An Avenue C storefront is filled with people watching two guys hunched over their electronic devices as another messes with his bass and a fourth, cloaked in a hoodie and stroking his beard, sends seemingly random imagery from his laptop onto the walls.
The space is the Grace Exhibition Center – a venue normally devoted to Performance Art – and the group is Mo.Tom.Bo!, a trio (sometimes a quartet) who are creating a collective soundscape that is completely improvised.
The group began with Raimundo Atal, Kevin Emilio Pérez and Brian Cabello, who gave the combo it’s name. With Cabello unavailable for this gig (their second) special guest Marc Mosteirin stepped in on bass and synthesizer.
Atal manned a drum synthesizer as well as a frequency modulator. Perez made use of a a mixer, delay, reverb and modulation pedals and a drone noise machine.
With only a vague idea of what they will be creating, the trio produced improvised compositions that had more beats than Lou Reed’s infamous “Metal Machine Music” but still lacked the melodies of Miles Davis’ landmark “Bitches Brew,” a touchstone for Atal.
“Everyone does whatever they want,” explains Atal, who plays drums most frequently in the beloved downtown band Pinc Louds along with bassist Mosteirin. “Nothing is set. The main thing is to be open to whatever happens.”
Mosteirin concurs. “We didn’t decide anything beforehand,” he says. “Rai and Kevin made a soundscape with plenty of space for me to misbehave in with my bass guitar rig, which I did quite freely. I look at Rai for emotional reactions to what I’m playing. He’s pretty easy to read.”
Noting the visual component, he states that, “sometimes I’d start with a bass gesture suggested to me by Juan or Preston’s video art, and just grow it organically. I periodically check back with the video for new rhythms or attacks.”
The video artists, Juan D. Figueroa and Preston Spurlock, were not just providing a backdrop, they were also influencing the process of the creation of the music.
“My sound experiments are informed by visuals and colors,” explains Pérez. The musician, a former actor who also performs under the name Papo Cucaracha Vertedero El 3ro, is “a multidisciplinary artist with a focus on painting, sculpture and sound.”
Influenced by “the work of Lee Scratch Perry, Brian Eno, Suzanne Cianni and others,” Pérez says that what he does is ” shape my sound experiments like I shape a painting or a sculpture.”
“The shapes influence the sounds,” adds Atal. “It’s a feedback process . We’re really open to what is coming from the screen. It’s all really free.”
That freedom is grounded, though, in the beats provided by Atal.
“I’m taking some leadership,” he admits. “Drums have a special place in establishing the structure – the tempo and the density. But it’s still so, so much a collaboration.”
One spectator, Margalit Cutler, had an unexpected reaction to the experience.
“At first, I was intrigued by the chaos I was hearing,” she mused. “Then it started to feel unexpectedly familiar and emotive. I was surprised to have such an emotional reaction to something so experimental.”
Other reactions included deep listening, vigorous head nodding and even some dancing. At the end of the hour-plus set, Atal said that he “felt lighter, like at the end of a workout or a meditation. You are there in the moment and when you are out, you feel like a different person.”
While the collective has plans to issue some recordings, nothing is available as of yet so live gigs are the only way to experience their sound.
Musing further on the nature of the music, Atal concludes that, “Mo.Tom.Bo! is something that goes beyond us, it’s bigger than the sum of its parts. It’s a spirit that brings us together. I’m not really even sure what it is yet.”
Whatever it is can be seen performing again this Friday, Feb. 25, at 10 p.m. at the Grace Exhibition Space, 182 Avenue C. It’s free, with a $10 suggested donation.
Follow Mo.Tom.Bo! on Instagram at @mo.tom.bo