Scrap Arts stylish and percussive
By David Patrick Stearns INQUIRER MUSIC CRITIC
Part of the Philadelphia Fringe Festival’s appeal is seeing works untempered by the finishing touch. The Vancouver, B.C.-based Scrap Arts Music, which gave a Thursday recital at the Painted Bride Art Center, is all the more untempered for being in a state of high gloss.
The five-person ensemble achieved a certain visibility three years ago in an NBA halftime show and has been described as a cross between Flash Gordon and Dr. Seuss. It’s fantastically visual, as those comparisons suggest, though on Thursday one found more parallels with the percussive inventiveness of Stomp and the stylishly composed stage pictures of Le Cirque du Soleil.
On the Stomp side, there’s a huge array of instruments, some conventional, such as an array of gongs and chimes, and some found from everyday life, such as bicycle bells and plastic vent hoses. On the Cirque side, the choreography that comes with any intensive percussion performance is unusually theatrical here.
In one section, four people played the xylophone-like “plankophone,” and it’s visually riveting. Also, instruments are arranged onstage so stylishly as to resemble a minimalist version of a Thai temple.
With that fusion comes a significantly distinctive identity. Scrap Arts Music lacks the sense of controlled anarchy in Stomp, not to mention the cafeteria-food-fight quality of Blue Man Group. Unlike Cirque, you don’t have the operatic quality, with movement as a vehicle for deep emotion.
Yet the way various elements are combined by Scrap Arts Music makes it as absorbing as its antecedents. The group-composed pieces on the program, Conundrum, Engine of the Future and others, are indeed composed, and could be heard without the visual element with no loss of interest.
Then there’s the sheer inventiveness of the sound. The instruments are built by the group’s founder, Gregory Kozak, and the sound palette is beguiling indeed. At one point, modified Ping-Pong paddles spanked plastic tubes. Modified billy clubs pounded the floor; that’ll rattle your heels. More listenings would be needed to determine the extent of the music’s content, but initial exposure suggests that there’s a lot there, and that this group is perhaps closer to the American maverick avant-gardist Harry Partch than anything in American popular culture.