Tone Poems

Zach Baron at concerts by Patti Smith and Text of Light

New York

Left: Text of Light's Lee Ranaldo. Right: Patti Smith. (All photos: Brian Sholis)

For a Thursday-night program enigmatically promoted as “an evening of words and song,” Patti Smith took just the length of a poem to set the evening’s tone, letting us in on the joke: “Should I clap quiet, because it’s a poem?” she wondered along with the reverent audience in the well-lit confines of the Robert Miller Gallery. “What I usually do,” she finished, taking mercy, “is nothing.” She had arrived calm, breaking off one moment onstage to hug her late-arriving daughter, Jesse, another to applaud the inventor of the lens (she was sporting new glasses). Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame only a few days prior, Smith had packed the gallery beyond what it could reasonably hold, and we, who had done neither of those things, sought her guidance.

Smith wished for an evening “like those from the '50s I used to read about” and told stories about the past: Peggy Guggenheim and Brancusi and Sam Wagstaff, names that loomed large on such bygone nights. She lauded the Robert Miller Gallery for its “old-fashioned and generous gesture” to have printed booklets of her poetry and photographs to commemorate the event. But comparisons to distant days risked hagiography. Were we there because of who Smith had been or who she was now, for what evenings used to be or how they might be today?

By way of answer, Smith sang songs new and old alongside her longtime bandmate Lenny Kaye. They were interspersed with long passages of poetry, the most impressive of which—“The Sword of God,” prologue to her epic in progress A Pythagorean Traveler, also the title of her exhibition at the gallery—encompassed not just the greater share of the evening but also the show’s cool, desultory black-and-white photographs. Marble statues, found and shot in far-off countries, became “fellas”; her casual asides between poetry and song became the performance itself (“much longer than the poems,” she admitted). All was reduced to her vernacular. The genteel surroundings and her casual air cloaked only for so long the fact that we would not be let off the hook or allowed to dissent from her version of the story: The night would be exactly the kind of thing people remembered because she wouldn’t let it be otherwise.

Left: Text of Light's Alan Licht. Right: Jesse Smith.

Less momentous, although just as crowded, was the following evening’s performance at the Whitney, where Text of Light—on Friday, a trio of Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo, New York–based musician and writer Alan Licht, and percussionist Tim Barnes, with Leah Singer as guest projectionist—performed alongside slides and film by László Moholy-Nagy. The around-the-block free-Friday-night queue had crashed what was clearly meant to have been an intimate occasion, and had ushers reassuring those to whom the fire code denied entry: “I’ve attended enough of these to know there’ll be newcomers, and they don’t usually stick around long.”

Indeed, the contents of the second-floor gallery bordered on the ridiculous: elderly women plugging their ears, grown men in suits sitting cross-legged on the carpet, a wheelchair-bound couple in front of me eyeing the exits in vain for enough space to escape.

The performance began with Moholy-Nagy’s Light Play: Black-White-Grey, 1930, a film inspired by his kinetic sculpture Light Prop for an Electric Stage, 1928–30, present and on hand to rotate and spin variegated shadows. Out from a corner, drenched in echo, Text of Light’s improv was not quite: The band’s sound was composed, measured, emotionally coordinated with Singer’s minimal slide manipulation. Licht, using a guitar and a chain of effects pedals, found patterns—then layered them or let them go as diffuse as blurry light. Ranaldo and Barnes bowed their instruments until Barnes’s cymbals hummed alongside Ranaldo’s trademark low-grade feedback.

In the tight space, bass rebounded off the walls. Text of Light’s hypersensitive microphones brought the most incidental noise to bear, so that those streaming for the exits began to play their part, too, slamming doors that reverberated after they were gone. An hour after the band began it was over, leaving afterimages as vivid as the Josef Albers squares that hung down the hall.

Left: Text of Light's Tim Barnes. Right: Patti Smith bandmate Jay Dee Daugherty.