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Theoretical Music

On Site
Theoretical Music: Ut + Talk Normal
Issue Project Room
New York, USA

During a panel discussion on the No Wave era, part of the three-night multimedia survey Theoretical Music, Thurston Moore shared an amusing downtown-NYC yarn. In the early ’90s, he met six-string wizard Robert Quine in a studio, and the latter attempted to initiate a blues jam. It was a futile gesture; the Sonic Youth guitarist was clueless when it came to such conventional modes. Relating the tale, Moore seemed humiliated, but also proud to have invented musical vocabularies rather than simply built on old ones. His stance echoed the remarks of bandmate Kim Gordon—a participant in another No Wave panel earlier the same evening—who spoke about how the unmooring of punk performance practices from rock & roll orthodoxy was the era’s key innovation. More specifically, it was the revolution that gave her, a self-described non-musician, tacit permission to try her hand at music.

Revisiting the primal lurch and skronk of, say, DNA, it’s easy to hear exactly what Gordon was getting at. Some of the sounds that emerged from NYC’s downtown scene in the late ’70s and early ’80s did seem ahistorical. But even as Theoretical Music organizers Branden W. Joseph and David Grubbs cultivated this viewpoint and echoed a recent rash of books (by Moore and Wire contributor Byron Coley, as well as Marc Masters) in singling out No Wave as a hermetic movement, they issued a shrewd corollary by booking the reunited trio Ut as their marquee performer. The band’s enthralling set, their first in the US since 1991, exhibited a deep idiosyncrasy, yet it also thrived on time-tested rock & roll energy.

Tellingly, the most memorable moment of Ut’s performance was also the most conventional. During “Wailhouse,” from the band’s final LP, 1989’s Griller, members Sally Young, Nina Canal and Jacqui Ham —who, as in the old days, swapped instruments throughout the night— and guest drummer Tom Surgal (of White Out) locked into an insistent, slow-churning swagger. Young’s sultry, goth-chanteuse vocal drove home the notion that the band wasn’t as far removed from the blues as No Wave fetishists might assert.

Of course, the set also featured plenty of old-fashioned artiness: Young bowing her bass with a drum stick, Ham’s steel-wool guitar scribbles, drum-set rhythms from Canal that thudded in and out of meter. At times, these gestures made the trio seem more like an insular tribe than a band, enacting its own secret rituals. But overall, Ut registered as more human and less severe than listeners who had only heard them on record (me, for one) may have expected. Despite their motley appearance —the tallish, silver-haired Canal in black clogs, Young sporting a leather mini dress and Ham looking at once disheveled and ultra-stylish in a gray suit— and marathon tuning sessions, they came off as inviting, even friendly. Canal won over the crowd between songs by cueing up a surfing video (featuring the most anti-No Wave imagery one could think of) and even amid technical travails, the three band members exchanged easy smiles. Their easygoing attitudes cut right through the arty pretension that inevitably surrounds nostalgia for the downtown New York of yore.

Musically too, Ut didn’t come across as a band tied to any movement—instead these were three distinct musical personalities meshing in multiple equally effective configurations. In the strongest of these, Ham layered her weird, plaintive whine over Canal’s rough-edged yet deeply propulsive drumming, while Young’s sturdy, repetitive bass lines provided crucial melodic hooks. Ut’s instrument-switching was no gimmick; it seemed more like a logical set-pacing strategy, such that near the show’s end, when Ham (who had spent much of the show on guitar) finally sat down at the drums to play a gangly tribal groove, it felt like a triumphant payoff. Overall, Ut exemplified the freedom of No Wave while at the same time bucking the movement’s retrospectively calcified aesthetics.

Opener Talk Normal, the NYC duo of guitarist Sarah Register and drummer Andrya Ambro, summoned a more foreboding mood. Their driving yet amorphous sound fields obscured song and left the audience to puzzle out the structural elements. Ambryo acted as a both compass, directing the pieces with brisk, repetitive beats, and engine, galvanizing them with moments of explosive intensity. The set reached a gripping climax when she shoved her stool aside and jitterbugged spastically as she pounded out dense snare and tom rolls. There was a harshness in these outbursts, echoed in Register’s eerie guitar haze and alarmed wail, but as with Ut, other emotions crept in. During a break, Ambro walked over to Register’s area and borrowed her beer for a quick chug. The guitarist grinned and patted the drummer on the back, as if to acknowledge that even in the avant-garde, rock & roll’s first principles still prevail. — Hank Shteamer

This article originally appeared in The Wire issue 322, December 2010. Reproduced by permission. www.thewire.co.uk | Photo: Andrea Feldman