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Thursday, May 9, 2013

Duet For Theremin and Lap Steel: An unlikely pair makes magical sounds

Scott Burland (left) and Frank Schultz of DfTaLS
  • Clay Walker
  • Scott Burland (left) and Frank Schultz of DfTaLS

Two middle-aged men walk into a rock club. The slim one with the receding hairline, wearing a gray cardigan sweater, white button-down shirt, thin necktie, and wiry spectacles, looks like Mister Rodgers' step-brother. His companion, sporting a mop of wavy brown hair that deducts a handful of birthdays from his 52 years, clad in a dark olive sport coat, dark shirt, blue jeans and brown leather clogs, could easily pass for an English Lit professor slumming with his students on a no-school night. The two men quietly confer for several seconds before stepping onto the slightly raised wooden stage and sitting down behind their instruments.

In front of Mr. Rogers' half-brother is a Theremin, an electronic instrument of Russian invention dating from the 1920s, best known for creating the creepy Sirens-of-the-sea sounds in '50s-era sci-fi films. The English Lit professor positions his hands a few inches above a lap steel guitar, considering his options. The electric lap steel is both a product of the same era of experimentation as the Theremin and historically associated with country-and-western and certain types of Hawaiian music. Like the Theremin to his right, the Professor's instrument is hooked up to a laptop computer. Peering at the screen, he slides his finger on the scroll pad, making a last-minute adjustment. Leaning forward, he intones into the stage mike, "Good evening. I'm Frank Schultz and this is Scott Burland. We are Duet for Theremin and Lap Steel."

Scott Burland was born in 1962 in Springfield, Massachusetts. He graduated from the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy in Boston in 1985, and moved to Atlanta in 1990. Today, when he's not waving his hands around a theremin, he's filling prescriptions behind the pharmacy counter at Kroger.

"I took organ lessons from age six to twelve, and learned a lot of Bach, but I hardly had any interest in playing during my adolescent and early teens," Burland says.

One of Burland's childhood heroes was Walter (later Wendy) Carlos, whose album, Switched on Bach, a collection of meticulously crafted Bach covers performed on a then-revolutionary Moog synthesizer, caused a sensation and garnered three Grammys, not to mention forever altered the fabric of the musical universe, when it was released in 1968.

One time, in his late teens, when his parents were out of town, Burland withdrew his life savings from the bank and bought a Korg monophonic synthesizer, which is "similar to a mini-Moog, but not modular," he says. "I wish I had the Korg today, but I sold it when polyphonic synthesizers came out. When they did, I had to empty my bank account a second time to purchase a Roland."

When Burland arrived in Atlanta, a move precipitated by a desire for warmer weather and better job prospects, and inspired by a favorable impression during a childhood visit, he didn't know a soul. He placed an ad in Creative Loafing, which spawned Harper Fragment, a short-lived "electronic duo" with a fellow named Robert Johnson. Various casual collaborations and minor projects also ensued with local improv and electronic musicians including Kevin Haller, Milton Jones, and Robert Cheatham.

Inevitably, Burland's interests drew him to 800 East, an arts collective and performance space near Little Five Points, which supported a wide variety of experimental work during the late 1980s and '90s. Today, Burland sits on the board of Eyedrum, one of Atlanta's most adventurous and enduring progressive arts organizations.

In 2004, while he was in Asheville attending a concert, Burland visited the Moog Music factory where the company has been building synthesizers and electronic instruments since the 1970s. "As I was leaving, I asked the office manager whether they had any Theremins," Burland says. "I honestly don't know why I asked, but I did."

The office manager stepped away into the warehouse, reappearing with what she claimed was the last remaining Theremin in stock, a special 50th anniversary model. "I was thrilled," Burland says, "even though I had no idea how to play it."

Back in Atlanta, a series of scheduled open improv sessions hosted by Eyedrum was bringing like-minded musicians together for freewheeling fun and sonic experimentation. During one such gathering, Frank Schultz, an improv session regular, was struck by the notion that a lap steel guitar, such as the one he had been bringing to the fray, might sound cool paired with a Theremin like the one he heard Burland playing.

"I was at a point where I wanted to try and create something I'd never heard before," Schultz says. "I got in touch with Scott and he was immediately intrigued by the idea."

