It’s a rainy Friday as I find a parking place along the shady, moist street in Berkeley, California. The trees hang low and wet above the bumpy concrete sidewalks. It’s a picture of domestic comfort, lights coming on in the windows of the old wooden California bungalows, flowers blooming, oncoming twilight. I consult my notes again, for this little house in front of me sure doesn’t look like a music venue. But it’s the right number.
I open the door and am greeted by Ariel Wang with friendly warmth and enthusiasm. I recognize her from another night at the Starry Plough, when late-night conversations spilled over to the Prince Street house of music, three doors down. I spent that night on one of their couches, waking up to welcome and hot coffee the next morning. Here, other couches line the small living room and a pile of pillows is ready on the polished hardwood floor. A tiny stage area is defined by keyboard, drum kit, and mounds of professional gear. In a second room are more couches and lots of chairs. Beyond I find the kitchen, where tomatillo soup is ready with all the fixings. Beer is in the frig.
I’m on time – make that early – so I get a beer and go back to talk with Ariel. Since I last saw her, she’s been working hard as a graduate student in music, choosing San Francisco State University over the more expensive conservatory. She’s elated to find that the quality of instruction at SFSU is second to none, and working hard. She’s writing music, wants to compose, and her first instrument is the violin. She also plays piano, a beloved adjunct that makes writing music more straightforward for her. We talk about her search for housing when the Prince Street place became unaffordable, and how happy she is to be here, in another house of music. Brianville got its name during the tenure of four Brians, she tells me, and is now a packed house of dedicated working musicians, teaching and studying and living the music.
The place has filled up as we talk, and now almost every seat is full. I find a place in front of the microphones as Briget Boyle is introduced. She’s a local gem I’ve somehow missed, a singer songwriter with an acoustic guitar tonight, accompanied by cellist Lewis Patzner. She begins with a brief story; at birth, she explains, she was not breathing. A priest was summoned by her distraught parents, concerned now for her soul. The song is called Breathless, and from the first deep sounds of the cello, plucked and bowed, entwined with the light, delicate tones of her clear voice, I am mesmerized.
Boyle’s matter of fact lyrics describe not only her nearly fatal birth experience but detail the accident, a fender-bender, that the priest was in on his way to the hospital. She sings about trying to breathe our way through life, how every day can leave us breathless. Patzner’s cello sounds its own agreement, flying beneath her like a magical music carpet.
Boyle seems pleased and surprised by the applause we give, preceded by a moment of utter silence while we realize the song is over, and we don’t want it to end. She thanks the guests and fellow musicians crowding the rooms. She’s celebrated, among other things, for working with different people and music, from Balkan singing to the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir. The place is full of smiles. She and Patzner play four more songs, including the beautiful piece “Ether.”
Now Boyle invites Harlow Carpenter to join them on trumpet. The trio plays a long, complex song in which both the cello and the trumpet take solos. The trumpet and cello fuse into a deep, sweet, passionate sound that freezes my spine and makes my throat ache, before gently returning me to the guitar, and the sound of Boyle’s indrawn breath, back on a couch, in a little house on a tree-lined street in a California city on a dark, rainy night.
We are silent. Then cries of “Bravo” burst out and the long applause embarrasses the musicians. Boyle again introduces Lewis Patzner, cello; Harlow Carpenter, trumpet, and herself, Briget Boyle,. She has CD’s for sale for ten dollars. She tells us not to miss the next act, the newly formed El Duo on percussion and keyboards. It’s hard to recall in the moment that that’s who I came here for. I tell her my name and thank her for the music, buy her album called “The Parts Interior,” and begin reading the liner notes while El Duo gets ready to take the stage.
I’m sitting in the second room now, on a new couch, and I meet a trumpet player and composer named Mike, and his friend Brett. The whole atmosphere is one of delight and celebration, and everyone seems to be talking about music. We cover pentatonic scales, Ethiopian jazz and the history of oppression under the Derg Regime after Selassie, and the astonishing sweetness of Harlow Carpenter’s trumpet playing. It’s crowded and noisy and exhilarating.
When El Duo is introduced there is a lot of happy cheering. The two musicians are nattily attired in matching black suits with white shirts, a formal look that says symphony orchestra, late-night club or futuristic Men In Black. It’s clear they care about their presentation, and they look good together: tall, slim dark-haired Harrison Murphy on keyboards, and tall, athletic Randy Schwartz, a scarf around his brow, on drums. They also play together in the longstanding band Sun Hop Fat, and tonight they’ll bring us their new, original material.
Murphy sits behind three keyboards on the left, and Schwartz starts out with high energy and fast, complex polyrhythms. Murphy hits the keys and pours out strange, elusive harmonies, layered in an unstoppable torrent of sound. The mixture makes you want to shake your head, as if you could clear your ears and get the sound to fit in better. There’s a beat, a very definite beat, but it’s hard to follow, it seems like two different beats, and then it changes. Are we listening to more than one song at once?
Murphy swivels between the keyboards, very rarely using a recorded track that he cues and stops quickly. He stands up to play the melodica, a human-powered little mouth keyboard with an attached tube, and I can see how much effort it takes to get the sound right, especially on a sustained note. His arms, shoulders, chest and even chin get into the act, as he gives the sound one more squeeze.
Schwartz sits so calmly, anchored in the middle of a flashing ensemble of motion, holding it all down and grounded, his eyes ahead. He’s playing so much so fast that again it must be a track, but the only time he uses a prerecorded track it’s obvious, as he turns to start and then to stop it. We’re hooked already, yet it takes more than a minute to learn to listen. This is a dissonance of harmonies, or maybe a harmony of dissonances? Nothing really goes together the way you expect, but it’s given to us all at once. As I listen, it’s as if a giant music python wakes, stretches and undulates. The beats and notes shudder, almost balance, topple. The melody pulls us along, sometime blues, sometime ragtime, sometimes cosmic space jamming, sometimes very sad.
Just as it all seems too much for mere mortals, they do it again. The muscular music python rolls, wriggles, scratches and strikes, and we hear the whole shape. Again, and we’re grinning in wonder like kids at a magic show, because we get it now, we can hear it, we can hear everything. It’s a room full of music lovers and friends, and no one needs to hide the emotional impact that this new sound has upon them.
I’m thinking about what to even call this – it could be cosmic, but that won’t do. Cosmic is always huge, so much greater than we can be, too big for a person to do or understand, but here is a space for wonder that needs our ears, bodies, blood and brains in order to be. I’m thinking that I should talk to the musicians, ask questions about theory, and sources, and influences, and musical culture. And maybe I will, but for now, I listen. We all listen. And we’re taken away, to some place that only these people with these instruments in this little town on this wet night can bring us to. It’s beyond words. And that’s why we call it music.