Third Stream Symphony: Mr. Ho’s Orchestrotica at Barbès

The Hornbostel-Sachs system of musical-instrument classification includes four types: idiophones (struck), chordophones (strings), membranophones (drums), and aerophones (winds). (Moderns will also note the later-added electrophones, including synthesizers.) Many ensembles include three types, presumably to present listeners with a pleasingly complex acoustic range and solo sonic diversity. So a jazz ensemble might include, say, sax, guitar, drums, and bass, which produce the familiar sounds we associate with contemporary jazz.

Mr. Ho’s Orchestrotica performing at Barbès. Photo by Gabriella Radujko.

Then there’s Mr. Ho’s Orchestrotica, the Tiki shirt–clad ensemble that includes not only all four Hornbostel-Sachs types, but exotic versions of most. To the standard string bass played by Kendall Eddy, there’s added the unique, J-shaped bass flute played by Geni Skendo and the cajón, a box drum on which percussionist Jon Singer sits. With vibraphone, played by Mr. Ho (Brian O’Neill), its signature instrument, this highly unconventional orchestra’s sound is positively mesmerizing, and more than occasionally tranquilizing. Add the numerous frame drums and tambourines played by Mr. Ho and Singer to the mix, and you have a formula for an unforgettable, distinctive musical experience. (Singer, who plays vibes as well, is also founder of Xylopholks, a group of busking musicians seen around New York dressed as skunk, dog, gorilla, chicken, and frog.)

The ever-smiling, simultaneously placid and intense Mr. Ho calls Orchestrotica’s music “third-stream exotica,” a combination of classical and jazz; but it seems rather a combination of New Age, lounge, international folk, and jazz. Although Mr. Ho says his influences include Tchaikovsky, Debussy, Shostakovich, Philip Glass, and John Adams, the more pertinent influences cited by Mr. Ho are those of Martin Denny, Les Baxter, Milt Raskin, vibraphonists Arthur Lyman and Cal Tjader, Albanian iso-polyphonic singing, and Italian tammurriata chant (think tarantella dance with castanets and putipù), as well as Caribbean and Middle Eastern sounds emanating from the drumskins and built into the compositions’ titles.

Orchestrotica’s recent set at Barbès, the intimate, eclectic performance space and bar in Park Slope, was an education in novel instrumentation and can’t-quite-place-them beats, and thus highly gratifying. Between Mr. Ho’s insistent vibes, the strange stage presence of Skendo’s shepherd’s crook bass flute, which sounds, as it should, like a flute (only imperceptibly lower), and Singer’s strange-to-watch handwork on the cajón, the performance was a visual eyeful as well as an auditory delight. Mr. Ho on oud (a pear-shaped Andalusian lute) in “Autumn Digging Dance” and two-note (edge and center) frame drum in “Terre Exotique,” as well as Singer’s bongoing on “Would You Like Bongos (With That Fugue)?” defined the evening’s tone, which was a relentlessly rhythmic, wave-after-drum-and-bassbeat-wave of quirky cultural “con fusion”—in the best sense of that neologism.

The evening’s playlist, comprising original compositions by Mr. Ho, gave each of the musicians a chance to shine. Solo pieces included “Autumn Digging Dance,” featuring Mr. Ho; “China Clipper” and “Tiki,” with solos by Skendo and Mr. Ho; and “Third River Rangoon,” with Singer on triangle. Other pieces included “Maika,” “Stirring Cocktail Journey,” “Arab Dance,” “Ritual Mallet Dance,” “Moai Thief,” “Lonesome Aku of Alewife,” “Thor’s Arrival,” “Phoenix Goodbye,” and “Colorado Waltz.”

“Autumn Digging Dance” was a high point of the evening. This piece, a folk dance in 11/8 based on Balkan kopanitsa (which means “little digging dance”), was a splash of vervy rhythm, arranged for vibraphone and percussion. “Lonesome Aku” was another memorable piece of drifty-dreamy lounge music in which the musicians floated layered blobs of aural mercury around the vibraphone’s mellow melody. “Third River Rangoon” featured Mr. Ho alternating between vibes and riq—an Arabic tamborine—in a brooding, anti-rhythmic flute-and-vibe mysterium.

Whether Orchestrotica’s eclectic, eccentric, and subtlely good-natured music will find a larger audience shouldn’t be hard to say: It already has. Orchestrotica is an intellectual’s version of global mall and nightclub music, analogous to but distinct from Django Reinhardt’s and Stéphane Grappelli’s Quinette du Hot Club de France and Liquid Valium. This is not an insult, but rather a suggestion that people would be better off with Orchestrotica in the background, than say, Muzak. Orchestrotica is peace, love, and understanding—with benefits. Starbucks apparently agrees: Mr. Ho recently struck a licensing deal with the Seattle-based coffee-and-lifestyle purveyor, which will introduce a much larger audience to the ensemble’s singular sound.

Orchestrotica will open for Mr. Ho’s space-age big-band ensemble, Esquivel, playing homage to the late Mexican composer and retro-modern bandleader Juan García Esquivel, at Le Poisson Rouge on March 18. If Orchestrotica’s four instrumental varieties are any indication, the larger group should prove that more indeed is more, and that con fusion can benevolently reign. 

Contributor

David St.-Lascaux

DAVID ST.-LASCAUX is a poet and author of L'Oubliette, or Plan A, and e*sequiturs, multimedia e-books featuring a wide variety of experimental and other music. Website: davidstlascaux.com.

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