Diego Cortez


If you're looking for a category, you can file Stuzzicadenti under discreet music. Discreet as defined by Brian Eno, music to help you dislocate as well as meditate. Discreet as in subtle, too. And Diego Cortez, who created Stuzzicadenti with producer DJSpooky That Subliminal Kid and an all-hip cast of cool characters, is nothing if not subtle. He's hardly a household name, yet Diego has been a significant influence on pop culture for more than twenty years. Working behind the scenes, Diego has explored the farthest edges of punk, helped to shape Manhattan's downtown club scene and to popularize the most forward-thinking contemporary artists. Though he has been a performer himself in the past, collaborating with the likes of Laurie Anderson and Philip Glass, Diego has more often served as a catalyst for the projects of others. He has turned entrepreneurship into an art form. Now the project he's promoting is his own, and he's going about it very discreetly.

You could, however, simply file Stuzzicadenti under "toothpicks," which is the album title translated from the Italian. (Diego was in Italy when he conceived of this adventure.) Producer Paul Miller, a/k/a DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid, describes the work as being very much in the illbient vein -- illbient, a word Miller invented to describe his particular brand of sampled sounds, meaning ambient with an edge. Diego improvised at the piano, friends like Ryuichi Sakamoto (on synthesizer) and Ben Neill (on trumpet) riffed over Diego's melodies, then Spooky, more player than producer, assembled and reassembled the results. Though it's the product of a collaborative process, the album shows none of the seams of all the cutting and pasting. Stuzzicadenti has its own dreamlike flow; it's beguiling at times, bewildering at others, lulling you into a reverie than jarring you awake. Think of the haunting street sounds of Miles Davis' On The Corner, the exotic soundscapes of Eno's collaborations with Jon Hassell and Harold Budd, the seductive samba explorations of Diego's close friend, Arto Lindsay.

If you had to give Diego Cortez a job description, try curator at large. Though he continues to take on such traditional roles as contemporary curator for Tibet House in New York City, his influence has long been felt far beyond the art world. When punk, late-seventies style, was getting predictable and new wave was turning cute, Diego managed and promoted bands like the Contortions, who took a far more challenging approach, blending free jazz noisiness with punk's fuck-off attitude. The only label that worked for the sound was no wave, an infamous and influential detour in the history of art-rock. At the end of the seventies, Diego co-founded a New York City nightspot that defied all the standards of the time; it was a stripped-down space with no identifying entrance, in a location well beyond the borders of the familiar. The place was called the Mudd Club, and what it lacked in decor it made up in hauteur -- and it changed the face of nightlife forever. The Mudd Club, now just a memory for those who actually got in the door, earned an exalted place among such storied Manhattan institutions as CBGB's and Max's Kansas City.

Then, in 1981, Diego brought together all the disparate strands of his professional life in a remarkable, once-in-a-generation art exhibition called New York, New Wave. It was a defining moment for a new decade. Diego had culled the art, the music, and the attitude from the cutting edge and let it all collide in old elementary school in Long Island City, Queens called P.S. 1. The work of David Byrne, Keith Haring, Robert Mapplethorpe, Jean Michel Basquiat, and Kenny Scharf, among many others, was on the walls and in the halls. Every hipster in town made it to that opening, causing the coolest gridlock in the history of New York City. If you weren't there, don't worry about being square, because the aftereffects of Diego's vision can still be felt everywhere -- in music, art, design, video, and fashion. The future started at that show.

Now that the future is here, it's time for Diego to come to the foreground again. Stuzzicadenti began, conceptually at least, three years ago in Naples, Italy, when Diego noticed some pianos in an old music shop and found himself inspired to play once more. Returning to New York, Diego bought a Yamaha Grand for his Manhattan home, Arto Lindsay designed a sound environment for him, and Diego began to record and edit his piano improvisations. (Arto, who also plays guitar on the album, was returning some favors: Diego had been the art director for Arto's own visually striking Bar None releases.) DJ Spooky took Diego's tapes into his own studio to transform and mix, adding elements of his own, ranging from acoustic guitar and bass to video game sounds and voice elements.

Diego's work continued in a more curatorial way as he designed the album package, using photos he had taken, and composed detailed liner notes, often tangential remarks, for the CD booklet. The result is not dissimilar to the art installations Diego has mounted; with Stuzzicadenti, he has created a complete environment, visually, verbally and musically. Diego has brought his singular vision to galleries, museums, concert halls, festivals, album covers, and punk clubs around the world. This time he's working on his most intimate scale with something extremely portable, occasionally puzzling, always intriguing -- and personal enough to almost be considered indiscreet.

I play this CD in my truck when Iā€™m having lunch in Medusa next to the river.
— Richard Prince
takes the sounds of life and turns them into a contemplative art non-dual
— Robert Thurman