The instant Frank Pahl touches the two bare wires together, it seems his machines are taking over. The room fills with noise from all directions. A row of toy organs with pennies jammed between their keys plays a wash of notes. An electrified Fisher-Price popcorn-popper push toy whirls into motion, shooting Ping-Pong balls at a suspended steel drum to create a clumsy, mechanical march. For a second, even Pahl seems surprised.
But by the looks of the laboratory-recording studio in Pahl’s Wyandotte home, it shouldn’t be too surprising. The pathways through the windowless basement room separate islands of musical toys and unrecognizable noisemakers collected from every corner of the globe. Many of them are half-broken or modified, hooked up to the reassigned motors of sewing machines or record players.
Every inch of the basement bears witness to his idiosyncratic musical genius. The refrigerator is bare except for chilled water and pie of homegrown rhubarb. One wall is covered with ukuleles (he has more than 20) in various states of undress. The other displays a row of brass instruments — from contorted valve trombones to intricately engraved euphoniums (mini-tubas). There are Indonesian meditation bells hanging from the ceiling, an enormous horn that once belonged to a Model T and something called a Hawaiiphone.
Pahl pauses when he comes to briefcase filled with multicolored light bulbs and doorbells. He turns it on, and it comes flashing to life like a carnival ride.
“Sounds fancy, but it is just a beat-up briefcase filled with doorbells and lights,” Pahl says over a cacophony of ding-dongs. “The only reason you hear doorbells right now is because that is what’s plugged in. I could plug vacuum cleaners into this thing if I wanted to.”
He says it as though he’s already tried it.
From the outside Frank Pahl’s modest home looks nothing like the sanctum of an international cult figure. Yet within the open-eared community of creative music making, Pahl’s name is atop the A-list as an innovator, composer and collaborator.
“He’s one of American’s finest unsung heroes and one of the most creative multi-instrumentalists I’ve ever heard,” testifies Amy Denio of Seattle. She’s one of Pahl’s musical kindred spirits, a record-label owner and performer who has been featured on National Public Radio and written up in the Sunday Times of India. “It seems that he can create a beautiful noise with anything which crosses his hands or lips or feet, for that matter! He has a wonderful knack to create music which is whimsical, playful and sometimes quite dark. He made a piece which included a Christmas-tree shredder recorded near his house in Wyandotte which is one of the most strangely beautiful things I’ve ever heard.”
Wood-chipper music seems fairly passé after Pahl tells cautionary tales about sawing propane tanks to create an instrument that simulates Indonesian gongs.
“Have you ever tried that before? It’s a little bit scary,” Pahl says. “One spark and … boom.”
Even though Pahl is joking, the anecdote is representative of Pahl’s musical mind — edgy and insatiable, willing to go any length in a quest to satisfy his curiosity. That’s the element of his work that has made him a celebrity in small pockets around the world.
He is an accomplished composer for film, dance and stage productions, a builder and collector and rigger of instruments who has the passion of a melodically obsessed Willy Wonka. Pahl takes devices that were not made to create music and not only reconfigures them so they play themselves — he makes beautiful records that people buy. He’s put out of scores of full-length releases in the past decade which encompass everything from bombastic cabaret jazz to schizophrenic folk.
He’s one of metro Detroit’s few champions of what is often called “creative” or “new” music. Yet he’s almost unknown on his home turf.
Like so many vanguard virtuosos, Pahl’s fame overseas far surpasses his recognition in the States. That’s not to say he’s a star anywhere, yet his works have received more media attention in Japan and Europe than in his homeland.
He traveled to Japan in 1997 while a grad student at the University of Michigan School of Art and Design on a grant he jokingly describes as “some bullshit I wrote about studying cultural differences in improvisation — which was really an excuse to meet people I only knew through the mail.”
There, he found himself playing in well-attended venues; concert-goers paid upward of $30 a ticket.
“The thing that is keeping me alive right now is the thought of going to Japan,” Pahl says.
He chuckles that a Polish label has approached him about releasing his music but insists that it would have to be on a vinyl format. It’s a safe bet that he is the only person in Wyandotte to boast a vinyl-only Polish-indie deal.
