Polygraph Lounge's musical mirth

Mark Stewart and Rob Schwimmer are Polygraph Lounge

by Seth Rogovoy

(NORTH ADAMS, Mass., July 8, 2003) – Mark Stewart says that there is a “dearth of mirth” in music, and that’s what he and his musical partner Rob Schwimmer have set out to rectify with Polygraph Lounge, their musical comedy ensemble that performs in the Courtyard Café at Mass MoCA on Saturday at 8 as part of the Alternative Cabaret series. The concert will be held indoors in Club B-10 in case of rain.

Polygraph Lounge, which also includes vocalist Melissa Fathman, is many different things. It’s a post-modern cover band – “in one show we cover 160 songs,” said Stewart. It’s a 21st-century vaudeville routine incorporating everything from Beethoven to the Beatles and Stravinsky to the Strokes, emphasizing the “connective tissue” among seemingly unconnected elements in witty, surprising and lightning-fast juxtapositions. And it’s zany, brainy fun performed by two of contemporary music’s most accomplished instrumentalists.

When he is not performing with Polygraph Lounge – which got its start as a one-off gig at a downtown bar where Stewart and Schwimmer idled away the hours drinking together and trying to make each other laugh – multi-instrumentalist, vocalist and composer Stewart plays with Paul Simon, Anthony Braxton, Bob Dylan, Cecil Taylor, Meredith Monk, Don Byron, Paul McCartney and Marc Ribot. He is a founding member of the Bang on a Can All-Stars, and a member of Steve Reich and Musicians, David Krakauer’s Klezmer Madness, the Fred Frith Guitar Quartet, Arnold Dreyblatt’s Orchestra of Excited Strings and Zeena Parkins’ Gangster Band.

Keyboardist/composer Schwimmer keeps busy writing music for film, theater and TV and performing and recording with Wayne Shorter, Stevie Wonder, Willie Nelson, Laurie Anderson, John Cale, the New Haven Symphony, Burt Bacharach, Mabou Mines, Vernon Reid, Liza Minnelli, Henry Jaglom, Talujon Quartet, Mary Cleere Haran, and the Zmiros Project.

Soprano Melissa Fathman has sung with Gunther Schuller, Anthony Braxton, Giles Swain, John Duffy, Bruce Adolphe and Mihoko Suzuki, and her opera credits include “Don Giovanni,” “Gianni Schicchi,” “La Rondine,” “Carmen,” and the role of Ntzockie in the world premiere of Anthony Braxton’s “Trillium R: Shala Fears for the Poor.”

The musicians bring this tremendous variety of experience and their virtuosic chops to the forefront in Polygraph Lounge, which skewers and lampoons all sacred cows.

“Your whole life you’re doing music, music, music, but you’re the class-clown type of guy, and it never gets into the music,” said Schwimmer in a recent phone interview. “So this is the opportunity to use that other very real part of my life that I’ve never been able to employ in public.”

“We’re very serious about being completely ridiculous,” said Stewart.

“We try and make each other laugh. We’ve studied all this music -- both our training really covers a lot of ground -- and we bring a lot of sounds to the table.

“We both have been waiting our whole lives to do this. It’s just kind of like vacuuming in all this stuff we’ve found funny over the years.”

This plays out in concert like a contemporary update of Spike Jones, Victor Borge, the Marx Brothers and Firesign Theatre. A classic rock tune somehow merges into Gregorian chant; spaghetti western themes get played on nose flutes; a Tchaikowsky ballet meets a surf guitar riff; and Jimi Hendrix bumps into the Beverly Hillbillies at a Stravinsky concert.

The group also comes with an array of unusual musical instruments, some found, some invented by Stewart, an inveterate tinkerer. The list of instruments in the group’s possession goes on for several pages, and includes the Ahh-ooga, a car-horn organ of 30 horns, the BagRazz, a Playtex Living Glove-powered Bronx cheer, and the Chaladoo, made from plumbing pipe – “play it forwards and it’s a bass clarinet/saxophone. Play it backwards and it’s a didgeridoo. It’s the hermaphrodite of musical instruments.”

Stewart said he’ll be bringing one of his latest inventions, a bicycle-powered whirly-copter that has eight different pitches. “It looks silly and sounds very serious,” said Stewart. “It looks like a combination of Mad Max and H.G. Wells, that time machine vibe out of the apocalyptic future, with the sound of an Orthodox choir from over in the next valley.”

One specialty of the group is pairing up the music of one song with lyrics from another whose syllabic patterns matches perfectly. They’ve also written several extended pieces, including a mini-opera based on “Moby Dick” (which includes a Paul McCartney parody, “Moby I’m Amazed”), and “The Siren Song,” based on familiar car-alarm patterns.

“It’s about transforming energy,” said Stewart, “taking something we all hate in the same way and giving it a new relationship. By the end the whole audience is dancing to a car alarm.”

“Our job is to give the people in the audience a roller coaster ride through their own brains,” said Stewart. “We’re dealing with the common consciousness -- pop consciousness, the area of sound and music. We’re all aware of the American songbook, and a lot of classical music, even though a lot of people say they’re not. It’s in our culture through advertising. There are enormous possibilities for tomfoolery.”

Schwimmer said it’s not about being smart-alecky by stuffing a lot of obscure musical references into their work.

“This is music that everybody in the audience has probably heard,” said Schwimmer. “Ninety-five percent of what they’re going to hear will be somewhat familiar. It wouldn’t be fun if people didn’t know the references. We draw from things that everyone knows – well-known things done in a terribly wrong way.

“What we do is very serious. We’re very serious about being ridiculous, and there’s a lot of serious playing going on behind all the silly stuff.”

Call 413-662-2111 for reservations.

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on July 11, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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