Clip: Outcast Orchestras
- Carl W.'s column reminded me to post this:
Oakland intellectuals make punk rock and porn flicks go orchestral. BY
Punk and porn are fundamentally similar when you get to the nit and grit.
Both belong to the vast, varied terrain called "trash culture,"
encompassing all the schlocky tastes we're supposed to abandon after high
But it would be naive to assume that everyone past the age of nineteen has
outgrown the vicelike grip of these two particular vices. As adults, we
either 1) indulge in secret, or 2) find ways to bring our indulgences into
the straight world. Enter the Punk Rock Orchestra and its unrelated
spiritual twin, the PornOrchestra -- two Bay Area groups with a shared
interest in intellectualizing their lurid pleasures.
The idea: Reinterpret the flamboyance of punk and porn in a chamber music
context. The result: a hybrid and bohemian sound, tastefully revising,
well, the tasteless.
Oboes: Punk as fuck
When you hear the word "punk," what comes to mind? Kids with safety pins in
their noses, looking fashionably scruffy as they guzzle forties outside
Gilman Street on a Saturday night? Jaded teens writing poetry about Black
Sunday, which invariably is followed by Blacker Monday and Even Blacker
Tuesday? That gorgeous combination of emotional detachment and bohemian
oddballism? It's not that punks are necessarily cooler than everybody else,
even though they act like it. In fact, it's usually the nerds who gravitate
to punk culture, because being punk is a way of being outlawish, and kinda
About a year ago, David Ferguson posted an ad on Craigslist summoning
musicians to play "classic punk tunes on classical instruments." The
impetus: a fund-raiser for Art Freedom Day, which was slated for last July,
but never actually happened. Yet the response he got was overwhelming --
former band dorks and punk connoisseurs instantly glommed on to the idea of
readapting the ferocious, wacked-out music they listened to in high school.
"It spread like an ugly stain," Ferguson gloats. Eventually dozens of
people were gathering for Punk Rock Orchestra's bimonthly rehearsals.
John Gluck -- aka Michael Tilson Gluck, the conductor of Punk Rock
Orchestra -- is a punk geek par excellence. His CD collection, which
probably weighs more than five average-sized teenagers, includes titles by
the Cramps, Wire, and Jefferson Airplane, along with 25 Bob Dylan albums,
just as many Frank Zappa titles, and all of Beethoven's symphonies. During
shows he bounces around the stage like Jonathan Richman on a combination of
steroids and Jolt Cola.
Despite his geek cred and musical preferences, Gluck seems to have an
anomalous presence in both the punk and classical worlds. After all, he's a
software quality-assurance engineer with a wife and kids and respectable
clothes. Boasting zero classical training, he joined the orchestra without
knowing what effects individual instruments were capable of, and without
the ability to read music beyond the key of C. He taught himself how to
score orchestral arrangements in a couple months' time, using books, Web
sites, and a music software program.
Gluck's high-tech-y approach to music -- like his middle-class lifestyle --
may seem disarmingly Silicon Valley; in other words, not so punk. But
Ferguson defends Gluck wholeheartedly: "After all, the principle of punk is
to subvert the establishment, but in order to do that effectively, we need
spies." He points at the conductor. "Our spies are convincingly close."
In fact, Ferguson is preoccupied with linking Silicon Valley culture to the
world of outsider art. He's cognizant of the wounds that still fester from
San Francisco's tech boom, wherein tons of artists were evicted from their
homes by techie carpetbaggers. Despite that, he hopes to set up a symbiotic
relationship between well-off yuppies and beleaguered artists. After all,
it's thanks to a few benefactors that Punk Rock Orchestra has enough
bling-bling to sustain itself.
Ferguson admits he's an expert schmoozer -- a skill he applies to the DIY
ethic of punk: "Punk culture is self-sufficient without anyone being
employed in the conventional sense. After not paying the bills for a while,
you realize it was a waste of time to pay them in the first place."
Orchestra members may brag, facetiously, about their fashionable punk ethic
and their ability to finagle money from yuppies. In reality, Punk Rock
Orchestra tries to avoid punker-than-thou bravado -- or any form of
cliquism, for that matter. Neither a punk purist nor a classical music snob
would survive in the group. Those who attempted to join quickly found
themselves at odds with the orchestra's lack of hierarchy. "I've
encountered a lot of classical musicians who hate the social aspects of the
project," Ferguson says. "They think that volunteering to play -- and not
having a first chair, second chair, etc. -- breaks the compact of their
"I've dealt with purists on both ends," Gluck admits. "And they've usually
had to leave. One guy couldn't deal with the fact that we weren't playing
Devo. And classical people often try to impose structure: They need
bandleaders, an art director, a librarian. In other words, office politics,
which are so not punk. We decided to loosen up the rules."
