PERCUSSIONIST IMPROVISOR COMPOSER
by John Corbett
One of the most neglected but influential movements in the continuum of Chicago's creative music scene emerged in the late 70s, when various conceptually oriented youngsters-many of them white, influenced by the AACM but also by performance art and composers like Mauricio Kagel and John Cage-began banding together to explore exciting new territory. Of the different ensembles to form at the time, Musica Menta was arguably the most important, though many less formal events, like the improvised "clamdance" sessions at Link'say, Hall, were also significant. A short list of the currently, active improvisers who came out of this scene includes Jim Baker, Kent Kessler, and the three members of Liof Munimula: Daniel Scanlan, Don Meckley, and Michael Zerang. As a group, Liof is the sole remaining direct link to that era-the trio began playing together in 1982 and has been intermittently active since. What it plays is improvised music, free and clear, with Scanlan on electric guitar, violin, and cornet, Zerang on a staggering percussion armada, and Meckley on his own invented instruments, most centrally a shortwave radio rigged for interactive play that he calls a "radiotar" (radio + guitar). Listeners familiar with the group's members in other settings should be aware that this is a very special context, with a long history and singular identity; not just another jam. And in recent years opportunities to hear Liof play have dwindled, in large part due to the extravagance of its setup; it literally takes days to rig the room with the required percussion gear and antennae. But they're definitely still around-while their sole record, the vinyl-only Jonah Syndrome, as released back in 1988, Eighth Day Music plans to issue a five-DC box set drown from "Another Jolly Abyss," a five-night stand at the Blue Rider Theatre in 1994. Saturday, 8 PM, Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago; 312-397-4010.
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Liof Munimula, a trio working the outermost fringe of the avant-garde / free jazz galaxy for the last 13 years in Chicago, would have reason to exist if only to provide a backdrop for Don Meckley's menagerie of homemade musical contraptions.
The group's rare live performances are more like events, and Wednesday was no exception. It marked the opening of "Another Jolly Abyss," a five-night, 7 1/2-hour sound exploration at the Blue Rider Theatre, 1822 S. Halsted St. As its name suggests, this audacious piece is demanding yet tongue-in-cheek. In Meckley, a bespectacled inventor with an arts background, the group has the world's foremost (and possibly only) Radio Tar soloist. On this instrument, he manipulates and distorts shortwave radio signals by pulling on electric guitar strings. Then there's the Hydro-kalimba, a guillotine-shaped instrument that amplifies the sound of dripping water. And the Coronakalimba, which fuses a typewriter with a thumb piano.
As delightful as these devices were visually, they also served as a creative springboard for Meckley's musical accomplices, Michael Zerang and Daniel Scanlan.
The only parameters for "Another Jolly Abyss" are the combinations of instruments, with each night presenting new couplings to spark improvisation. Besides Meckley's gadgetry, Zerang and Scanlan have enough instruments between them to open their own store.
The burly Zerang at times resembled a masseuse, as he puttered about his array of percussion with fingers and palms, kneading the drum heads as much as tapping them. He also shaped sounds out of a variety of wind instruments, at one point turning a tuba into a voice box.
Scanlan is a virtuoso on violin and guitar who has little use for tradition, turning his formal background inside out. He uses every inch of his instruments to fashion music.
In between sojourns on his homemade toys, Meckley fussed with a short wave radio, taking it beyond the academic realm of classicists like Karlheinz Stockhausen and into the spiky nether regions of rock experimentalists Faust. While these European influences clearly are a starting point for Liof Munimula, the sounds of flushing toilets and giddy laughter that Meckley coaxed out of his machines were signs that this group holds little sacred.
After more than a decade of such iconoclastic music-making, Liof Munimula (that's "aluminum foil" spelled backward) finds itself in the moment. With the rise of groups like Stereolab, Gastr del Sol and Labradford, suddenly the avant-garde doesn't seem quite so daunting to young listeners anymore. All the more reason to check out "Another Jolly Abyss."
