About 24 hours after the Brandt Brauer Frick Ensemble performed at Lincoln Center on August 2, its three main members were sweating over their instruments in the basement of Santos Party House in downtown New York. Two shared duties behind simple DJ controllers and a keyboard while one laid down relentless rhythms on the drums, all of them in constant motion to keep the beats rolling.
And beats they were. Although the trio composed its music entirely live and by manually operating several different instruments, the sounds they made were derivative of house and techno with a healthy serving of jazz. The format of the concert may have been that of a traditional performance, with the musicians taking breaks to thank the crowd and the audience members watching the musicians at work, but the sort of music BBF was composing is usually played by a DJ.
The trio’s subversion of expectations and contexts effectively divorced dance music’s traditional form and function. Usually, the form of dance music—at a basic level, steady beats that never stop—are married to the music’s explicit function, which is to make people dance and to keep them moving. In the able and innovative hands of Brandt Brauer Frick, house and techno are broken up into chunks that can be digested in a different setting. The show at Santo’s was more of a performance than the average DJ set: The band was jamming, and the crowd was watching more intently than they were dancing.
The mix of people in the crowd seemed split between those who couldn’t make it to the show at Lincoln Center and those who would rather see them at a more intimate (not to mention cheaper) venue. The dance floor was densely crowded, but people weren’t touching: A graying man stood near the stage to film the musicians on what looked like a personal digital camera, while a guy wearing socks and tevas jostled a leg methodically to the trio’s breathlessly winding rhythms. For much of the performance, the crowd bobbed around more than danced, perhaps because they had something to look at onstage.
DJing is a performance, even when the artist is selecting tunes from behind a booth in a dark club, but it can be dull to watch. Without much of note going on behind a DJ booth or an explosion of pyrotechnical theatrics, the crowd at the typical DJ show has to make its own fun, which results in more interaction between audience members and, perhaps, more dancing.
However, the band members did earn the audience’s attention. After all, it is weird to watch three guys squeeze dance music into a jam-band performance setting that subverts expectations about electronic music. After articles penned by the likes of Deadmau5, A Guy Called Gerald and A-Trak about how “live” electronic music is, the Brandt Brauer Frick trio physically yanked notes from their equipment in an undeniable display of traditional musicality. As one twists and turns the buttons on the table in front of him, the sonic effects are immediate and obvious. At one point, he leaned back, arm extended and fist clenched on a knob with the tension and intent of a lead guitarist about to bring down a pinwheeling Pete Townsend arm. In a fluid movement he snapped forward, cranking the kicks back into the mix of sounds sustained by the work of his two bandmates.