No Matter How Many Times Your Band Plays MoMA, You'll Never Be an Artist

Of course, the presence of live music in museums is nothing new. In 1943, John Cage played his first New York City concert in a MoMA auditorium. The Whitney has been hosting concerts for bands since the 1960s. Sonny Rollins and Thelonious Monk were regulars in MoMA’s sculpture garden, in the “Jazz Profiles” and “Summergarden” series. Mr. Rollins even recorded an album there, his rambling, associative, sometimes brilliant Solo Album from 1985. But the last generation of hip musical artists (or artistic musicians)–the so-called New Wave, including Laurie Anderson, David Byrne, John Zorn and others–played in New York’s vibrant gallery scene in the ’80s and into the ’90s. Music in museums was distinct from the art, ghettoized and cordoned off from the precious treasures of the collection.

Like their New Wave forebears, the bands playing museums now share a unified aesthetic: atmospheric songs with a loose structure, and frequent use of samples or dissonance or both. They stress the multimedia aspect of their acts so that they can call a museum performance an “installation” rather than a “concert.” When Animal Collective took over the rotunda of the Guggenheim last winter with its Transverse Temporal Gyrus installation, the performance was essentially song-free, and many fans expecting a concert vacated after slamming down the free absinthe. These Are Powers’ show at the Whitney included an interpretive dance troupe from Providence called Jazz Hand Job. For the band Javelin’s Whitney date, the sample-heavy duo built stacks of vintage boom boxes, painted in swirling psychedelic colors, like massive sculptures that became, briefly, a part of the collection.

“There’s something hanging over these museum shows that maybe something more is going on than just having a good time,” said Tom Van Buskirk, one of Javelin’s members. “Playing in a museum offers a suggestion that this is performance art.”

Javelin also played MoMA and brought with them an all-girl dance troupe named Anarchy in Motion, who stumbled around out of synch while Mr. Van Buskirk shouted, “Go shorties!” into a microphone. That performance didn’t quite make it into the collection, as it were.

Even some who have spearheaded the museum-music movement think a concert in a museum is exactly that–a concert and nothing else. Ronen Givony, the founder of the Wordless Music series, has brought bands like No Age into the New Museum with the aim of exposing the connections between electronic music, indie rock and classical traditions. These concerts tear down certain genre distinctions within contemporary music, Mr. Givony says, but the dismantling stops there.

“Whether it’s a string quartet or a rock band, it’s a concert,” Mr. Givony said. “I think it is interesting that these concerts are happening more often, and I know that bands like to play at museums, but to me, performance art is very particular and well defined, and indie rock is its own thing. It’s important not to confuse the two.”

Most bands on the museum circuit would argue otherwise. They want to be known not as rock stars but as artists–a moniker MoMA, for one, would deny them. High Places, an electronic duo from Los Angeles (via Brooklyn) has played the New Museum, the Whitney and the Guggenheim. Instrumentalist Rob Barber was teaching art at Pratt when he first teamed with singer Mary Pearson. Their intentions were more artistic than musical, a synthesis of visual art, recording and performance.

“We started High Places not thinking we were a band, but an art installation,” said Mary Pearson, the group’s singer. “It always takes on different forms depending on where we’re playing. It’s a kind of performance art, the spectacle of two people coming together to make something.”

In a museum, Ms. Pearson says, High Places is freed from the vicissitudes of a rock club, the uninterested drunks getting loaded at the bar, the catcalls to “play your older songs!” and other u
npleasantness. In 2008, High Places, along with No Age, helped inaugurate the opening of the NYPD’s least favorite illegal music venue, Market Hotel. Three weeks later, when the band was set to play there again, the cops raided the venue for the first of many times for noise complaints and selling booze without a license. Maybe bands are right to pine for the sacred temple of a museum.

“I don’t think,” Ms. Pearson said, “anyone’s too shocked by what they see in a museum these days.”

No Matter How Many Times Your Band Plays MoMA, You'll Never Be an Artist