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Folklife Preview: Orkestar Zirkonium’s Balkan Brass

Posted by May 22nd, 2008 No Comments »

By Milo Anderson

We can assume that many unusual and surprising things happened on Capitol Hill last Halloween. Even if bombs had dropped from the sky, though, it probably could not have overshadowed Orkestar Zirkonium, a 14-piece brass marching band, playing the strange, sad, yet frenetic music of Southeast Europe’s Roma to people out in the streets that night.

Marching down 12th Avenue from Cal Anderson Park, the percussion rattling and the tuba adding inertia with syncopated bass lines, the band paused outside True Value Hardware, had “a rousing time” in The Wild Rose, the famous Capitol Hill lesbian bar, and stormed down the aisles of QFC before the night was over.

“You can imagine what people thought,” said Kevin Hinshaw, clarinetist and founding member. “Not just a 14-piece marching band, but 40 strange people following us—who then paraded through the produce aisle and back out the door.”

What the shoppers heard that night was music dating back to the Ottoman Empire, which ruled the Balkan Peninsula from the middle ages until the 19th century.

Stephen Lohrentz, a trumpet player in the group who has studied the music’s history, said the military bands of the Ottomans sought to imitate the pomp of Western military powers. From there, the music’s history gets more confusing.

“It all seems pretty mixed up throughout the region,” said Lohrentz, adding he wasn’t sure exactly how the Roma, or Gypsies as they are still sometimes called, spread the music and influenced its sound.

Now the Balkan brass-band tradition can boast a Seattle influence as well. Hinshaw said as much as one-third of the music the band plays is composed by its members. Much of the rest they transcribe and arrange as well.

According to the band’s Web site, the name “Orkestar Zirkonium” combines the word for “orchestra” in many Slavic languages with the idea of a low-cost diamond substitute. “In reference to our fundamental fakery,” the site reads. “Sadly, no one in the group hails from the Balkans.”

The group does have deep roots in Seattle, however. Sari Breznau, one of the band’s percussionists, said she knew Hinshaw from another group, Circus Contraption. That group also included Colin Ernst, trombone, and Matt Manges, percussion, both of whom wound up in Orkestar Zirkonium.

“A couple folks in the group had unearthed this music,” Hinshaw said. This gave him the idea to put together a Balkans brass band for the Fremont Solstice Pageant in 2003.

Breznau said she put out an “open call” for musicians, eventually recruiting from established Seattle musical groups such as the Infernal Noise Brigade, the Degenerate Art Ensemble and the Fremont Philharmonic, among others.

Breznau, who earned a degree in music from Western Washington University and has worked primarily as a choir director since, said although some members of Orkestar Zirkonium are trained, professional musicians, most developed their talents in community bands and orchestras.

A core group of musicians has taken the band this far, but the group actually functions democratically during rehearsals, which is unusual for a band this size.

“I don’t feel there’s any real leader, which has its pros and cons,” Hinshaw said, adding that many decisions require a vote.

At a recent rehearsal, however, most decisions seemed to be handled quickly, by consensus, as band members offered suggestions to polish their repertoire in advance of a recording session in December. Orkestar Zirkonium has booked time at Jack Straw Productions and will be recording a full album of music.

But the band still seems to have a special affinity for their live outdoor performances, or “pub crawls.”

“It’s our natural setting,” Hinshaw said. “People get so excited. That’s what we like about the pub crawls.”

Arguably, a little too excited. The night of their Halloween performance, police arrived to disperse the crowd and quell the ruckus just as Orkestar Zirkonium was slipping away.

“We chose to exit stage left at just the right time,” Hinshaw said.

Orkestar Zirkonium play the Northwest Folklife Festival at Seattle Center on Sunday, May 25.

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