In the past few years a number of new venues have popped up in and around New York, run by musicians and curators who understand the pivotal fact that it matters where and how you hear music, that spaces matter for a performing art. These venues present a broad range of music—classical, jazz, experimental, free jazz, noise, opera, ambient, early music, new music—but what unites them is a commitment to further the cause of aesthetic evolution, and to do so by providing a space for these art forms to find an audience. The Rail is proud to highlight some of these venues, each of which, through a combination of unique programming, intimate presentation, and an innovative mission, are, despite the many financial obstacles, helping to keep music in New York exciting, vibrant, and new.
In a small space on the Lower East Side, Spectrum’s founder Glenn Cornett presents new and experimental music across genres. Cornett, a neuroscientist and biotech entrepreneur with a substantial background in music—he studied trombone and is also a composer in his own right, with a piece of his played at the Darmstadt Summer Institute this year—hosted monthly concerts in his Chelsea apartment before opening the Ludlow St. location. Cellist and Composer Lester St. Louis, whom Glenn refers to as the “CCO: Chief Cool Officer,” plays a large role in organization and operation of the venue.
Spectrum boasts custom built speakers made by “chief scientist” Lawrence de Martin, a feature that supports Cornett’s claim that Spectrum has the best sound for acoustic and electro-acoustic music anywhere; de Martin adds that Spectrum is the “smallest room I know with a nine-foot Steinway concert grand and such good sound.” By day the space functions as Cornett’s living room/office/kitchen, and the couches and recliners the audience members sit in bear witness to that fact. This past season, the venue hosted events almost daily, with many double- and triple-bills; the upcoming season will see a shift to a regular Thursday-to-Sunday schedule, with additional events throughout the week. The number of shows is staggering: 500 – 600 events in 2013 – 14, and 400 planned for 2014 – 15.
For much of the booking, Cornett chooses people whose attitudes and accomplishments he respects and asks them to curate series—some examples of these are the Soundscape Series of Ambient Music, presented by violinist Cornelius Duffalo and bassist Patrick Derivaz, and pianist Marilyn Nonken’s Voluptuous Virtuosity. Cornett and St. Louis are also committed to presenting Early Music in partnership with, among others, Juilliard415 and New Vintage Baroque.
Cornett admits to losing money on the venue, but he’s willing to take the loss to bring the music to audiences. Turnout is unpredictable, but he sees it as part of the enterprise. “There are some brilliant, energetic, amazing young people who bring in great crowds, and there are others who are equally brilliant who bring in five or six people. But we still want to have them back. We have some failures here, but we’re providing a safe space to fail in.”
If Spectrum’s intimate presentation of experimental music harkens back to the New York loft parties of the 1970s, St. Urban goes back even further, recalling the centuries-old tradition of chamber music and the Enlightenment notion of the salon. Lenore Davis, herself a pianist, ran a chamber music series in New Jersey for 14 years before moving to Manhattan. She first considered finding a venue for a new series, but as she explains, “I thought, I want this to be about listeners, not putting people in seats, and so the salon series was born.” Davis contacted pianist Richard Goode, and asked him to suggest musicians for a new series to take place in Davis’s apartment on the Upper West Side.
Davis has just finished the first season of concerts, which began in February of this year. The audience sign up as members—subscribers, essentially—who for $100–$140 can attend three salon concerts. The space can handle a crowd of 50 to 60. Says Davis, “it really feels like a group of friends; they become friends. And the artists love that too, because there really is an intimacy, there is a real effect on the musicianship.”
Perhaps most exciting, each year Davis plans to commission a new piece of chamber music to be premiered at the last concert of the season, which takes place at a public venue (this past season’s was in the Greene Space). For 2015, Davis has chosen Damascene clarinetist and composer Kinan Azmeh, who will be composing a song cycle. Other concerts during the season will follow this theme and will feature song cycles from Schubert, Ravel, Debussy, Brahms, and a new work from Gordon Beeferman.
