Although you could hear the eerie, creeping and tantalizing sounds being made by Sonic Youth, legendary Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones and Takehisa Kosugi at the start of their performance at New York’s Brooklyn Academy of Music Saturday night, you could not see them. The eclectic group of musicians were silhouetted behind a large white canvas while the youthful fit dancers of the Merce Cunningham dance company cavorted, leaped and spun around on the stage in front of them with inhuman precision, grace and control.
“Nearly Ninety” is Cunningham’s newest work — an evening-long performance and celebration of his 90th birthday, which passed last Thursday, on the night of the show’s first performance. Sonic Youth, Jones and Kosugi (a composer associated with the Fluxus movement as well as Cunningham’s longtime music director) composed the work’s experimental score in the same vain that John Cage once used to compose for many of Cunningham’s previous works: sometimes meandering and obscure to sometimes dissonant and fierce.
For a large portion of the show the audience struggled to make out who was who behind the large canvass. It was not until near the end of the first set when the screen was lifted that the band was properly visible. They were playing in tall metallic construction with silvery walls and panels that emitted flashing alarm like lights. It had three separate levels with stairs connecting to each.
Sonic Youth’s guitarists, Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo, were on the middle floor, equipped with a small wall of amps, their guitars and a keyboard. To their left was John Paul Jones, perched alone on a protruding balcony. A talented multi-instrumentalist, he was switching consistently between his keyboard and bass. Via a foot pedal, Jones was able to control a computer system that allowedÂ him to instantly change the pitch, tone and tuning of his bass.
On the top was Kosugi. He spent most of the performance seated at his keyboard, providing the base foundations of the soundscape for the rest of the band to build upon. At one point the dancers moved to the sole sound of Kosugi pronging a rubber band stretched tight over a metal tray. On the base floor was Sonic Youth’s drummer, Steve Shelley, and bassist-guitarist, Kim Gordon. She had her own stand with a keyboard, a small amp and a red guitar. She would occasionally croon and moan obscurely into the microphone to add to the swarming soundscape.
As coordinated as the combination of the two may have seemed, the dancers were not dancing to band’s music. Cunningham’s approach to dance insists that the music and dancers be separate. He is famously known for never showing a piece’s music to its performers up until the dress rehearsal. The band performs the piece slightly differently every night, explained Trevor Carlson, the executive director of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. “They have a set structure with certain sections of different lengths,” he said, “but in these sections they play with great freedom and improvisation.” The dancers are strictly choreographed, he added. “Their movement is choreographed to the second,” he said, “but having the randomness of this music around them adds to the spontaneity night after night.”
The evening concluded with an apocalyptic explosion from the band: Moore and Ranaldo bashed the strings of their heavily distorted and effected guitars with drumsticks while Shelley accompanied them with a ferocious clashing drum battery. A low warbling synthesizer climaxed to a screaming peak over the morass, and the performance ended abruptly.