On (Live Musical) Space


Earlier today I was looking at pictures of a 1988 music zine posted on a Fugazi fans Facebook page. In an interview with the band, the author wrote out the band members and their respective instruments (Ian-guitar and vocals, Joe-bass, Brendan-drums). How Guy was listed stuck out to me: “Guy Picciotto-vocals and space.” Vocals and space. And space. I loved that. That role, that instrument, that contribution to the performance. Based on the many Fugazi live videos I’ve watched, Guy deserves that descriptor. Onstage he bends, twists, and zags across space and time. This all led me to thinking about working the space during concerts, how space can act like an instrument without making a sound.

As my obsession with DEVO grows, I watch more videos of them. I just viewed a 1980 performance of “Be Stiff.” During the song, usual singer and keyboardist Mark Mothersbaugh takes on a new role. For almost 3 minutes straight, he does jumping jacks on stage in time with the song’s rhythm. While I’ll admit that I found his calisthenics funny, I wondered how his movements contributed to the live environment. To me it appears as Mothersbaugh’s movement is a rigid, nonstop repetition contrasting with the blasting jerkiness of DEVO’s live sound. His sculpting of space is an entertaining and contradictory stimulation of energy. What a feat to do jumping jacks for 3 straight minutes, and also to contribute to a sonic performance without adding sound. 

This takes me to Hazel- a 1990s alternative rock band from Portland, Oregon. When I first discovered them, I was surprised that out of the foursome only three of them played instruments. Fred was just the dancer and he was still a listed band member credited on all their albums. He was an integral band member, although not taking on a conventional role. Onstage Fred acts and jumps in a theatrical style, invoking energy and movement. Hazel shows us the importance of honoring space in music, something other bands often forget about. Wasn’t Nirvana joined onstage by the wild Dancing Tony? Why wasn’t he their fourth member?

With this conversation on live musical space, what I would like to emphasize is the importance and potentially powerful role of space. Space can act as its own instrument and, simultaneously, individuals can shape the space. We can spark energy that permeates concert spaces. I appreciate these bands- Fugazi, DEVO, Hazel- for acknowledging that space is crucial to a powerful live show. But I also remind you that we, as audience members, play a role in shaping the space. We do indeed have some power in forming the atmosphere and environment. When I go to a concert I am more concerned about dancing, energy, and affect than the sound quality or skills of the musicians because that’s what us concert-goers can do in the space; we can bend it and make it what we want it. 

I remember going to a show while I was in high school at a small DIY venue. A local punk band was playing. In the crowd there were many young, hip-looking people. Everyone was dressed up and no one was dancing. When the loud band started playing, people remained standing around staring at the performers. I was like, “What the f*ck is this? A stillness convention?” I always believe that during a concert our actions should reflect our attitudes towards the performers and that night I loved that band so I wanted to show them how I felt. Fortunately for me, my good friend Nelson and I had gone to the show together. In the open floor space amongst the crowd, where a mosh pit or a middle school dance-off would normally happen, Nelson and I began running in circles. As we ran in large circles we spun our bodies in smaller circles, like planets in orbit. It was a f*cked-up dizzying ritual that lives in my mind as a wonderful memory. We never planned it or talked about it beforehand, we just somehow, telepathically, were like “let’s run around in a circle while spinning our bodies so we feel really sick.” And yeah, I remember getting a lot of weird looks and glares from other audience members. I guess people weren’t expecting this wild two person dance, our new collectively-deformed instrument. Eventually, other people did start moving with us and through inciting the fun energy I realized that I could shape the live musical space. This is a reminder that if you want to dance, then dance. If you feel nervous, bring your friends and dance with them. Sure, it helps when artists contribute to reaching the collaborative vision by designating band members to play a space-shaping role. But anyone can make the space into what they want it to be.

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