Hey Superstar

Canada Choate on Klein presented by Blank Forms at Gavin Brown's Enterprise

Klein. Photo: Chris Perry.

FROM THE RECENT BROADWAY REVIVAL of the postmodern epic Cats (1981) to NBC’s live broadcast of Jesus Christ Superstar (1970) starring Chrissy Teigen’s husband as the Son of God, Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber is everywhere these days. The tsar of the mega-musical has long been on the mind of the British experimental musician Klein, who recently graced New York with a live performance, her first since the premiere of her musical Care at London’s ICA this past February. Care, which was in part inspired by her appreciation for Lloyd Webber’s melodramatic, melodic storytelling, gave Klein a chance to work, for the first time, on a full-blown production. Here in our city, however, she gave an intimate solo performance.

Organized by Blank Forms and hosted by Gavin Brown’s Enterprise at their Harlem location, the show took place in the cavernous second-floor gallery, unfortunately emptied of a recent show of Avery Singer’s techno-paintings—works that translate three-dimensional computer space onto two-dimensional canvases, and would have made for a fitting mise-en-scène. The darkened gallery was abuzz with chatter while Keith Connolly of No Neck Blues Band, under the alias DJ L.GRAY, selected R&B-influenced tracks to tide us over until showtime. Britishisms like “I’m gutted” and “he’s fit” floated through the air. Excitement seemed to stem partially from London’s distance from New York and partially from the venue’s distance from Brooklyn. A recent Columbia graduate now living in TriBeCa told me: “this is the farthest uptown I’ve been in years!”

Klein finally appeared, bathed in red light and surrounded by a thick, low-lying dry ice fog. She asked the audience a very good question—“why is everyone sitting?”—then encouraged all to circle around her and her minimal setup, which consisted of a laptop, a mixer, and a microphone. Inviting us into her performance space was a quiet yet radical act that allowed the audience to see her software interface, and made it abundantly clear that Klein has nothing to hide. She has always been forthright about her blatant disregard for the ego posturing of male electronic musicians. As she said in a 2017 interview with The FADER: “this industry and this electronic world is not even that hard. These guys make it seem like it is. I was on Ableton [the recording software] the other day, and I was like, ‘This thing is not even that hard.’” Disarmed by her candor (decidedly not a Broadway-style choice) and hypnotized by her voice, which she’d put through the mixer to create an enchanting echo, we quickly swarmed around her. As the vapor began to dampen our ankles, Klein launched into her set.

Klein. Performance view. Photo: Chris Perry.

Klein’s approach to electronic music eschews the preset samples available in programs like Ableton in favor of layering and recombining recordings of herself playing piano or guitar, or the voices of her friends chatting, or snippets of dialogue appropriated from reality television, among other sources. That night, she layered her samples gradually, building up soundscapes that would coalesce towards a climax, then abruptly change tack. Unlike Lloyd Webber’s pastiched score for Cats, which jumps from forebodingly minor-keyed ‘80s synth tunes to jazzy numbers to the most histrionic of ballads, Klein’s constructions disregard genre and yet still communicate a single mood that is both melancholic and joyous. One passage called to mind a section from Pierre Schaeffer’s pioneering work of musique concrète, Cinq études de bruits (Studies of Noises), 1948, titled Étude aux chemins de fer (Study of the Railways), for which he collaged together field recordings of trains to create an experiment in rhythm and texture that is familiar yet foreign. Another piece juxtaposed what sounded like a slamming door with a delicate, somber piano. These individual units of sound made the experience of listening to Klein feel akin to looking out of the window on a long train ride, enjoying the landscape’s rhythms, then entering a dark tunnel only to emerge a moment later to be shocked by an abrupt change in terrain.

She did provide a few recognizable sonic markers in the form of tracks from last year’s Tommy EP, a collection of eight tracks inspired, in part, by the psychological resilience of Tommie Lee, one of the stars of Love and Hip Hop: Atlanta. “Cry Theme,” with its refrain of “I never cried,” spoke of deferred feminine emotion. Another of the night’s highlights was simply Klein’s voice. When she sings live, one can immediately hear the influence of contemporary R&B singers (she often cites Brandy as her very favorite). It isn’t hard to imagine Klein herself as a full-blown pop star: A man standing behind her cradled a bouquet of flowers as though he might throw them at her feet as befits a musical diva. For the show’s finale, she performed “last chance,” a song off of her upcoming release cc built almost entirely from samples of her own voice. (Another track from the record, “collect,” features the words of artist and poet Diamond Stingly). She reminded the crowd that we could find “last chance” on Bandcamp—first in her lilting British accent, and then in a mock-American twang, eliciting a laugh from the audience. We Americans might sound silly, but we know a musical talent when we see one. After all, Andrew Lloyd Webber is British too, you know.

Klein, presented by Blank Forms, performed at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise on April 19, 2018.