Now in their 32nd year, Yo La Tengo — the Hoboken, New Jersey–born alternative-rock institution — are serial collaborators. The trio’s founding couple, singer-guitarist Ira Kaplan and singer-drummer Georgia Hubley, made their first records with production by members of Mission of Burma and the dB’s. In 1991, the group cut a single with the Texan lo-fi songwriter Daniel Johnston. In more recent decades, Kaplan, Hubley and bassist James McNew, who joined in 1992, have recorded with Yoko Ono, backed up Ray Davies of the Kinks, covered a Sun Ra tune with top New York avant-garde jazz musicians and worked extensively in movie scoring. In 2014, the group toured with director Sam Green, performing live as he narrated screenings of his film The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller.
On Wednesday, at New York’s Merkin Concert Hall, Yo La Tengo appeared as a combination of cover band and bare-minimum orchestra for the electro-acoustic composer Alvin Lucier in a program of his works, laced with three band pieces, presented by the 2016 edition of the Ecstatic Music Festival. Lucier, born in New Hampshire in 1931, co-founded the Sonic Arts Union in 1966 with other experimental composers including Robert Ashley and John Cage associate Gordon Mumma; taught at Wesleyan University for more than four decades; and has written for choruses and orchestras.
For Yo La Tengo, Lucier revived and debuted smaller-scale pieces in which he investigated — and celebrated – the spatial relationships in tone, time and interplay. There were balloons, a triangle and a teapot, as well as guitars and a piano. There was very little rock, as you know it. But everything was an alternative, to a variety of mostly quiet, often compelling extremes.
The opening work, Lucier’s 1988 piece Silver Streetcar for Orchestra, was a good exmple of how Lucier has fun with titles. Hubley tapped on an amplified triangle for what seemed like a repetitive single-note eternity — I couldn’t help thinking of a record of a San Francisco cable car, with the needle stuck in one groove — until you noticed the slight differences in where she held and hit the triangle, causing minute variations in pitch and resonance. It was a curio — it also sounded familiar, a more playful relation to John Cale’s stark, hammering piano in the Velvet Underground’s “All Tomorrow’s Parties.”
Criss Cross, a 2014 piece for two guitars, was performed by Kaplan and McNew with their instruments laid flat on tables, humming in gingerly manipulated drones that got more interesting and effective when they started bleeding into and through Yo La Tengo’s own “Sugarcube.” When the group cut it for the 1997 album I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, the song was supercharged, jangling-rock classicism. Here, Kaplan, McNew and Hubley, singing and playing additional guitar and bass, slowed and turned it down to a fluid whisper, wreathed in slightly shivering harmonics.
The mixed effect of Heavier Than Air — Yo La Tengo and Lucier softly chanting through large, yellow balloons filled with carbon dioxide, aiming their voices at varying points in the room — and a new Lucier composition for the band, Audibles, sung and played at barely there volume, was a straining forward to hear the point of the works and a lesson in performer-listener relationships. In their regular job, Yo La Tengo play music that often leaps forward, in an immersive rush. For Lucier, those gradients of silence are instruments in themselves — and a place to meet, a zone where there is no stage.
The closest thing to the nightly highlight of most Yo La Tengo gigs — Kaplan’s extended guitar solos, a unique compound of Lou Reed–feedback fireballs, whammy-bar surf-instrumental seizures and the poised, melodic intention of Richard Thompson — was the group’s opening piece of the second set: an adaption, according to the program, of the overture to those old Warner Bros. cartoons that sounded more like the Velvets’ “Sister Ray” minus drums and vocals, with a lot more enraged Dick Dale in Kaplan’s attack. It was great fun.
So was the evening’s finale: Lucier’s 1990 piece “Nothing Is Real,” soberly rendered by Kaplan alone at a piano, which amplified the jest. Kaplan played curt down-speed phrases from the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever” at different registers, saving them on a small recording device. Then he got up and put the recorder into a small red teapot set on top of the piano’s body. As those Beatle licks were played back inside the pot, Kaplan lifted the lid to varying heights, naturally adjusting the volume at which they came back to the crowd.
“Nothing Is Real” was essentially a composition about how even the most iconic sound can be broken down, then elevated, to new levels of experience. As for the wit: You can’t get more English than the Beatles heard from a teapot. And note this: Lucier’s piece was originally commissioned by a Japanese record company, Toshiba-EMI, and featured on the CD anthology Hyper Beatles 2, which I now want to hear. Even avant-garde composers have their greatest hits.