Red Bull Music Academy Festival New York 2017 From Solange & Alvin Lucier to Gucci Mane & Jenny Hval

Gucci Mane (Photo: Maxwell Schiano / Red Bull Content Pool)

Red Bull Music Academy returned to New York this year for yet another well-curated series of performances, lectures, club nights, and workshops. As is tradition now, TMT sent a few writers to cover some of these events, which included a hip-hop piano bar show, Brazilian bass music, a showcase for one of our favorite labels, an interdisciplinary performance piece/meditation, and a couple lectures from two vital artists of our time.

Solange: An Ode To
Photo: Krisanne Johnson / Red Bull Content Pool

After the late performance of An Ode To had ended, Solange Knowles took some time to speak to the audience about the piece she had just performed for us, her development as a musician, and the space she had just occupied for her work. Referring to the Guggenheim Museum’s atrium, the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed “temple” that has been home to countless exhibitions and performances of significance, Solange spoke of wanting to “immerse my work in the daylight,” of “having a show where I can see the faces” of the people there to see her. This quality of light was one of the most striking things about Ode: the combination of bright sun from the building’s skylight (both of the show’s performances were scheduled in the afternoon) and flat, even museum lighting gave the work a context that immediately made it something different than just “Solange playing in a museum.” And it was true, you could see everyone’s face in the small crowd that was brought in, dress code and all (those in the audience who did not heed Knowles’s request to dress in all white were few, and easily spottable). This, and the fact that much of those in attendance were seated on the ground just feet away from the band, gave the event an incredible sense of intimacy; in staging and tone, An Ode To felt almost private, a personal work by a young artist both in development and at the top of her game, wildly talented and still growing.

This piece was a substantial step in that growth: billed in the program as “an interdisciplinary performance piece and meditation,” Solange took elements from A Seat At The Table and rebuilt them, framing them in new ways — often stripping the arrangements down to their absolute minimum, at others exploding them with a new, startling sense of size. The core band was skeletal, augmented by two backup singers and a recurring cast of dancers and horn players — and though the music was the center of the performance, Solange seemed just as committed to exploring the work physically, leading her ensemble in precise, often beautiful choreography (done in cooperation with dance coordinator Eloise Deluca) and expressive a capella breaks that were, more than just a compliment to the songwriting, as much a piece of the work as her music.

Photo: Stacy Kranitz / Red Bull Content Pool

At times it felt like Solange was ripping open her album and re-examining it on a microscopic level, and the evening’s trajectory from its hauntingly minimal opening numbers to the explosion of feeling in her dual performances of “Don’t Touch My Hair” and “FUBU” (through which Solange walked through the crowd to sing directly to those gathered, causing at least one man she approached during the show I attended to have a complete ‘Oh my fucking god solange is standing right next to me’ meltdown — one of the few instances where the close-quarters of the room served to amplify the singer’s goddess status) felt like an investigation of what exactly the limits of this music were.

Embracing the atrium as a necessary component of the performance — having her players descend down the ramp to the performance area, hiding her horn section under its walls, or more concretely using the chamber’s space to amplify the echo of basslines, solitary snare hits, or the complex three-part vocal breaks, almost dub-like in their hugeness — Solange built something site-specific and yet with resonances beyond this set of concerts. This, and Solange’s ability to fill the historically white space — figuratively and literally — of the Guggenheim with persons of colors (whether her entirely black and brown band or the vast majority of those in attendance) resonated as both an assertion of Solange’s power, and the ability for change within music to ripple out as broader, Earthly changes, and in some way an echo of the work’s broader exploration of expression voiced against its opposite.

Sacred Bones 10 Year Anniversary
Photo: Krisanne Johnson / Red Bull Content Pool

Sometimes I want to be devastated. The morning of the Sacred Bones 10 Year Anniversary showcase, I drew the ten of swords. How fitting. One for each year. The ten of swords is about hitting rock bottom and falling apart. Mine depicts a bull stabbed in the head. One sword even pierces the eyes. Usually I read this card as a warning. Get outside your mind before it eats you alive. I know I should have at least tried to be more vigilant. Instead, I turned to my friend and said that it felt perfect for Sacred Bones.

What I mean is, I entered Greenpoint Terminal Warehouse thinking about collision. A giant moon hung from the rafters. I became aware of the space as malleable and tried not to understand. I wanted to feel it. Emotionally and viscerally. How else can I describe the experience other than to call it spiritual?

