Michael Bashaw’s Theater of Sound concert at Theatre Guild

Photo: (l-r) Sandy Bashaw, Michael Bashaw, Erich Reith, and John Taylor performing Theatre of Sound; photo: Todd Huffman

By Arnecia Patterson

Dayton’s arts and entertainment scene has more than its fair share of visual artists, actors, writers, musicians, and bands. If you count the professional and community arts organizations alone, the sum engulfs the expected mere smattering of attractions in a town the size of Dayton. Is the city’s arts scene and inventiveness—cash register, flight, pull tab—evidence of this area’s propensity to forge an environment of creatives, thought leaders known for how they turn an idea, craft its fruition, and deftly repeat to move ahead of convention?

“Theater of Sound” is not a place, even though its name implies that possibility. It is a group of creatives who play conventional, musical instruments. Michael Bashaw plays flute and harmonica; Sandy Bashaw, guitar; Erich Reith on hand drums; and John Taylor on percussion, bass, and keys. Unconventionally, they play sculpture: the GongSlā and GloBow, two sculptures with over a decade of performance history on stages around the country and abroad. They are gearing up to play newer, large-scale sculptures that Michael created during his recent sustainability period, including the Chromatic Marimba made of salvaged, rosewood marimba plates. Another sculpture with sound dependent on where its speed is set. Think “beat” or “whip,” since it is fashioned from vintage, Sunbeam mixers.

For the first time in over 10 years Michael with Theater of Soundwill give two sound sculpture concerts on Friday and Saturday, June 9 and 10 at the Dayton Theatre Guild. In concert, Theater of Sound relies on a convergence of improvisational overtones and sophisticated, repurposed materials sculpted into visual art that accommodates the ears. The result is an urgent, physical code-switching between the musical and visual elements it comprises.

Those elements stem from Michael’s early artistic influences as a sculptor (bandmate Erich Reith is a wood sculptor, too). After doing mostly temporary, sculpture installation work, he took a “welding for artists” workshop given by the Hobart Corporation in Troy, Ohio.

“I learned to weld because I wanted to make permanent sculpture, musical sculpture in particular. I didn’t want to give up music, and I didn’t want to give up visual arts. So I put them together,” Bashaw recalls.

His interdisciplinary curiosities and desires provided a new tension to explore. The sculpture’s static permanence and its sound’s dynamic potential invite momentary innovation and improvisation. For this, Bashaw recommends meeting the instruments/sculptures “where they are.” “If you’re going to play those instruments, you have to accept them on their terms. You can’t really control them like you control the guitar or fiddle,” he says.

His understanding of materials and their sound-making power has led him to look to trailblazers in the field. Roscoe Mitchell, the avant-garde composer, saxophonist, and co-founder of the Art Ensemble of Chicago has been referred to as “iconoclastic” by critics. Mitchell spent three days in the Bashaw studio playing with both Michael and Sandy. “Roscoe brought his alto [saxophone]. I played bass flute and sculptures, and Sandy played sculptures. He just played off the overtones. He was doing multi-phonics, playing and splitting tones. Creating harmonics from split single notes. It is some of the most compelling music you will ever hear,” he says. “It was amazing,” adds Sandy Bashaw.

In addition to the impact of historic, forward-thinkers like Mitchell, the Bashaws admire Jamey Haddad, a well-respected percussionist with Paul Simon and the Paul Winter Consort and a professor of music. He is also a collector of instruments, including those by early sound sculptor Harry Partch. Partch was a “maverick composer who built unorthodox instruments and wrote compositions mostly in a microtonal scale,” Bashaw says. The late Partch’s compositions include continuous sound that evokes notes rarely heard. “He’s writing music that includes the cracks between the piano keys,” Sandy says.

Under those tonal circumstances, it is up to the guitar and keys to provide most of the harmonic bed for music played by Theater of Sound. But the group is used to that. They know the sculptures’ tones will transform the band’s sound and visual presentation. Theater of Sound musicians anticipate moving from place to place, sitting, standing, unstrapping a guitar, picking up mallets, or flute, upstretched arms banging out an exploration on artwork producing heretofore unheard of sound. No less—maybe more.

What Bashaw’s sound sculptures can and will do is as varied as where they have done so already. The GloBow has been accompanied by the Sarajevo Symphony in Bosnia. The GongSlā was made of aluminum fan parts donated by the Greenheck Fan Corporation in Wisconsin where the group played a concert as part of an artist residency. After touring the plant and choosing parts for the installation, Bashaw installed the sculpture in the lobby of the theatre. Audience members played it during intermission.

Residencies continue to be fertile periods for Bashaw, as proven during his most recent year-long sustainability residency at University of Dayton. He increased his body of work by several sculptures including the Chromatic Marimba—a new sculpture constructed of extinct, rosewood plates made around 1926. Bashaw purchased the wood from an organ technician years ago.  According to Sandy, the found material’s rarity and grandeur has produced one of the prettiest sculptures. “This particular organ must have been really fancy to be able to pull those organ stops and have a marimba sound,” she explains. “It must have been a fabulous thing, wherever it was.”

Michael already has an ear for the piece’s shifting bravado in a fluttering scale. “You can do glissandos over several chromatic notes,” he says. “I look at it in terms of tonal clusters rather than individual notes.”

Theater of Sound takes the stage Friday and Saturday, June 9 and 10 at the Dayton Theatre Guild, 430 Wayne Ave. in Dayton. Show starts at 8 p.m., doors at 7. Tickets are $20. 

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Arnecia Patterson has an infinite capacity to view concert dance. She found her former career as dance executive, funder, and consultant extremely satisfying—and finds writing about dance equally rewarding. Reach DCP Resident Dance Critic Arnecia Patterson at ArneciaPatterson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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