Acoustic Music and the Resonant Body
Last weekend I went to see the Brooklyn-based band Lucius perform as part of the consistently great Billsville House Concerts, to whom I am always grateful for bringing quality live music to this little corner of the Berkshires. At one point, the band put down their electric instruments and waded into the crowd to play perform a few songs without amplification. Their undistorted voices, the gently plucked strings of the acoustic guitar, and the percussive rapping on the ground reverberated around the wooden room and the audience, crowded together and mere feet from the performers, felt as one. We breathed together.
I would not have booed Bob Dylan in 1965, but I feel there is something special about music that is not just acoustic but unamplified, resonant, and performed in a small space. The experience is not just auditory but somehow bodily, a phenomenon not unlike the intimacy I described some weeks ago in close looking at artwork. The audience becomes the amplifier, each individual breathing in the sounds and letting them vibrate through her flesh.
Lucius’s acoustic interlude to their magnetic and incredibly catchy set (I highly recommend their EP) reminded me of the years I spent at Postcrypt Coffeehouse, a gem on the campus of Columbia University, hidden away in the basement of St. Paul’s Chapel. For nearly 50 years, Postcrypt has hosted weekly free performances of musicians from the widely celebrated to the brand new, with only one proviso: all acoustic. No amps, no pickups, no effects. There was something magical about that tiny underground space, with audience members crowded around wobbly tables into stone nook as the sound bounded around and through us. Legally the capacity was something like 30, but on good nights there would be fifty or sixty people crammed in like sardines with the primary purpose of listening, reverently. The church setting, in some ways contradicted by the drinking and the profane lyrics, seems as a result coherent.
I remember hearing Tim Noyes, now of the band Aunt Martha, perform for the first time, I think at an open stage, back before he was teen magazine famous, to an enraptured audience. (Tim’s first solo record is now out and highly worth a listen.) Or Suzanne Vega practically whispering “Tom’s Diner,” or the many nights that Columbia’s own Anthony da Costa would fill the place past capacity with students and members of the community there to hear his folk stylings. (Here’s Anthony, years ago, playing “The Devil’s Won” with Oliver Hill of Plume Giant.) Like the experience itself, the memories are physical as we remember both listening to the music and feeling it course through us.
As an addendum, I would be remiss to neglect mentioning one of my favorite Postcrypt performers, the great AJ Roach.