Last Thursday and Friday, the Hammerstein Ballroom hosted the first installments of the Cosmic Opera, an experiential dance-music series masterminded by Axwell, who was last seen around these parts selling out Madison Square Garden as a member of the three-DJ outfit Swedish House Mafia. The series, according to the night’s manifesto, is supposed to serve as a chance to give those people who live in the area and love electronic dance music (popularly shorthanded to “EDM”) something to look forward to, à la Miami’s late-winter/early spring series of dance events and Austin’s annual barbecue-and-bands bacchanal South By Southwest. (Acts two and three are scheduled for April and May.)
The PR for the night threw around words like “next-generation” and “extrasensory.” We were asked to dress “theatrically” for the evening, the DJ booth for the headliner resembled a pipe organ, and there were some impressive lasers being thrown out into the crowd. Also on offer: some between-act entertainment and a slight makeover—decorations fashioned from instruments and sheet music, red lights—for the first-mezzanine bar, which was rechristened a “lounge,” well-stocked with the omnipresent energy drink Red Bull.
It wasn’t really an overwhelming sensory experience, but the between-act offerings were definitely superior to your typical concert’s canned music. The three aerialists—Anya Sapozhnikova, Elena Delgado, and Airin Dalton—who dipped and weaved on rafter-suspended silks between the first and second acts thrilled, while the mezzo-soprano Hai-Ting Chinn’s performance of an aria by the composer Stephan Moore, during which she descended from the Hammerstein’s opera boxes and was eventually carried to the venue’s stage by a cadre of men, gave the night a much-needed aesthetic jolt.
Together, they brought to mind the long-running speakeasy party Shanghai Mermaid, which also invites its attendees to become one with the action by asking them to dress up in thematically appropriate clothing and having women perform acts of daring while dangling in the middle of the room. But the delicacy and artfulness supplied by those performers were overshadowed by the relentless stomp of the night’s three main acts; one aerialist did come back for Axwell’s big 2:45 a.m. finale, but I found myself wishing that the thematic elements had been heightened or at least sprinkled throughout the three main sets.
EDM is probably the biggest live-music story of the past 18 months, with festivals such as the Electric Daisy Carnival packing in candy-colored revelers for hours-long stretches of dancing and debauchery and carnival rides, as well as artists including Skrillex and Deadmau5 headlining multi-night stints in cities across the country. (Over the weekend, Electric Daisy announced a New York stint, its first, taking place this May.) Jam-packed efforts like Electric Daisy and the Cosmic Opera are part of a greater “more bang for your buck” trend in live music that extends across genres and to weekend-long concert-tourism efforts like Coachella and the All Tomorrow’s Parties series, or extended-bill outings like this summer’s tour by country heavyweights Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw.
The set by Axwell, the Cosmic Opera’s headliner and mastermind, pretty effectively summed up why EDM shows have become such a draw for those in search of extended catharsis—they last long (he performed for nearly two hours), and have minimal between-song banter and maximum opportunity for bodies to get lost in the music. Lyrics that vaguely touched on the notions of love and hope swirled above beats that implied something less romantic—speed dating while embarking on a particularly grinding (yet rigidly rhythmic) subway ride, perhaps. His DJ booth was styled after a pipe organ, and a few of the tracks emanating from it had keyboard parts that could plausibly have come from such a structure. And in order to keep those people who might be new to the game interested, his set was pockmarked with songs plucked from the radio dial: Two Coldplay songs were played; Avicii’s Etta James–sampling “Levels” filled the room with its combination of James’s powerful wail and the Swedish DJ’s pummeling beat; and Axwell’s remix of Florence and the Machine’s cover of the 1986 club hit “You Got the Love” effectively pushed the Catholic-mystic British singer down the disco-diva path. Rock, despite having a rough go of it lately, was well represented; the crowd didn’t pop louder all night than when the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ mournful chug “Otherside”—the funk-metal pranksters’ 1999 retracing of the steps traveled by the similarly bleak “Under the Bridge”—dropped into the mix. (Even in the context of all the other antics, this was the night’s strangest moment. Nostalgia does funny things to people, I suppose.)
The common thread between Axwell and the night’s other two performers, the Dutch duo No-ID and the German DJ Deniz Koyu, was the “drop,” the point in the music when the action stopped in order to push its beat even deeper. The ones showcased on Thursday weren’t as malfunctioning-jet-engine-sounding as the ones proffered by the Grammy-winning dubstep DJ Skrillex, but they did have me wondering if it was the genre’s analogue to the guitar solo, i.e. the point in the music where the artist shows off his virtuosic airs, or the false ending, i.e. the point where the artist tricks the audience into thinking that the party has ended, only to whip the crowd into a frenzy again by delving back, headfirst, into the music. Koyu really went all in on the second interpretation; there were no fewer than five times that I thought his set was going to wrap up, though that could have been me projecting my hope for an end to his fairly static stomp onto his schedule. Still, the crowd, which took the notion of dressing “theatrically” in directions that involved tuxedos, tuxedo T-shirts, pacifiers, Technicolor wigs, and outfits that glowed under the spitting lasers, took on an anticipatory air every time any of the DJs threw up their hands in anticipation of the drop and, subsequently, went bonkers on cue.
At one point on Thursday night, a nearby audience member absconded with my notebook and pen and scribbled a manifesto-slash-declaration: “I RAGE ALL DAY.” (Caps his.) While some bits of excess might have been fundamentally impossible because of the venue’s own limitations/self-interest—signs posted in the bars informed attendees that there was no bottle service—the Cosmic Opera’s effort to take the idea of the never-ending party into the night (and the next morning) was admirable, if not 100 percent transcendent. Next time, maybe add a trapeze artist or two?