In this podcast, Roulette Artistic Director and co-founder Jim Staley speaks with CityFM about the evolution of experimental music in NYC.
A strange thing happened to jazz and classical music in New York amidst the countless pronouncements that they were getting old, losing audiences and cultural relevance: at their experimental and progressive core, they’ve experienced an aesthetic union. Some of the best (and best-known) of the city’s contemporary classical and jazz musicians play both, improvising, composing, and discard genre preconceptions. If there is a name for it, they call it “new music” and “creative music.” CityFM’s episode about this jazz/classical/creative music makes clear, it too has roots in a previous New York music culture of the 1970s.
Featuring Vijay Iyer, Brandee Younger, Jim Staley (of Roulette) & Ben Ratliff
And music from Vijay Iyer, Brandee Younger, Eli Keszler, Esperanza Spalding, Mary Halvorson, Kelly Moran, Caroline Shaw, Butch Morris & Nublu Orchestra, George Lewis, Onyx Collective, Arthur Russel, Philip Glass and Ravi Shankar, and Jigmastas.
If you’re the kind of New Yorker prone to wondering what it would have been like to go to a CBGB that wasn’t located inside the Newark airport, you might also wonder if you arrived in the city too late.
Fair enough. But the old bohemian, culturally rich downtown Manhattan spirit still has a few embers burning through the city. And at least one of these, Roulette, is actually more powerful now than at the time of its birth in 1978.
Forty years after opening, Roulette is now nestled inside a YWCA complex at the corner of Third and Atlantic avenues in another downtown: Brooklyn’s. Instead of the 74 seats its co-founder — and current director — Jim Staley provided when he first organized concerts in his Tribeca loft, Roulette now has a theater that can accommodate 400. It’s not only the widest ranging music presenter in the city, but also the most comfortable and welcoming.
“As long as it’s something that’s of a creative and experimental nature, they’re interested in it,” Henry Threadgill, the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and saxophonist, said in an interview. “They’ve always been interested in it.”
A potent trombonist as well as an administrator, Mr. Staley is modest in describing the roots of one of New York’s most important avant-garde music spaces. “It started out as a collective,” he said in an interview at Roulette. “And then I sort of initiated a series.”
That first regular series in Manhattan, which began in 1980, took place in Mr. Staley’s place on West Broadway. “We were just trying this out,” he recalled. “All these people came, and watched John Cage and Merce Cunningham come through the door, pay their five bucks.” It didn’t take long for noted composers, like the Fluxus artist Philip Corner, to start pitching concerts to him. When the neighborhood changed, Mr. Staley started looking for another home in Lower Manhattan. Late in the 2000s, Roulette leased a spot on Greene Street, until the financial crash sent the building owner’s assets into chaos.
In 2011, it came to Brooklyn, where it is host to a jovial mixture of styles. In recent seasons, Roulette has presented work by a trio including YoshimiO, the sometime drummer of the avant-rock group Boredoms; a sterling evening of two-piano works by Philip Glass; and a semi-staged presentation of a four-act opera by the composer and saxophonist Anthony Braxton. It is also the rental hall of choice for some of the city’s most vital music programmers, like the avant-jazz Vision Festival and Thomas Buckner’s Interpretations series.
At a recent Interpretations concert, the composer and pianist Anthony Davis, author of grand operas like “X — The Life and Times of Malcolm X” and “Amistad,” announced he would perform some material from his next opera, “The Central Park Five,” set to premiere at Long Beach Opera in June. Mr. Davis’s operatic writing was once performed at Lincoln Center by New York City Opera; now, if you want to hear this work in the city, you’ll likely end up at Roulette.
Even if you can’t make it in person, you can tune in online; clips of select recent shows run on Roulette TV, while vintage audio recordings have been popping up on the venue’s SoundCloud page. Excerpts from performances by María Grand, Jennifer Choi and Amirtha Kidambi are particularly good on Roulette TV, and the SoundCloud page offers work by the likes of Leroy Jenkins and Pauline Oliveros. A launch party for an even more in-depth archive is scheduled for Feb. 12.
The organization also supports up-and-coming artists with residencies and commissions. In the months before the pianist and composer Kelly Moran made her debut on the Warp label, with the album “Ultraviolet,” you could hear her working out the balance of live pianism and electronics at Roulette, thanks to one of its emerging artist grants.
