Sunday, March 25, 2012

Marching Forth

The template for the March Fourth Marching Band could, I suppose, be said to be the marching band of high school and college tradition. When you see March Fourth in action, you recognize certain elements: ornamental headgear; two-toned, button-down jackets and matching pants; batons; percussion and brass in great numbers; team spirit.

Yet March Fourth is sort of a marching band on acid. The 23-member ensemble travels the world in a Merry Prankster-ish bus named Razzle Dazzle. Its sound is as much klezmer as John Philip Sousa; in its costuming and choreography I see a little Vaudeville, a little of the Jazz Age, a little Sergeant Pepper's. Where a traditional marching band moves in formation, March Fourth has stiltwalkers striding hither and thither among its rambunctious fans, hoisting up children, dancing, performing short comic skits. Where a traditional marching band places an emphasis on uniformity, March Fourth's presentation is ad-libbed and libertarian. Traditional marching bands dress their ranks and cover down their files, while March Fourth performers are often in something of a state of quasi-dress and un-cover, with fishnets as common as pith helmets. A traditional marching band, for all its color and volume, is regimented, while the carnivalesque, improvisational March Fourth seems barely contained within a “corps”: it's a military-style band that has exploded, leaving the air a-flutter with confetti and sparkles.

Rick and I are lucky not only to count ourselves among March Fourth's fans, but to have a friend in the band, and a few weekends ago we were gifted a pair of tickets to the band's show (on March 4th; when else?) as a chemo-is-over celebration. We attended the matinee (the night show was past our bedtime) among the crazy angles, “floating” mechanical dance floor and painted plaster faces of Portland's famous Crystal Ballroom. We sat in the balcony with (we suspect) moms and pops of the performers. This daytime show included a cameo by budding musicians who had attended a March Fourth summer band camp for teenagers last year, as well as the usual dizzying retinue of hula hoop artists, giant human marionettes and dancers. The emphasis of the circus acts is on whimsy and exuberance rather than acrobatic virtuosity, but make no mistake: the musicians are top-notch, and their sound—comprised entirely of drums, horns and electric guitars—is like nothing else you've ever heard. March Fourth describes its own output as “a full-blown big-stage brass-rock-funk assault peppered with moments of swing, jazz, bollywood, ska and metal,” if you can grok that.

I am filled with wonder at the spectacle, and have many questions for the band, like: how does one compose music for such an ensemble? How are decisions made? (Not, I suspect, by dictatorial fiat of a band leader—yet surely not by consensus democracy, either—with 23 members?) Do you ship Razzle Dazzle to Europe when you play there? And most of all, where do I sign up for summer band camp for 47-year-olds?

At any rate, our getting to be present in the audience that day was gift enough—so I was flabbergasted to learn that our friend in the band had composed a song in my honor, which debuted then and there. This is surely the only time anyone has ever written a piece of music for me—and what piece it is! The tune is called “Janjar.” Our friend, Taylor Aglipay, was wearing a pink sleeveless cowboy shirt for the occasion, along with an enormous piece of headgear fashioned—I am not making this up—from the hair of a goat in Azerbaijan. Evidently the hat still smells faintly goaty.

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