The musical group Barbez, back row left to right: Shahzad Ismaily, Dan Coates, Danny Tunick; Front row left to right: Ksenia Vidyaykina, Dan Kaufman, Pamelia Kurstin
Emotional intensity is the essence of good music, and Barbez is a band that reinvents the concept of music as lightning-bolt-cum-messenger by creating parallels to the vicissitudes of life.
Life is full of sad, poetic moments, said Dan Kaufman, the guitarist who founded Barbez in 1997. Why cant one song contain a spectrum of moods?
On a recent winter night, Barbez demonstrated their musical virtuosity at La Mama E.T.C., on E. 4th St.
The performance was interwoven with presentations of film shorts by John Jesurun, Kaufmans friend and a MacArthur grant recipient. Jesurun showed Chang in a Void Moon (1979), Untitled (1973) and Last Days of Pompeii (1980); all humorous and quirky films. The last one features the memorable quote: This coffee tastes weird
When he founded the band, Kaufman made a conscious decision not to have just guitar, bass and drums.
I think people are tired of that sound, he said.
Barbez offers an idiosyncratic pastiche of post-cabaret music, accordion-based French musette, Argentine tango, post-war classical, and pre-MTV punk. Kaufman denies having a postmodern philosophy behind the band, although he admits that they do like to fuse disparate musical styles.
Barbez began as a collaboration between Kaufman, who plays classical, flamenco and punk-style guitar, and a friend of his who was a pianist interested in learning how to play accordion (he has since left the band). The current line-up, in addition to Kaufman, includes Dan Coates (bass; palm pilot), Shahzad Ismaily (drums), Pamela Kurstin (theremin), Danny Tunick (marimba), and Ksenia Vidyaykina (vocals; dance).
The conspicuously unconventional instruments are: the palm pilot, which Coates uses to play samples; theremin, played by moving a hand between two electrodes positioned at 90-degree angles from each other; and marimba, a xylophone-like instrument.
The band has released two albums so far. The third one is tentatively scheduled for release this summer.
The concert at La Mama began with a short film featuring a woman draped in a white sheet who wanders around an austere house and ends up falling down the stairs. The live performance then kicked off with Kaufman playing a melancholy adagio on his electric guitar.
Ksenia Vidyaykina, the lead singer with a husky alto who tends to incorporate an improvisation of la la las into every song, entered the stage dressed in a black satin tank-top/mini-dress with a rhinestone-studded white belt. She wore white, ruffled pantaloons sprinkled with sequins; nude-colored fishnet stockings; and 1940s-style, T-strap high heels. She moved stiffly, like a marionette. Her face was painted white, with touches of pink along her cheeks and brow bones. She looked like a mime with a blonde Afro.
The theremin player, Kurstin, stood on the left side of the stage looking hypnotized. Two electrodes stuck out like antennae from a wooden stand in front of her, and she played the instrument as if she were vibrating and plucking imaginary strings with one hand, while using the other to plunk on piano keys. The result was an orchestral sound akin to a saw being played, or a warbling soprano vocal.
For its fourth song of the night, Barbez performed a Russian folk composition, the prelude to which was a question by Vidyaykina: Does anyone speak Russian here?
The song began like a Russian lullaby, with just the vocals paired with the bass. Then, a carnival-esque feel emerged with the addition of cymbals for a jazzy backbeat and the theremin for a touch of camp. The bass drum kicked in, amplifying the song and giving it an aggressive, punk twist. But the music softened again, then morphed into a disco beat before ending.
The incorporation of disparate musical styles and time signatures into a single song is typical of Barbezs music, which, as Kaufman said, is very inclusive and emotionally varied. This openness, verging on unpredictability, is what keeps things interesting, both for the band and the audience.
The show also featured a theremin solo by Kurstin, who managed to create two distinct, simultaneous melodies that merged and diverged at her will as part of a mellifluous and bittersweet composition. A solemn air pervaded the moment of the solo, as if a prayer were being said.
While Barbez was obviously serious about playing good music, the group never lost sight of the idea of performance as entertainment. The band undoubtedly possesses musical integrity, but they also like to have fun and engage the audience; Vidyaykina, especially.
At one point, the theatrical lead singer brought out sheet music and held it in front of her, saying, I dont really read notes. I just use it as a prop.
Vidyaykina also went through several costume changes throughout the night. One of the outfits made her look like an inebriated Queen Elizabeth who forgot to consult the royal stylist before getting dressed. Vidyaykina later pulled up the skirt of her gown to reveal a yellow cage underneath. She donned the persona of an imprisoned bird, which eventually escaped through one of the cages holes.
A fascinating break from the ordinary, indeed.