On Monday, October 10th, 2016, I set foot into the town of Ithaca. My flat-soled shoes flapped against the sidewalk in haste, desperate to shave off my time spent in the bitter October cold. Down a few blocks and ‘round a corner later, I made my descent into the basement-lounge Sacred Root Kava Bar…
…And I stepped into what was arguably one of the worst local shows I’ve ever been to.
Let’s start at the beginning: Sacred Root’s featured show wasn’t just any ol’ show- this was for Queer Sound Ithaca. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the area (or Queer Sound,) QSI a concert series that features artist that are working with unusual and/or subversive ways, with a focus on LGBTQ+ musicians working in experimental music.
30 minutes past doors (and two shells of Kava later), the lights dimmed, the music faded out, and the night was ready to begin.
Kicking off the show was Nancy Babich, a new local act and self-proclaimed “best trans girl punk band in the world.” Upon reflection, I realize that that boastful claim should have been my first red flag. Nancy Babich featured two instrumentalists- a bassist and guitarist (both vocalists)- and a backing track of percussion that sounded like it was created with a very outdated MIDI sampler (or worse, TabIt) and completely and utterly lacked any percussive depth. Hang on- it gets better (or, rather, worse): the sloppily crafted samples were (at least) overpowered and overrun by some of the sloppiest playing I’ve ever had the misfortune of witnessing. The bassist, bless them, was actually generally on point, although they looked extremely uncomfortable onstage, which made for a couple of obvious fumbles. However, those fumbles were generally passable (or went unnoticed) as the bass was nearly entirely drowned out by its counterpart’s catastrophic cacophony. Besides utilizing an amp that wasn’t even remotely EQ’d, the guitarist wielded their instrument as if their fingers had turned to snakes and the fret board had been freshly coated with butter. Sloppy, muddled notes riddled with too much gain and treble tumbled and slid their way into the forefront, writhing their way through each song like maggots to meat. Their set started with disappointment, moved onto sad, and then downright pathetic, but it took a maddening turn when they (albeit poorly) covered Joy Division’s “New Dawn Fade.” Thinly stretched vocal chords painfully strained out each muddled word and lackluster chords became all-too much as I felt my knuckles whiten at the unoriginality and spiritless humdrum that laid before my eyes and ears. I’d love to cut them some slack- and I very nearly did after they informed the glazed-over crowd that this was only their second show they’ve ever played. But following that information with “this next song is off of our second album” completely eradicated that excuse. Two albums out and you can barely play your instruments? Unacceptable. Subjecting an audience to the aural and visual equivalent of a tween garage-band duo that’s mucking around with the instruments they found in the attic? Y I K E S.
The most constructive point I can even begin to tell these performers is that they need to practice. A LOT. They need to practice and learn their instruments, their voices, and proper diction before they can even begin to take any stage anywhere again. And after they’ve mastered that, they need to master the art of communicating with each other so their performance doesn’t look like they both just met for the first time. And, please, if you can’t create any decent drum track, could you at least not insult my ears and bring a metronome next time?
(I gave them the benefit of the doubt and decided to check out their Bandcamp page after the show and, much to my dismay, came across only one variance from the performance tonight: you can actually make out the words to each song on the records).
Up next was the highlight of the night, John Krausbauer, a Los Angeles-based experimentalist/shoegaze/drone fusion instrumentalist. I have to preface this section of this review by informing you that I by and large don’t care for most drone music. However, Krausbauer’s set, which was comprised entirely of one 30-minute-long take, was astoundingly wonderful. Krausbauer spent the entire time with his back turned to the audience as he sat in front of the stage by a table that was loaded with an array of pedals, one microphone, and his violin. Time seemed to slow as he gracefully molded these rumbling, eerie vowels into oddly suspenseful, rhythmic progressions. I had the pleasure of sitting quite close to where he performed- close enough to determine that this man knew precisely how to use his voice. Proper posture, breath control, and moldings of pitch and cadence with his soft palate and tongue (much like a harmonica) are all signature trademarks that Krausbauer so vibrantly displays. And then came the strings. Hauntingly beautiful, simplistic notes joined the foray of deep ambiance and soared, sending cold shivers down my spine and erecting goosebumps on my arms. His care and placement in each note throughout the duration of the continuous take was really astounding and a much-needed breath of fresh air.