Perhaps it has to do with juxtaposition. Like being ripped in half while watching Uniform and again while watching Marissa Nadler. Both strangely meditative. Uniform wrought havoc in the form of relentless noise. Like a vicious cycle indicative of how frustrating and limiting it can feel to live inside a body as the entire world burns. How everything seems impossible, at least everything but clawing up the walls and screaming into a void. Nadler described that void. Glimpsed it and shed light upon the center when she sang, “I can’t go back, I don’t wanna go back, to that house or that life again.” I felt my heart break like a window thrown open in the middle of a storm. Like I was listening alone in my bedroom.

Photo: Ysa Perez / Red Bull Content Pool

I want music to fuck me up and scrape me out and leave me wondering where to go. This is why I love Sacred Bones. Watching The Men play with all of their original members, I thought about how it felt to discover Sacred Bones when I was on the radio in college. I had just begun listening to more dissonant and intense music, and pretty much anything released on Sacred Bones would freak me out. And I loved it. I still love it.

Jenny Hval wore black velvet with a hood. She wore a black wig. She said we would all become family through blood ties. She moved through fog. She received a haircut while singing. She snaked her arms around her collaborators. The line between song and manifesto disappeared, which left me considering the body and the idea of ceremony. Magic as political. I had been inhabited and transformed. Part of me was somewhere else. Blanck Mass made the ritual of noise and light so huge that it was like the whole space had been swallowed.

Zola Jesus ended the show with kinetics. I mean, pop so shattered and frenzied I felt hypnotized. Oscillating between the cathedral and the rave. Between gothic and cosmic. It was an ideal culmination of the energy swirling all night inside Greenpoint Terminal Warehouse. Like a vibration powered by obsession with darkness and weirdness. I felt a shift inside my body upon leaving. Simply existing was totally different.

Piano Nights: Gucci Mane and Zaytoven
Photo: Krisanne Johnson / Red Bull Content Pool

It’s a cliché meme for someone to say “I am the American Dream,” and in an era with such little room for systemic romanticization, such a proclamation is also politically problematic at best. Nevertheless, Gucci Mane is the American Dream.

If you’re like me, or any of the numerous other hip-hop devotees who’ve eventually come around to Guwop, the first time you heard him, you couldn’t understand a word he was saying. “Mumble-rap,” as it’s now called today, may be stylistic affectation for some, but there was no such phrase back when Gucci started doing it; probably because not since Rakim had a rapper put so many words together so poetically while sounding so close to falling asleep.

In some parallel world, an alternate version of myself would never dare to use Rakim and Gucci’s names in the same sentence, but here we are. Rap is “mumble-rap,” the phrase itself is an anachronism functioning primarily as an age identifier of the writer who writes it, and this 31-year-old writer has watched Gucci Mane perform some of his most popular songs in a swank cocktail bar on the Lower East Side, accompanied by his producer Zaytoven on live piano.

Photo: Carys Huws / Red Bull Content Pool

Forget arrest records, jail bids, shootings, rap beefs, Twitter meltdowns, Harmony Korine courtings — forget all that, because it’s not what I’m referring to when I say Gucci Mane is the American Dream. I’m not talking about the American Dream of the bootlegger turned politician or the drug dealer turned real estate mogul. I’m not talking about the American Dream of Fitzgerald’s Gatsby or DiCaprio’s. I am talking about the American Dream of American music.

Arguably our greatest cultural achievements, jazz, blues, rock, and hip-hop music were all originally perceived as amusical by the critical powers that be and eventually recognized as expressions of “higher art,” whatever that may be.

I’m not trying to absolve myself here. When I first heard Gucci Mane, I might not have gone so far as to say it wasn’t hip-hop, but I definitely didn’t hear what others heard, simply because I had never heard anyone rap like that before. I literally didn’t understand what he was saying.

I can only speak for myself , but I’ve personally witnessed yesterday’s proto-“mumble-rap” become today’s instantly sold-out black-tie affair of the millennium — dress code for the event called for attendees to wear their “finest formal wear” — and as far as I’m concerned that’s the American Dream.

A Conversation with Alvin Lucier
Photo: Krisanne Johnson / Red Bull Content Pool

Perhaps the best story told at Alvin Lucier’s intimate gathering in the basement of Red Bull Arts was his response to the question of what, if any, recent versions of his legendary work “I Am Sitting In A Room” have been most meaningful to him. As Lucier described it, after a concert performance of the piece at MIT, a 10-year-old boy came up to the man and declared: “That’s cool!” The boy then later went home and recorded his own version of the work on his laptop and emailed it to the legendary composer. This, Lucier said, was a version he liked a lot.

Watching Lucier speak, it seems much of what gives life to his work — even at its most conceptually adventurous — is this very down-to-Earthness, an embrace of the everyday, the generosity of spirit and lack of pretense that allows the experiments of a child to stand alongside that of a “legitimate” performance venue. Elsewhere, Lucier explained that he wrote his own text for Sitting in lieu of adapting a poem because he didn’t want to use anything “high falutin’.” Though possessed with perhaps one of the most refined imaginations in experimental composition, he insisted that he was uninterested in “theory.” In Lucier’s words: “My decisions are real.”

Through a life-spanning conversation moderated by Red Bull’s Todd L. Burns, Lucier returned to this theme in many forms. When discussing his coursework as a Professor (preserved, in some form, in his text Music 109) he spoke of trying to “demystify” music for his students, of telling them he was not interested in their opinions, but in their “perceptions.” And as he dove into his own use of perception in his work — whether in using the echolocation of bats as a reference for his use of delay, or how his refracted Beatles arrangement “Nothing Is Real” was meant to capture the sense of remembering “where you were when you heard a song for the first time” — one had the feeling of an artist trying to demystify the senses for himself, grounding the mysterious in something sturdy and real. Evocatively describing how those bats use sound to travel in the dark, Lucier slipped us a kind of statement of purpose: “You can’t cheat if you’re trying to survive.”

Threaded through these discussions of technique were lovely anecdotes of the artist’s large and impressive circle of acquaintances, dishing on everyone from John Ashbery and Nam June Paik to Morton Feldman and, of course, John Cage, who was revealed to have apparently inspired (and/or peer-pressured) the first performance of Lucier’s brain-wave piece “Music For Solo Performer” into existence. Though anecdotally anchoring himself among many of the greats of 20th century art, Lucier left the intimate group gathered to listen to him on an appropriately humble, un-elevated note. When asked by an audience member if music had a “spiritual meaning” for him, he answered, simply: “No.”

Fluxo: Funk Proibidão
Photo: Krisanne Johnson / Red Bull Content Pool

This year’s Red Bull Music Academy takeover of NYC began with the announcement that MC Bin Laden, the headliner for the inaugural evening’s Brazilian bass event, would not be able to perform for reasons out of his and the festival organizers’ control. I found out from a friend that this meant he’d been denied entry at the US border, presumably an exercise of ideological power by immigration officials. RBMA itself embodies corporate accumulation of cultural capital, a late phenomenon toward which discerning ravers maintain a healthy ambivalence, suspended between cynicism and the notion that maybe, particularly if the artists can gain control of it, this type of power could be better than the kind that preceded it.

The announcement, emailed via the ticketing agent the day of the event, brought a latent global power strata to the fore that framed the event: the admittedly neoliberal post-nation-state RMBA agenda versus the utterances of the deep-state monolith, which you only find out about through texts from a friend who knows a friend of someone who was at the border.

And so RBMA NYC 2017 began. Even with MC Bin Laden not present, though, the Fluxo event was stacked with a formidable range of Brazilian bass DJs and emcees, strung together under the banner of maximalist sonic valence with NYC party mainstays Venus X and Asmara, Detroit ghetto house forbearer DJ Assault and the indefinable entity that is Chicago’s Sicko Mobb, who themselves are Red Bull-sponsored artists.

Photo: Krisanne Johnson / Red Bull Content Pool

After being encouraged by the coterie of Red Bull chaperones near to the door to enjoy my evening, I entered the venue to find Sicko Mobb bobbing and jack-balling amidst one another on stage, Ceno wearing a bright red T-shirt with “BALMAIN POWER” printed in shiny bold Impact font across the front. My friend and I quickly situated ourselves behind a car whose interior was rigged with overzealous strobe lights, one of several props situated throughout the venue that upon reviewing the event literature I realized was intended to be a simulation of “the neon-lit car stereos lining the local block parties [in the favelas of Brazil] known as fluxos.”

Despite being obfuscated by a thick wall of smoke-and-strobe that would give Dean Blunt a run for his money, Lil Trav and Ceno breezed through a seemingly arbitrary selection of their metallic, sweet-sad bop songs, still a sound without any real parallels in hip-hop: “Own Lane” and “Go Plug” from the Super Saiyan Vol. 2 mixtape, throwbacks like “Fiesta,” “Hoes Be Goin’,” and “Round and Round.” In lieu of a DJ, an associate played tracks from an iPhone, and following in the tradition of cutting songs short he simply stopped the playback at random points, the music giving way to the sound of smoke and low chatter in the absence of DJ wheel-up sounds.

DJ Assault took the stage shortly thereafter, living up to his name by starting the set out at a casual 145 bpm and playing “Let Me Bang” almost immediately after getting on stage. The venue was only beginning to fill as he warmed up the crowd, plunging headfirst into the obscene territory of booty music blended together with cumbia and proibidão. Obscenity and disorientation seemed to be forming as obvious mantras seeded by the party organizers as I went into the port-a-potty nested inside the warehouse and found it was resonating on beat with the bass, which only served to highlight that there was no respite from the building disorientation of the space. Venus X and Asmara played the mid-event set, rolling out a hip-hop-heavy set that felt somewhat obligatory to the context of the party, and MC Carol did not take the stage until very late, at which point the crowd was not well-positioned to entertain a set of emceeing. We left and hung out in the park, and talked about the slightly off feeling we were left with, and wondered if it was the party or us who was off.

A Conversation with Werner Herzog On Music and Film
Photo: Stacy Kranitz / Red Bull Content Pool

[This lecture review is to be read in the voice of preeminent German filmmaker Werner Herzog: I do not care if this offends him or you; it is critical.]

I was not sure if I would be able to make it to the lecture on time. As it was being held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in one of the many areas of Manhattan with notoriously limited street parking, I elected to take the Long Island Rail Road, which picked me up directly behind my day job in Garden City. Inevitably late, the train did not leave me enough time to reach the venue via public transportation, and because this would have required that I transfer between multiple subways and a bus, I instead hailed a taxi in front of Penn Station. I knew this meant I would have to pay more, as these cabs are permitted by the City to charge extra for the premium pickup location, but I did not care. I had somewhere I needed to be and no way to get there sooner.

Looking at my phone during the 50-block cab ride, I learned President Trump had fired FBI Director James Comey. Also, the publicist facilitating Tiny Mix Tapes’ coverage notified me that the doors were closing. I was dismayed but not altogether discouraged.

When I arrived at the event, a discussion with Werner Herzog on music and film, the gentleman admitting ticketholders and press-listees told me the lecture had only started about five minutes ago. My name being confirmed, I proceeded up the museum steps to a dark auditorium where I was ushered to an empty seat not far from my point of entry.

I saw erected on the stage a faux living room similar to Zach Galifianakis’s Between Two Ferns set, but more fully furnished, with couches and a film-projector screen hung above and behind them. At stage right, shrouded in cinematic shadow, stood a tall man looking up at the screen. When the film clip ended, the lights came on revealing him to be Herzog. He seated himself on the couch at center stage and spoke with a nebbish film-critic-type about music in films, his and others.

He indicated he chooses the music for his films almost exclusively by feeling. He cited Fred Astaire’s dance routines as a prime example of the marriage of music and cinema, though in far less romantic terms. He reminisced about teasing Popol Vuh founder Florian Fricke during a friendly soccer match over his interest in New Age thinking and going home badly bruised for it. He said he hadn’t heard the phrase “krautrock” until just a few days earlier. In the Q&A portion of the event, he found occasion to reassert his argument that Elon Musk is acting foolishly in his pursuit of Martian colonization, that humanity would be better served conserving and protecting its home on Earth. He admitted that though there is no purposeful allusion to so-called spirituality in his films, some of his early religious teachings most likely had a lasting effect on his viewpoint and that he always strives to evoke a sense of poetry with his filmmaking to “elevate” the thinking of his viewers.

On my way out, a Red Bull employee offered me a drink from a tray holding multiple colored cans. I took one at random; “Acai Berry”-something, she called it. “Save it for the morning,” she said. Thanking her, I cracked it open and exited to the cultured darkness of New York City’s Upper East Side.

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