Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Panda Bear - Berlin HAU 2

Seeing Panda Bear perform in Berlin last weekend at the Hebbel Am Ufer 2 was nothing short of astonishing. The man behind the moniker, Noah Lennox, is firstly known for being 1/3 of Animal Collective, the most prodigious indie band of the last decade. When he’s not touring or writing music with them (check off 9 albums now), he resides in Portugal with his wife and kid and still finds time to make some of the most open-minded music to be conceived a single person. Now while never having played Berlin solo before, one would've suspected him to perform an evenhanded mix of stuff off his two albums, Young Prayer (quietly came out in ‘04 in response to his father’s death, recorded in the same house he passed away in) and of course, Person Pitch (took several ‘07 Album of the Year honors for its endless layering of samples, sun-warped rhythms and Brian Wilson-like vocal textures) but more on that in a minute...

In a room swarming with fashion-forward Berliners, all eyes quickly rested on the most unassuming person in the whole place, who was wearing nothing but a washed out t-shirt, jeans and slip-ons. With no stage lights on him and no introduction, Panda Bear commanded the stage for over an hour with only an electric guitar, a small synth, two mixers and a mic. Oh yeah, and he didn’t play a single thing off either of his two beloved albums. Instead, Panda projected a montage of new work onto us without asking for permission or delivering any apologies. With equal parts dark/primitive to romantic/auspicious, you could almost hear each song spell out a different provocation: "Who cares about what I've done before?...Who cares what the concert promoters want out of me?... Who cares about how much better the state of the world was in a few years ago?...Why care about anything else besides being present in this very moment, together?"And before we knew it, the whole room was seemingly brainwashed into letting go of the past and all in favor of lionizing the future.

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Then, just as modestly as he had appeared, he was gone. No mindless banter. No self-promoting. No indie smugness. Just music. Pure and unbridled, for a new decade....On the way out, I glanced at the merch table in the back and found there were zero Panda Bear lp's/cd's, stickers or hoodies for sale. Just one shirt layed there and it looked like it had been drawn on with a half-dead Sharpie...perhaps by his daughter even. Oh, if only the rest of the music world would invest more time on their craft and less time on their convoluted haircuts, tiresome wardrobes and splashy merchandise, I think we would all be more excited about what possibilities the future holds...and not just musically.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Anarchy of Silence

While recently in Spain over the holidays, I got the pleasure of viewing the immense John Cage retrospective at the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona. At the very least, Cage is the American composer responsible for defining the radical practice of ‘experimental’ musical composition that ultimately changed the course of modern music and art forever. By relentlessly questioning the conventions of music, Cage took a wrecking ball to every formal and structural cornerstone that had been set in place from centuries past, clearing the air for equally important thoughts such as chance, fragility and uncertainty. Aptly titled The Anarchy of Silence, the sweeping exhibition is the first to move through Cage’s 50 year career since his passing in 1992, roving decade by decade with thrilling ease.

The museum introduces the viewer to John Cage with his early percussion pieces of the 1930s and the idea that one must be equally open to arbitrary noise as to conventionally understood musical sounds. With several headphones strewn along on the walls, one could eavesdrop on the spectrum of ground-breaking sounds he created from highly unorthodox ‘instruments’ (rice bowls, bathtubs, etc). For myself, I couldn’t help but reflect on the ocean of musicians I adore who have since operated out of his bold rhythmic enterprising. Moving into the 1940s, Cage’s ‘prepared piano’ sat alone with its lid open, giving us spectators a chance to view the array of scandalous objects he inserted between the strings. By placing everything from screws to eraser heads inside, not only did Cage produce a whole new continuum of sounds for the piano but he also managed to emasculate a firm instrument of bourgeois culture at that time.


Through the 1950s, sometimes even before hostile audiences, Cage extended the idea of using chance in the process of writing musical scores as well as into the realm of performance. As expected, Cage’s landmark work, 4’33", was realized in this exhibition in several versions. This ‘silent’ composition, whose content is meant to be perceived as the sounds of the environment that the listener hears while it is 'performed' (rather than 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence) is presumably the most dynamic conceptual object to come out of the 20th century. Furthermore, many of Cage’s beautiful water and radio scores were also represented from this same period. In the 1960’s and beyond, John Cage became increasingly interested in media-based works that ruptured the ideas of authorship as well as attention. One the strongest pieces of the exhibition was his computer-generated slide, sound and film installation titled HPSCHD, which was presented in one of the final galleries of the show.


Lastly, the show explored Cage’s friendship and influence on several monumental artists including Marcel Duchamp, Robert Rauschenberg, Ellsworth Kelly, Yoko Ono, Andy Warhol and Nam June Paik. The museum displayed a number of stunning pieces from each of these visual pioneers and if you managed to look close enough, you could almost see Cage’s fingerprints quietly on them. Taken as a whole, MACBA did a tremendous job of clearly proving that without John Cage, the art and music of the last 80 years would have unfolded very differently…and certainly more drearily.