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Music Production: Dragging the Stone
10/23/2004 Dragging the Stone: The Man from 'Nyayzar, live at the Boxheart Gallery

Accordionist/performance artist/throat singer/plaster and drywall conceptualist Steve Pellegrino is back with another installment of his Drywall series, this time a reprise of The Man from Nyayzar. Mike Yaklich will be behind the kit again for this one, so be sure not to miss his jaw-dropping performance of "Orange Blossom Special." I'll be supplying samples, live vocal manipulations, some uke, and apparently a block of time during which I'll just be making the kind of racket for which I'm known. So come on down.

8PM, Boxheart Gallery, all ages. $3, or $5 for two people. Or tell us a good story or something.

4523 Liberty Avenue Pittsburgh, PA 15224. (Bloomfield)

A very low-key evening, but good performances and good rapport. I dug it. We'd done a couple nights of rehearsals in the room in advance, but there was a lingering question of how/how much the piece would come together theatrically, and how to control this or that sonic aspect in this small, reflective room. I'd offered to add straight guitar to "Sittin' on Top of the World," but in the event, I wasn't hearing the ideas I'd thought I would, and it was just muddying up the sound. So I sat that one out, although the plan was to have me contribute here and there, and on the usual tunes. The room, however, was a problem for some tunes, particularly for Mike on the drums, so we ended up ditching some of the tunes.

I'd not made it to the Friday performances as a friend's wedding was that night (an excellent time had by all, in fact) and we ended up getting to sleep around 4 in the morning. So I woke up late, and got some design work done before doing my final show preparation, grabbing a bit of dinner, and heading down to the venue for setup. In one of the rehearsals, I'd had some bizarre software slowdowns, quite probably related to a very long uptime (which might have been in the weeks range), so I made sure to reboot.

Setting up and doing the sound check, I could see that I was in for some problems from having the amp down on the floor, but all our regular chairs were needed for the audience, and the remaining chairs were too high--having the amp on one of them would make me nervous. So I decided to deal with the floor suck. One of the things I'd have to watch was how I plugged in the different parts of the rig. The early numbers would require both channels out of the PowerBook, but "Equinox" would require one straight channel from the footswitch. I'd found during one of the rehearsals that G keeps both channels separate on the output (a request I'd made for G's predecessor), depending on how you've set up the panning, so I'd need to be careful in changing my cables for "Equinox" that I was taking the right PowerBook output.

We got an audience of decent size for the space not long after eight, and we were off and running. Mike and I started with an ambient noise-scape, in which I incorporated some edge-of-feedback microphone, something I'd hit on in sound check, and it worked rather nicely. (The mic was going through G in anticipation of processing Steve's vocals later.) Steve signaled us to fade, and he began his monologue, under which I'd occasionally drop some extraterrestrial radio signal processed guitar. He altered the monologue sections with tunes, which were mostly just Steve and Mike, but I also processed the throat singing, and played samples during the Rituals of Folding and Unfolding.

"Equinox" went well in general, although I was definitely battling tone suck from the amp being on the floor, and also was disturbed by the difference in apparent level between my rhythm and lead pickups on the Kalamazoo. Very strange. This time I went further out, and for longer, during my G-processed "solo," and that worked better than the more timid textures I'd done in the past. I also went back into the cloud a couple times, which gave us some variety, although I didn't tend to come back in (or go out) at the top of the measure; I suspect this was half me following the shape of the improv, but also me having a delayed reaction--I knew where the one was, but wasn't getting it together to make snappy transitions on it. Bummer, but next time I'll do it right.

Steve had his own compositions close the show as such, but we then decided on the spur of the moment to do "Jumpin' Jack Flash," as I'd brought the uke. I quickly fired up Ableton Live for the processing, so I could throw some distortion into the mix, and we went for it. Again I delayed my solo entry by a bar, but I was also juggling hitting PowerBook keys to pop in the distortion, and turning amp knobs for tremolo and reverb. (Gotta get me the footswitch for the Alamo.) I had about a half a solo's worth of ideas, never having actually soloed on this tune, so then thinking "what can I possibly do to make this non-boring," I did the old play with my teeth thing to great audience laughter and applause. So I milked it--dropped to my knees in front of the amp, got feedback, waved the uke around to vary the frequency, messed with the tremolo speed, etc. It was fun.

