, Klimchak will perform subsequent installments under the Virginia Avenue Bridge with Stuart Gerber (6/26) and Mario Schambon (7/10), and under the Ralph David Abernathy Bridge with Petro Bass (6/19) and Robert Schmid (7/3). All of the concerts begin at 7:00 p.m.; tonight's program lasted about an hour.

Klimchak promises that "each performance will be will be unique, using the various tools of the percussionists trade, from drumset to conga, from found metal junk to vibraphone and marimba," also noting that "the natural ambiance and echo of the bridges along the Beltline will enhance the sounds of the instruments, and add their own part to the dialogue."

KUDZU CULTURE: A wider view of the Virginia Avenue Bridge underpass. A bit of perspective on not only size and shape of the underpass, but also the gravel former rail bed and a peek and what vociferously grows on the surrounding banks. The ground at the other abutment, to the right, opposite the performers, was a bit flooded and muddy, and was also the location of an itinerant homeless person's campfire pit (very near on the right, but outside of the camera's image field). [photo: Mark Gresham]

But in what other ways might a bridge as venue, particularly underpass, impact a concert as architecture? The shape does not itself draw attention to a central focal point in the same manner as a traditional amphitheater--whether a complete circle or oval, or a semicircular one. So what's primarily different here?

Although, as Wikipedia states the more obvious observation, "A bridge is a structure built to span a valley, road, body of water, or other physical obstacle, for the purpose of providing passage over the obstacle," it is also true that a bridge also allows passage under its span; not just over the span. Bridges then are points of convergence, a place to cross over or to pass under; in either case, a kind of nexus where otherwise conflicting crossflows of movement can easily pass by each other, albeit by a narrowing of the pathways by which they may do so.

It's certainly not the first concert held under a bridge of some kind. U2's 2004 concert under the Brooklyn Bridge comes to mind, and even teen pop-idol Justin Bieber performed under New York City's 59th Street Bridge as recently as June 5th this year.

The difference is whether using the underside of a bridge as venue merely provides a convenient space in which to gather a large outdoor audience in a traditional manner, or whether it encourages the audience to behave differently, and whether it has an impact upon the musical improvisation itself, or the composition of music designed for that particular space.

One of the intents of the "Art on the Beltline" program, as I understand it, is precisely to get people to become aware of and walk (or bike) the path which will eventually have a pair of light rails at its center. To place a concert under such a bridge offers the prospect of music which encourages a linearly moving and listening audience, past or through the performers bi-directionally, versus a fixed audience with a single focal point. Nevertheless, this evening some audience moved around; some audience stood or sat in one place. It seems the architectural encouragement to move does obligate it.

That Klimchak has chosen improvisational "discussion" between a pair of percussionists in each concert ("dialog" is perhaps another matter) seems an intuitive response to the architecture, and the back-and-forth-ness an underpass encourages from both musicians and audience alike. A bridge's underpass is like a short tunnel, a conduit of sorts; so it perhaps even has its own characteristic resonance which responds to some sounds over others. (A bridge's span is well known to react resonantly--for example, to the marching of an army, which is why a military infantry unit deliberately breaks out of step when crossing bridges.) Is there possibility that the musicians responded to that characteristic resonance in any way, even if subconsciously? Or was such a hypothetical mollified or overshadowed by other present acoustical factors?

For this performance, Leslie opted to limit his gear to a small trap set: snare, one mounted and one floor tom, bass drum, a pair of cymbals and a hi-hat, plus a string of what appeared to be small bronze sleigh bells of a sort draped around one of his ankles.

Klimchak had his own traps set, alright, but also an array of strikable and strokeable percussion devices, including handmade and found objects, a few odd aerophones, his own vocalizations (including Tibetan harmonic singing), and a tub of water into which he could dip instruments while playing them, to change both pitch and timbre of sound.

Klimchak was always reaching for new devices to produce a new sounds, playing upon them experimentally; Leslie gathered variety from his more limited array of skin and metal though playing technique, and his confident command of different stylistic grooves as well as responsive interactions with Klimchak in freer passages. One particular point of note was when both got into a solid, colorful Latin groove that got a few people dancing.

Beyond the encouragement of discussion, and the concrete's addition of power and echo, I'm not sure what else the bridge itself engendered in terms of substantive musical elements that would have been different from, say, if performed in Eyedrum, were it an equally resonant space for its shape and construction. I wonder: Would the improv have been radically different there, in terms of interaction between these two performers, or their individual musical choices? Would the audience have behaved much differently? Perhaps, or perhaps not.

Still, I am highly in favor of finding and trying out new alternative spaces for music, even the most unexpected ones, indoor or outdoor, discovering whether they give us new insights into performing, improvising and composing; whether they have impact upon drawing audience who otherwise wouldn't have discovered the music, hopefully offering that audience new insights about listening and how the spaces in which music moves can move them as listeners.

It will be interesting to hear how the next four of Klimchak's improv discussions shape up in this regard; how the personalities of the performers and their instrument choices mesh with each other, with the characters of the bridges under which they perform, and whether indeed the architecture will really foster a true difference in musical outcome.

Percussion Discussion 5x5 (No. 1)
Klimchak, percussion
Keith Leslie,

June 12 @ 7:00pm
Admission: FREE
Virginia Avenue Bridge Underpass
Virginia Ave. @ Kanuga St.
Atlanta, Georgia - USA


Darren Nelsen said...

Hi Mark,

Very nice to see you getting back to music journalism. It is very much needed in our community and you're one of the best!

Unfortunately, I was not able to make this show (I was playing in Acworth), but I hope to make one of the future shows.

Was any of this video'd?

Adam Scott Neal said...

Sounds like a very cool performance. I bet the acoustics were very interesting as well. Did the performers interact with the sounds of traffic passing overhead?

Nice to hear that there was a mix of groove-based performance and more freely experimental sounds - this (I would hope) can give the lay listener an intro to new things: 'They grooved hard, but wasn't it awesome when he put the gong in a tub of water and made the sound bend up and down?'

tay0 said...

A great jam by a pair of first-rate conjurers. This city can bring it sometimes.