"Another Green World: Biota Takes You on a Trip to Another Time and Space" by Julia Loktev

On a frigid night in St. Petersburg last year, a prominent Russian art critic boiled with excitement. "You're from Colorado! Do you know Biota?" he asked. My affirmative nod sent him off on a reeling description of how he imagined the band's existence - he pictured mad scientists encamped in a fortified recording studio deep in the heart of the desert, subsisting on hallucinogenic cacti, scheming the musical madness.

Biota, a collective of experimental musicians and artists, inhabit conventionally constructed houses in Denver and the Front Range area rather than this mythical world. But in the 14 years since its inception as the Mnemonist Orchestra, the group has developed an international cult following and an enigmatic aura fed by the fact that it has performed publicly only twice - most recently at the 1990 New Music America festival in Montreal. The group remains better known outside the state than within it.

The aggregation consists of multi-instrumentalists Tom Katsimpalis, Steve Scholbe, Bill Sharp, Gordon Whitlow and Larry Wilson, plus an indeterminate number of artists and musical collaborators. It functions primarily as a studio creation, dispersing spurious radiation on London-based Recommended Records and its won DYS label. To date, the emissions number 12, including eight LPs, one EP, one limited-edition cassette and two recent CD-only releases. The recordings issued since 1985 have come out under the name Biota, meaning a region's flora and fauna, while those that appeared earlier were credited to the Mnemonists, defined as persons with particularly voracious memories. This latter moniker now refers to the visual component of the group. The Mnemonist artists have produced booklets, silk-screened posters and artistically manipulated maps of unknown sites as part of the packages that accompany each release. The artists often create these works while listening to the music, sketching and painting the aural worlds as they imagine them. Katsimpalis, who is involved in both the musical and visual aspects of the process, sometimes draws during the recording sessions. Like him, the other musicians derive inspiration from the paintings of Goya, Max Ernst and Francis Bacon, as well as the films of Nicolas Roeg, Werner Herzog and David Lynch.

Working in their Fort Collins basement studio, band members sculpt imaginary spaces and lives - aural worlds swarming with unseen ghosts of memories past. Walls of percussion shift and shift again, and the floor squeaks with the grind of a hurdy-gurdy. A Chinese ching and a ukulele swing from the ceiling, while a sneaky entourage of guitars, woodwinds and accordions come creeping through the window. Storms of chaotic noise subside into delicate interludes. Melodic narratives weave in and out of each other, then disappear, only to rise to haunt the dens of dissonance again.

The key to these sonic scientists' soundtrack to senility is in the mix. Using acoustic sources that include a rubab ( a stringed instrument bought in Tajikistan), a Renaissance krummhorn and a contraption known as a Marxophone, Biota explores the recording studio as a musical instrument. Sharp, a founding member of the group, explains, "We couldn't compose without the studio. unlike most musicians, who use the studio to document compositions, we're using products of the studio activity as elements of the composition."

This activity involves an ever-expanding palette of electronic processing methods that bespeak intimate terms with technology. The musicians use it as a tool rather than letting it use them, thereby avoiding the fetishistic trap of technophilia that ensnares many experimental composers. This approach virtually precludes playing live. Sharp sums up Biota's conundrum: "To perform on stage, we would have to somehow condense the process that takes place in the studio over the course of many months." That would not be an easy feat for a group that has progressed from manic free-form improvisation to a highly craftsmanlike way of working, in which each element is deliberately arranged in an exquisitely ordered structure. But within that order, there is chaos; the structure is built on a foundation that is fluidly surreal. tension between the logical and the instinctive seethes at the core of Biota's musical aesthetic.

In a sense, the group composes films for the ears, luring the listener through interwoven narratives with textured rhythms and melodies. For instance, Katsimpalis recalls, "On Bellowing Room (1987, Recommended), we shared an image of an individual who was within a room that he or she could not get out of, and could view the world outside the windows but was still within the parameters of a given space." Similarly, he says, Gyromancy (1984, DYS) features "a being negotiating precarious terrain." Biota's most recent project, Almost Never (1992, Recommended), involves an elaborate story line in which, as Katsimpalis tells it, "a person or being walked around the outskirts of a village, came in, than took a road out and then returned." All of this happened without a word being spoken.

Currently, the group is working on its 13th recording, to be released on Recommended toward the end of this year. The members are taking a less programmatic approach than usual to the environmental and narrative aspects of the composition. But although no specific parameters have been defined, the group has not completely departed from the concept of forging abstract, symbolic spaces. Sharp insists that in spite of growing emphasis on the strictly musical elements, Biota is still rooted in an intuitive base. "We're still working very romantically, but we're not being as specific about it," he says. "We're tending to be more open and try to move through a greater degree of emotions."

This is where the listener comes in. Biota infuses its recordings with an array of emotional and psychological clues that force listeners to take an active, participatory role. Familiar sounds - dogs barking, a bicycle passing, an inviting instrumental turn - work differently on each set of ears. "The listeners can invent their own story line using the clues that are in the mix and their own memories," Sharp advises. The musicians hope that each witness gleans a different tale from the mix, drawing on personal recollections and subconscious desires as they pass through the densely forested Biota.

"Biota has achieved a lot of mystery," Katsimpalis admits. "I think that's something we as a group enjoy experiencing with the music. Each time you listen to it, some new part is going to come out. So what the listeners experience on an emotional and psychological level is probably going to be different each time because of what they're bringing to the music. It's almost as if the listener is a magnet, and that magnetic field is going to be different every time they listen, and it's going to receive different signals from the music at each listening."