For some, the choice to use their own home as a concert hall can be based on a desire for intimacy; in other instances, it can be a matter of expediency, with intimacy the fortunate by-product. Whatever the case, the decision usually comes as an extension of an already-existing artistic inclination or practice. So it is with SEEDS Brooklyn. Ohad Talmor and his wife live on the second floor of a building they own on Vanderbilt Avenue; SEEDS (and Talmor’s studio) is located in the ground-floor commercial space. There Talmor hosts a mix of jazz, improvisational, and world music, as well as weekly workshops; the walls are open to visual artists to exhibit their work.
For Talmor, a pianist and jazz saxophonist—his strong new recording, Singular Curves, with Steve Swallow on bass and Adam Nussbaum on drums, was released in August on Auand Records—opening up the space was a natural move. It was, he explains, “not a new idea for us. It germinated from several different things my wife and I had been involved in.”
SEEDS holds a crowd of up to 50. Among other gear, the space boasts a Rhodes electric piano and a setup for recording and live streaming. Audience members are asked for a $10 donation, which goes to the performers. The venue hosts a regular season of events; Talmor handles the booking himself on top of his own work as a musician. His desire to open a socially organized space for jazz and improvisational music comes in part from his experience with AMR, a like-minded venue in Geneva. “I mostly grew up in Geneva, Switzerland, playing all over the world in front of a bunch of different crowds. I come from a very hardcore left wing place where I believe it’s the responsibility of the state: education, housing, and especially art.”
WFMU’s Monty Hall
WFMU’s Monty Hall also takes advantage of an unused storefront space. The venerable, one-of-a-kind freeform radio station in Jersey City had leased the ground floor of its building on Montgomery Street since moving there in 1998, but when the tenant vacated last year, the station decided to take it over. After renovations, the space hosted the closing party for WFMU’s annual pledge drive in March, and a sold-out show in July marked the official opening.
Monty Hall won’t operate as a nightly music venue—the efforts of WFMU’s small staff being primarily directed towards running the radio station itself—but instead will host a few different events each month. The plan for now, according to assistant general manager Liz Berg, is to have “one music show, one comedy show, maybe one film screening per month and see how that goes.”
Still, the hope is that the venue will serve as an extension of WFMU’s mission, a further means of reaching its audience. The space is set up to stream video over the web, so that the in-person intimacy from which the audience benefits will also serve the station’s online audience. As Berg explains, “WFMU brings in a lot of amazing acts from all over the world. In the past we’ve only been able to share that with our audience over the air and over the web, and now we have the opportunity to share that with our audience in person.” An upcoming performance on September 13 seems a promising harbinger of good things to come, with London’s People Like Us presenting two works, including a new audio-visual collage piece, together with M. C. Schmidt and Jason Willett.
(Le) Poisson Rouge had an enormous effect on the contemporary classical scene when it first opened in 2008, just as the wave of indie rock-inspired post-minimalism was building. During its first couple of years, the excitement and glee of seeing an opera singer, a piano festival, or a performance of Music for 18 Musicians in a basement nightclub—with tables, food, and alcohol—was palpable. LPR is still an essential concert venue, but one whose limitations now show: noise from the bar and crowd, acoustic problems, the hectic clearing of the room to make way for the regular disco.
For pure listening, LPR has been superseded by a new basement space a few blocks away: SubCulture, on Bleecker at Lafayette. SubCulture is dedicated to the listening experience, and the music you can hear there, while often close in style to LPR, seems deeper and more serious. It’s a space where the configuration means everything to the experience: there’s a bar, but they don’t serve while the music is playing, and the seats are arranged in traditional terraced rows (there are seats perpendicular to the stage too), each with a cup holder for your beer or cocktail. Rather than the music accompanying your drinking, you drink while focused on the music.
The sound is superior too, rarely requiring amplification, and SubCulture appears to be the new favorite home for the New York Philharmonic’s CONTACT! new music series, and also hosts chamber music concerts for 92Y. Regular programs cover jazz, pop, folk, and comedy. Typical of the weight and adventure of the music you can find at SubCulture was a concert in March, with Van Cliburn 3rd Prize Winner Sean Chen joining jazz pianist Dan Tepfer in an extraordinary joint exploration of how composition and improvisation go hand-in-hand: Chen played each of Chopin’s Impromptus, Tepfer responded with his own improvisation on each. Subliminally, it was a clear argument for how improvisation is at the core of classical music, and musically it was a unique and dazzling experience.