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Right above the Vine Street Expressway lies a home for experimental arts in visual media, music, and performance. Asian Arts Initiative, headed by Anne Ishii, serves as a multi-room gallery space, classroom, and performance venue all in a brick building along the northern reaches of Chinatown. On the evening of Sunday, April 2, its intimate theater space welcomed a piano, large monitors, and a table holding a laptop, effects pedals, and an audio interface—the setup for former Philadelphian and sonic-experimentalist Lucy Liyou.
On tap for the evening: 30 minutes of classical piano, R&B-style vocals, and light filtered noise. The set seemed to straddle those genres, but with no single style dominating the other, putting Liyou in the spotlight. They used dramatic, slow gestures and the occasional lyric to evoke closeness, sensuality, pain.
There are no rough edges to Liyou’s music: their piano licks seem lifted straight from the canon. The vocal effects they used mostly consisted of consonant artificial harmonization and pitch shifting up or down octaves. We got a lot of pretty sounds to work with, emotional reins lightly tightened to lead from one moment to the next.
At various points, Liyou’s hands went from self-caressing to lightly choking themselves on stage. While obviously a performance, these gestures were successfully made as if the audience wasn’t there. There might have been more intricate meanings to the lyrics, but sonic backing/transformation made it hard for me to catch.
The effect was something like bedroom pop, but with much longer time spans. We were floating in Liyou’s private world, their collections of filtered noises, pops, memories of piano lessons, news, and dreams of potency. Which, with the exception of the third song, proceeded as a wash of colors rather than a point of strong emotional catharsis.
The third song opened with an old American news report about the Korean War: a desolated village laid to waste by communist forces. The narrator's voice was extraordinarily authoritative, rhythmic, and clear. His words are not only designed to be heard, but respected as the truth. His world is the world as it is imposed upon you. It was a startling break from the rest of the music. It popped the wall between Liyou’s music and the audience, and allowed it to spill out into ravishing forms.
Liyou’s piano playing went into this Liberace-like space, giving us the hits, using the full force of idiom in order to sway the heart. The tape-backing that had been playing under Liyou the entire time finally came strongly to the fore with lush synthetic swells.
It would have been great to see where we could have gone in the music from that point—because my only true complaint is that I wish we could have ventured deeper into Liyou’s world. For music that seems to be durational in scope, a 30-minute set seems inadequate to the task of sinking into the vulnerability and away from the listeners’ projections.
Above: A chance to venture into a musician’s world: Korean American sonic artist Lucy Liyou. (Photo courtesy of the artist.)
What, When, Where
Lucy Liyou in concert, presented by Asian Arts Initiative. April 2, 2023. 1219 Vine Street, Philadelphia. asianartsinitiative.org.
Asian Arts Initiative prioritizes accessibility, with wheelchair access to all public floors and spaces, seating accommodations for programmed events, and gender-neutral restrooms. To discuss other needs, contact AAI in advance at [email protected].
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