The Binary System
Cinematic, energetic, and incredibly powerful, this piano/percussion duo is sonic avant-impressionism guaranteed to rattle your fillings.
The Binary System - [ Atavistic ]
If the word "piano" conjures up images of grade school recitals, think again. Former Mission Of Burma guitar assassin Roger Miller manhandles this puppy like the versatile beast that it is, mining both its melodic and percussive functions (particularly on the "prepared" piano pieces, on which Miller treats the strings of the instrument with alligator clips, bolts, and whatever he finds lying around) to maximum effect. And while Miller warps his piano to new heights of avant-jazz/progreesive rock power, percussionist Larry Dersch (The Concussion Ensemble) pounds his drum kit with tight, relentless energy. The result is something like being thrust in the middle of a pounding sonic thunderstorm, or getting trapped in a rain of concussion grenades.
The last three tracks of TBS's debut recording, From the Epicenter (featuring "Generator") are improvised and have a slightly softer effect than the scripted portion of the album. But throughout, the duo's blend of rock motifs, jazz and classical compositional sensibilities, improvisation, and experimentation produces a frenetic, manic, and thrilling sound.
The dazzling mania continued on The Binary System's heady follow-up, Invention Box (featuring "The Initial Orbit"). Here the core duo continues to match the frantic pace of free jazz with a variety of 20th century compositional ethics, from Bartok to Zappa. But they augment their piano/percussion style by playing a lot of strange (and not-so-strange) instruments and tapping a number of guests to do the same. Miller adds some electric guitar, cornet, toy piano, and organ, while Dersch brings his homemade wind machine and junk metal percussion. Guests contribute to some tracks on stand-up bass, musical saw, shawm (a medieval oboe), even offering the occasional demented vocal.
June 7, 2001
BY TED DROZDOWSKI
“This piece isn’t about me, it’s about Binary System!” Roger Miller barks when I ask him to bring me up to date on his current projects.
I nonetheless press on to find that Miller, a keyboardist, guitarist, composer, and songwriter who’s been a sparkplug of the Boston music scene since he co-founded the influential rock outfit Mission of Burma in the early ’80s, is still a member of the silent-film-soundtrack ensemble Alloy Orchestra and has been busy making music for television clients including Nickelodeon and Universal theme parks. He recently played at the 20th-anniversary concert of another group he helped begin, Birdsongs of the Mesozoic, at the Somerville Theatre.
But right now he’s focused on Binary System, his two-man band with drummer Larry Dersch. The pair met in the late ’80s, when Dersch’s former group Common Ailments of Maturity opened for Miller on one of his solo piano dates in West Virginia. “I was blown away by Larry’s drumming,” Miller recounts. “He doesn’t play straight rock beats, he plays two or three rhythms at the same time. One of the things I like about small ensembles is that everyone gets to play to their maximum. In Binary System, we can use our abilities to put together a complex array of sounds. In some of our stuff the time changes in every bar, but it creates its own groove. It’s like a rock; it’s non-symmetrical, with bumps and divots, but still organic.”
Miller’s description holds up on Binary System’s new Invention Box (Atavistic), the group’s third album. It also applied live a week ago Wednesday, when Miller and Dersch started a five-date tour by taking the upstairs stage at the Middle East for a set that darted merrily between composed passages and improvisation. “The Initial Orbit,” the album’s third number, was especially beautiful live as Dersch — a sallow, sinewy figure perched over his drum kit on a very high stool — matched the notes of Miller’s bright electric piano melodies with precise drum hits and occasionally rattled a black box full of metallic junk for spice. The unrecorded vocal piece “Shem the Penman,” with lyrics borrowed from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, was also a charmer as it darted from a bold march into a tranquil open section where Miller’s playing had the softness of water drops and Dersch laid down a cool blanket of cymbal hiss. Then the tune jumped back to its feet as Miller ignited a blocky, chordal melody and resumed his singing, which he’s phrased with the staccato attack of a choked rhythm guitar since his Burma days.
