Vision Quest | Pittsburgh City Paper

Vision Quest

I am lying on a bed, between multiple layers of wool and steel wool, my pockets emptied of metal objects ... wearing a pair of goggles that blast strobe-light pulses against my eyelids. While slow, atmospheric music plays from somewhere nearby, the flashes increase in speed and intensity. My field of vision fills with colorful, layered shapes and complex, shifting geometric patterns. I drift far from my physical location -- the bedroom of a quiet home in Highland Park -- for what seems a very long time.

Finally, there's a knock on the bedroom door. Feeling as if I've woken from a dream, but without the torpor, I sit up slowly.

"How was your experience?' asks a low, soft voice.

It's that of Mike Tamburo, the smiling, bearded man who is coming into focus in front of me.

"About what I expected," I say. Tamburo nods. "But it also felt like I was in a cloud of soft, tingling dust," I add.

"Ah," Tamburo says, beaming. "That's it, that's the orgone!" He holds his hand carefully over the blanket, as if checking a range burner for heat.

Tamburo is a nationally touring musician, a writer, a visual artist -- and, today, my spirit guide. This is the house where he and his girlfriend, Gallina Naim, live, and where an astral journey courtesy of the "orgone accumulator" is just another day in the life.

Orgone accumulators are intended to collect and amplify a universal field of life energy whose existence was hypothesized in the 1930s by psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich. Reich's accumulator device was later explored and championed by the likes of Brion Gysin and William Burroughs.

Orgone is gathered by using alternating layers of organic and inorganic material. The blankets are Tamburo's solution, and on sunny days, he takes them outside to "charge." He hopes to install a human-sized orgone box in his wooded backyard -- though he's concerned a nearby power station may interfere with his plans.

Such projects are only a small part of the 32-year-old's consuming passions. He writes, paints, practices yoga and other spiritual traditions. Most of all, he makes music -- and musical instruments. Another room of his home, for example, contains the "Crowned Eternal," an otherworldly zither Tamburo fashioned from a headboard.

"I go into everything with a certain zeal," says Tamburo. "Not that I'm trying to be the greatest at everything I'm doing -- I just have my own things that I'm trying to uncover."

What he's trying to uncover, it seems, is how to reconcile his mystical visions with the pressures of more mundane reality. Or as Tamburo puts it, more humbly and profoundly, "I'm trying to be the ultimate Mike Tamburo. The most alive and aware human being I can be."

Vision Quest
Mysteries of the unknown: Mike Tamburo's Dreamachine goggles can facilitate meditation and "life realizations"

That quest for spiritual enlightenment began in New Kensington.

Tamburo grew up in a musical family: His grandfather taught him to play the clarinet; a cousin had played saxophone with Frank Sinatra. Tamburo still has his great-grandfather's accordion. Early on, his father, a trumpet player, contracted multiple sclerosis, but "we listened to The Beatles together, The Velvet Underground, stuff like that," Tamburo says.

But while "there was always music around," he says, family members tried to steer him toward more traditional professions, like the postal service. "It wasn't discouraged that I would be playing music, but just that I would be trying to make a living from playing music," says Tamburo, who admits that his "is not the most consumer-friendly music in the world." Early on, though, it was clear that Tamburo would choose his own vocation.

He recalls attending a Catholic Mass in fourth grade -- a day that opened his mind to new options. "They would say, 'Please pray for the people that have left our parish for the religions of the East, they know not what they're doing,'" he recalls. "It was the first time it had dawned on me that there was some other type of religion. I had Jewish friends growing up, but aside from that, I'd only really thought of Christian and Jewish at that point."

Tamburo eventually broke with Catholicism when it proved too narrow for the God he was looking for. "The Catholics praise these amazing figures that had the mystical experience ... yet they frown upon you trying to have these experiences for yourself," he says.

By the fifth grade, he says, he was exploring the Time-Life Mysteries of the Unknown book series and trying to read the Bhagavad-Gita, where he first encountered the idea of kundalini -- the life energy thought to move up the spine and into the brain, bringing enlightenment or illumination.

"The beautiful thing about all of the 'religious' stories in the world is that man can attain something higher than himself," he says. "My path has followed that all along, by any means necessary."

