Experimental Musicians in a Post-Tonic Universe

Downtown innovators like White Out fight for survival in a brave, disquieting new world

Tom Surgal, drummer for the improvising avant-gardists White Out—a duo completed by his significant other, multi-instrumentalist Lin Culbertson—insists that although myriad clubs they've played are now history (including the Cooler, CBGB, and, most recently, Tonic), it's not their fault. "I wouldn't label Lin and me the kiss of death of the New York club scene," Surgal asserts. "There are a slew of venues that cease to exist which I can assure you we never played in."

The two met in 1986, introduced by actor (and original Sonic Youth drummer) Richard Edson outside CBGB during a Big Black show. Fittingly, White Out now stand as Big Black's antithesis, a free-jazz deconstruction devoid of niche, with a seismic ambience and atonal serenity that's made the group a vital, if overlooked, part of the downtown scene. Surgal insists that he's guilty of "never playing a beat in my entire life," but WO's records—Red Shift (1995), Drunken Little Mass (2001), and China Is Near (2005)—damper his claim. His throngs of beats (or lack thereof) freely shift from tribal textures to cymbal-tapped propulsions, intersecting with the angelic streaks that Culbertson provides via analog synthesizer, flute, autoharp, and interstellar voice manipulations.

Like Thurston Moore, Surgal traversed the downtown infrastructure for years: He booked gigs for Pussy Galore in the '80s and set up shows during the Gulf War under the label "Support Jazz, Not War." He also watched the fledgling art-music scene evolve from a minuscule enclave shunned by clubs to a fledgling powerhouse embraced by the avant homestead that was the old Knitting Factory on Houston. Not that Surgal was a fan: "I never liked it there, or any incarnation. Years ago, when they were coming into their own, they were practicing a kind of 'cultural apartheid.' I started a series doing off-hours at rock clubs, putting on local jazz guys because they were being aced out—people like Charles Gayle and Rashied Ali." Surgal found CB's no better. "I used to play with Rudolph Grey and the Blue Humans, and Thurston would often sit in. The sound guy was so clueless he wouldn't recognize him—and he's goddamn recognizable at like seven feet tall. They'd turn the PA off halfway through our set. That was New York at that point, so we've come a long way, baby."

He's alluding to the ascension of downtown experimentalism, fomented by meatpacking-district hub the Cooler and its progeny, Tonic. "That's an undocumented aspect to New York nightlife, because the Cooler had an eclectic program," Surgal says. "You can go see Gayle, us, Tortoise, electronica—it all worked together. Nothing seemed incongruous. Nothing has taken its place. Tonic was its cultural heir."

Ah, Tonic. Closed a year ago this month, and lamented thousands of times since. Forced out by those fucking luxury condos sprouting like the plague from Bowery to Norfolk Street and beyond, displacing any semblance of artistic confluence in its path. White Out, like many experimentalists, called it home, called its owners and employees family. "It was a real community," Surgal says. "We were like the house band and felt like we were one with the club." His better half echoes the sentiment: "Tonic was a hangout," Culbertson recalls. "You could meet friends there for an evening and hang at the bar. The sad thing is, we've lost contact with a lot of people as a result of it closing."

Helen Rush, of avant-folksters Metal Mountains, worked the door for seven of Tonic's nine years, and testifies to that familial environment. "There is no venue left with the intimacy it had and the range of artists that played there—new, upcoming outsiders to old-school avant," she says. "Collaborations were born out of folks meeting there." Co-worker and ubiquitous drummer Anton Fier lends a pessimistic outlook, speculating as to who's picking up its clientele. "I thought Knitting Factory would have taken over," he says. "Marc Ribot's Ceramic Dog just played there, but it took a year for that natural transition to happen. Manhattan is a more difficult place to play than ever."

"I still get e-mails from local and touring musicians who aren't sure where to play," former Tonic co-owner Melissa Caruso Scott writes via e-mail. "The Stone [in the East Village], Barbès [Park Slope], and Jalopy [Brooklyn's Columbia Street] are great, but I'm not sure where 'Tonic musicians' play." She echoes the powerful hankering for a clique, a home base. "Most people I speak to miss having a space where creative musicians came almost any night and saw someone they knew in the audience, and discovered something new and exciting onstage. Although there are new venues, I don't think any of them have fulfilled this need."

Williamsburg's Zebulon, Park Slope's Tea Lounge, and a few other experimental W-burg spots—Glasslands and Death by Audio—have also helped fill the void. The migration, though, has slanted primarily toward the Stone, John Zorn's anomalous performance space. "It's a great facility, but it's not a 'club,' " Surgal says. "They don't encourage people to hang out, and it caters to a rarefied stratum of music. It's curated, so the chances of playing there with any frequency are marginal. Even Zorn can't play there—and he owns the place—depending on who's curating that month. It exists out of the kindness of his heart, and it's hemorrhaging money."

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