Meara O’Reilly has brought a book to our meeting at a café near her Mission District apartment. The author is Mary Hallock-Greenewalt, a visionary musician-inventor who worked toward synthesizing light and sound in the 1920s. It’s a special kind of musician who feels compelled to devise her own instrument, and O’Reilly takes obvious pleasure in having discovered a predecessor.
Her own tonal invention, which provides the cornerstone for her music as Avocet, is an elegant metal hanger on which a half-dozen silver forks dangle in front of contact microphones, suspended by threads of horsehair. "Michael Hurley calls it the belladonna," she notes with a laugh. O’Reilly’s instrument still doesn’t have a fixed name, although there is something of an origin story: "I had these amazing pieces of silver my godmother had given me. I would drop them, and they would ring out for 10 seconds or so. It was so beautiful."
The Sebastopol native devised her resonating instrument while living on a dairy farm in Vermont. "I played a show with it when it was really in prototype form, and I was actually using my own hair," she recounts. "My hair wasn’t thick enough, so it kept breaking. It actually sounds really good, though, better than the horse hair." Avocet’s hear-a-pin-drop live sets make for a bracing contrast with O’Reilly’s previous gig with Feathers, a New England psych-folk collective that released a single album before parting company. The instrument-swapping group afforded her the social comfort of a band, but it was only one part of a private musical development encompassing everything from noise rock to gamelan.
O’Reilly periodically switches to guitar in her sets, though her unconventional fascination with sound still shines through on the more familiar instrument. She sings songs from Greece and Mongolia and professes a deep interest in the distinct tonal possibilities of different tongues. The drifting sustain of her performances is generally blue, with notes and melodies in free-flight, perilously close to oblivion. In spite of the obvious volume differential, Avocet might fairly be compared with any number of sculptural drone bands. She is, after all, a student of metal. "I’ve been trying to learn about different eras of silver because there are different putf8gs and compositions of the metal," O’Reilly says. "So other than just looking at the shape and figuring out the physics of what note [a fork] would be, there’s also the composition of it." Then she finishes the thought, "I’d like to know more." 2
With Brightblack Morning Light and Iasos
Tues/14 and Oct. 15, 9:30 p.m., $15
Café Du Nord
2170 Market, SF
Also with Brightblack Morning Light
Oct. 16, 9:30 p.m., $10
3101 Shattuck, Berk.