Wednesday, October 18, 2006

From the Kitchen Archives Series

New Music New York 1979
Steve Reich & Musicians, Live 1977
Amplified New Music Meets Rock, 1981-1986
Orange Mountain Music

In a move to preserve decades worth of live recordings from turning to dust, New York’s long-standing avant-garde venue, The Kitchen – backed by Philip Glass’ Orange Mountain Music label – launched the “From The Kitchen Archives” series. Each disc documents a major evolutionary step for the Manhattan art rock scene, and it is the third chapter that is it’s most formidable. Amplified: New Music Meets Rock, 1981-1986 captures a time when such art-damaged and punk-afflicted luminaries as Rhys Chatham, Sonic Youth and Swans first plugged-in, giving a dose of feedback and electricity to the avant-garde.

The first release, New Music, New York 1979 presents a scene of artists, including Glass, Pauline Oliveros, Tony Conrad and others challenging the role of the composer in modern music. Each artist brings the music into themselves, erasing the authoritarianism that so often happens in the world of composers and musicians. Oliveros’ crash course in “deep listening” titled, “The Tuning Meditation” demands a much different kind of concentration than Charlemagne Palestine’s mad-man grunting in “Untitled for Solo Voice.”

Steve Reich and Musicians, Live 1977 places the emphasis on just one composer’s performance where successive patterns of piano and violin rhythms undulate infinitely. The movements of swaying microphones suspended over the stage sculpt the sound as much as the performers by capturing unconscious motions, squelching feedback, a shuffle in the audience and the faint rumble of traffic outside.

While these first two installments wander dangerously close to academia in their defiance of academic standards, Amplified captures a generation of musicians, hell bent on destruction. Archaic performances of Sonic Youth’s “World Looks Red” and “Shaking Hell” kick off Amplified with mammoth fury. Each song is carved out with noise and spontaneity that’s much more abrasive than the version of these songs on Confusion is Sex.

Swans’ “Weakling” grumbles to life with all of the sludge and mechanical motions of tank treads, while Christian Marclay’s “His Master’s Voice” is a fractured bout of turntablism bound by symphonic stutters and disembodied voices.

But not everything on Amplified is driven by nihilism. Arthur Russell’s “Hiding Your Present From You” is a supple bit of cello strings and gentle crooning. And through the dull hue of tape noise, Rhys Chatham’s “Guitar Trio” bursts with perfect and overdriven tonal harmony.

Though each number has been considerably touched-up, the audible grime is an integral part of these recordings. As such, the series doesn’t offer much for audiophiles, but it is a cache of unrefined songs whose true power and significance reaches beyond the rough sonic edges.

The skronking chaos of Elliot Sharp’s closer, “Crowds and Power” is no small metaphor for the volumes these artists harnessed by merging rock and the avant-garde. It was a meeting of Earth-rattling distortion and head-cleaning expression that resonates with as much force now as it did two decades ago.

--Chad Radford (Originally published by Signal To Noise magazine, Fall 2006. Issue no. 43)