That kind of interplay, as well as the slow-building modal textures Miller employs, is the lifeblood of Binary System, and it courses through Invention Box more than it did on 1999’s From the Epicenter (Atavistic) and their comparatively crude debut, The Binary System Live at the Idea Room (SST). Lately the duo have moved more into vocal compositions: the new CD’s “The Sound of Music . . . Today” features singer Liz Tonne darting between her usual improvised vocalise and some Julie Andrews warbling.
But it’s live where most of the thrills come in, Miller insists. “Sometimes our improvisations are the smokingest thing in our sets, sometimes not, but they always sound cohesive because we really know how to play together.” So stunning recorded sections like the atonal clusters of notes in Invention Box’s “Spiral” become springboards for bursts of unpredictable, exuberant creation on stage.
“To me, there are elements of Mission of Burma in Binary System, because of the chaotic rush of it,” Miller continues. But enough about him.
THE BINARY SYSTEM, "FROM THE EPICENTER"
Upon reading the instrumentation used to record this [Image] album (both toy and prepared pianos, metal, wind machine), you'd expect a virtual John Cage-match, or at least another boring piano/drum duo album. But Roger Miller, ex-Mission Of Burma guitarist, and drummer Larry Dersch pound out a brilliant cd full of twists and turns and toe-tappers. Yes, "From The Epicenter", basically, rocks! Miller sounds like a heavy-handed Keith Jarrett, all percussive force and no gentle twinkle, and Dersch's drumming is equally, if not more, muscular. "Amazons" will have you rethinking the avant garde's fun deficiency: tribal beats swirl around you, while Miller plays an almost guitar-like funk melody on the prepared right side of his piano, and plays the low-end bass portion with the natural sound of the left side. The gradual gain in momentum of "Warp Drive", which whips you around in the duo's vortex, ends abruptly with Dersch's unusual duct tape "solo", probably one of the most bizarre (albeit short) solo's since Yusef Lateef soloed on an inflated balloon. Exciting stuff like this from "the underground" only surfaces every so often. - Jason Olariu
[Atavistic] Rating: 8.6
Rock inherited the hallowed institution of the drum solo from jazz and never quite got it right. Whereas jazz percussion can offer some of the form's most expressive and challenging music, the rock drum solo never extends beyond an excuse for the rest of the band to catch a smoke, drink a fifth of Jack and point out some front-row muff to a flunkie for an all-access. Consequently, the arena-rock staple is usually comparable in artistry to a temper tantrum; and while there have been some great drummers in the annals of rock, the art of rock drumming has languished in a state of arrested development.
The percussive archaeology of Binary System, however, is neither rock nor jazz, but a rumble in the deep strata underlying both. From the Epicenter is an aptly-titled work of violent beauty. The band is a binary system of percussion and piano, a duo capable of creating a geologic music that seems to threaten the ground beneath our feet. The album-- featuring Mission of Burma guitarist Roger C. Miller on various pianos and sometime Morphine and Concussion Ensemble drummer Larry Dersch on percussion-- manages to sound simultaneously primitive and futuristic. The music partakes of the deep time of seismic events and continental drift, as well as the cinematic careen of modernity. In 53 minutes, a world had emerged from the molten sea and the sky has already fallen down upon us.
Miller's piano seems to resist melody at every turn, instead resorting to toy piano and prepared piano (a la John Cage's Sonatas and Interludes) for color. At times, it recalls the savagely percussive piano of McCoy Tyner in Coltrane's mid-sixties quartet, circa Birdland. Miller plays piano like a pinball machine, coaxing grace and fluidity from the edge of breakdown. Dersch's nimble and resourceful drumming surges in the willful resistance of anything resembling ordinary time. Under the direction of Dersch's punctuated catastrophe, the music slips in and out of odd time signatures, lapses into syncopation and thins out to the faintest approximation of rhythm-- sometimes nothing more than a rattling of the sticks.
From the Epicenter thrives on relentless instability, like the geology it aspires to reproduce: forging the illusion of solid rock where there's nothing but the gnash and tangle of continents underfoot. Yet the listener isn't permitted the reliability of permanent earthquake; the rumble often gives way to the most serenely lovely lines of piano coasting over the drums like a warm front, the prospect of gathering storm.