New entrance music for the sexy gardener
Nobody's denying that porn soundtracks are uniformly awful: They alternate
between Michael Bolton-y beats for your sheets and the balmy jingles you'd
hear in a Lubriderm commercial. It's debatable whether porn producers
naively assume these to be the slow jams that turn us on, or if they're
merely a result of porn's DIY ethic, wherein some schmuck with a laptop
gets conscripted to whip out the cheapest, most standardized score possible.
Shannon Mariemont, who started PornOrchestra in January 2003, thinks of
porno films as a "tragic shortcut to intimacy"; porn's jump-in-the-haystack
sex scenes become a way of avoiding human relationships. Basically, she
says, the industry tries to streamline us into "associating the
wah-wah-wacka-wacka sound of porn" with screen sexiness.
In January, she e-mailed several musician friends and colleagues, asking,
"Don't you think porn soundtracks just plain suck?" Those who responded
were inclined to agree, most with the caveat that they actually aren't avid
porn-watchers. These musicians decided that by creating their own porn
scores, they could draw human emotions out of the oddly inhuman medium.
The idea? An instrumental potluck, with everything from Jake Rodriguez'
charm harp to Laurie Amat's prepared zither to Italian bird calls --
PornOrchestra recruits most of its members from the oddball world of
experimental music. Percussionist Moe! Staiano plays found objects: food
pans, pressure caps, sheet metals, pipes, antlers, cookie tins, and other
doohickeys. Improvisational pornductor Gino Robair, a member of Club Foot
Orchestra and Splatter Trio (he's also the owner of Rastascan Records and
an associate editor for Electronic Musician magazine), says he "has a
fascination with resonating objects." Finally, vocalist and keyboardist
Kattt Sammon has spent years composing music for theater, and often
ventures into gibberish when she sings.
PornOrchestra makes pure, super-distilled, improvisational numbers --
meaning that members never rehearse before a performance. Six-string
guitarist Lucio Menegnon (aka the Reverend Screaming Fingers) admits he's
not sure what to expect: "I sometimes scrape guitar strings, blow air
horns, or play wineglasses. It can be cacophonous or beautiful -- you just
have to feed off the group's energy."
The concept behind PornOrchestra is suspiciously snobbish: You don't
imagine many of these musicians actually curling up with a porn flick in
their spare time. It's a little over-ironic and a little more
over-intellectual. But for the most part, members don't need to use
highfalutin language -- their project is cool and unusual enough to stand
by itself. Menegnon says there's a political impetus here "only in the fact
that poking fun at something is a way of making a statement."
Mullets, Mohawks, Mooks, and Mills graduates agree!
It's worth noting that it takes a rare balance of geek cred and
artsy-fartsyness to fit into multiple countercultures. It's no picnic
trying to woo the wine-and-cheese crowd and the surly-kids-with-backpacks
crowd simultaneously. Both orchestras seem to straddle the line without
trying too hard. In March, the Punk Rock Orchestra's string quartet
performed at an experimental film showing at Venue 9 in San Francisco,
where the program notes were so loaded with brainiac language, just reading
them might've made you smarter. A couple weeks later, the Orchestra played
at Gilman, all but knocking the tight, torn pants off a mostly teenage
audience with operatic renditions of the Avengers' "American in Me" and
Fear's "Let's Have a War."
As for the PornOrchestra, when it debuted at Oakland's 21 Grand, its mix of
junk percussion, clamorous horns, and sex-toy slides wowed the audience
more than the smutty shots onscreen. (Yes, the films accompany the
soundtracks. Leave the kiddies at home.)
Maybe both these groups consist of artists in a stunted adolescence who
couldn't part with the Buzzcocks just because Mahler entered their CD
collections; furthermore, they still take pleasure in sneaking off with
Dad's copy of Deep Throat. Or maybe they've found something haunting and
beautiful in high-octane sex scenes and angry, feedback-laced music.
Mariemont compares her project to taking a Twisted Sister tape off the
shelf at Rite Aid, recording your own music on it, and putting it back.
Along with Ferguson, she's stoked on this "medium is the message" way of
But when it comes to punk and porn, not everyone likes to philosophize --
some will just come for the loud, sexy parts. Fortunately, there are plenty
of those, too.
eastbayexpress.com | originally published: June 11, 2003