Midwest Musings: Pnuma Trio/Big Gigantic 4.6.2010

There is an age old truism that states that “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. The concept, that one’s appreciation of something varies from anyone else’s is a universal constant, and applies to all things, from math to art to food to our topic of the day, music. Since the first human pounded a stick on a rock to make a pleasing rhythm, music has been a light against the darkness, and a release for the tensions of the day. Aboriginal people across the world still gather in celebration, and dance to the primal drumming, at one with the percussion as they are with their own heartbeats. With the wide variety of styles and genres of music already in existence, the spirit of human innovation still continues to break new ground and seek out new fertile territory to express itself. With the advent of the computer, and digital manipulation of sound, we have been treated to the genesis of another classification of music, Electronica.

Electronica is a catch all term I favor to describe the wide variety of acts that have explored the use of digital audio sampling and live audio file manipulation, fused with human perspectives to create something magical and in some cases almost out of the very air itself. While this type of music has its detractors, I will always argue the validity of any form of artistic expression that exists. If a thing moves someone, be it emotionally or in the case of music; physically, then it has its purpose in the world. Over the past few years the music scene has seen the rise of a new, hybrid type of band. The availability of these hi tech toys and software has given smaller and smaller groups of people the ability to produce bigger and bigger sounds. From single DJs or maestros if you will, (Although I don’t care what Girltalk says, he IS a DJ!) to two and three piece acts that use these tools to thicken out their sound and produce things simply unavailable to musicians years past. A tech savy generation of creators have unleashed an onslaught of beats and blips that speak to the core of us as surely as those simple unadulterated drums did to us all those ages ago! So it was with all this in mind that I left for my first assignment for my newest home for my musical ramblings here at Music Marauders; a triple bill of up and coming acts Amtrak and Big Gigantic, headlined by some of the finest purveyors of the aforementioned new form of jam, The Pnuma Trio.

It is always nice to visit Headliners, a concert hall here in my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. It’s capacity seems to vary by the presence of fire marshals, and it has hosted more of my favorite shows here in town than any other venue in the city. They book all kinds of acts, and for someone with Musical Attention Deficit Disorder as strong as myself, it is a gift from the heavens. Bluegrass to Metal to Ska to the pulsing beat of bands like the Pnuma Trio, you can see it all at Headliners, and see it all in one week if you’re lucky. Also, it’s like three miles from my house, so it’s got that going for it! YAY! I arrived early, as I always like to spend some time watching a crowd grow, building in its anticipation and energy towards critical mass. The opening act, Amtrak, was a one man operation, featuring live sample mixing and an impeccable sense of timing. As the slowly filling crowd warmed to his sound bytes and styling’s, he increased the tempos, piling loops on top of click tracks and samples, and building an orchestra’s worth of musicians sounds from a keyboard and a few small boxes of circuitry and wire. One man alone on a stage, making the music of a thousand! Though it does make one worry about the job safety of those 999 other folks who have been replaced.

After his set, I spoke to him for a few minutes about the future of music. We both had a laugh at my biggest fear as a music photographer, as it pertains to the Electronica scene: The day I walk in to shoot a show, and it’s simply three laptops on a stage, alone. Someone will walk out and hit enter, and off we will go. And there I’ll be, roaming around the room, taking spot on perfect pictures of Apple and Dell logos. The human interaction with the sound manipulation is still with us, and is in the ability to react to the crowd that Amtrak showed that makes me worry about this a bit less, but the fear is still there.

Big Gigantic followed on the bill, and scratched the itch I have been feeling to see them since their inception. Springing from the mind and soul of Dominic Lalli, smoking saxophonist from the Motet and drummer Jeremy Salken, Big Gigantic is part of the Electonica wave that has been spreading the fastest, the live drummer plus other instrumentalist combo. A versatile model, employed by many acts on the scene to great effect, I have been hearing things about their live shows for quite a while now. Speaking to the popularity building around Big Gigantic is the sheer number of festivals they have been booked for this summer and fall. Someone obviously knows something, as I was truly blown away by their set. The warmth and humanity of Lalli’s play has always spoken to me, and the Motet are a personal pleasure indeed. Salken’s drumming was crisp and robust, and he blended his beats with the pulsing, bass rhythms perfectly. Lalli would step to the fore, and speedily program in and initiate a sound then step back and let his sax d the rest of his speaking.

