Artists in Residence

Evan Walbridge/Staff

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Last Friday at the Berkeley Art Museum, the art installation known as the BAMscape was covered with people, all gazing upon what looked like yet another installation. A backdrop of black fabric draped the walls of the east side of Gallery B, with five white conical structures towering before it. Amid the fabric spires stood the accoutrements of a small music ensemble, as yet unattended. A modest, tasteful array, right?

As the chamber group filed into the makeshift performance space and the white cones were illuminated with various colors, it was hard to miss the fact that all seven performers were dressed more or less identically: Black suits with white bowties, tall white dunce caps like miniature replicas of the cones on the ground. Each performer's face was obscured, with white lights seemingly perched on glasses, giving the effect of wide-set, glowing eyes. Most of the performers were wearing what appeared to be black stockings to cover their faces, though the singer was clearly wearing black face-paint. A controversial choice - though possibly simply a reference to a lyric from "Paint It, Black" that surfaced late in the show - but uncomfortable imagery is par for the course for this group of postmodern tricksters. These are the Residents, a profoundly influential avant-garde music and performance group that has made the Bay Area their home since their founding in the late '60s.

The Residents traditionally appear clad in tuxedos and giant eyeball masks, though tradition is an odd word to apply to such irreverent artists. They are also all officially anonymous, communicating with the public through their business end, known as the Cryptic Corporation. One of Cryptic's directors, Homer Flynn, who also does graphics for the Residents, spoke on their behalf in the week leading up to the show. He does not identify himself as a member of the Residents.

Explaining Friday's lack of eyeballs and other vaudevillian antics, he said, "This is really going to focus almost exclusively on the music and - the piece is actually the story of a person who was a friend of one of the Residents back in high school." This subject, named Sam, was a POW in Vietnam who passed away a few years ago.

The new piece, called "So Long Sam," is an excerpt of a future, longer orchestral work called "Sam's Enchanted Evening." "None of the songs are original," Flynn indicated. "They're partly telling (Sam's story) with the songs that he considered to be important in his life, and so they're doing things like 'Ode to Billy Joe' or 'Sixteen Tons' or 'Livin' La Vida Loca.'" The supporting musicians on Friday, a group called the Convergents, helped the Residents test out their arrangements on a smaller scale.

The detourned popular song is a primary component of the Residents' toolbox. Their discombobulated 1976 cover of "Satisfaction" makes the notorious Devo take on the Stones classic seem downright radio-ready. "So Long Sam" embraces that same spirit of mischievous reinterpretation. The gothic imagery of Bo Diddley's "Who Do You Love?" seemed not so much slickly menacing as utterly terrifying in the distinctly Southern growl that the Residents' vocalist adopted for the duration of the event. "Livin' La Vida Loca" was perhaps the most striking song choice - the only song that narrator Sam can remember from "the last 20 years" - as it slid from a muttered delivery into the fiery demonstration of a revivalist preacher, with particular emphasis on the lyric, "Her lips are devil red."

The vocalist - identified(!) in the program as Randy - narrated between songs, seemingly in character as Sam. Sometimes he indicated how a song related to his experience, whereas other numbers acted as intuitive illustration.

As he progresses from debauched youth to Vietnam draftee, the music's morbid intensity builds. The musicians provided both gravity and levity to the proceedings, dynamics that will undoubtedly be more powerful when "Sam's Enchanted Evening" is realized with a full orchestra.

The Residents' concert at BAM was part of the [email protected]: Friday Nights at BAM/PFA series. One of the series' guest programmers, pianist Sarah Cahill, a long-time friend of the band, invited them into the fold. Speaking over e-mail, Cahill explained, "(Museum director) Larry Rinder's original intent for the series, I believe, was to celebrate local artists who, for one reason or another, we might not hear locally as often as we'd like."

Serendipitously, they had a piece in progress. "They've been working on ('Sam's Enchanted Evening') internally, kind of in parallel with other projects for a couple of years now," said Flynn.

Cahill had previously commissioned a piece from the Residents for a project called "A Sweeter Music," which was produced at Hertz Hall on the UC campus in 2009. But that's not her only tie to the collective. "My husband, John Sanborn, created some videos with them, and I can proudly say that one of the Residents was a best man at our wedding," she elaborated.

Cahill also cited her appreciation of the Residents' aesthetic values, writing, "When other bands wanted to be polished and expertly produced, the Residents opted for homemade instruments and D.I.Y. culture at a time when hardly anyone else was doing that. They've stuck to their principles and forged their own path, which is unique and always outside the mainstream."

Indeed, the Residents have pursued a number of unusual tributaries throughout their career. Their pioneering work in music video has always been a staple of their artistic output, right up to the recent "Talking Light" tour, which features videos cast by a pico projector held by one of the Residents. An exploration of their video work, titled "Icky Flix Remix" in reference to their 2001 career retrospective CD/DVD Icky Flix, will play at the Pacific Film Archive on Wednesday night (still forthcoming at time of writing).

But music videos, however inventive, are hardly unusual, you say. Well, over the years, the Residents have also trafficked in CD-ROM games, podcasts and, most recently, concert downloads. What does the future hold for the Residents, in terms of formal experimentation? "One of them got an iPad just before going off on the recent European tour, and so they've actually become quite fascinated with that as a potential new medium to explore," reveals Flynn. "But it's more like just trying to get a feel for it now and get a sense of what would be a good project for that medium."

The Residents, despite a generally low profile, apparently have a devoted following around the Bay. The BAM was packed - the museum's Administrative Coordinator, Sean Carson, reports a turnout of 1009, the largest audience for a [email protected] event so far - with onlookers arrayed across the many balconies of the tiered galleries. This show constitutes a break from their ongoing "Talking Light" project, for which they will return to Europe, with a two-night stint at the Centre Pompidou in France. At this point, they're sub rosa rock royalty, and they continue to see the world through a defiantly different lens, eyeball masks or no.


Serendipitously reveal a Resident's identity for Sam at [email protected]

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