Describing the award as “way more monetary support than I’m used to,” Ms. Moran said in an interview that she was “shellshocked” to receive it: “It was kind of a surreal moment, because I had all these ideas for projects I wanted to do related to my record, and now I had the means to do them.”
Roulette is generous to audiences, too. To my mind, its balcony remains far and away the city’s loveliest, most relaxing location from which to take in music. I knew Mr. Threadgill liked it, too, based simply on the number of times I have spotted him there. “It’s just so comfortable,” he said during our interview. “I got addicted to sitting upstairs.”
Strangers tend to talk to each other during intermission, more than at other spaces devoted to experimental music. Artists often circulate before and after performances. And that beer you bought in the lobby? You can bring it into the hall.
“It’s always been the nature of these kind of places that allowed for that,” Mr. Staley said, when I asked how Roulette fostered that welcoming spirit. But once again, he sounded a little too modest. Certainly plenty of spaces pay lip service to the idea of openness, but wind up feeling cliquish.
A version of this article appears in print on , Section C, Page 5 of the New York edition with the headline: A Space Devoted to Experimental Music Turns 40. Order Reprints
On this episode of WNYC’sAll of It hosted by Alison Stewart, Phill Niblock(46:12) and two of Roulette’s co-founders, director and producer Jim Staley and director of special projects David Weinstein, join us to discuss Niblock’s upcoming “6 Hours of Music and Film,” his annual Winter Solstice concert, which takes place on December 21 at Roulette. Roulette has several other upcoming events, including: on December 20, a solo concert by guitarist Bill Frisell, on January 25, the Tri-Centric Vocal Ensemble will perform works from Anthony Braxton’s Syntactical Ghost Trance Music system, on January 30 and February 5, Roulette will present the first concerts by their Van Lier Fellows, bassist Nick Dunston, and vocalist Anais Maviel, and February 19-22, Roulette will host Mixology Festival 2019, curated by David Weinstein.
Brooklyn, NY – Roulette Intermedium founder and Artistic Director James S. Staley has been announced as a recipient of the American Composers Forum 2018 Champion of New Music Award. Established in 2005, the Champion of New Music Award recognizes and honors individuals and ensembles that have made a significant and sustained contribution over time to the work and livelihoods of contemporary composers. Staley’s career as a presenter and supporter of pioneering artists spans several decades.
In 1978 Staley co-founded Roulette Intermedium, the now-iconic experimental performing arts venue. Roulette began as a collective of composers, musicians, and dancers doing projects in Chicago, Minneapolis, and New York City. It soon found a home in a Tribeca loft, where it operated for years and where Staley still lives, and quickly gained a reputation for presenting tomorrow’s most acclaimed avant garde artists. Julius Eastman, Arthur Russell, and John Zorn were among the many artists who premiered early work at Roulette in the 1980s. In 2011, Staley moved Roulette to a 400-seat state-of-the art theater in Downtown Brooklyn and expanded the concert series to include more dance and new media offerings. Roulette now presents more than 120 experimental performances each year and continues to support the work of artists, particularly composers, who boldly challenge disciplinary boundaries and create compelling art. In 2018 alone, Roulette will award $87,000 to eleven extraordinary musical artists of promise for the creation of new and adventurous work.
In addition to his work at Roulette, Staley is an accomplished trombonist and improvising musician. He has released numerous albums, played on many records, and is a member of the Tone Road Ramblers, a new music ensemble formed in 1981. Long-time collaborators include Sam Bennett, Bill Frisell, Fred Frith, Shelley Hirsch, Wayne Horvitz, Ikue Mori, Zeena Parkins, Elliott Sharp, Davey Williams, John Zorn and choreographers Pooh Kaye, Debra Loewen, and Sally Silvers.
The American Composers Forum will present Staley with the Champion of New Music Award at an event at Roulette on September 25, 2018. His fellow 2018 awardees are pianist, writer, and producer Sarah Cahill and flutist, composer, and educator Nicole Mitchell.
“The Exoskeletal Shadow of Laminated Desire” performed on Saturday, April 21, 1990 at the original TriBeCa loft by a trio of Jim Staley, trombone / didjeridu; Sally Silvers, dance; and John Zorn, reeds.