From the Epicenter is one of those rare works of contemporary instrumental music that unfolds without the threat of growing too cerebral. There's something irresistibly primal about the whole album, an earthquake in the gut. Once in a while, you almost forget it's music.
-Brent S. Sirota
MILLER, ROGER'S BINARY SYSTEM - From the Epicenter CD (Atavistic)
Massively regarded since his days as guitar assassin in the legendary Mission of Burma, Roger has since been making intensely sophisticated music, largely driven by his eclectic approach to prepared piano. He's released several critically acclaimed solo guitar and piano albums on Forced Exposure, Ace of Hearts, RRR and SST, which to a significant extent have led him to the pinnacle so readily apparent on From the Epicenter. Percussionist Larry Dersch joins Roger to form Binary System, likely the heaviest avant-classical duo on the planet. Binary's music is typically dark, complex, cinematic and loud. Its compelling nature is derived from a blueprint of heady neoclassicism, impressionistic avant-jazz leanings, and the relentless desire to rock (if such a term may be applied). In the final analysis, their unique aesthetic undoubtedly makes Binary System the spiritual kindred of Sir Glenn Branca.
Binary System - From The Epicenter CD £15.99 (Atavistic) This is the debut collaboration between 'Mission Of Burma's' Roger Miller and percussionist Larry Dersch. The album mainly features the extraordinary piano playing of Roger Miller coupled with Dersch's wild drumming. It comes across as a mix of avant jazz and the soundtrack to a 1960's silent movie. Frantic, mesmerising and dramatic sound effects make this a real freakscene of an album, completely off the wall at times. You will find it hard to find a single dull moment on this album.
Boston Globe: 11/99
Two musicians rarely fit together more sympathetically than pianist Roger Miller and drummer Larry Dersch on "From the Epicenter" (Atavistic), the second disc from their duo The Binary System, which plays the Middle East Dec. 10. It's been two years since the group's debut, but Miller is glad they waited. "Everything is there on this one," he says of their cascading, counterpunctual interplay, a mix of contemporary classical composition, rock grooves, and free-jazz improvisation.
Boston Herald: 12/99
"The Binary System, a heavyweight duo featuring pianist Roger Miller and drummer Larry Dersch, have a new CD on the Atavistic label, ``From the Epicenter,'' and it's a powerhouse effort. Music that should burst apart from the energetic chaos pushing at its seams instead stays powerfully cohesive."
This avant-garde jazz duo has quite a resume. Roger Miller, on piano, played guitar in Mission of Burma. Larry Dersch, on drums, was part of Concussion Ensemble and has performed on several Morphine recordings. Together, they use everything from toy pianos to duct tape to creat a whirlwind of cacophony. Driving piano rhythms are the foundation for intense sonic development which melds the subtleties classical music with the roughness of jazz and the fury of rock. Dersch and Miller are world-class musicians. Solid instrumentals and unusual times, the rumba beat in "Amazons" for example, make this an interesting listening experience. The arrangement style of the piano and drums allows a certain ambiance that gives the piano freedom to weave in and out of the drumbeats to create a fervent texture of sound. The piano rolls are intense and the drumming is super-tight. Songs like "Core Sample" and "Warp Drive" had me gasping for air.
ROGER MILLER WITH LARRY DERSCH: THE BINARY SYSTEM
"Live at the Idea Room" (SST)
This seemed rebarbative at first: acoustic grand-piano and drums in a live setting, courtesy of arch-intello brainiac Roger Miller (Mission of Burma, etc...) and jazz drummer Larry Dersch, both from Boston (you know, The Hub of the Universe!!). So I thought: "Stand back, all, phosphorus milk shake and brain-food required here before you get too close!!". Well, unnecessary misgivings, for this turns out quite fine and listener foot-tapping-friendly! Roger Miller pulls out a wonderful pianistic performance, nicely accented by Dersch's inventive rhythms. Folks, tell it to your friends, Miller is some pianist!!! The press release and CD liner notes speak of "clattering piano keys" and "swirling junkyard of noise...": well, maybe, but don't stop at that. There may be bits of Sun Ra (they "cover" 'Moon Dance'!), Monk and Scriabin, you can also discern the impressionistic ghosts of Ravel and Debussy floating through the proceedings before John Cage puts them through his prepared grinder!
