Clip: Tim Perkis' documentary 'Noisy People' looks at the Bay Area's improvised music scene
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THE HEAR & NOW
Music on the Edge
Tim Perkis' documentary 'Noisy People' looks at the Bay Area's
improvised music scene
Derk Richardson, special to SF Gate
Thursday, April 19, 2007
A hefty bass player in a school playground balances precariously on
the extended front axle of a small bicycle, attempting to recreate the
stunts he mastered before he became a musician.
A red-haired woman kneels on the floor of an apartment, scraping a
violin bow against leafless branches protruding upwards from a
A clarinet player sits cross-legged on a chair in a mausoleum, shrouds
himself in a blue bedsheet and blows improvised sounds while a tiny
train chugs around him on a plastic track on the floor.
A pianist in a tropical shirt leans under the propped-up lid of his
piano, reaching inside to pluck the strings and tap the cymbals he has
positioned, along with other objects, on the soundboard harp of his
You won't find scenes like these in Ken Burns' landmark documentary
about jazz. But they are par for the course in "Noisy People," a new
documentary by East Bay electronic musician and budding filmmaker Tim
Perkis, which premieres Wednesday, April 25, at the Pacific Film
Archive in Berkeley.
The bassist, Damon Smith, the found-object sound artist, Cheryl
Leonard, the whimsical reed player, Dan Plonsey, and the pianist (and
Woody Woodman's Finger Palace proprietor) Greg Goodman are four of the
eight musicians profiled by Perkis in his vivid portrayal of the San
Francisco Bay Area's improvised music scene. It's not the kind of film
that will fall into heavy rotation on PBS, but "Noisy People" nails a
niche that, as Down Beat used to say, deserves wider attention.
Or maybe it doesn't. Musicians like Smith, Leonard, Plonsey, Goodman,
bassist George Cremaschi, trumpeter Tom Djll, saxophonist Phillip
Greenlief and drummer Gino Robair are never going to be Billboard
chart-toppers. But that -- and their individual and collective
integrity and dedication to their art -- is "Noisy People"'s point.
"I wanted to do something about people who are doing something that is
unpopular and who are totally committed to what they are doing," said
Perkis, who has been active in the electronic music underground here
for 30 years and only now makes his debut as a feature filmmaker.
"They can't make a living at it, but that's not an indication of their
level of commitment or seriousness. So what do you call them? I really
wanted to confound expectations about what a professional is and what
an amateur is. People expect that good musicians are professional and
not-so-good musicians are amateur. If there's a point to the movie, I
would hope that the audience would get a different idea about what it
means to be an artist."
The movie delivers its message through interviews, concert
performances, revealing footage of the musicians' living spaces and
backyards and evocative shots of less-than-fashionable Bay Area
neighborhoods. If Perkis deliberately avoided profiling "successful"
artists with established careers (like Pamela Z) or tenured university
positions (like Maggi Payne), the appearances of certain high-profile
musicians, including saxophonist Anthony Braxton and guitarist Fred
Frith (plus short films about electronic artists K. Atchley and
Laetitia Sonami that are packaged as bonus material on the DVD)
indicate how the local improv scene's borders blur both geographically
But they don't blur as much Perkis initially imagined. "I had this
grandiose idea going in that there's this music that is living on the
edges of all these different scenes that have something in common," he
said. "I thought I could interview all these people that I know in the
sound-art world, the out-jazz world, on the edge of rock and on the
edge of contemporary classical composition, and that it would point up
that this really is all one scene. I found that wasn't quite true. In
a way, I was the only connection."
Perkis' misconception was understandable. After immersing himself in
electronic music at the University of Michigan, he moved to the Bay
Area to study video and film at Oakland's California College of the
Arts (then known as CCAC). Wanting to work more independently than he
felt was possible in video at that time, he fell back into electronic
music, specifically into the experimental-music scene centered on
Around 1978, Perkis, James Horton and John Bischoff began performing
as the League of Automatic Music Composers, a "micro-computer network
band," which eventually gave rise to the improvising computer-network
ensemble known as the Hub (Perkis, Bischoff, Chris Brown, Scot
Gresham-Lancaster, Mark Trayle, Phil Stone).
The League and the Hub broke electronic music out of the Ivory Tower
and allowed Perkis and cohorts to forge relationships with such
performing improvisers as Greg Goodman, Rova Saxophone Quartet, Henry
Kaiser, Ron Heglin and others.
"That's when I became aware of the improv scene," said Perkis, whose
personal list of collaborations reads like an international who's who,
and whose bands over the years have included Rotodoti, Natto Quartet
"It really is a social unit," Perkis said of the improv scene. "At one
point in the film, Gino [Robair] talks about it being like a family.
It really is a cohesive scene, and it's almost like being in one large
band over the course of years. And when other improvisers come into
town from elsewhere to play, it's often revealed how there is sort of
a shared Bay Area aesthetic and idiom -- a different dialect than what
people coming in might be doing."
Perkis pinpoints humor as one distinctive element in the Bay Area
artistic sensibility and names instrument-builder Harry Partch as an
especially influential inspiration for West Coast innovation. Also, as
have others, he identifies a "relaxed California quality" and a
"Pacific Rim" sense of internationalism.
The idea of trying to capture a slice of all that on film came to him
about four years ago. "It percolated for a long time because I was
actually hoping someone else would do it," Perkis said. "I'd been
thinking that this scene needed to be better documented. At one point,
I thought I'd do a book of interviews with people, or a radio thing.
It just slowly built to this idea that I should do a film."
Over the past 30 years, the mostly underground scene has established
intermittently visible outposts in now-you-see-them, now-you-don't
venues like Beanbender's, Tuva Space and, currently, Oakland's 21
Grand. "There's always some kind of volunteer energy that rises up out
of the community and eventually gets burned out," Perkis noted. "There
are good times and bad times, and they're not that different from each
The Bay Area improv scene may be a serially homeless and occasionally
ephemeral entity, but thanks to Perkis, it now has a good, permanent,
slice-of-life document of its quirky creativity.
Tim Perkis' film, "Noisy People: Improvising a Musical Life,"
premieres Wednesday, April 25, at the Pacific Film Archive, 2575
Bancroft Way, Berkeley. The featured musicians will be on hand to
perform live. Showtime 8 p.m.; tickets $8 ($4 BAM/PFA members,
students; $5 UC Berkeley faculty and staff, seniors, youth or
disabled). For more information, call (510) 642-1124.