I rarely get down to the Knitting Factory these days -- a strange and slightly sad condition, given that the scene that developed around this club in the '80s was my foremost incentive to move to New York in the first place. (By the time I got here in 1993, said scene had already begun to move elsewhere.) For a while, the cause of my absence was the psychic debris that lingered long after my six wonderful, tumultuous months of employment there in 1997 -- a monumental case of "Be careful what you wish for." Still, in its post-Michael Dorf era, the club simply doesn't present very much that interests me greatly.
That baggage out of the way, tonight definitely proved an exception -- and how odd that it should have been under the auspices of a presentation by Yale University's School of Music. For many, the Knitting Factory still evokes a cache of downtown hipness, judging by the comments of acting dean Thomas Duffy in his introductory remarks. Yale, Duffy went on to remind us, once maintained a strong presence in New York City through its Spectrum Concerts series; tonight's event was the beginning of a similar push, and four further events were said to be forthcoming.
The main event this evening was the New York premiere of Feynman, a one-character opera by composer Jack Vees and librettist Paul Schick. Rather than a dramatized elaboration of historical events a la Doctor Atomic, Vees and Schick offered a stylized gloss on aspects of the renowned physicist's life and work -- his work at Los Alamos, where the quirky upstart was apparently the only scientist brazen enough to view the Trinity blast with his naked eyes; his passionate love for his wife, Arline; his well-known passion for drumming; his fascination with Tuva, a tiny Asian country near Mongolia whose oddly shaped postage stamps he'd collected as a child; his decisive role in the investigation of the Challenger disaster.
In a brief but lucid program note, Libby Van Cleve notes that Feynman's "lifelong interest in quantum mechanics led to a belief that on a sub-atomic level, there was a non-linear aspect to time... Feynman postulated that an electron would investigate all possible paths, and that all of these alternate paths are integrated as the actual path taken." Accordingly, Schick's libretto moves backward to events that occured during the physicist's birth year, as well as forward to his death. (Feynman may well be the only operatic hero who dies twice in a single evening.) Rather than dealing in the expected sort of linear character development, then, Feynman offers a chronologically leapfrogging composite portrait of its protagonist's interests, without dwelling much on character development per se.
Baritone Michael Cavalieri gave a winning performance, speaking and singing lines from scientific treatises and a love letter to Feyman's wife, ticking off historical events, wandering the tiny stage and scrawling theorems and doodles on the floor. He was more than accompanied by the Yale-trained quartet So Percussion, who manned a phalanx of keyboards and drums as well as guitar, bass, dulcimer and laptop. Reichian patterns on marimba and vibraphone collided with stuttering drum patterns reminiscent of Captain Beefheart and David von Tieghem in Vees's richly colorful and animated score; the voices of news readers and Tuvan throat singers fluttered through the ether.
Whether speaking or singing, Cavalieri was aggressively amplified; only once during the piece did the words he was delivering -- all of them memorized -- become indistinct. (That suggests an improvement over an earlier performance in Norfolk, Virginia, reviewed by Jim Oestreich in The New York Times.) I mentioned that Cavalieri was "more than accompanied" by So Percussion because in addition to their musical chores, the four players were called upon to act in multiple scenes, miming lines spoken by Cavalieri or scribbling scientific formulae on the walls. Victoria Vaughan's Real Time Opera staged the piece amidst translucent screens, evocative lighting and both prerecorded and live video projections, making far better use of the Knitting Factory's meager stage than I would have imagined possible.
Stylistically, Feynman was not the operatic mode of either John Adams or Tobias Picker, but rather a form of music theater more closely allied to the work of Mikel Rouse, Heiner Goebbels or, particularly given the single-vocalist format, the collaborations of Paul Dresher and Rinde Eckert. It was rich, engrossing stuff, and ideal fodder for the Lincoln Center Festival or BAM's Harvey Theater. (Hint, hint.)
