Where did all the music geeks go? As I continue visiting half-filled venues playing host to what few imported musicians have the courage to come to our cultural behemoth of a town, I keep expecting to see the artsy crowds of the metropolis back playing the part of community support group. It was especially disconcerting to see London’s Fridge make their long-awaited New York debut at fashionable Williamsburg’s Northsix on October 16 and attract barely a cluster of people. After all, the trio’s previously import-only albums—the new Happiness is out on Baltimore’s Temporary Residence—have been selling out at Other Music for the past five years. They are buzz-worthy and hipster-friendly.
Of course, if they sucked, the snub would be a non-issue. But the wordless epics that drummer Sam Jeffers and multi-instrumentalists Adem Ilhan and Kieran Hebden constructed live were pint-sized epiphanies at the intersection of noisy post-rock’s density, experimental electronica’s fractured composition, and ambient jazz’s folk melody. Jeffers sat comfortably back in the pocket, motoring the rhythm whichever way Ilhan and Hebden’s guitars and keyboards chose to guide it—slamming through Godspeed/Mogwai-style avalanches, shepherding intricate Kraut-centric mosaics, and surfing the cymbals on quiet, cinematic interludes that hinted at Bill Frisell’s tone colors and John Fahey’s traditionalist gusto (one featured Ilhan’s melodica dueting with Hebden’s bass). The performance was an exercise in how not to forget while moving slowly but confidently onward, and the insight wasn’t lost on the supremely attentive attendees. Not the girl in the black elbow-high gloves who writhed to the sonic sprawl as though she were Axl in “Sweet Child o’ Mine” mode, and not the guy who exalted, “There’s only 35 of us here, but we really really liked it” to get the trio back onstage for an encore. These weren’t people who’d forgotten why they’d gathered here in the first place. —Piotr Orlov
The No Music Festival even sounds like something that happens at Tonic; which the fourth one did, last week. What’s weird is that the first three took place in London, Ontario, not widely known as an outpost of experimental shenanigans. No Music’s organizers, the Nihilist Spasm Band, were seven London-O artists and professionals who got together to make noise. That was in 1965, and they’ve been gigging southern Ontario ever since. This puts them (by my shaky art history) in the Fluxus/process camp; but when you stick to ideals 30 years longer than anyone else, you’re not an ideologue, but kind of an old nutter, is what you are.
The NSB rejected such dubious virtues as composition, tuning, or training. To overcome any instrumentalist backsliding, they invented their own (the three-and-a-half-string bass, the giant kazoo, and the Pratt-a-various, which sounds suspiciously like a cheap guitar) and switched instruments every couple of years, or every couple of songs.
But the international noise community caught up with NSB’s droney, rattling contraptions: You can’t have influence and yet remain singular. (It’s their actorly recitations that have dated, though with style and wit.) Joe McPhee sat in on one set, and seemed to feel that grandstanding alongside part-timers would be uncouth. Still, his elegant cornet parts, encrusted with melodic variation, made the whole improvising ruckus into backdrop.
The volume pedal is now a must-have for the young bucks in electronica. Flirts, the duo of Gert-Jan Prins and Cor Fuhler, went in for shock value and grandeur of effect. Fuhler generated some of his input on a thumb piano, processing it to simulate Rhys Chatham’s infamous 100-guitar army. Compared to Ovalcommers, Oval’s recent attempt to pump up the volume, Flirts had a sound palette made of plywood: some knots and splinters on a sturdy sheet of off-white noise. They were joined on stage by Lee Ranaldo and the PowerBookist I-Sound. Ranaldo’s bell-like feedback tones sounded rather lovely against Flirts, and his showmanship—scraping his guitar against the wall—was a welcome distraction from three men at tables.