And then the show was over. I chatted with a couple people, broke down the gear, and then Steve and sculptor Frank Ferraro and I adjourned next door for coffee and a chance to talk about the recent Branca experience. Later we were joined by Steve's wife Mary and son Leo, who arrived with additional desserts, and Mike came back as well. Sadly, he was unhappy with his playing, although I found it to be impressive. As the evening broke up, the rain hit, and I headed home. Some nice moments, some promising methods, and some room for improvement.

06/12/2004 Dragging the Stone: Drywall XXI: The Man from Nyayzar

It's a veritable flurry of electronic music activity! On Saturday, June 12, at 10:30 PM, Drywall XXI--the Man from Nyayzar--returns! Substantially revised, to boot! Leaner, stronger, more nimble, with a substantially revised running order! Still the same accordion virtuosity from Pataphysician Stephen Pellegrino, ear-altering drumming by Michael Yaklich, and sample and guitar trickery by your humble correspondent...PLUS the secret weapons: processed throat singing and...drop-tuned ukulele. With a pickup. We're bringing out the big guns, boyee!

Another LOSER (the Loose Organization of Surreal Ethereal Realists) production. Thanks to the Three Rivers Arts Festival.

Saturday, June 12, 2004, 10:30 PM. 937 Liberty, downtown. All ages. Free.

A special night. Photos here.

Steve made some radical changes from the last performance that put this one over the top. Sadly, the stories didn't remain unscathed, but we gained a lot with the new arrangement. Definitely a fine evening. It didn't start well, however. I drove down to the venue and loaded in, but had attracted the attention of Annoying Street Person of the Year, who persistently tried to sell me a disposable camera he'd found, and was followed by an array of compatriots who tried similar methods of extracting money. Sheesh. They'd made note of the car, so I went around the block to the far side of the nearby lot and parked behind Steve's van. Nonetheless, yet another of the street guy's posse was waiting for me. I'd given already, so I went on in, but thought I'd probably move the car later.

On the way in, I ran into Eric Fox and Leslie Fleisher, who thought they might be able to make it back for the show, but weren't sure. (In the event, they didn't, although I see that as no fault of theirs--Clutter drummer Ty later told me he'd tried to get in shortly after 10:30 and found the door locked again.)

Distressingly, Mary and the kids were battling an illness, and Steve was concerned that he was next in line for it, so that was hanging over our heads. After I'd set up, we realized Steve didn't have his melodica, so I offered to drive Mary back to their place to pick it up. We did pick it up, and I used this opportunity to put the car in a garage, even though I'd already paid. Ironically, shortly after I did this, the panhandling brigade was gone in the wake of a police sweep.

After a bit of rehearsal--including Steve's son Leo--and going over the changes to the set (different sections integrated, my playing happening several times over the course of the evening instead of concentrated at the beginning and end), we adjourned to the offstage area so that our entry would be more theatrical. Vale and Year member Dave Bernabo came by with a CDR for me of his prepared piano playing. I'll have to check it out.

At 10 something we figured we'd start playing an intro improv on "Lady of Spain," which was a great idea...except I'd left my ring modulators tuned to Db for "Equinox," and had to spend...three minutes...getting them right. Ohboy. Then when I did join in, part of my brain was still in Db, so occasionally I hit some serious clams. Listening back to the recording, my amp was turned down way too much, so I'm not much present unless one's listening carefully, but I ultimately did some nice integration with Steve's and Mike's excellent playing. Steve absented himself after a bit of this, leaving me and Mike to fill the space, during which I did manage to build an interestingly dark atmosphere. I also retuned the ring mods to Db midway through this duo section, which added a transitional element to the intro. I have to say Mike did a great job building some rhythmic structure in the absence of any rhythmic cues from me. (Though I did do a bit more "playing" by the end.)

Thirteen minutes in, we stopped, and Steve began his vocal introduction. This time, his delivery was seriously slowed down, and conveyed parody, solemnity, and intense otherness. Very nice. He and Mike then slammed right into an aggressive and generally masterful "The Funky Polka," although Steve's bass pickup was set too low, and he wanted to do the last verse again. Much to my surprise, the audience was still with us--perhaps more than they were before. I also noted SCLF drummer Ryan Sigesmund in the house, which was another good sign.

Next up, Steve and Mike did "Blues Haze," a combination of Raymond Scott's "Powerhouse," "When the Saints Come Marching In," and "Purple Haze." Disturbingly, Steve missed a few notes here, and re-started a section again, but again the audience stayed with us! Things hit a groove by the end, and the next tune, Leadbelly's "Sittin' on Top of the World," became a kind of nexus of musicianship, generosity, and good spirit. Steve and Mike really played the hell out of this one, too.