PHOTO (color): Don Meckley (foreground), Liof Munimula's chief inventor, and percussionist Michael Zerang perform in "Another Jolly Abyss'' at the Blue Rider Theatre. Tribune photo by John Bartley.
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Don Meckley on multiple short-wave radios and musical instruments of his own invention (including the hydro-kalimba, the typewriter mbira and the radiotar);
Daniel Scanlanon violin, electric guitar and cornet;
Michael Zerang on percussion, tubaphone and vocals.
Background: The group is celebrating its10th anniversary this month. Meckley, a painter as well as a musician, is head preparator at the Museum of Contemporary Art and has collaborated with various musical groups, performance artists and film and video makers, including Project Clamdance, Pappas New Instrument Ensemble, Gene Coleman and Hal Rammel. Scanlan studied violin with Austrian teacher Fredrick Berndt; he co-founded and performed with groups such as the Neutrino Orchestra, Musica Menta and Conference Call. Zerang has taught percussion and rhythmic analysis at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Columbia College and the Uptown Hull House and has performed with the Neutrino Orchestra, Pappas New Instrument Ensemble, Musica Menta and other groups.
Sound: Free improvisation.
Influences: Jimi Hendrix, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Mauricio Kagel, Hamsa El Din and the English group AMM.
Namesake: Liof Munimula is aluminum foil spelled backwards. According to Zerang, the band knew it wanted words spelled backwards for a name and ultimately settled on aluminum foil.
Songwriting: ''What we do onstage is totally spontaneous,'' says Zerang. ''Nothing is predetermined except the instruments we'll be using.''
Memorable experiences: ''In the fall of '86,'' recalls Zerang, ''we did a big tour of the South, and when we got to Atlanta, our local sponsor at a radio station there came running out to meet us, grinning and yelling over and over: 'Hey, I got it! I got it! Aluminum Foil! Aluminum Foil!' It struck us as funny because we'd been using the name so long that we'd almost forgotten that it would seem unusual to anyone else.'' Recordings: In 1988, Liof Munimula released its debut album, ''The Jonah Syndrome,'' on its own Garlic Records label. The group is now releasing a 10- year retrospective cassette featuring various live concert performances; the tape will be available at the group's shows and a few local record stores, including Earwax and Jazz Record Mart.
Local viewpoint: ''In the first two or three years of our existence, there seemed to be a few more venues for our type of music,'' says Zerang, ''but overall, Chicago audiences have been pretty good to us. Also, we tour a lot, all over the United States, and find that Chicago is an excellent central location for a base.''
Philosophy: ''The whole concept of free improvisation is very demanding,'' says Zerang. ''When we go out to perform, we don't know exactly what we're going to do. Either it's brilliant and wonderful or it's awful. But that's what makes it exciting, too.''
Goals: ''We'd like to release another CD within the next year,'' says Zerang. ''And we'd like to distribute our recorded product, as well as perform live, to a wider audience. We'd especially love to tour Europe.''
Next appearances: A 10th-anniversaryconcert Saturday at the Hot House, 1565 N. Milwaukee Ave.; and a Thursday performance at Recipe, 1422 N. Milwaukee Ave.
PHOTO: (Liof Munimula.) Photo by Marc PoKempner.
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The production of this album is striking, with a hilarious, surreal short story for the liner notes and cartoon illustrations for the cover. The music, by a Chicago trio, is less rewarding. It's in the free-improvisation medium, and given the variety of instruments (including Don Meckley's "hydro-kalimba" and "short wave" radio guitar), the listener might expect exotic sounds and wild ideas.
Quite the contrary happens, or more accurately, doesn't happen. True, "Lost Dog on a Dirty Beach" has attractive, Art Ensemble of Chicago-like passages and "Bad Shave at the Zanzibar Hotel" features a pleasant guitar freak-out. But despite Michael Zerang's rattling percussion, "A Dream in a Time of Drought" is almost static, while the promise of Daniel Scanlan's Hawaiian guitar in "Electric Leprocy" is never developed. Indeed, "The Jonah Syndrome" shows that free improvisation, however radical its premises are, can be rather conservative, too. (Reviewed on LP.)
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