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Cover Story: Out of Bounds

COBRA Ensemble finds a local audience for its progressive, improvisational sound

By Steve Aust · May 27th, 1999 · Cover Story

For some, the COBRA Ensemble is music. For others, it's an amusing novelty. For still others, it's sheer auditory chaos. The opinions on the Cincinnati ensemble may vary wildly, which Nathan Fuhr, COBRA's founder and "instigator" (a quite apropos title he dons as ensemble leader) concedes is inevitable with their style of music.

"Our sound is very left of center and will seem bizarre to some," Fuhr said. "This music is not meant for mass consumption."

COBRA is a musical concept pioneered by New York composer John Zorn, whose work has varied from writing movie scores to more conventional classical compositions. Fuhr exudes a tremendous amount of passion for Zorn and COBRA, the music of which is the focal point of the Ensemble.

"To someone who doesn't get COBRA, it seems like a bunch of people on a stage just making noise," he said. "There have been some poor attempts at COBRA that ended up in chaos. I was very careful in selecting musicians for the ensemble.

"Talent is very important, but I was looking for more than that," Fuhr explained. "To play in this group, it's very important to be innovative and uninhibited with music. If someone in the group had too narrow a view of COBRA, they would kill a performance."

The band has an eclectic mix of instruments, depending on which players are present at a given show. Typically, there are anywhere from eight to 13 players, the core members being Mike Barnhardt on alto sax, Jack Broad on electric guitar, Andrea Foster on vocals, Tony Franklin on drums, Paul Hogan on keyboards and sampler, Adam Petty on cello, David Layman on trombone and Brian Schwab on trumpet. The group's background is diverse; some have Jazz leanings, some a Classical background, others Rock & Roll.

At present, the only cities in the world with COBRA ensembles are San Francisco, Seattle, Tokyo and Cincinnati. The Queen City's conservative moorings make it ripe for COBRA-style music, Barnhardt said.

"In a city like New York or Los Angeles, where everything's been done, people would be blasé towards something like COBRA," he said. "To me, the fact that Cincinnati is so conservative leads to an equal and opposite reaction, where people are more eager to listen to something more unusual."

As the show starts, Fuhr is sitting at a table and facing the performers, with numerous cards lying across the table face down.

Fuhr seems perhaps more like a surreal blackjack dealer than a conductor. The cards are marked with letters, numbers and symbols, signaling a variety of tempo and musical changes. Fuhr is reticent about their meanings.

"I don't want the audience to be focused on what's on the cards," he said. "While it may be an amusing aside, I don't want them to be a distraction."

At times, the band cruises in Jazz mode, with Schwab and Franklin resembling a Donald Byrd/Jack DeJohnette duo. Vocalist Andrea Foster's ethereal, nonsensical warbling evokes thoughts of martinis and mood lighting (read: Lounge). Just when the audience is lulled into a mellow vibe, Franklin ratchets up the tempo and the ensemble goes from avant-lounge to ... well, angels may fear to tread there.

While Fuhr is the conductor (in a loose sense of the term), COBRA is a democratic entity. When one or more members wants to do a "guerrilla" -- or ad-libbed -- interlude, they put on a bandanna and proceed (it has to be seen to be understood). At any given time, there could be a soloist, duo or trio performing aside from the group, or -- arguably when COBRA is at its most engaging -- there is a musical merry-go-round, when each player in turn makes whatever sound he or she wishes to make at the given time.

Foster, who in her non-musical life is an administrator at an area preschool, agreed.

"This is the only kind of music I could ever do," she said. "I love that it's completely unstructured, and that you can put into any part of yourself that you want to."

Hogan, a recent CCM graduate and also a member of Ray's Music Exchange, made his COBRA debut at an April Southgate House performance. He characterized it as a "liberating experience."

"I was really nervous (because) I've never performed in a forum quite like this before," Hogan said. "It's kind of scary, but I had fun with it, and I'm excited about doing it again."

When Fuhr founded COBRA, he only intended one performance. After getting raves from the audience, however, they decided to continue. He recalled an autumn performance at DV8 as an experience that galvanized the band.

"It was a more intimate setting than we expected," he said. "The crowd was very into it, almost to the extent that it was scary. It made everyone in the group very excited, and we decided to make a significant commitment to the group."

As the band has remained together for several months, they have begun to demonstrate their versatility. At their most recent performance, a May 16 show at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Newport, the band augmented their set with a Renaissance motet. Hogan, Petty and flutist Zsolt Strajber performed "De profundis clamavi," a piece by Renaissance composer Josquin des Prez. Ann Chiaverini, a CCM dance student, did improvisational movements to the music.

"Ann danced as part of an ensemble cast for a CCM production for which COBRA created the music," Fuhr said. "I looked at the way she danced, and knew she was the one."

"I tried to match my movements to the mood of the music," Chiaverini said. "I love to dance. I love Renaissance music. I was very excited to be a part of this."

The audience, a mostly older crowd, seemed somewhat confused by COBRA's music. Jennifer Kelley-Thierman, minister of music at St. Paul's, perhaps most aptly summed up the best way to approach COBRA: "The music is meant to be enjoyed, not necessarily understood," she surmised.

Fuhr, a student at CCM, will soon be an honors graduate with his bachelor degree in orchestral conducting. He has conducted the works of Beethoven, Dvorak and several others. COBRA complements Fuhr's more conventional oeuvres, he said.

"I enjoy both aspects of composing," he said. "But what I get from COBRA is a tremendously liberating feeling. There are very few musical arenas where one receives that kind of autonomy, and I feel very fortunate to have it."

COBRA's next gig will be June 4 at the Southgate House, when they play host to MUSICIRCUS, where 18 different musical groups will simultaneously converge at midnight for an hour of music. When MUSICIRCUS concludes, the ensemble will play a set.

Fuhr will probably take the position of associate conductor with the Colorado Symphony upon graduation. He would, however, like to maintain COBRA, he said.

Comparisons to COBRA can be infinite. To those familiar with Zorn, a correlation is more readily made. To those who aren't -- 99 percent of the population, in other words -- inflections of Esquivel, Sun Ra's Arkestra or later Coltrane are not much of a stretch. When they rock out, thoughts roam to Anthrax's "I'm the Man," minus the lewdness. There are no recordings of the band except bootlegs the group and friends have made themselves. That's probably a good thing, because it would be virtually impossible to replicate the energy and pathos of a live show.

Three words: Go see them.



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