In fact, Tamburo is "the only person I've ever known who's financed an album with McDonald's Monopoly," says Pete Spynda, who met Tamburo when they were in their mid-teens in New Kensington.

Spynda and Tamburo played together in several underground bands over the years: Meisha, Arco Flute Foundation and Natura Nasa. And in 1996, Tamburo financed most of their first Meisha record with $250 he won from the fast-food chain's board-game-themed sweepstakes.

It wasn't easy: Tamburo had been a vegan. But once Tamburo became "obsessed with playing the game," Spynda says, "he was getting the triple-stacker. He was going for it. When Mike does something, he jumps in with both feet."

After graduating from high school, Tamburo attended Edinboro University with Spynda, who now hosts the global-beat dance night Pandemic and DJs at arts events. Tamburo majored in film and animation, though Spynda says, "I don't think he was interested in school at all. I don't know that he went to class much."

Tamburo lived with more than a half-dozen other artists and musicians in a three-bedroom house christened Space Fortress One. There he pursued his interests -- artistic and otherwise -- with manic intensity.

"It snows so much there that you either focus on your work or you go crazy," says Tamburo. "I guess I [did] both."

Between recording and touring with the Arco Flute Foundation ensemble, Spynda recalls, Tamburo "would spend like an entire week working on a film. Not just eight or 10 hours a day, but 20 hours a day." He also describes Tamburo's marketing campaign for "Funball" -- a tennis ball with "Fun" written on it. For about a month, "He just decided to saturate the entire campus" with advertisements for the product, says Spynda.

Many of Tamburo's experiences from this period turn up in Without Beginning Middle or End, a 70-page collection of short memoirs and Burroughsian riffs, all filtered through a comic, cosmic lens reminiscent of Robert Anton Wilson and other counterculture writers. [Read an excerpt here.]

Tamburo's pursuit of consciousness and creativity, perhaps not surprisingly, also included the use of drugs like LSD and salvia divinorum, the mostly-still-legal though potent hallucinogen.

"I was always experimenting, early on with psychedelics," he says -- and later on with other types of meditation. Sometimes he would sit in front of a mirror with a candle behind him, eyes mostly closed. "Your face will begin to change and morph into different faces that are still sort of your own, and completely different faces," he says. "Lots of Asian-looking faces come up. Sometimes I remove myself completely from the mirror and I can see the candle but not my body.

"I was getting so many life realizations from those experiences, and was able to eliminate time and eliminate my ego, and feel real bliss. And I guess bliss is what I've always been searching for."

Vision Quest
"Original" indeed: A cigar-box zither Tamburo crafted for his annual "Build Your Own Instrument" show

The road to that bliss has had some bumps; one gets the sense that some of those visions must've cost Tamburo a great deal. Soon after Tamburo dropped out of Edinboro, Spynda says, there came a time "when I was pretty concerned" about Tamburo's well-being. Spynda "stopped talking to him for maybe a year or more, and just kinda distanced myself."

"I'd had a dark couple years," Tamburo admits. "I didn't really know what I wanted to be doing. I'd just gotten out of a bad relationship, everybody was telling me that music was supposed to be my hobby when I really felt like it was supposed to be my life."

In late 2004, he stayed with his aunt in Atlantic City for six months, where he became certified as a slot-machine technician at the Casino Gaming Institute. "My family was like 'The slot machines are coming [to Pittsburgh], you should do that!'"

Once he set foot in a casino, though, he realized that it wasn't the life for him. So he mixed down an enormous amount of music he'd stockpiled -- five full-length albums and various odds and ends -- and prepared to embark on his quest once again, this time, alone.

When Tamburo started touring solo in 2005, "he seemed to pull himself together, which was kind of a miraculous thing," says Spynda. "He would just jump in and do a six-month tour by himself." Since then, he's toured the country several times, playing more than 500 shows.

Tamburo says he was "just trying to get away from the man that didn't think everything was possible that I wanted to be possible. Trying to get away from the education system that I grew up with. We're bred to work, and we're bred to be a part of this system, and I just didn't really want that anymore."

During his first solo tour, he played mainly acoustic guitar with electronic effects, but in a music store in Tacoma Park, Wash., he stumbled upon a hammered-dulcimer-like instrument; by the end of his tour, he had saved up enough to buy one.

