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Accomplished local duo to make Claremont debut

Fans of bold, improvisational music are in for a rare treat when The Smudges make their Claremont debut at a free 8:30 p.m. show Thursday, November 14 at The Press, 129 Harvard Ave., Claremont.

The Smudges—married Claremont residents Maggie Parkins on cello and Jeff Gauthier on violin and electronics—combine original classical and jazz music with improvisation. Layering non-traditional arrangements and their embrace of effects on top of these established forms gives the band a sound that is at once avant-garde and familiar.

“It’s kind of a lifetime project,” Mr. Gauthier said. “It took us several years to figure out what we wanted to do together after playing classical music and working on other peoples’ projects. We bit the bullet and starting writing music—just the two of us.”

Both were sought after musicians, composers, performers and instructors long before forming the band in 2018. The pair set out to highlight their improvisational fortés: Ms. Parkins has a rich history playing contemporary music and the improvisation based around those techniques. Mr. Gauthier’s work is based in jazz, and “playing tunes and improvisation that kind of fell in between the cracks,” he said. “I think [The Smudges] ended up being an interesting combination.

“Maggie incorporates her history of contemporary classical music, but because we use song form about half the time it seems accessible to people who like jazz or popular music,” Mr. Gauthier said. “I think it’s kind of a hallmark of everything I’ve done. And I like to think it’s accessible, but of course it’s going to alienate a lot of people as well, probably, because we’re not pure.”

“There are sections that are free, and there are sections that are written,” Ms. Parkins added, “just like there are there is a combination of acoustic and electronics.”

They have been married nearly a decade. Ms. Parkins—who, after hesitating, was said by her husband to be of “indeterminate age and eternally youthful”—has lived in Claremont more than 20 years. She made the commute to UC Irvine for 19 years before landing a job on the performance faculty at Pomona College.

Mr. Gauthier, 65, has been here for about a decade. He grew up in California, and started playing violin at nine years old when he would visit his aunt in Indiana. “Every time we’d go to visit, I’d get a little beginning lesson on the violin,” he said.

His neighbor and best friend also played a part in stoking his musical fire. “His father was Thelonious Monk’s manager,” Mr. Gauthier said. “He was a drummer, and we used to play together as teenagers, and we’d be listening to Bill Evans and Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and John Coltrane. That was one of my introductions to jazz.”

Mr. Gauthier’s resumé is wide ranging. He’s worked with legends such as the Velvet Underground’s John Cale, and with symphonies, orchestras and opera companies. He’s led many ensembles, including Quartet Music, with bassist Eric Von Essen, percussionist Alex Cline and his twin brother, guitarist Nels Cline, who is the in acclaimed American rock band Wilco.

He’s produced records by other artists, helped found Cryptogramophone Records in 1998, was executive director of legendary LA venue the Jazz Bakery for seven years, and served as co-artistic director of the Angel City Jazz Festival. He earned his bachelor’s degree from California Institute of the Arts.

Ms. Parkins comes from a large musical family. She grew up in Detroit. Her mother is a pianist and her brother is a music producer. She has a twin sister who is a violinist, and another sister who is a harpist and composer. She’s played under the batons of Leonard Bernstein and Seiji Ozawa and backed up singers such Enya and Blondie’s Debbie Harry. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the Eastman School of Music and her PhD from the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

The Smudges played their first concert last November at the Open Gate Theatre in Eagle Rock.

One of the tunes in that inaugural Smudges live set, “Song and Call,” was inspired by a painting by renowned Claremont artist Jeff Faust, who happens to be the couple’s next door neighbor and good friend.

“We love his artwork, and one of his paintings, ‘Music in the Wind,’ has a musical and bird motif,” Ms. Parkins said. Inspired, the duo to created “Song and Call” in response. It includes bird song “as a jumping off marker,” Ms. Parkins said.

“That was a wonderful thing for me,” Mr. Faust said. “I’ve so often felt musical imagery within my work, so for skilled musicians, composers and players to want to do something with one of the pieces was just great.”

The group has expanded to a quartet at times, but will be appearing as a duo at the Press. “We see it as ‘Smudges with friends,’” Ms. Parkins said of the larger format. “But we’re trying to get a base of a lot of duo material that we can jump off from there.”

Mr. Gauthier runs his violin’s signal through a computer, and deploys effects through that platform. The results can stray strikingly far from traditional classical or jazz violin sounds. He uses Ableton Live Session View to access those effects and a couple different midi pedals to engage the effects and combine them with the acoustic signal.

Live, Ms. Parkins’ cello signal is unaltered, “But I’m trying to make sounds that sound like effects,” she said.

A studio recording is likely, Ms. Parkins said, but nothing has been solidified as of yet.

“They are remarkable people and remarkable neighbors,” Mr. Faust said. “They just are very intuitively intelligent, both of them, and I think their creative process is just wonderful. We pretty much won a huge neighbor’s lottery by moving in next to them.

“I would encourage people to go and give it a taste. It’s going to be very interesting. It’s one where you have to let yourself go to hang on to it.”

The Smudges play from 8:30 to about 11 p.m. Thursday, November 14 at the Press, 129  Harvard Ave. There is no cover. More info is at thepressrestaurant.com.

—Mick Rhodes

mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com