Writings & Whatnot by Rob Hill
Maestro of the Maelstrom
21 Nov 2010Posted by on
He makes his entrance. Sxip Shirey, the mad impresario in the pinstriped suit. The great maestro of the maelstrom. An unholy alliance between Dr Caligari and Archimedes, between Svengali and Gyro Gearloose. Equal parts lion tamer, carnival barker, vaudeville buffoon, gypsy fortuneteller, madcap inventor, and serious composer. A table at his side contains a hodgepodge of junkyard toys transformed into musical instruments through some devious form of alchemy. Mutant harmonicas, dented music boxes, marbles spun in a bowl, dinner bells, bicycle chimes, a megaphone, pennywhistles duct-taped together. When piped through his assortment of pitchshifters and echo units the most docile of flutes becomes a catastrophic pipe organ, bellowing straight from the bowels of a demon.
Sxip Shirey has been a fixture on the New York avant-garde music scene since the glory days of Coney Island, where he entertained the rubes at Steeplechase Park. As a dashing young snake oil peddler, Sxip offered the gathering crowds a mysterious elixir which for mere pennies would cure both halitosis and impotence. He befriended the local fire eaters and stiltwalkers, and palled around with Gummo and Chico Marx before they struck it big. Some claim to have been present at afterhours jam sessions featuring Chico on piano and Sxip on a secondhand accordion. Some have even suggested Sxip had a hand in originating Chico’s signature shoot-the-keys trick. He performed for such luminaries as Roosevelt and Freud while sultry gangster’s molls watched from the wings. At night he slept behind the carousel and dreamt of bigger things.
Sxip firmly aligned himself with Nikola Tesla during the great debate between alternating and direct current. On catching wind of Edison’s infernal plot to electrocute an elephant and therefore demonstrate the alleged danger of Tesla’s alternating current, Sxip rushed down to the boardwalk just in time to witness the poor creature collapse in a sizzling heap. He had been too late to stop it. Glowering, he cursed Edison soundly and ever since has harbored a disdain for the electric lightbulb. To this day he prefers candlelight.
During the twenties Sxip visited Berlin to absorb the thriving cabaret scene. He stayed in the same hotel as Christopher Isherwood and in fact makes a small appearance in the novel Goodbye to Berlin. He once notably performed a birthday toast to Marlene Dietrich at the Wintergarten. In return she gave him his first ocarina, which he still cherishes. Although Sxip felt at home in the decadent Weimar Republic among the flappers, transvestites, and dope fiends, he was convinced by an apprehensive Fritz Lang that the political situation was getting out of hand. He soon returned by steamship to America.
Sxip settled in Hollywood in the early fifties to compose soundtracks to various science fiction films. Some of his scores include instrumentation commonly assumed to be the theremin (predating Bernard Herrmann’s landmark use of one in The Day the Earth Stood Still), but which are actually conventional horns recorded with varispeed techniques. Though proud of his work in film, Sxip left Hollywood embittered by the assembly line mentality of the studio system which he felt devalued the artist. Nor did he like what the California sun did to his complexion. However, his lengthy correspondence with electronic pioneer Raymond Scott dating to this period is due to be published next year by Oscillator Books.
Surprisingly, Sxip mostly sat out the sixties. One would assume his often eccentric and irreverent stylings would fit in seamlessly with the psychedelic aesthetics of the time period. But Sxip took that decade to lay down his tools and do some serious soul searching. He traveled extensively in Eastern Europe and became fascinated with the Balkan and klezmer cultures he encountered there. On returning to New York he drew on these influences to form the Luminescent Orchestrii, a popular attraction on the Lower East Side with their unique brand of Romanian gypsy punk.
Which brings us back to today, with Sxip in the role of master of ceremonies for the strange and wonderful Evelyn Evelyn sisters at the Lucille Lortel Theater deep in the groin of the Village. He entertains the crowd with tales of sharing a toilet seat with Bertolt Brecht and displays his talents at silhouette puppetry. Then he lifts an instrument from his wunderkammer and erupts into another tune. He is an urban witchdoctor, dancing on footpedals and conjuring locomotives out of the stage and jet engines out of the baffles. Images of whirling carousels and gold teeth fill the theater, of bellydancers and swordswallowers, of vapor trails and teakettles and lids of steamer trunks slamming. And with his blessing he sends us back out into the streets of New York, a little better prepared for what we will find there.
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