Enter pulsoptional, a Triangle musical anomaly so different from most other collectives--classical or contemporary, here or abroad--that even they struggle for a definition.
Essentially, though, pulsoptional is a set of composers, performers and pals, mostly doctoral and post-doctoral students or professors in Duke University's Department of Music.
The group formed in 2000, when Jennifer Fitzgerald and marc faris recognized the need to have their work performed, minus the bureaucracy and delay of modern classical organizations. Others eventually settled into the mix, most recently oboist Carrie Shull of Eugene Chadbourne's Ellington Country Sextet and Insect & Western Party. All are composers and instrumentalists (except Shull, who does not formally compose, and Sidney Marquez Boquiren, who only composes).
pulsoptional plays "new classical music," mostly compositions by members themselves. Improvisations emerge amongst complex themes. Rhythms shift, stabilize and shatter. Musical jokes and allusions creep in.
pulsoptional's members have composed and performed live scores for Henry Cowell's films and have paid homage to such landmark pieces as Terry Riley's In C. But that's not a sufficient description.
"I think we're a lot like a string quartet mixed with a rock band, I guess," says Fitzgerald.
That posit doesn't survive a second. Percussionist Thom Limbert and multi-instrumentalist John Mayrose disagree, claiming that the dynamic of interpersonal connections is completely off for a tight string quartet. After all, pulsoptional can be as many as eight people or as few as four. The disparate backgrounds of the members--rock bands, academia, jazz foundations and structured classicism--have their effect on each member's work, and, in turn, that affects the others.
Like the music, their ideas, concepts and directions are all fluid. So, within a minute, Fitzgerald retracts the string quartet comment. The beauty of pulsoptional, though, is the lighthearted manner of that exchange. As Fitzgerald backs out of her theory, she laughs and so do the guys. In fact, as serious as they are about the music, it's surprising to see how much fun pulsoptional has. They aren't stiff like one might imagine classicists would be. They aren't boring like academics can be. They're music lovers, devoted to the beauty and possibility hidden away in its amorphous forms and subtle nature.
Crowded around a patio table at downtown Durham's Federal, they laugh for most of a two-and-a-half-hour interview. Recently, they competed in an online geek test. A handful boast at their geek dominance, while the rest compensate for their shortcomings by claiming that the test was flawed and by letting everyone know that their trivial knowledge comes in areas other than science fiction, Star Wars and tech talk.
They laugh about bad tour stops and horrid openers, too. Reactions of virgin audiences in schools and in bars range from utter apathy to one student exclaiming, "That was the most amazing thing I've ever seen!" And there was the drunken enthusiast in Rochester that had one burning question: "Holy shit! Is that a vibraphone?"
In that road-warrior-with-tales-to-tell respect, they are a rock band. Evan Rowe, the Maple Stave drummer who has been engineering pieces of pulsoptional's forthcoming studio album, agrees: "pulsoptional is a rock band. Don't let their degrees and their fancy talk fool you. It's a rock band playing crazy modern chamber music.
For a second, that's mentally satisfying. After all, the band practices several times a week. They certainly don't call it rehearsal, as that aspect of classical performance is, for them, the most tedious and frustrating. In Limbert's doctoral thesis, Playing Score and Scoring Play: How One Ensemble Saw the Music and Grooved the Flow, he notes that, when trying to master the complexities of a new piece, the most common referent (at least with the guys, though Fitzgerald is more comfortable in an Elliott Carter paradigm) is rock music. While practicing the one-fell-swoop faris piece entitled I Heart Rosa Luxemburg: Or, Why My Espousal of Socialism is Leading Me to Reject Everything I Ever Learned About the EuroAmerican Art Music Tradition, the groove breaks once, prompting Limbert to tell faris, "You know, when I saw your fingers, I think the beginning of your part is straight out of fuckin' ... uh ... that Extreme song, ["Hole in My Heart"]." Moments later, it breaks again, and Mayrose insists that it's certainly much more Minutemen than Firehose.
But they're not really a rock band. When they play, they behave as composers and performers, shirking the rock paradigm by laying back and playing what's best for the piece, not the individual performer. "The fact that people are willing to play when they need to play and then not play so that they have a convergence point and then back off is a strategic weapon," says Crowmeat Bob Pence, a fan of and collaborator with the ensemble. "It's an important aspect of musicianship that's missing a lot in musicians."
Collaborations with kindred spirits like Pence are an indication of a growing interest in and sensibility for such free-thinking new music in the Triangle. Pence hosts a popular "Death Jazz" concert every Wednesday at Bickett Gallery in Raleigh, and Nightlight in Chapel Hill is content fostering a scene of minimalist noise composers and no-wave rock bands. Here, people show up in concert halls and bars--sometimes in droves--to hear the latest pulsoptional offering.
And as for categorization, it's still pretty elusive. Rock band, string quartet, composer's collective--who knows? Just listen up.
Keep track of pulsoptional at www.pulsoptional.org.