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The Shock of the New

Neon Renaissance wants to change the way Denverites hear music.

Scott Scholz is to musical ambition what Boris Yeltsin is to vodka consumption. Rather than taking the predictable course and putting together a band dedicated to the realization of his ideas, the 21-year-old student at the University of Denver's Lamont School of Music has formed his own movement: Neon Renaissance.

Named for a term invented by author/Merry Prankster Ken Kesey (he defined it as "a new way to look at the world, an attempt to locate a new reality), the collective comes complete with its own mission statement, a nine-page document grandiosely titled "Neon Renaissance: Declaration of Corporeal Incarnation." In it, the anonymous writer states, "We no longer need to fight for freedom of expression in virtually any manner; we need to look at the tools the postmodern movement has allowed us, and play with them: Express through them." The manuscript also claims, a tad defensively, that "this is not a manifesto...Neon Renaissance wants at its foundation to judiciously avoid being considered a tributary of the river of 'isms' that has polluted itself with thousands of manifestos in the last hundred years."

So what exactly is Neon Renaissance (or N.R., as Scholz sometimes refers to it)? This week's Neon Renaissance Festival should help answer the question. The bill features a presentation of Zoo Story, an absurdist play by Edward Albee; an artist who will create paintings in front of the audience; and a variety of musical or spoken-word performances by Shutter Trio, Clark Roth, Tempura Death and Conrad Kehn, leader of the rock group Skull Flux. (Kehn, a Lamont student who won the 1998 composition prize at the school for a work called "Piece for Flute, Vocals, Firearms and Televisions," describes the fest as "local rockers doing solo classical works.") Also participating is the Free Love Ensemble, an outfit led by Brandon Vaccaro that intermingles cutting-edge jazz with rock influences and motifs inspired by twentieth-century classical music.

The mixing of media will be a big part of the event. Scholz, who's also a member of the Free Love Ensemble, sees it as an opportunity to prove that "bringing music-theory concepts into a theatrical setting is possible." But he doesn't want to stop at simply bridging the gaps between various branches of the arts. Instead, he's eager to create an artistic oasis in the Mile High City. As such, he sees the fest not as a one-shot spectacle, but as the first in an ongoing series of happenings that will allow aesthetes from every conceivable camp to develop and grow.

From the beginning, Scholz was different from most other musicians his age. Whereas his peers would listen to Neil Young or Son Volt between classes, he leaned toward jazz or art rock by the likes of Ornette Coleman, Bob Ostertag and Mike Patton, or the neo-classical offerings of Varese and Ligetti. Scholz eventually joined a number of area groups, including Coefficient of Friction, which he calls "the mother band of N.R." Today he's deeply involved in the compositional mode called "game theory," which plays off mathematical precepts involving the rise of order from chaos. In the tradition of contemporary free-jazzer John Zorn, Scholz and his supporting musicians use hand signals and other nonverbal cues while improvising. He concedes that the method is hit-or-miss. "As far as game-theory pieces go, the random nature of the playing can sometimes sound like shit," he says. "I don't know if that would necessarily work for an audience." Fortunately for festival attendees, the efforts he prefers to showcase in live settings are those that have solidified over time.

The Free Love Ensemble is into game theory, too, as Volume 1, Number 1, the combo's CD debut, demonstrates. Recorded at a portion of the Lamont School vividly dubbed the Torture Garden, the album sports good playing by Scholz (on bass) and tenor saxophonist Cody Brown, as well as numerous Vaccaro songs that are comparatively accessible. That's not to say that the music's back-masked vocals, ponderous piano lines and altered tape loops wouldn't scare the hell out of the suburban crowd--they would. But fans of Negativland and the Legendary Pink Dots are apt to find Vaccaro's themes easily digestible and quite nutritious.

Other N.R. recordings aren't widely available at this point, and that's too bad. Their juxtaposition of disparate styles such as ambient music, cabaret and straightahead jazz is quite intriguing. Kehn's "Piece for Flute, Vocals, Firearms and Televisions," for instance, revolves around whimsical, off-key noodling, while his "Playground Mockery" is reminiscent of the early work of soundtrack impresario Bernard Herrmann.

The quality of the music being made by the N.R. crowd adds credence to the participants' optimistic view of Denver. Scholz likes the city and thinks that he and his collaborators can help push the music scene into more interesting areas. But he's also wary of complacency. "The more you play with one specific ensemble, the better they tend to get," he says. "The players are always fresh when they first enter a setting like that. But then there is a period where they become familiar with their positions, and the work can become stale."

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