By the Book

Bassist Darin Gray learns that the library is where they have to take you in

Next time you're in South City, at the intersection of Jefferson and Cherokee, waiting for the light to change, waiting and waiting, waiting at the longest gosh-darned light in the city with its excruciatingly long green arrows, taunting opposing yellows that seem to never yield to green and reds that last about three minutes beyond their logical conclusion, perhaps you should refrain from getting all antsy and bent out of shape at something you can't control, then take a deep breath and consider the wide-open possibilities the musician and music fan have in St. Louis. Just enjoy the pause in the day rather than fight it, roll down the window and absorb the sounds coming at you, sounds that can, with a simple brain tweak, turn into (you knew this was coming) music.

There. Isn't that better?

Well, no, because the friggin' light still hasn't changed, and this is getting old fast, and even though you can turn silence into sounds into music with a simple brain tweak -- John Cage harnessed this idea in his silent "4:33" piece 50 years ago, and musicians from Karlheinz Stockhausen to Peter Brotzmann to the Black Artists Group to John Zorn to Public Enemy and beyond have spread his message ably -- it's tough to keep the ears focused on random sounds long enough to lose the thoughts and enjoy the gestalt. If your brain is sturdy and disciplined, sure. But what of us who lack Zen focus, whose minds wander?

It's simple: You need a room, a bunch of musicians and wide-open ears. Preferably a quiet room, something that's easy to find in this wide-open city. Darin Gray chooses the St. Louis County Library Mid-County Branch, in Clayton.

"That's another thing that nobody thinks about," Gray says of the general lack of creativity among many frustrated musicians. "You can just play any library. As long as it doesn't annoy the patrons, you can play all the auditoriums. No one ever does it -- you can basically book a Satanic meeting in that room, and they have to let you have it. It's like public-access cable: They have to let you have the room unless they can think of some huge reason not to."

To this end, Gray has taken to the library with a series of improvisational gatherings; he books the room and then proceeds to fill the quiet, empty space with sound. A bassist best known for his work with Dazzling Killmen, You Fantastic! and Jim O'Rourke and whose newest big-deal session work is on the recently released Will Oldham and Rian Murphy CD All Most Heaven, Gray's a master improvisor these days and the man to talk to about taking advantage of St. Louis' offerings. Take, for example, last month's library show, which featured local computer composers Brain Transplant, along with Rachel Doughty: "It was great," he says. "I just did it because I thought, "What would this be like?' and it turned out really cool. They brought all these different speakers and put maybe 15 different speakers throughout the whole room -- under chairs, everywhere -- so everything they played on their computers would come out of different speakers at different times."

Gray has secured a room at the Mid-County Branch (7821 Maryland Ave.) the first Friday of each month, and, he says, "until I get really sick of it, I'm going to do shows there." This Friday, Dec. 1, will feature a stellar duet of out-of-towners: Misha Feigin and Toshi Makihara. Feigin, a Russian guitarist who emigrated to New York and has since worked with some of that city's most respected avant-improvisers, lists downtown luminaries John Russell, Peter Kowald, LaDonna Smith, Elliott Sharp and Eugene Chadbourne, among others, as collaborators, and his recent release on Leo Records, Both Kinds of Music, features duets with some of these musicians. Percussionist Makihara has worked with an equally accomplished collection of NYC improvisers: the late Tom Cora, Peter Brotzmann, John Zorn, William Parker and Thurston Moore (Makihara has recorded in trios with the last two).

The monthly Fridays will expand in January to include experimental films. The first month, Gray will be screening Ira Cohen's psychedelic masterpiece Invasion of the Thunderbolt Pagoda, which features a soundtrack by early Velvet Underground collaborator Angus Maclise. Gray says he has also secured film shorts by New York experimentalist Jack Smith, a filmmaker whose fringe work in the 1950s and '60s inspired a slew of familiar names, including Nan Goldin, John Waters, Robert Wilson and Laurie Anderson, and will be showing them in 2001.

The Dec. 1 session -- which, like all the others, is free (!) -- runs from 7-9 p.m. Because of the gig's setting, these early hours are necessary, but, says Gray, he prefers them: "I'm actually finding that this kind of stuff seems to be doing better early, because you can go and then leave and do what you want to do with your night. It seems to work OK because it's not "11 o'clock on a Friday night' music. It's not fun -- for anyone. So this way, you can go have fun afterward. While you're being miserable, you can at least go, "Well, at least I'm going to have fun later. It'll be all right.'"

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