Sonic Youth have always straddled the line between high culture and low, equally at home with John Cage as with GG Allin. Thursday night found them about as entrenched in the former as they could get, conjuring their claptrappiest squank for “Nearly Ninety,” a 90-minute score to a modern dance piece honoring the 90th birthday of legendary choreographer Merce Cunningham at the stately, gorgeous Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Along with John Paul Jones, who used to play bass in some band with the dude from that Allison Krauss album, and musical director/noisemeister Takehisa Kosugi, the Youth were perched atop a steel sculpture that looked like a cross between a geodesic greenhouse and the bridge of the Enterprise, and spent the first 20 or so minutes hidden behind a screen — the show was not about them. Rather, they were merely providing a droney, sometimes screechy, sometimes dead-silent soundtrack to a thoughtful deliberation on how the absence of tune or rhythm affects languid movement — and whether the dancers wear underpants beneath their unitards (I don’t think they do!).
The dancers apparently never heard the accompanying composition until dress rehearsal, and it’s hard to imagine that affected what they were doing one way or another — there was no perceptible connection between the music and the choreography and I think, maybe, this was the point.
The structure’s metal railings proved great for Lee Renaldo and Thurston Moore to scrape their guitar necks across, while the music at the beginning of the second act was comprised solely of Kosugi sliding baubles around in a metal pan. Kim Gordon, clad in all black while her bandmates wore white dress shirts and pinstriped slacks, wasn’t visible until the second act. Jones, plucking bass at the back of the structure, was almost completely out of view.
It wasn’t a standard Sonic Youth set, nor was it a standard Sonic Youth audience. Suits and gowns outnumbered t-shirts and Chucks 100 to 1, while intermission found many 73-year-olds hilariously complaining that the pieces of tissue paper crammed into their ears were insufficient noise repellents. (Also overheard from one frantic patron, just before the show began: “I have to find my seat, I’m with Parker Posey.”)
For the curtain call, birthday boy Cunningham was wheeled front and center, resplendent in Einstein coif and velvet suit. That I was confused about how a man who cannot stand up can choreograph a 90-minute dance performance is a testament to my poor understanding of the finer points of modern dance. Note to self: Expand my horizons. Further note to self: Don’t wear a t-shirt and Chucks to a friggin’ gala opening at an opera house.
Whatever one makes of Sonic Youth’s more indulgent side, the band’s pretentious air has always been key to their particular charm. They incessantly come off like they know more than you do — but guess what? They know more than you do.
Sonic Youth get their verse-chorus-verse back on this June with their Matador debut The Eternal.