At the Kaufman Music Center’s Ecstatic Music Festival Wednesday night, indie-rock trio Yo La Tengo and experimental composer Alvin Lucier broadened a full Merkin Concert Hall’s definition of music. The evening’s instrumentals included giant yellow balloons and a scarlet teapot, and the act of tuning became a performance in of itself.
Anyone who came expecting to hear catchy, people-pleasing Yo La Tengo tunes like “My Little Corner of the World” and “My Heart’s Not In It” quickly realized they had to put in more work to meet the band halfway. By requiring active listening, the show forced the audience to engage with the music on a level they may not at your standard indie concert.
And your standard indie concert this was not. Rather than showcasing their own music, the band paid tribute to Lucier’s elaborate compositions, including one written just for them.
The show opened with Yo La Tengo vocalist/percussionist/pianist Georgia Hubley on a triangle solo, followed by an electric guitar duo bybassist/vocalist James McNew and guitarist/pianist/vocalist Ira Kaplan. Both numbers appeared to be mere openings at first, but once you stopped expecting more, the music’s subtleties became strikingly apparent. Kaplan and McNew’s guitar-tuning morphed into an intricate song: each long note became several in succession, and every melody teased apart into multiple tunes. As the sound enfolded the audience, you could feel it vibrating on your skin.
Lucier made an appearance on stage for “Heavier than Air,” during which he and the band members whispered onto the surface of balloons created by composer Judy Dunaway. From “I remember my first job” to “I remember reading this concert was sold out — what’s up with all the seats in the back?”, the props transmitted each performer’s memories.
For the closing number, Kaplan played a slow sequence of piano keys that gradually grew recognizable as the melody of The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields.” But as he got up from the bench, the song wasn’t over: He then placed a ceramic teapot on the lid and opened and closed it to play the number back, as if he were releasing sound trapped inside the vessel.
Through this set, Lucier accomplished what the most creative people do: He employed objects in ways they are not conventionally used for an experience no audience could ever foresee.
Listen to one of Alvin Lucier’s classics, “I Am Sitting in A Room” below.