Little has been written about the relationship between the kohl-eyed singer Nico and punk iconoclast Patti Smith. Nevertheless, on one occasion in 1978, 10 years before Nico would suffer a fatal heart attack while riding her bicycle in Ibiza, Smith bought her a harmonium. It was from Paris. "I was so happy and ashamed," Nico later said, "I cried. I was ashamed she saw me without money."
The bellows of that signature instrument, a token of the singer's bond with Smith, anchored last night's performance of "Killer Road," a so-called "sound exploration of the tragic death of Nico" that took place at the French Institute Alliance Francaise as part of the organization's annual Crossing the Line festival. From the moment Smith walked unceremoniously to the microphone, following her daughter, multi-instrumentalist Jesse Paris Smith, and audiovisual unit the Soundwalk Collective, the presentation was hypnotic, unorthodox and rendered in near darkness. A large projection screen illuminated the stage while scenic footage of Nico's former bicycle paths wafted in and out of focus, and video artist Blake Carrington used automation software called Touch Design to obfuscate the pictures in time with the music.
Nico's poetry is brooding and precise, and Smith's delivery took on the full range of that potential, drawing out its many contradictions. Throughout the show, her tone shifted from ominous to aimless, and moments of intense emotion were matched by diminutive whispers. As an artist, Nico was interested in the overlap of beauty and ugliness, and to a certain extent, her creative style exemplified that.
Knowing this, Smith intuited the poetry's strongest images as only a contemporary could. She conveyed both the calm of "a dragonfly laying in coat of snow" and the disillusionment of being left on a path replete with "broken bridges." She read "my only child … my boy" like a secret, with two hands placed over her heart.
Soundwalk, meanwhile, paired Smith's technique with the sounds of nature, cycling between crescendo and decrescendo. The group's members – Stephan Crasneanscki, Simone Merli and Kamran Sadeghi – were arranged around what appeared to be a musical laboratory, a table sprawling with instruments both primitive and futuristic: everything from crystal orbs to wind chimes to fountains of wires shooting from iridescent laptops poised to begin looping sound. Toward the end, Paris Smith accompanied her mother on an inharmonic instrument called a waterphone, filling the theater with a pall of mystery.
Despite fleeting moments of humor – as when the elder Smith tossed in a verse about her phone dying – the evening was tinged with peril. The sound of beach waves tilted into footsteps approaching in the sand, the thrum of honeybees transformed into a thick swarm. "Killer road is waiting for you like a finger in the night," Smith seethed in a moment that felt like an echo of "It Was a Pleasure Then," a song from Nico's solo album Chelsea Girl. Briefly, it sounded as though Smith's voice was enacting John Cale's guitar, and Nico's desultory words hung in the air: "If I seem to be afraid to live the life that I have made in song/ It's just that I've been losing so long."