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A Tribute to Suzanne Fiol (1960-2009)

I think of myself as a music person. So I’m embarrassed to admit that it was not music but a reading by Steve Buscemi and some cast members of The Sopranos that initially drew me into the former oil silo, which housed the Issue Project Room in the fall of 2005. Embarrassing because, after all, the silo’s front door was literally five feet away from my my building, a second silo that was serving as my painting studio at the time. That particular night was, understandably, a hot ticket, and Suzanne Fiol, IPR’s founder and director, graciously consented to letting me in despite the fact that it was long “sold out” (meaning maybe 75 to 100 people attended) and I had not done anything to deserve any special treatment other than being a polite neighbor who managed somehow to not make it to any of her events the four months we had been neighbors.

Photo by Joe Holmes. Courtesy of ISSUE Project Room.
Photo by Joe Holmes. Courtesy of ISSUE Project Room.

The reading that night featured a script by Theo van Gogh, the Dutch screenwriter assassinated presumably for his work on an Arab documentary. The performance in that little round room lived up to its promise, but the real significance for me that night was the curiosity it awoke within me about Suzanne and her little space. I had to see more; I started going every night my schedule would allow with no regard to who was performing or what they were doing. And I was rewarded handsomely. I got to experience music I never imagined existed, let alone love.

If you are unfamiliar with the Issue Project Room, Suzanne began it in 2003. Trying to label IPR is dangerous because it presents so many things, but its primary focus is music. Its first home was a garage in the East Village; Elliot Sharpe, Marc Ribot, and Anthony Coleman were regulars. It expanded its programming the following year, and moved to its famous round space in 2005 on the Gowanus Canal, by which time Suzanne was presenting nearly 150 events a year. In July of 2007, she was forced to resettle across the canal to their current home at the Old American Can Factory, an unplanned and unwanted moved that did nothing to break her stride. A few months after she moved, I moved out of the country; the Issue Project Room is on the top of the list of things I miss most about being away from New York.

One might label IPR experimental. However, that word is misleading in this case, because in the arts there are traditionally many more failures than successes. IPR had many more successes than failures here. Most probably a good number of the successes at IPR would fail in other venues, a testament to its vitality as a nurturing force. World class musicians and musicians with world class potential, performing in traditional and decidedly non traditional veins, laptops, acoustic instruments, invented instruments, ethnic instruments, theremins were all presented with the utmost dignity and clarity. There were also poetry readings, movies, dinners, and yoga. The unusual shape of the room served as a metaphor for the unusual nature of the programming. And in the center of this whirlwind was Suzanne who somehow, I don’t know how, brought unity, dignity, and meaning to it all.

Not only did Suzanne have the concepts and vision for her ambitious programs; she made them happen with minimal help. In the two years we were neighbors she put on several hundred performances. She had skeletal part time staff and occasional interns, but was heavily involved with all phases of presentation, whether it be shopping for refreshments and food, cooking, cleaning the dishes, forget scheduling, negotiating with, and making other arrangements with the artists, who came from all over the globe. How she made things come together so wonderfully day in and day out I will never understand. And she maintained the highest standards for her public, even at those times when there were only five or 10 of us in the audience, and there were a number of those times.

Well Suzanne, it’s way too soon but it’s time to see you off. I had fantasized, on more than one occasion as I sat experiencing another one of your concerts, that when my friends and I were very old and could do very little more than sit or lie on the floor and listen to music, you would be doing the programming for us. Maybe that fantasy can't happen now, but wait, then again, maybe it can and, yes, it will. Know that the vision you created will be with us and will continue to transform the lives of countless others as it has mine, for many years to come through your wonderful love and creation.

(Author’s note: Thanks to Suzanne's efforts, the IPR recently received a seven-figure grant from the Borough of Brooklyn, securing their move to a new space at the former Department of Education in downtown Brooklyn which is being dubbed by some as “the Carnegie Hall of the Avante Garde.” Doors are scheduled to open in the fall of 2011. In the meantime, IPR continues to present a full schedule of programming at its current home at the Old American Can Factory in Brooklyn. I recommend regular attendance, without regard to who is performing, as the most rewarding way to experience the IPR, where Suzanne’s energy and vision continues to live on).


Gilbert Hsiao


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2009

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