“I was a synthesizer dude,” Pahl admits. “I had one of those stands that you can put three keyboards on because I wanted to stand up. When you’re in your 20s, you want to stand up and jump around and sweat and play rock ’n’ roll.”
Listening to the primarily self-playing acoustic instruments employed on his latest release, Music for Desserts, it’s hard to imagine Pahl pogoing behind a three-tiered synth stand with his Elvis Costellian punk-touched New Wave band, Hype.
“It was a cool name,” Paul says. “That was 1979 or ’80 and we won the WABX Rocktoberfest. That was the hip rock station. We won this big competition against 150 other bands to record in this 24-track studio — to us, that was unheard of.”
Despite considerable local fame and major-label inquiries in the early ’80s, the band broke up after lupus killed Pahl’s band mate, Mark Liddle.
“I was fed up with trying to do something with pop music,” Pahl says. “It had to do with the fact that my friend died and we had tried doing this pop thing and I was fed up. I started listening to groups like the Residents.
“My friend James Knight was a filmmaker, and I talked with him about how I wanted to get together a group of nonmusicians. It was kind of like how Duchamp and Cage had kind of opened up the world for anything goes — we had experienced the same kind of thing in the ’80s with punk music. It just made sense to get together a band of nonmusicians with a bunch of instruments and let them play in whatever way they wanted to. James Knight might have been doing it just for the sake of menace, but he had this big ol’ steak knife, and he used to play a zither with it.”
The broadening of Pahl’s musical horizon in the wake of Liddle’s death was one of the most crucial developments in his musical life.
He eventually found himself living in a dual life — as a mild-mannered advertising agency copy editor by day and a musician involved in a huge spectrum of projects by night.
In the late ’80s, he started juggling instruments (tenor guitar, euphonium, ukulele, keyboards, etc.) both as a solo artist and at helm of Detroit’s genre-bending acoustic group Only a Mother. He collaborated on a number of recording projects, became a virtuosic whistler, organized a creative music festival called Ear Whacks for two years, and started composing music for film, theater and dance.
When you ask him about specific dates he has to read his own résumé to keep it straight.
“It funny how a résumé will make you feel international,” Pahl says with a laugh, flipping through the four pages of dates to figure out when Only a Mother broke up. But by then — in 1998 after six LPs and tours through Europe, the United States and Canada — his status as a performer was well established.
When Only a Mother earned a nomination for “Best Modern Jazz Group” from the questionably aware Motor City Music Foundation in 1999, it was all too telling. The people who handed out those awards were trying to give jazz recognition to a band that took more spiritual cues from ’70s punk and timeless Eastern European folk melodies than contemporary jazz — and they were trying give it to them a year after they broke up.
“I know it might sound morbid,” says Pahl’s girlfriend and dance collaborator, Terri Sarris, “but sometimes I think that Frank will be one of those artists that receives the recognition that he deserves after he dies. It happens to so many great folk artists. It’s awful to think like that, but I can just imagine someone going down into that basement and seeing what he had created down there and finally realizing what he was.”
‘Frank in there’
But some people got it.
“When I first saw Only a Mother in Detroit in the early ’90s, Frank’s music immediately appealed to my sense that theater can be more of a circus event — obviously theatrical, colorful and mysterious,” says Malcolm Tulip, founder of the Prospero Theatre Company and a University of Michigan faculty member. Tulip was key in introducing Pahl to writing music for the stage.
When you listen to any of Pahl’s recent recordings for theater and film, it makes perfect sense. His 2001 release with the Scavenger Quartet, Whistling For Leftovers, includes such highly theatrical titles as “The Romantic Side of Trixie Arquette” and “How Came We Ashore?”
“Frank is a real asset in the theater,” says Scavenger Quartet bassist Joel Peterson. “It’s that he’s able to take what other people want and still make it come out like Frank. He has a way of translating the generalized ideas of nonmusicians. He’ll work with people in theater or dance whose descriptions are so vague — or even contradictory — and he gets them both the essence of what they want, and the Frank in there.”
Getting the Frank in there is something that keeps him busy all year, working mostly on commissions for theater and dance productions in the Ann Arbor area for the University of Michigan and local independent theaters.
