October 5th, 2020
In anticipation of a performance with the Dan Joseph Ensemble at the new Issue Project Room in September 2013 as part of the organization’s tenth anniversary festival “Ten Years Alive on the Infinite Plain,” I wrote this piece reflecting on my many experiences with this vital organization and its founder, the late Suzanne Fiol. For various reasons, both remembered and forgotten, I never published it or shared it with anyone. Recently I revisited these paragraphs, and on the occasion of the 11th anniversary of Suzanne’s death, I have decided to share my memories of her and the early days of Issue Project Room
I met Suzanne at the very first event I attended at Issue Project Room which I believe it was a performance by Marco Cappelli of his “Endangered Guitar Project. This would have been 2004, and the venue was then at its original location on East 6th Street in Manhattan. I had been hearing about what seemed like occasional events there and was excited to finally get to one. Anthony Coleman, whom I had only recently met, introduced me to Suzanne almost as soon as I arrived and I was immediately taken by her charismatic intensity. Few concert organizers I have known commanded a crowd as powerfully as Suzanne, and being at an Issue event was more like being her guest at an important party, at her house. Other memorable events of that period included an all James Tenney program with the composer in attendance, as there was also a major Tenney event that week at the Whitney Philip Morris which is what brought him to town. This additional, smaller event was I think planned on short notice and included a talk with the composer led by Frank J. Oteri, performances by Eiliott Sharp, Danny Tunick, Chris McIntyre, and others. The composer died of cancer soon after and it was the one and only time I met James Tenney. I also remember a crowded benefit event with performances by Alan Licht, Sean Meehan, Barbara Barg and Billionaires for Bush.
Later, in 2005 I think, I performed with my ensemble at Issue on East 6th Street. At that time our repertoire consisted entirely of what would become the three piece on the Archaea CD. Clarinetist Michael Lowenstern was unavailable so Meighan Stoops joined us for what has been her only appearance with the ensemble. Otherwise the group included all now permanent members Tom Chiu, Loren Dempster, Marija Ilic and Danny Tunick.
Although Issue was doing some of the coolest programs in town, it was pretty unstable. I remember at least twice showing up for an event only to discover that it was either unexpectedly cancelled or moved. So it was not a surprise when I learned – it may have have in fact been upon arriving at one of these abruptly shut down events, that Issue was over – closed – done.
At least that’s how I remember it. But it wasn’t over, not at all. I was surprised, to say the least, when soon after closing I learned that Issue would be re-opening on the Gowanus Canal! “You’ve got to be kidding me” I thought. At that time there was nothing going on in the Gowanus, nothing I was aware of anyhow. I had been living in Park Slope since I arrived in New York in early 2001 and though there had been a steady growth in the still small number of music venues in the area, with Barbés and Southpaw leading the way, it was still a very marginal music neighborhood. In any case, I was seriously skeptical that Issue could survive in the wilderness of the Gowanus, and initially my doubt was well founded. I remember a lot of early events with tiny audiences.
But it didn’t take long for Issue to become the place to be for new music, for me at least. I was fortunate to live only six blocks from that Carroll Street silo directly on the Canal, with an upstairs performance space, in the round, and a downstairs, where the party was usually going on (Six Point was always on tap then, one of the first places to serve the now ubiquitous local brew) , and a generous outdoor grounds area where you felt like you were out camping in the country. It was also great to be near the canal regularly, and at night. I remember discovering on a number of nights, well-timed with the rising tide, that sometimes the canal teems with marine life.
And it was at Carroll Street that Issue really became part of my life. I went to a lot of events there, and they were all great – Leroy Jenkins solo, Tim Hecker, New York Theremin Society, a Ne(x)tworks residency, See Hear Now, Rebecca Moore, the Points In Space festival, Fiasco, Chris Mann, Thomas Buckner, New York Miniaturist Ensemble, and many others. At first, crowds were small – I think there were maybe ten people who heard Leroy play that breathtaking recital on violin and viola, on a freeeeezing night in the dead of winter. But the crowds definitely grew and what seemed incredibly improbable was quickly becoming the it space. There was always a familial vibe, and Suzanne would often (or perhaps always) cook, or someone would cook, but there was always food and drink, and often the post-concert hanging out would morph into a smaller, intimate gathering. Living nearby, as Suzanne also did, was definitely a plus.
In June 2006, to mark the release of my Mutable Music CD Archaea we performed the same program as the previous year, this time at the silo and with Lowenstern on clarinet. It was a lovely early summer night and it was a warm crowd full of friends, many from the neighborhood, and that night still stands for me as perhaps the highest point of my musical time in New York. Sometime later, or earlier, I’m not sure which, I gave a performance with each of my then duo partners, one set each with saxophonist John Ingle from San Francisco, and New York-based [now living in Wisconsin] cellist Loren Dempster. Sometime in that period Suzanne invited me to participate in a program she had conceived where she would conduct a hand-picked ensemble of unusual stringed instruments. I remember Hans Tammen, Miya Masaoka and Bradford Reed were involved and that the music part of the evening was brief. Suzanne conducted, and though she seemed a little tentative, was ultimately happy with the outcome. It was one of the first I remember of her signature thematic curatorial ideas. Later she would do “A Week of Strings,” “Points In Space” with Stephan Moore, voice only programs, theremin programs (I think she was instrumental in bringing about the creation of The New York Theremin Society), “Unlikely Couplings,” and eventually she would host resident artists and develop many other programming ideas that would come to define Issue Project Room.
The silo didn’t last long, but fortunately the move to the Old American Can Factory wasn’t far. It worked out great for me as Issue was now just short of three blocks away – for a while I assumed (wrongly) that no one lived closer to Issue than I. And I continued to go as often as possible, and being five minutes away, I visited often. The years at the Can Factory saw Issue continue to grow in stature while the programming became increasingly ambitious….
And that is where I left off in 2013. Perhaps you can help me with the rest of the story, please share your memories in the comments below! Thanks, Dan (10/5/20).