Art on the Edge

Mary Worth's production budgets--raised through those undiscriminating grant-providers, Visa and Mastercard--average $3000, roughly the small-props allowance at the Guthrie. The operation can fairly claim organizational status as a labor of love; actors, producers and crew work for free, or in the case of the successful Valley of the Dolls, for $100 each. While Sass believes that the strange workings of the muse can endow even the most cash-strapped productions with a rare intimacy and ingenuity, he concedes that the company may encounter artistic limitations without a funds infusion (the long stretches between productions are the most obvious example). Sass and Co. imagine bringing their quirky theatricality to bear on Tennessee Williams or even Hamlet sometime down the line--projects he admits could be negotiated more easily with other people's money. "What I'm not interested in doing," he explains, "is going the way of a lot of other groups in town who become so addicted to grant money that theater for them becomes a hopscotch to get the nipple of the funding community, after which they just suck away."

Part of being shrewd is predicting which way the wind blows. Sass perceives that "we're getting more medieval... Things are getting a little more decadent; people are looking for more extreme entertainment." Accordingly, Mary Worth's next planned production, Fabulous Freddie's Homemade Freak Show, will feature elaborate costumes, grotesque pageantry, and Sass himself in a rare performing role. "If Hannibal Lechter and Pee-wee Herman were fused together," Sass riddles, "what would you get? If you fused them together, and then put them on a rickshaw drawn by a dancing hermaphrodite, what would you get?" Dunno, Joel--but we're expecting you'll have the answer for us soon.

--Michael Tortorello


E. F. Tapes

"NOISE is everywhere," says Emil Hagstrom, the soft-spoken co-founder of E.F. Tapes, a mail-order cassette music label he runs out of his Minneapolis apartment with collaborator John Vance. And so it is: Backgrounding our conversation in Jitters coffee shop on Nicollet Mall is the yammering of a dozen other conversations, the intermittent hissing of the espresso machine, a Portishead CD playing over the sound system, the clattering of cups and plates, the periodic roar of buses outside and, not least of all, John's 20-month-old daughter Eve, who at the moment is shouting at the top of her lungs and slapping her hands against the shop's plate-glass window.

Technically, there's all sorts of music to be found among the hundred-plus titles in the E.F. catalog: free jazz, experimental rock, ambient soundscapes. But the soul of the label is in, well, noise--or more precisely, noise improvisation: the collaborative spinning together of sounds and textures that may well elude certain people's concepts of "music." Sometimes the instruments are conventional (saxophones, guitars, drums, cheap synthesizers, voice), sometimes not (phonograph cartridges, baking racks, porcelain sinks, Radio Shack electronics). Sometimes there are suggestions of melody; rhythmic patterns will occasionally approach grooves; compositional structures may reveal themselves during the course of a work. But for the most part, E.F. projects drop listeners into the middle of a sonic jungle, and leave them to puzzle their way out.

The music has its roots: in John Cage's theories of random composition; in the post-bop quests of John Coltrane, Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman; in the industrial post-punk of bands like Throbbing Gristle, Whitehouse, and Einsturzende Neubauten. And while you wouldn't know it from listening to radio, "alternative" or otherwise, E.F. are part of a sizable international network of like-minded, low-budget experimentalists. Hagstrom notes Scotland's prolific Chocolate Monk label, So Cal's Shrimper, Italy's Frigorifero, and the work of Japan's Masami Akita (a.k.a. Merzbow), who alone has released literally hundreds of recordings to date. In addition to myriad local projects, E.F. has released works from England, New Zealand, Italy, Norway, and Hawaii.

What's even more unusual than E.F.'s sound is their means of production. While some of the label's projects have wound up as 7-inch singles or as tracks on compilation CDs (see The Japanese-American Noise Treaty on Relapse Records), E.F. releases most of its music on that increasingly maligned medium, the audio cassette. "It's the most accessible format," says Vance. And the cheapest: E.F. releases go for a mere $2-$4 each (plus shipping), and since they are usually dubbed-to-order, you can request high-bias tape--or even eight-track--for a small additional charge. Also, in solidarity with the international lo-fi underground, E.F. accepts trades from other tapemakers as payment for any titles in their catalog.

Not surprisingly, no one connected with E.F. plans to quit their day jobs anytime soon. But the music continues to spew from a number of vehicles. Cock E.S.P. is an aggressive noise outfit featuring Hagstrom and Paul Hamerlick; Wrong is Vance, Hagstrom, and drummer Don Haight working in more of a free-jazz vein; The Amputease are a neo-primitive, construction-site percussion project supervised by Eric Hofferber (also an occasional member of Cock E.S.P.) and Hagstrom. Recently, local E.F. bands have begun playing gigs, some of them pretty high-profile: This year, Wrong opened First Avenue gigs for free-music legends Borbetomagus and for Sonic Youth--a band Hagstrom admits has been "a great inspiration."

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