The seats quickly fill up soon after I arrive at the sparse performance space at the corner of Avenue C and Second Street, and latecomers wind up sitting on the concrete floor. A lone air conditioner situated over the entrance provides little respite from the stifling summer heat, but nobody seems to mind as they wait, patiently sipping bottled water before the first set. Tonight, John Zorn and a cavalcade of musicians will perform to raise money for this site, the Stone, his four-month-old venue, where performers follow their instincts into improvised jazz’s uncharted territory.
“All of the money made from these performances goes directly to the musicians, and so it doesn’t matter how many people show up. At Tonic, if there wasn’t a big crowd and people weren’t drinking, the musicians didn’t make anything.” Nearly a dozen black and white photographs of legendary avant-garde composers adorn the otherwise bare walls of the venue. Zorn, many might argue, could be one of them. But the audience isn’t here for the décor; once the music starts, everything changes. Transfixed spectators huddle around Zorn as he rips through frenzied, high-volume riffs on his alto saxophone, his signature screams enveloped by Ikue Mori’s laptop-generated electronic instrumentation and Cyro Baptista’s percussion—which includes several unidentifiable noise-making contraptions. Because the songs are composed extemporaneously, before a live audience, the musicians must rely exclusively on visual cues—glances, smiles, or nods—to guide one other through each piece.
In the late ‘90s, Zorn established Tonic, another creative music venue. There, as at the Stone, every month a well-known musician served as guest curator, selecting and booking all of the club’s concerts. Unlike Tonic, however, the Stone sells no beverages or food, which helps minimize the new space’s overhead costs and keeps the focus on the music and little else. According to Zorn, “All of the money made from these performances goes directly to the musicians, and so it doesn’t matter how many people show up. At Tonic, if there wasn’t a big crowd and people weren’t drinking, the musicians didn’t make anything.”
The Stone’s unique economic format means musicians can perform there without inhibition, without having to worry about gate receipts. And yet the Stone still captivates the audiences that fill the place every night. June’s concerts, curated by cellist Fred Sherry, featured performances ranging from Miguel Frasconi’s glass-percussion collages to Pamelia Kurstin’s excursions into the sonorous world of the theremin, an instrument known more for its use as a premonitory sound effect in ‘50s sci-fi movies than for anything else. Crowds flock to see these performers, but they don’t find out about them through venue listings, since the Stone doesn’t promote its shows.
Mori, who played drums in the seminal New York art-rock band DNA and is now a regularly featured electronic artist at the Stone, insists the venue’s lack of publicity isn’t a problem. “Because there’s no advertising, people must go to the website to find out who is playing,” she says. “The audience is completely focused on the music.” Indeed, the venue’s devoted fans are its lifeblood, and many already know that Mori is scheduled to curate—in June 2006.
But support for the Stone comes from well beyond the venue’s walls. This fall there are plans to release a limited-edition CD, which will be produced in bassist Bill Laswell’s Orange Music studios and sold through the Downtown Music Gallery website. Everyone involved—from Laswell to the printing and packing company to Downtown Music—is donating labor, all to benefit the Stone.
After the first set of the evening, Cyro Baptista steps away from his instruments. A few minutes later he says, “What Zorn has done here presents an amazing challenge. It goes against the grain of what is happening everywhere else.”
In 1980 Baptista moved to New York from his native Brazil, and he remembers when avant-garde musicians performed in loft apartments in what is now the Stone’s neighborhood. Rents were cheaper then, but working musicians still shared expenses and living space to make ends meet. A communal feeling existed among these artists—and Zorn was a leader among them.
American artists, on the other hand, have limited access to government funding, and many of those working in New York City must hold day jobs as well to pay living expenses—which leaves little time to rehearse. From the early ‘80s on, Baptista played in several Zorn compositions, most notably Cobra, a “game piece” in which the performers improvise within a complex set of rules and receive cues from diagrams displayed by the conductor. For Baptista, the unrestrained creativity at the Stone is extraordinarily reminiscent of those earlier times—and a far cry from so many clubs today, where the emphasis is almost entirely on generating profits. “To perform in a club these days, [the club owners] want to see your portfolio,” he says. “They want to know how many people you will draw, if there’ll be dancing…You become a slave to what they want.”
The differences don’t end there. As composer Matthew Welch, manager of the Stone, notes, “You don’t need to play so loud to be heard. And you don’t have to grab the attention of listeners who are socializing over drinks.” On sweltering summer evenings, in fact, many patrons seek the comforts of neighborhood pubs between performances.
Welch, who has performed at the Stone alone and with his band, Blarvuster, contends that improvised, experimental music is a distinctly New York tradition, and that although European artists produce and perform avant-garde music, government subsidies will steer many of those musicians toward opera and orchestral compositions. American artists, on the other hand, have limited access to government funding, and many of those working in New York City must hold day jobs as well to pay living expenses—which leaves little time to rehearse. Welch says the limited opportunity to practice before gigs helped nurture the do-it-yourself attitude of New York’s composer-performers, who have long created unplanned music before live audiences.
And now here, in a space no larger than a neighborhood drugstore, the tradition of the untraditional has found its newest home, where even those who manage the place don’t know what to expect. One recent evening, when Welch was working the gate, Zorn and Larry Ochs summoned him to join them on soprano saxophone—the first time Welch had ever played with Zorn. Together they wove a trio of frenetic runs into a uniform musical voice—a welcome relief from the typical jousting of competing soloists so characteristic of improvised jams. The trio’s impromptu composition explored multiple textures, the performers’ diverse styles merging into an ensemble of spontaneous, instinctual choices. No focus group told them this was the right maneuver, no clear potential for profit existed from their playing what they did. And they just played it.