Live: Nicolas Jaar’s “From Scratch” at MoMA PS1

02/06/2012 9:40 AM |

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First came the sound of scraping, and then of footsteps. 21-year-old electronic musician Nicolas Jaar sat behind a bank of electronics on a circular stage in the middle of a geodesic dome and began cueing samples. The smell of smoke from an adjoining space in the courtyard of MoMA PS1 drifted in as well, settling among the floorboards and high ceilings. The early arrivals clustered around the stage or watched the video projected on the section of the dome directly behind Jaar: sometimes slow pans across landscapes, at other times, equally-paced views of the faces of the crowd, either watching music be made, following the camera with their eyes, or absorbed in electronics of their own.

The first sounds of “From Scratch” came through the obelisk-shaped speakers that surrounded the room. They sounded like a methodical entrance, and could have served as the ambiguous opening to a particular sort of film. Like much of the music on Jaar’s 2011 album Space is Only Noise, these signals had been manipulated, treated to sound more aged, like a recently unearthed sonic artifact. A thudding bass part crashed through the speakers, a nod in the direction of Jaar’s dub influences, and the afternoon’s music began. Twenty-five minutes in, a haunted-house piano part rang out, the first riff that would be familiar to listeners of Space is Only Noise. Echoes of that album continued throughout the afternoon, subsumed within larger pieces that played with momentum, jarring (no pun intended) the audience’s expectations.

Much of the tension in “From Scratch” came from Jaar deferring the most obvious form of sonic gratification. A long series of loops would be assembled into a textured, rich whole; then, Jaar would quickly splice in a much dance-friendlier beat, hinting at a reverie to come but never quite giving over the bulk of the mix to this tendency. As the afternoon went on and Jaar was joined by multi-instrumentalist Will Epstein and vocalist Sasha Spielberg, the momentum picked up; the textures became less focused and the chemistry of the three musicians came more to the forefront. And over the course of the afternoon, the beats did prompt dancing among some of the crowd: one group directly facing Jaar had a rapturous response to the music he was making, as did, behind the stage, a guy clad in a Lawrence Taylor jersey. Spielberg’s vocals — both live and summoned back through the speakers long after she’d finished singing a particular party — also earned a significant response from the audience. The crowd seemed denser when she sang; “From Scratch” seemed more concert and less installation, a tension that was sustained throughout its five hour running time.

Within the lengthy, rhythmic pieces heard within the dome, some of the musical reference points were surprising. One stretch, led by Epstein’s saxophone, evoked the music of Ethiopian bandleader Mulatu Astatke; another, involving vocal and guitar samples, suggested fragments of Osvaldo Golijov’s opera Ainadamar wed to muscular postpunk riffs. When dancer Lizzie Feidelson stood on a second stage opposite Jaar and company three hours in, her presence (both there and projected onto the dome) lent a constant physicality to the proceedings.

There were a few blips in the momentum. Especially in the first hour or two, the layering of these piece didn’t always begin smoothly — one got the impression of watching Jaar teaching himself to build the composition that he was already assembling. On a few occasions, his laptop’s default error sound rang through the space’s ring of speakers. (Jaar’s abashed look when that happened was charming, however.) And the full scope of the surround sound system was only used on a few occasions; given the effectiveness of the moments when it was fully used, it didn’t seem as fully integrated into “From Scratch” as it could have been.

As the sun began to set and the light that trickled in through the entranceway dwindled, the pace picked up and the beats themselves grew louder, seeming to occupy more space. Eventually, Jaar and Epstein arrived at what turned out to be modestly paced minimal techno — it was the leap into full-on dance music that the crowd had anticipated, and the audience’s blissful response reflected this. After the last notes rang out, Jaar quickly introduced his collaborators; dim lights came up within the dome, and the audience slowly walked into the twilight.