On the first half of the program -- yes, that's how short Feynman was -- So Percussion gave expert performances of Reich's Music for Pieces of Wood, a hypnotic study in shifting perceptions of pulse, and Iannis Xenakis's Ohko, a tribalistic treatise in the plethora of timbres afforded by three humble djembes. Vees himself followed with Surf Music Again, in which the composer elicited resonant tones from an electric bass guitar bowed, struck with a rubber mallet and stroked with a glass ashtray, and further treated by a delay pedal. The physical mechanics might have been Adrian Belew gone academic, but the resulting oceanic wash of rippling radiance reminded me more of Steve Roach's space music, or a slightly more austere take on Robert Fripp's recent electronic soundscapes. Having not heard Vees's similarly constituted CRI recording in some time, I wondered if the pervasive melancholy of tonight's performance was intrinsic to the composition, or whether it might have been colored by the recent, premature passing of composer Stephen Lucky Mosko, to whom it was dedicated tonight.
Saturday night also kept me busy, to the extent that I wasn't able to report with my usual dogged punctuality, since I crawled home some time after 3 AM. The evening presented both bold challenges to orthodoxy and assured performances of timeless classics -- and how peculiar that the former happened at the 92nd Street Y, the latter at the Continental on St. Mark's Place.
At the Y, contemporary-classical sextet eighth blackbird celebrated its tenth anniversary. The group came together at Oberlin a decade ago, and we have been the beneficiaries of this chance meeting ever since. A program titled "lucid, inescapable rhythms" included one world premiere -- Gordon Fitzell's Lucid -- and two local premieres -- Ashley Fure's Inescapable (in Broken Form) and Marcus Maroney's Rhythms. The first of these played to the sextet's strengths in keen improvisation, eliciting the textural mystique of Crumb and the sonic grandeur of Varèse, as well as an order to freely quote from earlier eighth blackbird premieres. (It was the valiant Frank J. Oteri of NewMusicBox who identified a naggingly familar riff played by pianist Lisa Kaplan as Michael Torke's The Yellow Pages, the piece that drew this group together in the first place.) Fure offered a fully assured music of sensation rather than rhetoric or narrative; violent pulsations ceded to a singular tone, then reversed course. Maroney's playful piece pitted chattering snare-drums patterns against melodic quintuplets.
The concert opened with Derek Bermel's Tied Shifts, an animated piece influenced by the composer's encounter with the dauntingly polymetric music native to Bulgaria. The most immediately winning Bermel score I've encountered, this was further enhanced by the group's choreography, which provided through intelligently manuvered confluences and departures in stage positioning far more insight into the music's architecture than did the composer's detailed note.
eighth blackbird's stage choreography may well turn out to be the group's most revolutionary innovation: Both Frederic Rzewski's peppy Les Moutons de Panurge and Fred Lerdahl's sumptuous Fantasy Etudes benefitted from the players moving about on stage -- drawing attention to the score's direction of solo and ensemble play, and thus enhancing comprehension rather than inhibiting it. While I won't suggest that every chamber group should be dancing its programs, it definitely works for this one. Of the remaining pieces, Thierry de May's Musique de Tables -- a work scored for three amplified tabletops pounded, scuffed and swished upon -- was a playful bit of Blue Man Group-style physical theater; Jennifer Higdon's Zango Bandango was, as the group had requested, a snappy bottle rocket of a finale. The pacing of the set list, I'll add, was as entirely right as the well-oiled machinery of a big-league rock concert.
Altogether more shambolic in pacing and presentation was the late-night set presented by legendary Los Angeles punk band the Germs at the Continental -- but that's probably the only thing this show had in common with the group's late-'70s heyday. Given that all manner of statistically impossible reunions have taken place lately -- not just Cream and Dinosaur Jr., where all the key players are still with us, but also Queen and the New York Dolls, where the same certainly can't be said -- this long-delayed New York debut can't be considered unthinkable.
