The first time I witnessed a Flying Lotus performance, I didn’t see it coming. It was a beautiful, sunny Los Angeles afternoon in the summer of 2006, and my friend Miguel Atwood-Ferguson was leading an orchestra at a tribute to Alice Coltrane. In between sets there was a guy playing music unlike any I’d heard before. I was briefly introduced afterwards, told, “This is Stephen, he’s Alice’s nephew and you’re going to be hearing big things from him.” No shit.
Fast forward a few years, and this time I was relatively prepared. When it was announced he’d be coming to the Ann Arbor to debut a live score for Harry Smith’s 1962 film Heaven & Earth Magic, and would also be playing afterwards with Chicagoans Mahjongg, I was suitably jazzed—but I didn’t really realize how big of a deal it was until I got to Ann Arbor and felt the palpable buzz building around what was in many ways the centerpiece of an illustrious (and 48th annual) experimental film festival.
Being relatively prepared and knowing what to expect are two different things, and I don’t think I, nor the sold out Michigan Theater audience, knew what was coming. Flying Lotus gracefully presaged the showing with a warning, something along the lines of: “This isn’t going to be dance music. In fact, this will probably be the mellowest performance I’ve ever done. We’ll be doing the dancing at the after party—at the Flying Pig.”
Mellow wouldn’t have been among my choice of words—mesmerizing perhaps. I’m not a film scholar, but from what I was able to gather about the film, the down tempo live soundtrack matched the humor and the gravity of Smith’s whimsical animation. Heaven and Earth Magic seemed to be about the birth of the universe, as told by cats and dogs interacting with birds, and the birth of consciousness, injected into eggshells via a watermelon. In Lotus’ words, “some pretty bugged-out shit.”
Even without trying to follow Smith’s narrative, the film and the live score were aesthetic matches. The print was a little grainy, the movements of the characters scratchy and rhythmic—very similar to the way Flying Lotus layers sounds. He began the show with the sound of dust on a record repeating, and low frequency bass rumblings and laser-like plops accented the films original sparse sound effects. Machines creaked and groaned in sync, adding brief flashes of tonal color to the black & white film. I could tell that not everyone was as gripped by the performance as I was—after all, it was lengthy, and I saw a few eyelids droop—but from the chatter I heard in the lobby afterwards, even if it was undeniably “weird,” it was also undeniably beautiful.
Going from a venue like the historic Michigan Theater to the Blind Pig normally would have been a bit jarring, but I’ve never seen a dump like the Pig transformed more thoroughly than by Forest Juziuk and Erin Nicole Bratkovich’s Hott Lava crew. They hosted the after-party and brought in Mahjongg to play a set after Juziuk filled the dancefloor with a typically inspired DJ set. Projectors were set up around the room, looping cut up bits of 16mm film, transforming the dimensions of the familiar space. Mahjongg was terrific, but it was clearly Flying Lotus’ party.
From the moment he hit the stage to leavin’ time, Flylo rocked some of his more bass-heavy bangers, interspersed with dubstep and breakdowns galore, never letting the energy fall or the capacity crowd catch their breath. The entire time he beamed, effervescent, from the stage and I couldn’t help but think: there’s a motherfucker who knows he’s doing big things. Big things like releasing another album on Warp, Cosmogramma in May, featuring a lead single with Thom Yorke you can grab here and big things, like constantly evolving electronic music while using his supreme talent for composition in other realms of art.