I went to Echo Park last night, which is a very hip area, to see an “all-genre” concert hosted by Leaving Records. I will pretend to be a music critic, or someone who knows a bit about music.
The lineup: DJ Olive Komoto, The Growth Eternal, Sharada Shashidhar, Celia Hollander, and Green-House (I had only heard of Green-House, who was on my Spotify “Discover Weekly” playlist the week before). One, a DJ; the second, according to everynoise.com: a mix of indie jazz, fourth world, and experimental ambient; the third: indie jazz, fourth world, UK contemporary jazz; the fourth: “sound art;” the fifth: fourth world. (I am certain that the live performances bent each band’s genre(s) a bit more than the music you can hear on Spotify, so I will throw out words like a rough sketch.)
DJ Olive Komoto played background and transition music between the acts (music by Harold Budd, Software, Anton Desire, Eiki Nonaka, etc.). It was very nice; I wanted to fall asleep after walking into the venue, because of how relaxing the music was, and how immensely it permeated the venue (speakers are loud!). Also, when she chose a song from Mort Garson’s Plantasia, half of the crowd in line for cool merch hummed along. So I bet she anticipated the audience’s listening habits—plant music.
The Growth Eternal, in this instance, a post-dubstep, vocoder, R&B experimental band—self-described as a “bass and vocoder musician” on his Instagram page. Imagine, for instance, James Blake’s Lindsefarne II as a bundle of one long strand multicolored yarn, collected in a crisp and well-defined container. Now, imagine that container slowly exploded while all the yarn remains strung together, but almost an incoherent blur. That is the delayed, reverbed, ambient, and trip-hop effect on a piece that might normally be closer to R&B, constructed by The Growth Eternal. And, next to Byron Crenshaw (who, I’m guessing, is The Growth Eternal), was a person—Zachary?—sitting on the floor with a synthesizer, either a singing bowl or a colander, and an intensely-reverbed microphone. It was hip; it was danceable sometimes; it was post-colonial, vocoded in Swahili; it was anti-capitalist, irony alluded to in a song named “for profit;” it was boundary-pushing syncopation that made you think and feel and refused to allow you to settle comfortably into the groove. I enjoyed it.
Sharada Shashidhar, a young woman singing, accompanied by four other jazz musicians (two seemed to be hired last-minute), was influenced by both Indian classical music and jazz music. So, here, Shashidhar’s voice soared, or slowed down for subtlety: she played an incredible part. And, her voice part finished, and the drummer and the bassist nodded to each other: the bassist with an intense and focused face, the drummer nodding with the beat. The bassist turned, interested, to synchronize with the keyboardist: his face expressionless and gazing off to the distance. And, immediately, the tempo increased, the drummer ghosted his notes, the bassist slid up the neck; the keyboardist mouthed his chords as his fingers flew; the saxophone, too (where did it come from?!), it soloed. The song fell into a frenzy. It was jazz. It was ecstatic! The audience screamed and applauded constantly, the singer enunciated scat, and the music took on a life of its own. It exceeded the intelligibility of most music; coherent but unintelligible; brilliant not for any reason except a recognition of an intense and overwhelming skill. The music extended itself; Shashidhar thanked the audience several times, as if to end the set, but the musicians continued to perform, allowing the song to end on its own terms, to take a slow breath and finally come to an exhausted rest. It was, in fact, enjoyable.
Next, Celia Hollander: the musician, even though I had never heard her music, that I came to the show to hear. In a plain brown t-shirt, white pants, old glasses, and a large brunette bun on the top of her head, she stood silently in front of a discreetly-taped MacBook, with a red Focusrite audio interface mediating her keyboard, MacBook, and a condenser microphone. So, she began the ambient music—referred to by the host as a “sound bath.” Chill vibes emanated throughout the venue, which was the exact opposite of the jazz music that played before, reminiscent of Brian Eno’s Ambient One: Music for Airports. And then: in contradiction to the supposed slow inactivity of an ambient performance, Hollander took a large sheet of paper (I do not know where she got the paper from). She set the music to act more percussively, with something like a field recording in the background, and took the paper to her condenser microphone. She held it up, one side in each hand, and ripped it in half. It reverberated like rain. And, another rip, on repeat. Once the paper ripped in smaller quadrants, she crumpled them into the microphone. A different, more aggressive type of rain sound emanated. This happened six or eight times, and Hollander casually and gently placed the papers on the floor, moving on. The set, then, became a unique electronic allusion to the outdoors, or the jungle, or something that electronic music—by virtue of its electronic existence—is not. It was vibey, several people sat on the floor, and I enjoyed it.
