MUSIC Shellacked gummy worms, cherubic Ebay’d figurines, one of those ships in a glass bottle usually reserved for nautical-themed offices, a red bike reflector, a holarctic blue copper butterfly, a vintage stenograph. The physical items sit on separate pedestals as part of the release for Michael Zapruder’s newest album, Pink Thunder (www.michaelzapruder.com).
You have through Nov. 18 to visit the Curiosity Shoppe on Valencia in the Mission, stick some headphones on your ears, and press a small red button on a bubblegum-pink square circuit board affixed with a kitschy sculpture of a bear holding an empty pot attached, or that bowl of shellacked gummy worms, or that holarctic blue copper butterfly, and hear the single track encased within. Zapruder dubbed the structures “portmanteaus” after the linguistic term meaning two blended words.
These particular portmanteus are blends of vision and sound, sculpture and music. The objects, and the individual songs that pump out of them — Zapruder’s free-form pop built from poetry — force you, the listener, to think beyond your lazy current manner of music absorption.
“Just generally, I love the idea of a totally unconnected song. This is a song. That feels like an object that’s somewhere closer to the stature of the music, as opposed to a CD. This celebrates music. It dresses it up,” Oakland’s Zapruder says, smiling in the center of his portmanteaus.
Plus, it’s fun to touch the art.
“Imagine if you went into a record store and there weren’t that many things but each thing was really cool, you wanted to pick it up and play with it, and there was only one copy of each thing. Don’t you think that’d be cool?” He laughs after he says it. Could this be the future of the now-shuttered mega record stores? Could downsizing have saved the behemoths?
Of course, it all goes a bit deeper than that, the vision behind this multifaceted, six-year-long project.
“I think it’s good when people listen to stuff in an uncertain state. So many listening experiences are so familiar. You’re working on your computer and you’re listening, or you’re in a club. And it can be amazing. But you know what you’re going to get, you know the structure. [Pink Thunder] songs are all experimental, all free-composed. Hopefully they’re very listenable, but they’re odd, and I thought it’d be good for people to be in a ‘what is this?’ state.”
Though the songs are also being released through a few more traditional venues. Pink Thunder as a whole is the portmanteaus, each with one of 22 songs that are also compiled into CD form and 12-inch vinyl on The Kora Records (known for releasing records such as Philip Glass’ recent Reworked), seven-inches released by Howells Transmitter, which Zapruder helps run, and a bright pink poetry book, put out by Black Ocean.
The whole process took half a decade to create, completed with the Oct. 16 release on The Kora and the installation at Curiosity Shoppe, which opened in mid-October. Though clearly, the wider range of this project, beyond the physical objects, is the relationship between poetry and music.
It all began with a poetry tour organized by Seattle’s Wave Books; Zapruder’s renowned poet brother Matthew helps run the small publishing house. Zapruder jumped on the Green Tortoise poetry bus for a week of the 50-city tour and after a few false starts, he came up with the idea: “I wanted to see if songs could communicate those same kinds of things that these poets’ poems do.”
He gathered up poems by the likes of the Silver Jews’ David Berman, Carrie St. George Comer, Gillian Conoley, Noelle Kocot, Sierra Nelson, Hoa Nguyen, D. A. Powell, Mary Ruefle, James Tate, Joe Wenderoth, and his brother, and turned them into lyrics.
“The poets are such badasses,” Zapruder says, when asked if he sees the project as a way to deliver poetry to the masses. “Most of them are better known than me. The idea that I could give something to them, introduce people to their work, that’s incredible.”
As musician-writer Scott Pinkmountain says in the book’s introduction, “these are poets who understand that the big grabs — Love, Family, Confession, Death — can no longer be approached directly in a convincing way. Today’s audience is too savvy, too wary of manipulation and sentimentality. These poems instead stake their foundation on the minutia of accidental revelation, trusting the details of life to point out the bigger picture.”
We, as the music listener, hear this in the subtlety of a track like “Book of Life,” created from Noelle Kocot’s story about a monk and a phoenix meeting in the woods. At one point, the monk gives the phoenix a squirming worm — hence the shellacked bowl of gummy worms portmanteau at Curiosity Shoppe.
There are slightly more literal interpretations in songs such as the deceptively upbeat string-heavy “Storm Window,” based on the poem by Mary Ruefle, which tells a story of a sedentary couple — “She sat writing little poems of mist/he in his armchair/reading blood-red leather novels/their three-legged white cat wandering between them/24 champagne glasses sparkle on a shelf/never a one to be broken.” It’s about empty domestic harmony, so Zapruder created the portmanteau with that cheery Ebay bear holding an empty bowl. The found object is eerily revealing.
The project’s title came from Zapruder’s brother’s poem “Opera,” which ends with the line,”still riding your bike under pink hi-fidelity thunder.” (The object represented here is a red bicycle reflector.)
One of the more arresting combinations is for the song “John Lomax: I Work With Negroes.” The object is an old voltage meter. The poem, written by award-winning African-American author Tyehimba Jess, and subsequently the song, are about John Lomax, who “discovered” fabled blues musician Lead Belly in the 1930s.
