Daniel Popsicle vs. Brooklyn, Subterranean Arthouse

It’s rare that I get to see Berkeley and Brooklyn collide, but that is exactly what I found at the Subterranean Arthouse last week at a show entitled “Daniel Popsicle vs. Brooklyn.” In this case, “Brooklyn” was represented by members of the composers’ collective ThingNY, violinist Jeffrey Young and cellist Valerie Kuehne with her band Dream Zoo. The overall theme that unified the music across coasts was the incorporation of words and wordplay, in the forms of cabaret, theater, opera and casual banter.

I arrived as the first set was beginning, with Valerie Kuenhe center stage framed by the center aisle of the space, with band-members Lucio Menegon on guitar, Jeffrey Young on violin and Sean Ali on bass on either side. The music opened with rhythmic instrumental playing and Kuenhe’s theatrical singing, and moved between vigorous rhythmic patterns and playful lyrics with occasional breaks into arhythmic free playing. Kuenhe’s avant-cabaret style of performance reminded me a bit of Amy X Neuburg, both in the cadence and rhythm of her singing and the humor and word-play of her lyrics. Sometimes they were quite abstract and seemed to reflect the joy of words for their own sake, and at others described visual and familiar scenes, such as riding in an New York City subway.

[Jeff Young, Lucio Menegon, Valerie Kuenhe, Sean Ali.  Photo by Michael Zelner.]

In some respects, the band was a variation on the traditional string quartet, with the fourth string instrument was Lucio Menegon’s electric guitar. At times he blended seemlessly with the other instruments, with his fingering and ebow playing matching the volume and timbre of the acoustic strings. At other times, his playing was front and center, with more of a blues or rock style, with the cello and bass acting as percussion instruments.

At one point late in the set, the steady rhythm and lyrical music disintegrated into a more chaotic and freeform texture, and one by one members of Daniel Popsicle joined the group on stage in a free improv. At first, I thought this was a set transition, but then they left after a short period of time, with things settling back down into a minor plucked rhythm by Kuenhe and a jazz/rock jam line by Menegon. A repeated chant emerged: “Forget about geometry, forget about geometry”, with all band members and eventually the audience joining in. And while I don’t personally want to forget about geometry, it was a fun moment. The set concluded with a slowly descending guitar tone that lingered for a good long time.

Jeffrey Young returned for the second set with Paul Pinto for a performance of their opera Jeff Young and Paul Pinto, Patriots, Run for Public Office on a Platform of Swift and Righteous Immigration Reform, Lots of Jobs, and a Healthy Environment. They had lots of boxes with politically salient terms written on each face.

Amidst soft musical tones, the pair began to unpack the boxes to reveal a US flag to serve as their backdrop, a variety of musical instruments, and piles of clothing whose purpose would soon become apparent. The boxes themselves became musical instruments to be bowed in counterpoint to Young’s violin. This gave way to to both percussive and harmonic sounds on xylophone. The dialogue of the piece unfolded as Pinto donned a dark suit from the pile of clothes and Young proceeded to ask pointed questions in a mock political debate which, in between virtuosic violin arpeggios and intense percussion breaks, crossed many topics ranging from quinoa to absurd solutions to immigration reform to the idea that “sex begins in the classroom.” One particularly amusing exchange involved the question of a “single American identity”, which Young answered affirmatively from the point of view of a “single American.” Towards the end the boxes were stacked into a large tower that was then toppled over, with individual boxes distributed to members of the audience. I received one of the boxes, though I’m afraid I don’t recall what was written on it. The piece concluded with a ceremonial folding of the flag – I am pretty sure this was actually done the correct way.

[Paul Pinto and Jeff Young. Photo by Michael Zelner.]

The final set featured Daniel Popsicle, complete with copious banter between Dan Plonsey and the other members of the group. Indeed, the banter seemed to be a foundation for the music, with the live back-and-forth as well as recordings of dialog. On top of this was layered a mixture of anxious harmonies and fast lines that gave way to more idiomatic sections with familiar harmonies and guitar rhythms and licks complete with wah-wah pedal. In that vain, my favorite piece in the set was New Monster 10 with its driving funky rhythms and timbres. There were also good moments with the words that overlaid the music (distinguished from the banter in between pieces), ranging from references to ponies to insider computer-software jokes like the term “T++”.

[Chris Silvey, Jeff Young, and Dan Plonsey.  Photo by Michael Zelner.]

Young sat in with the group, pulling a trifecta by appearing in all three sets.

Overall, it was a good performance and well worth the trip over to Berkeley on a weeknight. And I don’t think this is the last time we will hear from our newest musical friends from New York.