Music venue Roulette stakes it all on Atlantic Avenue

By Howard Mandel

Roulette, the long-running Manhattan venue for fearless new music and multi-media works, has made a daring bet. During tough economic times and the millennial transition in aesthetics and technologies, this community-oriented non-profit organization has signed a 20-year lease on a 600-seat Art Deco theater in the up-and-coming arts neighborhood near the intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic avenues in Brooklyn.

It’s a big move for an organization that started in 1978 and ran for many years in the roomy West Broadway second floor residential loft of Jim Staley (originally co-directing with electronic musician David Weinstein). The first Roulette and Roulette at its present address have accommodated audiences of about 70 people for programs featuring the genre-defying coterie of innovators and experimentalists who’ve become internationally influential for the “New York Downtown” sound. Some of them, including reeds-and-games player John Zorn and “deep listening” composer-conceptualist Pauline Oliveros, are contributing “simple scores” for an “Easy Not Easy” benefit festival Oct. 7 through Oct. 9, during which almost two dozen emerging young artists, curated by younger Roulette staffers Doron Sadja and Matt Mehlan, will perform.

An artist’s rendering of what the new Roulette space in Brooklyn may one day resemble.

This all represents a sea change that, according to Staley, has been 30 years coming. During those three decades, Roulette has gradually and almost quietly become the city’s number one survivor of the Golden Age of Arts Lofts and an invaluable presenter of innovative, unusual and challenging interdisciplinary projects. Since 2006, these works have been staged at the gallery Location One, on Greene Street above Canal.

“That’s been a great space, but we’ve been pushing against the walls, especially in terms what’s often required by inter-media projects involving installations or dance,” explains Staley, an improvising trombonist who’s kept up his chops while devoting ever-more time to administrative responsibilities. Besides its full concert schedule—throughout the fall Roulette will feature such institutional favorites as Henry Threadgill’s Zooid (with the Flux Quartet and Talujon Percussion Quartet), Adam Rudolph’s Go Organic Orchestra, experimental kotoist Miya Masaoka and pianist-composer Muhal Richard Abrams’ 80th birthday celebration—Roulette maintains a website (www.roulette.org) with archived recordings dating back to its start, a store for its self-produced CDs and videos, and Roulette TV, which is broadcast every Thursday night on Manhattan Neighborhood Network (also viewable at Vimeo and UBUWeb).

What has always distinguished Roulette from other performance lofts of the 1970s through ’80s (The Kitchen, Jazz Forum, Phill Niblock’s Experimental Intermedia, to name a few) has been its breadth of programming. Though de- and re-constructionists such as hard-edged multi-instrumentalist Elliott Sharp, singer-of-a-hundred accents Shelley Hirsch and creative-art-song baritone Tom Buckner have been stalwarts, Roulette has also presented tradition-stretching jazz, alt-folk rock, performance art—you name it. And that’s the plan after the move across the East River. Entering the area anchored by Brooklyn Academy of Music, and not so far from the recently endowed Issue Project Room, Roulette will be challenged to build a new, much bigger audience than it has previously tried to attract. Expect the new wave of avant-gardists represented by the “Easy Not Easy” bookings to be worked into a busy schedule, often in events such as the “Easy Not Easy” concept, pairing lesser-knowns and the better established.

As Doron Sadja explains: “For the benefit, we’ve asked a lot of people to contribute notated, or graphic or conceptual scores. And have built three different ensembles that mix younger personnel—most of whom work in bands or in improv but don’t all write for ensembles. Thursday night is trending to electronics, with experimental noise and acoustic instruments digitally modified. On Friday, the program will be mostly acoustic, with strings and classical ensemble instruments. Saturday, it’s winds and guitars. Each night there will be six to 10 performers, forming different groups for different pieces.”

An artist’s rendering of what the new Roulette space in Brooklyn may one day resemble.

Sadja, publicist and website coordinator for Roulette, is 28, as is his “Easy Not Easy” partner Matt Mehlan, who’s responsible for most of the recent Roulette TV productions. They’ve known each other for 10 years, went to school together and have run an artists’ collective label, Shinkoyo, which is “a blending of experimental music and other pop influences, with a lot of video.” Their stated interest is bringing to Roulette performers who are “big in one world but need to step into other establishments. Dan Deacon is really big among young people,” Sadja explains. “But [he’s] not known to older ones”—like those who’ve frequented Roulette in the past.

But things change. Moving borough-to-borough is not as daunting as it once was, and Jim Staley is exceptionally sanguine about the new venture, which he expects to be open for business in March or April 2011. Roulette’s real estate risk is somewhat cushioned by support of the Mary Flagler Cary Trust and the office of Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, among several other sponsors. The new Roulette is at the confluence of almost all subway lines. Staley believes that few artists can afford to live and work in Manhattan anymore, that their likely audiences are living in Brooklyn, too. So, good luck Roulette. Give it a spin.