‘What Are You Looking At?’

Michael Straus, an experimental saxophonist, performed a multimedia saxophone event called “What Are You Looking At?” as part of his Spring 2008 West Coast mini-tour on Wednesday, April 30 at the Claire Trevor School of the Arts. The show consisted of six pieces that intertwined saxophone with computer-generated sounds, stereophonic tape and video and live electronics. With only a few attendees, the night was intimate.
As Straus walked onto the stage, his red bandana, auburn dreadlocks and khaki slacks urged a more relaxed environment than that of your typical concert. Straus’s top priority is to attract people from all arenas. “I don’t want it to be at a level that people can’t reach. I mean, look at me,” Straus said just minutes before his first piece. “It’s okay if they don’t like it.”
With that spontaneity, he began with “Billie,” a mix of alto saxophone and boombox. The environment of a jazz club began to surface as sound bites of Nina Samone and raspy voices of laughter, whispering and singing interacted with the vibrations of Straus’s sax. He swayed and bobbed his head to the beats of his own music, eventually mirroring the physical silhouette of Charlie Parker. The isolated spotlight emphasized his movements as his shadow jumped from left to right and back to left again.
Just as the relaxation began to settle, Straus stirred it up with “(dis)Locations,” using stereophonic tape and video to illustrate the relationship between nature and the saxophone. The video displayed a clip of what appeared to be a man repairing his sax in the midst of thousands of leaves. Alongside this continuous clip, were short segments of trees and plants of various types that provided an alternation of vivid detail and eerie black and white images.
As Straus played, the sounds of his saxophone provided inconsistency, with no real melody. The tempo and volume of the sax fluctuated like the fast-changing scenes of the video clip. The initial feelings of jazzy relaxation were quickly replaced with anxiety and fear as the clips resembled scenes from a horror movie and the music fittingly represented suspense.
The next piece, “a sudden change in the consistency of snow,” and its predecessor, “Fe XIV (Iron Fourteen)” resembled the same format as “(dis)Locations.” Straus’s saxophone corresponded directly to the video as if they was communicating with each other. Often times, Straus would simultaneously play the sax and adjust the sound on his mixing board. The ease in which he multitasked demonstrated an attention to intricate detail that many musicians would never be able to achieve.
This ability is not a natural-born talent. Straus graduated from John Hopkins University with a double-major in saxophone and computer music. His study in computer music allows him to blend free improvisational forms, film and electronic media, while playing his wonderful instrument at the same time.
As difficult as it may be, his work is not always appreciated. Sometimes, this eccentric blend of sounds surprises even the most adventurous crowds. But for some, this eccentricity is arousing. “My best performance was at ‘The Stone’ in downtown Manhattan last October. They were the best receiving audience.”
“Fe XIV (Iron Fourteen),” the fourth piece of the night, served as one of the most innovative with its psychedelic video and interactive performance. Straus played into a microphone and, in turn, the microphone interpreted the notes of his saxophone into other sounds. The product was a blend of screeching noises that compared to the sounds of microphone feedback. The video displayed an array of colorful shapes that changed to the tempo of Straus making the room a monstrous kaleidoscope that the audience was floating in.
This was not a traditional performance in any sense; hence, the word “experimental” in the program’s description of Straus’s works. The innovation of his mixing is definitely noteworthy. However, the heartwarming and familiar notes of a saxophone lost themselves to the frenzy of electronics and sound bites.
The images shown in the videos were either frightening or hypnotizing and as each piece came and went, the audience still searched for that initial jazzy nightclub feel. Perhaps it is wise to leave the preconceived relationship between jazz and saxophone at the door, or else you might be alarmed by its experimentation and lack of intimacy.