Outcast Orchestras 

Oakland intellectuals make punk rock and porn flicks go orchestral.

Punk and porn are fundamentally similar when you get to the nit and grit. Both belong to the vast, varied terrain called "trash culture," encompassing all the schlocky tastes we're supposed to abandon after high school.

But it would be naive to assume that everyone past the age of nineteen has outgrown the vicelike grip of these two particular vices. As adults, we either 1) indulge in secret, or 2) find ways to bring our indulgences into the straight world. Enter the Punk Rock Orchestra and its unrelated spiritual twin, the PornOrchestra -- two Bay Area groups with a shared interest in intellectualizing their lurid pleasures.

The idea: Reinterpret the flamboyance of punk and porn in a chamber music context. The result: a hybrid and bohemian sound, tastefully revising, well, the tasteless.

Oboes: Punk as fuck

When you hear the word "punk," what comes to mind? Kids with safety pins in their noses, looking fashionably scruffy as they guzzle forties outside Gilman Street on a Saturday night? Jaded teens writing poetry about Black Sunday, which invariably is followed by Blacker Monday and Even Blacker Tuesday? That gorgeous combination of emotional detachment and bohemian oddballism? It's not that punks are necessarily cooler than everybody else, even though they act like it. In fact, it's usually the nerds who gravitate to punk culture, because being punk is a way of being outlawish, and kinda sexy.

About a year ago, David Ferguson posted an ad on Craigslist summoning musicians to play "classic punk tunes on classical instruments." The impetus: a fund-raiser for Art Freedom Day, which was slated for last July, but never actually happened. Yet the response he got was overwhelming -- former band dorks and punk connoisseurs instantly glommed on to the idea of readapting the ferocious, wacked-out music they listened to in high school.

"It spread like an ugly stain," Ferguson gloats. Eventually dozens of people were gathering for Punk Rock Orchestra's bimonthly rehearsals.

John Gluck -- aka Michael Tilson Gluck, the conductor of Punk Rock Orchestra -- is a punk geek par excellence. His CD collection, which probably weighs more than five average-sized teenagers, includes titles by the Cramps, Wire, and Jefferson Airplane, along with 25 Bob Dylan albums, just as many Frank Zappa titles, and all of Beethoven's symphonies. During shows he bounces around the stage like Jonathan Richman on a combination of steroids and Jolt Cola.

Despite his geek cred and musical preferences, Gluck seems to have an anomalous presence in both the punk and classical worlds. After all, he's a software quality-assurance engineer with a wife and kids and respectable clothes. Boasting zero classical training, he joined the orchestra without knowing what effects individual instruments were capable of, and without the ability to read music beyond the key of C. He taught himself how to score orchestral arrangements in a couple months' time, using books, Web sites, and a music software program.

Gluck's high-tech-y approach to music -- like his middle-class lifestyle -- may seem disarmingly Silicon Valley; in other words, not so punk. But Ferguson defends Gluck wholeheartedly: "After all, the principle of punk is to subvert the establishment, but in order to do that effectively, we need spies." He points at the conductor. "Our spies are convincingly close."

In fact, Ferguson is preoccupied with linking Silicon Valley culture to the world of outsider art. He's cognizant of the wounds that still fester from San Francisco's tech boom, wherein tons of artists were evicted from their homes by techie carpetbaggers. Despite that, he hopes to set up a symbiotic relationship between well-off yuppies and beleaguered artists. After all, it's thanks to a few benefactors that Punk Rock Orchestra has enough bling-bling to sustain itself.

Ferguson admits he's an expert schmoozer -- a skill he applies to the DIY ethic of punk: "Punk culture is self-sufficient without anyone being employed in the conventional sense. After not paying the bills for a while, you realize it was a waste of time to pay them in the first place."

Orchestra members may brag, facetiously, about their fashionable punk ethic and their ability to finagle money from yuppies. In reality, Punk Rock Orchestra tries to avoid punker-than-thou bravado -- or any form of cliquism, for that matter. Neither a punk purist nor a classical music snob would survive in the group. Those who attempted to join quickly found themselves at odds with the orchestra's lack of hierarchy. "I've encountered a lot of classical musicians who hate the social aspects of the project," Ferguson says. "They think that volunteering to play -- and not having a first chair, second chair, etc. -- breaks the compact of their profession."