“When you do commissions you are forced to learn about things — I mean I have learned about Dada or Brecht and Weill and The Grapes of Wrath and opera,” Pahl says. “When I start a commission I realize that there is this hole in my musical education, and after you are done you realize the hole is smaller. And, to a large extent, that is one of the things that keeps me going. But if no one is asking me to write dance music then I’m not thinking dance music. Or theater. I’m thinking music.”
Small world after all
Frank Pahl’s craft is so esoteric, he leans heavily on far-flung friends for stimulation.
“In a way, a sense of community is where people who do things like this feel the most lost,” Pahl says. “In the ’80s there was a strong cassette culture; people put out releases on cassette and that was legitimate. You were able to bypass everybody and swap cassettes and be taken seriously. It isn’t like that today. In some way it might have been made easier by the Internet, and I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. It used to be about the search, but now the search involves pushing a button.”
An Internet search on Pahl turns up 15 or 20 Web sites, most them in foreign languages. It makes sense that the Web isn’t the answer for torchbearers of the avant-garde.
As he talks about the glory days of cassette swapping it’s apparent that the zenith of deep-music listening passed two decades ago. Music on seminal art-rock label Ralph Records and Sound Choice (a self-proclaimed “audio evolution networking magazine”) provided asylum for those unable to stomach the popular music of the day. It probably seems somewhat arcane by the standards of today’s music consumer, but it was all done through the postman.
“I was eventually able to write people I admired and swap cassettes with them and meet them,” Pahl says. “Fortunately after I got to know them, my heroes ended up being nice guys. That’s where I met Nick Didkovsky, Amy Denio and Eugene Chadbourne, Shaking Ray Levis and Luc Houtkamp.”
If none of his idols ring a bell, don’t worry. These are household names to a guy whose house boasts a collection of cylindrical party favors that moo.
In Pahl’s world, the Chattanooga-based improvisational collective Shaking Ray Levis and Dutch avant saxophonist-composer Houtkamp are required listening. It might read like name-dropping, but Pahl talks of these people with a same casual repose that a teenager would employ while chatting about the Backstreet Boys, without the slightest trace of elitism.
“Ever since I met Only a Mother for the first time in Newfoundland, when we shared the same apartment during the new music festival in 1992, I have been impressed by Frank’s open mindedness,” writes Luc Houtkamp via e-mail.
The unsolicited e-mail arrived after Houtkamp heard through the grapevine that I was writing a story about Pahl. It’s another testament to his peers’ global networking.
Houtkamp’s fusion of noisy improvisation with computer sounds might seem a far cry from Pahl’s mostly acoustic compositions, but to radio-listening Joe Public, both men are musical outcasts.
“Although our music appeared to be very different, there was directly a good feel about each other’s work, and I’ve always liked Frank’s open-minded attitude.” Houtkamp writes. “When I arrived in Detroit, Frank almost pushed me directly into his home studio in Wyandotte, to dub in a solo with some recordings he had made that were not finished yet. So I did, and it would become a kind of standard routine. Anytime I played in Detroit there were some recordings waiting.”
The partnership was officially documented in November 1992 when Houtkamp contributed to Pahl’s In Cahoots, which would be released five years later on Vaccination Records, a recently defunct operation out of Oakland, Calif. Houtkamp’s sublimely screechy cameos (“Blues with Luc” and “Bagpipes with Luc”) stand in sharp relief to Pahl’s quirky, avant-folk balladry. But their collaboration sounds perfectly, intuitively appropriate.
“It may seem like I’m all over the place,” Pahl says when asked to categorize his musical output. “But I’m really not. I’m only trying to do four or five things at once.”
Yet he’s soon musing about a desire to perform droning organ music in chill-out rooms at raves. That’s six.
Then he mentions how cool it would be to make pop music with his army of automatic instruments. That’s seven. The list goes on and on.
“He has his own universe which is completely authentic,” Scavenger Quartet’s Peterson says. “That factor of being concerned about being cool doesn’t even exist. He just doesn’t think in terms of self-promotion. He would rather concentrate on the music. What is amazing is that you have to figure for every track he has released there are 20 more sitting down there in Wyandotte.”
If that’s true, reviewing the list of more than 20 full-length releases that Pahl has issued in the past 10 years makes the basement room in Wyandotte seems even more cluttered. The only common thread among the myriad releases is apparent as soon as Pahl sits at the piano and pounds out the overture to one of his theater scores. His fingers run up and down the keyboard, creating a brilliantly nimble melody, driven by unexpected discoveries and noisy disasters.
