In the early ’90s, when Thurston Moore was making his initial forays into improvised music and experimental noise, he often found himself playing in front of bewildered audiences who knew him only as the guitarist from Sonic Youth.
“There would be [MTV alternative music video show] 120 Minutes fans coming to the gigs and screaming ‘Teenage Riot!’” Moore recalled with a chuckle recently. “Then they’d slowly realize that something was wrong.”
While Moore has long since established himself as a radical and innovative guitarist apart from Sonic Youth — and fans have grown used to the idea of the band being a thing of the past after his marriage to wife and bandmate Kim Gordon dissolved — his latest project is again catching audiences off guard. The new album by the Thurston Moore Group, Spirit Counsel, is, on one hand, a set of new songs. What’s surprising: There are just three of them, each stretching from 30 minutes to more than an hour.
So when Moore and company take the stage Friday night at the Boot & Saddle, don’t expect many applause breaks.
“A lot of people come to the concerts thinking they’re going to hear a collection of songs,” Moore said. “After about 15 to 20 minutes, they realize something else is going on. There’s no microphone on stage, and the music is not stopping. It’s a lot of chapters in a single story, and it’s been really uplifting to play it every night.”
While the epic scale of Spirit Counsel is new for Moore, the music hearkens back to the days before Sonic Youth was formed, when the guitarist freshly arrived in New York City. Among his first gigs were concerts by Rhys Chatham and Glenn Branca, composers who used multiple guitars and feedback drones to give the era’s minimalist movement an electric rock edge. Through their music, Moore discovered an analogue in the contemporary classical world to the punk scene he’d come to the city to explore.
“I wanted this music to be referential to that era and the lineage of electric guitar composition coming out of ’70s minimalism,” he explained. “Minimalism in New York was being developed through the compositions of Steve Reich and Philip Glass, but at the same time, the Ramones were playing strict minimalist rock music. You know the Ramones weren’t going to Alice Tully Hall and listening to Philip Glass. They probably weren’t even aware of this happening at the same time. But I’ve always been fascinated by how the Ramones coexisted with academic minimalism.”
The box set’s shortest piece, “8 Spring Street,” is a hypnotic solo guitar outing that pays homage to Branca: The title is the address of the apartment where Moore met his mentor to rehearse. “Galaxies (Sky),” though inspired by a poem by cosmic jazz innovator Sun Ra, echoes Branca’s massed guitar ensembles in its music for a dozen 12-string electric guitars.
Commissioned to compose something for the Barbican performing arts center in London, Moore eschewed the conventional route. “When people come out of the rock music continuum, they tend to do something like play with the London Sinfonietta, and with all due respect, it felt really corny to just play my songs with a string quartet. So off the top of my head, I said, ‘I’d like to write a piece for twelve 12-string guitars.’ Maybe I said it to elicit a bit of levity, but they said, ‘If you can do that, we’ll book this night.’”
The first and longest piece on Spirit Counsel, “Alice Moki Jayne,” features an expanded version of the group that will recreate the music in Philly this week: Moore, British guitarist James Sedwards, bassist Deb Googe of My Bloody Valentine, electronic musician Jon “Wobbly” Leidecker of Negativland, and Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley. The piece constantly shifts and evolves over its hour-plus span, at one moment lyrical and glimmering, the next hurtling forward with a driving rock beat, then dissolving into howls of feedback before reforming into something serene and haunting.
The piece’s title is a dedication to Alice Coltrane, Moki Cherry, and Jayne Cortez — artists in their own right who were overshadowed by their iconic jazz husbands (John Coltrane, Don Cherry, and Ornette Coleman).
“I didn’t really want it to be a dialogue about feminism or race,” Moore shrugged, “but, of course, it is. They’re three visionary artists, without having to qualify that by saying ‘three visionary female, African American artists.’ The essence is that they were artists who were really important, intriguing, influential and informative to me.”