Dan Plonsey’s extraordinary way of highlighting the ordinary.
Out on Telegraph Avenue, a cold mist leaves the black sidewalk glistening, while inside Oakland’s The Uptown the Tuesday night crowd is thin, with more musicians in the audience than civilians. Dan Plonsey’s nine-piece Daniel Popsicle is the first band featured on a triple bill, playing a program of untitled compositions from his New Monster series. Along with Albany’s Ivy Room, Uptown is one of a handful of East Bay venues where new music composers and creative music improvisers maintain a toehold, but when Daniel Popsicle launches into Plonsey’s music, the sound carries none of the forbidding chaos associated with avant-garde jazz.
Tonight, Daniel Popsicle contains two violins, three reeds, a trumpeter, and a rhythm section anchored by guitarist John Schott, and every piece explores rhythms, themes, and motifs that are recognizable, but bent, distorted, and twisted so that they’re fun-house mirror familiar. A wah-wah driven funk groove surfaces and then dissipates. A loping Western theme suggesting a 1950s cowboy series gives way to a bucolic tone poem.
And just when it seems like the band is settling into the material, Plonsey starts up a few brief songs, including a passive-aggressive domestic complaint delivered in resigned frustration: “I don’t want to seem ungrateful/But didn’t you say you were about to clean the kitchen/Two hours ago.” It’s all endlessly entertaining, a show that invites listeners in rather than holding them at arm’s length.
Indeed, what sets Plonsey’s music apart is his gift for combining antic, occasionally self-lacerating humor with fundamental existential themes, all set to insistently tuneful music. Hilarious and deadly serious, he’s a painstaking composer who embraces the ridiculous and the sublime.
While maintaining a series of day jobs—for the past six years he’s taught geometry at Berkeley High—he has produced a jaw-dropping array of music for a variety of settings, such as the opera Leave Me Alone! with a libretto by underground comic legend Harvey Pekar; the madcap multimedia production Dan Plonsey’s Bar Mitzvah, commissioned by the Bay Area’s Jewish Music Festival; and Daniel Popsicle (which performs at the Berkeley Subterranean on June 15, and at Chapel of the Chimes, June 21).
Inspired by Sun Ra and Anthony Braxton, singular, self-invented composers and bandleaders who created vividly expansive musical worlds, Plonsey seems to produce music at an inhuman pace. “Sun Ra said the creator demands we make one thing every day, but you’re allowed to make extra things and save up,” says Plonsey, 52, who resembles central casting’s notion of an experimental musician, with his high forehead crowned by tufts of perpetually tousled, mad-scientist hair.
Born and raised in Cleveland, Plonsey earned a bachelor’s degree in math and music from Yale University and a master’s in composition from Mills College in 1988; he’s been a potent creative catalyst on the Bay Area scene ever since. While his primary influences are avant-garde jazz pioneers, he inhabits an intermediate zone where jazz, theater, and new music cross-fertilize. His music is often through composed (meaning the score is notated in detail), but he encourages musicians to add notes and short phrases where they see fit.
“I don’t think of myself as not being a jazz musician, but on the other hand I don’t want to be limited by any one genre,” Plonsey says. “This isn’t classical music, it’s not jazz, it’s not rock.”
Cory Wright, an Oakland-based reed expert who’s performed in several different Plonsey configurations, including Daniel Popsicle, first got to know the music about a decade ago on an East Coast tour with a saxophone sextet accompanied by 6-year-old Cleveland Plonsey.
“It wasn’t just music,” Wright says. “We’d perform these pieces and Dan encouraged us to stop playing and create these group drawings on paper hanging behind the group, using a range of pens and pastels. Cleveland would sit in with us, and when the saxophones were going crazy he’d get up and howl. People were amused or baffled.
“At one concert, we created costumes out of construction paper, head to toe, including masks, though I can’t remember if we actually used them. Dan would make use of props, just whatever was around the venue. He doesn’t take composition and performance as a silly thing or a way to present himself to people for fun. He takes it all very seriously, but there is a playfulness that’s really central to his conception.”
The unifying thread running through Plonsey’s projects is an almost desperate search for community, a soul-deep yearning for a world in which music and art are woven into the social fabric. It’s a philosophy that starts at home, and he’s often incorporated his family—vocalist/dancer Mantra Ben-Ya’akova Plonsey, and sons Cleveland and Mischa—into his work. A major current of his torrential flow of compositions belong to his ongoing series, The Music of El Cerrito, and there’s nothing ironic about the title.
“He really does set his hand to what’s around him,” Mantra says. “Chronicling El Cerrito and his home is almost a political act.”
In many ways, Plonsey has created the musical community for which he longs. He’s surrounded himself with a disparate, talent-laden group of musicians fully capable of bringing his deceptively simple music to life. A greatly abbreviated list of players who have performed and recorded his music includes Carol Adee, Kyle Bruckmann, Ben Goldberg, Matt Ingalls, Cory Wright, Liz Albee, Tom Yoder, Phil Gelb, Sarah Willner, Myles Boisen, Randy Porter, John Shiurba, and Suki O’Kane. Let’s be clear, these musicians haven’t been drawn into his orbit for the lucrative pay. What a Plonsey project promises is adventure—musical and otherwise.
Berkeley guitarist John Schott, another singular, multitudinous, jazz-steeped musician, first got to know Plonsey when he consulted him for insight into Sun Ra’s music. That encounter launched “17 years of friendship, collaboration”—and, quips Schott, “indentured servitude.” With his dry wit and appreciation of the ridiculous, Schott makes an ideal foil for Plonsey, and in addition to beautifully calibrated fretwork, he provides a steady stream of puns, non sequiturs, asides, and retorts from the back of the bandstand.