Tamburo's recordings at that point were often densely layered studio works with multiple instruments and players, culminating with the 2006 album Ghosts of Marumbey. While he deployed the dulcimer sparingly at first ("I was mostly just using it as an overtone and drone instrument"), Tamburo found it offered a more direct musical experience -- with less technological mediation.

"Once I finished [Ghosts of Marumbey] and spent all that time in front of the computer screen, I was kinda like, 'Oh, I don't want to work like this right now,'" says Tamburo. "I felt like I was already done with the solo guitar thing, and was already done with the very effected-sounding things, at least solo, and was done with the heavy computer processing."

The dulcimer, by contrast, offered a distinctive sound and a whole new creative framework. Tamburo began using it exclusively on his solo 2007 tour.

For the past year or so, however, he's stayed off the road. "After driving all over the country so many times now, I came back to Pittsburgh like, 'OK, I know what kind of life I want to lead, and I think I have some idea of how to be a good person, and that's what I'm going to concentrate on.'"

These days, he runs his own record label, New American Folk Hero, which offers releases by musicians he's worked with over the years as well as his own prodigious output. He also supports himself by teaching an after-school instrument-building class for children, and providing in-home care for his father, through the nonprofit accessAbilities.

Tamburo also wrapped up several chapters of his musical life by issuing a mammoth boxed set entitled Language of the Birds and Other Fantasies, which includes seven CDs of music expanded from the Marumbey sessions, a DVD and his book.

Releasing all that material at once, he says, allowed him to "tie up a period of my life."

"That was really the end of something for me, and the beginning of something else," he adds. "So I guess I'm in the period of the next thing right now -- I'm still trying to figure out what it is."

Vision Quest
Catalyst: The hammered dulcimer provided Tamburo with a fresh sound and creative framework

In the stark white space of the Wood Street Galleries, Tamburo slowly rubs his hands together. Dressed mainly in white, he sits with his dulcimer leaning against his thighs, a half-smile on his lips. To the audience of a dozen or so, he introduces the evening's piece, entitled "Tenth Gate," and notes that he's "working toward recording it soon."

He grasps a tiny mallet, pauses, then gently strikes the strings, introducing the theme. The tones hover, each new note swelling the harmonies, which shift as each note decays. As his right hand strikes the strings, his left subtly bends them, producing tremolos and sitar-like dips. With both mallets now, he begins to explore the dulcimer's characteristic clattering drum-roll sound. And then, we're off. (Video of this performance may be viewed here.)

A new theme emerges, more insistent than the first, as the tempo builds to a quick march, then a folk-dance rhythm. Tamburo dives into a new section, using the back of one hand to quickly mute and un-mute the strings for a more staccato sound. His face, once serene, tightens with the physical effort. A string breaks, its sharp broken ends whipping out.

Tamburo pauses, and sucks on his finger. "Cut myself on it." He grimaces comically. "Sorry." And resumes.

But something has changed in the piece -- or more likely, in my ears. I start to hear, beneath the dancing patterns, twanging strings and ringing harmonics, the beat of a drum -- a low, earthy, pitchless throb. The dulcimer rocks back and forth on its wooden leg, as Tamburo's head and long hair flop with the rhythm.

Gradually, he leads the audience back to the opening melody, more or less, then releases us.

"OK, we'll stop there, I think," he says. "Thanks!"

Although a piece like "Tenth Gate" changes from performance to performance, it's not improvisation, but an idea Tamburo slowly develops -- and that, in some sense, develops him along the way.

It all starts with tuning the dulcimer to a scale. Unlike a piano, the dulcimer doesn't have every note available at all times -- only those you choose ahead of time. Then Tamburo starts experimenting and developing ideas. His playing technique is self-taught, with some ideas suggested by his fellow musicians; his labelmate Eric Carbonara, for example, suggested the rapid muting technique, inspired by gamelan music.

"My life really changes as I change a tuning," Tamburo says. "When I'm playing in one tuning, my body is absorbing that tuning, my philosophies, my outlooks on life, they're all happening within that. ... So then I switch tunings, and everything changes."

When developing a piece, "I allow myself to ... go into my mind and experience timelessness and some sort of ecstasy, hopefully."

Similarly, Tamburo hopes to bring audiences "into the higher space where maybe they can experience some form of inner rapture. I mean, it's not me -- it's them. It's in everybody that we can experience this beauty, but I hope I can be the catalyst."

