A mage friend of mine recently told me about a spiritual connection he’s always had with trees. As a child, he would take to dancing with the shadows cast by the waving branches, drawing a air of whimsy and mystery from the arboreal roots and foliage. I never had much time for talks of magic or spirituality in my younger years, but as the endurance of nature’s force continues to entrance and mystify as I continue to grow and decay, it becomes hard not to reflect on the so-called anthropocene and begin to put a few coins of faith in that which we just can’t seem to control.
My friend’s childhood romps with trees brought to mind the lifelong affinity I’ve had for water, from rainy days spent retreating inwards to staring at the Atlantic ocean with an otherworldly sense of calm. About five years ago, I was with my mother out on Long Beach, NY on a perfect mid-Summer afternoon. This was the first summer after Sandy and the beach still bore its lashings, a stop-gap boardwalk erected hastily during the spring. The echoes of destruction added to the humbled quiet that fell over the two of us as we sat on some beanbag-sized rocks, staring into eternity when a curious scene caught our eyes.
A fleet of banana-colored surfboards and surfers had emerged, but this being mid-afternoon, we knew that this wasn’t your typical surfer bro meet-up. Instead, it was a mixture of mostly adults and some children, about forty total with around eight of them were confined to wheelchairs. Ever the Holmes, my mom quickly deduced that this was an event for quadriplegic surfers, a patient and rather delicate procedure that involved placing each rider horizontally on the board which was then lifted by a team of four who escorted the vessel into the water, never leaving their occupant’s side. The boards would be knocked over regularly, but the smiles of their occupants’ faces seemed to catch the sun radiating off the water’s surface, casting everything in their radius in a humbling glow. “God, I love the ocean,” I said. To which my mother replied, “I know. It’s the only time my brain shuts the fuck up.”
Is it just me or are people having less fun when they go out? I’m not trying to strike an “everything sucks now” posture and should concede that I might just be more aware of a room’s energy than I once was, but whenever I find myself at a club or show, I find it hard to escape the dream machine-like bath of darting eyes. Everyone seeing to be seen with an added dose of inhibition that I don’t remember being so prevalent even a few years back. Of course, there’s a simple solution to the discomfort caused by this: close your damn eyes.
Suffice to say, I don’t typically find myself escaping the (kinda gross) comfort pod that is my room. As one homie said recently when reflecting on the prospect of seeing the New Simplicity-aligned composer Dominique Lawalrée and similar shows of the ambient variety, “The problem in my mind with the resurgence of academic ambient is that I have just as fun of a time sitting at home by myself.”
This struck a chord because as someone who enjoys the drone zone as much as a full-out drum machine assault, I too have been finding myself often choosing to do both at home, choosing control over chaos (as mild as it has become). Still, little beats the pure euphoria brought on by experiencing jams known and unknown on a robust soundsystem in calming and/or exciting surroundings, giving the control over to another DJ or performer. And to experience that thrill, that sublime bliss of the mind quieting and the body taking over, twice in three days? Well, call me Joan Armatrading, cuz I’m lucky (sorrrrrrrrrry;)
Before we get to Dominique, I had the unexpected pleasure of seeing Amsterdam-bred DJ and production duo Beesmunt Soundsystem this past Thursday at Mezcaleria La Milagrosa, a clubhouse-vibed mezcal bar that boasts a fake frontroom constructed to look like a bespoke bodega. As it is located next door to Jack Bar, a pinball bar I regularly visit, its Manhattan-like gimmickry was easy fodder for us ‘ballers until learning that it boasted wooden Klipsch speakers from 1979 and a McIntosh speaker housed in a curved wooden room. Plus, it’s owned by Felipe Mendez, whose La Superior and Cerveceria Havemeyer restaurants are Williamsburg’s bastions of quality Mexican food. And as I learned upon meeting him that night, he’s a total sweetie and a committed dance music head. As for the sound? It's fucking amazing, total and complete warmth through fidelity.
So while the over-styled and overly-hetero crowd was a bit thirsty for my taste, my well-traveled companion who brought me there in the first place made haste in carving out a space for the freaks to be freaks while also grabbing us two killer Hibiscus-bases mezcal cocktails, saddling up to take in the song-heavy, low 100s BPM set by Misters David Van Der Leeuw and Luigi Vittorio Jansen. Back in 2007 when I first arrived in NY, many of the DJ sets I would see would be decidedly backwards-looking as the edit craze was still in full-effect, aided by longtime diggers and committed MP3 bloggers flooding the nascent Web 2.0 with songs once solely confined to wax, now free to roam the Se. And while the selection was often pleasing, rarity often seemed to be valued over quality or thoughtful mixing as DJ’s threw track upon track to create a quasi-danceable raucous.
