Thurs Sept 9, Crocodile, 8 pm, $8.
There are good ideas, there are ridiculous ideas, and then there is Iron Composer.
Brainchild of local composers collective Seattle School, Iron Composer takes its cue from the Food Network's culinary battle show, Iron Chef, corralling a slew of the School's most cherished themes--time, discipline, competition--into a "60-Minute Live Songwriting Competition, Drinking Game, and Aural Obstacle Course." The result is a songwriting battle royale of unprecedented diabolicalness--half Fluxus-informed composition experiment, half booze-fueled demolition derby.
Armed with source material drawn from a five-minute onstage interview with a randomly selected audience member, a pair of local entertainment personalities are made to write new songs while besieged by distractions or "turmoils," from the Sheet Music Turmoil (wherein sheet music of crappy artists--Billy Joel, Celine Dion--is wadded up and hucked at the competitors) to mandatory liquor consumption (one shot at the top of each of the five rounds). After 45 minutes, each composer--the competition has in the past included Supersucker Eddie Spaghetti, Alien Crime Syndicate's Joe Reineke, and Tennis Pro's David Drury, among many others--takes it to the stage, banging out his or her brand-new composition with the crack Iron Composer house band.
Even in its earliest incarnation, Iron Composer was a blast (full disclosure: I was asked to judge their first competition)--a fact since confirmed by three packed Iron Composer competitions at the Capitol Hill Arts Center (CHAC). After fielding offers from a half-dozen Seattle venues, Seattle School has set up shop at the Crocodile Cafe, which will host the first of its monthly Iron Composer competitions on September 9, pitting Reggie Watts against Anna Oxygen. But the automatic winners are the pointy-headed goofballs of Seattle School, who've somehow managed the near-miraculous: bringing post-everything experimental composition to the rock-show masses.
Created in 2002, Seattle School was conceived "as a performance group interested in exploring sound and music, primarily in terms of spatial relations, memory, deep time/wide incidence, calculus, communication/notation, and inquiries into the definitions of tone, language, and audience," in the words of the group's founder and primary architect, Mike Min. Less abstractly, Seattle School provided its five members--Min, Korby Sears, Ben Hogue, Guy Whitmore, and Erik Aho--with a natural outlet for radical ideas that rarely had a place in their musical day jobs. (They pay the bills by composing everything from TV-ad soundtracks to film and video-game scores, and Sears does double-duty as "the new guy" on standup bass in the Dudley Manlove Quartet.)
After settling on a name ("Seattle School was meant to suggest a school of thought, like Bauhaus," says Sears) the group began performing publicly in 2003, quickly incorporating their shared obsessions--described by Sears as "time, competition, and orchestrated failure"--into a series of distinctively twisted works. In Competition & Distraction, Min sought to capture the menace of the D.C. sniper attacks in the Polestar Gallery, requiring three of his School mates to perform competitive karaoke onstage while he shot them with paintballs from the back of the house for "breaking the rules in his head." In Relay (also at Polestar), Hogue used random radio snippets to spark an ever-tightening chain of repetition, with participants forced to interact increasingly more intimately until the whole thing dissolved into chaos and applause. "It's like a sporting event," says Sears.
But the Iron Composer concept started with raw meat.
After a year and a half of distinctively brainy, increasingly popular performances at a variety of Seattle venues, Seattle School accepted a residency at CHAC, which handed over its downstairs space to the five-member group for the month of July. The relationship progressed well until CHAC learned that the School's resident performance--an ambitious, free-wheeling cabaret show called Madlib MaCabaret--would feature that fundamental staple of performance art, raw meat. With CHAC's popular in-house bistro, Crave, set to debut its vegetarian menu the weekend of the show's opening, CHAC's managers lamented the "harmonic dissonance" the School's raw meat would create, and urged its resident artists to reconsider.
"They wanted us to use fake meat," says Sears over drinks at Bush Garden. "But we had moral issues with the switch." The meat, Sears explains, was to have been cooked and eaten over the course of the show, with its ritualized consumption meant to symbolize the transference and purging of pain. Symbolically, the ritual would fall flat with Tofurkey.
Refusing to sacrifice its artistic vision, Seattle School stuck to its principles and canceled the show, set on filling the vacancy with something new. With three weeks before opening, Sears and Min "pulled the idea for Iron Composer out of our asses," says Sears.
Nothing could prepare Seattle School for the howling mania that greeted what their asses had produced; audiences gamely surrendered themselves to the diabolical Iron Composer roller coaster. "Everyone talks about how Seattle audiences are lame, but our audiences have totally gotten into it," says Sears, who's overseen such crowd actions as the Composer Stare-Down (wherein the audience encircles the night's composers, at whom they stare silently for two minutes) and the instant Make-Out Party, wherein the lights go down, Donna Summer's "Love to Love You, Baby" comes up, and people are instructed to mash.
Thanks to a roster of competitors drawn predominately from Seattle's music scene, Iron Composer has found a natural home in the rock world, an arrangement that should continue to flourish at the Crocodile. "People keep coming back, so we have to keep coming up with surprises," says Sears, who guarantees no two Iron Composers will ever be alike by rigging each show with fresh turmoils and, of course, new contestants. Following this week's Watts vs. Oxygen showdown, the coming months will bring such luminaries as Kurt Bloch, Lesli Wood, Robb Benson, and Heather Duby to the Iron Composer ring.
Asked to name dream contestants for the future, Sears answers without thinking: "Steve Fisk, Calvin Johnson, Neko Case... and while I'm fantasizing, let's throw in Danny Elfman and [XTC's] Andy Partridge."