"I've dealt with purists on both ends," Gluck admits. "And they've usually had to leave. One guy couldn't deal with the fact that we weren't playing Devo. And classical people often try to impose structure: They need bandleaders, an art director, a librarian. In other words, office politics, which are so not punk. We decided to loosen up the rules."

New entrance music for the sexy gardener

Nobody's denying that porn soundtracks are uniformly awful: They alternate between Michael Bolton-y beats for your sheets and the balmy jingles you'd hear in a Lubriderm commercial. It's debatable whether porn producers naively assume these to be the slow jams that turn us on, or if they're merely a result of porn's DIY ethic, wherein some schmuck with a laptop gets conscripted to whip out the cheapest, most standardized score possible.

Shannon Mariemont, who started PornOrchestra in January 2003, thinks of porno films as a "tragic shortcut to intimacy"; porn's jump-in-the-haystack sex scenes become a way of avoiding human relationships. Basically, she says, the industry tries to streamline us into "associating the wah-wah-wacka-wacka sound of porn" with screen sexiness.

In January, she e-mailed several musician friends and colleagues, asking, "Don't you think porn soundtracks just plain suck?" Those who responded were inclined to agree, most with the caveat that they actually aren't avid porn-watchers. These musicians decided that by creating their own porn scores, they could draw human emotions out of the oddly inhuman medium.

The idea? An instrumental potluck, with everything from Jake Rodriguez' charm harp to Laurie Amat's prepared zither to Italian bird calls -- PornOrchestra recruits most of its members from the oddball world of experimental music. Percussionist Moe! Staiano plays found objects: food pans, pressure caps, sheet metals, pipes, antlers, cookie tins, and other doohickeys. Improvisational pornductor Gino Robair, a member of Club Foot Orchestra and Splatter Trio (he's also the owner of Rastascan Records and an associate editor for Electronic Musician magazine), says he "has a fascination with resonating objects." Finally, vocalist and keyboardist Kattt Sammon has spent years composing music for theater, and often ventures into gibberish when she sings.

PornOrchestra makes pure, super-distilled, improvisational numbers -- meaning that members never rehearse before a performance. Six-string guitarist Lucio Menegnon (aka the Reverend Screaming Fingers) admits he's not sure what to expect: "I sometimes scrape guitar strings, blow air horns, or play wineglasses. It can be cacophonous or beautiful -- you just have to feed off the group's energy."

The concept behind PornOrchestra is suspiciously snobbish: You don't imagine many of these musicians actually curling up with a porn flick in their spare time. It's a little over-ironic and a little more over-intellectual. But for the most part, members don't need to use highfalutin language -- their project is cool and unusual enough to stand by itself. Menegnon says there's a political impetus here "only in the fact that poking fun at something is a way of making a statement."

Mullets, Mohawks, Mooks, and Mills graduates agree!

It's worth noting that it takes a rare balance of geek cred and artsy-fartsyness to fit into multiple countercultures. It's no picnic trying to woo the wine-and-cheese crowd and the surly-kids-with-backpacks crowd simultaneously. Both orchestras seem to straddle the line without trying too hard. In March, the Punk Rock Orchestra's string quartet performed at an experimental film showing at Venue 9 in San Francisco, where the program notes were so loaded with brainiac language, just reading them might've made you smarter. A couple weeks later, the Orchestra played at Gilman, all but knocking the tight, torn pants off a mostly teenage audience with operatic renditions of the Avengers' "American in Me" and Fear's "Let's Have a War."

As for the PornOrchestra, when it debuted at Oakland's 21 Grand, its mix of junk percussion, clamorous horns, and sex-toy slides wowed the audience more than the smutty shots onscreen. (Yes, the films accompany the soundtracks. Leave the kiddies at home.)

Maybe both these groups consist of artists in a stunted adolescence who couldn't part with the Buzzcocks just because Mahler entered their CD collections; furthermore, they still take pleasure in sneaking off with Dad's copy of Deep Throat. Or maybe they've found something haunting and beautiful in high-octane sex scenes and angry, feedback-laced music. Mariemont compares her project to taking a Twisted Sister tape off the shelf at Rite Aid, recording your own music on it, and putting it back. Along with Ferguson, she's stoked on this "medium is the message" way of rearranging things.

But when it comes to punk and porn, not everyone likes to philosophize -- some will just come for the loud, sexy parts. Fortunately, there are plenty of those, too.

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