I'll admit, my ears made a reflexive grimace at the synthesized machine funk recently re-popularized by the similarly Amsterdam-based Music From Memory label with the torch also carried by the likes of Emotional Rescue and Invisible City Editions that poured forth as we first entered. But by the time the light-filled chords that arise from second-half of the Memory-reissued “Night” by Joel Graham started resonating with the room, I quickly began to lose myself in the plastic oasis conjured up by Beesmunt. While I don’t believe the selection ever dipped past 1991 over the course of the four hours I was there, Mssrs. Vittorio and Van Der Leeuw retained a soulfulness and warmth as they slowly moved from proto-New Jack Swing and boogie to more house-inflected pop songs, vocals weaving in and out. As my emissary for the evening kept commenting, the two approached DJ’ing with a patience not commonly found when working with more traditional song structures. As MIDI jazz stylings emerged from an early 90s light house number, it was clear that these two might be wading in well-traveled waters, but do so with a commitment to craft that was simply inspiring. And while I still need to see the type of more uptempo set they likely played the next night opening for Detroit hero Marcellus Pittmann, getting to take in a digger’s set played with the kind of love for music that perfectly mirrored the audiophile evirons of the Mezcaleria was a sumptuous treat I could have never anticipated.
Despite being the author of one of my and many others favorite albums of the year, there was an odd hesitation leading up to last night's concert performed by the Brussels-born composer Dominique Lawalrée. As noted above, the past few years have seen a noted rise in interest regarding new age and spiritualist music from the 70s and 80s with the prolific Lawalrée getting his moment in the record nerd sun courtesy of Catch Wave Ltd. and Ergot Records' judiciously selected compilation First Meeting. Selected by Ergot's Adrian Rew and Palto Flats' Jacob Gorchev from three of Lawalrée's albums released on his own Editions Walrus imprint between 1978 and 1982, the album is one of the most blindingly intimate records I've encountered in a minute. It's the type of album you can recommend to others that they take pains to listen to it at the cusp of dawn and sincerely mean it. Lawalrée draws upon such minimalist ambient pioneers as Erik Satie and Brian Eno--while also calling to mind the patient piano of Harold Budd--to create piano-focused compositions that unfold on their own timetable, each change of phrase often coming a bar sooner or later than expected. Having had a sincere spiritualist experience in 1994, he's a truly mystical man whose command of a room is at once gentle and all-consuming.
Around the start of the concert's last third, the composer once again stepped up from his piano, this time to tell a story about an experience he had had this past July in "the best pool in Belgium." Witnessing two individuals with paralysis being gently ushered into the water and reveling in an experience rarely afforded to them, Lawalrée was deeply moved by this moment of simple yet life-changing kindness, shedding tears at the beauty of what he perceived as the Lord's magnanimous nature. Closing my eyes for the umpteenth time, the residue left by his français de Belgique accent leant a song-like cadence to his voice as he gracefully leapt from one word or phrase to the next, transporting me back to Long Beach with my mom, those man-made bananas and their joyful cargo bouncing along the merciless waves, held safely by the altruism of others. Though his story itself was a rather short one, he took two to three times the typical length, moving slowly through his belabored yet calming English. Had he delivered it earlier in the night, it might have irritated the audience, or at least me as my bony butt has never taken kindly to church pews, Catholic mass attended during early childhood an early exercise in pain endurance.
But having already ingratiated the audience with his ineffably gorgeous compositions, we had become attuned to Dominique's sense of timing: slow, but purposeful, evocative and intoxicating. As alluded to above, there had been a surprising reticence amongst buds of mine about this show, put on by Blank Forms (who also staged last March's most memorable Carl Stone show). After all, how could music that almost seems to demand solitary listening capture the intimacy and control that home listening allows? Joined onstage by Catch Wave's Britton Powell and Kelly Moran, it was Powell who started off the show, lulling us into a relaxed state through the extended repetition of "La Secret Blanc," the centerpiece of First Meeting's A side. A simplistic three-note figure, it serves to underpin a forest of musical outgrowth, endless melodic fractals and tangents extending from the piece's central motif. The added emphasis provided early on by Moran's bass--I think, I couldn't see well and had my eyes closed--helped to beef up this delicate minimalist jaunt through a snow-speckled Belgian countryside (which, in all honesty, is truly a sight to see). As Lawalrée gently adorned Powell's piano with deliciously inauthentic MIDI strings and melodic piano meanderings, Moran's use of percussive strikes that fell like rain drops sealed the deal and I knew extended ass pain would be a small price to pay for getting to enter Dominique's world for a couple of hours.
Comprised of two sets, the first only lasted three songs but looking at my phone during intermission, I realized that a solid forty-five minutes had just slept by without a whisper, the highlight arguably being a stupefyingly pretty rendition of "La Maison des 5 Elements," featuring disembodied voices (or perhaps just Dominique's) gently talking in French over the lush instrumental bed. Lawalrée's compositions were undoubtedly enhanced by the instrumental support given during the first half and set the bar almost impossibly high for the second half which saw the wizened Belgian playing solo on his grand piano. Playing selections from across the over-450 compositions in his oeuvre that ranged from a painfully gorgeous rendition of "Listen to the Quiet Voice" to the world premiere of a composition inspired by the pool story, the composer clearly relished the attention he was being finally given, introducing each song with the glee of a child hamming it up during an especially successful show and tell. It was a bit excessive, but he sold it with his mercurial grin and a pervasive sense of awe stemming from both the intricately-adorned San Dinamo Mission and his audience. Despite having been considered for release by Brian Eno at one point and his own records distributed stateside by composer Gavin Bryars, Lawalrée has long remained an open secret, his records enjoying a second life over the past several years courtesy of YouTube. So while the two-song encore was a bit too indulgent for my withered behind, as I dashed out of the jam-packed church, I was nearly bursting with a blissful and focused calm, desperate to get home and make something, anything. And that, my friends, is what a fantastic show should do.