“They didn’t really have walls then,” he said. “There was a hole in the floor and leaks everywhere, but people would show up. It was pretty tough in those days. Dealers would stand outside the door and shout names of drugs. Nowadays there’s restaurants and French boutiques.”
Back then, few would have predicted the changes the neighborhood has seen in the last few years. And if renovations in the building itself have been comparatively modest, even fewer might have predicted the changes the building will undergo by next year.
Under a deal with the city, ABC No Rio - an official nonprofit organization - is expecting to buy the building at 156 Rivington for $1 at the end of this month. This fall, they will close their doors for an estimated nine months to undergo a $600,000 restoration, according to ABC Director Steven Englander, the sole paid staff member of the organization.
It will be the first time in close to a decade that Silwula has had more than the occasional Sunday night off. He has organized the open music series C.O.M.A. for eight years, hosting two or three acts a night for a mere $3 donation. All the money goes to the musicians (Siwula pointed out that his only payment has been “a few cold feet and some sniffles”) and the only real requirement to play there is to ask.
“It’s not really meant for the indie rock scene or the folk singer scene, but I don’t tell them ‘no’,” he said. “I usually let that sort itself out. I don’t want to be the guy that says ‘No, that won’t work.’ I just say ‘think about it.’ Some people don’t like what I do, they hate that I let anyone do anything. But I don’t want it to be just a free jazz night. I really do like all kinds of music.
“It’s really about taste, how someone does improvised music,” he added. “You can have two people with alligator clips and one does something interesting and the other person is just making noise and thinks they’re doing something interesting. That’s kind of what creative music is about, doing something new.”
Despite the open-door policy, the small audiences are less likely to see singer-songwriters or indie rockers than they are to see free jazz and free noise improvisers, from the quiet to the very loud. Saxophonist Jack Wright, guitarist Ed Chang, percussionist Michael Evans and pianist Ursel Schlicht are all recurring performers there. Traveling musicians such as German violinist Christoph Irmer, west coast percussionist Gino Robair and Georgia-based violist LaDonna Smith have all found gigs at the space, when New York bookings can otherwise be tough to come by for people from other places. The late Peter Kowald, Kevin Norton, Joe McPhee and Borah Bergman have all played there, and, of course, Silwula - himself a strong improvisor - generally plays a part in the open jams that follows the scheduled sets.
The open sessions are a central part of the C.O.M.A. ideology, Siwula said, as well as being his favorite part of the nights. The approach was carried over from the Bunker Annex series that he helped to curate at the Knitting Factory. After leaving that, he was approached by people at ABC to start an improv series there. He agreed, selecting an acronym for the name before deciding what it would stand for. Initially it was the Creative Out Music Association, but “it sparked too many things in people’s minds, the word ‘out’,” he said. He changed it to the Citizen Ontological Music Agenda, a mouthful of a name that suggests the open invites and the tenor of the space. While much of what goes on at ABC No Rio is run collectively - the building is also home to a weekly punk series, a computer center, a darkroom, a print shop and a library, all open to the public - Siwula said he chose to oversee C.O.M.A. alone and keep the bookings open to anyone.
“I decided to not have it be a committee because I hate committees,” he said. “I just have to keep reminding myself ‘benign indifference’ and not get to charged up. It’s kind of like a zen thing.”
While there’s no strict political affiliation to the space, it’s hard to miss the feel. The walls are often painted with murals calling current politicians to question and they recently participated in an international exhibition of work made by Arab and Israeli artists.
“I think it’s really independent, in that they’re concerned about the future of the world,” Siwula said of the space. “They’re definitely left but they’re kind of free-floating left. They’re more concerned about ‘oh, people in prison don’t have books, let’s send them books.’ But I don’t think you’re going to find the Daughters of the American Revolution meeting there.”
On Feb. 19th, Siwula will mark his 56th birthday with a special C.O.M.A. night, featuring himself in a variety of duos and trios. In the spring - as he does every year - he will organize a building-wide benefit, this year raising funds needed more than ever. And once a renovation schedule is set, he will organize a special last concert before the room goes dark until 2007. When it resumes, it will be in an all-new ABC No Rio.
“Assuming that I’m back there,” he said, “I’m hoping just to continue what I’ve been doing in a nicer room, which I’m ready for, frankly - an even floor and hopefully some chairs that don’t break.”