Downtown International
Nostalgia in Tompkins Square and Suoni per il Popolo, Part II

I refuse to believe that the combination of age and the passing years is confusing me: I remember July and August in New York as the time when surprising and often enlightening new and experimental music was constantly churning the humid night air. You sweltered in your cheap, mean little room, listening to Tony Coulter spin new sounds on the radio; you went out, sweating, to the Knitting Factory or the Pyramid Club, or some record store, or even the garden at MoMA (it was at the museum's summer concert series that I first heard Cage’s and Morton Feldman’s music live, surrounded by the sounds of the city streets); you went to a basement in Tribeca and saw performers crawling along the floor while a man sang in an operatic falsetto. This was true just as much after the Tompkins Square Park riot as before: summer, when the standard performing season at the establishment venues takes a break, was the time for jazz and for new ideas, for John Zorn, Elliott Sharp, performance art events, and so much more.

Scanning events for July and August, I wonder where everything and everyone have gone. There are isolated outposts in Manhattan still, like Spectrum (a place we’ll be exploring in greater detail in the September issue), where you’ll find both expected and unexpected quantities and qualities and that have full schedules during the summer months, but the accidental discovery is infrequent. The Knitting Factory is some kind of pop club now; Tonic and the Thread Waxing Space are barely memories. A lot of the action has moved to Brooklyn, of course, with ISSUE Project Room, IBeam, and Roulette, but the borough is no longer cheap; the action is moving elsewhere.

And that’s a lot of action. The downtown idea is alive, well, and international. It’s not a style but a set of values and a rich and clear musical language. Experimental music since the late 20th century is a floating world of musicians and composers who have their roots in as many genres as exist, and the world where they meet is not a place where they mix those genres but one where they each take their own experimental inclinations and find common paths with others. The results are neither hybrids nor mash-ups but rather where the practice of a rock guitarist or an electronic composer collide in a concern for the exploration of sound and structure, free of the defining characteristics of any particular style.

This is a world of tiny audiences and virtually no institutional support, so there’s less of it in New York and more of it in places where living is still relatively affordable, like Berlin or Montreal―anyone know what’s happening on Staten Island? Still, there was a thrilling example of it at ISSUE over the Memorial Day weekend, with the inaugural visit from Ilan Volkov’s Tectonics Festival.

Volkov, Ambarchi, O'Malley by Steve Trotman

Volkov is an almost unbelievably perfect representative of the Downtown International idea. He is an experienced orchestral conductor in the world of classical music―his Stravinsky recordings with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra are excellent―with an interest in contemporary music, a quality that is welcome in classical musicians but no longer rare. But he’s also a practitioner in, and promoter of, truly experimental music, music that belongs to and defines no other genre. The Tectonics Festival exactly embodies the floating, international idea, alighting in cities across the globe―Glasgow, Reykjavik―for a short, scintillating stay.

At ISSUE, Volkov organized a range of music that had a compact foundation and a vast range: works explored the qualities of pure sound, the possibilities of graphic notation, the promises and dangers of improvisation, and the doorways of perception and metaphysics. I saw a doom metal icon play an almost imperceptibly quiet piece by an experimental legend, a classical violinist make music by whipping his bow through the air, and heard singers in a variety of languages and in no language at all.

The marquee draws were the great composers Alvin Lucier and Giacinto Scelsi; Sunn O))) member Stephen O’Malley; experimental musician Oren Ambarchi; and an evening length rarity from the truly obscure composer Harley Gaber. None disappointed.

Friday, May 23, O’Malley and Ambarchi played the local premier of Lucier’s recent Criss-Cross, the two guitarists sitting across a table from one another, their instruments laid flat in front of them. They produced barely audible sustained tones, keeping their hands on the fretboard, letting the sound expand quietly through time and space, the pitches gently colliding and vibrating against each other and around the resonant space. The concept seems a natural for O’Malley, as Sunn O)))’s best music is made by pushing sounds against each other, but where that band uses mountains, Lucier uses whispers.

Technically, that idea is at the core of Scelsi’s music as well, although for him the goal was more than just listening for what his experiments would produce: he wanted to use the vibrations of sounds, working with and against each other, to tear open a seam in the fabric of reality. At times his music does just that, especially in the tremendous performances of his compositions Ho and Manto, the first for solo voice—Jessika Kenny—the second adding viola—Evyind Kang. These were the most beautiful, finely played, and committed performances of these pieces I have ever heard.

Kenney’s own vocal solo, combining ritual elements and movement and what seemed to be Persian folk song, was often lovely but unfocussed and too long. Crys Cole’s own solo performance, using simple scratching and whispering sounds, was cogent. The night opened with stimulating music from Kang, a drone-like piece called Reverse Tree for strings and guitar, and Iancu Dumitrescu’s South Pole, a graphic score for shaking, tapping percussion and crashing guitars. Volkov conducted, leading with intensity but pushing things along a little too quickly; there were many sounds that wanted to linger.

