Seattle Opera Barber of Seville

Weekly (p)reviews: Random bits of happenstance

Gordon Grdina at Holocene with Creative Music Guild; Circuit Des Yeux’s visceral psych-folk.

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There’s no quicker entry point into the varying musical interests of Gordon Grdina than the two albums that he released last month. 

Oddly Enough finds him untangling the knotted up compositions of saxophonist Tim Berne with a variety of string instruments — acoustic guitar, dobro, and a specially made electric guitar with MIDI output — as his tools. 

For the other LP, Night’s Quietest Hour, Grdina worked with Haram–the long-standing ensemble that brought together some of his favorite musicians from his hometown of Vancouver, British Columbia–to perform classic Arabic songs and Sudanese pop from the ’60s and ’70s. On that album, Grdina plays the oud, a fretless lute used primarily in African and Middle Eastern music that is the instrument he’s perhaps best known for. The group is joined by Marc Ribot, whose electric guitar work sparks through each track like a live wire.

Grdina represents the Platonic ideal of a modern jazz and folk musician. He’s rooted his playing in the traditional sounds of each genre, but uses them to leap into unexplored territory. And as his impressive discography bears out, Grdina has a restless mind, always in the market for new material to explore and new people to play with. 

“It’s kind of like my imagination gone wild,” he says, speaking recently from his home in Vancouver. “It is difficult to not do anything. Usually what happens is when I’m on vacation or not playing, that’s when all the ideas come. I was on the road doing this solo show and had a ton of driving to do, and I basically wrote an entire album while I was driving — singing it into my phone because I had nothing else to think about.”

Multi-instrumentalist Gordon Grdina. Photo by Genevieve Munro.
Multi-instrumentalist Gordon Grdina. Photo by Genevieve Munro.

Tracking Grdina’s movements over the past two decades or so reveals both his nomadic temperament and his dedication to whatever creative outlet he’s pursuing. In 2000, two key moments set the stage for his future. After watching a Keith Jarrett performance that year, Grdina introduced himself to Gary Peacock and soon began studying under the bass player for the next five years. That was around the same time that Grdina purchased his first oud. He was already obsessed with the sound of the instrument after an early guitar teacher loaned him Saltanah, a duo album featuring guitarist Vishwa Mohan Bhatt and oud player Simon Shaheen. Once he had an oud, Grdina began playing in a band that performed Persian and Indian music while also studying Arabic music with Iraqi artist and poet Serwan Yamolky. 

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Seattle Opera Barber of Seville

Since then, Grdina hasn’t let himself sit still for very long. He’s formed multiple ensembles such as East Van Strings, an avant jazz quartet that finds him recording with a string trio, and Nomad Trio, his group with pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer Jim Black. And his list of collaborators has grown to include heavy hitters like Matthew Shipp and Mats Gustafsson. 

His happily agitated mind is, in part, what led him to record a selection of Berne’s material on Oddly Enough. During the pandemic, Grdina checked in on his friend, asking what he was working on. Berne sent over a picture of a piece meant for solo piano. “I grabbed it and started to figure out how to play it,” Grdina says. A creative exchange began. The saxophonist would send more new pieces along and Grdina adapted them for his guitars and oud.

The album that came out of this back-and-forth is thick and wild and only made denser by Grdina’s new MIDI guitar, which allowed him to layer in electronic sounds by triggering them with the instrument’s strings. 

“I’ve always been in love with the complexity of Tim’s music,” Grdina says. “All those linear lines coming together from different instruments and different vibes making this very complex harmonic system that just works. It’s similar to the way I hear harmony as well, but it’s not really traditional.” 

Grdina’s prolificacy was also a key factor in his creation of Attaboygirl Records last year. Through his personal imprint, he’s released Oddly Enough and the new Haram album, as well as a collection by Square Peg, his exploratory quartet with multi-instrumentalist Shahzad Ismaily, violinist Mat Maneri, and drummer Christian Lillinger.

“Practically, there isn’t a label that’s going to keep up with how much music I want to put out,” Grdina says. “I kept having to find different labels for different projects. This way, all these different things are in one spot so you can relate them to each other. I think they all relate quite well even though they’re all over the map aesthetically.” 

