REorientation: Chicago Weekly’s annual culture fest returns

Four years ago, the Chicago Weekly stepped out of its traditional boundaries to bring South Side arts and culture coverage one step further.

Rather than just reporting on some of the better local arts organizations, we decided to showcase them, bringing them to one convenient location for a night of art, music, comedy, fashion, dance and general cultural revelry. Thus, REorientation was born.

This year, REorientation returns with performances from comedy group Off-Off Campus, the University of Chicago’s ballet team, and the KIPP Ascend Charter School Step Team. The Names that Spell and Brilliant Pebbles provide eclectic musical entertainment, and MODA, the University’s fashion organization, will be hosting their annual trunk show and raffle. We here at the Chicago Weekly are also proud to announce the debut of our inaugural zine, “The Midwestern Edition,” which forgoes our traditional journalistic approach to showcase some of the best in local literature, poetry, personal essays, comics and photography.

So come join us on October 17 at the University of Chicago’s Hutchinson Courtyard (rain location Hutchison Commons), located at 5706 S. University Ave, from 7-11pm. Because this time, we’re not just reporting the event, we’re making it happen.

Get ready to get REoriented.

The Names That Spell

Forming a band and ensuring its longevity requires true dedication. It’s even harder to schedule practices and record songs when your bandmates live in different states. Playing shows and sustaining the interest of your audience is still another challenge. The Names That Spell, who have been making music since 2001, have managed to do all this.

The band is composed of the brothers Chase and Evan Staley, Josh Johnson, Matt Plaskota, and Lucas Elenitsky. Each member of the band performs on more than one instrument, which causes an eclectic array of noises and rhythms within each song.

It’s hard to compare The Names That Spell to one particular band or musical style. There are some songs with clear jazz influences entangled with rock rhythms, and other songs with a folksy feel that showcase horns, beats, and loops. If you had to make a comparison, the Names That Spell sound like a mix between Animal Collective and Akron/Family. But such obvious comparisons don’t give justice to the layers upon layers of melodies and rhythms that are combined and woven together to produce interesting and positively unique songs.

This isn’t an easy task, and I sat down with Chase Staley to see how they do it.

CW: You’ve been making music for a long time. How has your sound evolved?
Chase: We’ve always been fascinated with layering and texturing our music, attempting levels of conversation between interwoven parts. But we’ve learned how to simplify over the past few years, how to find clarity while keeping forms and structures complex, even when using live loops and effects. It’s challenging for us to maintain both those philosophies at the same time.
CW: Are there other bands you’d like to tour with?
Chase: I want to go on tour with a fellow named Patrick who plays under the moniker Redbear. We all love his songwriting and he’s got a fantastic voice.
CW: What bands do people compare you to the most? And does it bother you?
Chase: People compare pieces of our music to all sorts of other artists and it rarely ever bothers me. It’s usually kind of flattering, because we do strive to achieve an immediate familiarity on occasion, especially when we improvise. But some guy did tell us we sounded like the Doors, which is strange, considering that the Doors make all of us cringe.
CW: How do you find time to make music, since you don’t all live in the same area?
Chase: Our experience as jazz musicians allows us to get together and play most of our original tunes just about any time our schedules permit. It’s difficult to arrange rehearsals, but we usually develop new songs during the summer and holidays.
CW: And finally, McCain or Obama?
Chase: Considering all Barack Obama has done and plans to do to support education in the fine arts …there’s no contest. Obama. (Tiffany Kwak)

Brilliant Pebbles

While recent discussion of missile defense has tended to focus on ground-launched interceptors, the jewel of the original Star Wars program was a little something called Brilliant Pebbles. Planned as a network of 4,000 semi-autonomous, watermelon-sized micro-satellites in low orbit, the Pebbles were intended to ram Soviet ICBMs in space before they plunged towards Foggy Bottom. Alas, the USSR collapsed, Bush lost the election, and funding evaporated, excising the phrase from everywhere but the hallways of the Heritage Foundation and certain parts of Chicago’s North Side.

Those parts saw the emergence of Brilliant Pebbles the band: a Texan emigrant and a more-or-less native (Philip Montoro and James Kennedy, respectively, drums and bass), a Polish immigrant (Monika Bukowska, vocals and flair), and a native of Hong Kong (Samuel Ng, keyboards and more flair)–four people united by the absence of common musical interests. The resulting compromise is a scree of warbling frippery: psych-disco from the outermost circle of neon hell. That’s not to say the Pebbles lack musical structure–the songs are poppy in the same way the Shaggs might have been with a tight rhythm section and Foot Foot at the mic. In fact, the simplest description of the adjective-magnet ensemble might be neon baroque. Mixing fluorescent sounds with a positively lurid visual appearance, Brilliant Pebbles live their name in the fullest.