Finally, Green-House appeared; a skinny man with a rough comb-over haircut and black indie t-shirt tucked into black skinny jeans in front of a Juno 60—a style reminding me of 2014; and a woman with shaved, pink hair, and a beige flannel dress, who placed a stuffed-animal sloth in front of her MacBook-synthesizer setup. She announced that the music was intended to “make you sleepy,” and they played charming and simple synthesizer sounds, mellotron sounds, and piano sounds. Was it The Sims music? Was it Minecraft music? No: it was warmer, richer, and more alive than the music designed for a virtual background. Instead of sleep, the music suggested a simple comfort, and the audience bobbed their heads in something like a peaceful sense of harmony. The woman acknowledged the audience by waving the arms of the sloth as a greeting, and played with it during the performance of “Sunflower Dance;” they played four songs, and hesitantly closed the MacBook after. The night was over; the host thanked everyone and told us to hang around until midnight (it was 11:52).
Now: the night was cool, and I arrived with no expectations, only having heard a few songs by Green-House. I would show up to another one of these events, so if you’re reading this, you’re invited too, and anticipate a good time. But there are several questions that I went to the show with, and I hope that I do not meditate on these too long, for I had forgotten the questions when I was listening to the music.
The first: who listens to ambient music, or pays for a show to listen to something with, essentially, no beat to groove along to? Most of the bands had some form of beat, except for much of Hollander, so I will focus on her. During her more ambient tracks, several people around me got incredibly restless. When some drums appeared in the music, even if they only temporarily provided a beat that was inconsistent, these people lost their restlessness, as if drums orient people. So, I imagine that those listening to (this droning type of) ambient music have some sense of disorientation, some reluctance to settle into a beat, some desire to relax in a bog of sound. I am not quite sure. But there were a lot of hip people who seemed to show up just for the more ambient performances (Hollander and, maybe, Green-House). Is there a status to listening to (self-proclaimed) “underground” music? Are you cooler, trendier, for listening to something more difficult to listen to? I do not know, and I believe I am overthinking this, because this show was in an incredibly trendy part of Los Angeles.
Second: what counts as a genre? Several people have addressed this (a shared set of conventions or tradition to identify music, according to Wikipedia), but we run into trouble once we ask “what counts as tradition,” especially when musicians have immediate access to alternative “traditions.” So there is trouble in the category of genre: let's throw it out the window (“ALL GENRE!!”). And maybe there is a practicality to that: the people who will incline towards the “all genre” category might listen to a particular approach to “all genre;” hence the success with the DJ’s selection of the Plantasia music. Nobody can listen to all music, ever, but many people can listen to music that attempts to break down the boundaries of genre, or access certain experimental music, so there may, in fact, be an implicit genre emerging from the particular selection of live artists, or even more broadly in the “Leaving Records” catalogue. Of course, it is post-modern and cool to question the category of genre, but it may be meaningful to reassess it, to reconstruct it using much more vague categories beyond tradition and conventions, to find a common thread that accounts for the non-genre expectation of the listener (is it music that incorporates electronics? That uses certain technologies to decontextualize other genres and reframe them? Just like how religious Universalism can only happen in certain contexts, in an intentionally pluralistic setting that reflects certain theological compromises in several traditions, artists who participate in “all-genre” are not content with one single, pure genre, but have morphed theirs—is this the same? I am uncertain). I do not know how this new genre-conceptualization will be done, but it is something worth sitting with, maybe expanding on later.
So that is that. Listen to good music, friends. Enjoy.