Asphalt Orchestra:
street assault

Jessica Schmitz plays a lone piccolo in a street gang of brass and percussion. But is she intimidated by the diminutive size of her instrument when compared to the heft of a trombone or the boom of a drum?


"When we first started, I was a little nervous," she admits. "But it's really such a loud instrument, you can usually make yourself heard pretty easily."

In fact, an Asphalt Orchestra trumpet player asked for a change in choreography because her piccolo was just too darned loud, Schmitz recalls. "I had to go stand in a corner," she says. "You try not to take these things personally."

Asphalt Orchestra is a 12-piece, New York City-based band and an outgrowth of the Bang on a Can project, a quarter-century-old endeavor to share music in innovative ways.

The ensemble, which performs Monday at Millersville University, takes its music to the streets and, sometimes, the stage in ways that might look and sound a little like a half-time show in which the musicians have wrestled the drum major to the ground, stolen his baton and thrown marching orders to the wind.

But, so far as anarchy goes, it's a tightly controlled form of bedlam. Every random-looking step is meticulously choreographed.

Part of the challenge of the Asphalt Orchestra stage show is translating movements designed for a busy New York sidewalk to the more controlled environment of a concert hall.

The choreography is different, Schmitz says, as is the use of lighting effects and the selection of music performed.

Outside, she says, they employ guerrilla tactics.

"We have two different approaches," Schmitz, who co-directs the ensemble with saxophonist Ken Thomson, explains. "There's the idea of the accidental audience -- people who came to see us vs. people who were just walking around downtown -- and we get in their space."

At a stage show, on the other hand, "these people know they're going to see music. They bought tickets for it." There's still audience interaction, she says, and band members do break down the stage barrier by moving out into the audience -- maybe even into the lobby -- at times.

"We make use of the space that's available. The focus is on the stage, but we're also going to be on the move," Schmitz says.

"We don't physically touch people or anything," she quickly adds. "You have higher insurance premiums for that."

As for music, Schmitz says AO has "a dedication to unusual music, stuff that might fall between the cracks." That means you shouldn't attend expecting the usual selection of fight songs and showtunes that typify marching-band shows.

"It's a really eclectic mix," she says. "Our repertoire ranges from metal to progressive rock ... to performance art, with more theatrical elements, to world music. It's a really wide spectrum." There is also a selection of original music, some contemporary pop and jazz, as well as pieces written specifically for this band by folks as diverse as David Byrne and Yoko Ono.

[ visit the Asphalt Orchestra website ]

interview by
Tom Knapp

15 September 2012

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