QSI closed with the curator, Sarah Hennies, a Kentucky transplant, composer, and percussionist. I took the time to read up on Sarah and her work as she set up and found a vibrant description of her work via her website biography:
Her work is primarily concerned with an immersive, psychoacoustic presentation of sound brought about by an often grueling, endurance-based performance practice that Nathan Thomas of Fluid Radio described as “a highly sophisticated and refined performance technique…that starts and ends with listening and encourages a different way of listening from its audience.”
Hell, after reading that, I was stoked to see this performance. Once she finished setting up and took the stage, I was on the edge of my seat, waiting with bated breath for whatever it was I was about to experience.
Hennies sat at a table that featured wood blocks, maracas, and a rubber stamp. An array of bells were placed on either side of her chair; in front of her a kick drum and chimes. Hennies took a breath, picked up her strikers, and the next thing I heard was, well, interesting.
As she went down the line of instruments and noise makers, I noticed a change in my demeanor. At first, it was a smooth transition from eagerness to anticipation. I found my head had cocked to the side, my gaze had zeroed in on Hennies’ hands, and I had managed to lean further and further, as if proximity could change my current state of listening.
But nothing changed what I was hearing. I checked the time.
10 minutes had passed.
I watched Hennies move as swiftly as she could, filling her hands with bells and fumbling for a striker or a maraca. Her shaking hands would occasionally knock over her rubber stamp, misjudge a wood block strike, or her fingers (out of fatigue) let slip a bell or two.
I decided that this must be a more visual experience and that searching for meter or rhythm was simply incorrect. I watched this process for another 5 minutes before checking the time again.
The rubber stamp fell again into the chimes. More bells slipped and thudded onto the floor, but the ringing never completely ceased. Hennies dove for a striker that had gone flying and hit the floor. Bass drum kicks had become rampantly out of order. A maraca slipped and nearly hit the floor before Hennies deftly caught it mid-air. At this point, the whole of the table is shaking and Hennies is close to performing a Richard Simmons workout video as she tries to keep the ensemble together.
The f*cking rubber stamp fell into the chimes again.
At this point, my previous gentle anticipation had grown into a visceral, full-blown anxiety. I was genuinely unsure if the dropping of each instrument and flailing about to catch it was part of the performance, or if Hennies was demonstrating the Bystander Effect a la theatrics, and we were all nothing more than pointless voids with dead eyes staring back at someone who is clearly struggling and requires assistance. I felt like I was trapped in a Portlandia-style sketch, sans Armisen or Brownstein, and sans any comedy. I began to sweat. My eyes darted after each falling bell or noisemaker. I watched another striker thud to the floor. My heart rate shot up. I could feel a pulse in my ears and the ringing getting louder and louder.
No rhythm. No meter. No sense. At this point, Hennies has her hands completely full of bells and is sweating.
The mother*cking stamp fell into the goddamn chimes AGAIN.
I thought I didn’t understand percussive theory anymore. Hell, I thought I didn’t understand music anymore. I searched for meaning within what I was visually and aurally witnessing, and every explanation rounded a corner and into a dead end. Bells falling. Strikers falling. Bass drum kicks out of order and out of time- except there wasn’t any time. WOULD SOMEONE PLEASE HELP HER SECURE HER RUBBER STAMP?
And then, silence.
I grabbed my keys and darted out of the basement Kava bar, hoping that the sting of the cold air would help me regain some semblance of composure and liveliness. A few streets later, I called my mother to tell her I love her, that I’m sorry, and that I didn’t understand percussive theory anymore. She told me it was just bad art. (Katt Hass)