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September 7, 2001

++ Letter From New York

In the late '80s and early '90s, when I was a college student just outside New York, it seemed that hardly anything was happening in the city, musically speaking. Sure, there was the eclectic "downtown scene" of the Knitting Factory, or the brutal/comical straight-edge hardcore of Warzone and Gorilla Biscuits, if your brows were a little lower (as mine were, truth be told). But in remembering visits to Bleeker Bob's and Venus, when I'd return to campus practically empty-handed (put it this way: the first two purchases that come to mind from my college forays into the city are Jawbox's debut on Dischord and Raymond Scott's Reckless Nights and Turkish Twilights — fine records both, but hardly reflective of any kind of local renaissance), I remember the frustration of feeling that New York, for all its cosmopolitan status, was sorely lacking from a musical point of view.

Fast-forward a decade, and I'm singing a whole new song. Sure, New York clubs are under fire from Giuliani (witness Twilo's demise — although, for all the hoopla, it's worth bearing in mind that Twilo, frankly, sucked. Perhaps, if we're going to band together behind the pro-dancing banners of the New York Late Night Coalition and the Mishpucha collective's allied efforts to rescind the city's arcane cabaret laws, we should choose a better martyr). At the same time, the perpetual rent squeeze is forcing out other diehards like Wetlands, soon to be displaced when its building is turned into upscale housing. But in my three-day weekend in the city, evidence was everywhere that electronic music is flourishing in New York.

++ If you want to find a barometer of New York's musical climate, look no further than Other Music, located in the East Village at 4th and Lafayette. It's an eclecticist's dream, exploding and convoluting the usual genre divisions. The shelf labeled "In" encompasses rock, mostly indie and underground: The Strokes, Calexico, Pullman, Lightning Bolt. "Out" umbrellas everything from free jazz to Stockhausen, from Polwechsel's PowerBook improv to Chris Watson's field recordings. (And proving that they're the most In group around, The Strokes' debut Is This It was sold out, but then so was the Skam offshoot Smak, once I snatched up the last precious copy.)

For anything that doesn't quite fit the pat In/Out binary (and is there anything more "in" than the "out," in this era of commodified irony?) there's "Electronica" (a crap term, but I can live with it), "Psychedelia," "La Decadanse" (encompassing all the retrohip stalwarts like Serge Gainsbourg and Nancy Sinatra); a smattering of hip-hop bookending the electronica... and after that it all starts to go fuzzy. And that's just the CDs! The records may be fewer in number, but the range is just as great, and the pinned-up rarities — the Stereolab/Nurse With Wound collaboration Crumb Duck, a slew of Stockhausen, first pressings of Os Mutantes, some Sonic Youth record I'd never even heard of — were like record-collector porn, tantalizing and totally out of reach, literally and economically.

I could go on, but my intention isn't to write a PR fluff piece — OK, if Other'll offer a hefty enough recurring discount, I'll consider it [Editor's note: no you won't!] — but to point out how experimental music is flourishing in the city.

++ Record geek though I may be, I also love the nightlife, so I made sure to check out at least a smattering of the goings-on about town. Interestingly, two of these concerned the appropriation of space, a key issue in a city like New York. At Turntables on the Hudson, a barge and adjoining tugboat tethered to a Chelsea pier provide space for two dancefloors full of people. In the tented space of the barge, a DJ was throwing down rather average spiritual house (the Body and Soul formula of divas, Afrobeat-inspired percussion and lots of Latin sway seem to have taken root throughout New York's house scene), and a rather average crowd responded appropriately.

Inside the tug, rusty steampipes framed a heaving dancefloor lit only by flickering black-and-white films of the city streets of yore. DJ Carol C, the singer of Luaka Bop's Si*Se, stuck to crowd-friendly fare, but the unlikely contours of the space made me wonder what an installation-oriented composer like Carsten Nicolai might have done with the room. All those jutting, rusty pipes seemed almost un-American, they were so litigation-prone: watching dancers crush out cigarettes beneath their feet, you feared they might land in a pool of long-forgotten oil and ignite, blowing us all to house music hell.

Much better was Matthew Herbert's performance that afternoon at P.S.1's Warm Up series, a summertime weekly now in its fourth consecutive year. Every Saturday in the summer, the graveled, cement-walled space of the MoMA-affiliated museum's courtyard is given over to a literal chill-out space, dominated by the DJs and musicians set up on a low stage in front of a sandy artificial beach.