Recorded over three nights at SST's Idea Room in Long Beach, you get here a solid taste of our heroes' talents: structured compositions played with all the virtuosity required, and skin-of-your-teeth clink and clanking improvs that manage to be both wild and structured sounding at the same time!! It's a crunching steamroller of subtlety, a hard-rocking gamelan eschewing electric Marshall punch in favor of shadowed explorations of the piano's inner mysterium!! Bravo, Gentlemen!!
Miller has seesawed between rock and experimental music over the years, and he's now perched somewhere in the middle: his current outfit, Binary System, is a piano/drums duo with former Concussion Ensemble member Larry Dersh. Although a jazz project on the surface, it has an aggressive quality that harks back to his rock days. It's a pleasure to hear Miller play with a live drummer, especially an inventive one like Dersh, instead of the rhythm machines he's favored lately. "I think if it as Sun Ra and Cecil Taylor having a beer while listening to Mission of Burma. It takes all my excessive brain energy as a composer, and it's real physical, so my gut level is satisfied." Brett Milano
The Binary System Live At The Idea Room
Roger Miller and Larry Dersch (SST)
by Ric Dube
[Artwork] The Idea Room is the small club in Hermosa Beach, California where Roger Miller recorded this album of piano/drum duets with Larry Dersch. The pair played the club over three nights in October of last year, performing two sets each night. During the first set, the team wowed audiences with a set of rehearsed originals that melded Miller's highly unique genre-free melodies with Dersch's rock beats and systematic randomness. Come intermission, Miller prepared the strings of his piano with a deliberate array of nuts and bolts, alligator clips, and an actual hair comb. A set of improvisation followed, if not always wild in ferocity, then certainly in the enthusiasm of the players.
Roger Miller doesn't miss much in the way of irony. Without question, Live at the Idea Room is deliberately titled, and open to as much interpretation as anyone cares to apply. The album's liner notes suggest that the Idea Room is as much a name for Miller's creative mind. The communication space between Miller and Dersch as they create magnificent (and digestively brief!) improvisations like "Turbo Wheel" and "Binary Mechanics" invites the title as well.
Miller, an excellent guitar player (and singer/ songwriter with Boston's legendary Mission Of Burma), is most at home on the piano. The instrument is perfect for his style, which emphasizes a superior sensitivity to the inherent rhythm of a good melody. The piano is a string instrument, but is also a percussion instrument -- after all, you have to hit it for it to make a sound. While the idea of piano/drum duets may seem odd to some, it is only because nobody has done it yet. It's time has come. Recommended.
For more on Roger Miller, read the Webnoize Interview where he talks about Live at the Idea Room as well as his early days with Mission of Burma: From Burma to Binary, Roger Miller Is Hardly a Man Without a Mission. Also check out the Webnoize Deadair piece: Groundbreaking Mission of Burma Rocked Until Their Ears Bled.
The Noise #183 July '98
The Binary System Live at the Idea Room SST Records 12 song CD
The word is really out on these two now (Roger Miller and Larry Dersch), and I feel that there's not a whole hell of a lot a lowly fool like myself can really add to it, except that, shit, these guys blow my ass away completely. Listening to this disc, recorded live from October 4-6, 1996 at the Idea Room in Long Beach, California, is a lot like an angel coming down from above and scrubbing your brain out with Clorox and ambrosia. For me as a musician, it was like someone breaking down a wall I had always taken for granted and showing me that a whole world of possibilities exsisted behind where it stood These two fellas create awesome platforms of music, with just a piano and a drumset, that are basically unheard of anywhere else. If you're looking for something really good, something breathtakingly original, something which may change the whole way you look at life, I say pick up whatever you can find that says Binary System on it. Mad props. Luke Pyles
The Binary System, Miller's new duo project, has a record out now on SST, "Live at the Idea Room." Get this record. Live, Miller's piano playing is rollicking and out of control. He opened with several pieces for which the piano -- a baby grand -- was outfitted with various clamps, rattles and other effects. It sounded, by turns, like a music box, a player piano, a string bass and your everyday piano. He and Dersch, formerly of the Concussion Ensemble, are brilliant together, playing stopgap breaks with precision and bouncing off each other's developments with inventiveness. They were amazing, the neatest thing I've heard in awhile.
