PHILIP PERKINS & HIS MUSIC by Cole Gagne _Copyright 1983 Cole Gagne
Part of the secret of this success is Perkins' sophisticated feeling for timbre. Take, for example, two sections of Apartment Life.
For "Ear to the Ground," Perkins used a contact mic on a large concrete and steel fountain to record ever-changing deep bass harmonics, which he then further alters. In "Party Mix," he manipulates the voices of several simultaneous conversations into one sustained event of amazing beauty.
Equally impressive for their timbral invention are the four "Bird Variations" on his album, Neighborhood With A Sky. In these, mysterious rustlings and activities are melted into staticism; machinery, voices, nature, and electronic sound fuse into four haunting aural landscapes.
Vital to the beauty of all these pieces is Perkins' highly developed sense of duration. Not unlike Morton Feldman, Perkins has a very astute feeling for how long he can sustain an event before it should either be altered or replaced by something else. his music is almost never overlong or monotonous -- in fact, I sometimes wish he would dwell longer on some of his pieces.
Perkins' music is not based exclusively on recorded sounds. His sensitivity to the basic sonic stuff of American life is expressed in a facility for American melody as well as Americana noise. His gift for a sweet, folksy sound is most notable in a charming piece on Neighborhood, "The Black and White Cat. This feeling for Americana is also used more self-consciously: In Neighborhood's "Retreat," a chunk of an old country western recording is smoothly introduced into a piece otherwise dominated by the sounds most suggestive of garbage trucks and water gurgling down a series of drains.
As the description of "Retreat" suggests, there is also a streak of humor is Perkins' music -- more as a gentle sense of amusement than as outright musical jokes. The humor comes from the unusual juxtaposition of sounds; a fundamental aspect of city life, where millions of people simultaneously perform their own peculiar, noisy lives.
There is a quiet comedy to "Rico in the Birdhouse," where a live trombonist performs elaborate multiphonics in a zoo's birdhouse (which seems to contain even more children than birds).
My own favorite is "Reading the Mail" in Apartment Life: Perkins picks up a CB conversation and distorts it with both changes in reception and his own studio and tape alterations. Part of the piece's deadpan humor is the unexpected, but not inappropriate addition of organ chords under the speech of an amazing CB character who calls himself the Wolfman. The vocal timbre of the Wolfman is as striking and vivid as a characterization by the Residents. (Incidentally, among the people thanked on Neighborhood are "the Grove St. boys." Hmmm...)
The most extraordinary feature of Perkins' music is the way it generates a truly childlike sense of wonder and fascination. In listening to his pieces, we become witnesses to events without knowing their references or associations -- essentially, the perspective of a child. It is rare enough for a filmmaker to recreate this deeply resonant feeling; in music, the effect is virtually unprecedented. (There are glimmers of it in Ives and Cage.)
Through the same means, Perkins also creates the illusion of slowmotion. Sounds enjoy a freer, more unhurried tempo, one that we don't ordinarily recognize in our haste to link them casually with other sounds. The result is a gentleness and peace that give Perkins' music its special beauty.
Even the gusty winds and noisy dogs of "Este's Request" have nothing ominous about them. By refusing to place them in the dramatic or causal contexts with which we associate them, Perkins makes them both more immediate and less specific. It's not the wind threatening a farmhouse or even the wind outside your window, but Wind; not dangerous dogs snarling at you, but Dogs.
Listening to his music, you become more conscious of their beauty and uniqueness. With a little effort on your part, that awareness can carry you through your encounters with them -- or with busses, construction, and even downstairs disco -- in any and all contexts. That's quite a benefit.
All of Philip Perkins' music is available on record or cassette from Fun Music: 2315 Jackson Street, San Francisco, CA 94115
Typed by Cheryl Vega 6-11-95