Canadian post-rock innovators Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s “East Hastings,” from their landmark 1997 debut LP, F#A#?, is a wordless story of urban deterioration. The title refers to a street in Vancouver’s economically devastated Downtown Eastside, a neighborhood residents and the government have neglected for years. The song samples field recordings from the locale alongside plaintive, seesawing strings and droning guitar — an aural portrait of the drug-addled desperation that clings to the three-block stretch. Almost two decades after its release, “East Hastings” has taken on a new life, as part of the soundtrack to monumental, a dance-driven rumination on urban anxiety that comes to BAM this weekend for the Next Wave festival.
When Godspeed wrote the song, East Hastings was home to an enclave of artists working amid the dereliction (which persists today; the area is not analogous to Williamsburg). Among them were dancer and choreographer Dana Gingras and filmmaker William Morrison, who met in the halls of their building and eventually collaborated with the Holy Body Tattoo, a dance company Gingras founded with fellow dancer Noam Gagnon. monumental, in which dancers assume the manic tics and menacing stances of modern city life atop narrow, lighted columns, is the company’s most outstanding piece. The performances at BAM are the first in the U.S. since its initial tour in 2005; the piece has never been performed in New York City.
There’s one key difference from the last time the Holy Body Tattoo presented monumental in the States: a live score. “[Godspeed was] on hiatus [when the piece debuted], so the idea that they would perform live with the piece was not something we ever imagined,” says Gingras. Those early performances used recorded songs from F#A#?, which Godspeed had released for public-domain use, alongside the work of French industrial percussionists Les Tambours du Bronx and former Godspeed guitarist Roger Tellier-Craig’s electronic solo endeavor, Le Revelateur. “Once the band got back together in 2010, all of a sudden there was this possibility to reanimate the work and bring the band in as a live component,” Gingras continues. “It took four years to get the band to say yes to do this show.”
This new iteration debuted at Vancouver’s PuSH International Festival in January and traveled to a handful of other Canadian festivals. When the limited tour began, Godspeed had agreed only to those few appearances. “Now they’re ‘loving the dance thing,’ and loving the piece,” says Gringas (the band does not grant interviews). They agreed to continue performing, and thus the stop at BAM.
Originally inspired by Robert Longo’s photographic series “Men in the Cities,” in which suited executives contort into anguished silhouettes, monumental aligns with the motifs Godspeed have long explored in their work — alienation, anxiety, the bleakness of city life. Droning string arrangements conjure day-to-day drudgery; in tumultuous crescendos, the chaos of dense, teeming populations, in all their frightening ugliness and complicated beauty, emerges..
It helps that the music is also cinematic, something more than a few directors, including Danny Boyle (28 Days Later), have noticed.“There’s space in it, so it doesn’t overpower — it suggests,” says Gringas. “[There’s] this undercurrent of darkness and potentiality.” In monumental, the soundtrack does double duty, supporting not only choreography but also text from neo-conceptual artist Jenny Holzer and films by Morrison, who has directed numerous music videos.
Bringing the soundtrack up to date, Godspeed’s contribution to monumental also includes selections from their latest record, 2015’s Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress, as well as unreleased material and connective movements composed specifically for the show. To accompany these additions, Morrison cut new scenes shot in Downtown Los Angeles and footage from Joshua Tree that appeared in the original performance. “If you take it literally, [it’s] about the statuesque monolithic structures that surround us, reflected in the choreography,” Morrison explains of adding in skyscrapers and their natural counterparts. “It’s about the body, but it’s the body separated from the emotional being and then pushed right to the edge.”
While monumental’s themes are clear, Gringas notes that the show is something of a blank slate. “The work doesn’t really provide any answers — it’s more like a mirror or a prism,” she says. “People really project their own concerns about where society is, where the human condition is, [onto the piece].” That’s also much of what draws people to Godspeed — the instrumental swells might highlight unease one moment, exhilaration the next, sometimes both at once — and for New Yorkers, that dichotomy is likely to strike a powerful chord.