Deep Listening, Courtesy of Starkland
It’s hard to imagine why anyone would go to some random club just to hear a ten-year-old album playing over the PA when they could do the same thing at home without any of the stress. Last night at the delightfully laid-back new Ludlow Street new-music venue New Spectrum (lots of “news” there), Starkland Records’ Thomas Steenland and his dedicated engineering crew staged a special kind of listening party for the label’s well-loved Immersion DVD compilation – a release from 2000 that’s one of the avant garde’s alltime greatest hits – along with Phil Kline’s fascinating, landmark 2009 DVD Around the World in a Daze. The drawing card? Both recordings were played in surround sound, revealing the complete, trippy mix that most stereo systems, let alone DVD players, can’t come close to replicating. Steenland explained beforehand how he’d been intrigued by the idea of recording a high-definition surround-sound DVD, and marveled at how many composers had responded to his offer of commissions considering that when he began reaching out to them for the project, the technology to make it didn’t yet exist. Given how few times these recordings have been publicly staged – Kline’s was screened once at the old Tonic a few blocks east about ten years ago, Immersion maybe never – this was a rare opportunity to witness some deliciously clever early 21st century works exactly as their composers intended them to be heard. It was like seeing a series of black-and-white images in color for the first and maybe only time.
Hearing Pamela Z mess with the fundamental premise of the recording – via her composition Work/Live, which she said she hadn’t heard in so long that she could barely remember it – was surreal and amusing to the extreme, her tongue-in-cheek operatics not just panning between right and left but from behind, then right-center, then straight ahead. Bruce Odland’s Tank, a swaying, thinly veiled trip-hop percussion piece with washes of microtonal Ron Miles trumpet, also took on playfully unpredictable new dimensions. The effect repeated itself ad infinitum, with varying degrees of surprise, humor and intensity. Another composer in attendance, Lukas Ligeti, explained how his contribution, Propeller Island, took its title from the Jules Verne cautionary tale and its source tonalities from samples of homemade Caribbean-style steel pans. Ligeti’s signature stylistic trait is polyrhythms, which in their original context here turned out to multiply from all angles to the point where the center completely disappears, adding a welcome undercurrent of unease to this bright and attractive work. Paul Dresher’s Steel, a similarly pointillistic work, was transformed much in the same way into a bustling, cheery factory floor.
2000 White Turbulence, by Maggi Payne, was the most ominously enveloping of the bunch with its echoing cumulonimbus sonics. The most downright comedic piece, Twilight’s Dance by Paul Dolden has a punchline whose straightforwardness was made even more amusing by how un-quadrophonic it was, while Ingram Marshall’s Signs and Murmurs: A SeaSong offered more subtle revelations: that moody neoromantic piano isn’t at the seashore at all, it’s on the opposite side! The final track from the DVD was Meredith Monk’s Eclipse Variations: hearing this in its original form was something akin to being in the 21st century church where Thomas Tallis suddenly found himself teleported from his medieval sanctuary and was inspired to come up with a work to celebrate it. A Carl Stone composition was the only one that grew tiresome: its 33-RPM-at-78 conceit was fun for thirty seconds but got old quickly.
Having a primitive homemade stereo recording from the listening party for reference later on turned out to be useful, to a point, but there’s no substitute for the real thing. It would undoubtedly have been just as much fun to stick around for the entirety of the Kline DVD. Where should these works be staged next? At the Hayden Planetarium. Move over, Pink Floyd.