Parachute cloth hung overhead shields dancers from the punishing New York sun, while a bank full of electric fans keeps the humid air moving. Overhead pipes spray needle-streams of cool water, hanging shower heads offer a more immersive experience, and there's even a kiddie pool for those who came prepared with disco bikini and electro trunks. If the conversion of the museum into a dance club represents one reconfiguration of space, it also nods to the increasingly porous border of Manhattan, as Queens follows in Brooklyn's footsteps to absorb the island's hipster runoff.

This year's series was curated by New York's Giant Step organization, and featured such artists as the Nortec Collective, Kid Koala and Attica Blues' Charlie Dark, closing with Saturday's K7 showcase featuring Herbert, Mark Rae, Bent and Ursula Rucker. Philly native Rucker, along with collaborator Tim Motzer and another musican or two, turned out a brilliant set of her socially engaged neo-soul and spoken-word, but it was tough to focus on her performance amidst the swirl of people sporting mullets and spilling beers. The claustrophobia was almost worth it, though, seeing Björk plow her way through the crowd, a star happy to come back down to earth for the afternoon. Matmos' M.C. Schmidt and Drew Daniels followed in her wake; the three were in town, hot from their recent European shows, to play Letterman. Letterman. Whodathunkit?

For all the restlessness of the rubbernecking crowd, though, Herbert, along with vocalist Dani Siciliano and keyboardist Phil Parnell, owned the space. It was the third time I'd seen the trio perform one of their sets of lounge house and live sampling, and it was as fabulous as ever: alternating between shuddering, percussive house and languid lullabies, Herbert knocked together bottles, shredded a CD into his sampler, and waved his hand like a sorcerer over an Alessi effects-box, conjuring unlikely funk out of thin air.

Siciliano was captivating as always, crooning from behind dark glasses that masked her from ear to ear, offsetting the subtle glam of her supple, floor-length dress. (As always, the trio had their fashion down cold, dressed in coordinating pinks and maroons; a minor detail, perhaps, but charming nonetheless, sparking a lovely glow in the diffused light of P.S.1's cement enclosure.)

++ The last stop on my visit wasn't musical per se, but Hiro Yamagata's astounding "Solar System Installation" NGC6093 deserves mention nonetheless; its futurism is of a piece with the most forward-looking electronic music; its occupation of space has affinities with Carsten Nicolai's sonic installations; and its very machinery sets up a hum that's as musical, in its own way, as anything by an artist like Francisco López.

The exhibition, which was scheduled to close on July 28 but has been extended until October 21, occupies all 25,000 square feet of New York's Ace Gallery, turning it into a potentially infinite space of mirrors, lasers and illusory images. The trope grounding the installation is that of a "solar cube" perched atop Fiji Island. But nothing in the opening room's quasi-scientific maps and sketches can prepare you for the interior galleries, in which thousands of revolving mirrored cubes hang at varying lengths from the ceiling, reflecting a dazzling array of lasers and strobes.

A narrow walkway through the forest of light allows you to penetrate deep into the space; all around you light flashes, zings, hums, burns, cools. How to describe it? It's as close as I've come to an alien abduction, without the probing; it looks like I imagine the inside of the droning monolith in "2001: A Space Odyssey," simultaneously stifling and spatially limitless.

Yamagata's own description of the space is at once more prosaic and more fantastic: "Underlying my work as an artist, and in particular my experimentation with laser beams and other light sources, is my longtime concern with the fundamental forces found in nature," he writes in the exhibition's press release. "I am especially focused on the elemental force of light as manifested by the sun... By working with artificial, man-made beams generated by lasers and other advanced lighting systems..., I believe that we can better recognize those elements of the sun which we would not otherwise perceive, or attempt to understand."

NGC6093 creates a profound perceptual shift: at times, depending on the motion of the strobes, it's as if the air around you were sparkling; at others, it appears that millions of two-dimensional squares are slowly floating past your gaze. The effects linger: once outside, the reflections from shop windows, the kinetic light of the city, even the stirring of the air bring on flashbacks.

The secret side of Yamagata's installation, though, is its sonic element: all around you there's a whirring of fans, a drone of electricity, a whine of bulbs. The dense forest of sound approximates the million-layered drones of Francisco López, but it wasn't clear to me that it was intentional; I suspect it may have been merely the mechanical underside of Yamagata's mind-bogglingly technical construction.

Nevertheless, faint harmonics and microscopic drones seemed to lurk in the shadows, teased out through strobes and prisms. The sound was as immersive as the overabundance of light, and when I finally left the gallery and stepped back into the low din of the city, suddenly aware of its ever-present, almost threatening, rumble, I realized that my ears had been ever so slightly altered, singed by whispers and burned by the sun.


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