[republished from Lucid Culture’s sister blog New York Music Daily]
You don’t ordinarily expect octogenarians to make great albums. If they do, they usually revisit their earlier work, a victory lap. Count Ernest Ranglin among the rare exceptions. The greatest guitarist ever to come out of Jamaica has a new album, Bless Up (streaming online), which is one of his best, and he’s made a whole bunch of them. It’s has a lot more straight-up reggae than the elegant reggae jazz he’s known for (and basically invented all by himself). It also has a more lush, full sound than his previous album, Avila. That one was recorded on the fly during a break from a reggae festival; this one has more tunesmithing than vamping jams, drawing on the seven decades of Jamaican music that in many ways Ranglin has defined.
Organ – played by either Jonathan Korty or Eric Levy – holds the center on many of the tracks here, Ranglin adding judicious solos, alternating between his signature, just-short-of-unhinged tremolo-picked chords, sinewy harmonies with the keys, nimbly fluttering leaps to the high frets and references to the better part of a century’s worth of jazz guitar. The songs transcend simple, rootsy two-chord vamps. Darkly majestic, emphatic minor-key horn arrangements evocative of mid-70s Burning Spear carry the melody on several of the numbers: Bond Street Express, the opening tune; Jones Pen, which recreates the classic 60s Skatalites sound but with digital production values; and Rock Me Steady, the most dub-flavored track, driven by some neat trap drumming.
Mystic Blue evokes both the Burning Spear classic Man in the Hills and the Cure’s Boys Don’t Cry. The bubbly Sivan also sounds like Jah Spear, but from a decade or so later. The title track is a swing tune, more or less, Ranglin’s upstroke guitar over a close-to-the-ground snare-and-kick groove giving away its Caribbean origins. Likewise, the band mutates the bolero El Mescalero with a distinctly Jamaican beat that adds a surreal dimension of fun tempered by an unexpectedly desolate Charlie Wilson trombone solo.
Ranglin plays with a deeper, more resonant tone – and a shout-out to Wes Montgomery – on Follow On. Blues for a Hip King works a stately gospel groove up to a long, organ-fueled crescendo that contrasts with Ranglin’s spare, incisive lines. Ska Renzo, the most straight-up ska tune here, works all kinds of neat up/down shifts with reverb-toned melodica, carbonated Rhodes piano and a sharpshooter horn riff. You Too starts out like a balmy Marley ballad but quickly goes in a darker direction, Michael Peloquin’s restless tenor sax giving way to tersely moody solos from trombone and piano, Yossi Fine’s bass holding it down with a fat pulse. There’s also a pretty trad version of the jazz standard Good Friends and the simple gospel vamp Bra Joe from Kilimanjaro, reprised at the end as a long Grateful Dead-like jam. Clearly Jimmy Cliff’s longtime musical director in the years after The Harder They Come hasn’t lost a step since then.
This year’s Bang on a Can Marathon continued a trend back toward the hallowed annual all-day avant garde/indie classical music celebration’s early years. Yesterday’s 2014 edition was shorter than any in recent memory – for awhile these things would start before noon and continue into the wee hours of the following day. This year’s roughly ten-hour extravaganza also drew more heavily on the Bang on a Can triumvirate – composers Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe, David Lang and their circle – than on the global cast who numbered heavily and often spectacularly among the composers and performers featured throughout the previous decade. The reason? Construction at the World Financial Center atrium, where the marathon returned after being squeezed into an auditorium at Pace University last year.
The seven-piece Great Noise Ensemble, conducted by Armando Bayolo, opened auspiciously with a new chamber arrangement of Bayolo’s own Caprichos. Inspired by Goya’s series of the same name, it was a dynamic and colorful series of miniatures: apprehensive airiness, a fleeting carnivalesque passage, darkly rhythmic, looped variations, and dreamy drones juxtaposed with a lively outro. The following work, Carlos Carrillo‘s De La Brevidad De La Vida drew on the Seneca treatise, a rivetingly austere, resigned, spaciously cinematic tone poem of sorts punctuated by muted anguish, notably from Andrea Vercoe’s violin.
