Psychasthenia

jon keith brunelleOn August 14th Jon Keith Brunelle will be presenting An Evening with the Psychasthenia Society, as part of Performance Space 122′s ongoing series Schoolhouse Roxx. Keep reading to find out more about the evening in Jon’s own words…

I didn’t know what was more of a revelation: the spectacle of hundreds of people dancing to the music of a single artist with a laptop computer, or seeing a saxophonist and an acoustic bassist, fresh from a late-night theatre row gig, poke their heads into our converted 42nd Street storefront, size up the action, and unpack and riff to the digital beats. When I understood that Rich “lloop” Panciera — the laptop musician holding forth — wasn’t deejaying CD tracks but was creating new music on the fly by carefully layering and looping dozens of short sound samples over a steady groove, it came together for me in one of those rare, ecstatic “this is why I live in New York” moments.

Another reason lloop’s music resonated — as did the work of other digital artists I’d come to know during 2002 — was the similarity in approach to the performance pieces I’d been creating. That year I was up late most nights with a DVD player and a Mac G3, remixing and redefining images selected from vintage movies, pulling hundreds of still frames from favorite films, looking for strong pictures that were unfamiliar to most viewers and easy to recontextualize. I juggled the images, added sound files, and created brisk slide shows that I projected while telling, in live voiceover, new stories I wrote for the mixes.

My first successful experiment was The Hammer Variations, a 20-minute reworking of the cult film Kiss Me Deadly. It opened real possibilities. Audiences immediately got the idea of the laptop computer as a theatrical storytelling tool, I didn’t have to worry about prop placements or set adjustments, and I could carry my show in a shoulder bag. I began methodically ripping movie stills for new stories the way my musician friends built libraries of beats and hooks for their gigs. We were intent not on referencing or quoting, but building fresh works out of carefully chosen bits from the flood of sounds and images saturating our culture: the shock of the newly familiar.

The digital artists you’ll see in the August 14 Schoolhouse Roxx program, An Evening with the Psychasthenia Society, are some of New York’s finest. Kacy Wiggins, known to downtempo music fans as qpe, has an approach to laptop music similar to lloop’s and DJ Olive’s: shifting, mutating colors and layers of sound over a steady beat. Closer listening reveals that qpe is very conscious of architecture and motific threads, like some kind of sexy, intensely groovy classical composer. Webern you can make out to.

Another of our show’s performers, Haeyoung Kim — Bubblyfish — is one of the city’s star Game Boy musicians as well as a laptop slinger. Composing complex music by programming Game Boy sounds has become something of an international movement. New York artists Glomag, nullsleep, and Bit Shifter perform show-stopping Game Boy dances built from painstakingly layered tracks of beeps and beats, alternating these pieces with surprising covers — I nearly fell out of my seat the first time I heard Bit Shifter run down Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag.” Bubblyfish also composes terrific, almost orchestral stand-alone pieces, but at club gigs she’ll often improvise for long stretches, building spiky, shiny towers of pulsating 8-bit sound evoking sci-fi cartoon dreams about futuristic amusement parks and conga lines of dancing spaceships.

The thoughtful, fluid work of Daniel Vatsky, the Psychasthenia Society’s video artist, is frequently seen on the screens and walls of New York clubs and warehouse parties. Dan is an excellent collaborator, working closely with musicians and other VJs to produce work that’s unique to a given event. He’s always experimenting, sometimes generating images on one computer and filtering them through software on a second machine before they reach the club’s screen. In a typical Psychasthenia program, Dan riffs on the movie stills I’ve used in a storytelling piece, at once carrying forward my tale and creating strong, evocative accompaniment to the show’s musicians. At other events, Dan’s work will be utterly abstract yet recognizably his. He’s like one of those great musicians who sounds right with any band but always maintains his personal stamp.

Our August 14 program also will feature choreography by Isabel Gotzkowsky, Gail Accardi, and Sasha Soreff. Sally Im — dancer and DJ about town — curated this part of our show, and we’re very excited to see how the digital and choreographed narratives will contrast and intersect. The artists have been studying each other’s work, and on August 14 we’ll bring it all together for the first time.

Psychasthenia, by the way, is the term applied to the cultural condition of mass identification with images and technology. It’s that “I feel like I’m in a movie” sensation, that temptation to retrieve a cell phone dropped on the subway tracks. An Evening with the Psychasthenia Society will provide temporary, yet satisfying relief from this condition: We’ll put ourselves inside the movie for you.

See you on the 14th.

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