Party on the Gowanus
“The Independents” at Issue Project Room
It’s a little after eleven on a Sunday night in mid-January as people crowd into the second floor of Issue Project Room, an abandoned silo overlooking the Gowanus Canal in industrial Carroll Gardens. Excitement is in the air as the fourth and final act of the evening is about to begin. The chairs have just been removed from the floor to encourage people to move around, dance, and interact with the space—a cylindrical room with cement walls and two rather obtrusive pillars in the center. The “stage” (the room is all one level) is littered with oddly shaped percussion instruments, flutes, horns, synthesizers, guitars, and other unidentifiable musical instruments.
A rocking chair hangs upside-down from the ceiling. The audience hushes as a gruff-looking man recites a poetic sermon and the other members of the seven-piece ensemble settle at their instruments. Suddenly a small but fierce-looking woman pounds with fists and forearms on the upright piano in the corner, and before long the rest of the performers have joined her in a barrage of sound that bombards the audience. At one point during this hour-long, ritualistic performance, a masked man with a long braided beard takes a break from his screams and brandishes a knife, with which he punctures a plastic bag that hangs from the rocking chair, spewing some mysterious liquid onto the floor.
The group described above is NYC-based free-improv ensemble the No-Neck Blues Band, one of over fifty groups who performed during the month of January at IPR, a venue located deep in the heart of Brooklyn. The winter festivities were part of “The Independents,” a festival organized by Suzanne Fiol, the Executive and Artistic Director of Issue Project Room, and Regina Greene of Tennessee-based booking agency Front Porch Productions. The two young women started this project by choosing seven different independent American record labels—Tompkins Square, XI, Pogus, Locust, Ecstatic Peace, Family Vineyard, and Table of the Elements. Together with the directors of these labels, they curated fifteen nights of new music, as well as some video and spoken word, displaying a wide range of different styles—from the minimalism of Tony Conrad and Rhys Chatham, the Freak Folk of Sir Richard Bishop, and the soothing Americana of Loren Connors and David Daniell, to the likes of such pioneers as David Behrman, Gamelan Son of Lion, and Thurston Moore.
ecause of the huge number of performers involved, every night was bound to be full of surprises. For example, most of the audience members in attendance at the sold-out show featuring Rhys Chatham and his “Guitar Trio All-Stars” (which, among eleven prominent and talented musicians, included Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon, and Lee Renaldo of Sonic Youth, ex-Swans drummer Jonathan Kane, and composer Alan Licht) might not have ever heard of the opening band, Neptune. I myself, slightly worn out by the festival at this point (this was the fourteenth night), arrived fashionably late, catching the tail-end of the group’s first song. I could hear dissonant harmonies and jagged rhythms emanating from the silo from where I stood, at the big black gate that marks the entrance to IPR’s grounds. Immediately drawn in by their energy, I sprinted through the trees and, living dangerously, flew up the steep fire-escape stairs and into the performance space. The energetic trio from Boston bounced around the stage with what appeared at first glance to be weapons but turned out to be electric guitars. One member played a homemade synthesizer assembled from scrap metal, pieces of wood, a power supply taken from a trashed computer, and a few square-wave oscillators. Another played an electric bass shaped like a scythe. Their music fit their name and appearance—other-worldly and slightly terrifying. If anyone arrived late solely for the “main attraction” they missed quite a show.
Not to say that the main attraction was anything but spectacular. The ensemble of a drum set and eleven electric guitars, each of them with its own amplifier (and with a few basses mixed in), formed an impressively large semi-circle around the room. Over the course of two twenty-minute sets the musicians thrashed away relentlessly in different but complimentary rhythmic sequences, rarely if ever playing different pitches. Chatham’s “music in octaves” is captivating not only because of the sheer force of sound, but also because of the subtle shifts in density—as layers are added and subtracted, different overtones emerge and bounce around the listeners’ ears in fresh ways.
O n the evening given over to the midwestern label Family Vineyard—a subdued, less crowded night in which there were no rock stars in the lineup—there was no less excitement in the air. Philip Gayle tuned his various stringed instruments as well as his entire being to the room, integrating external interruptions into his psychedelic improvisations. The door to the space would occasionally creak open, harmonizing with Gayle’s sound, and as the unsuspecting audience member wandered into the room Gayle would playfully follow them with his melody as if he were holding a spotlight—stopping when they stood still, going faster when they hurried through to the other side of the room. More than having a comic effect, it felt as if his music really came from nature—the energy was magical. With each glissando, new harmonies would emerge and then disappear mysteriously. To end his performance, Gayle slowly made his way around the room while bowing the waterphone, which shimmered silver and gold, casting a spell on the audience.
To end the evening of Family Vineyard artists, Jessica Rylan gave a poignant performance infused with a deadpan sense of humor. She switched seamlessly between different musical personalities, from idiosyncratic singer-songwriter to violent electronic noisemaker. The audience did not quite know what to make of it when she stopped in the middle of a love song to offer some obscure anecdote, or when she started talking to her synthesizer, asking it where its seagull sounds had gone. In some ways it seemed as though she were thriving on awkwardness—there was a growing sense of unease in the room that inspired her performance. Whether she was singing gentle melodies over dissonant acoustic guitar or screaming along with her homemade synthesizer, her performance illustrated the beauty of human imperfections.
N ot only was the Independents festival full of raw and fiery energy, but the music had a directness that was largely due to the intimacy of the space. The performers hung out with the audience before, during, and after the shows, often staying late into the night.
The colorful variety of music in the festival was a testament to all of the curators involved and their devotion to new music. Unlike their mainstream counterparts, they are clearly not in it for the money. In the case of Al Margolis, director of Pogus Productions, Thurston Moore, director of Ecstatic Peace, and Phill Niblock, director of XI, the reason for their dedication is clear: They are all musicians themselves and would like to share their ideas and aesthetic tastes. They might have more altruistic reasons, too. Al Margolis, having been affected by the death of composer Giancinto Scelsi in 1982, started Pogus with the idea that he might be able to bring accomplished composers the attention they deserve before they die. (Scelsi’s case is particularly dramatic, as he had very few public performances of his work while he was alive; after his death, his music quickly spread across Europe, eventually reaching the U.S. Now, not only are his compositions being featured at high-profile events like the renowned Salzburg Festival, but there are over fifty CDs of his music available, all produced since his death.)
Whatever the nature of their intentions, directors of small venues and independent record labels play an important role in our culture. Thanks to their efforts, innovative music thrives—even if it is underground, in a garage, or in a silo. The Independents lived up to Issue Project Room’s mission of creating “a platform where possibilities can manifest openness for change, new perceptions and experiences; a platform where stimulating ideas can be exchanged, discussed, and exposed.”
Sergei Tcherepnin is a composer/performer of new music currently based in Brooklyn.
Sergei Tcherepnin is a composer/performer of new music currently based in Brooklyn.