PornOrchestra is a Bay Area
-based improv jazz
ensemble, comprising a highly various membership and conducted by a different member at each performance. It's the brainchild
of one Shannon Mariemont, although that is of course a porn star name
, and various volunteers have assumed it for the purpose of running a (fairly chaotic) show. (PornOrchestra favors the name-of-first-pet variant of the porn name game; I first learned the your-own-middle-name version. The last name of street-you-grew-up-on appears to be a constant.)
As stated on the group's home page, PornOrchestra is "[t]he equivalent of a circus band with its collective eye on the trapeze artist: the PornOrchestra teases out the thrill, amplifying the collective gasp at pornographic triumph — and tragedy — using the most eclectic and creative musical minds working in the Bay Area today." The mission is to re-challenge ears that have tuned porn music out, on both sides of the screen: producers don't see the percentage in thinking, or spending, more than they have to when it comes to sound, and porn consumers consequently hit the mute button anyhow.
The show I visited, second of the four nights of the PornOrchestra's debut stand at the 21 Grand alternative space in Oakland, was packed with exactly whom you might expect: hipsters, both aging and not, waiting out the pre-show noodling by a woman with an electric guitar, a tiny amp and a collection of small vibrators. The seating was long rectangular benches of the cheapest sort, like in the third-grade cafeteria. I guess they didn't want anyone to get too comfortable. One of Shannon Mariemont's incarnations took the microphone shortly and began thanking various benefactors by name, kicking off the porn-name merriment that would keep us from giving up entirely over two hours of opening acts.
(My suspicion about the opening acts is that none of them could get an audience to sit through 12 minutes of their glitchified hyperedited "art video" and atonal knob-twiddling e-muzak unless they made the video out of pornographic source materials. The black and white vintage stuff was nice, though.)
At long last, the main event was announced and the rotating conductor selected. The evening's feature would be an edited highlights reel from The Opening Of Misty Beethoven. All the musicians from the opening acts, plus many others, assembled in the right aisle of the room. The conductor briefly explained his hand signals: "this means keep doing what you're doing, this means get bigger, this means get smaller." He spent the rest of the performance trotting and stooping up and down the aisle aiming hand jive at the mix of vocalists, winds players, electronics wielders, drummers with too-small kits and guitarists with too-big kits that stood in the dark, more focused on their own performance than the one on screen. (Ain't that always the way in these places.)
Despite the claims by one Shannon Mariemont or another about the group's mission, the music that emerged frequently touched on porn-soundtrack traditions. After a cloud of free jazz - full of eerie whoops from the guitars, trumpets and singers - had dropped its rhythm track and crescendoed in the appropriate spot, one guitarist picked up with a classic wah-wah funk rhythm and virtually all of the standing players formed a hand-clap chorus as everyone else joined in.
Overall, the PornOrchestra shows a tendency towards great melody and approachability as well as invention and irreverence. Their lineup is a little too protean to predict in advance which way the music will swing on a given night. The important thing is that one leaves a PornOrchestra performance with a feeling that's possible to reintroduce creativity to what's become the most utilitarian and base of media.