Three Transcendent Song Cycles by Phil Kline at BAM
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.
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