Steve McQueen, on a Different Wavelength


As for the music, it prompted (in this viewer) memories of the ecstatic party scene in “Lover’s Rock,” one chapter in McQueen’s five-film series on the Black British experience in the 1970s, which premiered in 2020. (You can watch the series, titled “Small Axe,” on Amazon.)

Presented with this connection to the film, McQueen, who is not keen on trite interpretations, partly swatted it away. Though he is not a musician, his work with music goes beyond film scores — in 2019, for instance, he programmed the “Soundtrack of America” concert series at the Shed, in Manhattan, on the history of Black American music. “The electric bass changed music,” he recalled Quincy Jones stating plainly at the time — a nugget that lodged in his mind.

But McQueen also brought up how the cultural theorist Stuart Hall spoke of the cathartic necessity of Black music and parties. “Without those shebeens, those blues parties, there’d have been a psychosis,” McQueen said, paraphrasing Hall. “We needed these things.” In the parties’ confined space “the bass, the sweat, took on a religious dimension. In those spaces things become experimental. There’s a necessity to venture and transcend.”

A couple of months ago, the musicians on “Bass” gathered to record in the Dia basement. Half the lights were installed and running, and the group formed a circle in the middle of the room, with one — the Grammy-winning and genre-defying musician Meshell Ndegeocello — at her own station some yards away.

The others — the jazz veteran Marcus Miller, who organized the group; Aston Barrett Jr., son of the reggae bassist “Familyman” Barrett; Mamadou Kouyaté, on ngoni; and Laura-Simone Martin, a young virtuoso on acoustic bass — improvised. Miller proposed riffs and guided the flow with hand movements. McQueen added his own gestures, cuing them to take their time.



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