I’ve written plenty about the Wordless Music Series in the past, so here’s the executive summary: modern classical, experimental, and forward-thinking pop/rock all co-existing with surprising ease in well-planned bills sure to bring normally opposing (or indifferent) concert audiences together.
Where else would we get a bill book-ending New Music rhythm quartet So Percussion with LA hip-hop producers Flying Lotus and Daedalus. Followed by minimalist composer Steve Reich leading a large ensemble one week later. Terry Riley one night and Shearwater another. Andrew WK with strings.
I’ve always found Stars of the Lid to be somewhere at the intersection of these music worlds, so they seem a natural choice for the series. At the core a Kranky-released guitar drone duo, SotL seem to be considered as a sort of deep post-rock, but as their compositions have increased in subtle elegance, veiled complexity, and instrumental depth over the years, they’ve become increasingly worthy of consideration as classical minimalist composers. I’m not sure how they’ve performed in the past, but backed by a string quartet for their Wordless show, they seemed to be stepping further into this role.
Opening with the spare, seeping brush strokes of, I think, “Requiem for Dying Mothers pt.1” from 2001’s pivotal The Tired Sounds of…, the band instantly made use of the quartet (as well as, soon, a keyboardist borrowed from the openers), shading each note with a new textural depth and yearning. Core members Brian McBride and Adam Wiltzie laid down the emotive bedrock of each piece as thick blankets of droning pedaled guitar, individual contributions interwoven and essentially inseparable. In music so meticulously simple, the timbre of each note takes on great importance. Here, the live strings were an excellent addition, well projected by le Poisson Rouge’s sound over the quiet, mostly seated audience. With the Poisson’s stage lights thankfully kept to largely to unadorned single color washes, the understated visuals provided by musicians and bleary projected tree branches took a backseat to the sounds. There is a risk that such a headphone-listening primed project might have little to gain live (a self-deprecating Wiltzie declared, before one piece, “Here’s another hit!”), but this was fortunately not the case; everything had a pristine resonance and enveloping presence that would be difficult to duplicate otherwise. And, besides several brand new pieces written presumably since the last album arrived last year, the old material often got new treatment. The centerpiece of closer “December Hunting for Vegetarian Fuckface” (SotL’s titles weaving between the classical and the colloquial) is typically a drifting sea of overlapping repeats of a single chord, effective but potentially patience-straining to an audience. The solution: while McBride and and Wiltzie arranged the tonal waves, the quartet took up faint bits of broken Wagner in a murmur that rose and fell through the wash.
The night opened with a superficially similar drone guitar act, Hammock. Building up fuller progressions of glissando from more twangily recognizable guitar, Hammock were less restrained and emptiness-bathed than Stars, and a little more unambiguously pretty for it, if less haunting, achingly memorable.
In true Wordless series fashion, these acts surrounded an epoch-leaping trio of pieces for solo classical piano, Jocelyn Bonadio performing J.S. Bach, Shostakovitch, and John Cage.
A final note on getting the most of le Poisson Rouge, should you find yourself at any of the final Wordless Music Series performances of the season, or any of the varied bills the venue boasts anytime: the main performance space has a well-equipped bar, but an out of the way seemingly unknown second bar hidden through the coat room offers an escape from lines, a broader selection of beer on tap, and, if you’re lucky, free absinthe tastings.