PICTURES BY PETER GLANTZ.
A short while ago I sent you an announcement about an "experimental" Wurlitzer concert at PPAC. It happened last night and I went.
Obviously, this was not a "theatre organ concert," but a musical happening that just happened to use a theatre pipe organ as a tonal resource.
Quite frankly, I expected the worst. But it was not. mudboy and his crew treated the instrument with respect and imagination.
Probably, most traditional theatre organ music lovers would not care for the music, especially if they were prepared to sing along with "Take Me Out To The Ball Game." The music was, I guess, what you would call "minimalist", lots of repetition with relatively simple themes and sequences, but with tonal variation. The first selection was done with guitar and other effects; the remainder of the selections used just the Wurlitzer. mudboy made interesting use of the percussion instruments and traps and selected effective registrations for his music.
All of the music was original.
The closing sequence of the final piece consisted of holding a sustained "chord" and
turning the organ off - clever. In one piece, "Solo Work Better Left
to Better Feet," mudboy removed the bench and laid down next to the
pedal board and played the pedals.
The audience was a mixed bag. Clearly there were some there who thought they were going to a "Wonders of the Wurlitzer" session. Surprise! But there were a lot of younger folks there. In fact, I picked up some ideas for a new wardrobe - and I cannot wait to try out my new duds.
One of the things that struck me is that some of the music could be effective in accompanying segments of silent films - not in the traditional sense - but in a new, bold way. The music for the most part was not loud, but eerie - definitely different.
All things considered, and with an open mind, I think this happening was a plus, and I am glad that Alan Chille and PPAC supported it.
The only thing that got me upset is that they used my picture on the front of the program.
Click here to see the full program.
Headline: All The Bells And Whistles
Subhead: Mudboy Manhandles PPAC's Mighty Wurlitzer
Byline: Matt Obert
Pull Quote: The Mighty Wurlitzer is endowed with staggering power—enough to make the Wizard of Oz look like a Punch-and-Judy puppeteer.
The Providence Performing Arts Center is a perfectly-preserved vaudeville-era cathedral, and its beating heart is the Mighty Wurlitzer. On stage right (or house left, if you are in the audience) sits the console which controls a vintage pipe organ built in 1927. It's a massive affair—one of the three largest organs of its type in the world—with five rows of keyboards, crowned at the top by a double arc of red and white stop tabs like a candy-cane halo.
But pay attention to the machine behind that curtain: the console is only the control panel for a bewildering array of wind-powered whatchamacallits—whistles, bells, chimes, gongs, cymbals, snares, absurd buzzers, even a giant marimba—hidden behind titanic grilles on either side of the stage. Somewhere in the wings, or backstage, or in the basement below, a turbine blower as big as a compact car serves as the lungs of the clockwork contraption. When the air pressure builds up, the instrument is endowed with staggering power—enough to make the Wizard of Oz look like a Punch-and-Judy puppeteer.
For Raphael Lyon, who plays a custom-built electric organ under the moniker mudboy, it was love at first sight. He knew that he had to compose music for this unique instrument. Thanks to the cooperation of PPAC, and a grant from the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts, his dream came true at seven o'clock on Wednesday, June 8, 2005.
The poster for the show is a wonderful work of art designed by Alec Thibodeau (also the creator of an alternative currency known as Noney.) Screenprinted in three colors on a glossy yellow stock, it mimics the magnificent style of vaudeville-era advertisements. In the center, a meticulous line drawing depicts mudboy as a smiling orangutan seated at the Wurlitzer's filigreed console and waving its hairy hands like a conjurer. After seeing the poster around town, I knew this was one free show I couldn't miss.
At first glance, mudboy seemed a scruffy pup, more at home in a noisy Olneyville loft than in the ostentatiously plush theatre. But when he sat down to play, it became readily apparent that he was a sophisticated minimalist composer in the vein of Philip Glass, Steve Reich or Terry Riley. He was equally at ease working with somnolent bass tones and whimsically repeating figures which meshed and interlocked in hypnotic patterns.
For the first movement, he was accompanied by Eric Carlson, a slight, bespectacled guitarist who performs solo as Area C. Eric eased his heavily-effected guitar into the mix, with syrupy drones that seemed to shimmer into existence and short, birdlike chirps of feedback. For fifteen minutes, the duo mesmerized the audience—an unlikely combination of youthful hipsters and aging Wurlitzer aficionados.
In the second movement, mudboy was assisted by E. P. Talley, better known as Providence's electric-viola-wielding Ninja. The Ninja worked the console's innumerable stop tabs while mudboy played variations on a simple repeating theme, sending the crowd into a trance for another ten minutes.
The third piece found mudboy on his hands and knees below the console, playing the bass pedals with both hands—forcing air through the huge pipes with a rushing roar like distant rolling thunder, accompanied by an occasional percussive rattle and clatter as though an army of woodpeckers lurked in the wings.
At this point, mudboy stepped aside to allow Jeff Knoch (the capable Farfisa organist for local psychedelic wunderkinds Urdog) access to the console. Knoch began with a droning whir, and explored tone clusters and intervals reminiscent of the microtonal experiments of LaMonte Young or Tony Conrad. One peculiarly buzzing overtone was accompanied by a mysterious recurring glow behind the golden curtain of the house-left grille, presumably from a hidden vent opening and closing.
Knoch delved into a dark, weird, eldritch phantasmagoria of sound, but seemed content to play the organ in a more traditional style, while mudboy's fascination seemed to be more with the Wurlitzer's gadgetry, and with ways to coax the widest range of bizarre sounds from the gizmo.
