Grouper at Neon Marshmallow.
Neon Marshmallow NYC
Better than: Bumming about Kim and Thurston.
“Yeah, he was pretty much just sitting there, watching his .wav files,” somebody noted to a late-arriving friend, recounting a Friday set at this weekend’s Neon Marshmallow festival by composer Phill Niblock. A hackneyed variation of the same canard, of course, could be (and probably has been) snickered at every performance involving live electronics since John Cage and his pals dubbed it “tape music.” But while the 78-year-old Niblock certainly did appear to just sit there, watching the .wavs roll by as fairly generic slow-mo/macro/etc. nature footage burbled behind him, he did so while his music played at an absolutely pants-rattling, euphoria-inducing volume, overtones dancing in the registers where sound turns physical.
Throughout three evenings at Public Assembly, the Chicago-based Neon Marshmallow organization presented nearly two dozen artists in such a manner, through the very-non-human-megaphone-like PA of the not-entirely-public Public Assembly. With another speaker stack at the rear of the venue’s floor for good measure, it was all deliciously, ludicrously loud—and while rock bands have routinely based their lives on this virtue for decades, it’s all too infrequently applied to the heady and often difficult music championed by Neon Marshmallow. Those artists who made the best of it—the better to drown out Williamsburg weekend bar chatter and a raging dubstep dance party in the back room—were positively thrilling.
Mark Fell, who has been recording since 1997, opened rhythms up into wild and creative variations the way a free horn player might turn a melody into its most fragmented dots over the course of an improvisation. Carlos Giffoni—whose late, lamented No Fun festival provided a model for Marshmallow’s Dan Smith and Matt Kimmel—kept a genetic tie to actual beats present through most of his evening-opening set on Saturday. Grimacing, scowling, and occasionally blissing out, Giffoni and others sometimes inadvertently provided a few necessary signifiers that live performance is a kind of toil. One-half of the Phoenecia—who flirted with pulses and got a crowd whoop when they veered back into weirdness—seemed to spend the majority of his band’s set wiping sweat from his brow.
Gestures aside, the thread tying together the Neon Marshmallow roster was its utter lack of charisma. The four days kicked off with a Thursday evening reception at Tribeca’s Clocktower Gallery, a 39-year-old artists’ stronghold on the top floor of a city-owned building. The night had free Vita Coco, a looped film program titled “Psychedelic Moving Images From Socialist Yugoslavia,” and views from a gargoyle-abutted observation deck of fog-draped lower Manhattan. Performances by Chicago improviser Aaron Zarzutski and New York regular C. Spencer Yeh came firmly in the Cage tradition.
Beginning as the clock-bells tolled seven above him, Zarzutski applied an e-bow to a drum spring (crazy cool idea, didn’t really work) and built dissociative sounds until they cohered miraculously. Yeh played some overtone-heavy violin and then got down with extended vocal techniques—serious mastication plus throat-singing into a pair of stereo-panned mics. Guitars, meanwhile, were quarantined to a pretty excellent and quiet Sunday matinee at Public Assembly, when veteran Loren Connors urged out attackless, gorgeous tones that dripped into silence during his stunning set and Rhys Chatham delay-pedaled a transition from looped coronet into an e-bowed, just intonated guitar.
The two performers with perhaps the most buzz power seemed the most out of place. Closing Friday, Liz Harris’s Grouper was swallowed into the background ambience, her warmly humming drones and vague guitar vibrations obscuring her vocals into something confirmable only by watching her lips move. On Saturday, Les Savy Fav’s Tim Harrington, decked in some sparkly beekeepers’ outfit and with his back to the crowd, debuted his own solo electronic thing. “You suck!” someone shouted. “I know,” Harrington replied without turning around. “I thought this was a safe place.” His words looped back into the series of loosely connected ideas that didn’t seem to fit with the muscular drama of the weekend’s best moments.
One other outlier, the aptly named hometown quartet The Men, fared better. Finding a mood somewhere between krautrock and noisepunk/grunge drama (the drummer was shirtless by the third tune), the Brooklynites provided a somewhat arbitrary excuse to think about the bridging influence of Sonic Youth on the deepest niches of the music scene around them and—more importantly—through sheer volume slotted comfortably between Niblock and fellow .wav-watcher Kevin Drumm, who built small, jagged thoughts into what eventually wound into an abstract, pleasantly humming quiet.
If New York seems overrun with festivals, curations, themed concert series, and big-ticket badge events, it’s because few things give a concert some momentum like a good package—or at least a way to differentiate it from every other event going on in every other parallel underground on that given night. It didn’t pack Public Assembly to the gills (the Sunday matinee was hardly packed at all), but Neon Marshmallow established its brand and hard: it’s not the .wav watching that’s important so much as the .wav listening. Not to mention the riding.
Overheard: “Maybe the gargoyles will attack some one-percenters.”—On the gargoyles on the outside of the Clocktower Gallery, which peered into some very expensive-looking apartments across the way.
Random notebook dump: Bells chime during Yeh/Zarzutski set, look around to find noise source, realize it’s clock tower itself: 8 o’clock.