[singlepic id=479 w=320 h=240 float=right]Ryan Loredo
In Contribution with
“Packed” is the word to describe the L.P. Young Student Center’s situation when a mass of students waited for the flash mob advertised by the group, The Asphalt Orchestra. Students waited Wednesday, Oct. 5, for some sort of cue for the flash mob to start its routine. People looked for any similarities between complete strangers to predict who were the people in the flash mob and left the center lobby of the building bare for a stage. As the time reached the advertised minute a person from an above balcony informed the mass of patient students that the flash mob was outside. Then, students in a massive exodus left the lobby for Appian Way and noticed the sounds of brass and percussion. Starting off in medley of flute, saxophone, and sousaphone sound the band quickly got the crowd’s attention.
The group was not a traditional marching band; the members went off in their own individual areas among the students surrounding the band. CDs of Asphalt’s music were sold while they were playing and flyers were handed out by representatives of their show that night at the Redfern Arts Center.
After a quick thank you to the audience of their show on Appian Way they began to march up Main Street to Central Square. Car horns were beeping for the band and the student followers, shop owners came to the windows to witness the big band music action happening on their sidewalk, and people in either cafes or restaurants smiled and sometimes waved to the passing marching troop.
The crowd in Central Square when Asphalt arrived consisted of people from both Keene and the college. When the group entered the square the band ended its routine with solos from each of the band members for a final song. Performers provided their own entertaining spin on their instruments, giving a unique identity to each performer.
After the performance the band introduced another marching band of Keene origin, the Saint Joseph School Band. They played a classic elementary school song list and had several solos of their own. Asphalt Orchestra then added some flute to the grade school performance and ended the mid-day show.
The applause from the crowd produced smiles from the two bands.
Some of the songs played to the amassed audience were “Carlton” by Stew and Heidi Rodewald, “Ngoma Yekwedu” by Thomas Mapfumo, and “Ma” by Tom Ze. Most of the music played was world music from Africa and Brazil.
Snare drummer for the Orchestra, Sunny Jain, commented on the Main Street march and said, “The mob we flashed in was fantastic. Students followed us around so it was cool. And the town square was cool, we had a bunch of people down here and it was awesome. Man, we had a great time.”
This venue of flash mobs and marching down streets is one which is not new for the band; in fact it is how the band started. Co-director and player of the piccolo Jessica Schmitz said, “Our main thing when we formed the group in 2009 in New York was the idea of an accidental audience and just playing in the streets and having people just going about their daily life and go, ‘Oh look, there’s a marching band!’”
Co-director and saxophonist Ken Tomson commented on the band’s conception and said, “We like the idea of getting into the community and playing weird music and just basically taking the music out of where we usually play, a concert hall, and bring it out into the streets, which we literally did here.”
When asked about the grade school band interaction Schmitz said, “We had some e-mails going around about it saying the plan was to meet and do some stuff together. They were great and so cute.”
They later went on to play at the Redfern Arts Center that night.
The 7:30 p.m. show Wednesday night was a totally different beast, a more modern, erratic take on the big band sound.
A bell rang out from speakers hidden in the main theater in the Redfern Arts Center signaling the start of the show. Seats were gathered, phones turned off, and throats cleared as the audience settled like silt.
The lights dimmed to black and as the audience lost their primary sense everyone became aware of a low beat being sung from somewhere in the crowd.
Slightly silhouetted heads turned back and forth, looking for the source of the song.
It seemed to be coming from everywhere; in every row and from every balcony. Slowly a figure stood up and turned on an LED headlamp, singing the intricate “Da-Da-Da, Da-Da-Da!” part of the song. Then they were everywhere, coming out of the aisles, voices mingling in an out of tune crescendo reminiscent of Queen if they had never met Freddy Mercury.
The stage was hit with a low blue spotlight illuminating a pile of shiny instruments. They acted as a beacon for the Orchestra, who, still singing, was drawn center stage. A rendezvous at the pile started the actual show; with people picking up their respective instruments and finishing the crescendo in a synchronized stage freeze. Applause died down and a lone musician stepped forward with a silver trumpet and a jazz solo. An intricate melody betrayed the man’s obvious musical education as he hit every note with confidence. A tall man with a soprano sax and an attitude hopped forward, taking the eye away from the aching trumpet with a twitchy solo and matching dance. The song continued on in this fashion, with people stealing the spotlight with their own take on the song. It was interesting to hear from each of the band members individually but each simply lacked the raw power that a primarily brass orchestra should have. Following the mantra of “less is more” there was a mass exodus of the stage, leaving a lone tenor saxophonist. Along the same line of thought, he started quietly playing a jerky, twitchy, jumpy set of notes, seemingly without rhyme or reason, lacking a formal time signature or any real organization at all.
This was a constant theme throughout the show, various musicians being isolated one way or another, either being forced out to center stage by fellow artists or being ditched by the same people.
Everyone in the Orchestra got their chance to illustrate their madness through sporadic, irregular notes and aggressively interpretive dance.
Understanding the vestigial plot of the show was comparable to filling a sieve with sand – useless. When the musicians actually played a song instead of random notes they sounded incredible, with choreographed dances and movements.
One song was played entirely from three chairs in a line center stage. Musicians wouldn’t play unless they were sitting down, illuminated by a rectangular yellow spotlight, sitting two people to a chair.
The big band sound was excellent, and the artists were experts in their field, each ducking and waving in and out of the melody’s spotlight. It was when they decided to bring the plot back that people were left scratching their heads.
Twice in the show a lone trombonist slowly walked across an empty stage, trailing a taught rope and repeating an animalistic call from her instrument. Toward the end of the show the audience was shown the other end of the rope; the rest of the band, once again with headlamps, tied together and playing echoic, cave-like sounds and shuffling along. Once they reached the spotlight, they started tugging at the rope, which led offstage. It’s anyone’s guess as to why; that yielded the trombone, but not the trombonist.
They dragged the lone instrument loudly center stage, untied themselves, and started a lonely song with haunting harmonies and startling solos.
Call and return was used to bring the rest of the Orchestra together, and as they all reunited every instrument had its place and the result was moving.
It became clear that this was the end of the show when the pace picked up, and as the group split, dancing and playing, they ended with another elaborate stage freeze.
After a group bow to standing applause, The Asphalt Orchestra exited the theater through the main entrance, playing a bouncy fun tune in which every musician had a small solo, just as they had in the town commons.
Ryan Loredo can be contacted at email@example.com
Augustus Stahl can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org