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Taking Radio to the Street

On this past Tuesday, the curtain went up for the first time at the Jerome L. Greene Performance Space, WNYC’s new street-level set-up at the corner of Varick and Charlton streets. Or rather, the indoor space went from dark to light as the shades went up on windows looking out on both streets—at 7 p.m., it was still light outside.

In case you had missed the news, the Greene space for broadcasts and live performances is finally open, after years of planning. This small room looking out on two streets has all the technological bells and whistles, a curvy wooden backdrop to its small stage, a Fazioli piano from Italy, a soundproof broadcast booth in the corner, and several high-definition video screens. It can broadcast radio or television and live to the internet. WNYC is celebrating its opening with a ten-day festival ending on May 8 that will include broadcasts of the Brian Lehrer and Leonard Lopate shows; the launch of “The Next New York Conversation Series” with Dr. Eddie Glaude and Dr. Cornel West; and a Cinco de Mayo celebration with food, music, and dancing.

Tuesday’s event brought in people like writer/activist Sonia Sanchez, who read a new poem she had written, as a recording of “Round Midnight” played; tap dancer Ayodele Casel with electro-jazz cellist/composer Dana Leong, in a free-form duet riffing on “Bolero”; and actor Brian Stokes Mitchell reading from Colum McCann’s forthcoming book Let the Great World Spin, a portrait of New York City in the 1970s that includes an account of Philippe Petit’s 1974 tightrope-walking between the north and south towers of the World Trade Center. Terrance McKnight aired some of the evening’s festivities live on his evening radio show, from his studio on the 8th floor of the same building.

DBRTwo highlights were Isaiah Sheffer’s lively reading of Jonathan Safran Foer’s story “The Sixth Borough” and violinist/composer Daniel Bernard Roumain’s sliding, electric-guitar-style performances on two violins, one with the standard four strings and another with six strings (one higher and one lower). As part of the music, Roumain (aka DBR) used his foot as a percussion instrument, grunted occasionally, and dug into the strings forcefully, so that his bow hairs rapidly began to fray; his long dredlocks occasionally draped over his bow. ETHEL (an amplified string quartet), hyper-accordionist Michael Ward-Bergeman, and laptop composer/performer Jay Flower performed a short work by Osvaldo Golijov that I would have liked to hear again. With its repeated rocking between tonic and subdominant minor chords, it had a slightly melancholy cast and was reminiscent at times of an Erik Satie gymnopédie.

One of the main goals of the Greene space is to connect the station more closely to the city. The spot where it sits has been home since the nineteenth century to the Richmond Hill Estates, an opera company, a saloon, and a soup restaurant. These days, the corner of Charlton and Varick streets can be kind of a strange place in the early evening. WNYC executive director Laura Walker commented that often the long lines of traffic headed for the Holland Tunnel clog the streets, but on this night things were very quiet in the neighborhood. With the studio open to the street on its inaugural night, I spotted very few passersby. But I expect that may change as local people become more familiar with it, or because they want to see what the radio hosts, guests, and performers look like. For the time being, you can’t hear broadcasts and performances from the street—they are not being piped outside. But a WNYC spokesperson told me they are looking into this for the future. Don’t come looking for x-rated shows, either: according to a preview piece in The New York Times, the shades in the windows will close during any performances involving nudity. I hadn’t considered this possibility, but … good to know, I guess.

I am looking forward to the day soon when WNET’s own SundayArts shows begin to be broadcast live from their street-level booth at the corner of 65th Street and Broadway. WNYC’s new space and the upcoming WNET broadcast space represent how much the city has changed since the 1960s and 1970s, a difficult time for the city generally, and also a time when arts institutions started to physically distance themselves from the city’s own residents, most notably in the construction of Lincoln Center. The latter institution, of course, is in the process of a huge overhaul, part of which seeks to undo that “disconnection” from the street.

Photo of Daniel Bernard Roumain by Scott Ellison Smith.

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SundayArts is made possible in part by First Republic Bank and by the Rubin Museum of Art. Funding for SundayArts is also made possible by Rosalind P. Walter, The Paul and Irma Milstein Foundation, The Philip & Janice Levin Foundation, Elise Jaffe and Jeffrey Brown, Jody and John Arnhold, and The Lemberg Foundation. This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional funding provided by members of THIRTEEN.
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