A Revolution in Sound, Sound Sources, Sound Design: ‘Roulette’ Comes to Brooklyn and Celebrates Cage
By John Pietaro
Roulette, the performance space that helped to usher in ‘new music ‘ when it was still new and spawned a generation of experimental musicians, is moving to a new, cavernous auditorium in downtown Brooklyn. With the club’s penchant for the avant garde this in itself is something to celebrate for all of us on this side of the Bridge, but this weekend of June 4th to 5th, Roulette gave its new borough a preview to not be forgotten; “Musicircus” descended upon Atlantic Avenue and the grey skies above quaked with the vibrations John Cage called for. This “carnival of all things experimental” was first performed, if you will, by Cage in 1967, but in the I Ching musical world of this stalwart of modernism, the intent of Musicircus was more in line with the happenings and soundouts of the day than anything Carnegie Hall’s regulars could then imagine. Cage simply invited disparate performers to assemble together in solo settings or small groupings and engage in simultaneous performance—which may or may not be influenced by what was going on in the other side of the room. In 1967---and today---artists were instructed to “resist the temptation to react to what is going on around them but remain centered in their own artistic creation. The audience is invited to wander freely and choose their own sonic and visual relationships”.
Like Cage, Roulette has always been a place where those who were progressive well beyond their artistic vision could safely gather. Today was no exception; one could imagine the pained looks that might have been offered by a passing teabagger. This was where free expression of art morphed into a much larger freedom.
I entered the auditorium on Sunday afternoon, having unfortunately missed the first day’s proceedings, and was immediately greeted by the intensely swinging, powerfully post-modern jazz of Secret Architecture. Led by the monstrous chops of drummer Zach Mangan, the band also sported alto and tenor saxophonists, piano and upright bass, but within this rather ordinary looking consortium sat an explosion of burning jazz improvisation held together by killer tutti riffs and very hip, yearning, melodies which coalesced into a labyrinth of sound. I should add that about mid-way through their set, two dancers clad in mesh body suits and crochet hoods (which completely covered their faces, heads and necks on this relatively warm day!) at the behest of performance artist Liliana Dirks-Goodman took over the center of the room, laying out angular shapes on the floor with multi-colored tape. Inspired by the quaking music of Secret Architecture and the disconnected bursts of sound from Fast Forward’s kitchen-utensil percussion and someone playing with live electronics over to the side, the pair decorated the floor space with interlocking red, yellow and green patterns that I was sure would be used to establish the outer edges of a dance stage, but, naturally, no dance piece followed.
Various acts came and went over the course of the several hours I attended, including Hammer of Hathor, a trio comprised of alto saxophone, tenor saxophone and amplified acoustic guitar playing a pointillistic piece triggered by a series of tape loops. The hocketing, in the company of background electronics and Fast Forward now hurling a pot high into the air and attempting to catch it over and over again into a slightly larger one (often he missed but then the resulting kerrang seemed about right), offered a beautiful bizarreness that would have put a smile on the face of any fan of incidental art.
While the event encouraged no “star” performers, a couple were present this weekend nonetheless. Among these were composer Margaret Leng Tan on Saturday and woodwind player/composer Elliot Sharp on Sunday. Sharp moved to a microphone with no fanfare, though it soon became apparent that the fans of new music recognized him. Playing short, biting clarinet tones, Sharp established the basis for a piece that would soon develop into one of his classic improvs. Amazingly he carried through (heeding Cage’s instructions) even as a new maelstrom of electronics blared on about him, an unnamed soprano on the balcony sang out in a hauntingly bellowing voice, choreographer Koosil-ja swirled through the crowd while wearing head and arm sensors and creating brainwave tones, a trumpet trio played Beethoven’s oft-quoted Symphony Number 9 chorus melody, Fast Forward noisily juggled u-shaped metals and a guy playing a vintage electric guitar with a series of electronic-triggered bass drum pedals offered a throbbing accompaniment to something other. Sharp, with circular breathing, screamed over the top with both clarinet and curved soprano simultaneously (Rahsaan-like) in his mouth and guitar/drum man added a loud rhythm machine to it all, perhaps to further test the rules of happenstance.
As the atmosphere grew thick with aural revolution, Bradford Reed came onto the scene, setting up his ‘pencilina’, an instrument that appeared to be an antique, oversized dulcimer of sorts, affixed with a bass-heavy pick-up. Alternately with a bow and a pair of sticks, he coaxed Chapman Stick-like textures from what appeared to be an instrument from an earlier time. He was paired with Sasha Welsh a choreographer/visual artist who rolled out a long piece of drawing paper and proceeded to cover it with swooping arches and shapes from her felt-tip markers. Perhaps accidentally, a lighting tech through splashing beams this way and that, into the eyes of the spectators, the performers and against the floors and walls. As I stood in the center of the room, the wash of sound cascading and crashing around me, I became momentarily lifted out of the moment. Here the purest level of improvisation met 20th century harmonies and post-modernism danced dangerously with post-punk, throwing pop culture to the wind and convention to a roll of the dice. . .
Later, I had the chance to speak with Elliot Sharp out front. “I have no expectations with a performance like this”, the saxophonist explained, “Ideas start and stop and you need to move with them. But freedom is meaningless without a frame work of sorts”. As we talked about music, the old Knitting Factory and the place of politics in music, we were serenaded by the echoes of Roulette’s Cage-lovers and the tinkling of a vibraphone set out front, brandishing a sign to passersby, “Play me”. Sharp explained that “all music is political and you can make a strong statement about this without being didactic. I was part of the original Radical Jewish Culture event, but after I argued against the Zionism they pushed, I was left out of all of the later gatherings. And that’s alright. This music must rise above the restraints one people have over another”.
And that seems to be the whole point. Revolutionary music must reject the divisiveness that so easily pulls us apart. Here, in the shadow of John Cage’s I Ching-inspired risks, there was no sign of anything other that the fabric of creativity that shouts down any hint of conservatism.
Moved as I was upon my exit from the conversation, I leapt at the chance to get to the shimmering Musser vibraphone discreetly chained to Roulette’s wrought-iron rail. Four mallets sat in a mallet bag hanging on the side of the instrument. I snapped them up before another curious stroller could and through myself into the aluminum bars deftly, flailing over jazz runs and chord clouds that inspired a new series of onlookers to stop and stare and hopefully go on inside the center of it all.
Damn, Roulette has come to Brooklyn.( for more info on Roulette see www.roulette.org)