Note: This is a summary of a talk given at Postopolis!, taken in real-time, with minimal editing. Reader beware! Postopolis! was organised by BLDDBLOG, City of Sound, Inhabitat, Subtopia, and the Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York, and ran from May 29th-June 2nd 2007. Flickr group for photos here. YouTube videos uploaded here. All Postopolis! posts here.
Jace Clayton, who would later play our closing party in his alter-ego DJ/Rupture, has one of the more consistently fascinating blogs about music and space, particularly on the contemporary sound of migration, whether that's in Harlem, Barcelona or Brussels. He'd been living in Barcelona, and moved to NYC relatively recently, and had an interesting perspective on the sound of both cities. More later.
This session took the form of a conversation between Geoff Manaugh and Clayton, building on phone conversations they'd had. It was interesting to observe two minds very much in sync, posing questions to each other, which were then neatly side-stepped in favour of building a new level of observation! It wasn't that they dodged each others questions, more that the ideas came thick and fast, almost vaulting over each other. The conversation was more like a construction, each entry offering a new level. As a result, it was fairly difficult to capture coherently – it was more something to be enjoyed in the moment, as all the best conversations perhaps – so bear with me.
A central theme is that local music cultures can be seen as a sign of political violence elsewhere i.e. migration shifts a people, due to war, and takes a music with it, that is then situated within a different culture, a different space. This is a fascinating thought; as if a burst of music is a form of letting off steam from pressure elsewhere, a geyser exploding on the surface of the planet, due to tectonic shifts in another place.
(There wasn't specific talk of it, but klezmer – Eastern European Jewish dance music – is a classic example of this and ironic that we were based for the week in a world centre of it.)
Clayton painted a vivid picture of such "liminal zones" in Barcelona, including "spaces for drunk muslims", Eastern European prostitutes, old men, African immigrants ... a series of "edge bars", places which are at once shot through with nostalgic memories and startling futurity, places which enable both a semi-public presence to occur but also musical hybrids to emerge, fizzing out of the possible cross-pollination and fusion in these places. He talked of specific market in the Poblenou, a fascinating bit of Barcelona, which at times feels like North Africa with the streets full of bartering in Catalan, Spanish, Arabic. And yet also the huge Jean Nouvel-designed Torre Agbar.
Despite this, when Barcelona attempts to capitalise on this intensely raw creative space, it emerges as a form of "festival of third world music", which is something a little Disneyesque and patronising. "It's like, here's your moment", which is a misunderstanding of the sound and music in these semi-public space; that they are about the inhabiting of a place. Literally, the sound of living there, perhaps, rather than a form of officially mandated celebration, separated from inhabitation.
Clayton reckons that a more successful European city for this kind of music, that doesn't attempt to over-legitimise or control it, is Brussels. Having played there with his band, Nettle, they have figured out how to run a series of festivals which have the sense of these quite temporary spaces, at central nodes in the city, such that you can have 3000 people there, the vast majority Moroccans.
Geoff talks about the ferries from Morocco to Spain ... Clayton talks about their spaces are ultimately shut down by the police, huge half blocks in Pobleneu shut down. He notes that there's a disruption here; that these things "flower in cracks in the city infrastructure. You can't really plan for cracks ..." (Can you?)
The conversation switches to how radio is also an indicator of these cultures and spaces; that in the US, radio is often no more than "sonic wallpaper", but that radio elsewhere is strong - Europe, Africa - and in either pirate, commercial or public forms.
Clayton talks about how incredibly inventive cities can be. He says, as an 18-wheeler crashes by, "New York is so loud, so public, you can almost hear neighbourhoods establishing their boundaries". Walking through a neighbourhood, the way "people present themselves is via music ..." – with either reassuring or intimidating effects, depending on your point of view. He talks about a few of the specific cities where local scene is just fantastic. Bristol, for example, again with a rich, complex history of people trafficking (slave trade) and migration. He recalls The Black Swan pub in Bristol, which is amazing place to play – an "anarchic space, almost a 'temporary autonomous zone', where 600-700 people go to parties, with no sense of security, and people circling in and out all the time.
He notes that some cities have very rich soundspaces - not in New York, though where "a diverse soundworld tends to be flattened". The places to go to in NYC are the cemeteries and subways -- "The subway at night is suffuse with reverb - moments of voices, random people singing." In the medina in Marrakesh, which is open to sky, it's also filled with public performance, with fantastic singers who destroy their voices in that space. But these are spaces of possibility ...
In New York, it's almost like the city has muscled it out ... I ask Clayton about New York, which has this rich history in terms of sound and the city, from Charles Ives's fabulous 1913 composition 'Central Park in the Dark', which conjures the soundworld of the park at night, to klezmer (documented best by World Circuit's Reve et Passion), to Western European folk songs (documented on Uri Caine's 'Sidewalks of New York'), to Aaron Copland's 'Quiet City', to Cage's 'The City Wears A Slouch Hat', to 'Downtown 81', 'Barrio Nuevo' and about a million other examples. But that this expression of New York, a bit like the fading lettering talked of in Tobias Frere-Jones's talk earlier in the week, is being flattened, particularly in Manhattan, where Sin-é, Tonic etc. have all been hustled out of town.
He tends to agree, noting that music scenes are ideally small, close environments. You might see bits of it in the uptown rap scene, around Harlem, which is interesting, but also fading. The electronic music scene of a few years back has gone. Brooklyn might have elements of it, and the odd nomadic party, but for the most part interesting people get priced out. It's economics, really. He notes you can live in Berlin for 300 euros a month. Just try to rent in NYC for that. Plus spaces that do open need to be economically susccesful in short term. So he concludes that New York is not a good city for music, in this sense.
There is further talk of the relationship between gamelan and DJing, which is interesting – a possible connection between a music of ceremonies and lengthy narratives. Also talk of music as an act of celebration and worship, here in the context of migration from Pakistan. Geoff notes that there also is an inherent danger here, related to urban planning talk of 'shanty chic', or appropriating the favela, and therefore poverty. That playing with the music from the barrio is a way to mark one's artistic direction as outside the mainstream. The shantytown motif has been deployed around Clayton's music occasionally – his WFMU show is promoted thus: "An uncaged shantytown in radiophonic space." – but his deep understanding of, and affinity with, this music right across the spectrum lifts him away from that.
It's a fascinating freewheeling talk, somehow entirely in tune with its subject matter. You can find similar discussion at Jace Clayton's blog, Negrophonic, and on his forthcoming radio show on WFMU, Wednesdays from 7-8pm and online.