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Tales from the Junkyard 

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

Wednesday, Jun 21 2000
At the first sight of Alco Iron & Metal Co, Gino Robair's heart rate spikes and his eyes glass over like a Toys R Us kid on a holiday bender. The found-sound percussionist loves to climb all over the San Leandro junkyard's vast acreage of 55-gallon drums, stuffed with discarded car parts and rusted pipes, foraging for scrap metal that might someday make music. "It's like prospecting for gold," he says. "You just get dirty... and find garbage that can be used as an instrument."

Robair's prized cache includes various gongs, a "burrito phone," which is actually a crimped muffler, and an empty gas can that sings in perfect pitch when struck. Though the drummer's lust for rooting through trash is arguably atypical, it's not without precedent; from classical futurist Lou Harrison to post-rock improvisor Moe Staiano, otherminded artists whose musical visions exceed the capacity of conventional instruments have long relished a good day at the dump, seeing industrial society's castoffs as renewable resources with the power of potential.

The cognoscenti of scrap-metal percussionists generally transform their grimy treasures in one of two ways: They either construct an original sonic device by fusing complementary parts from unrelated materials, or they merely clean up their junkyard finds and toss them in a gig bag alongside their drumsticks. Robair prefers the latter, less labor-intensive course. In fact, in recent months he's been progressively streamlining his methodology, exploring what he calls a "meta-percussion" concept for which, he explains, "I don't even bring a drum set. I just show up with a paper bag of things and a bow, or I just find things and try to play 'em."

Last year he staged an infamous "Potluck Percussion" event, which involved arriving at the venue empty-handed and drawing his instrumentation from random audience contributions: a piece of metal, water, a condom, an amplifier, and a contact mike in a tin of Jell-O. "Whether the music is good or not is secondary," he argues. "I'm developing the craft of improvising in front of people with stuff." That willingness to put himself in the precarious position of having to make some sort of musical cohesion, sans "real" instruments, teeters on the edge of performance art. Both spectacle and serious investigation, it's a daring move each time out, with no guarantee of success. "The challenge is total improvisation," says Robair. "I'm trying to get sounds organized in musical ways in real-time and not relying on models like song form.... I'm [also] trying not to rely on a specific set of tools," where there's safety in the relative reliability of the known quantity.

For example, no matter how you strike it, a well-maintained snare drum will pretty much always give you a recognizable snare sound. It's this level of predictability that Robair wants to subvert, as often as possible and with great imagination, by augmenting his trap set with Alco recyclables and an array of accessories both mundane (toys, duct tape, CDs) and motorized (cake mixer, cappuccino stirrer, battery-operated pen). He also plays theremin and will bow just about anything, from dustpans to Styrofoam (see Plates, Blocks, Cups & Hair, the definitive statement on teasing sound out of polystyrene plastic).

"I've found that the only way for me to proceed is to remove any semblance of comfort," Robair once wrote. "In this case, by stripping away the instruments themselves and ultimately relinquishing control over the performance entirely.... On one level this means allowing instruments to complete their natural cycle of decay. That includes using drum heads and drum sticks until they become completely unusable, well beyond the initial breaking point, and the practical result of this is that I may reach for a familiar sound only to find that it's altered in some gross way that makes it a challenge to use musically, to go beyond the drummerly aspects of percussion and get into pure music or pure sound."

Robair's immersion in the uncertainty of this type of music-making process -- with its edgy prospects for triumph or failure -- has engendered considerable respect among Bay Area creative-music audiences and peers. From his work with jazz pioneer Anthony Braxton at Mills College (documented on Duets 1987 on his own Rastascan label and reissued in 1998 on Music & Arts) to a half-dozen standout releases with his shape-shifting improv group Splatter Trio (mostly issued on Rastascan), local fans have come to expect nothing less from the scene veteran. Longtime Splatter bandmate Myles Boisen notes that "there's a great intelligence and openness to chance [in Robair's playing], guided by a sensitivity and intuition that's very special."

It's this modus operandi which allows the percussionist to produce musical logic from limited means. Yet one of the toughest challenges with approaching improvisation from this angle is finding like-minded collaborators. Despite their reputation for inclusivity and broadmindedness, many so-called avant-gardists or jazz improvisors can be just as insular, obstinate, and competitive as anyone else. Once an individual carves out a successful niche for himself, he may shy away from pushing beyond the comfort zone for fear of looking bad. This is true more so in New York than in the Bay Area, says Robair. Here, he suggests, "There's a lot less of the weight of jazz," meaning San Francisco fosters a more conducive environment for experimentation and innovation.

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 Systems and 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.

"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."

About The Author

Sam Prestianni


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