The lights are dimmed in a full hall. Seven musicians walk onstage, modestly acknowledging the crowd with waves and nods as they set up binders full of sheet music on their stands. The excitement in the crowd can be felt as the cellist bows the opening riff and a percussionist joins in. Finally, there is that chaotic, yet harmonious moment where everyone on stage is playing and the show has begun. Audience members exchange glances and giddy smiles.
Are these guys virtuosos? Rockstars? Perhaps they’re a bit of both. They are The Gentlemen of NUCO, a group of seven music students known for their creative arrangements of Radiohead’s entire OK Computer album, as well as those of other pop and alternative rock songs. The group was created during Bienen senior Josh Fink’s freshman year, when he brought his arrangement of Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” for bass, two violins and a cello to his chamber orchestra (Northwestern University Chamber Orchestra, or the NUCO in “The Gentlemen of NUCO”) rehearsal. He asked Bienen fourth-year junior Henry Wang and seniors Hugh Palmer and Charles Asch — the only other guys in the orchestra — to play it with him.
Soon the group started practicing informally — Fink arranged songs and they performed them in the lobby of Pick-Staiger, where their impromptu performances “grated on the nerves” of the staff. To counter this, The Gentlemen gained the support of their orchestra conductor Dr. Robert Hasty and drafted a half-serious “founding document” which proclaims that The Gentlemen of NUCO’s mission would be “to play the genre of rock and roll set to a classically influenced arrangement.”
The creation of this document — which had no technical purpose (it’s typed in an important-looking script font on laminated paper, held in a tattered purple folder) — marked the beginning of the Gentlemen’s transformation from an informal, offbeat music group into a lively addition to Northwestern’s campus entertainment scene.
By December 2007, The Gentlemen of NUCO acquired a violist, Bienen fourth-year junior Yoshihiko Nakano, and two percussionists, Bienen fourth-year juniors Corey Bertelsen and Patrick Slevin and put on their first full concert in which they performed Fink’s arrangements of every song on Radiohead’s OK Computer. Through ticket sales, they raised roughly $1,150, which they donated to Oxfam, a worldwide charity.
“We wanted to be able to concentrate on the music without dealing with publicity or money,” Fink says. “We wanted to give back, because we’re aware of what’s going on around us.”
This year, the Gentlemen have grown in popularity. They raised about $1,750 for SEED and enjoyed full houses on both nights of their “Hail to the Thieves” show this winter. They also performed at a screening of a Radiohead documentary at the Block Museum. While the Gentlemen are beginning to gain a fan base on campus that has finally stretched beyond the borders of Regenstein Hall, Fink attributes part of his group’s success to the genius of Radiohead itself.
“OK Computer is flawless in terms of its ability — there’s not one mediocre song on the album. Every one is a masterpiece in itself,” Fink says. “When I listen to OK Computer I can just see how it works within the ensemble. I’ve been searching for another album [to arrange] and there just isn’t one like it.”
The classically trained Gentlemen’s act tries to stay true to Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke’s visions. According to Fink and Asch, their group adds an experimental twist to their classical/rock fusion while still maintaining an intimate atmosphere and connection with the crowd. The Gentlemen’s goal is not to exactly replicate the songs that they cover, Fink says, but to add to them and give them a different feel.
“Radiohead really has only one dynamic. We have an infinite amount,” Fink says. “There are so many things you can do with the arrangement, it’s endless and much more colorful.”
“We think Thom Yorke would be proud,” adds Asch with a smile.
The Gentlemen percussionists have been known to create unique sounds using unique objects, but Fink says that this isn’t done purely for creativity’s sake. “We’re not the first to put a bass bow to a xylophone. It’s not about that. It’s knowing what you want in your head and doing whatever it takes to achieve that sound.”
The Gentlemen of NUCO will do just that at their performance this Saturday at 8:30 p.m. in the Vail Chapel, benefiting the student film The Instrument Man. Their show will feature old Radiohead favorites as well as arrangements of songs by Sigur Ros, Sufjan Stevens and The Arcade Fire.
Although four of the seven Gentlemen are mere months from graduation and two will attend graduate schools outside Chicago, Fink insists that their group will continue to perform and rehearse whenever possible. The group has even gotten several requests to play Radiohead songs at weddings this summer, and The Gentlemen have dreams of performing at colleges over the summer and fall.
“Right now, we just want to be discovered. Anything is possible,” Fink says.
“There will definitely be reunion tours,” Asch says.