A New York Minute
he criticism that Matthew Weiner aims at Jim O’Rourke in his article for Stylus about O’Rourke’s work seems to boil down to one major idea: O’Rourke is simply a jack of all trades, master of none and, sadly, has chosen to remain this way rather than applying his energies solely towards one artistic challenge, instead spreading himself thin across the whole host that he has chosen to undertake. The same sort of accusation could easily be leveled at his sometime collaborator, Alan Licht, a fellow avant-garde luminary who treads as confidently on record as he does behind the boards in the studio.
With his newest release, A New York Minute, Licht displays his prowess in a variety of mediums. The release is divided into two discs: one composed in the studio, one consisting of two live tracks. Additionally, the liner notes contain two short essays by Kenneth Goldsmith, a poet, and Jutta Koether, an artist, extolling the virtues of Licht’s compositions contained within. Both, among other pursuits, attempt to explicate the title track, a 15 minute long recording that cobbles together the weather reports from 2001 in New York City. Goldsmith explains it as “weather as media….(and) the inherent complexity of nature…reduced to a quick soundbite”. Koether turns her attention away from the commercial aspect, pointing towards the powerlessness that weather instills. The key to the piece lies somewhere in between: Licht seems to be pointing out the essentially futile quality of the weather commentator, revealing that each day brings new intricacies that were not mentioned in the previous broadcast. It is, then, the same sort of action that Licht and others go through each time they step onto the stage for an improvisation. Anyone could tell the audience before what to expect, generally, but there is little use in predicting what actually will happen.
This is proven, explicitly, with the second disc of A New York Minute, which contains two lengthy involving pieces. The first, “12, Second, Fifth” utilizes a gently constructed drone, allowing Licht to weave delicately within and without the flickering embers of the small fire that he has built to contain the wavering aspects that constitute the meat of the composition. For a large portion of the piece, there seems to be little melodic development, but around the twenty-minute mark there emerges a wavering four note melody that gradually makes itself known over the course of the track’s second half. It’s finally clearly brought out into the open, at the expense of the coughing embers that had cloaked it, eventually giving way to a jaunty tune, seemingly unrelated to what has occurred before. These chords played in quick succession, close out the piece, once again being joined by the static rumble of the background noise that contained the entirety of the piece.
The second live piece here is “Remington Khan (“Hearing Test” mix/12-string version), which also clocks in at over thirty minutes. Both were recorded in March of 2000 at the same place, but this piece has a much clearer focus, shedding the trembling backdrop of the drone on “14, Second, Fifth”. Instead, the composition resembles something closer to tracks found on the Locust compilation Wooden Guitar, reveling in a folksy country charm and dexterous picking by Licht. The piece gradually grows in intensity until the guitar nearly overtakes the sound field completely, Licht’s picking incessant and forceful. A quick respite in the second half is quickly replaced by experiments in feedback by Licht, closing the piece out with the same delicate and clear figure being ambushed by this unpredictable and exciting improvisation above it.
Licht’s talent for switching between different tacks in the avant-garde is an admirable trait. Treading just as easily between tape collage, “Muhammed Ali & The Crickets”, guitar drone and improvisation, “Freaky Friday” and sampled sound manipulation, “A New York Minute”, this two disc set perhaps is one of the best documents of Licht’s abilities in a variety of different of arenas. Unfortunately, then, perhaps, Weiner is right. Licht, and other artists of his ilk, are artists that frequently render themselves eminently admirable, but rarely lovable. A New York Minute suffers and benefits from this very same problem. It is a record of immense depth, love and musical knowledge. But one that remains little more than its constituent parts (which admittedly are rich and rewarding) rather than the sum of them.