This past autumn, Roulette, one of Manhattan’s most venerable experimental-music venues, closed shop on SoHo’s Greene Street and reopened their doors in Downtown Brooklyn, joining BAM and the newly relocated ISSUE Project Room; together, they solidify the neighborhood’s reputation as a destination for new music. Of course, with BAM, Brooklyn already had an institution with an impressive history of supporting new forms in music, dance, and theater; however, with Roulette and ISSUE, artists have the opportunity to present much riskier work—the kinds of performances that are too chancy for a venue like BAM, with its much larger size and overhead. Roulette’s director, Jim Staley, cited a four-day residency by radical composer Anthony Braxton as an example, noting that Roulette is able to give figures of Braxton’s pedigree a space where their work can “stretch its legs and develop.”
Between its main ballroom and mezzanine, Roulette’s new space, a former YMCA theater located on the corner of Atlantic Avenue and Third Avenue, can accommodate over 350 people, an impressive expansion over their prior locations, which held between 75 and 150 people. The original Roulette venue on West Broadway in TriBeCa, and their shared space with Location One in SoHo, were converted loft spaces; both evoked that very familiar home of experimental music in the downtown New York of the 1960s and 1970s, when performances occurred in artists’ lofts more often than in “real” venues. Incorporated in 1978, and centered in New York beginning in 1979, Roulette was born at the end of the first wave of experimental arts institutions, all non-profit and funded through a mix of publicly available and private funds. This history includes spaces such as the Kitchen, which began at the Mercer Arts Center in 1971, becoming its own organization in 1973, and Experimental Intermedia, founded in 1968 by Elaine Summers, Trisha Brown, Philip Corner, and Phill Niblock, a key venue for experimental music with the initiation of their composer series by Niblock in 1973.
Staley sees Experimental Intermedia as the biggest inspiration for the founding of Roulette. It offered young composers a space to present experimental work and, to this day, the loft on Centre Street feels more like an informal meeting-place for friends than a music venue, even if it is one of the best-sounding rooms in the city. Whereas Experimental Intermedia is meant for an audience of insiders (according to Staley, “Phill wanted an audience that knew what things were”), Roulette aims for a broader one. At its inception, it was the community of artists in downtown New York. With this relocation to Brooklyn and a bigger space, Roulette intends to draw a much broader spectrum of visitors and performers. Because of the increased stage area, Roulette can now present the Brooklyn Philharmonic and Brooklyn Youth Chorus, as well as acts outside of the orbit of music, including a regular series of dance performances.
Still, Staley sees Roulette’s main purpose as providing an acoustic space for the presentation of live music, in an age when that is far from the norm. “With the ongoing digital experience of music, people forget how enriching a live performance can be,” Staley said. “The resolution you get in music is not what it was. What you get on an iPod is not what you get on a CD player, and not what you got on a record. It is more about convenience, but the sonic impact is much less visceral. It is an incredible experience to have this rich sound around you.” Staley notes that Roulette presents music that requires “focused listening,” also admitting that “something more immediate and more pop-oriented wouldn’t work in this context.”
The move of Roulette and ISSUE to Downtown Brooklyn comes with the news of the closure of Southpaw on Fifth Avenue in Park Slope. The shuttering of Southpaw, although a very different type of venue—a club that catered to more pop-oriented artists and audiences—is, for me, reminiscent of the closing of the far more adventurous and left-field Tonic on the Lower East Side five years ago. While the closing of clubs might have more to do with the changing demographics and property values of New York City, one wonders whether the future of the music venue is the nonprofit institution. While it is in the DNA of the experimental music venue to go this route (look at the history of Roulette, the Kitchen, Experimental Intermedia, the Stone, and ISSUE Project Room), does the club now need to do the same to survive? MoMA’s recent incursion into the presentation of pop music—whether their promotion of Antony and the Johnsons at Radio City Music Hall in January or this month’s presentation of Kraftwerk in the museum proper—seems to support this theory. While these are examples of pop at its most operatic and Wagnerian, it perhaps points to a seachange in the support of music. In an age when music is something you download onto your computer—often without any cost—musicians must recoup their costs mostly from profits generated from live performances, merchandise, and licensing of their music for advertising. Will those on the experimental fringes of pop, without a large market draw, also need institutional support to survive?