The theme throughout is of the racism of exoticism, the way Lomax exoticized Lead Belly. “Racism that’s couched in admiration, this condescending accolade,” as Zapruder describes it. “So the idea [for the voltage meter] was that he’s constantly measuring and evaluating — but also, Lomax brought all this stuff in his car on tour, hundreds of pounds of equipment, so I thought maybe he had one of those.”
The piano-driven song is brief, just a minute and 35 seconds, but shifts from quiet plea to deep gravelly question mark, and back again, using multiple vocal backing tracks.
The songs often deviate, in tone, and in tempo. As a whole, it’s an impressive, if difficult listen. There are so many layers, so many twists and turns. They don’t have expected pop hooks, there isn’t a whole lot of repetition. Zapruder lets the songs wander, as if he’s creating a melodic new method of storytelling, occasionally dipping into child-like wonder. He builds songs in a Jon Brian-esque style, with Elliot Smith-like sensitivity and raw ache in his vocals, treading ever-so-lightly over tracks of electric guitar, drums, synthesizers, and in some cases, marimba or brass horns.
The actual songwriting process was quick. He wrote half of the them during a solo 10-day residency in a Napa cabin. The recording of said tracks took considerably longer — nearly three years, beginning in December of 2008. The Oakland resident hopped around with the songs in mind, recording some vocals in his own studio, some instruments at Closer Studios in San Francisco, and New, Improved in Oakland (where tUnE-yArDs and her ilk record), and mixed at Tiny Telephone.
He sang and played many of the instruments, but got backup musical help from dozens of fellow musicians, including Nate Brenner (aka Natronix) of tUnE-yArDs, bassist Mark Allen-Piccolo, and multi-instrumentalist Marc Capelle. An aside: Allen-Piccolo and his father are the ones who designed the music player circuit in all the wooden bases of the portmanteaus, as they have a circuit design business.
So Zapruder pieced together recordings from different studios and time periods in a situation he describes as a “free for all.”
“It took years,” Zapruder says with a shrug, “That’s what it’s like when you do something you’ve never done before. You make a lot of mistakes.”
And it is a relatively unique idea — there isn’t much to compare this project with. Zapruder mentions Tristan Perich’s 1-Bit Symphony on Bang on a Can Records, an electronic composition in five movements on a microchip in the jewel case. Also, a release from German ambient-experimental label tomlab that featured an album with an object (though the music wasn’t inside the object as with Pink Thunder).
In his own career, Zapruder’s recorded three well-received albums; Spin Magazine once called his work prolific, and described his compositions as “in the mold of Sufjan Stevens or Andrew Bird,” a pretty weighty and favorable comparison in the indie music world. But so far, he’s never done anything quite like Pink Thunder. The stunt for which he’s perhaps most well known is 1999’s 52 Songs, in which he wrote, recorded, and posted one new song a week for a full year; and this was back before the ease of the modern web with ubiquitous sites like Youtube, Bandcamp, or Soundcloud.
So while he’s dabbled in the avant garde, this was certainly the first time he Ebay’d and thrift-shopped physical items (he went to Urban Ore in Berkeley) to display and interlock with his music.
And now he’s back to his other undertakings. The married father of two also works part-time at Pandora (where he was the curator of the music collection for seven years), is in graduate school for music composition at California State University East Bay, and is making another record. He’s a third of the way through recording, and hopes to put it out next year. “I have a lot of songs that didn’t come out because I’ve been working on this,” he explains. He plans to release that in object form as well.
And he’ll be taking Pink Thunder on the road in the next year as well, stopping by the Mission Creek Festival in Iowa City, lecturing at New York University, and making an appearance with Wave Books and Black Ocean at the AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) in Boston, which is “the SXSW for writers.” AWP is also where he first premiered Pink Thunder.
As he describes all this, he wonders aloud if he has dark circles around his eyes, worn from the general life trajectory, and perhaps from explaining his vision for the last hour plus while standing in the diminutive Mission store. He doesn’t have raccoon eyes today, munching on a health bar as he first describes the portmanteaus, but I can see why he’d be tired.
On the same day the Curiosity Shoppe installation closes — Nov. 18 — Zapruder will also perform Pink Thunder live at Amnesia. Earlier in the day, there will be a closing party at the store; that will be followed by the live performance down the street.
At Amnesia, it’ll be a duo with backing tracks and audience participation. “Honestly, I think it can be hard to listen to these one after another if you’ve never heard them before,” he explains. “It’s a lot of new information. Without the help of familiar forms, you’re dealing with new sounds but also like, ‘where is this thing going?'” To help with that, there will be samples and audience members will likely be invited to come up and trigger different sounds during the show. A mad scientist approach to live music.
“Even with everything that’s going on, the main thing is that I’m a musician, and that’s why I did this,” says Zapruder. “It’s to clear the way for these songs to get through to people. The music is the center. I want people to hear it and be affected by it. But that probably goes without saying.”
Through Nov. 18
855 Valencia, SF
MICHAEL ZAPRUDER CLOSING NIGHT SHOW
Nov. 18, 8pm
853 Valencia, SF