Before the concerts started, I watched part of a documentary on No Wave and some of its immediate and more distant successors. Interviews with Arto Lindsay, Lydia Lunch and another member of Teenage Jesus & The Jerks, Glenn Branca, Michael Gira, Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo were interspersed with concert footage. Apart from DNA, I'd never heard any of the bands, much less seen them. The extremism of some of the performances (Swans' punishing, ritualistic intensity, The Contortions' Soul-tinged craziness, among others) was amazing.
After a while, the film suddenly jumped from 1982 to 2002 and applied the same formula to well-known bands like Yeah Yeahs Yeahs, Liars and Black Dice, and lesser-knowns such as A.R.E. Weapons (whose front-man was, in amusing contrast to everyone else, a total poseur) and others whose names I'm forgetting. At one point, Lunch said that she didn't see her music as entertainment. Judging from the clips in the movie (bad form, I know), most of the current bands, while enjoyable, were definitely on the entertainment side of things, less wildly radical, apart perhaps from Black Dice. Branca and others were also given the chance to gripe about the young'uns having it so easy, as all self-respecting old men must. Anyway, the documentary was an unexpectedly appropriate warm-up for the first act.
Ben Frost (website | MySpace)
As I walked in, the heavily-bearded Frost was hovering over his laptop, while two guitarists added short, sharp, synchronised blasts to a thudding 6-beat figure. It progressively built to a rhythmic cacophony of guitar and crackling laptop static. Massive drones that rattled chest, throat and room even at low volume and actually made it a little difficult to breathe flooded from the speakers. It was all very cool.
The second piece also started with big, slow, enveloping sounds, but this time ended with a cathartic, but tricky, modified shuffle over which the guitarists jumped around and into each other.
Nico Muhly (Nico Muhly | MySpace)
The principal reason for my attendance. Prof. Heebie McJeebie introduced Muhly to me, and after reading Steve Smith gush and Bernard Holland scratch his head, I was curious to see this new music heart-throb for myself, even if the half-filled 200-capacity AB Club is a far cry from Zankel Hall. And he is rather cute.
The programme consisted of pieces for piano, piano + laptop and piano + laptop + violin. The first one was my favourite, as piano and laptop delved immediately into head-spinning rhythmic subdivisions.
Throughout the concert, the laptop parts were elaborately stitched-together string or mallet percussion sounds, but given a particular texture, or "depth of field" that I doubt it would be possible to create with live instruments. The integration of piano and laptop (controlled by Valgeir Sigurðsson) was wonderfully seamless: somehow, they both seemed embedded in one another. I often closed my eyes to avoid the usual "where's the sound coming from?" reflex and take it in as a whole.
The two piano pieces kind of drifted along. The first (listening to the CD, I think it was "A Hudson Cycle") was a romantic mostly-waltz, more mood than melody. By setting aside the rhythmic concerns of the previous piano/laptop piece, Muhly's deceptively simple harmonic language was more apparent.
I have a real problem connecting with Classical violin, so the trio pieces didn't do too much for me. One took a very static backdrop, punctured it with increasingly aggressive tuba (?) blasts and generated a sense of dread, especially when the violin played melodically, rather than worked over repetitive riffs. The highlight of "Honest Music," the trio piece that ended the set, was when Sigurðsson fed back several violin lines at once in dynamic bursts peppered with laptop static.
The concert was good, but I'm finding the CD Speaks Volumes even better.
Valgeir Sigurðsson (Bedroom Community (MySpace)
For his own set, label owner Valgeir Sigurðsson used laptop and guitar, along with Muhly on piano and keyboard, the same violinist, a second keyboardist, a cellist and a drummer. This was the longest set, but for me very underwhelming. The overall vibe was a less pop post-Portishead and post-Hooverphonic, but somewhat unsatisfying. Sigurðsson said it was only their fourth concert, so maybe that had something to do with the timid performance. Song after song, slow, fairly static dreamscapes unfolded, all sounding very nice but just lacking in either oomph or sheerly transcendent beauty. Maybe I would have enjoyed it more sitting down or suspended in a vat of nutrient-rich jelly.
For some reason, most of the beats the drummer played sounded really dated, as if coming from the soundtrack for a trendy late-90s advertisement. When, towards the end of the concert, the beats (both drums- and laptop-generated) let go of the backbeat and structured themselves more loosely, they meshed better with the simple string motifs and the keyboards' lush chords and discrete flourishes. The best beat of all, glitchy and seemingly mapped onto Muhly's intricated piano phrasing, was too rapidly drowned in a more conventional one, but they eventually made up for it by upping the dance and fireworks quotients. After an insistent ovation, Sigurðsson returned to the stage to say "Thanks for trying. We played eleven songs, there are no more."