Eschewing the traditional and blazing one’s own path is the freest way to creative bliss, and though Big Gigantic does indeed have its roots in other such projects, they have crafted a sound that is sincerely original. No instrument strikes me as more human powered than a wind instrument, especially when played by a musician who leaves it all on the stage. From bombastic blasts of pure power, to soft, breathy moans coaxed from deep within, Lalli is a consummate saxophonist. Add to that his mastery of the process of warping sounds to fit the moment, and I can easily see how their reputation is being earned: One satisfied crowd after another of sweat soaked and exhausted dancers! I will be sure to catch these guys again on my summer travels, and urge you to do the same.

While the stage was being cleared and the Pnuma Trio’s gear was being unloaded, I took the time to wander the venue and check out some other forms of creative expressions going on that night, live painting. There were four artists set up in various place through the club, painting as they grooved, and encapsulating the reactions to the music in their craft. As an artist of some small degree myself, I have always used music as an inspiration to me, and always have some form of it or another playing while I work. I admit, I am a little to spoiled to set up shop and try anything nearly as complicated as these artists were doing out in public; so enamored of my studio am I. But the inspiration the painters and crafts persons provide is the same to my eyes as the electronica artists themselves by providing an example to the masses what can be accomplished on their own. So many times I have heard the phrase “I could never do that!” when people look at art or listen to music. I think the complexity that some creators build into their work can cause an artificial divide between the viewer (Or listener) that makes the creation as if upon a pedestal. When, in fact, art is so easy. Art isn’t about making something look just like something else, that’s why we have cameras. Art is about relating a thought or concept, and however you do it, through paint or song or cooking, it’s the imperfections and personal touches that make a thing unique and beautiful.

All my musings were left by the wayside as the now near capacity crowd roared in approval as the members of the Pnuma Trio took the stage. Having seen them several times over the last year or so, my grin grew wide, as I knew what we were in store for. Ben Hazelgrove plays the keyboards and synthesizer, Alex Botwin funks it up nicely on the bass and still manages to run live loops and programming, while Lane Shaw keeps a near metronomic level of precision on the drumkit. The Pnuma Trio have been perfecting their sound since 2004 and the levels of sonic splendor they have attained are truly impressive. From the very first beat they had the crowd in the palm of their hand, and never let go. Featuring a sound rich on beats and organic dance rhythms, the Trio’s music spun and whirled around the room, spinning and twisting thru the minds and bodies of the dancers. I generally judge electronica acts by the reactions of the crowds to them, and as such, few bands get higher marks than the Pnuma Trio. Earlier in the evening I asked several attendees what they were most looking forward to from the band, expecting song titles. Instead what I heard, in many different words, was the same thought over and over, release. Release form the normal day to day. The kind of release that primitive humanity found dancing around those fires. To me that seems like the heart of the movement in genera, and the Trio in particular. However dressed u what they do is, it is still speaking to that elemental human need to burn those bad thoughts out, to set ourselves free and simply rage to the beat.

I shot from as many angles as was possible, and was as always impressed with the light show that accompanies the Pnuma Trio. Again, a form of creativity enhanced by the computer, the lights pulsed with the music not unlike the pops and crackles of the fires of yore. All this machinery taking a simple age old thing to a new, digital age. Admittedly, my powers of perspective were sorely tested this night, as is often the case when I cover a show. The Trio’s beats harkening back to such a core concept inside me, a love of dance, that eventually made me do the near unthinkable. I went to my car, stowed my camera gear, and returned to join the crowd, becoming one with the bouncing bopping mass of fans. Few acts can make me lose my focus in such a way, and losing myself in their music was liberating and, honestly, renewing. Sometimes we need to just let go and groove to it all, and I thank the Pnuma Trio and J-man for providing me with the chance to do just that!

-Rex Thomson

View Rex's Photo Galleries Here.



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