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Did you know that the location of the New York Public Library, the big main branch at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, used to be the site of a reservoir, a massive 19th-century structure with 50-foot-high, 25-foot-thick granite walls and pooled municipal drinking water "full of tadpoles and animalculae"? Or that behind the library, just outside in Bryant Park now, sits an awesome little sculpture of Gertrude Stein? Or that, heard a certain way, the impact of a pencil falling to the floor in the Rose Reading Room—the heart of the library and maybe the greatest enclosed space of any kind in New York—can sound for a fleeting moment like the end of the world?
All of this is true—and worth keeping in mind Sunday, when the library plays incongruous home to an onset of gritty, grotty noise by way of Ben Frost, a musician with an uncommon command over chaos and control. Both figure prominently in "Music for 6 Guitars," a roaring electrified piece to be performed by Frost and friends at the end of the library's Rolex Arts Weekend. The occasion marks the end of a mentor/protégé program that paired Frost with Brian Eno for the past year, but the piece itself—to be performed in the Rose Reading Room's vaulted space—serves more immediate concerns.
"I like the idea of the last moments of a rock concert, the physical aspect of it that takes on a whole other level of intensity," says Frost, who first marshaled "Music for 6 Guitars" in 2007. "It's like the last minute of a basketball game, when everyone finds this extra energy, and everything becomes manic and overtly physical and desperate. I wanted to make a piece that explored that kind of moment but also opened it up and stretched it out to prolong it."
So it goes for somewhere near 40 minutes, with six guitarists assaulting their strings and Frost himself poised in the back, mixing the line-in sound into a monolithic din. The idea for the piece goes back to the Husbands, a guitar ensemble that Frost helped foster in Australia with the likes of avant-garde luminary Oren Ambarchi. "It was this Branca and Chatham-inspired guitar orchestra but through the lens of AC/DC—like New York minimalism meets Australian pop rock," says Frost, snickering at Aussie roots he has since grown out to his current home terrain in Iceland.
But while the sound of "Music for 6 Guitars" fixes on the alternately startling and serene aspects of noise, staging the piece introduces an element of theatricality unusual in Frost's otherwise more austere live guises. The guitarists themselves—in New York they will be Tim Hecker, Shahzad Ismaily, Paul Corley, Sarah Lipstate a/k/a Noveller, Sarah Register from Talk Normal, and Daniel Rejmer, who is also in charge of setup for sound—are assigned one or two chords and otherwise instructed to play as hard as they can from beginning to end. Sound-wise they'll be isolated from themselves, one another, and the audience with in-ear monitors, which will only give them a click-track to keep time. Frost, meanwhile, will control what actually issues from their "playing" at a mixing console in back.
"I'm really interested in the difference between what you're seeing and what you're hearing, between aural and visual information," says Frost. "The physical endurance of it, combined with the fact that there are various moments when you're not hearing anything, makes for a dislocation that is interesting to confront an audience with, especially now that basically all music is amplified. It's all an illusion."
The incongruity suits the setting, too. "The Reading Room is this huge, reverberant, grandiose space that dwarfs the people who occupy it, and yet at the same time was designed to be used for the most intimate and silent of activities," Frost says. "To sit and read a book, to absorb yourself in a personal world—I cannot think of a space that says that less than the Reading Room."
Dislocation, again, between purpose and perception, and in a way that falls in line with Frost's work as a whole. "My music is about taking those moments that might otherwise be ignored and expanding them and amplifying them to a point when they become not only apparent but undeniable," he says. "So I'm fascinated with how the Reading Room amplifies mistakes and amplifies flaws. I mean, you drop a pencil in there, and it's like, PKKURRRRGGGCCHHHHHH!!!"
Ben Frost performs "Music for 6 Guitars," with an additional brass sextet arranged by Nico Muhly and an introduction by Brian Eno, at the New York Public Library on November 13