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Composer Joseph Waters brings Swarmius, police whistles to Cornelia Street Cafe

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Joseph Waters poses a rhetorical question in advance of his “trans-classical” group Swarmius’s Sunday night (Feb. 9) show at Cornelia Street Cafe: “What kind of music would Mozart make today if he were living on a beach in Southern California?”

“It’s not to compare our music to Mozart’s. That’s asking for trouble!” explains Waters, by day a professor of music composition and computer music at San Diego State University.

“But this is a guy who was a creature of his times,” he lectures. “Not high and mighty, pompous or pretentious, but elegant in a very natural, limpid way. He drew from the folk music around him, and The Magic Flute, one of his greatest pieces, was premiered in a bar, actually--a public house in Austria where people go after work to have a drink. It was more like musical theater than opera--not like high art but connecting with people. And of course, the music was utterly gorgeous--but it didn't wear a halo.”

In creating Swarmius (the whimsical Latinized band name, he says, has undercurrents of “social protest and outrage" reflecting his divergence from the “conservative classical faction in San Diego”), Waters endeavored to create classical music that “connects to who we are now.”

“A multicultural, complicated mix-up of cultures—that’s really our world today,” he explains. “I’m very curious about it, and it seems both appropriate and fun to try and come up with music without any strictures—and not in any pretentious way.”

Waters’ enormously complex compositions require musicians of the highest order.

“You have to be a world-class virtuoso player to even think about playing this stuff--and that’s really limiting,” says Waters, “plus you have to be available, and love my music enough to play for next to nothing! I’m really fortunate to have people who are willing and able to do that.”

At Cornelia Street, Waters (band name: Jozefius Rattus) will field a quartet consisting of himself, conducting and triggering electronic tracks from a laptop; alto saxophonist Todd Rewoldt (Saximus), who is an associate professor of music at San Diego State; soprano saxophonist Michael Couper (Schrödinger’s Sax, named after the famous Schrödinger’s Cat paradox developed by quantum mechanics theorist Erwin Schrödinger), who has studied with Rewoldt; and vibraphonist Andrew Kreysa, (Augustus Marimbus), who plays “all kinds of stuff” also including marimba, “but dragging a five-octave marimba into Cornelia Street Café in New York’s not going to happen!”

Both Couper and Kreysa are new additions to the Swarmius team, “hot young players who are willing to work their asses off learning my insanely difficult music,” says Waters.

“What’s happening is that it’s expanding,” he adds. “No one’s been kicked out, but some musicians are more available then others at certain times.”

In fact, the San Diego core Swarmius group (founding members Felix Olschofka, on violin, and percussionist Joe Bluestone, are still very active but live in Dallas and Portland respectively, while tabla master Justin DeHart lives in Los Angeles) has recently become a quintet, also featuring award-winning harpist Sarah Davis Draper, who couldn’t make it to the New York gig.

“The only jobs for harpists are weddings or subbing with orchestras once in a while—and playing two plunks when angels are supposed to come through the clouds!” notes Waters, whose Cornelia Street set will feature classic Swarmius repertoire rewritten for the occasion—titles including “Grand Larceny” (“it’s based on speed metal”), the dubstep based “Amphibious Dub,” “Electric Blood” (“Brazilian jazz mixed with deep house”) and “Vampyr” (characterized by the composer as Eastern European/Transylvanian).

He’ll also revisit ”Cali’ Karsilama,” which employs a gypsy/belly dancing/klezmer rhythm.

“I wanted to see if there was music anywhere in the world that was hardwired about sex, and thought maybe I’d look into belly dancing,” says Waters. “I found a wonderful piece on YouTube: The belly dancing wasn’t that great, but the tune was really interesting. It missed a beat every other measure and knocked you off your feet--like having a crush on someone where you can’t think straight.”

And Swarmius will dust off “Dragon,” a mix, says Waters, of J-pop, video games, Lady Gaga, Charlie Parker, George Gershwin and the late Italian experimental/electronica composer Luciano Berio. The tune incidentally, has been covered by Bill Perconti and the Alloy Saxophone Quartet, who used it as their album titletrack last year.

Waters will also perform three new acoustic tone poems at Cornelia Street, which focus on “melody, gesture and simple expressiveness, in contrast to the overwhelming stuff,” and together make up the digital mini-CD Swarmius In Starlight.

“Icicles In Starlight," he says, “is Japanese Impressionism--Bill Evans meets [late Japanese composer] Takemitsu. A surrealistic landscape of shimmering ice crystals.”

"Snowflakes In Starlight" depicts “new, soft, early winter snow” in the context of “European folk, like the Beatles’ ‘Blackbird.’"

"Aurora In Starlight" is “a virtuosic duet for soprano sax and vibraphone--a dance of rapidly cascading harmonies, like the scintillating glow of the aurora borealis on a moonless night in the Arctic Circle.”

“They’re all about winter,” says Waters, “though I’m sure no one in New York could give a s--t about winter!”

He’ll close with “Amphibious Dub,” for which he passes out police whistles for audience participation.

“The sound of just one is overwhelming,” he says, “and we’ll undoubtedly shake the rafters at the Cornelia Street Café!”

Meanwhile, Waters is gearing up for his annual NEAMO (New West Electronic Arts and Music Organization, formerly called Northwest Electro-Acoustic Music Organization) Festival, to be held this year in San Diego March 22 and 23.

“I always write new music for it, and I’m premiering pieces with vocal tracks and lyrics about dying--not in a morbid sense, but about having to let go,” he says. “And now we’re doing things that are not electronic, so I think it needs to become New West Evolving Arts and Music Organization! The festival changes every year, and every year I need to discover what it will be. That makes it very difficult and very exciting for me.”

Waters is especially excited about premiering his new “Raccoons In The Pool,” which he recorded underwater in his swimming pool using an underwater violin played by his son Rafael Zamir Waters and created by Swedish inventor Johan Lingegård, who calls it "the Golden Cicada."

“Raf is an artist-scientist-engineer whose day job is professor of electrical engineering at the Angström Institute at Uppsala University in Sweden,” says Waters. “But he’s also a violinist who plays Swedish folk music and sings in a big men’s choir. I’ve been talking forever about wanting to write music for instruments played underwater, and he sent me a picture of an underwater violin and I thought it was a joke. Then he came to visit over Christmas and brought it.”

So Waters used microphones designed for recording dolphins and whales in recording Raf and “Raccoons In The Pool.”

[The Examiner was a fan of Joseph Waters' James Madison Memorial High School band Spindlebean.]

Subscribe to my examiner.com pages and follow me on Twitter @JimBessman!

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