At this point, Steve introduced the "Sky Song," which was a collaborative chant for which both the audience and Mike provided percussion, and I sampled (and modulated) Steve's overtone singing--very, very dramatic, and I was glad Steve thought to do this. (I'd kind of missed it during Wednesday's show.) Unfortunately, I had to adjust the PowerBook volume a bit, and sent a couple volume adjustment beeps and a feedback spike through the amp. The feedback didn't sound bad, though. Steve's melodica playing on this was just fantastic--we could really feel the evening coming together. The processed vocal worked nicely as well, with Steve running theatrically between the straight mic and the processed mic. I think I cut out a bit too early, though--I cut out right after Steve signalled me, but I now think that might have just been a heads-up for the upcoming end. (Still, the last verse works without the tone bed, so it was probably fine.)

Next up, Steve and Mike went back to their virtuosic accordion and drum work for "F and J," which worked in the "Woody Woodpecker" theme, as well as "You Are My Sunshine." They next did a seriously mind-blowing version of "Orange Blossom Special" which featured stunning playing from both of them, but was a real showcase for Mike. (Later he said he was glad he didn't know Ryan was a great drummer or he would have been more self-conscious, but geez--Mike's playing was really dead on, and he's not giving himself enough credit.)

Next up was the unfolding ritual, which flowed nicely, followed by Steve's concentrated discussion of the Nyayzar triptych, including a very nice disquisition on the importance of The Stone (delivered while he was rubbing two stones together--a very good sound). The re-folding ritual went well, and the atmosphere worked. I think this one gelled better than Wednesday's.

No rest for Steve and Mike after this--they slammed right into "Down By Five," a Steve original which is a bunch of extremely tricky chord substitutions...but which all use C. This led to a mythical/comic explanation of the plastering/lathing ritual, which had a frame-breaking cameo by someone whose name I forget, but whom I've met several times. Next up was "Iron Doll"--a Naked City-grade mashup of "Iron Man" and "Satin Doll," featuring a thrilling drum solo from Mike.

I was back in for the pinnacle of the set, "Equinox" (and introduced as being from the Andromeda galaxy), and we were also joined by Leo, a monster clarinettist and sax player (for this one). He's what--eleven? And he has some serious musical feel. He's good by adult standards, and you'd have no idea this was someone this young playing. He's really something. His intonation was a touch off at first, though, and it kind of freaked me out--I thought for sure I was out of tune, and ended up underplaying my chords for a while until I could verify that I was all right. Sadly, again my volume was too low--the room changed too much after soundcheck. There was a bit of a deliberate breakdown during which I came in with a cloud. Not much melodic content, but a nice texture against the other complex stuff.

We followed this with "Jumpin' Jack Flash," which was my uke contribution for the evening. Again, I was a bit too low, but the uke sounded nice through the amp tremolo for that 60s vibe. Leo joined us on this one, too, which was completely right, given Steve's long connection to that tune. (See some Tony Buba films, notably "Lightning Over Braddock," if you want to explore this connection further.)

Steve and Mike did the official encore, "Prince Albert," another virtuoso turn, and we left the stage. Happily, though, Steve did his "Theater Cowboy" piece--with virtual stage headgear--bringing the evening to a close with some great audience communication. We all got some compliments from the audience as we were breaking down the gear, and everything was good.

Ryan and I opted to hit the Eat'n'Park for a late bite, which I needed, but which was an unfortunate mistake. While the espresso shake was indeed pretty good, they've stricken the Garden Burger from the menu, and replaced it with a dubious sauce-and-cheese-slathered veggie scab. Quite depressing. Still, the evening overall was a victory: a warm audience, good performances, payment, and rightness. A peak experience indeed.

06/09/2004 Dragging the Stone: Drywall XXI: The Man from Nyayzar

Wednesday 6/9/04, FREE: Drywall XXI: The Man from Nyayzar

What happens when an entity from another dimension is stranded here with his accordion? He puts on a free performance event and participatory ritual at the Arts Festival tomorrow night at 10:30, at 937 Liberty, is what.

Pittsburgh's alpha-accordionist and avant-gardiste-about-town Steve Pellegrino invites you to this free late evening event of monologues, call and response, PowerBook sample and guitar manipulations (from your humble correspondent), odd-meter drumming, evocations of jazz greats, mysterious staging, and more.

