Tales from the Junkyard

Gino Robair is living proof that anything -- anything -- can be turned into a percussion instrument

Robair tends to gravitate toward players not unlike himself, who are able to create from a totally original sound space. "I like to play with people who avoid their instrument's clichés," he says. He also thrives in the small-combo context, where he can make an intimate connection with "extreme focus on a microcosm of sounds." Those concepts are best illustrated on the recently issued Buddy Systems, a compilation of duo and trio performances recorded between 1995 and 1998, featuring local luminaries Matthew Sperry, Tim Perkis, Carla Kihlstedt, Dan Plonsey, Oluyemi Thomas, and Splatter Trio's Myles Boisen and Dave Barrett, as well as choice out-of-towners John Butcher, LaDonna Smith, and Otomo Yoshihide.

The lead track, "Tangle" -- with Robair, electronics guru Perkis, and U.K. tenor saxophonist Butcher -- surges with fractured alien voices that entwine with such prickled symmetry they seem to emanate from the craggy craw of a single otherworldly beast. The thorough amalgam of the individual instruments compels the listener to take in the whole-music experience, which is a far more rewarding, if initially disorienting, way to experience the newness of the sounds. Another exemplary title, "Lead Me, Lord," jumps off from a central, ricocheting motif set up by Robair, derived from a small motor covered with a gong and placed on a floor tom. Around this rhythmic patter, CD manipulator-turntablist Yoshihide and guitarist Boisen layer a complex series of machine-like noises and samples of an old gospel-blues record. The music flows in waves -- beautiful, gripping, unsettling -- with expectations foiled every step of the way for both player and listener alike.

Managing the inevitable arc of unpredictability is the improvisor's trade. But Robair's work on Buddy Systemsand 12 Milagritos, an exceptional recording to be released this week with John Butcher (on tenor and soprano sax) and recent Bay Area transplant Matthew Sperry (on prepared contrabass), pushes the parameters of possibility to the outmost edge of so-called out music. The tonal colors these players get as both individuals and a collective are a revelation. With haunting timbral transmutations at the forefront, and a virtual absence of melody, harmony, or any traditional sense of rhythm, 12 Milagritos is almost like industrial music minus the monotonous beats and affected vocals. There are lots of cranky, creaky squeals and squawks, dynamic zigzags, deeply resonant drones, hums, pops, spits, and metallic sputter -- as if Man has been subsumed into the Machine and the only sounds utterable stem directly from the unnatural union of grinding gears, breath, and blood.

Gino Robair: "I just show up with a paper bag of things and a bow."
Gino Robair: "I just show up with a paper bag of things and a bow."

Details

Gino Robair appears with Matthew Sperry and John Butcher (who will also play solo) on Thursday, June 22, at 8 p.m., at New Langton Arts, 1246 Folsom Street. Tickets are $8 general and $6 for New Langton members, students, and seniors; call 626-5416.

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"We have a lot of sonic crossover," explains Sperry in simple physical terms. "I prepare my instrument quite a bit with a lot of different pieces of wood and a couple pieces of metal. I stick them in the strings, sometimes run them over the strings or over the body of the instrument. I cross over into a lot of percussive sounds and Gino crosses over into a lot of stringed instrument sounds." Robair adds, "Butcher tries to kind of make electronic-sounding noises with his acoustic instrument, and I'm trying to make sounds that don't sound like a regular percussionist or drummer. So I get the bow out a lot and use motors. Same with Matthew, who sometimes plays more on the things in his strings than on the strings."

So Robair and his buddies essentially gut the common preconceptions of their instruments in a bid to attain an unreal sort of beauty, which blooms from what the drummer calls "the density of the improvising experience." Startlingly original, the effort often seems more like a metal shop possessed than what usually passes for creative music these days. But Robair's unconcerned. "I don't really worry about if I'm making music anymore," he says. "I've been a musician long enough; it's going to be music to somebody -- if not to everybody."

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