Continuing Education

New York

A view of Ikue Mori's performance at the Japan Society. (All photos: Tom DiMauro)

In 1977, Ikue Mori moved from Tokyo to New York. She was in her early twenties, spoke no English, knew no one, and was due back—she’d promised her mother—in three months. Wandering around the Lower East Side, she met a guitarist, Arto Lindsay, and a keyboardist, Robin Crutchfield. While her mother waited in Toyko, Mori and her new friends formed the epochal No Wave act DNA; within a year, her abstruse, sculptural playing—her bandmates taught her drum parts via pantomime and diagram—had made her a downtown goddess. The Brian Eno–curated No Wave document No New York followed; so did a cameo in the infamous Basquiat vehicle Downtown 81. In ’82, the band dissolved, but Mori stayed in the city.

Their math may be fuzzy, but by any measure, the Japan Society’s “Ikue Mori: Celebrating 30 Years of Life, Love, and Music in NYC” was a long time coming. In 2006, Mori found herself on a Japan Society stage, as part of composer John Zorn’s “Tzadik Label Music Series.” She marveled at her luck and seemingly far-fetched trajectory. In the audience was Yoko Shioya, the society’s artistic director; hearing her, Shioya decided she could come further still, and so—after years of solo and collaborative performances downtown, after a decade of forays into dance and installation art in places as far-flung as Tate Modern and as close to home as the Kitchen—the Zorn-curated Mori tribute was born.

A two-night affair in the minimal confines of the Japan Society’s Forty-seventh Street building, the festival was designed with a contemporary bent—no DNA, no early-’80s metal machine music. Instead, Zorn chose only ongoing endeavors: Friday showcased Mori’s burgeoning animation project, inspired by Balinese temples and scored by the gamelan ensemble Bhima Swarga, and a world premiere of Mori’s newest collaboration with the Japanese avant-pop collective Hikashu’s Makigami Koichi, a vocal-improv artist and stage director.

I held out for Saturday, drawn to the program for its promised US debut of Mori’s live sound track to two of Maya Deren’s silent films (Witch’s Cradle, starring Duchamp, and the sublime At Land), originally commissioned by Tate Modern. Also scheduled were Phantom Orchard, Mori’s project with the harpist Zeena Parkins, and Mephista, her all-female improv trio. Not coincidentally, the Japan Society presented both nights as installments in their current season’s theme: New York Woman.

A view of Ikue Mori's performance at the Japan Society.

Phantom Orchard has to be one of a very few acts to be considered for both a Prix Ars Electronica and inclusion in the annual New York noise gathering No Fun Fest. But this high-art/low-art tweak is a Mori signature, going back to her send-ups of Japanese court music in service of DNA’s raucous non-songs. Halfway through their set on Saturday, she and Parkins—whose atonal, growling harp might be another new-music joke—brought the percussionist Cyro Baptista onstage. As the crowd looked on intently, Baptista unveiled a clown car’s worth of instruments that resembled nothing so much as trash: a saw blade, two deflated spheres that looked like melting bowling balls, and half an NBA championship trophy (played with a bell). On the screen behind the deadpan trio, a kaleidoscopic animation eventually resolved itself into a familiar silhouette: Behold, the New York City cockroach.

Mori’s Maya Deren piece had a ghost of the same high/low feint, a tongue-in-cheek re-creation of long-gone low culture—the nickelodeon, the silent film, the piano player. Mori emerged in black, bowed, and sat down at a laptop. Witch’s Cradle, one of Deren’s more overtly claustrophobic films, lingers over thumping hearts, stray appendages, yards of rope; Mori’s score took as its basis the metronomic pulse of the body Deren plumbs in such depth, using it as a ground from which to take intricate flight.

But it was the second Deren film she showed, At Land, that was as close to a summa as the artist might cop to. At Land depicts Deren, in its opening shot, washing up out of the ocean and onto the shore. Right before the end of the reel—before Deren takes off running down the beach toward the water and the horizon, leaving an unbroken line of footprints behind her—the projection flickered, then died. Mori shrugged, and the show went on.

Afterward, I ran into Suzanne Fiol, artistic director at the Brooklyn new-music venue Issue Project Room. “At the end, she goes back into the water, right?” Fiol asked. Deren might, but Mori—not yet.

Zach Baron