Category Archives: those that from a long way off look like flies

Treading the fine line between clever

UPDATE 2/14/21: The Sockrates Sock Puppet Facebook page has posted a premiere announcement that you can set to send you reminders of the event. Throw your day planner away. Again, that link is

Announcing our first performance in more than a year, The Viper & His Famous Orchestra can be seen as part of Waiting for Spinal Wind, a vast, sprawling multi-performer event, streaming @ for the first time on Friday, February 19, 2021 starting at 8:00 p.m (CST).

Hosted by the Sockrates Sock Puppet Carnival of Morals and Logic, the performances mine five decades of gold from the Christopher Guest multiverse. You know, puppet show AND Spinal Tap.

The stream is free, with a virtual tip jar to benefit the Madison Children’s Museum. Come see what we’ve been up to during quarantine!

Here’s some detail from the Sockrates press release:

Madison, Wis.— Sockrates Sock Puppet Carnival of Morals and Logic presents a locally sourced Valentine’s mixtape, with Cupid’s arrow taking direct aim at the hearts of fans of the Christopher Guest canon. Two dozen musicians and actors with Madison ties have joined forces at a distance to present a virtual variety show featuring music and vignettes from the beloved mockumentary films This is Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, and A Mighty Wind. Bonus tracks include a shout-out to Schitt’s Creek and an early pre-Tap collaboration, taking the viewer on a musical tour spanning five decades, from the late 1970s through the 2010s.

It only took a year-long global pandemic and a major caesura in the live performance sector to bring this multitalented lineup together on a bill. Contributing artists represent a panoply of bands in the Madison music scene, including Yid Vicious, Disaster Passport, V05, Madison Opera, Hirt Alpert, The Gomers, The Drain, Furious Bongos, Steely Dane, Über Alice, Loving Cup, and many more.

Hey! We’re many more!

And here’s a list of performers. Any you like?

  • Amateur Mixtape: Hayseed Rick and Bad Sister Heidi
  • Andrew Rohn
  • Andy Moore
  • Catherine Capellaro
  • Dani Luckett
  • Dave Adler
  • Darth Presley
  • The Disposable Art Ensemble: David Bohn, James Bohn, Geoff Brady, David Spies
  • Geoff Brady
  • James Bohn
  • Kia Karlen
  • Matthew Sanborn
  • Nature’s Colors: Jeff Burkhart and Eva Shiffrin
  • Robin Kurzer
  • Scott Gendel
  • Sockrates Sock Puppet Carnival of Morals and Logic. Sock puppets appear courtesy of SPAG, the Sock Puppet Actors Guild, and Seamsters Local Union No. 144
  • The Viper and His Famous Orchestra: Ryan Jerving, Riley Broach, Rob Henn, John Peacock
  • Jonathan Zarov
Rob Henn gives a big “Hello!” to an old friend at the Madison Children’s Museum, July 25, 2014

Upcoming shows: Fall 2019

People of earth, we have two shows to announce for the Fall 2019 season that find us back among some favorite places and friends in Madison, Wisconsin. They’re both kind of event-y, meaning you get a lot more than just The Viper and His Famous Orchestra. Can you handle it? Are you ready for this jelly?

On Friday, September 20, 2019, we play as part of the bi-monthly Adult Swim event at the Madison Children’s Museum (100 N Hamilton St #100, Madison, WI 53703 | (608) 256-6445). Because grown-ups are people too, you know! There we are in those pictures above from the last time we did this, sailing over a cardboard sea.

This time around, the theme is Downtown Abbey (yes, the movie opens that night as well). And between 6:00 – 10:00 p.m., The Viper & His Famous Orchestra join a cast of scores for “a special aristo-radical themed twist! General admission includes access to museum exhibits, live music, games, plenty of arts and crafts, and a little bit of friendly upstairs-downstairs competition.” $15 cheap ($12.75 advance).