Patti Smith's playing at 8 at Point State Park, so you can check out her show and then come on over to ours. If you can't make it Wednesday, we're doing it again on Saturday the 12th--same time (10:30), same location (937 Liberty). Steve's drywall technique is unstoppable.

It's all paid for by your tax dollars, so you're just throwing your money away if you don't check it out. See you there.

Not bad for a first night, if a bit wobbly in places. We'd done a rehearsal the previous week, so I wasn't going in completely cold, but even during the rehearsal I had a faint feeling of not knowing whether the things I was doing worked or not. The evening found me in something of an odd mental state--it was extremely hot and humid all day; I was juggling four different work-related projects; and we were hosting an out-of-town guest. Steve had specified a white shirt with a collar and black pants for me, and Patricia found a great white linen shirt for me, so my costume was taken care of. Happily this was a later show, so I was able to get everything done I needed to do, and get some dinner before Patricia dropped me off at the gig.

The show was in the back room of a gallery space downtown, at street level. Steve wanted us all there around 7, even though the show wasn't until 10:30, so we'd have adequate time to set up and rehearse again. When I got there, the previous act (a Spanish music and dance troupe) was still going on, and Steve was sitting in with them. It sounded quite nice, but I didn't want to walk in with gear and break the mood, so I ducked around the corner to the backstage entrance hallway and worked a bit on percussion for my upcoming gig doing music for a belly dance. One significant bonus: the place was air-conditioned, so I wouldn't be sweating all the way through the shirt before the show.

Eventually I realized that the show had ended and the audience had filed out, so I went to the stage and started setting up. Other members of the group and entourage showed up; I tweaked the settings in G and Live for the different parts of the show, and then we rehearsed again and did a sound check. I got a little work in on the dance piece, trying to follow some traditional rhythms, but I wasn't going to be making vast amounts of progress this evening. After a point, all we could do was wait, and repaired to the backstage area so as to be able to make a theatrical entrance.

As we got closer to 10:30, Steve decided to lock the front door at showtime, to prevent disruption from latecomers. If it were me, I wouldn't have, as I know some people just tend to be late, but it's his show. When we peeked out of at the audience, we didn't have a full house, but there were a respectable number of people--according to the sound guy, the largest audience any of these events had had so far. And there were some familiar faces there, too, like Mr. Funky, but for the most part they were people who'd been invited by masterminds Steve and Frank Ferraro. Steve had hoped that perhaps we'd get some foot traffic from the national performing arts conference that was having its kick-off concert this evening, but I'm not sure to what extent that was the case. Anyway, we began.

The first part was a ritual Steve had written, a Pataphysical investigation of the culture of another planet/dimension related to and commenting on our own. Steve explained the ritual, and then drummer Mike Yaklich and I provided atmosphere (mine in the form of processed samples, one of radio interference from Frank, one of pulling drywall tape from Steve, and my own consisting of a processed match strike and some guitar drones) for the dropcloth-unfolding portion thereof. Afterwards, we sat quietly while Steve told a number of stories. These were quite interesting, but I could also see where the first night adrenaline was working against us--there were several points where it would have been ideal to let the audience absorb a given line or observation, but by the time they'd absorbed it, Steve was well into the next thing. Much of my time was spent sitting at the side of the stage, trying to be inconspicuous, although I got back up for the Ritual of Folding.

Next up was a long block of tunes Steve had been working on with Mike for two years, and they really had it down. The playing was at an extremely high level, a truly amazing accordion and drums duo. Toward the end of the set, I joined back in for "Equinox," for which...I blew the first cue. I'd muted all the channels in G, so as to avoid inadvertently tripping a long string of tones, and I forgot to unmute them. Damn. Still, the tune went reasonably well, though, and as ever it was great to play with such amazing musicians. People seemed to dig it, and afterwards I was able to snag a bottle of a Pennsylvania-produced white wine left over from an earlier opening. Steve dropped me off at home, and on the way we discussed some changes he was thinking of making to the show. I unwound a bit--the next day was going to be interesting, as we'd be getting up early, catching a ride downtown with our guest, and then volunteering all day at the arts conference. The wine turned out to be just fine, though not brilliant. Admittedly I'm not much of a white wine fan.

Overall, a promising start, with some pointers toward a better second show.


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