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HEARding Cats went lean to support new music

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 25, 2013 - Strange and wonderful.

Those words appear at the top of the HEARding Cats - An Artists' Collective website immediately under the organization’s title, as part of a phrase that succinctly sums up what the group is about: “Working to keep St. Louis Strange and Wonderful.”

The phrase also came up frequently during a recent conversation with two of HEARding Cats co-founders – Rich O’Donnell and Mike Murphy.

The repetition of the words “strange and wonderful” by O’Donnell during the interview certainly resonated as an appropriate mantra for a musician who has been a dynamic influence in St. Louis since 1959. Over those 50-plus years, O’Donnell has participated in and helped produce many new music performances, as well as artistic collaborations among musicians, dancers, poets, videographers and other video artists.

In 1959, O’Donnell joined the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra as a 22-year-old percussionist, leaving his studies at North Texas State University to launch what would become a 43-year career at the symphony.

That same year, O’Donnell became involved with a St. Louis nonprofit organization called New Music Circle, and soon became music director of the group. Over the past half century, NMC has presented hundreds of cutting edge musical and multi-media performances here, ranging from performances by legendary contemporary composers such as John Cage, Terry Riley, Philip Glass, Morton Subotnick, the Kronos Quartet and John Zorn to others spotlighting St. Louis musicians.

In addition to performing with the SLSO and at NMC concerts, O'Donnell’s impressive resume also includes work as a composer, an inventor of musical instruments and the creator of a new method of playing percussion. He calls it Seesaw Drumming, and the technique - using newly designed sticks and pedals - is based on reciprocal motion. It allows O’Donnell to play faster – and with more of an emphasis on a polyrhythmic, layered approach.

O’Donnell also teaches at Washington University, where he is the director of the Electronic Music Studio in the Music Department. And that’s where Murphy – who often performs under the name Doc Mabuse and is known for his expertise in composing and performing for synthesizers as well as teaching workshops on the subject – and O’Donnell are meeting to discuss the founding and future direction of HEARding Cats Artists Collective.

“In late 2009, Anna (Lum, who is married to O’Donnell), Mike, Ryan Harris and myself decided to leave New Music Circle and start a new organization,” O’Donnell says. “New Music Circle had been in existence a long time; and over the years – as with most non-profit organizations – a lot of bureaucracy had grown to be part of the group. For example, there was a large board of directors, and it just seemed like it was becoming less and less spontaneous in trying to make music events happen.”

“It just seemed there was a lot of drama that accompanied the bureaucracy as well,” adds Murphy. “So we decided it was a good time to try to put together a new organization that was a little less rigid, smaller and more flexible. The four of us were definitely on the same page about what direction we wanted to go, so we decided to try something new.”


HEARding Cats Artists Collective officially started in early November 2009, and by mid-December, the group was presenting its first concert. By early 2010, HEARding Cats had obtained official 501c3 non-profit status.

“We hit the ground running,” adds O’Donnell. “We were able to put on our first event in December, quickly booking something that New Music Circle had been considering but passed on. By January we had our 501c3, so we became an official non-profit corporation very quickly and were able to start applying for grants. And it’s been going strong ever since.”

HEARding Cats has presented more than 30 events since then and has been involved in several others. Highlights included the appearance by Terry Riley and his son, Gyan, at the Sheldon Concert Hall last September, two 60 x 60 dance performances at the Sheldon in 2010 and 2011, and appearances by such nationally known musicians as John Butcher, Denman Maroney, Dave Vosh and Lukas Ligeti at other venues in the area.

“Rich has a deep history in the world of contemporary and improvised music,” Murphy says. “It seems like every musician outside St. Louis knows him, so now we’ve got them calling up when they know they’re going to be in the area. And since we’re basically a four-person group, we can make decisions quickly when we get the opportunity to bring artists in on short notice. But I also think the slot we’re really trying to build is to showcase the great musicians we have right here in St. Louis.”

”I really believe there are tremendously talented artists right here,” O’Donnell says. “There’s no lack of talent; there’s a lack of institutional support. So that’s a big focus for us.”

Collaborative events are also a major part of the HEARding Cats mission. And there’s a strong focus on St. Louis artists in that regard as well – especially in terms of making sure artists involved in a project have involvement and ownership in the event.

“When we put a project together, the artists involved all become part of our board for that particular event,” explains Murphy. “That’s a great way to build chemistry for a project. But you also need people involved who can walk the walk as well as talk the talk – who can be counted on to make a show happen. And Rich has a great ability to find those people.”

HEARding Cats also focuses on extending efforts at collaboration between the artists involved in a project to the audience that attends the event as well. For example, the HEARding Cats Artist Collective’s next event, scheduled for Monday, Jan. 28, will feature a solo performance by O’Donnell as well as a trio concert featuring O’Donnell, violinist Asako Kuboki and trombonist Timothy Myers – billed as the Symprov Super trio. But according to O’Donnell, the audience will be very involved throughout the evening.

“This event is part of a series we’re naming ‘You call that Music?’,” he says. I remember that’s what someone said about John Cage’s music when we brought him to St. Louis years ago. So since this concert will be at my house, I’m going to start by bringing people into my percussion room and having them play such instruments as Tibetan singing bowls, gamelans and other instruments. They can experience improvising themselves, listen to the concert and then we’re allowing lots or room for questions and discussion about what new music is about.

“We try to create unique experiences,” concludes O’Donnell with a laugh. “It’s definitely not comfort food, but it’s always strange and wonderful!”

Terry Perkins is a freelance writer based in St. Louis. He has written for the St. Louis Beacon since 2009. Terry's other writing credits in St. Louis include: the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the St. Louis American, the Riverfront Times, and St. Louis magazine. Nationally, Terry writes for DownBeat magazine, OxfordAmerican.org and RollingStone.com, among others.