The formalwear boomers who packed the house for legendary choreographer Merce Cunningham’s performance and 90th-birthday celebration weren’t your typical Sonic Youth crowd, but, then again, this wasn’t your typical SY show. Instead, they merely provided the soundtrack for two 40-minute sets, alongside John Paul Jones (yes, he of a certain classic-rock combo) and Fluxus composer Kosugi—the result evoked one of the band’s experimental SYR self-releases as opposed to their “regular” rock excursions.
For most of the first set, the focus wasn’t on the music-makers at all, who were hidden behind a huge screen while the dancers trotted up-front—shadows and light only teased you, making you wonder what was going on back there. You kept guessing which combo of players made which sound—the guitars and drums were easy to figure, but what about everything else? You heard video games gone mad, white noise, swirling insects, modem screams, voltage zaps, abrupt blasts, and wildly firing missiles amid occasional bits of gloomy ambience and silence. It was the sound of technology tearing itself apart in a wired age.
A half-hour later, one of the screens lifted to reveal a futuristic, multilevel jungle gym with Kim Gordon and Steve Shelley on the bottom, Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore above them, JPJ off to the side, and Kosugi on top, all arrayed behind another thin, see-through screen projecting films of splashing and cascading water. You still couldn’t see all the performers on the huge, twisted structure, which again left you wondering who played what: There were clearly moments of collaboration wherein everyone chimed in organically, but at other times, one faction played while the other two sat out.
You could say the second set was relatively quieter, but even that featured scraping sounds, guitar howls, and Kosugi’s swirling synths and ominous growling amid silences and extended ambient passages. JPJ seemed to feature in the latter, his bass fed through a keyboard to produce drones and gentle koto-like sounds. The musician/dancer interaction got more interesting, too, as one of the performers entered the structure at one point; when Sonic Youth weren’t playing, they’d sit transfixed, eyeing Cunningham’s troupe.
At show’s end, the musicians took a bow with the dancers and stood by dutifully as testimonials and tributes were heaped onto a now-wheelchair-bound Cunningham; to cap it off, everyone onstage joined in to sing “Happy Birthday.” Seeing all these highbrows indulge in a populist sentiment was somehow comforting and humanizing after an evening of harsh, challenging artistic statements.