Journalism / Music

Signal

Written for Snap! magazine, published in November 2008

Online version can be found on pages 30-31 at 

Snap!

Signal

The best show that I saw in 2008 was Signal, a New York-based Steve Reich tribute band. I know that this sounds lame because usually tribute bands suck. Maybe it was the circumstances of how I arrived at the show that made it better, because it’s always when these things are unexpected that they seem better, or maybe it was a good show, perhaps even the best of 2008.

I had just moved to New York and was spending my first Saturday walking around the Lower East Side, handing out postcards for the film, “Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell”. While trying to pay for an Odwalla smoothie, I realized that I’d lost my wallet and spent the next few hours on the phone with TD Canada Trust.

Hungry, poor and disillusioned, I decided to continue my night, because going home seemed too depressing. As instructed by the film’s distributors, I walked over to Le Poisson Rouge to hang out flyers to people who were going to the Wordless Festival, a week devoted to bringing together ‘high’ and ‘low’ forms of music. I waited about ten minutes and gave two girls who were standing outside the door the usual spiel, “Arthur Russell was a disco-cellist man who played with Allen Ginsburg, Phillip Glass and the Talking Heads…” One of the girls asked if I was coming to see the $25 show. Explaining my dire situation, she said, “Well we have a plus one so come in with us.”

Inside, Signal began playing Reich’s 1974 piece, “Music for 18 Musicians.” For those who are not familiar with Reich, he is one of the creators of 1960’s minimalism in music. Having studied the drums in Ghana, Reich’s fascination with repetition led him to be the first to use tape loops to create rhythms.

Signal, I later learned, is headed by Brad Lubman and features members of the Lincoln Center’s Society for Chamber Music, GutBucket, SoPercussion, Alarm Will Sound and a few other ensembles. They are known for their performances at the Bang on a Can marathon, a series of concerts that was described by Vanity Fair as “Lollapalooza advised by the ghost of John Cage”, with guests ranging from Sonic Youth to Iannis Xenakis.

Two guys started out on seperate xylophones, banging away on the same notes. Soon, with at least two people on the same instrument, about fifteen people were singing, playing with violins, cellos, marimbas, bass clarinets, pianos, metallophones and maracas. Each instrument weaved in and around the constant banging of the xylophone. The other instruments would play out tiny harmonies and melodies, while eventually the xylophones began to double in on themselves and harmonize. Similar to other pieces of Reich’s music, it often felt offbeat, but nonetheless enveloping. This way way better than any recording of Reich’s that I had heard in any electroacoustics class i had taken. It conjured up the best part of any eighties movie, particularly my personal favorite, “Risky Business”, when Tom Cruise and Rebecca DeMornay get it on in a “Reel Train.”

I saw the audience, (mostly white people aged between thirt and sixty) transform from being self-conscious and chin-stroking to smiling to themselves with their eyes closed, dancing with their hands in a prayer position.

After about a minute of hearing the music, I had begun to feel like Voltaire’s Candide, my luck having drastically improved so quickly. ‘Music for 18 Musicians’ is divided into fourteen pieces, starting and ending with ‘Pulses’. The xylophones remained throughout the hour-long piece, moving from one chord to eleven. The piece is known to be Reich’s most difficult to perform and was done so wonderfully. I walked out of Le Poisson Rouge    in a bit of a daze, feeling optimistic about what New York has to offer and feeling confident that being broke doesn’t matter. That much.



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