Old-school improv looked fresh as a daisy. One set showcased diametrically opposed styles of guitar noise: Arto Lindsay’s slashing and percussive, Alan Licht’s calculated to the overtone and decibel, while Ikue Mori’s drum programming served as motivic engine. On another night, Christian Marclay worked the decks with Toronto’s CCMC, and I haven’t heard him with such challenging and sympathetic cohorts in years. Michael Snow’s jazzy pianisms cleverly inflected the loungesploitation selections; the creepy, sputtering vocalist Paul Dutton and saxophonist John Oswald wove their lines indistinguishably while engaging Marclay’s musique-concrète elements. The quartet formed a tapestry of sound that was utterly transporting, and not very loud. It’s not that the noise guys can’t play; it’s that they don’t always listen so good. —David Krasnow
Songs for Mitya
Last Thursday night at the John Jay College Theater, “The Noise of Time,” a multimedia drama-cum-concert by the Théatre de Complicité and the Emerson String Quartet, taught an important lesson: The fusion of theater and classical music doesn’t always have to seem forced. British director Simon McBurney’s Théatre, founded in 1983 by graduates of the École Jacques Lecoq, has made an art of using sound and gesture—not narrative—to tell stories, in acclaimed performances of Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles, Ionesco’s The Chairs, and Mnemonic, in which the challenge of portraying the existential manifestations of memory is central.
Here, the tale is that of modern Russian composer Dmitry Shostakovich and his Fifteenth (and last) string quartet, a self-written emotional history of a man who, in order to survive Stalin’s terror, wrote sarcastic and scathing music that on the surface seemed patriotic but at its core was an erect middle finger.
The first half of the production blends Shostakovich’s voiced letters and radio reportage with screened stills, video clips, and the choreographed actions of four mimes dressed in ’40s suits to symbolize both the composer and the four instruments of the piece. Spot-lit violins float to polyrhythmic voices. Top-hatted men scramble against the invisible wind of the war-inspired Seventh Symphony. Empty dresses hang in midair while Shostakovich’s wife and mother discuss “Mitya’s” anxiety about composing, his love for his children, and his steadfast nature.
And then the Emerson emerges from darkness and different sections of the stage, playing the E-Flat Minor Quartet from memory while facing the audience. It’s a little hokey at first. Until, of course, the gifts of the group and the poignancy of the piece come to bear. Leader Philip Setzer’s violin traverses militaristic rounds of notes with forlorn alacrity while his comrades, seemingly under blind command, offer gut-wrenching and desolately modal sounds for a mournful 40 minutes until their spots suddenly die and the room fades to black—an atmospheric obituary. —Adam Baer
Clash Your Head on the Punk Rock
When downtown impresario Larry Tee, avid fan of all things queer/punk/dancey/gothy, dubbed his five-night festival “Electroclash,” it’s doubtful he had in mind a procession of keyboard freaks and ’80s synth-pop revivalists running behind schedule and smack into the blunt-force trauma of an incoming bridge-and-tunnel crowd. Electro clash, indeed. At Webster Hall on October 12 (evening No. 3 of the festival), Chicks on Speed were shaking their groove thang to their high-school art project gone awry while the masses panged for Ricky Martin remixes. As Kiki Moorse danced in detached fashion to a raunchy techno kick (below a 10-foot amalgamation of inflated breast-like appendages) and deadpanned lyrics about her vagina being a superstar, a bottle cap whizzed by her head. Could it get any more punk rock?
Punk was the pulsing heart of Electroclash. Or at least one of its hearts. If the festival failed in any regard, it was in its noble attempt to gather too much music and too many ideas under the umbrella of one “scene”: DJ Assault’s ass-and-titties electro, Soviet’s earnest and articulate new wave, Fischerspooner’s cast-of-Cats-goes-goth electro-trance. But then, Mr. Fentzloff showed me in 10th grade Algebra II (back when new wave and punk were winding down from their first go-round) that one plus one doesn’t always have to equal two.
Electrorehash might have been a more appropriate name. The new wave bands were the most popular among the hipsters, enough of whom turned up wearing skinny ties and tails in their hair and bad Don Johnson suits (with docksiders!) that if you blurred your eyes and sucked in your gut a bit, it was like hanging out in a John Hughes film. But if, as its propaganda unabashedly proclaimed, the Electroclash festival represented a musical movement, it was the evolution (or perhaps the repackaging) of techno as the stripped-down, ugly, unapologetic child of punk.
The CBGB musical epiphany was that instrumental skill was no prereq for hopping on stage, but techno culture has made the instruments themselves obsolete. On the 11th, Peaches stood on stage at Exit—alone but for a backup dancer—wearing black leather panties and a halter top and screaming about fucking the pain away. Wendy O. Williams had her chainsaw, Peaches has an oversized neon dildo; both, when brandished, represent the same nihilistic essence. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, DIY was an excuse to play guitars, badly. Today, the same ethic is pouring forth from keyboards. Ducky would be so pleased. —Bill Werde