Born in Gainesville, FL, in 1961, Schultz grew up in St. Petersburg. At Florida State University he took an electronic music course and earned a degree in Finance. During his wild youth he played guitar in a "progressive hippie type" band called Ghost Children and, later, in Faith in Medical Technology, described as a "punk-X-Ramones-with-synth-type-thing."

In 1984, itching to get the heck out of Florida, Schultz moved to Atlanta where his then girlfriend had found a job. He fell in with a loose-knit group of musicians associated with Klang!, yet another one of Atlanta's ad hoc avant-arts organizations back in the day. Schultz accompanied screenings of films by Neil Fried at the White Dot, and participated in a short-lived band spearheaded by Ellen McGrail and Glen Thrasher, co-hosts of WREK's legendary "Destroy All Music" radio program, called David T. Lindsay is Bald.

"I played the violin, which I had no earthly idea how to do, in at least one of Glen's Destroy All Music festivals," Schultz says.

These days, Schultz works at the Trolley Barn, a non-profit event facility in Inman Park, and presides over Forensic Audio Labs, which specializes in recovering, extracting, and enhancing information from digital and analog media.

In late 2005, Schultz and Burland began experimenting with their unusual combination of elements at the former's tidy art-filled bungalow in Little Five Points. Encouraged by a half-dozen practice sessions, Duet for Theremin and Lap Steel made its debut at Eyedrum in December 2006.

"It was supposed to be a one-off," Schultz says. "We were just going to do it, maybe put out a CD, and then move on. But the crowd was so responsive and excited, we thought, Hey, maybe we should keep doing this."

The past seven years have been eventful ones for DfTaLS. The duet has performed in England, Scotland, France, Chattanooga, and Clarkston, among other places. In 2008, they released a semi-official album comprised of relatively short performances including a "Live at WREK" session. The second self-titled album consists of two live 25-minute performances.

Collaborations, the duet's latest self-produced release, features DfTaLS with members of Shaking Ray Levis, Andrew Weathers, Bill Brovold, Helana Espvall, and Richard Lainhart. The album is dedicated to Lainhart and Dennis Palmer, co-founder of the Shaking Ray Levis, both of whom recently passed away.

"Dennis' death was a huge blow," Schultz says. "Those guys - Ernie (Palk), Bob (Stagner) and Dennis - have been amazingly helpful to us. They have been a major influence and an inspiration every step along the way."

Collaborations is a showcase for the extraordinary acumen and alluring sounds shared among the participants: Palk with his electric violin, Weathers' guitar and banjo, Brovold's lap steel and percussion, Espvall's cello, Lainhart's Buchla/Continuum synthesizer combo. Improvisational music is both an acquired taste with a built-in audience limitation factor and a difficult path for a musician regardless of talent or enthusiasm. During its finest, fleeting moments, when attitudes and instruments are in alignment, improvisation creates magical music. Collaborations is filled with perfectly aligned components orbiting in blissful celestial harmony, and an abundance of magical moments.

"In our case, you are dealing with two instruments that do not have a fixed pitch, which makes what we are doing work in a naturally weird way," Burland says. "Then you bring in the effects, along with other players and instruments, and it gets even more unusual. There are times when we don't know for sure who is making what sounds."

The room grows quiet as the dark, dingy rock club is transformed into a sonic cloud chamber of electronically mediated ambience. High-pitched sound particles trace melodic trajectories through dense low octave drones. Polyphonic sound currents waft through space, pushing harmonic waves to a peak, which explode in a crescendo of agitated thrumming, then subside into a palpable calm. Shimmering clusters of glissandi swirl around fields of reverberating distortion.

Onstage, the professor and Mister Rogers' half-brother occasionally glance at each other to gauge the mood or acknowledge a transitional passage, but mostly they remain intensely focused on their instruments, as unlikely a pair of musical implements as one is ever likely to hear together in one space.

"When we play, I measure success by the way we connect," says Schultz. "When Scott and I are both listening and acting as one, and we take the music some place we've never been before, that's a satisfying performance."

Duet For Theremin and Lap Steel celebrates the release of its latest CD Collaborations tonight (Thurs., May 9) at 529. Qurious, Brainworlds, and Ominous Castle also perform. Free. 9 p.m. 529 Flat Shoals Ave. 404-228-6769.

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