[From a Room is a new series from architecture and classical music critic Justin Davidson that examines how people and spaces work together to create great venues. — Ed.]
On a block of Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village that hasn’t felt cutting edge in a handful of decades, is the entrance to an illustrious basement. Coltrane, Ellington and a whole summit of jazz royalty walked through these doors when they led to the Village Gate; now they open into to (le) Poisson Rouge, a high-minded incarnation of the low-altitude club that has restored at least a smidgeon of Bleecker’s old bohemian cred. Every night, the tiny stage hosts earnest singer-songwriters, electronic noise masters, multimedia wizards who count their fans by the dozen and the occasional classical superstar who has come slumming underground. (The soprano Diana Damrau paid a recent sold-out visit to a crowd roughly 20 times smaller than the one she usually sings for at the Metropolitan Opera.)
(le) Poisson Rouge is not an in ideal place to hear music. The acoustics are heartless, the sightlines erratic, the food forgettable. I have squeezed behind tiny tables, sat knee-to-knee (or rather elbow-to-rib) with total strangers, stood inches from roaring speakers, peered around columns, perched on barstools and thanked waiters who brought me my Pilsner in the middle of a fugue. I have wondered occasionally why a pianist who would fume at the buzz of a muted cellphone at Carnegie Hall puts up with — no, seeks out — the racket and airlessness of (le) Poisson Rouge. The reason is that this little club changed the classical music world, at least in New York City, and nobody wants to feel left out.
Most of the time, the classical-music establishment fetishizes the perfect space. Cities spend hundreds of millions of dollars they don’t have to build acoustically exquisite halls for their tottering orchestras, and musicians discuss the minutiae of each room as if comparing single malts. But on Bleecker Street, all the fussing falls by the wayside, along with white tie and tails, the horror of amplification and the requirement that all audiences shut up and listen. Rules that have kept classical music mummified in decorum get no traction here, and the atmosphere is more robust and relaxed: We’re all just sitting around with a drink and listening to music, the way we were always meant to.
A silent, sober audience is a 19th-century invention; invigorating distraction is much older. The prophet Isaiah reported grumpily that banquet-givers in biblical days made sure to have a lyre-player on hand. Bach played his concertos in a coffee house, which, it being Germany, probably served beer. Handel wrote music for aristocrats to ignore while they ate. In 18th-century opera houses, performances functioned as the soundtrack for meals, card games, conversation and trysts in the privacy of curtained boxes. The highbrow music club is really the return of an antique tradition. Only now, rather than relegate music to the status of background entertainment, the venue’s gregarious atmosphere gives musicians and composers a central but forgiving spot in which to try new things and, if necessary, fail.
It works because audiences love low ticket prices, adequate food and privileged proximity to the stage. Composers and new music groups have found the place irresistible in part because it draws in audiences willing to be surprised. Scanning the calendar as I write, I find the Metropolis Ensemble performing new works for mandolin, harp, guitar and string quartet; a concert with the godfather of minimalism Terry Riley, a bhangra dance party and a recital by the pianist Elisha Abas, featuring a Chopin polonaise. You could sit in one spot for a week and let the entire contemporary musical world pass before your ears.
Informality is infectious. The “red fish” aesthetic has spread to a whole school of minnow-like groups and tiny venues in lower Manhattan, such as the newer SubCulture, a more hall-like hall tucked beneath a theater a few blocks east of (le) Poisson Rouge, where the traditional forward-facing setup is softened by a bar and seats with cup holders. Next year, entrepreneurial composers will get a headquarters of their own when the Original Music Workshop opens in Williamsburg, merging a maven’s acoustic requirements with the colored-lights-and-cocktails feel of an old-time jazz club.
The liberated venue has freed up young composers, who often compress a week’s worth of (le) Poisson Rouge’s offerings into a few minutes of their own eclectic scores. They mix amplified and natural sounds, medieval harmonies with extended vocal techniques, drones with microtones, folk music and modernism. These musical collages spring from the imaginations of people who grow up thinking of other continents’ cultural traditions as just a click away. But in these cramped but infinite art-and-alcohol-filled chambers, today’s composers have found the ideal incubators for their roving minds. They write pieces that seem global but aren’t. All music is local, and the bar-cum-concert hall is today’s composers’ home, their gothic cathedral, their CBGB’s, their Carnegie Hall.