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Clogs + QQQ

Andy McGowan

Even when they embrace standard notation, Clogs can't help but topple the standards of form.

Clogs + QQQ

Clogs + QQQ

City: Princeton, NJ
Venue: Taplin Auditorium
Date: 2006-04-11

Arriving at Princeton University, my preconceptions began to vanish. Sports harrumphs and tailgating in the parking lot as "Rocky Mountain Way" played on car speakers? Are you kidding me? This was hardly the hard-nosed campus I was expecting. I was tempted to blow off the show altogether; then I realized that the odds of me slipping in unnoticed as an underclassman were right up there with the chance that I might spontaneously combust if that happened. Of course, Fine Hall was more in line with my ivy-covered expectations. Wandering its halls, I spied chalkboards sprawled with formulae just waiting for a young, misunderstood idiot savant janitor to unlock their secrets. Fine's Taplin Auditorium was dark and intimate; the neon lights overhead bathed the instruments below, a blue glow shimmering off the reds of a Tama bass drum. Two monstrous xylophones formed a backdrop behind three monitor speakers. There was a stringed beauty -- the "Hardanger Fiddle" of which the event's program spoke -- saddled with gorgeous dark-inked inlays. First to mount the stage was QQQ, a Princeton-area group playing together for the first time. But this was no talent show, and we weren't in for a sub-par rendition of "Enter Sandman". The quartet featured classical guitar, viola, various percussion, and the aforementioned Hardanger fiddle -- a Norwegian instrument designed with underlying drone strings to deepen sustain. Its owner, Dan Trueman, is the inventor of the Martian monitors found on stage (a quick internet search on Trueman paints him as the most fascinating musician on the face of the Earth.)

"Pencil Stick" MP3
"Who's Down Now" MP3
"I'm Very Sad" MP3
The first sounds that crept from the group's instruments formed a sort of syncopated, bluegrass-like chaos broken by the sharp sound of guitar plucks and viola slashes. The guitarist slipped into a gentle fingerstyle, changing the momentum at will. When the group left the stage, it was with an air of mystery that prevented me from wanting to talk with them afterwards -- the imagination often paints a much better portrait. Enter Clogs, a mélange of stray-haired ponytails, corduroy jackets, flowery ruffled blouses, sporadic facial hair, and horn-rimmed glasses. Instead of their usual improvisation, the Aussie-American quartet had been invited by music professor Paul Lansky to perform pieces by Princeton students and alumni. Thus, they started with his composition, "Minor Alterations." Guitarist Bryce Dessner trickled his fingers through his Les Paul strings. His phrases and arpeggios constructed a frame for Lansky's composition while Padma Newsome's violin and Rachael Elliott's bassoon took turns racing through the minor scale on which the piece is based. As it evoked the bass clarinet licks of Bitches Brew, I decided that all bands in existence should immediately add bassoon to their repertoire. Next was "objects in stillness" by sound artist and doctoral student Seth Cluett. Its instigator was the high resonating ring of a miked water goblet, which was promptly echoed by violin and guitar and infinitely sustained by sampling loops. The bassoon dropped in deep, somewhere between enlightenment cloud cover and ominous wooden death. Later, a brief intermission came, only to be ended by Princeton graduate fellow Michael Early's piece "Where A meets B �" The composition wound and slithered through music inspired by a Ralph Waldo Emerson translation of a Hafiz poem. To my ears, the resulting tones sounded in no way representative of the short poem; however, this personal discrepancy just made me relish their subjective nature. The final two pieces were the standouts of the night. First was A/V artist and Ph.D. candidate Betsey Biggs's "IRT", introduced by a recording of found sound from the New York subway. Then, Clogs were joined by friend and Antares violoncellist Rebecca Patterson to perform "IN DESERTO," an Ingram Marshall piece. The composition has become a concert staple and, as Dessner pointed out, marks their transition to more notated work. The opening guitar notes formed a lilting, two-part harmony reminiscent of songs by Godspeed You! Black Emperor. The melodic lines built with sampling loops and then faded, invaded by meticulous guitar rhythm while the violoncello switched to pizzicatos. Every sound gradually built to a dissonant symphony as the guitar worked like a spiral staircase in the eye of a hurricane, everything accelerating around its frantic loops. Finally, as if it had been mounting throughout the entire show, the music transcended its surroundings and broke free, twisting into its own world. And as all in attendance were just about to lose their footing and disappear into the void, we were saved at the last moment by the starry NyQuil lull of xylophone and reverb-drenched slide guitar. We snapped out of a trance as if to find the five musicians had been done for some time. Applause erupted. Tom Waits once said that his favorite part about going to hear a symphony orchestra was listening to the warm-up -- the collective sound snatches, scales, old favorites and tuning pitches coalescing into their own miraculous snapshot. Waits relishes a dissonant symphony that most others completely overlook. Clogs and their Princeton colleagues offered music from that musical plain, creating songs so expansive that they topple standard musical forms and, thankfully, refresh them.

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