The Noise, Boston 4/98 The Floating Red Wall
"There was never really a chance to forget punk rock, or any rock for that matter. There was never a chance for rediscovery. No chance to remember it." The voice and statement are bigger than his aura. The man setting up his gear doesn't look a day over 32, but he is. Well-groomed and sporting a "Sublingual Records" T-shirt under a beige blazer, he looks fairly post-punk. He has the presence of an adult with plenty of "youth" to burn. And if anyone has a valid answer to my question, "Do you think popular rock music is stagnant today?" it would be this man, Roger Miller. After all, Roger was the guitar player for the seminal punk-rock band, Mission of Burma. I asked Roger if he was the one who painted the house I grew up in. He exploded in laughter assuring me that it was Clint Connoly, the bass player. But that was long ago.
Today, Roger along with drummer Larry Dersch, is playing a different style of music. Jazz. Not the jazz that might fill up a hotel bar. A different kind of jazz. Experimental, improvisational. The kind of music created by an artist who would put objects such as alligator clips, nuts and bolts, and other random objects inside a grand piano to alter the sound. "Prepared piano," Roger appropriately calls it. Years after their rock-and- roll days, Roger and Larry continue to swing the burning torch with the furious energy that fueled their rock roots. And it's all strategically placed within composition, instrumentation, and passion of course.
Don't be quick to think that Roger and Larry are softening up on us as they slide into their later years (Roger saw Hendrix). They are men of musical importance, crucial to then and now. Calling themselves The Binary System, Larry and Roger have unleashed an energy that could send the likes of Green Day and Moby back to their bunk beds. And whoever plans on copping Roger's latest musical venture is going to find it a very difficult task. The guitar will have to rest in its case temporarily, and you better have access to a piano, specifically a grand one. You'll also need a drummer, a very "musical" drummer. And that's just for starters.
"What we're doing now is not too different than punk rock." Larry agrees, "The energy comes from our roots. We played rock music for a long time. Our history makes us a rock band." On the note of punk rock, I refer back to the question regarding music's status today. Larry becomes silent then allows a bit of laughter to escape his throat. My eyes veer toward Roger and discover a similar reaction. "It's basically the commercial world vs. the underground, or the better world," Larry confirms. "The better world?" Well, it's clear that there is no way in hell that The Binary System is manufactured for commercial success, so Larry might very well be right- the underground is the better world. One may ask themselves how a piano and a vintage jazz drum kit are related to rock music?" Have we no knowledge of Jerry Lewis or Ringo Starr? Try and tell Roger that Stravinsky had a lack of energy compared to Fugazi, and he will prove you wrong.
I had the fortunate opportunity of witnessing The Binary System in an intimate setting in Cambridge. I was supposed to meet someone in Allston at ten o'clock. I arrived at eleven-thirty. I was late by choiceÖ.well sort of. The Binary System is quite similar to a hypnotist. The listener is instantly sucked into a trance. It's the energy of house music with the "E," but in this setting a Guinness is plenty suitable. Glance back to their past and it's quite evident as to where the raw energy comes from.
Roger spent his early years in Michigan, home to many reckless rockers like Iggy and the MC-5. Not only was Roger kicking out the jams, he was learning from the local university avant-garde shows as well. "Detroit was great. I could go see Stockhausen in the day at the university campus and then catch a punk-rock show in the evening." Honing his skills while listening to the likes of The Beatles and Syd Barret, Roger became very intrigued by psychedelic music. And while certain rockers shunned Pink Floyd and anything dubbed as "art-rock," Roger listened and learned. And that's why twenty years later Roger is playing in this experimental duo that I will call "untouchable." Roger also credits Silver Apples with whom he was recently asked to record with, and Theloneus Monk as teachers. After brief stints with various bands in Michigan, Roger went on to study composition at the prestigious California Institute of the Arts school. In 1978 he moved to Boston and joined Mission of Burma. Sadly, Roger was forced to lie his guitar down due to tinnitus- a constant "ringing" in the ear. But this stimulus was not going to stop him from creating. This only pushed Roger into the depths of "experimentation."
