Despite its name, the guitar quartet Dither means business. The New York-based group made waves with the 2015 Tzadik release John Zorn’s Olympiad Vol 1: Dither Plays Zorn, with the foursome playing some of Zorn’s less-heard game pieces. But even before that, they were hosting an annual, daylong festival of spirited and eclectic music.
The group, which marks a decade of activity this year, hosted its sixth Extravaganza in seven years on December 4, 2016 at Frost Theater of the Arts in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. As programmers, the four showed a decided preference for strings, both of the guitar and the viol families. Cellist Ashley Bathgate, violinist Carla Kihlstedt, pipa player Min Xiao-Fen, a double-bass duo under the name Real Loud, and fellow guitarists Nels Cline, Toby Driver, and David Grubbs were all on the bill, along with a few appearances by the hosts, whose playing included their realization of Zorn’s Curling.
A small and enthusiastic audience attended the roughly twenty-minute sets, shuffling between two rooms filled with brightly coloured paintings on the walls. Included among the audience was a surprising number of children, due no doubt to the early start time and the host of “performers of a certain age.”
The proceedings began with Dither playing Tristan Perich’s Interference Patterns, perhaps to induce the faint of heart to leave the less-than-large space (none did). Strummed acoustic guitars, almost like soft rock, continued through the introduction of Perich’s trademark electronic pulse. That unexpected effect was held, as if an old Big Star song were being chopped up and laid bare, even as the music grew increasingly asynchronous. The electronic track emanating from the sixteen small speakers hung behind the performers varied in pitch but held a constant rhythm throughout, and eventually became the focal point as the guitars grew blurrier.
The pulsations of that opening piece segued surprisingly well into a slow, melodic dirge by Toby Driver and drummer Keith Abrams, (who are half of the chamber metal band Kayo Dot), abetted by a laptop that provided midrange drones. Driver writes gentle, solid songs that generally benefit from a larger band and sometimes-unusual instrumentation, although with heavy delays and reverb on the creeping, slow drums, the trio managed a nice, textural wash.
The evening proceeded like a good mixtape, with careful attention paid to the segues. Driver and Abrams’ melodic crush gave way to the sustained harmonic tones of the Real Loud basses, which yielded to the subtle pop of Rabbit Rabbit, violinist Carla Kihlstedt and drummer Matthias Bossi, with their daughter in a supporting role. During the opening song, Kihlstedt smiled upon hearing her young daughter answering when the mother sang, “Hush, hush. Time will make this mountain move.” The duo writes fragile songs that they play with strength and precision, as if they were at risk of breaking themselves. To end their set, the budding third member donned an oversized rabbit mask and danced in front of the stage.
A good mixtape needs some surprises, and that ingredient was provided by Min Xiao-Fen playing traditional Chinese children’s songs and her own arrangements of Thelonious Monk standards. Her Monk interpretations fell far from the tree, stating the melodies and quickly moving away, adhering to their open structure. They weren’t purely improvised, or so it seemed, but formulated and well-rehearsed monologues, taking an initial point and moving forward rather than repeating it. That said, there was plenty of spontaneity within them, and her four-finger trills were downright exciting.
Dither became electrified and a sextet with the addition of guitarist Nels Cline and drummer Ches Smith for a set of pieces by the ensemble members, along with a new piece that had been written by Pauline Oliveros for Sonic Youth, “Six for a New Time.” Cline and Smith’s interpretation was bittersweet, coming just ten days after the death of the composer and sonic philosopher. It’s a fairly fast-moving piece—by Oliveros’ standards, anyway—and, at least on this occasion, a relatively loud one as well. The shifting syncopations climaxed with Cline yelling into his guitar pickup through his array of effect pedals.
Ashley Bathgate played three of six pieces based on Bach’s cello suites and commissioned by her from the Sleeping Giant composer collective. The program, Bach Unwound, is a gorgeous set that needs to see a proper release. For this night, she chose the musical offerings of Sleeping Giant members Timo Andres, Jacob Cooper, and Andrew Norman. With the exception of the occasional phrase, the pieces showed relation to their inspirational source primarily in their purposefulness. The exquisitely played set demanded not just concentration and a bowing arm with endurance (the bow never left the strings, and by the end she held bows in each hand) but also the musculature of her back and legs as she held the cello firmly, as though it might buck and throw her at any moment.
David Grubbs and the excellent ensemble Mantra closed the night with a sort of punk-rock blowout (if we can use any of those terms) for electric guitar, vibraphone, drum set, and percussion, treading the common ground between Sonic Youth and John Fahey’s more experimental work (two poles upon which Grubbs’ old bandmate, Jim O’Rourke, has left his fingerprints). It was a quick closing party for a remarkable festival packed into less than six hours.

Photo: Dither plays John Zorn's Curling at the Sxith Dith Extravaganza, December 2016.