Implausible, more likely, since to most fans, the Germs can't be imagined without singer Darby Crash, one of American rock's more fabled casualties. A precocious, deeply troubled frontman, Crash always promised to die young, then actually followed through with a heroin overdose at age 22. We Got the Neutron Bomb, an excellent book by Marc Spitz and Brendan Mullen that provides a Studs Terkel-styled oral history of the L.A. punk scene, provides firsthand testimony of the band's brief, livid and lurid existence; Crash, a stylishly rendered mini-comic writer/artist Craig Bostick based on a conversation between the singer and Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Go's (whose lead singer, '80s pop queen Belinda Carlisle, was briefly the Germs' original drummer), seems to suggest that the singer's demons might well have been sparked in some part by his inability to deal with homosexuality -- a claim confirmed by some and disregarded by others in the Spitz/Mullen volume.
The Germs' reputation rests upon a precarious balance of an Iggy Pop-inspired penchant for confrontational and violently chaotic live shows, the messianic Crash's deeply cultish following, and a single LP, 1979's Joan Jett-produced GI, which provides evidence that what was once a snotty joke had become an accomplished band, with a singer who provided unusually insightful and reflective lyrics. Currently available in its entirety as part of the Slash/Rhino compilation, MIA: The Complete Anthology, the album is one of the essential documents of L.A. hardcore.
That Crash should provide fodder for a biopic in the making is no surprise; far stranger is the notion that guitarist Pat Smear (who went on to play with Nirvana and Foo Fighters), bassist Lorna Doom (who quit the music business altogether) and drummer Don Bolles (who subsequently played in '90s trash-rock group Celebrity Skin) decided to reunite for a clutch of live dates -- with Shane West, the actor portraying Crash in said film, What We Do Is Secret, as their frontman.
The midnight show at the Continental, the band's second set of the evening, suggested that this was finally a chance for Smear, Doom and Bolles to finally realize the professional dreams they'd dared to wish for after GI was recorded. West looked and sounded like Crash; what's more, he gamefully flung himself into the audience, and shared a series of microphones with fans who crashed the stage. (Final body count: three dead mikes, with a fourth in questionable shape.)
I can't imagine that Smear and Doom ever smiled so much in the Germs's supposed heyday as they did Saturday night at the Continental, a tiny punk club similar to CBGB but far less scuzzy. Those two, along with the gaunt, wacky Bolles, served up a meaty, propulsive set with their animated yet professional virtual Darby. The hedonistic amateurism that once fuelled the band was in short supply even in a set as haltingly delivered and technically buggered as this one occasionally was. (Opening band the Magik Markers delivered that quality in spades; their performance was a noisy, virtually inchoate mix of threat and exorcism.)
On the other hand, the power of the Germs songbook -- previously overshadowed by Crash's antics -- was finally and unquestionably revealed, and the furiously moshing, stage-diving and microphone-stealing audience ate it up. A rumored tour in 2006 seems virtually inevitable; if you view punk solely as a lifestyle, or a means for confrontation and transgression, you'll probably want to steer clear. But if you've happened to notice that despite the chaos, debris and casualties -- R.I.P. Darby Crash -- punk bands have also penned a bounty of worthwhile, often brilliant songs, this show definitely scratches that itch.
The Germs set list, to the best of my ability to reconstruct it: Forming / My Tunnel / Communist Eyes / Circle One / Lexicon Devil / No God / What We Do Is Secret / Manimal / Caught in My Eye / Media Blitz / Sex Boy / Land of Treason / Dragon Lady / Richie Dagger's Crime / Let's Pretend / Strange Notes / We Must Bleed / Shut Down (Annihilation Man).
Germs - MIA: The Complete Anthology (Slash/Rhino)
X - Los Angeles (Slash/Rhino)
Really Red - Teaching You the Fear (Empty)
Butthole Surfers - Butthole Surfers + PCPPEP (Latino Bugger Veil)
Minutemen - Double Nickels on the Dime (SST)
Black Flag - Everything Went Black (SST)
Francesco Maria Veracini - Violin Sonatas - John Holloway, Jaap ter Linden, Lars Ulrik Mortensen (ECM)
Morton Feldman - Patterns on a Chromatic Field - Charles Curtis, Aleck Karis (Tzadik)