In 1994, the society was awarded a No. 1 rating as a “presenter of adventurous music” by Einstein’s Guide to the Musical Universe, a nationally recognized database. The SRLS Performance Series has brought a wide variety of artists to Chattanooga stages who might otherwise never perform here, including performance artists such as Laurie Anderson and the Shelley Hirsch, independent rock artists such as Olivia Tremor Control, Cat Power and David Pajo, and multicultural music such as the Tibetan Monks of the Drepung Loseling Institute and Djalma.
Funded locally by a grant from Allied Arts of Greater Chattanooga, SRLS has also been supported by a variety of arts organizations supporting their projects. The society’s community involvement is not limited to performance, documentation and production, but also offers educational programs in area schools. Many of the society’s guest artists hold workshops for students on jazz instrumentation, composition and improvisation.
In the classroom, the Shaking Ray Levi duo directly involve the students in designing, discovering and playing musical instruments. Their curriculum is multi-disciplinary in nature, created with the goal of helping students to develop valuable skills such as problem solving, group cooperation, active listening and effective use of available resources.
With sonic sounds and an expert, tasteful, yet wildly executed improvisational format, Palmer has compared their music to the paranormal phenomenon.
“It’s a journey into the unknown,” he said “Music is a very intense form of communication that accepts diversity.”
The Shaking Ray duo’s musical stylings can best be described as non-idiomatic. This term describes an improvisational form of music which follows no written rules of music theory. The idea is about what is presented by the musicians in the moment of performance. They just start playing something—anything—and journey into the realm of the often unchartered bounds of music.
The duo record on the Incus Records label, the oldest musician-run record label in Great Britain. Founded in 1970 by legendary improvisational guitarist and free-form music pioneer, Derek Bailey, the label has garnered a prestigious reputation among experimental musicians.
“We were knocked out when we found out the Incus records was interested in us,” recalled Palmer.
Palmer’s experience with the band has brought him some memorable moments in his career as a musician.
“I’ve been incredibly fortunate to play with some great musicians,” he said. “We played with [improvisational saxophonist] Jack Wright last month, and we haven’t played with him in 20 years or so—and it was incredibly magical. There was this amazing energy and excitement about the unknown.”
While the duo have traveled the world, Palmer and Stagner still call Chattanooga home.
“I have no interest in living anywhere else,” Palmer said. “The arts scene here has really improved. You can find any kind of music here, and that’s unusual for a lot of cities. But now, the whole musical gamut is covered in Chattanooga.”
While the society has become a well-known and much-lauded element of Chattanooga’s arts community, many still have one question: Who is Shaking Ray?
“We created the band’s name after a folk hero we made up that was along the lines of Johnny Appleseed,” Stagner said. “Shaking Ray was a guy who spread music and told stories about heat lightning and hoop snakes. The name has a lot of shelf life. The British thought we were a Hasidic Jewish society, and the Japanese thought we were rockabilly!”
Stagner’s interest in music began when he was 10 years old and got his first guitar. The guitar was cheap and very difficult to play so he started bouncing pencils off it, in the way one might play a hammer dulcimer. The rhythms he produced prompted a suggestion and an epiphany the led to Stagner’s transition to percussion.