Thursday night at BAM’s Next Wave Festival was one of those magical evenings that sends you spilling out into the street afterward, every synapse invigorated, glad to be alive. It was the world premiere of Phil Kline’s lush new arrangement of his iconic Zippo Songs, plus an intoxicatingly enveloping new cycle, Out Cold, played and sung luminously by ACME with crooner Theo Bleckmann at the absolute top of his evocative game. The new Fisher Space black-box theatre was either sold out or close to it. The final performance is tonight, and it isn’t sold out as of this writing (early affernoon). If transcendence is what you’re looking for, get over to BAM by 7 or so. The show starts at 7:30; the space is not on Lafayette Avenue but on that short street that runs perpendicular to it up to the Atlantic Avenue mall.
The program began with three Rumsfeld Songs, three quotes from “the comic evil spirit, if there ever was one,” to quote Kline’s program notes. The dark levity started with the famous pseudo-ontological one about “known knowns” and “known unknowns,” set to a deadpan, mechanically circular tune that gave Bleckmann a platform for just a tinge of Teutonic grandiosity, making for cruelly delicious satire. The second song was a march, the third more restrained, leaving the Iraq war villain’s long-winded, disingenuous disavowal of mass murder to linger. They made a good setup for the Zippo Songs, Kline’s musical setting of aphorisms and poems inscribed on cigarette lighters by American combatants during the Vietnam War.
These songs hadn’t been staged in New York in eight years. The sparseness of the originals played up the cruel irony, bitterness and sheer horror of the soldiers’ words; the new arrangements turned out to be far more rich and sweeping than expected, yet without subsuming any of the lyrical content. The genius of Kline’s craft is simplicity: like his great influence Charles Ives, he pushes the envelope, but he knows a catchy motif when he hears it. Hide a hook in a haystack, turn Kline loose, and he will find it. Which is why the new charts worked as well as they did; ironically, the richer the orchestration, the more memorable the melodies became. Pianist Timothy Andres and vibraphonist Chris Thompson got the choicest intervals, as Kline’s tensely straightforward, gleaming phrases reached the top of their arcs, over pillowy, sustained, shifting sheets held aloft by violinists Caleb Burhans, Ben Russell and Keats Dieffenbach, yMusic violist Nadia Sirota, cellist Clarice Jensen, oboeist Michelle Farah, bassist Logan Coale and flutist Alex Sopp. As with the original versions, the music does not disavow the darkness of the lyrics, instead providing a distantly apprehensive backdrop.
The airiest of these, appropriately enough, was the first one, voicing the soldiers whose goal it was to stay high all the time. The most haunting was the warily pulsing fourth in the series: “If I had a farm in Vietnam and a home in hell, I’d sell my farm and go home,” Bleckmann intoned. The most pensive, atmospheric segment was the most disillusioned: “We are the unwilling, led by the unqualified, doing the unnecessary for the ungrateful.” Emma Griffin’s stage direction had Bleckmann nonchalantly changing costumes and assuming roles to go with them: somehow he was able to hold a perfectly unmodulated, resonant legato through a quick series of pushups and situps that would have had most people panting.
The trippy bossa beat of that song foreshadowed what was to come with Out Cold. Taking his cue from Schubert’s Kafka-esque Winterreise suite as well as the ethereal 1950s “suicide song” collaboration between Frank Sinatra and Nelson Riddle, Kline brought the broodingly hypnotic lushness up several notches and so did the ensemble and singer. Beginning with a low, raspy wash of strings and throat-singing and ending on a wistful, aptly elegaic note, these were torch songs for a new generation, blending the best of several previous decades’ worth. The bossa nova pulse returned memorably a couple of times, fueled by suspenseful woodblock, vibes and piano; the suite reached a high-point, volumewise with its most rocking number, Million Dollar Bill, noir Orbison chamber pop taken to understated heights of angst, tinkly David Lynch piano contrasting with the blue velvet wash underneath.
Bleckmann shuffled between tables in a darkened bar – One for My Baby in 3D – drinking from random half-empty glassses in A Final Toast, its insistent low strings reminding of Julia Wolfe in a particular intense mood. Where’s the Rest of Me, a creepily dreamy waltz, was followed by the slightly vaudevillian The Season Is Over, which grew dark fast and made a potent segue with To the Night, its noir lustre punctuated by uneasy close harmonies from the ensemble. In its own elegant way, the suite is as evocative a portrayal of loneliness and alienation as Joy Division. Kline has been writing eclectic, relevant music since the 80s; once again, he’s embraced a new genre and made it indelibly his own.