CW: How do you deal with getting older, philosophically?
Monika: I drink lots of tea and dance a lot. It makes me focus on what I really have to do before I’m too old to wear kids’ clothes. I’m going to be rich and famous at 28 years old, which is only a year from now.
Philip: I’m 37 years old, so I mostly have to deal with it physically.
CW: Suggest some flattering adjectives for the group.
Monika: Strong dynamic passionate whimsical.
James: One reviewer referred to us as “gypsy sex metal.” That’s pretty hard to top.
Sam: Exuberantly foreign!
Philip: I don’t think I can top “exuberantly foreign.”
CW: The name:
Sam: It means Philip Montoro didn’t like “I Learn English” as the band name and he came up with this one.
Monika: It was Philip’s idea; I just liked the image.
Philip: I figured “Brilliant Pebbles” would sound lively and colorful enough to please Monika and Sam, but it had an extra sinister layer of meaning that I enjoyed.
CW: How did your aesthetic develop?
Philip: I’ve borrowed (to the best of my ability) from metal acts like the Melvins and Meshuggah, as well as from Balkan brass bands and old-school bhangra. I’m a fan of many flavors of African music (check out the new Kasai Allstars album!), and I still have a soft spot for filthy garage rock. I go to see a lot of free improv–currently my favorite local combo is the Rempis Percussion Quartet–and to Monika’s dismay, I also enjoy proggy stuff like Ruins, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, and of course Chicago’s own Cheer-Accident.
Monika: I think it all goes back to childhood. I’m a product of my mom dressing me up at age 6 and taking me to all-ages dance clubs in Poland dancing to ’80s pop music.
Sam: From the magazines and superficial stuff.
CW: What have you enjoyed reading lately?
Sam: Oh, James Kennedy, of course!
Philip: James Kennedy. I just finished rereading his first novel, “The Order of Odd-Fish,” which came out in August. He calls it children’s fantasy, but don’t let that slow you down. It’s an insomnia book, in that once you start reading you’re basically doomed to stay up into the wee hours of the morning to finish it. It’s great fun, and accomplishes a truly acrobatic balance of compelling plotting and lunatic absurdity, like a car chase through a carnival.
James: I find myself rereading J.K. Huysmans’ “A Rebours” every year. It had a reputation as the “Bible of Decadence” (it’s the nameless, corrupting “yellow book” in “The Picture of Dorian Gray”) but though it seems deadly serious, it’s quite intentionally hilarious–a kind of preemptive send-up of all the fin-de-siecle books that imitated it.
Monika: Sylvia Browne’s “The Otherside”, and Randy Frazee’s “Making Room for Life: Trading Chaotic Lifestyles for Connected Relationships.”
CW: What drives you musically?
James: I was never particularly musical until I went to college. I happened to fall into the music scene, and there were some incredible musicians. This is a roundabout way of saying that I’m not really a credible musician; I just really enjoy the social and creative sides of making music.
Sam: Emotion drives me crazy musically. And, be your own boss, be a billionaire! (Mike Joyce)

Off-Off Campus

Following in the legendary tradition of Mike Nichols, Elaine May, and Paul Sills’s Compass Players, Off-Off Campus is the University of Chicago’s renowned improvisational group. Made up of “generations,” different casts separated by year, Off-Off Campus holds rigorous rehearsals and frequent performances, creating a hyper-dynamic environment with the necessary energy for hilarious comedy. With its first performance scheduled for October 24th, Off-Off Campus has a good year in store. Look forward to meeting its newest generation: first-year newbies flexing those comedy muscles Off-Off Campus will be building up. (Yennie Lee)

University Ballet

University Ballet, founded just five years ago, is the University of Chicago’s only Registered Student Organization dedicated to teaching and performing classical ballet. University Ballet offers classes throughout the year, including beginning-level ballet, advanced-level ballet, and specific classes for pointe, stretch and strength. The 2008-2009 season includes University Ballet’s annual Winter Show, “Cinderella,” led by Natalie Genz Jenkins, Executive Director and Megan Race, Artistic Director. With over thirty participants, “Cinderella” should prove to be a dynamic performance, bringing together enthusiasm and fervent effort to celebrate the classical ballet technique. (Yennie Lee)

KIPP Ascend Charter School Step Team

Nationally ranked KIPP Ascend Charter School’s Step Team on Chicago’s West Side is something of a marvel. Composed of some of the smartest and most motivated young women their age, the Step Team exists as the perfect example of what hard work and a supportive community may yield: a winning team in sync with rhythm and achievement. Directed by University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration students Curtis Nash and Amaka Unaka, the Step Team is held up to high standards: academics come first, as any C, D, or F will get you suspended from the team until your grades are up, and camaraderie is more than just a consequence of repeated rehearsal. Watch these young women conquer the world, going off to top-tier private high schools and elite universities after they step through adolescence. (Yennie Lee)