Way, Way Out

By the way the line of fashionably dressed people took fidgety glances at their Swatches and stood on tiptoes to peek into the dark doorway before them, it was clear that something important was about to happen. Soon 77-year-old Jean Jacques Perrey, the preeminent virtuoso of an exotic vacuum tube-powered predecessor to the synthesizer called the Ondioline, was about to give his first live concert in the United States. The record that Perrey released 40 years ago, The In Sound From Way Out!, proved that France's musique concrète movement (a method of composing for spliced taped sounds instead of traditional instruments) wasn't the sole domain of stuffy academics. Armed with the Ondioline, Perrey produced bubbly beats and tape splices that were made for dancing. And though he was narrowly saved from obscurity, he has slowly become a cult hero among electronic music enthusiasts, about a hundred of whom stood in the alley outside Recombinant Media Labs in SOMA last week, looking impatient.

The mood improved when the crowd was ushered in and greeted by modestly priced beers, a campy DJ set, and a wall of analog synthesizers on the softly lit stage. The largest of these was roughly the size of a Yugo. Beneath the tangle of wires, its innumerable winking red lights reflected in the stainless steel levers and dials.

When Perrey finally emerged in an oversized sparkling gold lab coat to match his wondrous gadgets, he perched behind the Ondioline at stage center. Slurping from a bottle of Diet Coke and smiling broadly, he looked for all the world like a grandfatherly game-show host, recently rescued from outer space.

Over the next hour, the darkened audience sat rapt while Perrey and Washington-based composer Dana Countryman (and, ahem, the occasionally uncooperative compact disc accompaniment) spun dials, twisted knobs, and pressed buttons to produce a sweet rush of sugary, sci-fi melodies. The sounds, created mysteriously in the bellies of their fantastic machines, had the synthesized, surreal sheen of the early atomic age.

The crowd gathered round the performers and lingered for autographs when the concert was over. The alley outside emptied. Across from it, the door to the adjacent building was open, and inside the 14 members of Jeff Sanford's Cartoon Jazz Band gathered for a rehearsal in a brightly lit workshop. The group was dressed in socks with sandals, baseball caps, and glasses — not for an audience. With a quiet count-off, they launched into a samba with a comfortable, easy beat. In the alley, the sound was rich and warm, and, bouncing off the concrete walls, inimitably human.

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