YMusic’s new album Beautiful Mechanical transcends the “indie classical” label. It definitely rocks, but it’s not exactly rock music. The instrumentation is typical of a classical chamber ensemble, but they have a guitar, some of the music here follows a steady, often rigorously precise rock beat, and frequently features imaginatively unorthodox arrangements. Whatever you want to call it, it’s a lot of fun. The group is a formidable mix of relatively young, familiar faces on the new music and classical scene, a couple of whom make money playing with trendy indie bands: Nadia Sirota (of Q2 fame) on viola; ACME leader Clarice Jensen on cello; Hideaki Aomori on clarinet and bass clarinet; CJ Camerieri on trumpet and horn; Rob Moose on violin and guitars, and Alex Sopp on violin and piccolo. On face value, the album title is an oxymoron: is it sarcastic, or purposefully paradoxical? The answer is not as readily accessible as the tunes themselves.
They get off to a false start with a dazzling display of technique (including what is most likely a live loop that the group plays with micro-perfect precision for over a minute) that’s more impressive than this coldly whimsical math-music vignette, something that might fit into a larger piece as a portrayal of shallowness and wasted energy, but doesn’t stand on its own. Track two is where the group strikes gold and you’ll probably want to start uploading. Proven Badlands, by Annie Clark (better known to indie rock fans as St. Vincent) starts pensively, but the guitar quickly signals a swing shuffle that works its way up to a bright Philly soul riff and then a gently swaying chorus pulsing along on the bass clarinet’s nimbly circling bassline as the woodwinds chirp energetically. And then the instruments start to trade themes.
Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond contributes the two most imaginative compositions here. A Whistle, a Tune, a Macaroon is a cinematic mini-suite, opening like a vintage Gil Evans arrangement (think Sketches of Spain), slowly shifting to a mysterious minimalist ambience punctuated by distant staccato accents, building almost imperceptibly until a catchy 60s pop theme emerges, hints at menace and then rides off on a big rock riff! Her other one, A Paper, a Pen, a Note to a Friend – now that’s oldschool – is bright and lively, with deliberate, fluttery strings and catchy bass clarinet that contrasts with all the highs.
Sarah Kirkland Snider contributes Daughter of the Waves, which makes a great segue. Even more so than the previous piece, it’s simultaneously anthemic and hypnotic, and also ebbs and goes out gracefully, almost like a ghost. Clearing, Dawn, Dance by Judd Greenstein is a triptych centered around a bubbly riff: fans of 60s rock will be reminded of Viv Stanshall’s orchestral breaks on the Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed. Sopp’s animated piccolo over matter-of-factly paced strings leads to a more anthemic turn, followed by quiet atmospherics (that must be the dawn) and then a tug-of-war, bubbles vs. leaps and bounds. The album ends auspiciously with a brief, allusively chromatic trumpet tune by Gabriel Kahane simply titled Song, hinting at noir but never quite going all the way there. It could be a great new direction for a guy who first made a name for himself writing songs about internet dating. The album’s out now on New Amsterdam Records.
Sunday at Galapagos composer/singer/multi-instrumentalist Lisa Bielawa and an inspired cast of indie classical types played a stunningly eclectic mix of new material from her two latest albums, Chance Encounter (with the Knights and soprano Susan Narucki) and In Medias Res (with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project conducted by Gil Rose). The concert got off to a rough start: drummer Bob Schultz was game to recite a series of occasionally bizarre, frequently amusing overheard-on-the-street quotes over what turned out to be pretty steady solo drums, but he wasn’t given a soundcheck (big mistake) and consequently the lyrics were often inaudible. And in the rap era, making the beats fit is part of the fun; this piece seemed more of an slapdash attempt at jazz poetry with random words set to an unrelated rhythm.
Things got exciting fast after that. Harpist Ina Zdorovetchi played another piece from the BMOP album, shifting from unselfconsciously Romantic cinematics to a mysterioso theme, followed by pianist Sarah Bob playing another solo work that went in the opposite direction, a tug-of-war between consonant comfort and bracing, wide-open, sky-at-night atonalities. After a pause for technical difficulties, the excitement went up another notch. Split between the stage and the back balcony, members of the reliably surprising indie orchestra the Knights turned in a marvelously orchestrated (in both senses of the word), strikingly stereo version of Bielawa’s Prologue and Topos Nostalgia section from Chance Encounter. Alternating fugal astringencies between the two sections of the ensemble with still, quiet beauty and the occasional playful conversation between instruments, it was a showstopper: flutists Alex Sopp and Lance Suzuki along with violinist Carla Kihlstedt backlit by the sound booth while Narucki and several of the Knights held court onstage, among them violinists Colin Jacobsen and Christina Courtin, violist Nicholas Cords, oboeist Adam Hollander and Bielawa herself adding terse, pensive accents on piano.