Saturday was dedicated to Gaber’s The Winds Rise in the North, two hours of drone-type minimalism for amplified string quintet. Gaber’s biography is singular: born in 1943, he was a learned, dedicated composer who studied with Scelsi, among others; he was also an accomplished visual artist and filmmaker, and, from 1977, when he gave up composing, a tennis player. He returned to composing in 2010 in what appears to be an unfathomably complex way to organize and round-off a life he was already preparing to end—he killed himself in 2011.

Gaber was skillful and knowledgeable but essentially found his own way in music—the experimental ideal. The Winds Rise in the North is a visceral piece, at times disturbing and overwhelming, that has the players shape long, slow crescendos and decrescendos, at times matching pitches exactly, at other times bending quarter-tones or pressing out complex harmonics and un-pitched sounds. Gaber composed it with obvious skill and careful attention to every detail, but the goal of the piece is to go for the gut, the ear, the third eye, whichever organ sees through inner space into non-material realms. This was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to hear a truly extraordinary work, and the playing from violinists Conrad Harris, Pauline Kim, and Esther Noh, violist Erin Wright, and cellist Alex Waterman was technically astonishing and focused deep inside the music.

There was more Scelsi and Lucier on Sunday, the final afternoon. Baritone Jeffrey Gavett sang a set of four pieces: strange, mesmerizing music from Aaron Cassidy, Evan Johnson, Scelsi and Lucier. Especially striking was Scelsi’s Three Latin Prayers, straight vocal material set to weird rhythms and intervals, and the Lucier’s beautiful Music for Baritone and Slow Sweep Pure Wave Oscillators, where the singer holds sustained pitches against the slow, gliding opposition of the oscillators.

Lucier himself joined pianist Jenny Lin in Nothing Is Real, his charming variation on “Strawberry Fields Forever” for piano, recording device, tiny speaker, and tea pot. Lin also played his Still Lives, a great set all around. While the day (and the festival) closed with problematic music—a solo from experimental cellist Hildur Ingveldardóttir Gudnadóttir that went on too long and an improvisation by Volkov and drummer Eli Keszler in which Keszler simply would not stop playing—it still left the lingering memory of Alan Zimmerman playing two gorgeous compositions by Eric Richards, Times Racing and Finalbells, for tuned, metallic percussion.

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But where you might get three days of new and experimental music in Brooklyn, it turns out you can get almost three weeks in Montreal, not because the loonie is weak but because people with fewer economic resources, i.e. musicians, can afford to live in that city. Montreal has a strong experimental music community and the superb Suoni per il Popolo festival. I arrived on assistant music editor Marshall Yarbrough’s last day there, and picked up the thread on Monday, June 16, at Casa del Popolo. The very first act I heard was one of the best things I caught in my eight days there: a duo from Berlin called Air Cushion Finish.

The band members call themselves jayrope and Lippstueck, and with the fairly basic tools of guitar, percussion, microphone, mixer, and some sound processing, they created a beautiful, dream-like experience. The songs were about old men, about being lost at sea with no land in sight, about solace. They seemed to drift out of internal memories as much as from the musicians, and even the constant sixty-cycle hum of an ungrounded something or other was evocative and comforting.

Following them, Father Murphy stood out painfully and reflected the commercial realities of experimental music, such as they are: rock and electronic dance music grounded in pure authoritarian aggression are even uglier in this context than on the radio or in the clubs. Their basic anti-social and mechanistic attitudes reflect the worst aspects of human nature. Father Murphy drove me away, and the next night, after a lovely set from Brooklyn’s Young Magic, Fuck Buttons' fascist imbecility drove me out of La Sala Rossa and back across the street to Casa, for another festival highlight, Circuit des Yeux.

The band is a trio organized around singer Haley Fohr (with John Dawson and Cooper Crain), who has a voice that stops your heart mid-beat, a true contralto with a rounded, pellucid color and roots that sound like they reach down through her body into the very earth itself. The band had made its way up from ISSUE a few days before, and played from its recent, immersive album, Overdue. Live, the group is structurally stripped down and sonically rich. The music is beautiful and abrading at once, taking off somewhere beyond Neil Young’s most extreme edge. Fohr hides her face behind her hair and gives you everything in her voice, and that’s a hell of a gift.

Haley Fohr

There was plenty of jazz at Café Resonance, and I caught two sets from vibes player Jason Adasiewicz’s Sun Rooms trio, with Ingebrigt Håker Flaten on bass and drummer Mike Reed. Adasiewicz is a physically intense player, his attack so strong he frequently has to manhandle the vibes back into place while playing, and under the close, hot lights he was pouring sweat. The music was hot as well: driving jazz with intelligent structures, complex harmonies, and the leader’s constant solo inventions. For pure playing, the English band Eagulls was also one of the highlights. A quintet from Leeds, they sound like what early Echo and the Bunnymen would have been like if they had been a punk band, especially with George Mitchell’s keening voice, which shapes phrases like Ian McCulloch's did. In the best spirit of the festival, half-way through the set Mitchell asked the packed crowd (around 100 people) if any of them had extra rooms the band could sleep in that night, because they couldn’t afford a hotel.

