Burmese Days: Caged
by Bob Moses
Despite the gravitational pull Mission of Burma exerted on a generation of post-punk bands, they didn’t leave a thousand sound-alike bands in their wake. Sure, some seeds sprouted from the landscape: the dense attack of Husker Du, the harmonic complexity of Sonic Youth, the melodic, furious pop of Yo La Tengo, even R.E.M. saluting the anthemic “Academy Fight Song.” But unlike the old wheeze about everyone who saw the Velvet Underground starting a band (emulating their raw beauty or deadly cool), the Burma sound wasn’t replicated by bands picking up the flag they dropped. Perhaps because on any given night, Burma didn’t replicate a Burma “sound.”
Well, let’s just say there was never a specific, definitive performance of any particular song. This wasn’t a failure of musicianship or discipline. But rarely has a band been so resolutely committed to the high-wire art of chance. That meant, at least early on, that the audience had about an equal chance of leaving thoroughly exhilarated or suffering from vertigo.
The primary provocateurs in this case were Martin Swope and Roger Miller. The addition of Martin and the tape loops he created in the moment, and fed back into the sound system, meant that every performance would be different, and different on a basic level beyond the vagaries of nightly inspiration. Would a song be denser or more direct? Would he sample a recognizable vocal or one of Peter’s yelps? Would it run backward or forward? The band onstage often had little idea of what the audience experienced at Martin’s hands, ceding control over important aspects of the performance to an unseen force back at the board.
Roger employed the guitar as a random sound generator as well as a melodic tool, wringing feedback and chopping rhythm from the strings. While an accomplished feedback surfer, the sound of an overdriven amp is never wholly predictable, and the sheer volume created different overtones and echoes depending on the size and shape of the room. Even when he was playing conventionally, the chords or melodic lines were hardly conventional. I asked him once about what chord he was playing in a song. He replied that it was a “hand chord,” meaning that wherever and in whatever shape his hand fell on the fretboard, that was the chord. While I’m certain that he knew and had practiced the result, Roger has always been willing to allow the possibility of the moment to inform the performance.
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