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Nurturing the Experimental Music Underground

There have been losses. Terrible losses. And yet, somehow the underground finds its way.

(image by the author; original photo of Alice Cooper’s Love It to Death via wenneberg.dk)

“the signals we give — yes or no, or maybe —
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.”

William Stafford

The gardens that bear the best fruit are the ones we can’t see — the ones that are underneath and inside. This is the underground. It nurtures, but it also needs nurturing. Call it what you will — a scene, a movement, a genre, a situation — but, when all is said and done, the underground is a community. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. There have been losses. Terrible losses. And yet, somehow the underground finds its way. It finds a way to mourn. It finds its way back. It finds its way into our lives. No matter the form it takes when it enters — a drone, a saxophone riot, an exquisite guitar line shimmering in the dark — the underground tells the same story over and over: The only way out is through. Hold tight.

Pauline Oliveros, RIP

Cover of the Pauline Oliveros and Andrew Deutsch collaboration (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Pauline Oliveros died on November 24, 2016, at the age of 84. Fuck death. Today her breath feels stronger than ever, though, having influenced a couple generations of students, players, and listeners. I first encountered her now classic Deep Listening when it made a Hearts of Space playlist back in 1989. I was immediately drawn in by the beauty of the work and later intrigued when I learned of its subterranean and improvisational origins. A trio of players — Oliveros with her accordion, Stuart Dempster with his trombone and didgeridoo, Panaiotis with his electronics — descended into a cistern 14 feet under the ground. Spaced apart, they played and listened, the resonance of the cistern informing the edges of their improvisation. That record was so perfect that I didn’t own anything else by her until years later, when I came across her collaborations with her student Andrew Deutsch on his tiny Magic If label. Magic If releases were all limited editions, with handmade art for covers that held CDRs that delivered the music. This wasn’t New Albion; it was DIY. And there was Oliveros working a spiky and crackling soundscape hard, burrowing in. There probably aren’t that many people who’ve heard her work on Magic If, but it doesn’t matter. It was, as always, a step forward. I once saw an old FAX Records label poster that commanded, “Keep Music Underground.” Pauline Oliveros always did that. And thankfully, she took us down there with her.

Louise DE Jensen Quartet at Downtown Music Gallery, December 4, 2016

The Louise DE Jensen quartet at Downtown Music Gallery (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

I was reminded of Oliveros when I walked down the steps of Downtown Music Gallery (DMG) in Chinatown to see Louise DE Jensen’s saxophone quartet play a set of improvisations for one of the shop’s wonderful and free shows in its ongoing Sunday night music series. Jensen was joined by Chris Pitsiokos, Nick Lyons, and Matt Nelson. Listening was at the center of the group’s playing, acting as a detonator. They spun explosively through three songs. Harmony ended in heartbreak, and disunion blossomed into a church of swing. Scarves were stuffed into instruments. Others were dismantled, played, and then reassembled to be played again. Jensen’s black metal yowl shot through her temporarily incomplete sax. Inner thighs were used as mutes. Spit gathered in pools on the floor. There were only four alto saxes, but there were moments when they sounded like a thousand angry Terry Rileys. Bruce Gallanter, DMG’s proprietor, had put out mouth-burningly spicy garlic pickles as a snack for the crowd. That seemed appropriate, and kind.

Cash Askew, RIP

Them Are Us Too band photo, with Cash Askew in foreground (photo courtesy Dais Records)

The fire at Ghost Ship happened right as I was beginning to write this. Among the dead was the 22-year-old guitarist Cash Askew. Fuck death. Cash spent the last three years of her short life making beautiful sounds with Kennedy Ashlyn Wenning as the group Them Are Us Too. Dais Records released both of their gorgeous albums of dark-water pop. All the light Askew brought forth in her short time will carry forward, but it will have to travel through a void of light she never got to unleash. This world is not a fair one.

Two nights after the fire, on his WFMU radio show The Avant Ghetto, Jeff Conklin played an hour of soft and gentle music that wrapped itself around listeners. When Conklin took to the mic for the first time, he read the names of the victims of the Ghost Ship fire. He talked about the vitality that places like Ghost Ship give to a community. He talked about their necessity for those who live and create in them, allowing people to work without the constraints of music corporations or Ticketmaster. He also spoke of the good fortune of those of us who are touched by their creations, witnessing them in those same spaces. After he finished speaking of all the sadness surrounding the tragedy, Conklin dropped the needle on “Gånglåt Från Vallhallavägen” by the Swedish prog band Kvartetten Som Sprängde. Nothing flashy. The beat was steady, and the music built in subtle majesty and strength from beginning to end. The DJ, as is so often the case with DJs, provided us with a way forward.

Benefit for Oakland Trans Assistance Project at Saint Vitus Bar, December 29, 2016

January Hunt, aka New Castrati (photo courtesy Jane Pain)

Hosts Jane Pain and Reed Dunlea also provided a way forward when they pulled together a benefit at Greenpoint’s Saint Vitus Bar for the Oakland Trans Assistance Project. The project has been collecting money to help survivors of the Ghost Ship fire and pay for the funeral services of three trans women killed in it: Feral Pines, Em Bohlka, and the above-mentioned Cash Askew.

Ciarra Black kicked things off with her bleak and thrilling techno. Black salvages parts from early, more raw Underground Resistance and builds a better machine. Bookworms (who you really should be paying attention to) stayed on the rougher side of his repertoire, which fit in well with the evening’s proceedings. New Castrati, the most recent project from January Hunt (ex-Menses), took the crowd on a surreal, sample-driven flight of gender reassignment, before landing us on a bed of mournful drones. It felt like dropping acid with Todd Haynes in church. Pharmakon’s set was short but mighty, pulling down the weight of the sky in a way that set the stage for the heaviness that came next: Oakland artists Jen Shear and Vinnie Smith read the names of those lost in the fire, and the reason we were there filled the room. After that, we needed to catch our breath, but the lankiest purveyor of electronic music, Container, was having none of it. He shocked us back into the land of the living. His sliding, noisy gelatin plates of sound bent into blasts of the filthiest techno, and we were off. This is the music I wish Mouse On Mars had made when they collaborated with the Fall’s Mark E. Smith. Relief came in the form of the next performer, Drew McDowall. While more spacious and less frenetic than everything before it, his set was still a wild beast bouncing around an elastic, steel cage. He began tentatively, but then McDowall started shaking the bars, building his sounds and rhythms to a place of catharsis. As noisy as it can get, McDowall’s music has a sensuousness that always holds his audience close. When his set ended, it felt like we’d been delivered into an embrace.

When all the money was counted from ticket sales, an anonymous donation, and merchandise donated by Ciarra Black’s No-Tech Records, $7,000 was raised for the Trans Assistance Project. Keep music underground, and keep supporting those who make it.

Here’s the late Cash Askew performing with Kennedy Ashlyn Wenning as Them Are Us Too at Saint Vitus Bar in November 2015. Again, from the poet William Stafford: “the signals we give — yes or no, or maybe — / should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.” Fuck death.

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