Photo courtesy of Erasable Color
It’s been more than a month since the members of Erasable Color were in the same room making music together. Don’t call it a rehearsal—this group of budding Northern Arizona University music students play and perform a type of music known (loosely) as contemporary abstract improvisation. Give or take. The ensemble includes pianist Jess Ryan, percussionists Owen Davis and Drew Worden and saxophonist Liza Stegall.
“We had started getting into improvisation and contemporary music but that’s not really in the curriculum at NAU,” explains Drew Worden, the “other” percussionist in the band. “We all converged on that interest and created this thing, to our knowledge, we haven’t experienced in Flagstaff very often.”
“The key word there is ‘created,’” adds NAU music education major Owen Davis. “We wanted to follow this DIY path because we didn’t have these things at school, we didn’t have these things in our life, so we made it ourselves.”
It’s not easy to describe what that intangible “thing” is or what an Erasable Color composition sounds like. Whatever they play, the moniker “song” seems to fall demonstrably short of what the group plays. Erasable Color’s music reflects a small-but-growing trend in contemporary music that embraces chaos and spontaneity over chorus and melody.
“It’s easier to talk about how it’s different than other music because it borrows so many things from other styles of music,” Worden says. “After you listen to a piece of music we play, you won’t be humming the melody afterward. It puts more of a priority on rhythm and harmony and color and texture and timbre.”
“It’s live creation,” according to Davis.
Davis and his band mates speak more about the philosophy behind their music rather than what sounds their instruments make in the predetermined moment they perform in. The group bases their approach on composers such as the Estonian writer Arvo Pärt and New York guitarist Grey McMurray. They also have music written for them by local composers in addition to their own original work.
“What we sound like, what comes out, really isn’t the important part,” says Davis. “The important part is us playing together in the moment and being there.”
Capturing that sound is a powerful live experience. Oftentimes the musicians are just as entertained and surprised at what transpires as the audience. Even still, Erasable Color’s debut EP, thirteen, is an impressive little package of that musical energy. And the title track, having been recorded live at Sundara last year, is evidence.
“Before we started the piece (‘Thirteen’) we handed out little scrolls of paper to the audience with tasks at different times and we had a stopwatch application on a laptop on the stage. As the stopwatch got to different times, the audience did different things according to their paper,” Worden explains. “We really draw from that in the song: The piece is 13 minutes long, events happened every 13 seconds and it was recorded on Friday the 13th.”
In fact, every song on the EP was recorded live at a Flagstaff venue.
“We took the performances that were most meaningful to us and the audience and compiled them,” says Davis.
Just because their music is dedicated to improvisation though, doesn’t mean Erasable Color is immune to predetermination. The group is organized and plans to expand their reach, continuing to dedicate their music to the beauty of the unknown and the symbiotic relationship between performer and audience.
“Studying art or music in college is a risk in and of itself. You’re kind of accepting that you are going to do what you can to make money with some sacrifices along the way, be it money or whatever,” says Davis.
“We all have five-year plans,” says Ryan with a laugh.
With any luck, Erasable Color will be around for much longer.
Catch Erasable Color Fri, Aug. 10 at Sundara, 22 E. Rte. 66, for the release party of thirteen. The band will perform pieces from the album as well as other new material along with “improvisatory pieces with guest artists, and a celebration of Sundara’s slam poetry culture,” according to the group. The show starts at 8 p.m. and will be $5 at the door. For more info, see www.erasablecolor.com or call 779-3292.