Art in Paradise: Sticks and 'Bones

Recently in Art in Paradise ("An Experimental Soul," April 2, 2009), I wrote: "When I hear [the term experimental], I can't help but recall a performance I once witnessed in which a lone trombonist honked his way through an excruciatingly long set, accompanied only by a manic drummer. It was indeed 'experimental,' though I doubt anyone will be reading about the wild ecstasies evoked by a trombone duo in peer-reviewed journals any time soon."

So Jeremy Starpoli of the Resistance Blue Duo dropped me a line, not particularly pleased. Resistance Blue is a trombone plus drums duo, and Starpoli assumed I was referring to his duo. I didn't remember the name of the group that played with my old band years ago at Easthampton's Flywheel, nor did I want to do them a disservice by name. But, as Starpoli pointed out, there aren't exactly hordes of trombone duos lurking in the Valley's dark alleyways. It pretty much had to be him.

That pairing of bands, rather inadvertently, addressed the very notion of "experimental" music that the recent column addressed. My own band, which I considered merely a melodic rock band with some unusual instruments and odd sound-making proclivities, repeatedly got dubbed experimental. (Perhaps it was the fairly experimental nature of my inability to hit high notes?) But Resistance Blue was truly an experiment.

The drummer, a percussive wunderkind who was fond of crafting rhythms by dividing 16 beats into an accretion of odd meters, played full-out. On top of his complex weave, the trombonist had an infinity of space to fill.

And there's the rub. I called Resistance Blue a failed experiment because of what happened after the first minutes. Don't get me wrong: Starpoli can play trombone with the maximum grace and ease his instrument allows. But trombone doesn't lend itself to tremendous grace or speed. Even a virtuoso makes sounds by doing something that looks like shaking hands with an oil well in mid-pump.

Starpoli can tame that brassy beast—if I was after a trombone soloist, I wouldn't hesitate to seek out his unfettered powers. Trombone has its glories, but Resistance Blue, given the limits of its instrumentation, seemed to have dealt itself a difficult hand, then attempted to shoot the moon. After a few minutes, the possibilities seemed largely exhausted. It's the sort of thing that is, without doubt, worthy of respect, a brave show; it's not necessarily the sort of thing that easily carries most listeners on a long and involved voyage.

And maybe I missed the boat—Starpoli asked that the Advocate "let readers decide." So please, weigh in for Resistance Blue (excerpts of the duo's CD are available above, and a Myspace link is below).

Dust-up or no, Starpoli's longstanding (decade-plus) attempt to explore the unusual waters of minimalist trombone settings raises some interesting questions. Should accessibility matter? When musicians step in a headier direction, they usually leave a certain percentage of listeners behind. The more unusual and experimental, obviously, the larger that percentage. Resistance Blue certainly has not chosen the path of least resistance.

At what point is it safe to say, "I don't like this"? When is it okay to say, "This has no merit"? Should the latter ever be said? Such things certainly plague the musician who wants to make a highly personal sound unsullied by concerns of audience. It's probably all down to the same thing that ruins most pop culture: the lowest common denominator is a killer of innovation. Our entertainment conventions have calcified after years of Hollywood and a half century of rock and roll. Only the most incremental changes are tolerated by the majority of listeners.

I am unsure in the end what happens when I listen to Resistance Blue, why it's different than other, similarly minimal experiences, why I don't get pulled into the journey when other "experimental" horn works compel. I don't think I'm unconsciously anti-trombone, but maybe I am. Don't take my word for it—give Starpoli a listen.

You can check out excerpts above, and for full tracks, visit Resistance Blue Duo's Myspace.

Author: James Heflin

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