This article was corrected on March 18, 2002.
Making its American debut as part of this season’s UCLA Performing Arts festival, the 3-year-old British music festival All Tomorrow’s Parties opened Thursday with the most introspective and literate of the four-day fest. Evening was mostly given up to readings by various poets, with jazz pianist Cecil Taylor headlining. In its scope and ambition, All Tomorrow’s Parties resembles the legendary Nova Convention, a 1978 event that brought together Phillip Glass, Patti Smith, Laurie Anderson, Terry Southern and the B-52s, among others.
All Tomorrow’s Parties (the name is taken from a Velvet Underground song) has been “curated” — or to put it in less lofty terms, booked — by New York’s skronky paterfamilias, Sonic Youth, who have responded with an intriguingly varied program, ranging from the hesitant folk of Cat Power to the bombastic, scorched-earth attack of Japan’s the Boredoms.
Ira Cohen and Gerard Malanga connected with beat poet traditionalism, declaiming their blank verse in the conversational style familiar to fans of Allen Ginsburg and the latter-day Nuyorican poets. The rabbinical-looking Cohen writes of a world seen through an upper-Broadway coffee shop window, while the professorial Malanga, whose speaking voice strikingly recalled that of actor Christopher Walken, aimed for an elegiac tone, dedicating poems to Baudelaire and William S. Burroughs.
Bill Callahan, who performs under the name Smog, continued in the poets’ miniaturist vein. His simply constructed tunes occupy an uneasy zone between Lou Reed and Marty Robbins. Sung in his dusky voice, songs such as “Dress Sexy at My Funeral” are lullabies designed to produce nightmares.
Though they appeared as readers, Lydia Lunch and John Sinclair added a shot of rock ‘n’ roll energy to the proceedings. Lunch, the former lead singer of Teenage Jesus and the Jerks (who collaborated with Sonic Youth on 1985’s “Death Valley ’69”), is still in fine vinegary fettle. She used her 20-minute set to run down the current world situation (“My worst fears have all come true … society isn’t a disease, it’s a disaster”) in a performance that was half dominatrix, half den mother. With his stentorian voice and long history of rabble-rousing, the MC5 Svengali Sinclair commanded the crowd’s attention. Backed by two horn players, Sinclair effectively melded jazz and language in eulogies of Charlie Parker and Jack Kerouac.
Cecil Taylor ended the evening in his elegantly explosive fashion. Entering the stage reading a text that moved between phonetics and quantum mechanics, he sat down at the piano, and for the next hour, his playing was as eloquent as his words were unintelligible. Starting with a series of phrases that sounded like variations on Erik Satie, he proceeded to twist and turn the music on itself — alternately pastoral, violent, gloriously tonal and harshly dissonant.