Then, on Monday, November 11, 2019, we return for more of The Greatest War: a multi-media look back at WWI and its impact on Wisconsin and elsewhere, organized and led by The Kissers, and featuring music, photographs, and readings by us, Sean Michael Dargan, John Wedge, The November Criminals, and others.

This is a command repeat performance of the one staged at the Barrymore Theatre to a sold-out crowd on the November 11, 2018 centenary of the War’s armistice. And I don’t know if everyone who was involved in last year’s show is returning, or who might be joining the fray anew, but the show was spectacular and moving and really quite an experience and might be even more so in this year’s location at the Memorial Union’s Shannon Hall (800 Langdon Street, Madison, WI 53706 | (608) 265-3000). Just look at this press from last year!

The title for this video is a little ominous, no?

Doing All the Days with LZOrk – SPRING 2019

LZOrk Spring Concert: Thursday, May 16, 2019 | 7:00 p.m.Lake Zurich Middle School North | 95 Hubbard Lane, Hawthorn Woods, IL 60047 | (847) 719-3600

For the fourth year running — they haven’t caught me yet! — The Viper has sprung the Spring as a Composer in Residence with the Orchestras of Lake Zurich Middle School North under the direction of Mr. Riley Broach. When the white snows of yesteryear’s Winter have receded, when the vernal hours and aestival days begin to thicken, when single-serving snackbags bloom red, yellow, and dream-lucid blue on each and every Milwaukee curb and root-snag, well, then’s when’s I show up, four strings and all, to corrupt our nation’s musical youth with notions of collaborative composition, creative “borrowing”, head arrangements, and well-turned melody as equipment for living.

So that’s always fun.


The word cloud above is based on last year’s post-concert response asking LZOrk students to describe the Composer in Residence program, which you can read more about on Mr. Broach’s teaching site here.

This year, due to the arrival of the newest little conductor in Mr. Broach’s house, and his consequent paternity leave, my work with the students had the able support of Susan Phillips — and I wanted to be sure to recognize all her contributions to this year’s project here. I ask for some strange things and deliver rehearsal materials in some pretty unorthodox forms, so I’m very glad she was game for it!


For the 6th-grade group of musicians, I typically bring a simple lead sheet of the type that a small jazz, country, or rock band might use to make “head arrangement” out of a familiar song structure, like the 32-bar AABA pop song form of “Winnebago Bay” or “Heartbreak for Beginners” (recordings from the 2018 & 2017 Spring concerts, respectively).

In rehearsals, we’ll work out how many times the orchestra would go through the form in performance and figure out which instruments are going to do what, where to provide variety and the structural development of the piece — with the emphasis on how the music itself (as distinct from the lyrics) can tell a story that starts somewhere and ends up someplace else.

A couple years ago, with “Just That Good” (see workshop video above), we found the 12-bar blues form worked pretty well in this regard. So this year I brought them a Spring-into-Summer seasonal celebration song called “Do All The Days With You,” which puts a New-Orleans-rumba-Professor-Longhair-style twist on the 12-bar form, including the distinctive habanera rhythm for the bass figure you see in the “rumba” line (lower staff) below.

Do All the Days Fragment - Rumba

The idea was to show how some fairly simple fragments, like the bass line + the basic melody figure (“call”):

Do All the Days Fragments - Call

… a response:

Do All the Days Fragments - Response

… and a counterpoint:

Do All the Days Fragments - Counterpoint

…could be layered on top of one another to produce some rather complicated and funky polyrhythms, which themselves would take on a different character when played in different permutations and combinations by the different instrument sections.

We figured out that with five instrument groups (violins 1 & 2, violas, cellos, and basses) and 5 different parts (which might include playing nothing at all!) there were 3,125 different ways we could play the first two measures alone!

Here’s the arrangement we settled on (pdf here): the text tells the player what to “go fetch” in terms of their fragment for each time through the form:

Do All The Days - Structure Notes

And here’s what a couple of combinations could sound like, as sketched out for our final two instrumental “out” chorus (in all the glorious midi sound of my MuseScore software).

