To get to the Issue Project Room, proceed past Carroll Street’s red brick row houses and their wrought iron gratings, past the building marked NYC 2WAY INT.L, until you come, right before the canal, to a medieval-sized gate made of bent iron rods. Duck through the inset door (be careful not to slam it) and make your way through the dirt and grass lot, weaving through the bare winter trees and past the covered-up boat that lies plowed into the ground, as if deposited there by a flood. Look up and you’ll see the circular turret of an abandoned oil silo rising high above the canal, concrete and round. Scale the slippery iron steps and look through the glass door: You might see a troupe of matronly women and gray men banging gamelans or bowing zithers; you might see a white man from Harlem with a long beard, a pink bandana, and a black hat hiding his eyes, on his knees, screaming; or you might see, because it’s there to see most every night, a marginally well-heeled crowd of men and women, glasses predominate, eyes closed, often cross-legged on the carpet, slowly nodding in empathy at the spectacle before them.
Throughout January, the venue is hosting the Independents, a new-music festival curated by Issue Project artistic director Suzanne Fiol along with Regina Greene, an independent promoter and the organizer behind Front Porch Productions. The series features seven independent labels: Atlanta’s Table of the Elements, Indiana’s Family Vineyard , Thurston Moore’s Massachussetts-based Ecstatic Peace, Chicago’s Locust, and Tompkins Square, XI, and Pogus, all from New York. An older, more sophisticated cousin to Red Hook’s annual noise-centric No Fun Fest, the Independents is an experimental music showcase, held every Thursday through Sunday this month.
Red-haired and stylish, Fiol may be the only 46-year-old in the world who drops references to Nautical Almanac, the hyper-obscure Baltimore noise duo, in casual conversation. She conceived this project four years ago as she was writing grant applications. The concept, then as now, is simple: “independent labels, independent presses, independent film.” One month each. The music project is the first to be realized.
Imagine for a moment a man named Charles Gayle, who you have not heard of before— maybe no one’s heard of him. He starts playing while you’re still outside in the unseasonably warm air; you hear him through the wide-open, second-story door. He’s sitting indifferently in a metal folding chair in front of piano, humming the notes a split-second before he actually plays them, even though it’s improv. You can hear him exclaim in amazement as he winds down his own passages. Someone cheers, and he interrupts himself to say, “I don’t like to act like I’m showing off. I just happen to have it so I play it.”
The Independents is a rare investigation into an offbeat idea: If you dedicate 16 nights, three bands or so per, to playing free-form whatever, how many moments like that will you end up with? Many, like the ubiquitous polymath Alan Licht, will have an off night, but some, like Peter Walker—the 1960s Village legend who once served as Timothy Leary’s music director—will reappear and dazzle, like a long-vanished magician. With his hard, lined, narrow face, gray ponytail, and full white goatee, Walker filled the festival’s first night with stories: A man enters a shadowy Spanish cantina. Inside, men are drinking and sharpening knives. He is told to “get out or we’ll flamenco dance on your guitar.” He must play for his life, and does. and lives to tell the tale and play the song, to them, and now to us.
Walker hadn’t worked in this country in nearly 40 years, until the Tompkins Square label approached him, which led him, in turn, to the Independents. “We’re calling in the troops,” Fiol explains. “We’re getting everybody to convene and to show a front, a united force. In a lot of ways that’s what this festival represents.”
Other forgotten artists—like Gamelan Son of Lion, a Folkways recording troupe from the ’70s—and relatively new ones—such as the Locust hypno-quintet Function—will perform or have already performed this month, and all will benefit from the restorative context. Though Fiol aims for diversity—”We don’t just do one thing; we do the best of a lot of different styles”—the real argument for her festival, if it needs one at all, is the revitalization of a unified experimental music scene. This coming Saturday legendary downtown composer Rhys Chatham will reunite with alumni from his storied ’70s and early ’80s downtown guitar trios, including Kim Gordon, Thurston Moore, and Lee Ranaldo, of Sonic Youth; vaunted New York artist Robert Longo; fellow Table of the Elements recording artists Jonathan Kane and David Daniell; and a host of others, all performing together as the “Rhys Chatham Guitar Trio All-Stars.” One of Chatham’s primary inspirations in minimalist composition, Tony Conrad, will perform two nights prior. The reconvention of New York’s storied avant-garde is big news in its own quiet way, suggesting the continued viability of a united downtown scene, albeit in Brooklyn.
Whether this is canny marketing or something more permanent remains to be seen—”I’m a little shocked at how successful this is,” Fiol admits. Though the house was packed two weeks ago to see Sir Richard Bishop of the Sun City Girls and Harlem’s No Neck Blues Band, attendance thus far has been wholly dependent on each individual night’s draw. XI, a local label curated by the well-regarded composer Phill Niblock, put on a brilliant showcase of high-art computer music featuring Niblock, Alan Licht, and David Behrman—it drew moderately on a Friday night; a week later, Locust’s lesser-known acts drew even less. A festival that delays its start time due to vagaries in the G train’s weekend service; schedules a potluck dinner for Leif Inge’s “9 Beet Stretch,” a 24-hour distention of Beethoven’s Ninth; and chooses not to set up folding chairs in advance just to “to see what people would do,” is an ephemeral one, for better or for worse.
That may be as good an argument for the Independents as any. One night, occult book-dealer and label curator Richard Bishop played a sunny folk song about hanging a preacher before launching into a mystical spiral of solo acoustic guitar that marched out of American heartland folk, through Spanish back alleys, Indian palaces, and Thai brothels, landing firmly back in middle America with a final note and an earnest suggestion that the crowd go smoke angel dust. The No Neck Blues Band hung an armchair upside down from the ceiling and played percussion against the floor, walls, and ceiling while the audience huddled around in a crooked semi-circle until performer and audience were nearly indistinguishable. Not too many places around town wish upon themselves such consistent chaos.
Neither, for that matter, do real estate developers, who Fiol admits have little sympathy for the Issue Project Room’s avant niche. “This space is not forever,” she says. Yet along with her promotion partner Regina Greene—as well as the labels and acts they’ve brought to Brooklyn this month—they’ve long accepted the fact that there’s no institutional interest in preserving the scene they’ve so lovingly presented. “Fend for your own,” Greene says, optimistically. “The only thing you can do about it is to grab onto your community and family, which is us.”
Table of the Elements presents the five final nights of the Independents at the Issue Project Room January 24–28, featuring Tony Conrad, the Rhys Chatham “Guitar Trio All-Stars,” Sunburned Hand of the Man, and more, issueprojectroom.org