The program concluded with Kihlstedt singing the Song from Bielawa’s Double Violin Concerto, a potently effective transposition of modernist melodicism to a traditionally classical framework, accompanied by string quartet, viola, piano and harp. That Kihlstedt was able to sing her tricky counterrhythms while playing was impressive enough: what was breathtaking was how powerfully she belted those off-center tonalities. Clear, pure and laserlike, she didn’t have much of anything in common with Narucki’s virtuosically operatic delivery, but she was every bit as intense and compelling, maybe more.
In addition to the music, two short films were screened: Lisa Guidetti’s 2007 lushly summery, awardwinning look at Chance Encounter being played in Chinatown’s Seward Park, and Renato Chiocca’s view of Chance Encounter as it was created – to expose random outdoor audiences, pretty much anywhere (in this case, Rome), to the work of new composers. It’s as simple as bringing a truckload of chairs and letting the audience assemble without knowing that they’re in store for what could be an amazing free concert.
“1982 never sounded so good,” says the tagline at the top of yMusic’s site – a reference to Pierre Boulez and IRCAM, maybe? The adventurous chamber unit – Q2/WQXR star Nadia Sirota on viola, Rob Moose on violin and occasionally guitar, CJ Camerieri on trumpet, Hideaki Aomori on clarinet and bass clarinet, Alex Sopp on flute, plus Clarice Jensen on cello this time around – held up impressively through a physically taxing, two-set performance at le Poisson Rouge Monday night, including the cd release show for Sarah Kirkland Snider’s Penelope.
Beautiful Mechanical, by Ryan Lott a.k.a. Son Lux was first on the bill, a series of playfully constructed, lockstep variations moving from a blippy, percussive introduction, to a brisk tongue-in-cheek fanfare and ending on a cheerily bubbly note. It wasn’t particularly deep, but then it obviously wasn’t meant to be. A possibly as-yet-untitled piece by Gabriel Kahane hinted suspensefully at Romanticism but never went there. The New York premiere of Proven Badlands was an eye-opener, revealing its composer Annie Clark as far more diverse than her pensive indie-pop songwriter alter ego St. Vincent. The ensemble clearly reveled in its intricate, interwoven textures as it built from thoughtful bucolicism to intriguing permutations on what was essentially an orchestrated soul riff, Isaac Hayes updated for a new century, martial flute eventually handing off to some big horn cadenzas. Sirota told the audience that the final piece before the intermission, Judd Greenstein’s Clearing, Dawn, Dance (another New York premiere) was going to be substantial, and she wasn’t kidding. A breakneck sprint through a series of interlocking circular, staccato phrases that spun off each other like a tightly packed fleet of carnival bumper cars gone berserk, it was a maze of echo effects all the way through to a lush, sostenuto string interlude that must have been a welcome break for the musicians before the race began again.
Kirkland Snider, along with Greenstein and William Brittelle, is part of new music avatars New Amsterdam Records’ brain trust. Her new suite, Penelope, began as an Odyssey-inspired theatre piece, a view of the Trojan War from the perspective on the home front. More anxious than overtly angst-laden, a disheartened, abandoned Penelope longs for her missing husband, wonders out loud if he’s still alive and vacillates between hope and hopelessness. As an antiwar statement, it’s subtly explosive. The forthcoming album is performed by SIGNAL, conducted by Brad Lubman. Here, Shara Worden, of My Brightest Diamond, joined the ensemble to sing Ellen McLaughlin’s lyrics and was a terrific choice, her finely honed, clear, round intonation matching the nuance of the group behind her. Musically, the suite is all about tension. Very little resolves, and the melodic terrain is limited and claustrophobic, to the point where it becomes clear that Penelope has an odyssey of her own to endure, if a somewhat more interior one, the question being whether or not she can keep herself together until her husband gets back. With the occasional light electronic drone or loop filtering into the mix from time to time, the group made their way matter-of-factly from circular insistence, to understatedly bitter martial passages, to a brief 6/8 art-rock ballad and then swirling atmospherics. A repetitive foghorn motif signals Odysseus’ final return home, but when he shows up, shellshocked and damaged (a Guantanamo parable, maybe?), Penelope has nothing left to look forward to but to tend to the needs of a cripple, reading him passages of his own story that go “forward and backward like the tide.” Much of this was very intense, and tensely performed: it seemed that it would never let up, and it really didn’t. And as a portrayal of one of the often overlooked consequences of war, it was spot-on. After over an hour of this, the roar of the applause at the end seemed as cathartic as it was genuine.
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