The two short pieces that constitute New Music Shorts emerged from Birnbaum's engagement with the downtown New York music scene of the early 1980s. These dynamic clips, created with analogue video technologies, are multi-image documents of early live performances by musicians Radio Fire Fight and Glenn Branca. Live footage is montaged with frame-in-frame compositions of the performers and the audience. The raw intensity of the music, together with Birnbaum's up-close, low-tech visuals, makes for a vivid snapshot of the Lower Manhattan post-punk scene.
In the first piece, Birnbaum documents the No-Wave noise band Radio fire Fight at New York's legendary Mudd Club, a key venue for punk, New Wave, and experimental music in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Birnbaum applies formal devices, including multiple frames, to the performance footage. Static images of the performers and audience appear in window inserts, creating a visual parallel to the jagged minimalism of the music.
The second clip features rock iconoclast and avant-garde composer Glenn Branca performing his famous Symphony No. 1 at the Performing Garage, an alternative theater space. Footage of Branca and his ensemble performing the propulsive symphony of massed guitars and percussion is punctured with inserts and composite images that link the performance inside with the stormy weather outside. Lightning and pounding rain provide a mesmerizing counterpoint to the thunderous percussion and driving guitars of Branca's radical orchestra.
Birnbaum made New Music Shorts in 1981, the same year that MTV exploded onto television. During this time, music videos were also being screened in downtown clubs. Birnbaum puts forth her intent in a written introduction: "Avoiding off-air footage (opening the work to broadcast and cable) and using formal devices—corner inserts, repetition, dislocation, and altered syntax—an investigation of the powerful currency provided by contemporary downtown music will ensue, creating moments of arrest which will engage new aspects of popular culture...'A television language for popular song.'"
Radio Fire Fight: Jules Baptiste, Lefferts Brown. Co-production: William Dolson. Lighting: Stan Pressner. Recorded at the Mudd Club, NYC, 1981. Edited at Electronic Arts Intermix, NYC. Tape Editor: Jody O'Brien. (c) 1981 Dara Birnbaum.
Excerpted from Symphony No. 1, Glenn Branca, Performing Garage, NYC. July 17, 1981. Edited at Electronic Arts Intermix, NYC. Tape Editor: Jody O'Brien. Production Assistance: Larry Brickman. (c) 1981 Dara Birnbaum.