RPM Orchestra makes nontraditional and way hypnotic sounds (they've called themselves a "proto-industrial Americana" band) that are even more compelling live, because their performances are evocative, multidisciplinary, and of a piece with the very breath and sweat of the toiling musicians.
Audio recording can't quite capture the headlong immersion that best suits appreciation of their dramatic stuff (though they do get some underground radio play), and a video recording is neither sensitive nor encompassing enough to approach what real-time perception provides. That rare, lightning-bolt quality makes an RPM performance an Event with a capital E, but also creates the major obstacle to appreciating them, in my experience.
I can't tell you, for instance, "It'll be like this or that," because even if it winds up being true, I don't know that now. And when something is as unique and visceral as RPM's shows, you might hesitate to walk in, knowing that if you somehow wind up having a completely awful experience, it'll be hard to depart unobtrusively or without guilt. Or you might hesitate for some other reason. This is what I'm here to diminish -- any unwarranted hesitation.
Happily, there is a rather good film of a special RPM Orchestra event from March's Art Detour that included live butoh dance as an extra-cool bonus element. In fact, according to RPM's press materials, it's the first time that music was "scored live and on the spot as the Butoh dance is revealed and reacts to the music, and the Butoh music is revealed and reacts to the dance." BUTOH + MUSIC premières Saturday, June 30, at FilmBar, with a couple of other short pieces, and we had the opportunity to preview it for you.
BUTOH + MUSIC, featuring internationally trained and experienced choreographer and dancer Debra Minghi, was recorded at Bragg's Pie Factory by several cameras, including audience cellphones, and edited into a beautiful stand-alone film by Bryn Corbett. Here's the thing -- if you can't imagine liking a film that starts with a lady in whiteface grimacing and lunging around with a handful of straw for six minutes, then throwing it away and dancing for another 21 minutes in surreal, un-pretty, and incomprehensible ways, be upfront with yourself.
However, it is gorgeous and unusual, the soundtrack is as good as it gets, and butoh is supposed to be sort of full of nihilistic despair. You like new experiences, right? And this one is well-executed. Plus, if you're a little afraid of performance artists (understandably), this can be like reverse methadone: Start with the movie, and move on to the hard stuff later.
Another film by Corbett is on the program: an RPM performance at Modified Arts' 7 Ate 9 series, Sat Ate My Piezo, a Gypsy-waltz/industrial jazz, "dieselpunk" piece. The bill is rounded out with a 30-minute version of Tod Browning's 1927 silent German film The Unknown, which stars Lon Chaney as Alonzo the Armless, projected with a recording of a live RPM accompaniment from a 2011 showing. (RPM Orchestra often plays accompaniment for silents at FilmBar -- another way to get to know them.)
Sat Ate My Piezo is interesting to watch but somewhat less successful as a document of the live performance experience. It's dimly lit, and a camera can't grab what the human eye can. Still, it's haunting and quirky, and not too long, with a clear beginning, middle, and end.
The program begins at 10 p.m. Saturday, June 30, at FilmBar, 815 North 2nd Street, 602-595-9187. Admission is $8; you can order advance tickets here or get them at the door.