Former Grateful Dead members have spawned such groups as Further, The Rhythm Devils and New Riders of the Purple Sage, but the most radically exploratory ensemble to emerge from this psychedelic-infused gene pool is the keyboardist duo Dose Hermanos.
Dose Hermanos jump-starts this year’s 10-day Festival of New American Music at CSUS during its gala concert Friday, Nov. 6, along with Caballito Negro (flutist Tessa Brickman and percussionist-Sac State alumnus Terry Longshore) and baritone-Sac State alumnus Eugene Villanueva. Dose Hermanos also performs in its concert Sunday, Nov. 8. The festival, known as FeNAM, continues in venues across Sacramento through Sunday, Nov. 15.
“We try to mix it up,” said festival co-director Stephen Blumberg, “and represent many different styles, ensembles, composers, soloists. It’s mostly contemporary classical music, but that is pretty hard to define. We usually have some jazz and some unclassifiable (artists) like Dose Hermanos. Those guys are former members of the Grateful Dead but (they’re) classically trained pianists and composers, so their influences run the full gamut from avant garde, jazz, rock, the whole thing.”
Tom (T.C.) Constanten and Bob Bralove have improvised together for nearly 20 years. Constanten performed with the Dead from 1968-70 and studied under avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. Bralove worked sound design for Stevie Wonder and wore multiple Dead hats from 1987-1995 as sound technician, writer, producer and MIDI effects wizard for the Dead’s live Drums and Space segments.
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Constanten lives in Charlotte, N.C., and Bralove in San Francisco. A recent conference call was just as sportive as their double-entendre band moniker. Topics ranged from Alka Seltzer bubbles to Richard Strauss’ opera “Ariadne auf Naxos” and the philosophy of Japanese tea ceremony master Sen no Rikyu. And the duo talked about an integrated “dose” of sound and physical gestures across the keyboards that transcends specific notes and rhythm, and manifests a satellite-level of consciousness.
Bralove played with guitarist Henry Kaiser in 1995 in the band Second Sight, and Kaiser suggested Constanten also sit in. “When we got together, sparks flew,” said Bralove. “That was the initial connection. We were both at (Jerry) Garcia’s funeral, which was an incredibly sad event. Tom looked at me at one point and said, ‘You now how to get through this, don’t you? ‘And I said no, not really. And he said: ‘Play. You play through this.’ So I called him up, and we started playing.”
The pair has since been touring and recording, and their appearance here will embrace the same sonic freedom, conversations, humor, arguments and controlled chaos of their 2014 first fully acoustic piano album, “Batique.”
They asked that their acoustic pianos face each other. “I know that when I look up and see a twinkle in Tom’s eye,” said Brahove, “it’s total permission: ‘Go anywhere you want. I am with you.’ I think he feels the same way.”
“I would hasten to agree,” said Constanten. “We are coherent but not congruent. We have a lot of overlapping musical experience but in some ways have our own path we’ve explored, and that opens up a new dimension. It could be something that I don’t see the sense of right away, but I go anyway because I know I will.”
“We are open to any influences,” said Bralove. “That’s one of the things that for me is a great influence from the Grateful Dead. In an evening you might have a country song, a Nigerian rhythm, rock ’n’ roll, and all kinds of ballads, but you could go all over the world and be influenced by all sorts of things. Jerry (Garcia) or Phil (Lesh) might quote some classical piece. So I think we took that approach too. There’s no value judgment about what could influence you. It might be a commercial. It might be funny. Or it could be grand opera. Or doo-wop energy. It’s all grist for the mill.”
One time backstage, the duo came up with the title “Stravinsky Plays Sesame Street” and then went out and followed the concept where it went. Sometimes they ask the audience to provide a title.
At the gala they will perform “Cross Currents,” which Blumberg composed for them. The two use the same score but progress at their own pace so that they are intentionally out of sync, ebbing and flowing like the currents in a river.
“I wanted to write something that leaves a lot of room for them to play more freely,” said Blumberg, “and thought they would probably improvise beyond that. I’m waiting to see what they do to it.”
In other words, expect the unexpected.
Festival of New American Music
What: Contemporary classical music and beyond in a variety of styles and ensembles
When: Nov. 6-15, various times; gala kickoff performance 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 6; for detailed lineup: www.csus.edu/music/fenam/schedule.htm
Where: Venues are spread among the CSU Sacramento campus, Crocker Art Museum, McClatchy and Rio Americano high schools, Natomas Charter School and Sacramento City College; evening concerts will be live-streamed.
Cost: Free concerts, but there may be charges for museum admission and parking
Information: www.csus.edu/music/fenam/; 916-278-5191