Rainey at a rehearsal of O Monsters First Draft (photo by Kate Raines, plate3.com).
This week sees the premiere of New Paradise Laboratories’ O Monsters First Draft (tickets/info), marking the company’s second collaboration with award-winning composer, saxophonist, sound designer Bhob Rainey.
Rainey’s career is marked by a tireless push against preconceived notions of what music is and how it can effect listeners, and he has over 30 record releases to show for it. After earning a master’s degree in music composition from New England Conservatory (where he studied with musical luminaries Joe Maneri, Paul Bley, Ran Blake, and Pozzi Escot) he founded Nmperign with trumpeter Greg Kelley in 1998. The highly influential non-idiomatic improvisation duo have been integral to the development of the lowercase and electroacoustic improvisation genres and have to date collaborated with a veritable who’s-who of twenty-first century music innovators. In 2000 he founded The BSC, an octet of acoustic and electronic improvisers, as a means of exploring the dynamics of large group improvisation. Throughout his career he has sought interdisciplinary collaborations.
Though it is often the case that a composer’s work is done merely in service of a production, Rainey’s work on O Monsters First Draft has played an integral role in crafting this new work. “We’re treating Bhob’s music like spontaneous expressions of something in-the-world that can be used to craft out-of-this-world stage action,” Whit MacLaughlin, NPL’s artistic director, told FringeArts back in February. “Ultimately, we are exploring something we haven’t quite found a name for yet. Symphonic theater might be a good name for it.”
We caught up with Rainey to learn more about his background and his work on O Monsters First Draft.
FringeArts: Were you raised in a musical household?
Bhob Rainey: Not really. My dad is something of an aficionado of certain music, mostly blues and jazz, but I don’t recall him sharing a lot of that when I was young. My mom would often play one side of a Barbara Streisand record followed by a side of Barry Manilow. No one in the family really knew what it was like to be a musician. It is very much to their credit that they didn’t disown me when I decided to go the music route. I got to know a lot of music through endangered species like radio, record stores, and libraries. I was usually attracted to things that seemed to push boundaries, though it took a while for my idea of boundaries to grow large enough to be interesting. In truth, so much of the richness of my musical experience as a kid came from going to a public school with a good music program. It’s unforgivable how much of that has been taken away.
Rainey at work.
FringeArts: Growing up in Philadelphia, were you involved with any of the city’s music scenes?
Bhob Rainey: I didn’t get involved with any significant music scene in Philadelphia until the mid-90s. This was the jazz scene in ’94–’95. The scene was generationally and racially diverse, so there was a lot of sacred knowledge being passed around. I grew a lot from the experience and am deeply appreciative of the musicians I played with. You had a few downtown clubs like Zanzibar Blue and the Blue Moon, plus the old Ortlieb’s and some more neighborhood-y clubs like Natalie’s in West Philly. I played with Orrin Evans, Edgar Bateman, Mike Boone, Byron Landham, Duane Eubanks, Mickey Roker, and some other scene heavyweights like Bootsy Barnes and Larry McKenna. Byard Lancaster was helpful to me early on, introducing me to other players like Lucky Thompson and being generally—and somewhat aggressively—supportive. I don’t think I ever thanked him to the degree I would have liked, and I regret that now. I was playing out most nights of the week, and I loved it. But it ultimately wasn’t my voice. It was a voice I had learned and enjoyed using. It was a tradition for which I had and still have a deep respect. But I had something else that I needed to do, and that’s when I left for Boston.
FringeArts: When did you resettle in Philadelphia, and what brought you back? And artistically, what are some of the differences between the cities?
Bhob Rainey: I have a couple friends who moved to Philadelphia from Boston. We were sitting in the FringeArts beer garden during the 2014 Fringe Festival, and one of them said, “Do you know what this reminds me of in Boston? Nothing.” Boston is a lovely city. It is well-manicured, walkable, full of winding streets and great bookstores. I know a ton of wonderful people there. But, like San Francisco, Boston long ago gave the finger to everyone earning less than six figures. It’s no place for an artist to live. There’s no O Monsters First Draft in Boston.
Philadelphia is full of trash and broken things. There can be an ambient pride in douchebaggery that is a little jarring. But it is fantastically dynamic and diverse. You feel a kind of honesty and squirmy vibrancy in all sorts of neighborhoods. And I fully comprehend how calling someone a jitbag is a way of saying “I love you.” Because my family and many old friends have always lived here, I never stopped coming back, and I watched how the city transformed. I saw how much the arts were central to that transformation. I wanted to be part of the whole thing, warts and all. I love being here.