By Dave Herrera
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The music of New York-based guitarist Donald Miller and saxophonists Jim Sauter and Don Dietrich, collectively known as Borbetomagus, has been slapped with some pretty dandy labels. Industrial Strength. Punk Jazz. Trash Jazz. Thrash Jazz. Sauter acknowledges that the trio's sound has "inspired writers to be very creative. I've found it really incredible to read some reviews, to find how some people translate what we do into words. Because I would have a hard time describing it."
When asked to volunteer his favorite descriptive, Sauter quotes a scribe who once wrote, "Their music can best be described as Borbetomagus." To the uninitiated, this phrase might seem like a generous helping of artspeak bullshit, but Sauter believes it's a powerful compliment. "It was the most flattering thing anyone ever said," he insists, "because it was like saying it is really its own aesthetic. It's so unique that you can't say it's fusion jazz or rock/punk or whatever. It's almost its own entity."
The band got its start in 1978, but its roots reach back much further. Sauter and Dietrich, now both 41, met in kindergarten and have maintained a friendship ever since. After leaving college they joined forces with Miller, five years their junior, to explore truly alternative sounds. The players' debut, Borbetomagus, was issued on their own Agaric Records label in 1980. At the time of that release, the group had not yet chosen an appellation. But when journalists began referring to them as Borbetomagus (the name of the medieval city of Worms), they decided the moniker fit them just fine.
Over the past fifteen years Borbetomagus has made new albums on a regular basis--and while many of these platters are obscure or out of print, they were innovative enough to garner praise from a great many international music critics. As for the band's latest Agaric offering (Experience the Magic, released in late May), it seems destined to join 1988's Snuff Jazz and 1990's Buncha Hair That Long in the hearts of fans. Better yet, computer technology makes it easier than ever to track down the CD. Interested cyberhipsters who contact firstname.lastname@example.org via America Online can have Magic delivered to their door within a matter of days.
What these adventurers will hear are improvisationals marked by loudness and sonic distortion. But even though the music bespeaks emotional extremes, Sauter claims that Borbetomagus's members are a rather sedate bunch. "I'd describe myself as a caring, sensitive nonsmoker," he says. "The music does reflect our personalities, but it does so in ways that I would have a hard time putting my finger on.
"I think our music is a very personal expression--that's the reason we want it to be heard," he continues. "It's important to us to make the music that we do, and the added bonus is that we've developed an audience for it--so there are people who want to hear it as well. That's what's kind of neat. We've often said this before, but I think it's relevant: We made the first record because we decided it was time to make music that we wanted to hear and that we weren't hearing."
Today this music is more powerful than ever; the interplay of the instrumentalists, whose backgrounds include extensive training in classical and jazz genres, represents a distinctive form of communication between them and their supporters. These partisans constitute a mixed lot: The average Borbetomagus crowd includes hardcore punks, intellectuals drawn to the unusual, and followers of the late John Cage, whose theories freed composers from the constraints of harmonic structure over fifty years ago. According to Cage, pitch does not apply to noise--and noise, along with timbre and duration, is an important ingredient in the Borbetomagus sound.
The result, according to Sauter, is meant to challenge listeners. "Our audiences have to be up for the challenge, because there is a lot going on. In a way, there's a lot an audience has to bring to it, too--a certain openness and willingness to experience what we're doing. It really comes down to the individual. I think to some people, our music can be a little frightening. But to the person who might be sitting right next to that person, it can be elevating."
Indeed, Borbetomagus's efforts produce exceedingly subjective reactions from those who hear them. But even if one feels that it's less a musical invention than a series of jarring, spontaneous vignettes, Sauter believes that the work has an intrinsic value. "The music is not a negative expression. It's positive," he notes. "It's an expression that deserves to be heard and is heard. If anything, it soars above everything else because it is not held down by other restraints. It really flies on its own."
Borbetomagus, with Instrument Panel. 8 p.m. Sunday, June 11, Mercury Cafe, 2199 California Street, $6/$5 Creative Music Works members, 294-9158.
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