Red Bull Music Academy Festival New York 2016 From Glenn Branca, Elysia Crampton, and N.A.A.F.I to Sun Ra, Angel-Ho, and Bookworm

NON / N.A.A.F.I (Photo: Drew Gurian / Red Bull Content Pool)

Red Bull Music Academy once again descended upon New York last month for a blazing series of performances, club nights, lectures, and workshops. Like last year, we sent some TMT writers to cover a handful of the many showcases, which included global sounds from the electronic underground, symphonies from a pioneering composer, Brooklyn electronics, and a night of spiritual jazz.

Inter-Zone: NON Vs N.A.A.F.I
Chino Amobi (Photo: Maria Jose Govea / Red Bull Content Pool)

Years pass and empires remain in the interminable stasis point of a decline whose fulfillment is consistently just-around-the-corner-but-not-yet-here, so Red Bull presents another performance of that decline as a method for its continual commercial renewal. In this case, for this writer, it was the anti-globalist sonics of the NON and N.A.A.F.I collectives that became the focal point for this particular semiotic shitshow, which appropriately enough took place at the comically appropriative venue Tropical 128, a tiki bar with $9 Heinekens in the Lower East. I arrived as Dedekind Cut played the second half of a ludicrously uptempo set for a 10PM opener. It leaned heavily on the hyper-aggressive you-must-dance-this-is-hell-and-you’re-having-a-good-time sonics of his latest releases, setting the restless toggling between syncopation and dead-eyed four-on-the-floor that would characterize the rest of the night. It finished just as my friend’s bad drugs kicked in, sending her into a spiral between joy and anxiety-stricken pacing, which, along with the care-taking attendant in being the friend of such a person, seemed an unnervingly apt summation of the particular globalist head-space these two DJ collectives furiously delve into.

The condensed format rendered the NON collective in particular far less homogenous than it does from an internet-native perspective, highlighting the disconnects between artist’s styles, some paying to the club directly with others pausing for the more ‘experimental’ beat-soundscaping the label is also known for. At the same time, the club-oriented endless 6 hour mix the whole event reconfirmed homogeneity within the collectives’ standard frenetic style-oscillation, bringing forth the sort of global-community in ecstasy-and-or-resistance at the core of their project and their insistence on decoding overcoded forms, be they Orientalist imagines of Eastern sonics or the racialized space dancehall musics often find themselves within. This was confirmed by the “Non-Citizen” Passport and Boarding Pass we were handed at the door, which was appropriately covered in Red Bull branding, a highly intellectualized yet body-oriented resistance finding a warm embrace in a cultural capital-oriented soft drink that idolizes the hard bodies and performative movements of extreme sports. NON and N.A.A.F.I both trouble ideas of appropriation and commercialization, and this was a simultaneously sickening and weirdly effective marketing of it.

We toggled furiously between outside and inside, upstairs and downstairs — there were two stages — noted the presence of Björk and Le1f and maybe Lotic, the latter odd as he wasn’t playing but probably should have, the celebrity cameos neurotically, wonderfully on-point. An endless progression of some of the best DJs in the world — Chino Amobi, Angel-Ho, Rabit, Total Freedom, and more — shuttled in and out, a patchwork of drugs and dance and hyper-local hyper-global sounds, great outfits, mishmashes of global high and low fashion flickering in front of us. The show was excellent, a true understanding of the affective and effective aesthetics of the club space vis-a-vis everything else. Elysia Crampton played an extremely subdued set to the faithful at 4AM. It seemed at odds with the maximalist overload of her recorded output, but it also seemed the slow drip at the end of this intentionally circuitous phantasm of resistance, self-work, and globalized bodies.

Glenn Branca’s Symphonies
Glenn Branca (Photo: Maria Jose Govea / Red Bull Content Pool)

The Grand Lodge of New York, the neoclassical masonic hall in Chelsea where assumedly New York’s Freemasons still meet (or at least finance lavishly) is an interesting place for a Glenn Branca performance. Interesting, at least until you remember how perfect Branca’s compositions are for the concert hall. Rarely do we ever have an artist that commands the kind of theatrics that it takes to host a Glenn Branca performance. If anything, the rise of rock’s three­piece “band” probably exists in response to the scarcity of ensemble music — the unwavering fact that throughout most of the twentieth century, guitars were always more accessible than the sprawl of a 70-­person orchestra.

And yet, nothing compares to the power you feel before Branca’s tones, hammering away at stripped chords, each note divvied up by performer and rattled with noisy abandon. What once seemed a ludicrously redundant guitar­driven joke, Branca’s symphonies have a strange restorative quality to them — like a wall of sound flush against the wallpaper of the flattened, neo­romantic room. In­tune with much of the American avant­garde of the 80s, the symphonies pastiche high­ and low­brow elements, serving up experiential words in poetics that even the sharpest contrapuntal insight could never know. With Branca, it’s bigger than that.

Symphony no. 8 starts with a rumble, thundering up in rattled notes through the 10 bodies. John Myers at the helm, the work weaves in and out of phased intervals with a pounding weight, pummeling the audience with its blocky bluntness. The pieces swell with a soaring indeterminacy that rises higher and higher seemingly indefinitely until finally, with a resounding cadential crash, the 10 bodies fall into screeching feedback beneath the cymbals.

Branca’s legacy feels far from forgotten, as the crowd ruptures into boundless applause and for once, things feel full. There aren’t many legacies like this for No Wave — the only one I can think of that’s so easily handed down, intention intact like a fatherly heirloom. Timelessly defining too many art­rock traditions to count, Branca’s symphonies are eternal — clamoring against the fall of time, refusing to fall quietly into the shapeless darkness.

Kamasi Washington, Pharoah Sanders & The Sun Ra Arkestra
Pharoah Sanders (Photo: Drew Gurian / Red Bull Content Pool)

A corporate-sponsored jazz showcase took place in 2016, and if the guy checking in press at the media line was to be believed, it sold out almost instantly. All cynicism aside, that’s fucking awesome and can only mean great things for the state of music and culture in general. It’s nothing less than inspiring to see interest in the quintessential American art form renewed. And I like to believe I witnessed this happening in real time at RBMA’s Evening of Spiritual Jazz.

From the guy saying of Pharoah Sanders’ “The Creator Has a Master Plan” within earshot, “It sounds like A Love Supreme,” to the girl full-body-vibing to the interstellar sounds of The Sun Ra Arkestra as if tranced at a Phish concert, there appeared to be no shortage of attendees who conceivably were experiencing live jazz for the first time. Call that presumptuous conjecture if you will, but I WAS THERE, MANNN. Ever the purveyor of liquid hypebest dream worlds, RBMA facilitated this experience smoothly, with a modern theatre-in-the-round-style stage erected in the center of Greenpoint Terminal Warehouse and psychedelic colored lighting washing the venue’s towering walls.

The corporation’s cultural intercourse division deserves massive props for arranging a lineup that not only satisfied but also potentially expanded the tastes of new listeners, like a friend in the know saying, “Oh, you like Kamasi Washington? Cool, check this out.”

The Sun Ra Arkestra big-band seemed crammed onto the round stage, but that did nothing to cramp their style, as early arrivers to the venue were able to catch up-close views of seemingly endless rows of instruments in extended riffs on classics like “Space Is the Place.” Like all other performers that night, The Arkestra entered and exited the stage through the crowd, resulting in a Congo line of players, security guards and audience members. It was at the end of their set that I ran into TMT alum DeForrest Brown Jr., who hipped me to the group’s 2015 album, Live At Babylon, and the potential interplay of acid house and free jazz.

I’d seen Pharoah Sanders perform once before, at Iridium in 2009, so I thought it safe to be optimistic regarding the 75-year-old’s time-tested chops. Thankfully, I was right. In addition to dancing more than anyone else on the stage that night, his masterful quartet, shadowed under hazy blue light, managed to achieve some of this “spiritual” evening’s most convincingly transcendent moments. If the horn player’s tone is the last thing to go, expect Sanders to continue hypnotizing live audiences for the foreseeable future. Several concertgoers wore looks of legitimate mind-expansion when his set wrapped.

Kamasi Washington is often compared to Sanders and Coltrane, but I think a safer reference would be Dave Brubeck. Like Brubeck, he’s skilled at his instrument and catches grooves, but at this point, his main legacy will likely be having put a new generation onto jazz. His was the only group that set up all around the stage facing one another, but, for me at least, this failed to achieve the desired effect — I left before their set ended.

Bookworms (Photo: Drew Gurian / Red Bull Content Pool)

The corporate rave starts at a deficit. It stands in line, scans IDs, then dropsteps, gesturing towards the floor, feeling out some intensive right of passage. It’s dark, washed in rigged gear and wired walls and everyone outside is asking, “Is it legit? Does the warehouse still live in the city?” but the music hits and the drinks kick in and it all gets lost in sound.

Split between two “zones,” the rooms buckle under feet with the rattle and thump of Nick Dawson’s mathy chain of machine drums as Bookworms. Like his releases for Anomia and L.I.E.S., the tracks are built around hardware, with warm 909 toms and stretched pads rolling organically over jagged synths and discordant fuzz. With hardware sets often on the more slow-moving side of things, it’s often hard to tell where the audience is at; are they expecting theatrics? Heavy waves in over­the­top dynamics? Or do they, like me, enjoy the slow build of the process?

The best sets are often built on affect, slurring together records in a larger, experiential centerpiece and tonight was no exception. Track after track, producers worked their own releases into a tight framework of both “the space” and “the audience” that for each grew and evolved throughout the night. The potential energy of the club is, as always, king. Facilitated by records, yet wholly dependent on space and time in evolving motion, the best bits are always somewhere deep in that Brechtian “theater” of possibility. Anything could happen. Always, at any moment, you could do or be anything.

And yet, you don’t. The set winds down, the crowd moves towards the bar and bathroom, rolling forward in the runny wake of the night. You finish your drink and look through your phone, searching out some way to put to words the thunder and power, the endless electricity of the night, but you come up short. The lightning hit and kinesthesis sputtered out in boundless perestroika — you know all of how it’s made and how it functions, but still you won’t stop loving it any less. The shimmering hope in possibility, that sprawling, fleeting feeling of home and togetherness and community that once felt so full is alive, again in the body of the room. Again, there was beauty in community. Again, it all felt like home.

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