The International Street Cannibals' Spicy Chamber Music

I was expecting something unpredictable early in 2007, when I made my way to Gleason's Gym in Brooklyn to watch the iconoclastic classical musicians and composers known as the International Street Cannibals mix it up with some young boxers. I'd been invited to a show in a series called "STRIKE" (see video and review) by Cannibals co-founder Dan Wotan "Lefty" Barrett, a brilliant and driven cellist, composer, and conductor who would be performing under a garish red fez, grinning in wild plastic glasses.

The opening act gave this unrepentant rock aficionado chills.

I arrived to find a slender woman holding an eight-foot Alpine horn in a boxing ring. As lights dimmed, Ann Ellsworth embarked on a haunting debut performance of something called Still Unvanquished: Her wooden horn followed a score by composer (and ISC co-founder) Gene Pritsker to contend with a composition of electronically charged samples of a track she had previously recorded for him.

The result wasn't as complicated as it sounds. Meticulously planned and executed, the piece was as fresh and exalted as Alpine air. It turns out to have been merely 1 of 386 original compositions the Russian-born Pritsker has written since 1990. His work has been performed all over the world by organization such as the Berlin Philharmonic and Adelaide Symphony. (Pritsker has also orchestrated Hollywood movies, including Perfume.)

I've since watched almost a dozen performances by the Cannibals, a bold gang of seasoned chamber musicians, dancers, singers, and composers who will inaugurate their 2010-11 season on Wednesday, Oct. 20, at St. Mark's in-the-Bowery. "Telemarketing Telemann" will explore the works of Georg Philipp Telemann, a self-taught baroque composer who once outshone Bach and Handel.

"He was a cuckold who could never be what Bach was, but who was chosen first for the big gig Bach wanted," explains Barrett, who co-directs the Cannibals, playing a central role in designing each show. "We always start from a kind of impulse, a phrase that can set us off -- it's a ritual of trying to locate something, define a phenomenon."

"Telemarketing Telemann" will offer a stronger-than-usual narrative thread embodied in Anya Migdal's performance as a "hapless' telemarketer trying to sell Telemann's baroque works to hyperactive New Yorkers.

As always, the show will present original compositions, too. Making its debut will be Trio for two violins and viola, composed by co-director Pritsker - an avowed "genre-bender" who plays a fierce guitar that ranges from ethereal jazz warbling to strokes of metal. (See him rap and play in this performance of Luck from his renowned Sound Liberation ensemble [review here], which includes a number of Cannibals.) Co-director Dan Cooper, a leading 7-string bass player who has performed much with Ute Lemper, will offer his Plural of Blue, delivered (as in this video) by pianists Taka Kigawa and Dimiti Dover.

Telemann will be honored with bold ensemble interpretations and in quieter solos from Kigawa and violinist Lynn Bechtold. There will be plenty of dancing, too: accents in various pieces from Megan Sipe and her Dancing Fish Productions ensemble; belly dancing with superb discipline and focus by Amanda Mottur; and creative break dancing from Franklin Chen, as in Kigawa's splendid performance of Stravinsky's Petrushka for "Desperately Seeking Igor" last May (video here).

It regularly adds up to a brisk series of performances that are creatively designed and rigorously executed in a flow that respects a contemporary audience's limited attention span. Stately orchestrations can be spiced with novel instrumentation and/or ancillary performances that seek to unearth what Barrett calls the composer's "essential text."

"They give me a wider perspective in terms of music repertoire and in terms of being a performer," says Kigawa, who consistently awes critics with his mastery of the most difficult texts. (But watch for the amusing exchange with the rock musician at the end of this rave review of Kigawa's recent packed show at Le Poissson Rouge.) "I get a wider point of view, with unique, original, and creative things. These concerts are events. It seems like a lot of fun, but these guys are very serious. And Dan Barrett allows me to do anything I want."

Pritsker concurs. "Cannibal concerts are great because we can do whatever we want and I can premier old things I wrote." He reckons that one-fourth of his compositions have yet to be performed publicly. "Classical music should be more eclectic, mixed up with genres and styles," says Pritsker. "The genre doesn't matter to us, as long as it's good. "

He and Barrett met 20 years ago at Manhattan School of Music and went on to stage a performance series called "Bohemia Unlimited" at a tiny Iraqi restaurant uptown. "We'd get about 70 people with just three tables, for speeches and medieval Arabic instruments, puppet shows, pretty nutty-ass stuff," recalls Barrett. "Gene would cook up chicken roti and for $8 you'd get a glass of wine, dinner, and the show."

The Cannibals, it happens, are much about eating. (Sunday afternoon shows at St. Mark's used to end with bring-your-own chow.) At the high end, the group's name was inspired by Barrett's reading of Montaigne's 1850 essay, Of Cannibals. On the other hand, says Barrett: "I always felt there's got to be food. You've got to have food in ritual," he says. "It's about commonality of intake, a nurturing thing. Our first "STRIKE" had Middle Eastern food, like the Navaho roundhouse."

Indeed, an occasional series of lively collaborative gigs with the likes of longtime Defunkt trumpeter John Mulkerin at the Parkside Lounge still feature a bin of hot chicken legs at the break. "We do all this as a meal," Barrett concludes. "I always say: 'Make the flyer a little edible.'