NOVO Festival lets the music do the talking
Published: March 6, 2013
NOVO Festival 2013
Runs March 8-10 at the Windup Space.
For more details, visit facebook.com/novofest.
The monthly Brews and Boardgames Happy Hour at the Windup Space is no joke. All the house lights are on, brightly, and eyes more accustomed to the twilight of bar time and live shows realize the space is much bigger than it appears at midnight. The dynamic, expressionistic scores included in Will Redman’s Unsystematic Notation solo exhibit dance across the walls. Groups of people crowd around tables clustered about the room. Some people play Scrabble over there. Others play something requiring trading cards. Windup owner/operator/creative catalyst Russell de Ocampo walks back and forth behind the bar, porkpie hat insouciantly atop his head, grabbing cans of beer and pouring drinks for the playing customers when he’s not answering totally unfair questions about why he co-founded the NOVO Festival of voice-less music that hits the multipurpose Station North Arts and Entertainment District this weekend.
Mat Leffler-Schulman, festival co-organizer, Mobtown Studios founder, musician, and recording-engineer workhorse, sits on the customer side of the bar, smiling as de Ocampo considers: What does instrumental music offer that music with vocals cannot? “I love vocals and I love what they do,” de Ocampo says. “I think that they bring—and I’m going to be really weird about this—I think they create a very specific idea. I have a totally different experience when I’m listening to music with vocals. They articulate. Instrumental music puts it into a more ambiguous territory. There’s this interaction going on with the audience, I think. I feel like you’re able to let your mind wander and fill in the blanks as far as . . .”
He trails off and shakes his head. “I shouldn’t be talking,” he says, though he’s been answering the question gallantly. And then he immediately laughs, realizing he’s wandered into absurdist terrain: He shouldn’t be talking about the festival for instrumental music he and Leffler-Schulman started that’s called NOVO, a diminutive portmanteau of “no vocals.” Insert rimshot here.
Fair warning: What follows may occasionally step into the land of bad puns. See also: wit, lowest form. It isn’t intentional at all. It’s just that sometimes language trips itself up when talking about music grouped together by something it lacks instead of genre, the usual lingua franca of how music is sold to us. Funk. Indie. Hip-hop. Rock. Folk. EDM. Pop. Country. Americana. Metal. Etc. Not to mention those never-ending neologisms/recombinant marketing tags that crop up like wildflowers. Imagine a home-schooled Canadian bedroom producer who pairs ’80s house beats to freak-folk singer/songwriter psychedelia and heavily distorted guitar loops. File under Folktechpsychgrind, or something.
De Ocampo and Leffler-Schulman say they created NOVO in 2010 to spotlight instrumental bands that might have a more difficult time finding an audience. They’re being utterly sincere and also acknowledging a sometimes unstated but obvious fact about bands—vocalists/frontpeople are how bands and music are sold in the post-1950s pop age. They’re the focal points. Yes, producers are the exception to the rule here, but a David Guetta or a Hit-Boy is still going to have somebody’s voice riding on top. Think about it this way: The last time an instrumental song topped the Billboard top 100 charts was in November 1985. It was Jan Hammer’s “Miami Vice Theme.” The seafoam teal suit with sleeves pushed up to the elbows has never been the same since.
That last chart topper is a nice reminder of the relationship between music and images. They can be used to telegraph to viewers how to feel when images aren’t doing that on their own—cue mournful strings to make the scene sad. Lyrics in music can function the same way. “I feel like words, I don’t want to say it’s cheating,” Leffler-Schulman says, “but I feel like it’s—it’s not fair to say that it’s an easy way out, but I kind of feel like a vocal versus a keyboard line or a guitar line in trying to emote something is that much more challenging without words.”
That’s a guiding principle for NOVO’s three nights. With two stages set up inside the Windup Space, sets ping-pong from the front of the room to the back, with little downtime between the 10 bands playing Friday and Saturday night. Headlining the first night is a rare treat, the Chris Pumphrey Sextet. Pumphrey is a vital performing and arranging presence in local music, not only one of the many saxophones powering the indelible Baltimore Afrobeat Society, but the guy who transcribes and directs the large ensemble. His sextet seems to play out only occasionally, and musically it flows from big-band jazz ecstatic to 1970s Miles Davis outer limits. Also playing Friday is the New York trio DEVL, which splits the difference between noise-rock power trio and prog excursion; Super Sharp Shooter, the local, sax-led approach to the rock power trio featuring reeds bellower Anna Meadors, bassist John Paul Carillo, and drummer Nick Palmisano; and Peals, the duo William Cashion (Future Islands) and Bruce Willen (Double Dagger), who craft a chilled-out living room of looping guitars and effects.
Drums of Death—the percussion trio of David Bergander (Celebration), Mike Kuhl, and Michael Lowry (Big in Japan)—headlines Saturday night, along with Steady Pleasures, the latest outfit of Oxter/Mofofunka’s Sean Beier; the deep-space shoegaze of USSA Pleasuredome; and Bombshelter, a quartet led by trumpet player Jaimie Branch. When she was based in Chicago, Branch came to Baltimore for a High Zero appearance; she’s since relocated here for graduate school, and the city’s sounds are better for it. The festival concludes Sunday night with a lineup put together by Creative Differences series curator Bernard Lyons, with LaFayette Gilchrist and the New Volcanoes, the Michael Formanek Ensemble, and Dave Ballou’s LEAP ensemble.
Leffler-Schulman hits the stage Saturday. As Neighborhood, he and a coterie of other local musicians—Ruby Fulton, Andrew Histand, CP contributor Michael Shank, Raili Haimila, and Jay Seay—are playing Arcade Fire’s 2004 album, Funeral, start to finish, arranged as an instrumental. It’s a loosely organized project to explore albums as instrumental experiences, just to see what they sound and feel like. “There’s a bunch of other records we’re thinking of doing in the future,” Leffler-Schulman says, mentioning New Order, Brian Eno, Philip Glass, and John Cage. “We’re rearranging some of the songs where the vocal line is being played as an instrument. Ruby [arranged] this piece where it’s kind of a drummy song and the viola has the floor tom, the violin has the kick drum, and the drums themselves have the lyric. I thought it was going to be totally cheesy trying to translate a vocal line with a lead instrument, but it worked out really well.”
That’s sort of the working, guiding idea for the festival, just to see what happens to the musical experience when all the words are taken out. It’s what de Ocampo alludes to when he says, “I think that it kind of speaks for itself—,” he starts, and immediately starts laughing.
Leffler-Schulman finishes the thought for him. “So to speak,” he says, chuckling. “In a lyric-less kind of way.”
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