Music for Pterodactyls

Erik Lindgren, A76, the man behind Birdsongs of the Mesozoic, is still smashing genres
Erik Lindgren
Erik Lindgren and Birdsongs of the Mesozoic “had real classical and modernist sensibilities and chops, creating music that was very daring and ambitious,” says music critic Ira Robbins.
September 19, 2014

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Unless you keep up with underground neoclassical music’s more eccentric strains, you’ve probably never heard the weightiest music in Erik Lindgren’s compositional canon. That would be the dozen or so albums by Birdsongs of the Mesozoic, a group that combines classical rigor with psychedelic acid rock to yield up what Billboard magazine once called “cacophony meets classicism in a mesmerizing instrumental venture into the space-age jungle.”

If, however, you live in the Northeast, chances are good you’ve heard the other half of his output as a crackerjack composer of commercial jingles, including spots for Christmas Tree Shops, Waltham Camera & Stereo and the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Lindgren, A76—whose week in residence at the Tufts music department culminates Sept. 27 in a 60th-birthday concert of his music—has been working the duality between accessible and avant-garde since childhood. “I grew up with a strong classical background,” he says. “My mom was a society pianist, loved Chopin and show tunes and started me on piano lessons at about age five.” But Cream and Jimi Hendrix entered Lindgren’s life in his teens, when his brother brought home their “mind-blowing” albums.

Then he came to Tufts, where he studied composition with the legendary T.J. Anderson. “I was your very diligent classical musician who practiced piano a lot and composed this very sophisticated, academic contemporary classical music,” he says. “The rest of the time, I was searching out records by odd and obscure bands like the 13th Floor Elevators, Litter, the Move and Idle Race.” His record obsession goes on, even as his collection tops 10,000 seven-inch singles and 5,000 LPs (that’s long-playing records, kids), mostly by obscure '60s acts.

By the late 1970s—the dawn of punk and new wave—Lindren was back in Boston with a master’s from the University of Iowa, playing in garage bands. One band, Moving Parts, turned out to be presciently named: all its members were moving in different directions. While Lindgren wanted to combine the garage rock of the Stooges and MC5 with Stravinsky, Bartok and Webern, the drummer wanted the band to be Aerosmith, and the other two members wanted something louder and wilder. Those two went off to form Mission of Burma, one of the most out-there bands in American punk rock, in 1979.

But Mission of Burma’s main man, Roger Miller, would soon return to join Lindgren in Birdsongs of the Mesozoic, formed as an instrumental side project in 1980. “Birdsongs of the Mesozoic represents an interesting moment in indie rock history,” says Ira Robbins, a music critic and former editor of Trouser Press magazine. “They came along at a point when bands were starting to shake off the self-consciousness of what was acceptable in punk, and they had real classical and modernist sensibilities and chops, creating music that was very daring and ambitious.”

Birdsongs’ music was indeed different, and difficult. On the road, it was not unusual for bewildered listeners to remark, “You’re not from around here, are ya?” Nevertheless, the band’s punk-classical synthesis worked, especially when they broke out their signature eight-minute version of Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, the original composition so radical it caused a near riot at its premiere in Paris in 1913. More than once, Birdsongs’ version elicited similar reactions.

The band has been at it ever since—the primary vehicle for most of Lindgren’s compositions. He also keeps busy with side bands, including the Frankenstein Consort, and runs the Arf! Arf! record label, which releases his own work as well as compilations of outsider music drawn from his record collection. On top of that, he runs a studio called Sounds Interesting, where he’s recorded many a commercial jingle with the likes of Greg Hawkes (keyboardist for the Cars) and Andy Pratt (composer of “Avenging Annie”), and pursues other projects—they’re listed on his website.

The odd juxtapositions in Lindren’s career don’t surprise his old Tufts mentor, the now retired T.J. Anderson. “Erik’s very intellectually curious, with a great sense of humor,” Anderson says. “He takes literally nothing seriously. Most of us worry—but Erik just goes through life doing what he wants to do.”

Erik Lindgren’s 60th Birthday Celebration Chamber A-Go-Go Concert will be held in the Distler Performance Hall at the Perry and Marty Granoff Music Center on Saturday, Sept. 27, at 7 p.m. Admission is free and open to the public. The event will begin with a screening of Michael Burlingame’s To a Random (1986), a 23-minute film with original unused soundtrack by Lindgren.

David Menconi, the music critic at the News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina, is a frequent contributor to Tufts Magazine.