It is a concert in a cinema, of music you have to see to believe.
Thomas Bonvalet, one member of the improve rock trio Powerdove, starts the Dec. 5 show by mounting the stage in his socks. Then, as the lights of the old movie theater in the basement of Cornell’s Willard Straight Hall go down, he puts on his shoes.
Heavy shoes with thick metal soles, reinforced with duct tape: Thomas wears his instrument. In fact, he is his instrument; as the first song begins, he stamps, claps, blows into a pipe, slaps his knees, looks like a holy fool, a mourner, a man in a religious fervor.
The heavy shoes beat a rhythm like wheels on a track.
Then the voice arrives: Annie Lewandowski, singing her minimal—almost skeletal—lyrics in her simple, clear voice:
When you’re near
I grow steady
You make me steady
We can’t see her. She is singing off stage, with her pedal effects set up to silence the instruments as soon as her voice appears.
in my dreaming
we were stealing
your sweet kisses
when you’re near
The words cut through the improvised instrumentals like a wind through a coat—but the wind is not necessarily cold.
“People say it’s sort of childlike,” Annie said of her voice a month after the concert. No vibrato, breathy—this is a sound she’s cultivated. A classically-trained pianist who teaches at Cornell, Annie has taken only enough voice to learn breath control, on purpose.
“I think there’s a kind of a jaggedness,” she said, “A harshness makes it more alive.”
In many ways, Powerdove is Annie’s voice. Started as a solo recording project, the band has gone through a few evolutions and now is a trio: Annie, Thomas, and John. Still, Annie’s voice is the definition of Powerdove: “If I’m singing,” she told me, “that’s what it is.”
And now she’s singing on the cinema stage. Eyes closed, softly, a few words at a time, her accordion almost forgotten in her hands.
In the middle, there’s John. The guitarist, the one who reminds us Powerdove is often classified as rock music, with a strong element of experiment and improvisation.
People who hear them live remark on how independent the three musicians are, playing live together, “like three different soundworlds happening at the same time,” John said.
The group maintains a long-distance alliance, with John living in New Mexico, Thomas in Spain, and Annie in upstate, New York. In 2012, they recorded an album, Do You Burn? in five intense days. They recorded again last July, for an album set to release in September.
They have to really focused when they get together, said John. “We're always on the edge, which I like, to be honest. Most of my favorite music has this sense of the unknown hiding just round the corner.”
Any live performance has an element of the unknown. Any live performance asks for a bit of improvisation, even for those, like Powerdove, who expect to improvise.
On the stage opposite Annie, Thomas changes instruments. He taps a counter service bell, plays a banjo like a drum, slaps his thigh hard enough to raise a welt.
Body drumming, Thomas told me, is his main musical activity. “Sometimes I don’t play any instruments for a month,” he said, “but I still do body drumming.”
In another song, he sets two metronomes up to tap a syncopated largo rhythm at each other, then finally, he sits still, spent, watching the metronomes keep the beat, like a kid watching ants in the grass.
Powerdove’s music leaves room for visual re-imagining. During the performance, the cinema screen is not dark for long. After one set of music, the band moves to the side and Cornell Cinema screens three Powerdove music videos, one of them an animation. The live band plays along with their own recording on film, doubling themselves, improvisation upon improvisation.
Being from three cities on two continents, Powerdove doesn’t get to play much together, and the Cornell Cinema show was especially special, Annie said afterward, because of the films, and because, coming at the end of a two week tour, it was their last performance before many months apart.
And then there was the mysterious banging which chimed in halfway through the show.
“I have a strong memory of what sounded like somebody repeatedly hitting an anvil with a sledgehammer somewhere backstage,” said John.
Annie heard it, too. “It was changing our timing on everything. There was some sort of rhythm to it.”
It was the heat turning on in the old building, an ancient radiator. I can imagine Thomas playing one in their next show.