Sound Art (of Various Sorts)

After a day of rest on Monday, we met with sound artist and scholar Alexis Bhagat for a stroll around the city. When we arrived at our first destination, smack in the middle of Times Square, Alex sat down on a grate above the subway and beckoned us to listen to a sound that was eerily resonating from somewhere within the bowels of the city. As it turns out, sound artists of old had installed a transmitter somewhere under the streets that emits, to this day, a constant pitch that most people either a) assume comes from passing subway trains or b) don’t notice at all. Despite a rather distracting photoshoot that was taking place on the same traffic island, we took ten meditative minutes to bask in the din of Times Square and reflect solely on the sounds that were shifting around us as well as the tone emitting out from under the grate.

We then took a train for a session in the mysterious Dreamhouse, a sound art installation sealed up in a second floor apartment above Tribeca. Inside, the space was completely bathed in violet light and contained two rooms. In the smaller room, a rectangular sculpture was mounted beneath a red and a blue light that were aligned to disorient the viewer’s sense of geometry and depth perception. The main room was completely empty except for four large speakers in each of its corners and a shrine for a bearded mystic who was explained to be the former guru of the installation artist. The sound art of the installation came in the form of a very precisely conceived and invasive frequency that has not ceased in roughly twenty years. I observed my unusual surroundings, laid down on the carpet, promptly fell asleep, and woke up an hour and a half later, before we came to our senses and trudged down the stairs.

Now, due to unfortunate aural and visual distractions, I was unable to pay as close attention as Alex deserved, so I remain incredibly confused as to the nature and purpose of sound art, but he had a great deal to say of other matters. Alex’s enthusiasm for the poetic and the esoteric carried him through lengthy and lively discourse, ranging in subject matter from the definition of music to the impossibility of presenting an authentic voice due to the collective, interactive nature of humankind. Several students went on to dine with him and, as I understand, compiled material for a sort of documentary which I will eagerly await, but I had a prior engagement: an eagerly anticipated Dirty Projectors & Grizzly Bear show at the Bowery Ballroom.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the Dirty Projectors on stage, but their haphazard, structure-defying sound translated remarkably well. They kept things interesting with lots of maddening time signatures, the odd, whiny wail of the singer, who plucked at a right-handed guitar upside down and left-handed, and irregular drumming that lead the group through the peaks and valleys of their inverted soundscape.

They fit quite well with Grizzly Bear, who came on and played a modest but absolutely beautiful set. Clarinets, flutes, and for one song, the violin of Final Fantasy’s Owen Pallett culminated in breathtaking harmony with the swooning arrangements and vocals of frontmen Edward Droste and Daniel Rossen. Grizzly Bear’s elegant restraint shined in songs like “Colorado” and “Knife” before exploding in the blissful closer “On a Neck, on a Spit” and an untitled new song that had me begging for more.

Up next, on our last night in the city, an evening with John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats…


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