Music News


Boulder-based Starkland Records, owned and operated by Tom Steenland, has issued some of the most idiosyncratic discs imaginable during its years of operation: Take, for example, the recordings of Tod Dockstader, a onetime sound editor for Mr. Magoo who went on to become an influential musical avant-gardist. (See the August 24, 1994, Feedback for more details.) But the quirks inherent in Starkland's previous offerings pale in comparison with those found in Garland Hirschi's Cows, by Phillip Kent Bimstein, an opus that, thanks to a summertime profile of Bimstein that aired on National Public Radio, may turn out to be the modest imprint's most prominent and popular release ever. But that's as it should be. After all, Bimstein, who is both a prolific composer and the mayor of Springdale, Utah, is plenty quirky himself.

Bimstein calls his music "alternative classical," but don't let that term scare you off. Although his efforts are not exactly Top 40 fodder, they'll likely strike listeners familiar with ambient and electronic music as surprisingly accessible. The CD's title selection, which clocks in at just under twelve minutes, is a charmingly oddball opus built around speech samples from Garland Hirschi, an elderly Utah farmer, and the technically altered lowing of Hirschi's cattle. The elements bring out the prankster in Bimstein; the piece's three sections are called "A Little Bit About My Cows," "Pasturale" and "Moovement." But the result is no joke. The manipulation of these sounds is positively virtuosic--which probably explains why the work earned Austria's Prix Ars Electronica prize in 1992. And while Bimstein admits to being more inspired by John Cage and musique concrete than by more recent pop-music developments, anyone familiar with the Orb's "Fluffy Little Clouds" will recognize in "Garland Hirschi's Cows" and "Dark Winds Rising" (a four-segment effort performed with the Turtle Island String Quartet) numerous production techniques currently being used by producers on techno's cutting edge. In fact, Bimstein could likely teach these trendsetters a thing or two: It's doubtful that any of them could pull off something like "The Door," a charmingly bizarre soundscape in which he transforms the squeaky door to his studio into an unexpectedly versatile musical instrument.

Cows also features "The Louie Louie Variations," in which Bimstein (with the assistance of the Modern Mandolin Quartet) makes something new from the notes used by the Kingsmen while playing the old frat-rock fave. But Bimstein's enhancement is not at all elitist, perhaps because he got his start as a rock performer. He was part of a Chicago-based band, Phil 'n' the Blanks, that experienced some regional success during the early-Eighties new-wave period. Today he says, "I like esoteric classical music, but I also like Nine Inch Nails and Sonic Youth." He adds, "I liked the Chemical Brothers CD, but I found it to be too static; they get a certain thing going, and then after that, it doesn't surprise you too much. But on the other hand, it makes me realize what a fool I am to try and do something eccentric instead of just establishing a groove. If I did, maybe I could make some money from this."

Actually, Bimstein's music has lately become more profitable as a result of an honor he received from Meet the Composer, a New York-based organization. "They give thousands of smaller grants each year for living American composers to speak and perform concerts of their music," he explains. "But I received their biggest grant, which they give to five composers around the country each year. It's a three-year grant where I'll be paid a salary and receive a budget for the production of my works. The goal is to make the composer more a part of community life rather than to be separate from it." As part of this project, Bimstein is writing a string quartet based on Refuge, a book by Utah author Terry Tempest Williams that interweaves a narrative about her mother's death from breast cancer with the story of birds perishing near the Great Salt Lake.

Environmental concerns inspired Bimstein to run for mayor of Springdale, a town of 350 near the entrance to Zion National Park. He's proud that since his election in 1993, "Springdale has been a fly in the ointment" regarding numerous attempts by conservatives to promote development at the expense of the land, air and water in the state. "We're the town that stands up and says, 'We're in favor of wilderness. It's good for the quality of life,'" he points out. To that end, he has testified before Congress to oppose a wilderness bill sponsored by Utah's own Senator Orrin Hatch and has been interviewed by Newsweek, USA Today and all three major television networks.

Although he plans to run for re-election later this year, Bimstein makes it clear that music is his first priority. "I'm a composer for a career and a mayor for a hobby," he jokes. To that end, he spends the time between town meetings putting together aural experiments that he hopes will be every bit as provocative as those found on Garland Hirschi's Cows (available in area record stores or by writing Starkland at P.O. Box 2190, Boulder 80306). He's already completed "Casino," which utilizes a musical track constructed from the sounds of dice being tossed, poker chips being stacked and money pouring from slot machines, and he's in the midst of assembling "a piece for frogs and oboe. I'm into the sound of frogs right now. But while purists like Paul Winter would never think of altering the sounds of nature, I feel free to play with them--to freely transpose them down an octave to get a more deep, guttural sound.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts