Yo La Tengo and Alvin Lucier review – avant garde triumph with teapot

Ecstatic Music festival, New York
If Yo La Tengo are heirs to the Velvet Underground, Lucier could be their LaMonte Young, with a radical set that included a 15-minute piece for triangle

In retrospect, it’s a shock to realize that it took over half a decade for Yo La Tengo to appear at the Ecstatic Music festival, New York City’s premier showcase for classical music hybridism. Given that the band is as likely to commission remixes from hip-hop DJ/producer Pete Rock as from noise-world eminence Eye, the eclectic nature of this long-running indie ensemble has been firmly established. Surely they would have an abiding affection for some contemporary composers, as well?

Give credit to Ecstatic curator Judd Greenstein, because he found the right answer to that question. Pairing this band with the 84-year-old experimental icon Alvin Lucier for a collaborative concert – in which the alt-rockers engaged with some of the composer’s past pieces, while also playing a new work written by Lucier just for them – was a programming masterstroke.

Geogia Hubley plays Silver Streetcar for the Orchestra.
Geogia Hubley plays Silver Streetcar for Orchestra. Photograph: David Andrako

Some portion of Wednesday evening’s concert was guaranteed to be satisfying, at least for devotees of Lucier’s subtle drones and piquant resonances. The first set began with Yo La Tengo member Georgia Hubley stepping out on stage to play Silver Streetcar for the Orchestra on an amplified triangle, for nearly a quarter of an hour. After the first minute of repetitive clanging, you could hear some members of the audience shifting uncomfortably in their seats. But as Hubley made minute adjustments to the triangle – muting it with one hand, then releasing her grip slightly, before changing its location on the instrument as the other hand beat away – new comminglings of notes slowly became audible in the room. At the end, Lucier’s field of acoustic phenomena included a dreamy arpeggiated chord, created from the amplifier, the performer and the partial tones in the room.

The group’s other members – Ira Kaplan and James McNew – were up next, playing Lucier’s Criss Cross for two electric guitars. This recent composition seemed to tread on more familiar drone-music ground, relying as it did on the “beats” that can be created by instruments as they slowly converge on (and then diverge from) unison pitches. What surprised, though, was the decision by Kaplan and McNew to leave these guitars (and their amps) on at the end of the piece. After Hubley re-entered, the entire group started in on a radically rethought version of the Yo La Tengo classic Sugarcube.

As heard on the band’s 1997 album I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, this song is driving and anthemic. With Lucier’s drone in the background, however, the group gave it a haunted reading – with Kaplan and Hubley’s vocal harmonies sounding both familiar and newly fragile. By the time the song died down, and the guitarists switched off their live-Lucier-remix amplifiers, the crowd was with them, too. A fortuitous development – since the first set’s closer, Heavier Than Air, is a mostly conceptual piece that involves musicians whispering sentences that begin with the words “I remember” at the audience, with inflated balloons in front of their faces.

Yo La Tengo play Sugarcube.
Yo La Tengo play Sugarcube. Photograph: David Andrako

As with all of the most memorable Lucier pieces, this work does make you attentive to the positioning of sounds – and their unique methods of dying away. With Lucier himself joining Yo La Tengo on stage, each musician took turns coming up with an “I remember” phrase, and swivelling their necks so that different slivers of the audience had the briefest of chances to hear complete main clauses. (My favourite was a line uttered by Kaplan: “I remember reading this concert was sold out. What’s up with all the empty seats in the back row?”)

After intermission, Yo La Tengo started out with a brief instrumental, before turning to the piece Lucier had written for them. With Hubley on piano – sounding out one repeated note for every distinct “movement” of the piece – the guitarists added quietly buzzing microtones. The sung text of Audibles was inspired by a trip Lucier once took to a cafe in Italy with American maverick composer Robert Ashley. In their singing of the piece, the members of Yo La Tengo gave what sounded like an approximation of Ashley’s gently radical vocal practice, while the instrumental parts gradually unveiled more consonant melodic relationships.

In a smart sequencing choice, this led to Saturday, another Yo La Tengo original. With its lyrics about letting a mind “go out of tune”, it could have made for an ideal close to a set that, at its best, helped refine an understanding of Yo La Tengo’s particularity. Though they’re often considered inheritors of the Velvet Underground’s mantle – thanks to their winning way with feedback-driven noise and softer-touch melody – this concert helped to complicate and refine that categorisation a bit. Whereas Lou Reed was influenced by the thundering drones of minimalist composer La Monte Young (a composer Reed cited on the liner notes of Metal Machine Music), this concert showed Yo La Tengo’s natural affinity with Lucier’s more restrained but no less potent sustained-tone writing style.

Time for tea? Kaplan hits the pot on Nothing is Real.
Time for tea? Kaplan hits the pot on Nothing is Real. Photograph: David Andrako

The final work on Wednesday’s bill was Lucier’s Nothing Is Real. A piece written “for piano, teapot and miniature sound system”, it first requires a pianist – on this night it was Kaplan – to play select, slow-paced motifs from Strawberry Fields Forever, before engaging with the audio playback portion, which involves manipulating a teapot that holds a speaker within. As the instrumentalist lifts and then replaces the teapot’s top, the resonant quality of the playback is affected. (Call it cookware-as-theremin.) Kaplan had a fluid way with the piano phrases, and he “played” the teapot’s part with utter commitment. The impishness of the underlying idea was enjoyable enough to encounter on its own terms. Though after the insights afforded by the full group’s immersion in the Lucier sound, this final conceptual demonstration carried the hint of anticlimax. On the whole, though, that’s a good problem for a concert like this to have. Fans of Yo La Tengo might consider lobbying Matador records to issue excerpts from the show, starting now.


Seth Colter Walls

The GuardianTramp

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