Empty New York

I can still remember what life was like before, but just barely. February was one of the most active musical months in recent memory for me, a fully embodied realization of all that I have aspired to, and what I imagined life in New York could be when I arrived here in May 2001. To recall that month now is somewhat heartbreaking, but I feel the need to recap what life was like for a musical ecologist in New York City, in the early twenty-first century.

On Saturday the 1st I had the second of two long phone conversations with multidisciplinary artist Jen Kutler. While I had recently hosted her on my series Musical Ecologies the previous October, I was now working on an article about her for the Canadian contemporary music magazine Musicworks. Over the last few years I had been writing, and publishing regularly about music, for the Brooklyn Rail, NewMusicBox, my own blog, and for Musicworks. This piece on Kutler, which was eventually published in April, was a particularly rewarding writing project, as I already had a lot of recent background on the artist, and a good rapport as well. When I set about becoming a writer on music, this is the kind of piece I imagined I might do. Check it out here.

The following Wednesday, the 5th, I popped into my favorite local bar, The Gate, at the corner of 5th Avenue and 3rd Street. In recent weeks they had started hosting a weekly Irish music night, and while I have never been seriously interested in traditional Irish music, things were sounding very good on this night. A small group of very obviously accomplished musicians had gathered in a corner, playing tune after tune, which they all seemed to know by heart. The music didn’t dominate, but offered another dimension one could enter and exit, while enjoying a drink or conversation. Live music like this, in a bar, is increasingly rare, and I was heartened by this seemingly spontaneous gathering of musicians, and made a note to come back again on another Wednesday.

On Sunday the 9th I attended Kinetic Mirrors, an interdisciplinary performance by Yoshiko Chuma, Elizabeth Kresch, and others. The venue, a corner-store gallery known as HACO NYC, at Grand & Kent in Northside Williamsburg, was situated right at the edge where the remainders of the former bohemian art Williamsburg meets the new corporate waterfront condo Williamsburg. So it was rather appropriate that Chuma, a longtime figure and living legend of the Downtown arts world, should be presenting her latest work at this nexus of past and future. With her art-as-life, and at times confrontational approach to live improv action theater, incorporating dance, music (by trombonist Christopher McIntyre), live portrait painting (by Kresch), spontaneous dialog with the audience, and all other manner of boundary blurring, the performance was both uncomfortable and inspiring.

On Wednesday the 12th I joined a friend at Sunny’s Bar in Red Hook, Brooklyn. An acquaintance of his, a professional accordionist, was celebrating a birthday and gathering with a few friends, and I came along for the ride. Sunny’s is a unique spot, not least for being located in this semi-deserted district along Upper New York Bay. Though I had long heard stories about Sunny’s and had been by on my bike many times, this was my first proper visit. The bar is known for hosting live music, and the group most people know there is Smokey Hormel’s “Smokey’s Roundup” who I think played there every week. All dressed up like cowboys, Smokey’s Roundup play something they call “western swing” which seems to me a kind of hip urban country jazz, if you will. I’m sure someone has written all about it, but suffice it to say I was happy to finally hear the group, in their natural habitat no less, and it was again heartening to hear good, casual live music in a bar in New York City.

Paula Matthusen

Later that week, on Thursday the 13th, I hosted composer Paula Matthusen, with guest performers James Moore and Seth Cluett, on my Musical Ecologies series at the Old Stone House in Park Slope. This was the first event of 2020 on the series, having just concluded a two-month winter break. I remember it being a particularly clear night, not uncommon in February, and Venus (and/or Jupiter) were clearly visible over the park in which the House sits. My public conversation with Paula that began the evening was engaging, if at times a little uncomfortable, as we talked about her personal history as a composer, sound, Deep Listening, and her career as a professor of music. The performances that followed where delicately executed electroacoustic experiments that were well suited to the room, both in terms of its intimate scale, and its acoustics. We had a sizable and engaged audience and spirited free-form conversations followed afterwards as we drained what little remained of the wine.

On the subway to Jackson Hts.

The next day, Friday the 14th, Tom Chiu, Jason Cady and I (aka the JCC Trio) convened at Jason’s apartment in Jackson Heights, Queens to rehearse for our upcoming performance at Outpost Artists Resources. To date, we had “performed” together as a trio maybe three times, all them at Troost, a cozy bar in Greenpoint, where we mostly provided background atmosphere for counter-cultural nightlife. We basically developed our repertoire there, on the job so-to-speak, and later in the month we would be playing our first proper gig, not at the bar. The afternoon rehearsal was very productive as we ironed out the final details of our set that would feature one composition by each of us. But more on that later…

That Sunday, the 16th, I hosted another edition of Sunday Soundscapes, the informal series I had been organizing for the past year or so roughly once-a-month, at the aforementioned Troost. Each month I would invite a guest, or guests, to join me for an evening of gentle atmospheres, or as in some cases, experimental lounge music (see JCC Trio). On this night my guest was video artist Katherine Liberovskaya with whom I had previously collaborated. Though the space is cramped and the available wall space for projection is limited, Katherine was able to create a lovely animated canvas directly across from where we sat, mixing live camera input with prepared clips, all processed in real-time using algorithmic software. To accompany her visuals, I played with my usual electroacoustic hammer dulcimer setup, creating quiet textures and drones while incorporating field recordings of birdsong, water and insects. We did two lovely sets and captured the attention of more than a few Sunday drinkers. As a special bonus, Phill Niblock, who is also Katherine’s partner, sat with us throughout, transmitting his aged wisdom and good spirits. Passing the hat afterwards was especially productive and I concluded the night, as I usually did there, with one of Troost’s excellent rye manhattans on tap.

Katherine Liberovskaya & Phill Niblock

A few days later, on Tuesday the 18th, I attended Harvestworks Digital Media Arts Center’s annual Artists-In-Residence orientation gathering at the organization’s headquarters on Broadway in SoHo. I have a bit of history with Harvestworks, as a staff member (2007-2009), Artist-In-Residence (2014-15) and longtime general follower and fan. While mostly focused on media arts and technology, Harvestworks began in the 1970s as a public access synthesizer studio, and music and soundart remain a central part of its mission. This year I had been invited to be part of the panel that chose this year’s AIRs, a process that took place earlier in the year. The evening was festive, and as usual, crowded, for the Harvestworks space is, like many spaces in New York City, very tight. The evening centered around short introductions and presentations by this year’s selected artists, all resided over by Harvestworks’ longtime Director Carol Parkinson. By the end of the evening pretty much everyone was on a first-name basis, and all of us looking forward to the year ahead, which would include the creation of many new works, more gatherings, various public events and who knows what else. All told, a typically fun night at one of New York’s venerable Downtown avant-garde hubs.

That Thursday, February 20th, the JCC Trio performed alongside the duo of Sue Garner & Talice Lee, at Outpost Artists Resources in Ridgewood, Queens as part of Fire Over Heaven, an ongoing series curated by musician Che Chen. It was very chilly, wintry night, and if not for the inclusion of a special art ritual that included a champagne toast commemorating the day’s unique date (2/20/20) that drew its own crowd, we may have been playing to a rather sparse house. As it happened, it was a lovely audience. Garner & Lee opened with a short but magical set of collaborative songs for guitar, violin and voices. Our nearly one-hour set went surprisingly well. It was our first time playing in a large room with a dedicated sound engineer and proper mics, and each of our pieces gained greater clarity. Fortuitously, it was also recorded, by David Weinstein (in absentia) for his weekly program Ridgewood Radio on WFMU’s Give The Drummer Radio stream. It took some weeks, with the pandemic shutdown that soon arrived, for these recordings to come to light, and he expertly mixed the tracks and eventually broadcast them on the April 8th edition of Ridgewood Radio. What the recording revealed to all of us in the trio, was that we were better than we thought! At the bar we could never really hear one another in detail – the recording made audible things we didn’t even know each of us were doing. You can hear the results for yourself, as the recording is now a live album download on Bandcamp.

Crys Cole & Oren Ambarchi

That Saturday, the 22nd, I visited Public Records, a still rather new multi-function music venue in the nearby Gowanus neighborhood in Brooklyn. While ostensibly a dance music space – techno, drum & bass, electronica, etc., Public Records had been occasionally hosting more experimental soundart-related artists. On this night the Canadian-Australian duo of Crys Cole & Oren Ambarchi appeared in the so-called “Sound Room,” a specially outfitted space with custom-made speaker arrays and acoustic treatments, designed for high-end live listening. This was my second time there for a live event, and again the room did not disappoint. For careful, full spectrum listening at both high and low volumes, there are few live rooms that can compete, and Cole & Ambarchi offered a fascinating long-form, slowly evolving soundscape that explored a range of frequencies and textures. However, the brilliance of the playback system exposed too many inconsistencies in artist’s output and dynamics, mostly having to do with their use of live mics and realtime processing, and the result might have been more fulfilling had we listened to a finished studio work. Nonetheless, I enjoyed getting to know the work of these two notable sound artists in more detail. I also enjoyed the opening set, a dark-ambient computer-based affair by the Brooklyn-based electronic artist Christina Giannone whom I had not previously heard of.

The next night, Sunday the 23rd, I participated in a four-hour performance/reading of the legendary graphic score Treatise composed by the late radical British composer Cornelius Cardew, at Spectrum, a contemporary music space near the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Organized by the German experimental musician (and longtime New York resident) Hans Tammen, the performance was arranged for groups of three and four musicians, who, through the use of two separate stages, played the work continuously, in sections, from beginning to end, each group playing for 18 minutes, while the individual pages of the score were projected on a large screen for all to see. The score itself is extremely abstract, resembling traditional music notation only incidentally. It has been the subject of much theorizing and speculation, and there is no consensus on how it should be interpreted. Thus, there were many different approaches, and for the most part it was used merely as a vehicle for some form of guided improvisation. Between the many musicians there to participate, and the actual audience, the place was indeed packed – it is not a big space. The evening had the feeling of both a ritual and a family reunion, and there were some very high points, especially for me the contribution of Austrian-born singer/performer Gisburg who took full command of the room during her and her colloborator’s 18-minutes. I broke a string on my hammer dulcimer during my performance, with Miguel Frasconi, David First and Chris McIntyre, which is rare, and I also took the bus, quite effortlessly, from my studio in Windsor Terrace to the front door of the venue. That was the first and only time I appeared at Spectrum, which has now closed its doors.

A couple of nights later, on Tuesday the 25th I went to HERE Arts Center to see mɔːnɪŋ (pronounced as “mourning”/ “morning”), a new work-in-progress by performer Gelsey Bell (and friends) based on the popular book The World Without Us by Alan Weisman. Bell is a multi-talented performer, and a scholar of performance practice who among other things, has made a name for herself as a leading interpreter of the experimental operas of the late Robert Ashley. I’ve always found her a fascinating artist, and I am even more fascinated by this book, which is a kind of thought experiment that imagines the world without humans, through a mix of scientific reporting and speculation. With a cast of four costumed performers, including herself, within a bare-bones set, Bell adapted excerpts of the text with a slow, multifarious soundscape that used synthesizers, guitars, horns and pre-recorded sounds, at least that’s how I remember it five months later! As a work-in-progress, the performance was brief, but there was more than enough of interest to have me looking very forward to the completed work, whenever that my come into being. Incidentally, that was the first time I visited HERE Arts Center, and I hope I get the chance to return some day.

Machine Girl

On Thursday the 27th I headed over to St. Vitus Bar in Greenpoint, Brooklyn for a record release event headlined by local electro-punk phenom Machine Girl. I was supposed to be joining my college-aged daughter who spearheaded the effort and bought the tickets, but she wasn’t able to get to the city in time – she attends an upstate university. I went anyway on my own, joining a packed crowd of 19-21 year-olds (from all appearances). The place was simply steamy! I heard a couple of the opening acts from a distance, but got deep into the crowd for the main act. Machine Girl both pummels and activates the body. It’s dance music for punks, and sounds not unlike some of the punchier works of Squarepusher, or any number of Ninja Tune artists, but louder and noisier. Though I was most certainly among the oldest there, I definitely enjoyed it.

John Maus

My daughter was able to make it to the city in time for the final event of the month, which she also spearheaded. It was a multi-stage, multi-artist spectacle of an event called “Outline: Winter” at the Knockdown Center in Maspeth, Queens. The headliner was the incomparably odd John Maus, her current favorite artist. Also appearing was the LA-based musician and songwriter Katie Gately whom I know from my days at Harvestworks when I was a staff member and she was an intern. We’ve kept in touch sporadically over the years, and recently her career as an artist has accelerated into high gear. Riding a wave of press for her debut album, she delivered an emotional set of songs with electronic backing tracks to a large hometown contingent on the smaller of the two stages. I enjoyed it very much. The main draw however, was Maus. I might endeavor to write a whole piece on him at some point, but for now I will just say “OMG, what the f***ing f***? Incredibly loud dystopian gothic synth-pop performed by an apparent madman, alone on stage with his laptop. I found myself up front again, packed like sardines, being pummeled by beats, my whole body vibrating, and hearing “Listen to your bodyyyyyyy,” “It’s time to die!”, “Take the baby to the dump, to the dump…” and other strange and sobering lyrics. I left the Knockdown Center with damaged ears and slightly sore muscles, and within a couple of days I was sick in bed with a high fever and chills. It took over a week to get healthy again, and by then the world had changed forever….

My Former Life as a Musical Ecologist

5 thoughts on “My Former Life as a Musical Ecologist

  • September 11, 2020 at 10:33 am

    This is terrific. I reminds me of when life was life and music was music, and both intermingled in real time. Till soon…

    • October 12, 2020 at 11:51 am

      Thanks for your comment, and thanks for reading…looking forward to the day when life and music will intermingle in real time again!

  • September 13, 2020 at 10:55 pm

    OMG, what an enviable life you lead! Led?
    It is sad to imagine how such social and musical richness evaporated overnight. Anyway, may your future bring many more FEB 2020s to come!

  • September 13, 2020 at 11:06 pm

    Coincidentally, I just saw Yoshiko Chuma on Zoom this afternoon! It was Contact Quarterly’s memorial celebration of the life, work, and play of Nancy Stark Smith.

    • October 12, 2020 at 11:52 am

      Thanks for your comments Drew, and that’s quite a coincidence!


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