Silver Ochre’s road video gets to the heart of America.
Thollem McDonas and partner Angela C. Villa have been on the road together, on and off, for over a decade. It was around seven years ago that I first learned of Thollem, the local avant-garde music scene was buzzing when he came to town. He was like a myth, touring nonstop for years. He’d arrive some place, play several shows, in any room, on any keyboard, and then split to the next town.
Angela (aka ACVilla) is videographer for their collaborative moniker, Silver Ochre, and their new Vimeo series Who Are U.S. takes us on the road, through their lens. I last saw them in June at Disjecta, during the Improvisation Summit. They showed me their “mortgage,” a brand new van. It was amazing how they managed to convert that box of a mini-minivan into a viable sleep pod. Enough storage for a keyboard, camera, and the necessities remained. While accommodations are typically prepared for them, the pod is undeniably convenient.
The work comes out of a process which includes a nationwide tour through all 48 continental United States. Villa screens newly captured video while Thollem improvises music. The resultant video selections are combined with audio recordings and edited together to produce the episodic series called Who Are U.S.
The open road is their mutual partner. The series explores the American identity, elections, and vaguely patriotism. We do not see Thollem, or Villa, just America. They don’t caption the locations, so it keeps you guessing what city you may be in from clip to clip. Each place blurs into the other, as I would imagine a decade of life on the road would. When you aren’t a New Yorker, or Portlander, or whatever, then who are you? This is where Silver Ochre comes from. It hopes to demonstrate a lack of division, a more complete sense of identity through the other.
I have only visited eleven major cities, in my life. I have always cherished the small places in between the big places, and the lens of Silver Ochre manages to capture all of it. The camcorder footage is raw. It shows the irregularities, the ironies. You see stories in the details of the scenery. You see the invisible people, those we never elect to watch. It pays attention to mundanity, architecture, personality, and the simple miracles of daily life.
Thollem’s playing is unhinged. He is one of the strangest players I’ve known, in every way, and I think he’s channeling both Sun Ra and Dead Kennedys — Bernstein and John Cage (all American artists). His versatility and originality puts him into another category, perhaps all to his own. He is Thollem, on the road, himself on a new keyboard that can reproduce endless combinations of instruments and noises that allow him to go far out, stay minimal, play punchy rhythms, and singing melodies.
Some of my favorite moments are his variations on The Blues, because The Blues is America. His progressions are naturally more aggressive and outside the constraints of the 12-bar standard, but he definitely refers back to The Blues frequently with the kind of riffing that only Thollem would execute.
I watched “Distillations 1-4” followed by their latest, “Episode 5.” The distillations grab about 15 minutes from each episode. Five out of seven episodes have been released, each one about forty minutes. Who Are U.S. will end up around 400 minutes long.
As if on their own campaign trail, their adventure will end on November 8, 2016 (voting day). Two more episodes and a final feature-length distillation will be released. Screenings of it will be taking place in Sacramento and Albuquerque. Visit Silver Ochre via the links below for full details.
You can also see numerous bonus videos from the tour, plus unrelated material including interviews with Terry Riley, Bob Ostertag, visual art exhibits, and more, for free, on their official Vimeo.
Details of this article were augmented for clarification, including project duration and purpose, as well as the name brand of the van, at the request of Silver Ochre.