One of my favorite elbows-on-the-carpet reads was the reprinting of the 1902 Sears Catalog that was one of the nifty pieces of late-seventies nostalgia that my grandmother kept in her balsam-scented telephone cabinet. Everything about it was neat, despite my steadfast belief in the world of the future as envisioned in my yard sale copies of mid-sixties Popular Mechanics magazines, and the neatest thing of all were the Heidelberg Giant Power Electric Belts.
“Joe-B, are you readin’ about those electric belts again?” she’d ask in the sweet Baltimore brogue that’s fast retreating into memory. “You and those electric belts. You know, I’d have thought you’d be lookin’ at the brassieres, but it’s always those electric belts.”
I was delighted to be invited to perform once more at the North-East Electro-Music Festival held at the Center for the Arts in Homer, NY. It’s a three-day festival of electronic and electro-acoustic music that brings together some of my favorite artists in the field for a diverse selection of genres and instrumentation. This was my sixth performance at one of these events, created by the Electro-Music community, now celebrating fifteen years of bringing artists and audiences together, often in a diffuse way in which players play, coalesce, and recombine into both planned and spontaneous ensembles that challenge and engage.
The event includes performances, unstructured time to just gather with other performers and composers and talk shop, and a variety of workshops ranging from the technical to the historical and instructional. We were lucky this year to have Bill Vencil, known on Youtube as Chords of Orion, with us to perform, share his technique, and conduct a great session on how to get established as a performer on Youtube.
There’s a openness and forgiving quality to audiences at EM Fests that really push a person to open up more, and experiment more, and to try new ideas and modes on an audience that is both one of the smartest and most forgiving in the field, and I’ve been gradually drifting from doing tightly scripted, fully orchestrated combinations of stories and live, improvised soundtracks that are my best approximation of what you’d get if stand-up comedy and digital jazz got together and made a noisy, chatty baby on stage. This year, I took on unresolved plotlines, half-told tales, and ruminations uncertainty and endings.
My mother was progressive and carefully explained sex to me well ahead of the rest of the kids in school, which was a problem, given my in-built mania to tell everyone around me about cool things I’d learned.
Mind you, I was not clear on the idea that sperm cells preferred to be administered in a liquid medium of a precise consistency and temperature, and I explained to my fellow students, with a tone of wisdom and gravity, that sperm was microscopic, like bacteria and viruses, and just leaked out of boys in a cloud that could impregnate any unlucky girl in the vicinity of a particularly potent boy.
My breathless retelling of this misconception about conception led to a very brief mass hysteria in my class involving all the girls taking to fleeing the boys as if they were surrounded by swarms of yellowjackets, complete with sudden darting changes of direction and wildly flailing fanning gestures.
“What on earth are you doing, Miss Wassman?” asked our teacher of one of the gesticulating young ladies.
“I don’t wanna have a baby!”
“I don’t wanna have a baby! There’s sperm everywhere!”
“Joe Wall said—”
“—Oh, did he now? Mister Wall, can I have a word with you?”
I was honored to be invited to tell a story at the RISK! podcast live show in Baltimore at the Creative Alliance on November 3rd, 2017. I’ve been a big fan of the open, wild, freewheeling storytelling style of RISK! for a while now, which spares no sensibilities in telling things just exactly as they are.
I got to share the stage again with the fantastic KL Parr, who I had the pleasure to meet at my second outing with Baltimore’s own Stoop Storytelling series in February, 2017, as well as Rachel Hinton, Shamyla Tareen, and the illustrious host of the RISK! podcast, Kevin Allison. Three of our stories were featured in the podcast of that evening’s storytelling, available at the RISK! site, and here’s a brief excerpt from mine, in which I describe my failed aspiration to badass status and my infinitesimally short career in the eighties as a fake-smoking male stripper who’d learned to dance by watching Twyla Tharp and Bob Fosse and providing accompaniment by Harry Partch (it did not go well).
Performed a couple stories last weekend with live electronic accompaniment (using the smallest rig I’ve used to date for a minimalist invocation of mood) at the Center For The Arts in Homer, New York, as a participant in a two-day festival of electronic, electro-acoustic, and experimental music. I’m always honored to share a bill with so many amazing artists, and this year’s festival was my first outside of the previous venue in Huguenot, NY.
I’ve been experimenting with ways of telling stories on stage. I’m drifting away from the scripted, the cut-and-dried, and the composed in favor of the kind of stories you tell around the campfire or in a bar, surrounded by new friends and old. I’m using improvisational electronics to score these stories and stepping up on stage with just a single index card with a collection of waypoints to remind myself where I am in case I drift off the subject, and I’m increasingly happy to work in this loose and natural mode. Stories come in and out of focus, I find the point, lose it again, and work my way back. It feels like the kind of thing I’ve been trying to do ever since the first time I set foot on a stage with a synthesizer and a microphone, nearly thirty years ago.
This time around, I was thinking about stories from outside, from just off the beaten path, just beyond the edge of the highway, where we find meaning in unexpected places.
The first purchase I ever made as a member of the working public was a cassette player.It was 1983, I was just about to turn fifteen, and I had a little brown envelope containing seventy-three dollars in cash that Carlo Petrucci handed me after my first week working at Pal Jack’s Pizza in Laurel. I was in Baltimore, visiting my grandmother, and we climbed into her turquoise Barracuda with sticky clear plastic seat covers embossed with little flowers that did absolutely nothing to stop those seat covers from clinging to your thighs like duct tape and headed up the street to Luskins.