Recalling Experimental Music In '70s New York

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A new release shines a light on a fascinating period of music – a time and a place that’s been exhaustively covered but continues to yield interesting people and surprising art.

The time period begins in the 1960s and continues to the present. The place is New York City, specifically that part of the city that includes Greenwich Village, the East Village, and Soho — a place that came to be home to the "downtown music" scene. "Downtown" because it was a deliberate demarcation from the "uptown" venues for traditional concert music. The downtown scene encompassed everything from avant garde classical to noise to jazz to rock to disco.

Peter Gordon and his Love of Life Orchestra brought all of those elements together in their music. An anthology of some of their work, Peter Gordon and the Love of Life Orchestra, was released last week by the DFA label. The album is a document of the late 1970s New York music scene.

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Much of New York City's downtown culture in the late '70s has been exhumed and celebrated in recent years in numerous books, anthologies, reissues, and retrospectives. There have been major histories of the post-punk era, most notably Rip it Up and Start Again by Simon Reynolds; and in-depth biographies of New York artists, like Hold Onto Your Dreams, a recent book on Arthur Russell by Tim Lawrence. The sheer volume of reissues of music from that era in recent years has been overwhelming.

But Peter Gordon and the Love of Life Orchestra is a window into a moment that presaged many of the most visible and potent trends of the past 30 years, among them electronic music, goth and, well, Madonna's outfits.

Gordon, a composer and saxophonist, did his master's degree work at Mills College in California in the early '70s, under the tutelage of several noted modern composers, including Terry Riley (one of the fathers of minimalism) and Robert Ashley (a pioneer of electronic music). Gordon says his budding interest in minimalism and his love for funk music got him into disco. "When I first heard disco music, there was something about it which I loved — the openness of the form," he says. "I had been drawn to Terry [Riley]'s music; I liked that steady stream. I was always into funky music, probably from growing up listening to R&B and the radio when I was a kid in Virginia. I liked that openness — the fact that you had this steady pulsing beat, this captivating beat, and what could go on top of it was really quite open. To me, that seemed like something liberating in music."

Gordon moved to the East Village in the '70s. "I had a storefront at 210 E. 6th St," he recalls. "People would just knock and hang out. We would listen and play music and just hang. In that sense, it was very much like being in a small town."

Gordon's music is a collision of disco, rock, jazz, funk, and everything in between. Every 30 seconds or so, the songs seem to switch courses. "I'm a great tape editor with a razor blade," Gordon says. "I grew up with tape. When I first came to NYC, I worked in radio, doing edits. You'd maybe have a dozen edits within 20 seconds, so I guess that very much has impacted my thinking a lot."

His penchant for quick edits also reflects a larger philosophy about his experiences in New York City. "A song or a piece is a world unto itself, but it's a world that is not completely homogeneous, in the same way it is if you're walking around a city," Gordon says. "You find yourself in different neighborhoods, or totally different landscapes, just from turning a couple of blocks. I just see the pieces as being explorations of a multifaceted world."

The Love of Life Orchestra, a loose assemblage of musicians that Gordon brought together and named after a soap opera that was popular at the time, also reflected Gordon's free-form aesthetic. "The original impetus in putting the band together was making an environment where musicians from these different backgrounds could retain their individuality and at the same time play a common music," says Gordon. "It was both a populist idea in that sense, [and] a utopian idea of coexistence in a larger sense."

The late Arthur Russell, the gifted avant-garde cellist, singer, songwriter, and erstwhile disco luminary, was one of Gordon's closest associates and collaborators.

One of the tracks on the new reissue, Russell's "That Hat," combines Russell's soft, unmistakable vocals, a brittle drum machine beat, Gordon's saxophone, and additional soprano vocals from Rebecca Armstrong, a singer who worked with Steve Reich's ensemble. The goofy lyrics and title were typical of Russell's idiosyncratic sense of humor. "From what Arthur told me, it's a hat you put on, it has a pointed top, and all the powers and energy of the universe would go through your head through the point of your pointed hat," remembers Gordon, chuckling. "He also explained that it could be a reference to a condom."

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Two tracks on the Peter Gordon and the Love of Life Orchestra reissue are credited to Justine and the Victorian Punks. "That was a project that was really initiated by the performance artist and visual artist ... Colette," explains Gordon. "She would do these installations, which might be in galleries, or installations in windows, and this one, 'Beautiful Dreamer,' was a very lush bedroom environment, in which she would sleep or be lying in bed during the duration of the installation." "Beautiful Dreamer" is one of two disco tracks on Peter Gordon — the other is "Still You," a cover of an Italian song by Lucio Battisti. Both were made to accompany the installation.

Colette changed her name to "Justine" for the project. "In 1978, I invented my death and became Justine," she says. "It was, in a way, to make an art statement ... it was really difficult to make myself heard and respected. Artists are really revered, but it seemed like the interior designers were more respected  at places like Studio 54, so that's why I invented my death. I thought as a woman it would be easier to speak to audiences as a recording star, a fashion designer, an interior designer."

Colette invented the "victorian punk." She often sported an ethereal, feminine look, dripping with lace, tulle, and beads. "'Victorian punks' was the perfect combination," she says. "I actually wore Victorian corsets and bloomers and then I would add a punk element to it. Usually if you saw a punk in those days, they would be wearing black; I would mix it with something very soft." In retrospect, it's easy to see echoes of Colette's signature aesthetic in the goth movement that picked up steam in the '80s, and in Madonna's early look during the time of "Like a Virgin."

Peter Gordon and the Love of Life Orchestra captures a time in New York culture when borders were blurrier, genres less distinct, and life was maybe a little more interesting.

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