Roger and Larry have been playing together in various groups for the past ten years. But the past two years have been dedicated to The Binary System, and it has paid off well, musically that is. Larry rolled out of Concussion Ensemble, one of the most "musical" ensembles to come out in years. It should be of no surprise as to how musical Larry is. I asked him about his drumming influences. "There are too many drums. Too many drums!" Larry has trained himself to make "music" out of his instrument, not only noise. And his kit is not limited to drums. Homemade concoctions of metal have been placed on a stand for precise execution. Larry is one of the few that have brought the art of drumming to another level. The chops are a given. It's the emotion that can't be touched. "Back in St. Louis I was playing four to five nights a week, four sets a night." That explains the bulging forearm-veins as well as the excitement that Larry displayed while setting up his drums for tonight's performance. The same excitement that a young drummer gets from positioning the hi-hat stand. And Roger didn't seem to mind packing a mini-van with drums, a small PA, and his personal set-up containing an old Roland keyboard used as a controller and a Kurtweil module (all of Roger's sounds are sampled from his prepared piano when an acoustic piano is unavailable). It's Monday night and according to the duo, there is nothing that they would rather be doing. Live shows are consistent but national touring is limited. Larry confesses, "We're not twenty years old anymore."
Roger is married to writer/poet Sue Miller and together they have a son named Chance. "He's nine years-old. He writes his own music on the piano. He recently played a piece that he composed for a school recital." Like father, like son. Roger is also a professional composer by day- soundtracks, production, and sound design being his specialty.
Don't blame the duo for not playing in your hometown of Arkansas. They've played there on many occasions with separate groups. But the goal of a European tour is mentioned more than once. "We would really love to tour Europe. That's something that we would love to do. San Francisco would be nice too." Taking this show on the road involves less than your average rock band. It's Roger and his Midi set-up (in the case that the venue is pianoless), and Larry and his drum-kit. Finding a proper venue entails a little more work. The hopeful but dying breed that attempts to fill a rock club today is more likely to have a 311 CD than a John Cage CD. But both Roger and Larry are confident that their music will not be limited to jazz/avant fans. Roger explains, "Younger kids seem to enjoy this too. We've played the Middle East, then we've played The Knitting Factory. And we always get a great response. People like Billy Ruane are great. The jazz improvisation shows are great and the "Sublingual" label is very supportive of experimental music. Bands like Saturnalia and Neptune are excellent experimental acts."
The Binary System will be featured on a compilation released by Sublingual. "Live at The Idea Room" The Binary System's debut for Gregg Ginn's SST Records (Roger has been signed as a solo artist to SST for ten years) is also receiving a strong response, in fact, critical praise from every direction. Larry confirms, "We flew to Los Angeles and played three nights at The Idea Room in Long Beach. It was great. The first night there was a good crowd, second even better, and the third was the best. We recorded all three shows and that's "Live at the Idea Room." Prior to "The Idea Room" Roger released "The Benevolent Disruptive Ray", a solo record featuring Roger and his prepared piano. Tonight's performance is stunning. Each piece is drenched in emotion. Hollers of praise are competing with the group's audio level. Roger removes his custom fit earplugs and the two smile. They are satisfied.
"The Floating Red Wall," Roger calls out revealing the next composition. He re-packs the plugs into position, then flips to the proper page of his hand written score. He looks at Larry for a quick nod of approval, then peeks at me over his left shoulder. "This piece is our signature sound. 5,6,7!" Once again Roger's spider-like fingers become a blur on the keyboard and Larry and Roger become one. I deduce that this energy and emotion cannot only be limited to their "rock-roots." There's something more. A form of release, unexplainable. The Binary System is something not to be questioned. Allow this system to soak into your heart, the place where emotions freely swim. That's how they do it.
The small round table gently rocks back and fourth forcing beer to erupt from its mug. Larry kindly offers me a cigarette and Roger offers a story. "Toscanini was a composer who died at a very old age. When they did the autopsy, they discovered Alzheimer's (degeneration of the brain causing dementia and memory loss). They said he should have died long ago. I'm like Toscanini."