With their tweed coats, reading glasses, and hip-length braids, the wizards honored on April 27 at “New Music, New York + 25” looked like beloved humanities professors and wacky aunts. The average age of Steve Reich, Pauline Oliveros, Meredith Monk, Laurie Anderson, Robert Ashley, and Philip Glass is 66.0. Twenty-five years ago, when those performers joined for a new-music festival organized by the Kitchen and now celebrated by this reunion, Village Voice critic Tom Johnson said they represented a “distinct generation gap” in experimental music. The gap is now a chasm.
So these composers are no longer “questioning bourgeois values,” which Johnson identified as the avant-garde’s chief value: It’s hard to épater when you are the bourgeoisie. “Nice to meet you, I’m Robert Soros,” I overheard entering Town Hall, after the $600-a-ticket pre-show reception. If the original event was a landmark, this was a museum retrospective, a celebration of heft and durability and prophecy.
Solemnly Talmudic in black pants and white shirts, Reich and three other percussionists performed “Drumming Pt. 1” (1971), which ponders nature and mechanism by evoking first rain on a window, then machines toiling for Henry Ford. Played with sticks on four sets of differently tuned bongos, mounted side by side, “Drumming” unfolds in cycles, and as the players add then subtract polyrhythms, the metronomic central riff turns into, any fan of Krautrock would agree, an actual hook.
For the only wholly improvised piece, wily, stout Oliveros explained Tuning Meditation (1972), in which each audience member sings a sustained tone, then changes to another tone based on the collective hum. Something between a kindergarten lesson in acceptance and adaptation and a metaphor for democracy, it led to 10 minutes of glorious surprise: a sustained drone with wavering highs and operatic punctuations from ringers in the audience. Comical catcall: “Encore!”
Monk shifted focus to the unnaturalness of the human voice with Dolmen Music (1979), an episodic work that’s elaborate but forbidding. Her six-person ensemble evoked gossip, argument, and disharmony by a series of wordless horror-movie gulps and plucked-rubber-band warbles, exchanging cutesy pouts that felt like Off-Broadway.
Ashley recited Love Is a Good Example (1987), using distorted cadences and a text that seemed cut up from psychology and physics textbooks to examine the poetry of technical language.
In the lone new composition, Anderson excerpted a work in progress about New York (her great theme) and 9-11. In her calming, even voice, she mocked the country’s “super-size flag,” playing a machine-hummed lullaby through an onstage mixing board. Anger has sharpened her comedy: We think foreigners hate us because we’re rich and free, she explained, which makes us just like the beautiful high school girl “who says, ‘They hate me because I’m beautiful.’ No, they hate you because you’re a jerk.” 1979 can feel proud.
Lou Barlow, Jason Loewenstein, boombox smile in public
Nobody should’ve been surprised when lo-fi pioneers Sebadoh made a rare appearance at a sold-out Northsix two Wednesdays ago and introduced their “drummer”: a beat-up boombox atop a shabby table. But we had every right to be disappointed. There was to be no instrument swapping—Jason Loewenstein hopping behind the drum kit, Lou Barlow dropping his six-string for a bass. From the second Barlow hit Play on Loewenstein’s pre-recorded beats, audience members (many bifocaled) had an endurance contest on their hands. Yet Barlow seemed thrilled to be out of the house: He guitared like an excited little kid, his gorgeous singing cut through the fog, and he gladly revisited every Sebadoh album.
Between songs were plenty of awkward moments, and Loewenstein couldn’t fill them all. Even when ripping into his bass, he had to hold back to leave room for the “drums,” and his vocals couldn’t always achieve full shredding potential. Where “Soul and Fire” should have left the crowd in tears, instead deafening bass feedback made everyone cover their ears. (Was the sound guy taking a dump?)
What went unmentioned was whether a new Sebadoh album was in the works. But Barlow did say he was “really happy tonight.” And when one devoted young lady yelled out, “Sing another one, J.Lo!” Loewenstein quipped, “I’m still just Jason from the ‘hood.” KEN SWITZER