As a longtime associate and former bandmate of fellow Kentite Mike Hovancsek, playing and recording with him in the eclectic ensemble known as Pointless Orchestra from 1993 to 2005, it was with great interest that I approached listening to his newest release, recorded in collaboration with Akronite Samuel Salsbury. All in all, this is an impressive album with a lot of soul and spirit, as well as some welcome surprises for the ears (and mind).
Mike has always had a singular vision for his music and visual art, with skills to match. Having started out on guitar – the most ubiquitous of instruments – while in high school, he soon developed an interest in more unusual sounds, building original musical instruments of his own design and experimenting with recording technology. While studying for his psychology degree in the early 1990s, he took advantage of the opportunity to learn both the traditional Chinese guzheng and Japanese koto zithers in Kent State University’s ethnomusicology division (from which I also graduated with a specialization in Asian music), and also got to know and eventually work with the great Egyptian-born musical wizard/sage Halim El-Dabh, restoring many of the master’s pioneering electronic tape compositions and later issuing them on CD. Around this time, he also started a record label which he called Pointless Music, and his releases included collaborations with many prominent names in the world of experimental music such as Z’EV, Amy Denio, and Anna Homler.
Although the chamber music traditions of East Asia remain a significant influence on the style of his work, Mike has used the traditional music instruction he received at Kent State as more of a springboard to creating something new, synthesizing them into a distinctive and compelling style in his original compositions and improvisations. Although his work was formerly more experimental, over the past decade he has been more concerned with sculpting sounds with an eye toward greater structure and meaning. The exquisite attention to detail across Mike’s entire body of work bears comparison with his unique style of visual art using photography and video, usually manipulated using advanced digital techniques, producing work that is equally colorful, intriguing, and captivating. Throughout, as is typical of Mike’s releases (he generally records and mixes everything himself in his home studio), the recording quality is impeccable, every phrase and sound meticulously placed and arranged, making the music sound like an aural version of a colorful mosaic or jewel box. I think this quality allows his music to appeal to listeners who like good music, regardless of label or genre.
On The Market of Kashi, Mike curates sounds originating from no fewer than three different continents, though the prevalence of tambura drones and raga-style improvisation lends an overarching Indian feel. Most tracks feature Samuel Salsbury’s sensitive impromptu violin playing, and, for several selections, the tabla of Joe Culley, another longtime Kent resident who has immersed himself in the music of India. Although there is technically no voice on the album, Salsbury’s bowed strings truly sing, supported by Mike’s plucked and hammered zithers, percussion, and various other instruments. When Salsbury really lets loose on his century-old sarangi (an ancient Indian instrument he has been studying intensively with a guru in Varanasi, India for the past few years), the music is lifted to a truly spiritual height, supported by the ringing out of the instrument’s three dozen sympathetic strings.
For me, one of the highlights of the CD is the opening track, “Joyful Flight,” which features a rich pan-cultural instrumentation that includes an African kalimba and balafon (xylophone with gourd resonators). This one really grooves, causing a delightful confusion on the part of the listener due to its unpredictable periodic rhythmic stops and starts. On “Floating on the Wind,” chiming sounds, widely spaced like pillars in a vast cathedral, create a feeling of stilled time as effective as anything by Somei Satoh or Lou Harrison. On “Beyond Existence,” Mike shows off some unique cello playing, this lower-pitched bowed instrument lending welcome variety to the album’s musical offerings. And in the meditative but emotive “Reflection,” extraordinary ultra-deep sustained tones, seemingly lower than the range of hearing, are felt more than heard, in a way that is subtly but pleasantly disorienting.
Mike Hovancsek’s previous releases are all beautifully produced and worth seeking out – and he plans on issuing at least one more new release for 2018.
Mike Hovancsek discography (as leader or co-leader):
• Temporal Angels (2003)
• Turbulent Calm (2011)
• Ascend (2011)
• Outlier Protocols (2016)
• Samadhi (2016) – with Margot Milcetich
• Gayatri (2016) – with Margot Milcetich and Brad Bolton
• The Market of Kashi (2017) – with Samuel Salsbury
So this particular track I’m listening to is called “Beyond Existence,” and Mike’s bowed zither playing is chilling. Then Samuel’s lilting violin enters with a haunting melody, making the starkness of this track even more intense. It’s a gorgeous little nugget of musical goodness, like so many other tunes on this record.
I have been collaborating with Mike in one way or another for nearly 25 years. In the summer of 1994, my band and his band shared a member, and Mike came to check us out. By the end of the night, we made an agreement to start working together, and in the years since, he has become one of my closest friends. He has been sharing tracks with me on his collaboration with Samuel, and it has been wonderful watching these rough tracks develop into the finished album. Mike has told me that this is the recording he is most proud of, where he really achieved what he set out to do. And when the opportunity arose to do an article about the project, I jumped at the chance – this is some great music.
Mark Allender:So Mike, how did the collaboration with Samuel come together exactly?
Mike Hovancsek: A few years ago, Samuel came to me and suggested that we record a full album together. I said, “Sure!,” thinking that it was a project that we could get done right away. Then, years passed. We are both insanely busy people and every time one of us was available the other was unavailable. We were each involved with a wide variety of our own projects, including recording sessions, concerts, and rehearsals. In that time, my wife and I had a few kids and Samuel started traveling to India to study the sarangi*. After a while, it started to feel as if we were never going to get around to recording an album together.
