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“We regard what we do as the highest form of play,” insists Tom Bickley of the vocal trio Comma. “In composing, we’re trying to create the most engaging game.” On the group’s recent debut CD, (voices) (Metatron Press), Bickley, Joseph Zitt, and Matthew Ross Davis combine liturgical singing and avant-garde glottal acrobatics to create a sound like John Cage conducting a choir. Track by track, demonic possessions yield to a protective angelic chorale, producing a possible soundtrack to Hieronymous Bosch’s Last Judgment triptych.
Along with compositions by Cage and Pauline Oliveros, the CD features Davis’ homage to William S. Burroughs, which is broken into seven parts corresponding with the ancient Egyptian concept of the soul. Songs by Zitt quote instructions for “human-factors” engineering of computer workstations; and Bickley’s lyrics invoke the names of angels, friends who have died, and earthquake sites.
“Everything we do involves improvisation and a small number of rules,” Zitt says. “If you hear a given piece twice, you’d be able to tell it was the same piece, although there may not be a single note in common.” The trio’s approach tosses opera, sound poetry, broken phonemes, and spaghetti slurpings into a mixer, andduring live showsinvites audience vocalizations.
At Comma’s March concert at St. Stephen’s Church, guest composer-performer Norman Lowrey passed out branches and rocks for the audience to play as he danced in homemade shamanic masks to burbling tapes of the Delaware River. “The hard part as a composer,” Bickley notes, “is to create an environment where the audience feels like they’re actively participating even if they’re listening.”
Comma formed last fall after a birthday concert honoring Cage, and the members have been busy composing ever since. The group will be rolling out its repertoire in a series of four concerts at Ruthless Grip, each featuring a different guest artist: June 20 with soprano Linh Kauffman and violinist Caroline Smith; June 26, with Oakland’s Dan Joseph on electronically massaged dulcimer; July 18, with percussionist Toshi Makihara; and August 15, with saxophonist John Berndt. At least one number at each show will involve the audience, Zitt promises: “If you think you know what’s going on, join in.”Jeff Bagato
Shows start at 8:00 p.m. at Ruthless Grip, 1508 U Street NW. Call (202) 462-3754 for details.