Stranded In Stereo: The Stranded Local Q&A: West Philadelphia Orchestra

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The Stranded Local Q&A: West Philadelphia Orchestra

The West Philadelphia Orchestra uses the much-less-cumbersome acronym WPO on their album cover, shirts, and flyers. I shall use it herein. I was in Boston, and I heard a parade. It was a parade of psychedelic proportions. Fire-breathing midgets, men on stilts juggling children, and marching bands dressed as beasts in tattered uniforms. I would come to know their names: The What Cheer? Brigade, Rude Mechanical Orchestra, The Hungry march band and many others. it was the Honk! festival and my introduction to an inexplicable genre, the klezmer-military-gypsy-punk-marching-orchestra-band. That many hyphens means that I'm without a deterministic genrefication. It was only recently I discovered I had one of these many-headed-beasts right here in Philly. Please welcome Gregg Mervine of the WPO.

Can you tell me who's in the current line up of the West Philly Orchestra?

Our line-up is flexible - we're more a collective than a band. Usually these folks are in the band: Jack Ohly (tapan, vocals, bass), Janos Perge (violin, vocals), Katt Hernandez (violin), Jacob Mitas (viola), Larry Toft (trombone/baritone), Brendan Cooney (banjo, trombone), Elliot Levin (soprano sax), Steve Duffy (sousaphone), Dawn Webster, Kimbal Brown, Patrick Hughes, Adam Hershberger (trumpets). But we sometimes have people join us on clarinet, violin, melodica, percussion, and so forth. When we play traditional music, anyone who knows the style and the tunes is welcome to jump in.

In a world lousy with guitarists, how does one find an accordionist?

There are two accordionists who sometimes play with us. One is a great pianist who plays tango accordion, and the other is a Bulgarian guy who studies at Drexel. These people just live in Philly, they hear us play, they ask if they can play with us, and if they know the style somewhat, can handle the melodies, improvise, and are nice people, we usually say yes.

What's the smallest venue you tried to cram all 15 members into?

We haven't crammed too much actually. We play at Tritone every month, which holds maybe 150, maybe 200, and that gets totally packed and too hot and sweaty, and we don't want to fit everyone in a smaller place. If we do play a small venue, we just bring less people. We play a tiny West Philly bar sometimes, Fiume, but we just play with string players plus maybe a trumpet and percussion. This band can be a quartet or 20 people, depending on the situation.

Which is the better forum for the band, the club, the theatre or the marching parade?

We sometimes do outside, parade kind of things, but we're not a marching band. In Philly we have the Mummers, so leave that sort of thing to them. We wander around when we play sometimes, like towards the bar for another citywide special, or jumping into a circle for dancing, or getting dragged into a conga line. For musical reasons, we like playing on proper stages where we can all hear each other, and the audience can hear all the parts and appreciate the subtleties in the orchestration and solos, even if they're dancing and moshing or whatever. However, playing amidst a packed, sweaty, and dancing crowd in a small club or West Philly basement is an equally joyous experience. Playing weddings is also a blast, and since many of our songs are traditional wedding songs, it's very natural.

What's the right terminology for your sound, is it Balkan brass? Klezmer? Gypsy big band

Describing us is tough. The brass guys do the traditional Balkan brass music, the string players play the string traditional music, we arrange the strings and brass together for a lot of the tunes, and we do original music that uses all the voices in the group. Basically, in the Balkans, there's the brass band tradition and the older string/cimbalom/accordion traditions, and we dabble in both We also play some klezmer tunes, and we play a Monk tune and other random covers. It's really a hybrid, a blending of traditions, like what many Eastern European bands are also doing. We play the traditional with a weird style too, which isn't intentional but rather what happens when we come together, with many different backgrounds, and attempt to play this music. Our new record contains plenty of original music, which use the scales, harmonies, and song forms, but other influences, like modern harmony, jazz dialogue, or Brazilian rhythms are also woven into the mix. It's not intentional. You put Cecil Taylor sideman Elliott Levin in there, experimental improviser Katt Hernandez, the trumpet section from Bobby Zankel's big band, songwriter Jack Ohly, who also lived in Brazil and plays a rural folk style from Bahia, and it's not going to sound like Boban Markovic, Taraf de Haidouks, or Frank London; it's gonna be eclectic, unruly, and potentially too diverse to hold together, and this balancing act is my job as bandleader.

You have your first album coming out next month, what was that process like?

It was chaos. I decided on my own that we were going to record a record. Sometimes I lie awake at nights and hear entire records, and that's what happened. After a few nights of not sleeping, I had some ideas. So I wrote and arranged a bunch of tunes, collected tunes from other band members, we rehearsed them once, and then we recorded it. We weren't totally ready, but I like to hear the players struggling to get it right - it adds a tension there, the risk and uncertainty. Somehow, out of the chaos of the sessions, we got some nice performances down. We tried getting everyone in the same place at the same time, and that didn't work. We took some risks and threw things together ala Mingus. Then some magical things happened, like a duet I did with Katt in one take when the rest of the guys were breaking.

How did you get that grant from the Subito, of the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Composers Forum?

We were scratching our heads, trying to record all this stuff without going into debt. I met up with my friend Eugene Lou, who organizes crazy performances, drummers and dancers simulating particle generators and things like that, and he told me about the Subito program. The next day I checked it out, noticed that the deadline was the following day, so I quickly wrote up a proposal. I also included some scores of my compositions, and then I rushed off to the post office. The Subito program has helped many Philadelphia groups, like Normal Love and Odean Pope, I believe, and we are so fortunate that they helped us. It allowed us to work in a better studio, with better engineers, and experiment a bit more.

You share an acronym with the World Presidents Association, the World Packaging association, the World Powerlifing Organization, The Worcester Park Observatory in the UK, The Washington Post stock ticker, World Public Opinion and Writers Project Organizer software. Have you had any marketplace confusion yet?

No. Maybe someone will hire the powerlifters to play the Chicken Dance at wedding.

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