Copyright 1995 Creative
Loafing, published March 18, 1995
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Previously we were considered far-out avant-rock," says Erik
Lindgren of the band Birdsongs of the Mesozoic. "Now when
we play classical concerts we're the outcasts, but when they hear
us, they embrace us."
Such extremes aren't unusual for a band that's opened shows for
Einsturzende Neubauten and Siouxsie and the Banshees, while recently
playing chamber music concerts at several universities. They'll
be in Atlanta, for instance, to spend two days at Emory as Artists
in Residence, ending with a public performance.
Most bands that claim to mix various styles end up with lifeless
mush, but Birdsongs has forged a unique, instantly recognizable
style by taking only what they need and leaving the rest. There's
nothing haphazard or experimental about their music. When they
place an intricate guitar melody over a minimalist keyboard ostinato
or break into a flurry of witty, dissonant harmonies, Birdsongs
know exactly where they're heading.
set-up of the group is unorthodox," Lindgren
admits. "We have two keyboard players, an electric guitarist and
a saxophonist. Plus we use sequenced percussion. Though there's
a limited amount of improvisation, mainly in small pockets, our
music is more tied to Stravinsky and Debussy than, say, Miles
Davis. You might call our pieces 'mini-symphonies,' which is what
we used to call Brian Wilson's music. If it's not too presumptuous,
we feel like our music parallels Wilson's Smile period."
Such focused eclecticism has been a constant throughout Birdsongs'
history. The band formed in 1980 as a side project for Roger
Miller and Martin Swope, two members of the seminal postpunk
band Mission of Burma. Joining them
were Lindgren and Rick
Scott, the only two musicians who've been in every incarnation
of the group.
says, "I have a Masters as a composer and pianist from the University
of Iowa, but the real roots of Birdsongs were based not just in
Stravinsky but in Funhouse by the Stooges. That was the connection:
was into avant-garde jazz while I had a classical slant. I saw
a John Cage concert in 1972 that blew my mind."
developed hearing problems from Mission
of Burma's loud volume, Birdsongs became a full-time outfit.
left in 1987 for a solo career and was replaced by sax player
Ken Field. Swope left for the beaches of
Hawaii in 1992; guitarist Michael Bierylo
filled his spot.
Over the past decade and a half, there have been eight releases.
The early years are sampled on Sonic
Geology (Rykodisc), which has such band staples as "Lost
in the B-Zone" and "Beat of the Mesozoic," along with their raving
"Theme from Rocky and Bullwinkle" and a six-minute version of
"The Rite of Spring." Unreleased material from that period appeared
on The Fossil Record, released
by Cuneiform, home for the band's other albums.
Their newest effort is Dancing on
A'A which is the first to feature guitarist Bierylo.
Lindgren says, "Michael brought a whole
new level of musicality to the group. A lot of the older pieces
just don't seem to fit in and don't really translate since Michael
has a different playing style than Martin Swope did." Consequently,
most of the material in their concerts is drawn from the current
album, including a version of the Peter Gunn theme that Lindgren
claims is "an excuse to bang up a piano."
member is responsible for certain compositions," Lindgren
says. "We write out parts and pass them out at rehearsals, much
as a string quartet does. It usually takes two to three months
for a piece to get hammered into shape, but this is living music
and if we come up with a good idea two years later we'll integrate
insists that Birdsongs isn't really a rock band. "We're rock influenced,"
he says, "just like the Mahavishnu Orchestra. I can appreciate
'Louie, Louie.' I just can't play rock 'n' roll." ( Lindgren
adds that one of the highlights of his life was having dinner
last October with Don Gallucci, organist on the Kingsmen's version
of "Louie, Louie.")
Perhaps that's one reason they've been playing classical concerts
at such places as Dartmouth and the Monadnock Music Festival.
"Last Wednesday," Lindgren says, "we were
at Tufts University, playing for a packed auditorium of people
wearing tuxedos. It was a program of 20th-century classical music
and we ended the first half. We deal in melodies that are two
or three steps less complex than Elliott Carter, so we're accessible
in that way."
Apart from concerts, the band has also been Artists in Residence
at several colleges. "We play examples and talk about what the
students might want to hear, such as what they can expect when
they graduate. We talk about composition, instrumentation and
the use of technology in music. Practical as opposed to conceptual
things, since we are a working group that tours throughout the
Though Birdsongs is their main focus, the musicians find other
outlets for their talents away from the group. Ken
Field has written music for animated Sesame Street segments
by Karen Aqua while Michael Bierylo
teaches at the Berklee School of Music. Lindgren
runs the Arf Arf label, busily reissuing forgotten garage and
'60s punk records. After all, what else would you expect from
far-out avant-rockers with a knack for captivating classical listeners?
Birdsongs of the Mesozoic play Friday, March 17 at the Cannon
Chapel, Emory University, at 8:15 p.m. Admission is $10 general;
$8 faculty, staff and students; and $4 Emory students. For more
information call 727-6187.