As preparation for performance, Tamburo prefers to do a full set of kundalini yoga exercises, or at least the star exercise and mental affirmations. "By the time I go to perform, I'm in a place where there's no negativity," he says. "There's going to be no block."

In recent years, Tamburo has thrown himself into kundalini yoga and sat nam rasayan -- a kind of healing technique -- through classes at the Nuin Center in Highland Park. His teacher, Ingrid Mundari, has taught meditation and yoga for more than a dozen years, and has practiced personal meditation for 20. Mundari says she thinks the practice plays "a major role" in Tamburo's creative evolution. "I think it both influences and supports the path he's on."

She emphasizes that kundalini yoga isn't designed to turn you into a checked-out mystic. On the contrary, "it's known as the yoga of awareness; it used to be called yoga of the householder" -- for people who, like Tamburo, are trying to reconcile the spiritual and the everyday.

Mundari praises Tamburo as "a quicksilver mind," whose "non-jadedness" allows him to bring an innocent enthusiasm and fresh eyes to his surroundings. "He's interested in every little thing the world brings to his doorstep," she says. "From the eclectic to the mundane, he's like chasing a will-o'-the wisp."

The bus ride to Faison Intermediate School, in Homewood, is a bleak journey, past the familiar markers of urban and industrial decay: crumbling homes, boarded-up businesses, dilapidated warehouses. But industry of a more personal nature is alive and well amidst the pottery wheels and power tools of the school's arts-and-crafts workshop.

Since the beginning of the year, Tamburo, along with Matt Fagerburg, Ian Bonnet and Jon Pezold, have been teaching an after-school instrument-building class for Homewood schoolchildren. Percussion instruments and digital effects boxes litter the room. A homemade theremin sits nearby, along with some cigar-box guitars and thumb-pianos the kids have fashioned from bicycle spokes. The class grew out of an earlier program through the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild, and a grant Fagerburg had received to help kids build "congaphones" at the new Millvale Library.

"By the time these kids get to the middle school, they have no music program whatsoever," says Tamburo. "This to me is very sad. In my life, music was my solace growing up." He's concerned that budget cuts for school arts programs will rob us of a cultural, and indeed spiritual future. "We are not even giving these children an option to be moved by music, an option to be lifted from where they are. They are robbing the world of future John Coltranes or future creative people."

The class started with 10 kids, but numbers have dwindled with the warmer weather. Tonight, there are only two students, but they're following the muse wherever it takes them. A little girl with a curtain of shimmering hair beads attaches a plastic drum stick to a cordless drill, and uses it to play a fast rhythm on wind chime she's making. Tamburo and the other adults look on with surprise, then naturally want to try out the new device.

Tamburo has recorded some of the group's impromptu jams onto his laptop -- rhythmic, spidery percussion with harmonica that sounds like a Tom Waits instrumental. He's working on finalizing the details of the CD, which will feature cover art by one of the kids and be given to them and their parents at a semester-end concert.

"I feel like we were just showing these kids possibilities," Tamburo says. "There are millions of ways to make sounds and millions of ways to communicate with music." They are, in fact, the same possibilities he's been pursuing since childhood.

"I have a whole lot of things that interest me, and I'll just decide to express myself one way at one time, and another way at another," Tamburo says. "It's just a life."


Upcoming Mike Tamburo Performances:

With Gregg Kowalsky, Ben Bracken and A Collaboration (Beyer, Kasunic, Tamburo). 7:30 p.m. Sun., June 14. Morning Glory Coffeehouse, 1806 Chislett St., Morningside. All ages. 412-450-1050 or

With James Blackshaw, Chris Niels and Greg Davis & Chris Weisman. 8 p.m. Wed., June 17. Garfield Artworks, 4931 Penn Ave., Garfield. $7 ($10 at the door). All ages. 412-361-2262 or

Mike Tamburo will also perform at the 222 Ormsby Acoustic Music Festival (6 p.m. Sat., June 13; 222 Ormsby Ave., Mt. Oliver; $5; and Cry America: Festival in the Park (4 p.m. Sun., June 21; Flagstaff Hill, Schenley Park, Oakland; Free; 412-327-1388 or