New York

Peter Gordon, Ned Sublette

"Art on the Beach"

In the latest of Creative Time, Inc.’s annual series of outdoor performances on the Battery Park Landfill in lower Manhattan, two composer-musicians rang new changes on some venerable avant-garde music-performance motifs, As if the natural setting of the “Art on the Beach” program weren’t distraction enough for an audience (acres of open sand between the World Trade Center towers and the Hudson River, with a view of New York Harbor, lying below a jet flight path). Peter Gordon and Ned Sublette also had to contend with the striking sculptural works created by artists and architects in collaboration with the eight performing artists in this year’s series. But both composers checked in with performances that were models of studied informality and wry wit, retaining the singular stamp of each artist’s individual musical sound yet acknowledging the unusual context of the site.

Gordon’s Car in Trough/Toxic Dump, 1984, took its initial cues from the installation provided for it by Mac Adams and Henry Smith Miller, Dead End, 1984. A wrecked, gaudy green Ford Pinto had been backed into a 120-foot-long trench gouged out of the sand and surrounded by rolls of barbed wire; cursory clues—headlights left shining, pieces of scientific instruments scattered on the seats—hinted at some unknown crime involving Hudson River pollution, but while the effect of mystery was clear, the details were not, and any possible story remained elusive. Gordon’s score acted similarly, sounding like a moody, noir-ish soundtrack to an unspecified urban thriller movie. Seated on the car’s hood with musician Blue Gene Tyranny, Gordon played noodling phrases on soprano saxophone against Tyranny’s cocktail-lounge chording and run-on arpeggios on a Casio keyboard. These early sections set up Gordon’s performance as a nonevent on the order of Erik Satie’s “furniture” music—smart Muzak. Later sections included bouncy street rhythms, allusions to free-form jazz, and straightforward variations on scales explored through the duo’s counterpointing of each other’s melodic lines (the music was written out). Along the way, the setting’s natural aural environment added its accompaniment: a passing boat blew compatible tones on its horn, and airplane noises—from the thwack-thwack of helicopters to the whoosh of jets—provided a steady ostinato. With the city’s sounds as punctuation, Gordon’s score worked as an aurally integrated tone poem for a city landscape.

Sublette’s Desperate Character offered a gloss on John Cage’s early multiradio performances, but with Sublette’s own offbeat humor. Ensconced on Richard Clarke’s and Rhonda Zwillinger’s 30-foot tower, a structure sporting sequins, mirrors, shells, and a fake satellite dish, Sublette twiddled the dials of several large radios like a mad deejay searching for the ultimate mix. Pop hits merged with middle-of-the-road stuff, snatches of classical themes merged with rap, and Sublette also tuned in and “played” the sounds of radio itself—static, buzz tones, squeals, and aural “double exposures.” This kind of fiddling can be deadly dull, but Sublette enlivened it by singing along at random, pitching empty beer bottles off the tower, and, innocently expectant, regularly peering out at the crowd to check on its reactions. In improvised, found-object events like this, a particular incongruity often pops up as a hilarious episode; here, a martial version of the hymn “Oh God, Our Help in Ages Past” suddenly emerged from the dense, constantly shifting mix to draw laughter and applause.

Having temporarily turned the beach setting into a giant sounding board, Sublette concluded by rapping to a prerecorded rhythm track, singing, “Radio rhythm is on the air” in his Southwestern-accented, nasally twanging tenor. Like all good comedy—and good radio—Desperate Character knew when to quit, and its thirty-minute collage captured the pleasure, the sheer fun, of unplanned dial-turning.

John Howell