images by Gregory A. Perez
Take two musicians from the Seattle music scene. Put them onstage at the famed Crocodile Cafe and give each unsuspecting songster one instrument, a pen and paper, and extremely limited access to a thoroughly uncooperative house band. Toss in a heckling, rambunctious audience. Demand the musicians produce and perform an original song within forty-five minutes or else. Mix thoroughly and start the clock. At regularly spaced intervals, bring in the scheming Chairman Min to unleash a series of “secret ingredient” mandatory song elements supplied by an unidentified audience member. Add a shot of alcohol every nine minutes. Sprinkle with some perverse, potty-mouthed cheerleaders, a “peace” officer charged with checking IDs and immigration papers, and a “Turmoil Ark of Doom,” and you’ve got a recipe for Iron Composer, the latest dish in musical performance art lunacy to hit the Pacific Northwest.
Iron Composer is just one of the outrageous experiments in art and sound launched by the deviously genius minds of the members of Seattle School. Started in 2002 by founder Mike Min and members Korby Sears, Ben Hogue, Guy Whitmore and Erik Aho, Seattle School is a performance group interested in exploring sound and music in ways that don’t always mesh with the members’ day jobs as composers of commercial music, primarily for the video game industry. The group conceives and performs thought-provoking and often outrageous pieces of experimental art, based around themes of time, discipline and competition. They’ve taken on everything from an exploration of the Washington D.C. sniper attacks, in which School members performed competitive Karaoke on stage while Min shot at them with a paintball gun, to a lauded production of Grapefruits, an obscure 1960s piece by Yoko Ono.
The “60-Minute Live Songwriting Competition, Drinking Game and Aural Obstacle Course” of Iron Composer began shortly after the School’s brainiac brand of experimental composition and its popularity with the Seattle art and music crowd landed them a residency at the Capitol Hill Arts Center. The group was set to unveil a cabaret show called Madlib MaCabaret, which utilized the cooking and eating of raw meat, when they were informed that the Capitol Hill Arts Center (whose in-house restaurant was preparing to launch a new vegetarian menu) took issue with the use of flesh as art. Rather than compromise their vision to please their benefactor, the Seattle School decided to cancel Madlib MaCabaret and start from scratch to create a new piece for an opening night a mere three weeks away.
What they cooked up was part Iron Chef reality TV and part indie music show, spiced with frat house binge drinking and a pinch of crotch-flashing naughtiness. Iron Composer brings two musicians, usually drawn from the Seattle scene, together to compete in an hour-long songwriting showdown. Chairman Min (performed by Mike Min) orchestrates this circus of nightmarish creativity, which counts among its former victims such artists as Eddie Spaghetti of The Supersuckers, Jello Biafra, Wayne Kramer of MC5, and Kurt Bloch of The Fastbacks, just to name a few.
Each “duel” begins with Chairman Min selecting an audience member at random to be the “secret ingredient” for the evening’s challenge. The bewildered songwriters must base their songs on the information the Chairman gleans during his interview with this “secret ingredient.” Armed with only a single instrument and a pen and paper, the musicians begin the competition. A house band noodles nearby, but the songwriters may not interact with them directly, as this is the job of the Sous Chef Line Musician, who is described as a “silly bitch and telephone all in one.” Only the Sous Chef Line Musicians have access to the band; the songwriters must teach their songs to the Sous Chef, who in turn teaches them to the band in preparation for the songwriters’ performances at the end of the duel.
As if writing a song in front of a live audience weren’t enough pressure, the wannabe Iron Composers are also subjected to time constraints, utter chaos, and altered states of consciousness as they attempt to produce works of artistic genius. The competition is divided into five nine-minute rounds. During each segment, the ruthless Chairman Min, aided by his minion The Interloper (Korby Sears), releases a Turmoil designed to “distract, confuse, belittle, anger, cajole, saute, and conjugate the prissy-ass songwriters while they fecklessly attempt to write.” Turmoils, which are invented anew for each challenge and involve the audience in creating physical or aural roadblocks that use “bodies, actions, psychic energy, clothing or voice...to create a human tornado of chaos,” have included such torturous assaults as The Mamet Puppet Turmoil, the Lita Ford Cock Rock Turmoil, the Mystery Fatwa Turmoil, and the Buddy Holly Paper Airplane Turmoil (use your imagination). No one knows what the Turmoils will entail before they are unleashed, and the composers are left scrambling to deal with these obstacles as they attempt to finish their songs before the clock runs out.
As these devious hijinks ensue, everyone in the Songwriting Stadium (audience, cast and songwriters alike) must down a shot of liquor at the start of each round, for a total of five shots in forty-five minutes. Maybe not enough booze to induce alcohol poisoning, but it’s definitely sufficient to inebriate the songwriters, incite the audience to outlandish behavior, and inspire the creators of this too-sick-for-prime-time performance to buy “majority shares in puke bucket companies.”
Should the songwriters survive these harrowing distractions, each dons a chef’s uniform and performs his or her song with the house band at the close of the bout. Their creations are evaluated by a panel of three local celebrity judges (also tanked on five shots) who are responsible for crowning the next Iron Composer. Chemically altered perceptions notwithstanding, a winner is somehow declared, the liquor continues to flow, and the debauchery dances on long into the rainy Seattle night.
What may sound like a nightmare to some continues to draw the curious and enthusiastic to Iron Composer performances and has helped launch the Seattle School to the forefront of the city’s art and music scene. Min and crew were recently the reader-selected winners of the 2005 Seattle Weekly Music Awards in the Experimental category, and they also received a Stranger 2004 Genius Award from Seattle alterna-weekly The Stranger, which rewarded the School with a cake bearing the message “You’re a Genius!” and a promise of $5,000. The money should go a long way toward purchasing the pom-poms, vomit receptacles and kitchen aprons that make Iron Composer a game show-slash-gig-slash-art party like no other.
Iron Composer brings music, creative chaos and sloppy drunkenness to various Seattle area venues. Check out their Web site for upcoming battles at http://www.ironcomposer.com.