Sounds like a pretty cool yard sale, huh?
Well, it could be, or you may have just stumbled upon a performance by Tempe-based quintet Tent/City, the Valley's leaders in improvised music.
Together since January 2006, multi-instrumentalists James Roemer, Marla Thayer, James Fella, John Ryan, and Ashlea Hohm create unique, spontaneous improvisations using everything but the kitchen sink (though you never know with them). The group's sonic sculptures can be classified as "sound art." Their unique, easily digestible music blends old-timey analog instrumentation with new-school digital effects. One minute, your ears are in the middle of a film noir soundtrack, half-expecting Joan Crawford or Lauren Bacall to materialize from a Hitchcockian nightmare to tap you on the shoulder. Then the mood changes and you're entranced by a meditative melody straight out of a bedtime lullaby.
But don't expect to hear songs during a Tent/City show performances usually feature a single extended improvised composition, created God-knows-where. Sometimes they play inside an oversized camping tent (hence, the name) or other makeshift abodes such as a PVC pipe structure flying red and yellow streamers. They once performed on the Grand Avenue sidewalk, urban camping style, complete with curious drunkards and transients stumbling out of Bikini Lounge to marinate in the pensive sounds. During a recent show in Tempe, they set up next to the railroad tracks, and ended the performance with Roemer producing sounds by throwing river rocks and scraping a beer can on the rails while running down the tracks.
That's all unique, but what's the appeal for folks who equate music with clear-cut properties such as structure, meter, and melody birthed from the European Western classical tradition? According to Fella, "There's always some sort of melody that happens at some point, which is something most experimentalists lack. Tent/City is different because 99 percent of the time, we aren't abrasive. If you want to hear 'songs,' it's not going to be what you want to listen to. But if you listen to music because you like feeling something, then it's more your cup of tea. We don't sound like Godspeed, A Silver Mt. Zion, or Mogwai, but if you can sit down and listen to a 20-minute Mogwai or Godspeed song and you are feeling the various pieces of the movement, it's essentially the same idea. We just play it in a different manner."
Tent/City frontman Roemer shares a similar sentiment. "I feel like our music has the same universal qualities that people enjoy when hiking in the woods or being out in the desert or watching clouds . . . beauty that happens on a slower time-scale, with subtle movements. Once you can slow down and notice and just begin paying attention and being present, you see it and begin to really enjoy it," Roemer says. "This way of paying attention has become so inconsistent with modern/city life that I think a lot of people don't even realize that it's in them . . . based on comments we get after playing shows, I think our music sometimes brings people into a 'zone.'"
The ensemble's live performances are definitely consciousness-changing. During a May 31 gig, this zone-out aura was created in the storage yard behind the Trunk Space with a box of bells, a miniature xylophone, mbira (African thumb piano), vocal whines and howls, and Roemer and Fella's atmospheric loops (created by the sampling of live sounds and subsequent manipulation through various effects). Huddled together in a circle on the ground, the area around the five musicians looked like an exploded thrift store. More than a dozen crisscrossed wires connected to various amps, and electronic gadgetry competed for space with more conventional instruments such as clarinet and electric guitar.
This may sound like a circus on paper, but that's why traditional music can be notated while on-the-spot improvisations aren't mapped out beforehand. Renowned minimalists like Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage, and Rafael Toral were able to score their "found sound" concertos with varying degrees of success. However, the experimental spirit tends to lose its invigorating edge once documented on staff paper.
Tent/City's game plan at gigs, like a sandlot quarterback drawing X's and O's in the dirt, normally isn't discussed until minutes before the band takes center stage. "[The May 31 show] was the least we've ever planned. We decided to start quiet, then get loud, then quiet again, and that's it," Fella says, adding that the band has never held a formal practice and, like the nature of the improvisational beast, successes sometimes occur accidentally. "When we have planned more, it's usually about specific sounds that we want to work on. Sometimes James [Roemer] and I will discover something from our pedals that we really like, so we meet and say, 'I have this idea about starting or ending a specific way.'"
Unlike free jazz, which requires a completely different consciousness to appreciate, or bare-bones sound studies à la Steve Reich or Terry Riley, Tent/City's mad-scientist approach to sonic surrealism rests comfortably between carefully calculated 4/4 time and a free improv orgy. You'll hear a significantly different concert every time they play.
"[During Tent/City gigs], I've played saxophone, guitar, voice, accordion, violin, bells, bowls, recorder, pedals, drums, kids' toys, the ground. Whatever is around me, instrument or otherwise," Hohm says. "I think I may have beat on a bag of potting soil once . . . It's been over a year's worth of grabbing whatever is around."
Fella, who also runs the progressive label Gilgongo Records, which specializes in unique noise and creative music, procures sound from the most unlikely places. "By taking source sounds from the cables being plugged and unplugged and feeding that through pedals and miscellaneous objects, I have essentially played nothing."
When Fella isn't playing "nothing," he is known to fiddle with more instruments simultaneously than Rahsaan Roland Kirk, the eccentric saxophone virtuoso who would jam several horns into his mouth at once. Drought, Tent/City's latest of four releases and its first on Gilgongo, is a 20-minute one-sided LP with a beautiful silk-screened B-side that showcases the group's experimentalism. "There's a part in the record where I was producing these echo-y sounds by flicking the bass with my right hand," Fella says. "Then I pushed a contact mic against the wall with my left hand to make noise while turning the distortion on and off with my knee. And I also had a clarinet in my mouth."
Despite the wide ranges of band members' music backgrounds (some have had formal training, others have had none whatsoever) and side projects (Fella, Ryan, and Hohm play in the hyperactive punk trio, Soft Shoulder; Thayer and Hohm recently formed a duo specializing in gloomy harmonies; and Roemer dabbles in collage recordings and visual art), there's a seamless interplay among the five members off- and onstage. The only point of contention seems to be the one thing a band should worry about the least: the name.
According to Roemer, local musician/artist Chris Corwin coined the name as a "bad joke that stuck," when the various band members would jam out in a tent in Roemer's backyard. "The name's association with the local fucked-up jail is unfortunate, but obviously expected."
Fella speaks more candidly about the issue. "Most of the members don't like the name. We are kicking off the tour in Prescott [on June 26 with Raccoo-oo-oon] and I guess there are a shitload of punk kids who think we are a bunch of stupid white kids who aren't funny. We aren't trying to be funny. If anyone were to have a conversation with any of the band members about the real Tent City, [Maricopa County Sheriff] Joe Arpaio, or politics on any level, I think that problem would be quickly eliminated."
Instead of overhauling the band's moniker, Roemer made the executive decision to add a slash between "Tent" and "City" to establish a visual and philosophical dichotomy.
"I accept the name as though it was just randomly assigned, and now it's up to us to assign our own personal meaning. Tent/City is consistent with various dualities that the band is about. Acoustic/electric, improvised/structured, hidden/exposed, traditional instruments/found junk, formally trained/self-taught, live/recorded, chaotic/repetitive, and deliberate/accidental."
Despite the slight controversy, Tent/City won't be held prisoner by the name. In the end, the ensemble hopes to continue challenging and enlightening crowds, one unique performance at a time.
"There's a really special energy and excitement created when we're completely improvising and it turns into something really beautiful sounding," Roemer says. "The music takes over and begins directing us, or just simply flows through us, and we're beyond even having a decision in the matter. And I think the audience feels it, too, and gets pulled into it. Those are the most rewarding moments of being in the band."