Considering that France is spiritual home to Patti Smith‘s music and art, it made sense that she would premiere her latest composition, Killer Road, at the French Institute last night. At the sold-out show at the Institute’s Florence Gould Hall, she worked a somewhat more low-key take on the spontaneous, literary-inspired performance art magic of her early collaborations with Lenny Kaye, but with 21st century production values.
Killer Road is an atmospheric electroacoustic setting of the last poems written by legendary gothic chanteuse Nico, with music provided by Smith’s daughter Jesse Paris Smith in tandem with indie classical chamber ensemble Soundwalk Collective. The trio – Stephan Crasneanscki, Simone Merli and Kamran Sadeghi – moved nimbly between mixers and singing bowls while Smith fille – trained as a pianist -colored the music with percusssion, glockenspiel and a mysterious bowed instrument (an Ethiopian riti?) when she wasn’t rubbing the inside of the bowls for lingering, resonant washes of sound, often in gentle harmony. Meanwhile, samples of Nico’s harmonium emanted from the mixing desk, along with found sounds from the seaside and the forest, an ironic juxtaposition with Nico’s doomed, imagistic texts.
It would be an exaggeration to explain them away as a self-penned obituary: that describes pretty much everything Nico ever wrote from day one. Smith mère parsed them pensively, often landing on a central phrase and running it like a musical loop for extra emphasis. When she broke the fourth wall, that was welcome comic relief from the relentless bleakness of what she’d been reading and occasionally singing, the shamanistic, mesmerizing quality of the latter bringing to mind the work of Patti Smith-influenced songwriter Randi Russo. Interesting how these things come full circle, isn’t it?
As the show revealed, the erstwhile Krista Paffgen wrote these lyrics not in her native German but in the English in which she recorded most of her songs. Many of them were fragmentary, speaking of utter desolation, abandonment and despair. Some rather tender lines seemingly dedicated to her son intimated that he would be surrounded by insensitivity and cluelessness, yet he’d rise above it all (a little projecting on mom’s part, maybe?). Though Nico is remembered as an existentialist icon, if her lyric junkyard is to be taken at face value, there were mentions of an afterlife and a possible reference to her father, whom she lost at a young age. There was also occasional bleak humor, notably a sarcastic dig at a nameless guy whose self-described empty heart didn’t stop him from writing her love songs. And the coda, with its references to bent spokes on a bicycle wheel – Nico died at the handlebars of hers, in a ditch in Ibiza after nodding off on heroin – seemed to be the point at which Smith gave a graceful adieu to an artist who’d inspired her more than it might seem. Then again, it’s hard to think of an edgy woman songwriter who came of age forty years ago who wasn’t influenced by Nico.
This concert was part of the French Institute’s current Crossing the Line festival of avant garde performance. Upcoming musical events include 600 Highwaymen‘s creepy collaboration with David Cale, Employee of the Year – performed by six girl actors and told from the point of view of a gradeschooler who loses her home and family in a fire – on October 15-16, and then sound sculptor Ryoji Ikeda‘s futuristic multimedia extravaganza, Superposition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Oct 17-19.