A little over a week ago, I saw this performance of Tony Conrad’s Ten Years Alive on the Infinite Plain at the Kitchen in NYC, which was originally premiered at the Kitchen in 1972, 3 years before I was born.
It was a pleasant Wednesday evening, the sky was blue and a cool breeze rolled off the Hudson. I exited the subway at 14th Street, and walked around Chelsea for a little bit. As I was walking down 19th Street or somewheres, the sun of the remains of the day illuminated smoke wafting in from somewhere. Something was on fire, somewhere. I walked around some more, saw some fire trucks blaring away, barrelling down 9th Avenue, and eventually found what they were looking for: a building, off the West Side Highway, where something (I couldn’t tell what) had happened. At the least, it wasn’t a big hellacious inferno or anything. So the sirens were a little superfluous.
I kinda forgot about it and strolled to the Kitchen, on the other side of 10th Avenue. I waited for my friend Warren who had the tickets, and watched as various luminaries (look, there’s David Behrman! there’s Lee Ranaldo! etc.) came into the lobby.
When the space opened prior to the performance, we saw that the large number of chairs we expected to see weren’t there. In their places were various pillows strewn about the floor. Though there were a few chairs here and there, and some placed in orderly rows on risers, I opted for the floor.
The performance began with two violins, amplified. Not quite as loud as I expected them to be, perhaps my hearing hadn’t adjusted to “normal” volumes after hearing the fire trucks race to the non-fire. Then the pulsing bass came in, one note, it underlying the the drone of the violins, supplying a base, as it were. This was the same pulse as Outside the Dream Syndicate, the same as Slapping Pythagoras. If I want to get all technical music-nerdy, I would state that there were a few times where the bassist (I forget his name) was slightly off, time-wise. But that’s ok, people are not robots. Anyway, the fourth instrument in the group was the long string (one of Tony’s inventions), played by Jim O’Rourke.
After a short period of time, four projectors were switched on, and the visual component of the piece began. I could describe it more, but I’m feeling lazy, so I just looked up this interview I had with Tony in 1998, and I’ll let his words about how the piece developed in ’72 take it for a little bit:
I thought that it would be interesting to work with a more complex overlay of even simpler material, so I made some more [film] loops, which actually I had already devised for the making of [1970’s] Straight and Narrow, I already had this pattern set up. I generated some loops which were simply made of these same stripes, which I shot on a piece of fabric… I had the negative [black] image and the positive [white] image… eight times a second it goes back and forth. And of course the projectors don’t match, so they could get in-between effects… But how did the music come into the picture?
… Yeah the real story is that I forget how that happens right now….
It looked really, really wild and I thought, ‘Well that’s good.’ Now what I wanted to do was to play music with it, so I felt that I should get a group together, and we’d do live music, and it would be very meditational and it would be very terrific…
… I would slowly manipulate the projected image so that over the course of an hour and a half, all these images would converge and make something really amazing happen.
So that was basically what was happening, over thirty years later, on a very-different-from-then West Side of Manhattan. I noticed that as the performance went on, the violins got louder, more assured, and were assuming a similar — yet not nearly as unpleasant — noise to the fire trucks from before. Interesting (or perhaps not?) how context is everything. There, in the performance space, the droning blare instilled a calmness, a stasis — though at the same time there were overtones dancing all over the place. O’Rourke’s glissandi functioned as a counterpoint to the stasis of the violins and bass, and added an element that I found heightened the dissonances and consonances.
Every once in a while, without any pre-determined manner, the violins would synch into the same beginning, primordial root chord, and the film strips would synch together to appear to dance before my eyes. Sometimes my eyes would follow the four projectors’ emissions left and right across the screen, sometimes my eyes would converge in the middle, sometimes my eyes would zig-zag uncontrollably. Oddly, and perhaps chillingly, there were a few moments when I imagined those strips giving me the sensation of falling, head-first, along the thin spines of the almost-four-years-gone World Trade Center. I tried not to think of that too much, though I can’t say that it was an altogether unpleasant feeling.
At the time I wasn’t really sure how much time had passed. The films had converged into a singular image, and eventually the playing stopped, Ten Years Alive on the Infinite Plain was over. I looked at my watch; it was over two hours since we’d entered. We left, went outside, and a cooler breeze this time rolled across the Hudson.