In 1997, fashion designer Martin Margiela dipped 18 outfits in different mold, bacteria, and yeast cultures; they were recently displayed, beautifully rotting away, in one of the outer chambers of the Brooklyn Anchorage, as part of an “Exposing Meaning in Fashion Through Presentation” showcase held alongside five nights of music within the bridge’s enormous undergarment. Kevin McHugh, the 23-year-old arts publicist who curated the concert series, compares Margiela’s “coating existing clothing with something outside the realm of clothing” to the way a DJ like Lloop of the New York group We will feed in different sonic material “to coat a drum’n’bass style.”
It’s the plausibility of McHugh’s analogy that frightens us rock and roll dinosaurs. Electronica, a largely instrumental music derived from technology we don’t quickly comprehend as instrumentation, seems, especially in its nonrave incarnations, to beg the sorts of explanatory remarks almost as vital to installation art as the work itself. Aren’t our ears good enough judges, we grumpily wonder, the way our eyes used to be? The art world’s evaluative process makes “taking existing paradigms and upending them” (McHugh) the equivalent of rock’s “that blew me away,” discounting the joys of shared transcendence through forms agreed upon and mastered, and conferring way too much benevolence on what the Anchorage’s sponsoring nonprofit calls Creative Time.
Yet Lloop’s set was perfectly satisfying musicianship, even if I had no idea what he was doing standing behind his machine; taking McHugh’s nudge, I assumed the gizmos on top set up various loops and the gizmos at the bottom made funny sounds. We’s first album has an unusual number of catchy melodies, though its newer Square Root of Negative One is pretty dour. Live, Lloop wasn’t forced to honor either, an advantage of specializing in simulacra. He gave himself to the main attraction: a huge sound system working off a structure of brick and stone. There were plenty of those standard flickering beats, but he also could deploy what I’ll get arty and call a rifF/X with bludgeoning, strategic repetition; his more vocodery sounds sweetened and extended the groove like juice on vodka; and when the tweaked noises started dominating a basic jungle track it made for a nice climax. I was amused to actually feel jaded toward one sound, an Eastern-psychedelic drone going into a drum swell that evoked many Chemical Brothers moments.
I’d actually have liked some sort of explanatory process simultaneous to Lloop’s performance. For maximal artiness, the opera practice of scrolling libretto translations on seat backs could be extended, via computer screens where Lloop would post notes about his equipment and methodology, then update us as the cycle progressed. In the
absence of such information, however, my mind created its own heuristic categories to absorb the abstraction; by an hour’s end I felt grounded enough to hear what he was doing as a commentary on what he’d already done. Of course, my conclusions were worthless outside of that specific moment and dissolved like dreams once the music ended. I look at my notes for the set by Funkstörung— “beats don’t dominate the sound, they hit into a sludgy center with an orchestral or psychedelic part; Björkish gong, android murmurs”— and can’t even specifically recall the two performers, who were among my very favorites. Must have entered a waking REM state.
Over five nights of music that rarely overlapped, the Anchorage series traversed electronica’s range. Jega, a “drill’n’bass” guy, toughly reminded me of his label Matador’s postpunk roots. Khan, a provocateur, stripped to his skivvies, baited the audience, and brought in Julee Cruise to add to his lascivious techno. DJ E.A.S.E. of Nightmares on Wax, who have a lousy new album of “Let’s Get It On”type bubblebath, dazzled with a set of languid, dubbish dance. Next evening twin turntablists Ming & FS merged fast jungle with the sort of Black Star and Redman tracks I’d use to rock a party. Following Funkstörung, a German fellow calling his act Shantel played fashion beats, designer hip-house, plus a belly-dance finale. Saturday, the Caipirinha organization earnestly explored the modernist intersection of skyscrapers and soundscrapers, as a big screen displayed buildings and cool objects (ironically robbing the space of its own architectural grandeur) while Datach’i and Taylor
Deupree pumped sheets of squeak.
The second weekend moved steadily toward nightclub sounds: after Lloop, Andrea Parker spun, sometimes getting lost between rewarding the dancers and pushing avant effects like a digitized shaker or interlocked soundtracks. Spacetime Continuum’s Jonah Sharp, like Parker and Lloop, is in recovery from “ambient,” meaning all work the room’s foreground self-consciously. Amniotic keyboards notwithstanding, his set went heavy on tribal drum sounds that theorized shaking booty. Konkrete Jungle, party-arty specialists, programmed the finale. It included the Rasta-tinged, repetitive beats of A Guy Called Gerald (does he still qualify as acid house?) and Detroit techno icon Carl Craig, the gold standard of 4/4. His science fiction, Spanish guitar, and batucada touches were firmly subsumed to a groove that knew just when to hold back or surge.
Caipirinha and Konkrete Jungle, representing the electronica poles of art (or at least a lot of architects with plastic cups) and dance, drew the biggest crowds, but I enjoyed how the Anchorage series hit me from some place between the two. These performers were not especially cutting edge yet far from familiar, committed to weirdness but veteran enough to be used to interacting with an audience, signed to labels like Matador, K7, and Asphodel that though indie act as rational gatekeepers. If none of them were great— Craig borders on it and E.A.S.E. had drum’n’piano moments where I felt wrenched the way I’d once expected from Goldie’s Timeless— all have earned the approval of the art world, the club world, and the album world, no easy trifecta. It’s like those moldy dresses: provocative concept, but their aura stems from chaos’s intersection with a designer’s trained hand.
The event, like electronica itself of late, produced no big surprises (a planned Tangerine Dream reunion never came off for visa reasons). That it charmed anyway, holding attention or, in McHugh’s nice phrase, “playing the wall” for casual night owls, marked the music’s divide from rock and hip-hop, which tend to either dominate or wilt. Like contemporary art more than pop, electronica of this ilk has quickly achieved stability within its relative marginality, a self-sufficient, self-regulating creative sphere that most will dip into rather than be seized by. The pleasures and confrontations aren’t fully comprehensible to outsiders, but like a trip to the galleries they register when we decide we need them.