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CMNW Council

Creative Music Guild presents Tim Berne & Gregg Belisle-Chi, Gordon Grdina, and Saloli on Wednesday March 2 at Holocene (1001 SE Morrison). Doors at 7 pm. Tickets: $20. Masks and COVID vaccination (or negative rapid COVID test) required for entry. 

Circuit Des Yeux @ Anita, February 26 and The Old Church, February 27

Before she had played a note, Haley Fohr spoke about motion. The 33-year-old musician marveled at all the forward momentum, tough decisions like one she made when choosing her first acoustic guitar, and random bits of happenstance that brought her and around 50 lucky folks to Anita, the ground floor gallery in Astoria, Oregon owned by Liz Harris (aka Grouper), for a rare solo performance.

It was an appropriate opening salvo for the 35 minutes of psych-folk that followed. The songs that Fohr has recorded under the name Circuit Des Yeux home in on those here-and-then-gone moments in life happening while our clocks keep ticking forward and our planet keeps spinning. “Goodbye to a mother’s call at dinner time,” she sings on “Vanishing,” a song from her brilliant 2021 release -io. “Goodbye to the sun’s participating shine / Goodbye passive transponder in the night / Goodbye to the airplane taking flight.”

During that half-hour, though, time seemed to stand still. Using only her 12-string acoustic guitar and the arresting power of her voice, Fohr captured the room in a bubble–or was it the “paper bag” she sang of in the song of the same name? The one that forces whoever is wearing it to block out distractions and see what they can remember of the world and the people around them?

What I recall is how Fohr’s performance aroused such a visceral reaction inside of me that I was tempted to swallow handfuls of the dried flowers and leaves scattered around the floor or to yank the extension cord out of the plug next to my chair, which would have effectively silenced everything.

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Portland Opera Puccini

Circuit Des Yeux at Anita gallery in Astoria. Photo by Robert Ham.
Circuit Des Yeux at Anita gallery in Astoria. Photo by Robert Ham.

The whole set was a mere handful of originals and a stupefyingly powerful cover of Lucinda Williams’ “Fruits of My Labor.” But every moment came from some chamber deep within Fohr’s soul that she taps into to find the perfect expression of anguish or desire, and the guttural timbre of her vocals. By the end of the set, when Fohr’s voice was accompanied by an electronic drone and her viola player, she started hitting shrieking notes that burst the bubble and tore the paper bag to shreds. I almost threw my chair through the front window. 

It took some time for the same visceral feeling to well up within me the next night when Fohr was joined by a trio of viola, bass, and drums at The Old Church. Maybe that was because I was prepared for it on some level. More likely it was because the setlist was made to build, starting with a handful of songs from -io parting the curtains gently before she returned to the harder-edged material from her older albums.

Circuit Des Yeux at The Old Church in Portland. Photo by Robert Ham.
Circuit Des Yeux at The Old Church in Portland. Photo by Robert Ham.

By the time the whole band settled into a swelling take on “Brainshift” and the see-sawing rhythm of “Paper Bag,” both from 2017’s Searching For Indigo, Fohr had us in her grip. During the former, she left the stage, stalking the center aisle of the venue before turning around, as if to enjoy the show like an audience member. Then, during the encore, Fohr clamped her hand shut on us via a terrifying rendition of Bauhaus’ “Double Dare.” She used the full range of her voice, going low and high with precarious swoops and dives to match the whirlpooling churn of the music behind her. At a certain point, she dropped to her knees, staring at the people close by (including myself) while she pitched one arm repeatedly into the air. When the song crashed to an end, Fohr quickly vacated the stage. I made a similar hasty exit.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Robert Ham is a critic and journalist living in Portland, Oregon’s outer reaches. During his time in the Rose City, he has contributed to The OregonianWillamette WeekPortland Mercury, and Portland Monthly, while also amassing a healthy amount of clips for print and online publications including PitchforkDownBeatBandcamp, and Village Voice. In 2019, he was the recipient of the SPJ Award for Best Sports Feature. In addition, Robert produces and hosts Double Bummer, a radio show focusing on new and newly reissued experimental music from around the world that airs every Tuesday night at 11pm PT on XRAY-FM. To read more of his work, visit his portfolio site or follow him on Twitter at @roberthamwriter.

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