Kim Gordon personifies New York cool so completely that fans often forget she is a Los Angeles transplant. But in 1979, when the future Sonic Youth co-founder was frequenting loft parties, she was the new girl in town. "At the time I finished school, New York was the place to be if you were an artist," Gordon says. "And it was an especially exciting time in the city's history, as far as the music scene was concerned."
Nearly three decades after her arrival, Gordon is revisiting some of the tenets and players of the late-'70s New York music scene with the Song Project, in which a handful of experimental music's most accomplished artists will bridge the gap between improv and songcraft. In the week before the show, Gordon and Phantom Orchard — an avant-rock collective founded by multi-instrumentalist Zeena Parkins and percussionist Ikue Mori — will go from a blank page to a full setlist of songs worked out in improvisational sessions. In addition to Gordon, Phantom Orchard's line-up will be augmented for this one-off event by Trevor Dunn (presently of Fantômas) on bass and Yoshimi (OOIOO and Boredoms) on drums. The music is expected to touch on the individual members' specialties, swinging wildly from minimalism to thrash.
Though the Song Project began with Parkins' artist residency at the Montalvo Arts Center, she believes its spirit is rooted in the same No Wave scene where Gordon first took inspiration. "In a way, you could say the Song Project started with people just hanging out in '70s New York," says Parkins, who describes the upcoming performance as "No Wave theater."
For the uninitiated, No Wave has always been a daunting phenomenon to define. The genre has catchwords ("nihilism" and "confrontation" usually find their way into cursory histories) and competing ringmasters in James Chance and Lydia Lunch. The sound, however, is the unmistakable ear-splitting screech of a car crash set to a clangorous beat. No Wave fostered experimentation and informal collaborations. When Brian Eno arrived in New York in 1978 at the height of the scene, he claimed 500 new bands started in one month alone. His estimate might not have been far off, but many of these groups shared members and were designed for one show only. These "new" acts were actually variations on No Wave supergroups, which in the end were determined to obliterate the boundary between music and noise.
Mori was first inspired to take up drumming during this frenetic period, and became a focal point of the scene with groundbreaking noise band DNA. Gordon cites Mori's inventive rhythms as a key influence on her own decision to pick up a bass less than a year after arriving in New York.
In the decades since, a widening circle of musicians has formed friendships from the original No Wave community. On any given night in New York, such luminaries as Gordon, Mori, and Parkins will get together to improvise in local clubs, continuing the tradition of infinite spin-offs. In many ways, the Song Project is an extension of those ad-hoc performances.
Parkins feels the group has refined its playing so much that its members now communicate on another level. "Most of us have been playing together in one way or another for over 20 years," she says. "There is definitely something very telepathic going on when we play." The stage at Montalvo might hold the most eloquent expression yet, in a musical conversation started so many parties ago.