After a break for thanks and acknowledgments, the fifth and final movement began shortly after eight o'clock. The Ninja and mudboy played an eerie duet, a spooky horror-vaudeville theme anchored by a looping four-note bassline, but with a carnivalesque melody in the upper registers reminiscent of Angelo Badalamenti's theme for the sinister organ-grinder from the film City of Lost Children. After ten minutes of this creepy composition, punctuated by disorienting decelerandos, they ended on a bending note as the bellows slowed and stopped.
It isn't often that PPAC opens its stage for a free show by members of the Providence noise-rock community. By the same token, it is rare for an instrument such as this to have all its sonic possibilities thoroughly explored by such brash young sonic pioneers. Organizing the event took so much coordination and negotiation that it's unlikely to be repeated soon. On the other hand, the entire performance was recorded for a CD release (check www.mudboymusic.com for updates) which should be available soon, and if the success of the event is any indication, perhaps someday “The Wonder Show of the Universe” will return to the theater built for the occasion.
mudboy takes a crack at PPAC's Wurlitzer (PROVIDENCE JOURNAL)
01:00 AM EDT on Tuesday, June 7, 2005
BY RICK MASSIMO
Journal Pop Music Writer
Tomorrow night, you can hear one of Rhode Island's best-known musical
instruments in a whole new way.
Providence noise-music composer Raphael Lyon, with the help of two other
musicians, will take over the giant Wurlitzer -- one of only three of its
size -- in the Providence Performing Arts Center for a free concert of his
own compositions, made specifically for the massive instrument.
" The goal of these compositions, and their subsequent recording, is an
attempt to redefine the sonic possibilities inherent in the Wurlitzer pipe
organ, and to push the limits of what can be expected from such a unique but
traditionally conservative instrument," Lyon says in a statement.
Over the phone, Lyon says, "Most of the music that you hear for the
Wurlitzer was written in a pretty short time period. They play a lot of
pops, 'Take Me Out to the Ballgame,' or stuff you'd hear at a silent movie.
But the truth is that it has this enormous range of sounds. . . . At a
certain point the instrument stops playing notes and starts playing certain
The phrase "all the bells and whistles," Lyon says, was inspired by the
giant Wurlitzer. As well as the organ sounds from hundreds of pipes, the
Wurlitzer is nearly an acoustic sampler -- for example, its keys can control
a marimba that is 15 to 20 feet long. "In combination," Lyon says, "it's
gotta be hundreds of thousands" of sounds that can be produced with its five
" It's certainly the loudest acoustic instrument I've ever heard," Lyon says.
He compares some of the Wurlitzer's sounds to the electronic effects of
spaceships wooshing by in George Lucas's state-of-the-art Star Wars movies.
" That's pretty miraculous for some wood and pipes."
Lyon performs under the name mudboy on "what you would consider a noise
circuit." He plays in lots of privately organized basement shows. "I play
AS220 and places like that, but unless you're Wolf Eyes (a Michigan trio
considered one of the stalwarts of the scene), you're not going to get more
than 100 people to come see you. But it's a pretty tight community, and it's
growing quite a bit."
Asked to describe his compositional style, Lyon invokes the principles of
fractal theory. "If you look at a shoreline from space, it looks one way,
and if you zoom down and look at it below your feet, it kind of looks the
same. There's a resonance of form, independent of scale.
" And that's sort of how these pieces are. They have a shape to them that
tends to be very simple. If you were to look at my notes, they wouldn't take
up more than a page. Pieces can be very complicated, but it has to do with
resonances between things."
Lyon says that fans of free jazz and classical music will be more familiar
with the structures of his music. "It has to do with the relationships of
textures rather than intervals between notes. . . . It's not necessarily
about chord progressions; it's about your individual process of hearing the
sounds and how it makes you feel." One piece, Lyon says, aims to slow
audience members' heart rates.
Lyon says he's aiming to create "this transcendental experience. . . .
You're not necessarily going to jump up and down or tap your foot. If half
the audience falls asleep during a show I'm thrilled!
" When you say 'noise music,' I think people expect a certain amount of
aggression and volume. It's kind of a misnomer that way. . . . We want you
to kind of drift off. . . . We're not going to bore you, but I think that's
part of it."
Two collaborators will help Lyon during tomorrow night's show. Guitarist
Erik Carlson will play electric guitar with multiple sound effects. ("It's
almost completely unrecognizable as a guitar," Lyon says.)
Keyboardist Jeff Knoch, from the Rhode Island psych-folk group Urdog, will
help Lyon manipulate the Wurlitzer. Whereas a typical organist will play
with both hands and both feet (working various footpedals), and going back
and forth among the Wurlitzer's five keyboards, Knoch will help Lyon make
fast switches between sounds. "I'll play the same four notes over and over
again, and that'll take both my hands. And the assistant will throw the
levers which will bring the instruments in and out. So I become like a
machine and he becomes like a conductor."
A major part of the point of the show, Lyon says, is to show off the
Wurlitzer, and the theater. The free admission is part of that.
" We worked pretty hard with PPAC to make sure it was free. They were really
cool about it, and I feel good about it. . . . It's definitely a
collaboration with them. . . .
" People who don't have a chance to see the theater, now they get a chance to
see it. . . . I think Rhode Islanders should be proud to have something like
The mudboy concert on the giant Wurlitzer at the Providence Performing Arts
Center, 220 Weybosset St., Providence, is tomorrow night at 7 p.m. Admission