Kim Gordon & White/Light at MCA / by Doyle Armbrust

New Yorkers traipsing through MoMA last weekend can boast they saw Tilda Swinton napping in an aquarium. Chicago may have lost that round of the Marina Abramović Pastiche Olympics, but those lucky enough to have queued up early at the Museum of Contemporary Art tonight were treated to something far more memorable and exhilarating. As the final offering on the MCA's artistically fertile Face the Strange series, Kim Gordon drew an impressive loop of freezing, wind-slapped fans around the museum. With Sonic Youth's schedule indefinitely blank after Gordon's split with bandmate Thurston Moore, devotees were eager to get their hands on one of the very limited, very $0.00 tickets and see what new paths this sonic vanguard is embarking upon.

Descending into the spartan confines of the MCA Stage, concertgoers found themselves staring at a mirror image of the audience, projected in real-time on a massive screen that served as a backdrop to the humble set of three amps, three guitars and diminutive electronics console. Two-thirds of this gear belonged to Gordon's collaborators for the night, Face the Strange co-curators Jeremy Lemos (synthesizers) and Matthew Hale Clark (guitar), a.k.a. White/Light. Characteristically taking the stage with the nonchalance of a soundcheck, Gordon gathered up her Fender and began gently tapping its neck, coaxing out warm overtones in a gauzy rhythm. Two fixed spotlights peered into the crowd as Lemos conjured a vein of silky static while Clark released rippling sine waves through his wah-wah. It was a meditative emergence of sound, building incrementally through tiny additions such as Gordon trading her finger taps for a felt mallet. Clark began cycling his delay pedal tighter and tighter, pulling the trio's improvisation into focus. Almost cooing into the mic and filtered through cavernous reverb, Kim and her collaborators restrained the mix at chest level. No bass had entered the equation yet.

The screen was now unavoidable, and one can see why playing to a seated crowd can be off-putting to musicians. We looked lobotomized. Not out of indifference, but simply because we were intent on watching this drama unfurl. The onstage video camera racked in and out as it helplessly tried to focus on Kim's shoulders, bobbing in and out of frame as she knelt into the monitor to unleash feedback. 

Any worry that this would be a "safe," museum-audience-friendly show evaporated as the cacophony built. Gordon slammed the neck of her instrument into the mic stand, drawing it back on the strings like a perverted slide guitar. Lemos shouted into a contact mic, then rubbed it against his stubble. Clark scribbled a sophisticated spirograph with his whammy bar. For those unaccustomed to noise and experimental music, respite came with the occasional return to regular, rhythmic (frankly Sonic Youth–esque) strumming. Listeners unhitched shoulders, audible sighs were exhaled. Gordon's vocal improvisations wove around a drone, pulled magnetically back to the home pitch. The effect was raga-like. 

Then came piercing squeals from the synth, chaos out of the guitars, and Kim Gordon climbing atop her amps. Out came the phones to steal a quick photo of the proceedings. Half a dozen bolted from their seats toward the exits, unable to withstand this ordered onslaught. The now-unearthed bass frequencies seemed precariously close to blowing a circuit. 

And then, just as unceremoniously as it began, it was over. Something inside felt disencumbered. A tiny vibration zipped up the nape of the neck. Something honest and unsettling and provocative had transpired there. It isn't more than a minute before someone ran up to plunder the front of the stage for Kim's hand-written lyric charts.

- Doyle Armbrust

Originally published in Time Out Chicago's Audio File blog on March 27th, 2013