[ performance art ]
It may have started as a tribute to all things Sun Ra, but since its 2009 inception, King Britt's latest project has morphed into something much more complicated. Think of it as a band if you must, but Saturn Never Sleeps is more like a prose- and performance-art-headed musical hydra with its own ever-evolving personality and soundtrack.
Certainly, Britt — the Philly DJ known for his ownership of the Ovum label and the Sylk 130 disco ensemble — has a background in the sumptuous and the strange: Along with making a hit from sampling the gospel tracts of Sister Gertrude Morgan, the Southwest Philadelphia native has recorded glacial soundscapes for art galleries and remixed vocal odd-goddess Meredith Monk's "Traveling" for a project curated by DJ Spooky.
Britt's a weirdo. Good on him. Yet he's met his match in the singularly named Rucyl: Not only is she his fiancée, but the onetime member of The Goats is the cool voice and perf-art mistress behind Saturn Never Sleeps' debut science-fiction-focused recording, Yesterday's Machine.
"The sci-fi element was inspired by the computer-music movement of the late '60s and '70s [a la Bruce Haack] and by Sun Ra's epic film Space is the Place, which deals with identity, cosmic consciousness and experimental self-expression — all my favorite themes," says Rucyl of the project's visual and musical cues. "I use the term 'science fiction' loosely as a way to describe work that doesn't necessarily fit into any specific genre."
Rucyl is used to genre-bending. As a student at NYU's Tisch School's Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP), she was exposed to a seemingly infinite range of possibilities where performance art, spoken word and accompanying technologies were concerned. "ITP opened my eyes to the endless opportunities of interactive expression," she says. "We're always looking out for new technologies and software to expand our performances."
At ITP, Rucyl was alive with discoveries both aesthetic and technological. Musically, she tested the waters with oddball solo performances in Queens, improvising while accompanied by just a few analog effects boxes, delays and reverb pedals. "That's when I began to really be interested in investigating vibrations and frequency of sounds and experimental physical performance," says Rucyl enthusiastically.
She even built her own wearable MIDI controller and sewed it into a leather/snakeskin jumpsuit, controlling her audio and visual set single-handedly. She called it "The Chakakhantroller." "I named it after Chaka Khan because one, it looks badass," laughs Rucyl, "and two, Chaka Khan needs no assistance to give an amazing performance."
Rucyl insists that the visual element of Saturn Never Sleeps' performance is as crucial as their sound, tailor-made and manipulated for each new location and occasion. "Since performing our first gig at Silk, we've been focusing on the sound and bass vibrations," says Rucyl of the photographic look of its background visuals. "Currently we're working with Michael Todd, a young engineer in Portland, to develop a consistent visual performance setup controlled by our own frequencies. We're also working on a custom projection surface we can easily travel with."
The icy but soulful improv-electronic vibe of Yesterday's Machine sounds best in moments like the slow-building "The Machines Are the Stars," with its trans-world vocals, and "Hearts on Fire," with its strange sense of urgency. "'Bit by Bit' is my favorite," says Britt, applauding its complexity.
Yet it's at live performances where Saturn Never Sleeps shows its true sense of restlessness, the mix of the duo's Philadelphia soul/jazz backgrounds and electronic improvisational style running rampant.
"During performances, the songs with structure and melody give a sense of comfort to the audience — and us — before we go into super-experimental spaces. I find it's a nice juxtaposition — like flying and landing, flying and landing."
Then again, Rucyl is most artistically concerned with being free.
"When we perform, I put myself on the edge of comfort," she says with a smile. "I'm willing to make mistakes, willing to look stupid, and willing to experiment. For me, cultivating an attitude of freedom is the main energy we want to convey to audiences — art as process and willingness to try something new. We're trying to un-homogenize you."
Saturn Never Sleeps performs Tue., Sept. 27, 9 p.m., $5-$8, Silk City, 435 Spring Garden St., 215-592-8838, silkcityphilly.com.