“This piano hasn’t been tuned in years,” Pahl says, noting that people surmise that the tuneless notes are a calculated part of his signature sound. “It’s like, ‘No, I just can’t afford to get it tuned right now.’”
Peterson explains it perfectly: “One time Frank told me something about how the ancient Greeks said that every work of art has to have an imperfection. He likes to put that error in the side of technique or intonation instead of concept.
“He’s just exposed to more music than anyone I know,” Peterson continues. “A lot of it might fall under a highbrow music — but you could never claim his work was highbrow because he has no academic training. He’s like the caveman of basement, highbrow music.”
As the afternoon with Pahl passes and he speaks constantly of his favorite names in music — Spike Jones and experimental turntablists Christian Marclay and Otomo Yoshihide, Moby and Cat Stevens — Pahl’s proves himself both eclectic in his tastes and catholic in his understanding.
“It may seem to people that I lack focus and the truth of the matter is I am undisciplined,” Pahl says. “I know if I just picked one thing that I do and pursued it maybe I could make a living off of that. That is probably why I move around from style to style and job to job; it suits someone who has a certain lack of focus. I’m allowed to be focused for two months at a time and learn something new. You could never do that with a master’s degree in music. It’s all about specializing. All you have to do is look at my bookshelf to know that I don’t specialize — I am browsing.”
The predictably crammed bookshelf contains songbooks by Béla Bartók and Tom Waits, The Encyclopedia of Automatic Instruments and the QPB Dictionary of Difficult Words.
“This might sound tacky but I’m going to be sleeping here for the next couple days,” confesses Pahl, who also has an apartment in Ann Arbor, as he sits behind the control board in his basement studio. “And it’s a shitty place to sleep — but I’m going to be productive. What else is there to do here?”
On a documentary video of his sound installations, Pahl stands alone at a small podium, wielding a long conductor’s baton. Surrounding him on all sides are carefully placed, fully automated organs and stringed instruments strummed by Tinker Toys rotating on slow motors. The piece is called “Double Quartet #1,” a playerless composition in place at Ann Arbor’s Slusser Gallery.
“Watching them turn on and off amazes me,” Pahl says. “You stand in a room and it’s not stereo — its quad sound, you hear it all around you — and you can make your own quad and create your own immersive environment of sound that the best stereo system ever made can’t do.”
Pahl’s current obsession with automated instruments is a fairly unforgiving one. Music for Desserts uses a stunningly lovely presentation of automatic instruments from beginning to end. Pahl will never play in front of an arena of people or hear a note of it on major-market radio. Until now, Music for Desserts hadn’t received a single review in the United States.
“I believe in a lot in the automatic music. I think it is the most interesting stuff I’m doing these days,” Pahl says. “But it’s really difficult to carry all of the instruments to gigs these days and compete against a DJ and a laptop. On the pecking order, the guys with the instruments should get paid more. You work so hard and for what? I’ve done enough local shows where there is nobody there and it hurts.”
“I grew up in Wyandotte, moved to Detroit and moved back here,” Pahl says. “A large part of understanding this for me is the fact that I live in Wyandotte, [but] it is not my community. I get along with my neighbors because I have to. I get along with people who I am fortunate enough to know around the world because I want to. If you’re doing something and you start to think that you’re not in the right place, it’s so difficult to move that the best thing you can know is that a community is out there — and you do whatever you can to continue to be a part of it.”
Maybe for Pahl the thrill is in the cluttered chase, the perpetual exploration and discovery of sounds new and old, beautiful and strange.
“I’m obviously fascinated by sound, and I know I always will be,” Pahl admits. “In the winter when you wear a hood with a drawstring, I like to pull it taut and have a one-string string bass. Have you ever done that? Hopefully, all musicians have. It should be a prerequisite.”
Frank Pahl , his automatic instruments and the Scavenger Quartet perform July 19 at Detroit Art Space (101 E. Baltimore, Detroit; call 313-598-4695) to celebrate the release of Music for Desserts.Nate Cavalieri is the Metro Times listings editor. E-mail him at [email protected]