Cirque du Tom Waits to explore ‘visual music’ at the Arden Theatre

The members of L’Orchestre d’Hommes-Orchestres get some funny looks walking through airport security with a pair of hedge clippers. It’s part of their arsenal of unconventional musical instruments they’re bringing for a Tom Waits tribute at the Arden Theatre Tuesday and Wednesday. Not just any gardening shears will do.

“Once you find the one that has the right note, you have to keep it,” says Danya Ortman, singer-percussionist for the Quebec City troupe. “It’s a hazard.”

She also plays teapot and handkerchiefs. Other band members employ turkey basters, suitcases, balloons, tin hats, pudding and much, much more. Also, guitar, just to hold it together. The stage resembles a ransacked antique shop. But this is not a circus, Ortman stresses, “It’s not just for laughs.” It is a serious artistic audio-visual interpretation of the music of Tom Waits in a long running show whose songs were carefully chosen and arranged for their “visual appeal,” Ortman says. “Some of the pictures are more, um, evocative? Is that a word in English?” she asks, her English far better than the interviewer’s French.

She goes on, “Half of the interest of using an unusual object as a musical instrument is its visual effect on stage. We take it as far as to have actual objects which we manipulate which won’t necessarily make as sound. I call it visual music as opposed to the music you actually hear. It’s a meld between the two.”

Sounds suspiciously like performance art. True Tom Waits fans expecting a straight-ahead Tom Waits tribute should already know there is nothing straight ahead about Tom Waits. Rave reviews and sold-out performances are good evidence these zany Francophones are onto something here. Waits was chosen, Ortman says, partly because he’s also been known to deploy unusual instruments – not the least of which is his voice – and also because “he never defines himself through one kind of music or writing topic. He made his own rules as he went – and we can relate to that.” Moreover, there’s a dichotomy of darkness and playfulness in Waits’ music that lends itself to a theatrical treatment. In fact, Ortman admits, this show may be less about Tom Waits and more about L’Orchestre d’Hommes-Orchestres. It comes as little surprise that the group’s next project will tackle the music of the great German-Jewish composer Kurt Weill, speaking of dark and playful.

Ortman says, “This started as a Tom Waits project and it ended up being a way we decided to work together. Whether it’s Tom Waits or Kurt Weill, it’s sort of become a pretext to elaborate on a whole visual and sound universe that we can play with on stage.”

Yes, definitely performance art.