Looking forward to hearing how it all pulls together on Thursday night!


If the work with the Intermezzo group focuses on arrangement, I like to get the older group of 7th/8th graders involved at the level of composition itself. And, again, this follows the model I might use with my own Famous Orchestra, in which rehearsals become the lab in which some germ of an idea I’ve had gets worked up into something fuller. With the Chamber Orchestra, this often takes the form of testing out ways of taking a bass riff and changing it up the rhythm, the ornamentation, or the harmonization, as we’ve done with The Monsters Are Coming” or “(It’s Gonna Be) Another Day” (2017 & 2018 Spring concerts, respectively).

The piece I brought in for them this year, “Leave a Picture (Take a Person),” is something I wrote literally the day after last year’s concert, based on an idea of creating a loop that would undergird variations. But then I had to wait a whole year to hear how it would develop with the whole orchestra!

It’s a simple, mostly through-composed piece that takes a slow Beatle-y melody, adds in some Bollywood-ish call & response, and punctuates the verses with a two-measure, four-chord progression I creatively borrowed (i.e., stole) in equal parts from George Harrison’s “Isn’t It a Pity” and Big Star’s “Feel.”

Leave a Picture (vamp chords)

Which sounds like this:

In the instrumental middle of the song, that bit becomes a looped “vamp” over which the orchestra riffs based on some rhythmic and harmonic ideas that came out of the workshops. And we end up stealing some other bits and pieces from other recognizable places — see if you can hear where in this midi-rendering version of the full score:

Can’t nobody tell us nothing. At least until Thursday! See you all then.

The Viper appears as Composer-in-Residence and soloist with the Orchestras of Lake Zurich Middle School North  (LZOrk) for their Spring 2019 concert on Thursday, May 16, at 7:00 p.m. (95 Hubbard Lane, Hawthorn Woods, IL 60047 | (847) 719-3600)

Show announcement: Sep. 12, 2018 at the California Clipper, Chicago.

Announcing that The Viper and His Famous Orchestra will be playing Wednesday, September 12, 2018 (9:30 p.m.) at one of our favorite venues: The California Clipper (1002 North California Ave., Chicago, IL 60622 | (773) 384-2547. $5 the price of admission. See
the facebook event page)

It’s Autumn in the city Rahm Emmanuel once called home, and (for now) calls his “f***ing home” — the Windy City, City of the Big Shoulders, Freight Handler to the world, the City of Angels, the Big Apple, the Big Easy, San Fran, the Twin Cities (minus one), the place where “Everything’s Up To Date,” the City of Lights, the place you’ll end up when you take the Ferry ‘cross the Mersey: Chicago!

And we’ll be there to let everyone know how Milwaukee/Madison/Highland Park rolls. Roll with us, if you please. Make your Wednesday mean something.

Show announcement: Aug. 2, 2018 at the Art Center Highland Park

On Thursday, August 2, 2018 (5:30 – 7:30 p.m.),
The Viper and His Good Looks will play as part of the opening
night festivities for the Relative Connections Art Show and Sale in the Cortesi Gallery of the The Art Center Highland Park (1957 Sheridan Rd | Highland Park, IL 60035 | (847) 432-1888).

The featured artists in this show include: Laura Temkin (Abstract watercolors), Jody Berns (Fine art photography), Terri Weinstein (Unique wearable art) and Steve Temkin (figurative painting in natural and digital media).

We’ll be playing in rare dynamic duo form with just The Viper and bassist Riley Broach, the best thing to happen to Highland Park since The Good Wife and Cards Against Humanity.

So get fancy, get free, get art! See the Viper in his native environment — surrounded by original art and the artists who’ve created it. What is art? Is this art? How about this? Now imagine a whole evening of jokes just like those and make sure you take off work early to get there in time to hear each and every one of them.

Relative Connections Art Show and Sale

Art Center’s Facebook Event Page for the Show

The artists’ Facebook Event Page for the Show