By choice and accident, most of the music I caught was electronic. I stumbled, perhaps, on a moment where a sub-genre coalesced: let’s call it ERM, electronic ritual music, for now. A triple bill at La Sala Rossa explored, to varying degrees of success and failure, mysticism, ululation, and the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and the common tools were electronics and video. The worst was last, a confused and flaccid representation of the Book of the Dead from Le monde sans nous (Marie Brassard, Jonathan Parant and Alexandre St-Onge). Brassard seemed under-rehearsed and uncomfortable singing and reading words from the book, the overall flow of the music lacked apparent structure, and bizarre but interesting touches―a silver lamé head rising from the stage, a man pounding on the door from the inside of the bathroom―quickly turned into self-parody.

In the second set, Mantra Noir did some interesting things with voice and processing, but his organ solo would have been better left to Sun Ra. What stays in the memory was Jean-Sébastien Truchy’s opening set. Using harmonium, his voice, and loops and processing, Truchy takes aspects of non-Western ritualistic music out of their original context and puts them into a mysterious, hermetic, yet alluring world of his own personal ideas. Some of the transitions in his set were a little clumsy, but that added to the effect that he was reaching for something extra-musical, and the final part―his polyphonic screams over noise-loops, enhanced by low-resolution, abstract video―had me thinking that perhaps he’s creating a religion about and for machines and silicon chips.

Jean-Sébastien Truchy

There was more mixed electronic music my final night, a concert from Charles Cohen and Jerusalem in My Heart. Cohen has been making masterful improvised music with his Buchla Music Easel for decades, and his ability to organize interesting, attractive analog sounds into satisfying forms and structures is unique and unsurpassed. Jerusalem in My Heart is Radwan Moumneh, who uses electronics, sings, and plays the oud and percussion, and who works with various collaborators: for this set a video projectionist, flutist, and drummer.

His performance began with the most striking moment of the festival: as Moumneh sang and struck a contact mike on his chest, a naked bald man, covered in talc, crouched in front of him, back to the audience, and struck his own chest in return, the talc billowing out. But once this set piece was over, it was really over, the man and the theatrics exited stage right. And so went the set: Moumneh’s singing and instrumental playing were always involving, as were his collaborators; his sequenced electronic music interludes, on the other hand, were oppressively dull.

Heading to Montreal, the main event in my mind and the most experimental one, on its face, of the festival was a three-hour concert of Treatise, an epic graphic score from composer Cornelius Cardew. And that made my disappointment that much greater. The performance was poor, and it revealed something unattractive in Cardew’s thinking.

Treatise is beautiful to look at and has no instructions; players are supposed to respond and provide their own rules. And this assortment of local musicians did just that, applying rules excessively. Subdivisions of the overall ensemble played for segments of exactly fifteen minutes each for the opening ninety minutes, and most of the playing was simply dull. Martin Arnold used plenty of notes to say very little with his melodica, and the band Ciao Rhino produced a comprehensively arranged and stiff segment of music, so over-the-top in predetermining what would happen that it was totally out of place. At one point, the music consisted of a tape collage of Cardew being interviewed, talking about the piece and his Scratch Orchestra, which invited anyone to do anything. An excerpt of the orchestra playing the piece was so much more interesting than the live music that it undermined the performance.

Once the live playing began, someone started reading from Cardew’s writing denouncing graphic notation from the period after the composer had become a Maoist. A what-the-fuck moment certainly, but also a why-did-they-bother moment—what was the point of the concert? It then dawned on me that Cardew, whose notated music was problematic, was right in denouncing graphic notation, at least as long as he was referring to his own work. The example of Morton Feldman came to mind, the early, aesthetically and intellectually ambiguous graphic scores giving way to the notated, long-form masterpieces. A composer is responsible for his or her work: leaving the performers to fend for themselves, to give them the entire burden of success, is an ethical and aesthetic copout, and Treatise, in the wrong hands, is a failure. Cardew was irresponsible.

Cardew’s experimentation crossed the line from music to social organization, which, from the standpoint of the autocratic power that a composer wields, is as enticing as it is problematic. It is the tragic part of the social revolutions of the 1960s, personal freedom devolving into decadent dogma. Experimentalism in music grew out of that decade, and has constructively thrived in the hands of individuals and communities of music makers who put their ideas on the line, on stage. The risks they take are important to music and are also truly personal. Like Eagulls, everyone deserves a roof over their head at night.

Contributor

George Grella

GEORGE GRELLA is the Rail’s music editor.

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