Finally, I contacted Samuel to propose an unusual strategy for recording the album. I told him that I could lay down some hand drumming parts and other rough sketches for the project while he was in Varanasi. I explained that when he returned I could show up at his house with portable equipment and we could finish off the pieces in his living room. I was confident that we would get an album together in four short sessions.
Samuel was actually skeptical of this plan. He wasn’t at all sure that we could get an entire album recorded in just four sessions. He was also concerned about the quality of the portable recording equipment. Four sessions later, however, we had a finished album and we were both really happy with the results.
Mark: You two captured some amazing sounds. How did you and Samuel start working together?
Mike: Samuel and I first met when we were both members of Anand Naad, which was a group that combined classical Indian music, Hindu chant, jazz harmonies, and Japanese music. That group didn’t last very long because it was made up of a lot of soughtafter musicians who had a wide variety of other musical commitments to manage. After that group broke up, I started inviting Samuel to be a guest member on some of my solo recordings.
The Market of Kashi
AN ALBUM OF NEW MUSIC BY
SAMUEL SALSBURY AND MIKE HOVANCSEK
The Market of Kashi
One of the things we found was that every time Samuel and I walked into a room with musical instruments, something really nice happened. The music just seemed to emerge fully formed.
So … It’s called The Market of Kashi.
Market. That’s a word that evokes so many images. And none of those images have anything to do with the context in which we usually hear it; financial markets. No, with that word “market”, you immediately have a world where the textiles are in one area, the fresh fruit is in another, the glass and jewelry are in yet another. You can almost hear the sizzle of sautéing garlic or the clink of coins being passed from hand to hand. Parents calling after children to not touch anything. Customers telling stories of their families to the vendors, who are often interested, but just as often endure the stories in the interest of the sale. It’s a rural word. It’s a cash-only enterprise. It’s a word that invokes community, tradition, and a vague sense of disorder. There’s an element of risk here at this market. You get the impression that the finest produce you’ll see all year can be found here. Or you could get dysentery from the kebabs. They have the best deals you’ve ever seen. There are treasures here that you can’t find anywhere else. And the vendors may just cheat you blind and stupid. But above all, you are here for the pure sensuality of the place. The sounds, the aromas, the dirt, the open air.
Samuel falls into that class of artists like Franz Schubert or Elvis Costello who have an instinctual ear for melody. Even with his throwaway improvs, you will find yourself humming them to yourself afterward. In whichever idiom he is playing, he’ll find that inner melody. So when you’re doing an event with him, whatever you are doing: blocking your transitions; soundchecking the 500 pounds of Philippine gongs Mike told you to bring; or working out the changes to the setlist – goddamn if there isn’t Samuel off in the far corner warming up, tossing off another intoxicating melody that begs for your attention while you attend to your own preparation. That is the hazard of working with Samuel!
It was 1994 when I went to my first rehearsal with Mike Hovancsek. I showed up at his apartment, and the first thing I noticed was that there was nothing in the main living area. No furniture. No art on the walls. No rug on the floor. What’s going on here? Did he just recently move in? So, we started hauling the several dozen fragile, cumbersome, temperature sensitive musical instruments into his place and I caught a glimpse of his well-stocked, well-furnished kitchen. He had clearly been here awhile. He wasn’t destitute. He had decorating sense. So for whatever reason, this living room looks this way on purpose. And in the past almost-25 years of hauling all those cumbersome instruments in the service of things Hovancsekian, I have come to appreciate the way Mike can create an environment. And that is what this album gives you; thirteen distinct environments, each with their own aesthetic and their own laws of physics. All while Samuel steals you away ala Pied Piper.
Mark: I hope to hear this live. Are there any performances planned?
Mike: We just did two performances with Paul Stranahan. Paul is a wonderful percussionist who plays in a wide variety of jazz and experimental projects around Cleveland. Paul has the tough job of imitating the drum and gong style that I played on the album. In the recordings, I recorded percussion parts and then played koto* or flute, or whatever, on top of them. Since I can’t play all those instruments at once on stage, Paul has been an excellent addition to our stage shows. He always shows up with racks and racks of gongs from around the world and a huge collection of singing bowls.
Mark: And frankly, what is a live show without a collection of singing bowls?
Mike: Exactly! Samuel is currently heading back to India to continue his study of the sarangi. When he gets back in the Spring, we will be performing a few more gigs, including one on May 12th at The Silk Mill in Kent (145 South River Street, Suite 5 in Kent, Ohio 44240). In those gigs, we will be performing with Joe Culley, who is a local legend for his tabla** playing.
Catch these guys out in concert, if you can. Live shows include a vast array of exotic sounds and instruments from around the world, exciting improvisational exchanges between the musicians, projected video collages by Mike Hovancsek, and often a market experience, with food and hand crafted items for sale. This isn't just a concert; It is a multi-sensory
The new album The Market of Kashi is available thru Spotify, Amazon, iTunes, CDBaby, or at local music stores in northeast Ohio.
colored pencil drawing by Mike Hovancsek titled “Congestion.”