Shaking Ray LevisDennis Palmer and Bob Stagner of the Shaking Ray Levis.Photo by Lesha Patterson
Dennis Palmer is a man whose love of music goes well beyond music itself. He just loves sounds—any kind of sound. As a child, he would order animal calls from his father’s hunting magazines. Duck calls, crow calls, predator calls, even squirrel calls, and they are still used in his performances to this day. When he was young, the Chattanooga native began to tinker with his aunt’s piano as well. This love of sound, sound effects and music eventually led him to purchase a Moog synthesizer and put a band together with a friend he had known since the first grade, percussionist Bob Stagner. That partnership eventually led to the Shaking Ray Levi Society, a collective-run nonprofit that supports, produces and presents diverse genres of music, film and performance art through festivals, recordings and the Internet, still going strong after 25 years. But be warned, Palmers says: “If you do not like listening to bird songs, you will probably not like our music.”
One reviewer described the Shaking Rays as “Accomplished masters of the warp speed sound bite.” Their avant-garde, improvisational style has a following as far away a New York City and even London and their music has led them to play with a diverse array of artists. One such upcoming performance will be on Friday, April 27, in Detroit at the Museum of Contemporary Art, where the Shaking Rays will provide the soundtrack to the life of Chattanooga-born artist Wayne White. White, best known for his work on “Pee Wee’s Playhouse,” will be playing banjo and telling the story of his life. That show will also be coming to Chattanooga later this summer in conjunction with a screening of the new documentary on White’s life and career, “Beauty is Embarrassing.”
But before embarking on their latest musical journey, the duo sat down to talk about their own lives, careers and the Shaking Ray Levi Society. Palmer began, speaking of his early years as a fledgling musician.
“My father’s side of the family was very musical and I picked up a lot from them,” he said. “And being Southern, I was always looking for bands and music that were from somewhere else. Jimi Hendrix, ELO, Pink Floyd, Yes and King Crimson were bands that I was really attracted to as well as the Art Ensemble of Chicago, who used a variety of percussion and whistles and other sound effects.”
This musical foundation led Palmer to form his first band, Bend Sinister. “We were an all original band that was a derivative of art rock,” he said. “It was the early 1980s when we formed and synthesizers were unusual in the South. Even in the universities that had them, most people had very little idea about how to play them.”
Along the way, Palmer and Stagner marveled at the eclectic variety of musical styles performed in other cities around the country and the duo wanted to share their discoveries with Chattanooga. In 1986, the Shaking Ray Levi Society was born as an ongoing collaborative project that breaks all the rules, performing all of the world and bringing unique musical performances to their hometown.
Since its inception, the SRLS has presented such diverse acts as England’s improvisational guitar pioneer Derek Bailey, West African kora player Foday Musa Suso, classical Indian violinist L. Shankar, National Public Radio correspondents Andrei Codrescu and David Sedaris, New York jazz violinist Leroy Jenkins, multi-wind instrumentalist J. D. Parran, saxophone legend Anthony Braxton, the last traveling minstrel performer Abner Jay, and the late folk artist Howard Finster.
So far this year, SRLS has hosted Trevor Dunn’s acoustic jazz fusion band, Endangered Bood, at the Barking Legs Theatre; the 4th Ward Afro Klezmer Orchestra at the Faux Bridges Festival; and rock legend Col. Bruce Hampton, also at Barking Legs.
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.
“My sister’s boyfriend was watching me and said, ‘You don’t need that guitar, you need to be playing drums,’ ” he said. “I got my first set when I was 14.”
Stagner drew inspiration from acts from across the musical spectrum. He listened to Herb Alpert and Johnny Cash as well as R&B and jazz acts. Later, he discovered British percussionist Roger Turner, who became a heavy influence on Stagner’s style of playing and he now embraces the improvisational form in the same way Palmer does.
Stagner spoke about fan of the duo in Great Britain who said, “You have a really different sound and approach to music, but you really know how to bring it to the people. The music is very accessible and not trapped in a museum or concert hall.”
Stradling the line between accessibility and unconventional musical experience is key to the duo’s performance goals.
“Here in Chattanooga, we wanted to make something happen where nothing ever happens,” Stagner said, recalling the original aim of the society. “People don’t realize it, but so much of what happens here in the arts scene has been impacted or indirectly influenced by us.”
Palmer is full of hope about music. As far as his own band goes, he said, “Given the current cultural climate of intolerance, our music serves as a model for global relations. Improvisation asks both creators and audience members to participate in and embrace the unknown—risk! The thing that really excites me is anyone that comes out to our shows wants to experience the celebration of improvisational music to diverse populations and people of all ages.
“We can take our music to anyone of any age because it’s mostly sounds, and not so much defined music. We want to take our music to all people.”
SRLS On the Road
Be sure to check out the Shaking Ray Levi duo’s performances when the chance arises. The band will be in town May 13 for a performance and drum workshop at Who-Fest in Coolidge Park and at the Barking Legs Theatre on June 5. Here’s a look at the upcoming schedule:
• Wayne White and the Shaking Ray Levis (includes a screening of “Abstractiony Jones”), April 27, Detroit.
• Shaking Ray Levis at Finster Fest, May 6, Howard Finster’s Paradise Gardens, Summerville, Ga.
• Shaking Ray Levis at Who-Fest, May 13, Coolidge Park.
• Shaking Ray Levis and Evan Lipson, May 18, Philadelphia.
• Gino Robair, Thomas Lehn, John Butcher, June 5, Barking Legs Theatre.
Check out the entire SRLS schedule online at shakingray.com