From his childhood guitar teacher, Mike Hovancsek learned the value of experimentation. At his first lesson, he recalls, the "sadistic bastard" fired off a lightning-fast glissando, then ordered him to play it, too.
"When he did it, it sounded like somebody speaking in [his] mother tongue," Hovancsek says. "When I did it, it sounded like fire in the orphanage."
Hovancsek came away from the embarrassing experience determined to make music "completely on my terms." He gave up on lessons, retreated to the family basement, and spent a good part of his childhood fiddling around with his guitar and a reel-to-reel tape recorder.
He emerged making music for people who listen to the radio more for the static between stations than for the songs. Today, his ensemble, the Pointless Orchestra--actually a loose affiliation between Hovancsek, 32, and a rotating roster of musicians--is decidedly from the John Cage school, in which the sound of a drop of water can fuel an atonal symphony. The orchestrations on Pointless's debut CD, Approaching Totality, are hushed yet disquieting, like distant car crashes or a springtime chorus of irradiated frogs.
Approaching Totality features such varied instruments as a jewelry box, the ranat thumlek (a Thai xylophone), and the waterphone, a stainless steel, water-filled chamber with bronze rods. About the only thing missing is the Jabberbox, a sonic creature that sculptor Q.R. Ghazala fashioned by rewiring the circuitry of a children's Math 'N' Spell game. (That instrument has been used in the group's live shows.)
Hovancsek lives in Kent, and Kent State University's World Music Department is a source of much of the Pointless Orchestra's talent. Session musicians have included Egyptian composer Halim El Dabh and Thai composer Panya Roongrag, both KSU professors. And in some ways, admits Hovancsek, who now works as a counselor for abused children, the approach of those world masters wasn't that different from the trial-by-fire methods employed by his first guitar teacher.
"They'd say here's the music, and here's an instrument, and you'd have to figure it out," he recalls. "Very quickly, you catch on."
The Pointless Orchestra performs Saturday at 8 p.m. in a music and poetry event at the Church on the Green in the Hudson Town Square (intersection of State routes 303 and 91). Admission is $2; those under 18 must be accompanied by an adult.