Avant-gardists have always had their meeting places. If they didn’t, there would be no way for them to get to know one another, no way for collaborations to develop, no way for movements to evolve, and no place to have arguments and pass along technical information Often cafes or bars have served this purpose. There was a place called Pfaffs, on Broadway near Spring Street, where New York artists gathered way back in Walt Whitman’s era. The Cedar Tavern was the legendary rendezvous point of the ’50s, and there have been many other places at other times. In recent years most communication between New York composers seems to take place at out-of-the-way concerts. The artists like to converge on places where there is lots of activity, little publicity, a pleasant noncompetitive feeling, and ample opportunity to hang around afterward and talk shop. A few years ago the Kitchen became better known, better attended, and more professional, it developed a more formal air and became less popular as a meeting place. Gradually the shop talk and socializing has shifted to Phill Niblock’s loft at 224 Center Street, where concerts go on frequently under the aegis of the Experimental Intermedia Foundation.
On an average concert night in Niblock’s spacious third-floor loft, the audience might consist of 15 or 20 of the performer’s personal friends, 15 or 20 musicians and artists, a handful of curiosity seekers drawn by an announcement in the Center for New Music calendar, and perhaps a couple of administrators or critics with a taste for the new. As the spectators enter they toss $2 in a contribution bucket and perhaps pour a glass of free wine (très ordinaire) before taking a seat. A few sit on straight chairs, but the majority usually end up sitting on the floor, leaning against a pillar, or sprawling on a bed or sofa. Sometimes it is necessary to move Niblock’s son’s tricycle or relocate a mike stand to get comfortable, but no one complains. The music is always scheduled to begin at nine but seldom gets underway before 9:15. Everything is very casual. After the programs, which vary in quality almost as much as in style, many stay on to drink and talk, and some may stay for hours.
This year the loft has been particularly active. Niblock organized the programs in clusters of four or five each month, and when the May cluster concludes on the 16th, there will have been about 30 events during the 1976-77 season. I have not been able to keep very close tabs on that much music, but I did attend four out of the five concerts in the April bunch, and I’m glad I did. Jon Deak presented a work called ‘Street Music,’ which might be described as a semiclassical one-man-band act. Gregory Reeve presented free improvisation at his trap set, assisted by saxophonist Earl Howard, and also played tapes of two of his notated instrumental works. Joseph Celli presented a varied evening involving his own oboe playing, four percussionists, a homemade film, and a nude female dancer. But it was Malcolm Goldstein who made the strongest impression on me, and he did so without even relying on Niblock’s superb sound system.
Goldstein simply improvised on his violin, all by himself, and he went on nonstop for 80 minutes. I never imagined that any violinist, playing any unaccompanied solos, could hold my attention for such a long span of time, but Goldstein hardly lost me at all. He played with high energy, lost lots of bow hair, and never got into a rut. Sometimes he played furiously. Sometimes he withdrew into mournful melodies for a few bars. Sometimes he fell into a tonality, and sometimes he drifted into various types of atonality. Often he settled into curious sound explorations, playing somewhere between ordinary tone and ponticello tone, or working with slow-bow grunts, or plucking strings with both hands at once.
Frequently he sputtered out frantic phrases of 40 or 50 sounds in only a few seconds. These little barrages were always fascinating, as they were faster and more frantic than anything one could possibly do from written notation. Of course, many would say he was faking, but when phrases of that sort come out totally different and equally impressive every time, it seems to me that the faking is taking place on an extremely high level.
I also appreciated the split-second sensitivity with which Goldstein made use of accidents. Many kinds of accidents can happen to any violinist, and usually do. The tone can get a little off, or attacks can be noisy, or an odd overtone can sneak in unwanted, and usually we just have to pretend we don’t hear such things. Goldstein, however, followed up on his accidents. I won’t say he actually looked for squeals and scratches and such, but when he came across them, he played them for all they were worth, and often they turned out to be worth a lot. Some of my favorite sections were ones that developed when Goldstein ran across some fluke, repeated it, focused on it, and let it evolve. It’s actually an old trick. Jazz musicians use it, improvising dancers use it, and I suspect that most of the world’s improvisers are at least aware of it. Still, it was gratifying to see the technique employed so well, and on a violin.
Of course, no concert situation is ideal, and there are drawbacks to Niblock’s loft as well. A major problem, as I see it, is that audiences tend to be awfully tolerant, and sometimes too tolerant. Artists can get by with almost anything, and occasionally do, simply because the atmosphere is friendly and no one wants to break the bad news. That’s rare though. Of the concerts I’ve attended in the past few seasons, almost all have showed distinct originality, most have been quite competent, many have been stimulating, and a few, like Goldstein’s, have been as rewarding as any concerts I hear anywhere. But even if the artistic levels were lower, the series would still be worthwhile, since it is the current meeting place.