February 9, 2012

Pictures via Pitchfork, shot by Will Deitz.

Hank Erins studied house at Brown with Nicolas Jaar.

Nicolas Jaar at MoMA PS1. With live movement art and real time video processing. In a geodesic dome. For five hours. On Super Bowl Sunday. Too good to be true? Too true to be good?

For those of you who don’t know what geodesic means, neither do I. Nor does Nico, one of many facts gleaned from his somnambulant pre-show Q&A. More tidbits: the performance would last 5 hours because both his parents were born on the 5th. There would be microphones directed at the audience, such that “if people are talking during the show, their voices will be recorded and re-sampled” (one wonders what other sounds Jaar expected to collect in this manner). The video processing would also be environmentally responsive, though it was unclear how. We were warned the last hour might suck. I adjusted my expectations accordingly.

Around 1 p.m. after polishing off a plate of barbecued quail and frogs’ legs, I made my way into the aforementioned dome and joined the small crowd forming around the circular center stage. A ring of obelisks equipped with speakers surrounded us; from above, a rotating camera captured our faces, which were then projected on the wall in a folded pattern straight out of Photo Booth. After a brief soundcheck, the man of the h our settled in behind his laptop, keyboard, and turntable to start the performance solo.

A gargling stream of Jaar’s signature sound design began to slither from one speaker to the next. Over this foundation he looped a few seconds of a record – something orchestral and vaguely eastern – then filtered it into a hazy, amorphous refrain. The music hit a lockgroove for several minutes with only minute changes and the occasional tape-delayed percussion sample for good measure. High frequencies disappeared, then reappeared; a channel of gated white noise emerged and subsided. It felt as though Jaar was composing this piece right in front of us, unafraid to discard ideas and return to square one over and over. I couldn’t decide if I was excited or bored, until the first bass notes rumbled through the dome and it became clear that Jaar had a plan after all.

What followed was a glacially paced tour through one man’s impeccably curated sound world. Jaar did not simply layer sonic fragments on top of one another; he illuminated them from all sides. If such a thing as musical cubism exists, “From Scratch” approached it. Perhaps the most telling moment came nearly forty minutes in when a single thunderous kick drum rang out, but there was no beat behind it. In the uneasy moments that followed the audience was left to contemplate their craving for quantized bass thuds. We are all musicologists in the presence of Nicolas Jaar.

As the day wore on, Jaar was joined by a series of collaborators, the first and most successful of which was multi-instrumentalist Will Epstein. While his keyboard playing lended a much appreciated harmonic framework to the proceedings, it was on saxophone that Epstein truly shined. His Astatke-inspired riffs seemed to embolden Jaar, whose own contributions grew more spontaneous as the two played together. In the final hour of full-on techno reverie, the pair managed to replicate the intensity of Jaar’s full band quite convincingly.

As for the others… Sasha Spielberg showed up to join the Modestly Talented Daughters of Famous People that Sing for Nicolas Jaar Club. Lizzie Feidelson improvised a competent dance solo on a second stage, but the geography of the space – with Jaar at the center of a circle of inward facing people – undercut her performance. Ryan Staake manned a video-processing operation that was surely quite complicated, but amounted to the previously described audience footage being crossfaded with shots of trees. None of these things detracted from the performance, but they did feel like missed opportunities.

Perhaps the biggest missed opportunity, however, was the complete failure of the interactive element to register. If the sounds of the space were affecting the audio and visual output of the artists, it was virtually impossible to notice. It seems both Staake and Jaar have yet to learn the second rule of interactive installation art: if it doesn’t feel interactive, it’s not interactive. Perhaps it’s for the best. The whole “record your audience and play it back at them” thing is long past cliché at this point (and yet shit like this still happens.)

But these are minor complaints. Nicolas Jaar’s preferred medium is sound, and he was a master of it on Sunday. I can’t imagine he’s played too many five hour sets, but he made it look like old hat. And unlike Friday night’s sold-out show at Music Hall of Williamsburg – a victory lap celebrating the incredible year he’s had since the release of Space Is Only Noise – there was a lot at stake that afternoon.

“From Scratch” marked the debut of Nicolas Jaar’s newly minted culture house, Clown and Sunset Aesthetics. While vanity labels rarely have much effect on their founder’s career, CSA could prove vital in shaping Jaar’s legacy. Part of his appeal when he first appeared on the world’s collective radar was that he seemed to arrive fully-formed out of a vacuum, unbeholden to any scene or trend. In this age of hyper-connectivity and overexposure, it is refreshing to discover an artist who has had the time to develop into something unique and multifaceted outside the public eye. But if Jaar is to cement his fledgling status as a major figure in the universe of electronic dance music, he needs a movement of talented artists bearing his influence to form around him. “From Scratch” was a bold first step toward achieving that goal. What more could you ask for?

On a Previous Episode:

Enjoy the Silence

The Belle Jaar

Download:
MP3: Nicolas Jaar ft. Scout Larue – “With Just One Glance
MP3: Nicolas Jaar-”Keep Me There”

MP3: Azari & III-”Into the Night” (Nicolas Jaar Remix)

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