When the willowy flutist Jessica Schmitz was playing the piccolo in her junior high–school marching band, she did not especially connect the experience with the Swedish metal band Meshuggah. Nor did Björk or Frank Zappa come into it much. But Schmitz is now one of those intrepid entrepreneurial players who keep New York’s musical life in ferment, and Asphalt Orchestra, the new, deliberately crazy-sounding group she has co-founded, performs all of the above—and then some.
The twelve-member street band makes its debut August 5 through 9, somewhere at Lincoln Center Out-of-Doors—to find it, follow the strains of wild brass. Though the roving ensemble is rich in saxophones, trombones, and over-the-shoulder drums, it doesn’t so much evoke the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade as it does those old circus bands that wheezed and cavorted through the streets. But this is no amateur horn-blowing society. Asphalt Orchestra’s antics will be directed by choreographer Susan Marshall, its big-hatted getups are designed by Elizabeth Clancy, and its repertoire is one of stinging virtuosity and strangeness. You might think that Meshuggah’s epileptic guitar chords and throat-scorching vocals don’t lend themselves to transcription for brass band. But try it, and you may never want to hear Nordic death-metal any other way.
One piece on the set list is by the reclusive composer Conlon Nancarrow, who, in the 1940s, holed up in Mexico City with a player piano and declared his music too rhythmically intricate for any human hands. A cohort of hotshots has been assiduously proving him wrong by transcribing his studies in impossibility for instrumental ensemble. During rehearsals in early July, Asphalt Orchestra tackled “Study No. 20,” winding the cross-rhythms so tight that the group could eventually relax again and make the piece sound more fluid—more human—than any piano-playing machine.
The ensemble was born of a grant proposal. The relentlessly inventive organization Bang on a Can spotted their pitch while making a request to the Rockefeller Foundation, and slapped together a vague idea for an avant-garde street band. “Unfortunately, they got the grant, so they called me and said Help!” said alto-saxophonist Ken Thomson. Thomson sent up an S.O.S. to Schmitz, a band mate in the fledgling new-music ensemble Signal, and together they recruited ten more musicians of varied backgrounds who, they intuited, would find a way to fuse.
“We were looking for people who have multiple strong backgrounds and aren’t afraid to move around—who are physically confident, can really play written music, can improvise, and will go nuts when they need to,” Thomson said. The roster includes jazz drummer and Indian dhol virtuoso Sunny Jain; the Japanese-born classical percussionist Yuri Yamashita (who sings bossa nova on the side); and Alex Hamlin, who plays pretty much any instrument you can blow into. It’s hard to imagine this ensemble forming almost anywhere else, but it’s easy to envision it popping up in other parts of town, blaring its way through Prospect Park, parading along the High Line, or adding to the jovial clangor of the freshly pedestrianized Times Square.