Sometimes live music is as intense for its audience to listen to as for its performers to play.
Such is the case with the cacophonic, orchestral folk-infused jazz of Chicago’s Pillars and Tongues. The band mixes the down-home sounds of a country porch band with an emotional and psychedelic vibe that commands its listeners’ attention, while it allows the audience to melt into the sound that floats around them.
“I always hope that the energy that’s projected is something that’s a good and constructive thing, a peaceful thing,” Mark Trecka, percussionist and organist of Pillars and Tongues, tells SFR. “But I don’t necessarily think that means you just chill and have a good time.”
The trio, which includes Trecka, violinist Beth Remis and bassist Evan Hydzik, plays its instruments with slow builds and subtle changes—accompanied by vulnerable vocals—to bring a wash of serenity over the listener.
Pillars and Tongues has several self-releases, an upcoming album (Protection, on the Chicago label Contraphonic Music) and a recent cassette-tape-only release from Albuquerque’s Featherspines records.
Without an overabundance of post-recording production, each release mirrors the band’s live performances.
“Most of the recording we’ve done has been performed as if live, so the only difference is the lack of audience,” Trecka says. “We’re really
interested in how the space we’re playing in affects the sound. It’s important for me not to think about what we’re doing as epitomized representations of songs we’ve done—it’s not like this has to be the best version of this we’ve ever done because people are going to hear this a million times—because it has to simply be a unique thing that’s captured. The recordings are just the ones that are arbitrarily captured.”
It would be easy to label Pillars and Tongues as an experimental or improvisational band, and there are elements of both ideas within its music, but what makes Pillars and Tongues so powerful is the control with which it plays its delicate songs. These are songs that have been finessed by the musicians to grow at the right moment, such as when the full attention is on a complex violin story, supplemented by a subtle drum beat.
That beat eventually takes over as the violin fades out and comes back wearing a completely different mask.
“There are structured songs, but there is space within those songs where we allow ourselves to do whatever it is we feel like doing,” Hydzik says.
For Hydzik, the experience he has in conjunction with the audience is the most important aspect of what the band does. “I think there’s more pressure on a recording session because it’s something that lasts forever, whereas a live performance is remembered, but it’s remembered differently by everyone in a more abstract way,” he says.
That abstraction is why the band also has chosen to release some of its music on the seemingly outdated cassette format.
“Someone told me the other day that they got one of our CD-Rs and I told him, ‘I highly recommend you make a tape of it,’” Hydzik says. “Tapes last longer. CD-Rs rot. Tapes decay in the same way that our hearing decays, so it gets kind of muffled, which is how we lose the high frequencies in our hearing. Tapes distort the same way our ears distort too. It works more organically.”
Pillars and Tongues already has played several shows in Santa Fe and everyone who attended seems to have some kind of profound memory of that experience. For some it was tears; for others it was tranquility. This time around, it may be a communal memory that Santa Fe can keep for its own.