Sculptures of Sound

Oliver DiCicco founded Mobius Operandi as a showcase for his experimental instruments. They're beautiful to look at. But is it music?

But if the group wasn't quite ready to play for an audience, it still found ways to perform: DiCicco took to producing vast, multimedia performance evenings at SOMAR, extravaganzas that called to mind everything from dada to '50s Fluxus "happenings" to Partch's own productions. "Each show would get a little more elaborate," says DiCicco, "and I'd start to design sets that made sound and the performers would interact with [them], and then pretty soon we started moving the audience through the shows and creating spaces and having the story unfold in a very physical way."

In this format, the musicians became performers, the instruments, a part of the set -- sometimes, indeed, the stars. This was no accident: DiCicco's strange instruments are meant to amaze and amuse, but most of all make people think of the endless possibilities they imply. "I look at what I do as both visual art and sonic art," says DiCicco. "They're both equally important to me. I spend time making the instruments look nice because I feel they're pieces of sculpture." And Whitehead, who began as a sculptor, says, "I like the sculptural aspect of things. That's important to me."

This emphasis on the visual aspect has landed both of their instruments in museum shows -- samples of DiCicco's handiwork are loaned out frequently to traveling exhibitions, and both had instruments in the recent "Sounds Like Art" exhibit at Yerba Buena, curated by musician and composer Beth Custer, who also used some of their instruments in her Vinculum Symphony, which fused local improvisers, a chamber ensemble, and 10 West Coast experimental instrument builders.

Mobius, Operating: Jason Reinier, Christie Winn, Pamela Winfrey, and Oliver DiCicco.
Mobius, Operating: Jason Reinier, Christie Winn, Pamela Winfrey, and Oliver DiCicco.

"I find them all beautiful to look at," says Custer of the experimental instruments she chose for the show. "I think they're all great ... in Oliver's case, he's building beautiful sculptures -- they're like Italian nouveau, or something," she adds, laughing.

On the other hand, the beauty of experimental instruments -- especially DiCicco's -- leads to the charge that their "novelty" detracts from their musical worth. "Some of his [DiCicco's] stuff, to be honest, doesn't sound all that great," says Custer. "But he's learning. He keeps challenging himself." Bart Hopkin, who runs Experimental Musical Instruments, a California-based organization that promotes the instruments and, until recently, published a quarterly newspaper, agrees: "A rap against Oliver's instruments that comes up sometimes is that they are more impressive visually than sonically. There may be something to that, but I suspect Oliver can't help it -- he's a diligent worker in the shop and always does a beautiful job of putting the instruments together."

Whitehead and DiCicco both acknowledge the musical challenges their work creates. "One thing I've realized," says Whitehead, "is that the more instruments I have, the less well I play any one of them."

"It's not like you've been playing your guitar for 10 years and you just show up at the gig and play the song," says DiCicco. "You know, we've got to learn the song and the instrument, so that's why it takes so long and why it can be so frustrating at times."

Only in the last year did DiCicco feel Mobius Operandi was ready to record an album, and the result was What Were We Thinking, a title DiCicco gleaned from an audience member's remark at one of the band's shows. The album documents an almost total metamorphosis from the band's early, improvisational focus -- "Pop music for experimental instruments" is how DiCicco describes it -- and features the vocals of Winn and Winfrey, with the role of the instruments understated. "I've got two good vocalists in the group, so we feel that lyrics is something we like to explore," he says. "And when you've got people that sing that well, why not use their talents?" The result is an album that, in its best moments, approaches a Waits-like weirdness, with instruments like the Drone Drum, the Timbajo, and the Crawdad contributing carnival sounds. But in weaker moments, it sounds simply like New Age pop.

Now that DiCicco feels comfortable with the band's prowess on his instruments, he expects the next Mobius Operandi album to be somewhat looser, more improvisational. He may even go back to producing ambitious, large-scale performances, which he abandoned due to the sheer amount of work and money involved.

"Probably the thing I find most valuable about Oliver's work," says Hopkin, "is his approaching it with the ensemble in mind. He set out from the start to make a workable ensemble, and he's done that very successfully. This isn't just about instruments and their mechanics, it's about how a set of instruments can be a meeting place for a group of people. And you see this manifested in the fact that he has brought together wonderful groups of people to play the instruments."

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