Offstage, Schott, who is also a father and husband, speaks of Plonsey as a role model for balancing creative life with family life by erasing boundaries between the two realms. “Instead of despairing that his time to compose or practice was greatly compromised, he made the decision to make art from where he was at, geographically and also as a father, as a person working a job,” Schott says. “He brings everything into his art that is in his life.”
Among the hundreds of pieces he’s written for ensembles of every size, Plonsey has received commissions from Bang on a Can People, the Berkeley Symphony, and New Music Works in Santa Cruz, though the antic list of works in progress detailed on his website is even more impressive. (Item 6: “21 Marches for Space Conqueror and Idle Tourist: or whatever I called it. Written for Santa Cruz New Music Works Avant Garden Party. Live recording exists and has some charm. Release as is? Not all 21 pieces exist; it’s more like 18—is this a problem?”)
His output has accelerated over the past year or so, which he credits to a $50,000 fellowship from the independent arts funder, United States Artist—“A poor man’s MacArthur,” Plonsey says. The windfall has allowed him to teach only part-time and focus on some of the two dozen projects on that in-progress list, while also writing sheaves of new music.
This spring he’ll release several new CDs, including Football Season, an hour-long piece he describes as “Morton Feldman meets Bulgarian wedding music.” He’s also recording New Monsters, a series of concise, often lovely, songlike instrumentals for Daniel Popsicle.
“My favorite artists are the ones who create a whole world that does and does not resemble our own,” Schott says. With Plonsey, that world comes to life in towering stacks of music, but also in paintings, novels, essays, art pieces, and even scripted between-song banter among the musicians that appears to be impromptu.
Plonsey’s incessant drive to create flows from his restless curiosity. But voluminously documenting his wayward muse is also an essential part of his aesthetic. He sees himself as working in the tradition of his teachers, renegades like Braxton and Roscoe Mitchell, who started producing their own concerts and albums in mid-1960s Chicago as part of the radical Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM).
“They invented their own form and called it ‘creative music,’” Plonsey says. “Braxton said that after you release 50 albums, they’ll have to pay attention to you. They had an amazing work ethic, and didn’t let common sense get in the way. I remember at a retirement party of a Cal music professor, he said, ‘I really regret no one asked me to write an opera.’ But no one asked Braxton to write an opera, and that didn’t stop him.”
Plonsey did get asked to write an opera, and the result was his definitive work to date. Premiered by Real Time Opera at Oberlin College in early 2009, Leave Me Alone! features a libretto by fellow Cleveland native, Harvey Pekar. Still flummoxed by his sudden transformation from freelance jazz critic and underground comic writer to Hollywood personage, via the award-winning 2003 film American Splendor, when Plonsey approached him, Pekar eventually settled on a favorite theme as his subject. He opens the opera with a charmingly cranky rant about the danger faced by jazz (or any art form) when its avant-garde ceases to exert influence, and spends the rest of the production lounging on a couch on stage, offering occasional commentary.
Plonsey incorporated his own concerns about the role of his music in the world and his pet complaint about struggling to find time to compose as an artist with a day job and family. Pekar’s wife, Joyce Brabner (also featured in American Splendor), added a brief about the lean years with the dyspeptic writer, and Mantra Plonsey contributed to the libretto, costarred in the production, and basically stole the show. With its long sinuous lines, bright harmonies and slinky grooves, Plonsey’s inviting score holds the production together.
Pekar’s death last July means staging a new production of Leave Me Alone! is unlikely, a major loss because what sounds on paper like artistic navel-gazing comes to glorious life on stage. Plonsey, who worked extensively with El Cerrito’s Disaster Opera Theatre, had plenty of theatrical experience to draw on, but where those one-hour productions were often absurdist affairs, Leave Me Alone! flows directly from the gimlet-eyed outlook of the creators.
“It almost could have been one of [Pekar’s] comic books,” Plonsey says. “Like comic books, opera is about larger-than-life figures. We wanted to do it about these two guys who are musicians, which explains why there’s all the music going on. In some ways it was successful and in other ways it made me want to do more theatrical projects with the ideas that didn’t fit in.”
The most entertaining parts of Leave Me Alone! revolve around the Plonseys’ domestic life, which took center stage in Dan Plonsey’s Bar Mitzvah (a production that premiered last summer at the Contemporary Jewish Museum of San Francisco). Punctuated by marital spats delivered as arias, Leave Me Alone! attains a giddy screwball energy when the couple bares their strife. (“It occurred to me afterwards that we’re doing Ricky and Lucy,” Mantra says.)
While Dan handles his vocal duties and acting respectably, she exudes crazy charisma on stage, creating a wonderfully lurid persona while singing with the kind of power and precision one would expect from a former member of the Balkan vocal ensemble, Kitka.
A singer, dancer, writer, and director with the cross-disciplinary ensemble Dandelion Dancetheater (which collaborated on Dan Plonsey’s Bar Mitzvah), she knows just what it takes to keep his creative fires stoked, and the small miracles involved in turning quotidian reality into a seemingly endless flow of music.
“I suggested he work with Harvey,” Mantra says. “I said if ever two guys belonged together, it’s you. They both have this balance between real genuine depression and a connection to the sublime, illuminating everyday life just by stating it.”
Much of Dan Plonsey’s music is available, free of charge, at plonsey.com.
Andrew Gilbert is The Monthly’s music critic.