Violinist Adrianna Mateo became a one-woman string orchestra with Molly Joyce‘s biting, matter-of-factly crescendoing loopmusic piece Lean Back and Release. The trio Bearthoven – pianist Karl Larson, bass guitarist Pat Swoboda and drummer Matt Evans – followed a bit later with a similarly upward-sloping stoner postrock piece, Undertoad, by Brooks Frederickson. It recalled the relentless dancefloor minimalism that Cabaret Contemporain performed at the 2013 marathon.
Acclaimed vocal quartet Anonymous Four – who are sadly hanging it up after this year – shifted direction plaintively with The Wood and the Vine, from Lang’s demanding, richly echo-laden, hypnotically intertwining partita, Love Fail. Atmospheric postrock minimalists Dawn of Midi made a thematically clever segue with excerpts from their cult favorite suite, Dysnomia, replete with subtle polyrhythmic shifts that rose rather than fell at the end. How pianist Amino Belyamani, bassist Aakaash Israni and drummer Qasim Naqvi managed to keep their place as the trance pounded onward was hard to figure. Or maybe they were just jamming.
Choral octet Roomful of Teeth sang the first two movements from Caroline Shaw‘s Pulitzer-winning Partita for 8 Voices, incorporating squaredance calls and “a little bit of pansori,” as Shaw put it. That, and an indomitable, fresh-faced ebullience that rose and fell through ambitious rhythmic and harmonic shifts, the composer’s powerful soprano front and center. Nineteen-piece chamber orchestra Contemporaneous gave voice to Andrew Norman’s Try, a frantically bustling work replete with sardonic humor: every hint of calm gets dashed by agitated cadenzas from throughout the ensemble in a split second. There was a contrasting, calm second half, mostly for vibraphone and piano, which got lost in the real bustle of the crowd making their way up the escalator to the new mallfood court to the left of the stage.
Meredith Monk is fun! She and fellow singer Theo Bleckmann revisited four segments of her witty, Canadian wilderness-inspired Facing North song cycle, which the duo had premiered on the stage here two decades ago. Indians gamely trying to keep warm, long winter shadows and droll conversations eventually gave way to playful, wordless jousting, Bleckmann keeping a straight face as Monk needled him mercilessly. It was the big audience hit up to this point. The two returned a little later for some more monkeyshines with members of the Bang on a Can All-Stars.
Contemporaneous also returned, this time with a handful of Jherek Bischoff pieces. A brief, lushly neoromantic overture of sorts and a subdued, unexpectedly somber pavane were the highlights.
Pianists Emily Manzo and David Friend performed the day’s first genuinely herculean numbers, a pair of long, hammering, menacingly Lynchian compositions from the 80s by the late Monk collaborator and composer Julius Eastman. Jace Clayton‘s echoey sound mix subsumed the music in places – as a musician would say, he didn’t have a feel for the room – but all the same he deserves props as an advocate for Eastman’s frequently harrowing, undeservedly obscure work, further underscored by a brief, pretty hilarious skit that imagined a busy Julius Eastman section at a theme park.
These marathons typically pick up at the end and this one was no exception. Well-loved art-rock house band the Bang on a Can All-Stars stomped through the Trans-Siberian Orchestra style bombast of JG Thirlwell‘s Anabiosis, then vividly echoed the otherworldly, watery ambience inside the old Croton Aqueduct via Paula Matthusen‘s Ontology of an Echo. Wolfe introduced the night’s big showstopper, Big Beautiful Dark & Scary as a contemplation on the possibility of personal happiness amidst disaster, its ineluctable, anguished, frenetic waves just as viscerally thrilling as they were chilling for the New Yorkers in the crowd who’d lived through 9/11 and the aftermath that the piece portrays.
After a long lull, the ensemble returned in a slightly augmented version for Louis Andriessen’s Hoketus. It’s a diptych of sorts: two maddening, claustrophobically minimalist melodies varied only by constantly changing rhythms, a study in authoritarianism and the human impulse to resist it. When clarinetist Ken Thomson led the ensemble with a leap into the animated second movement, it seemed that the people would win this fight. Or do they?
Gordon supplied the marathon’s coda, Timber, which turned out to be the shadow image of the Andriessen work, a wry, bone-shaking exploration of the kind of fun that can be had within a set of parameters. Where Andriessen set rules, Gordon offered guidelines. Played by sextet Mantra Percussion on a series of amplified sawhorses, it worked every trope in the avant garde stoner repertoire. Trancey motorik rhythms? Deep-space pulsar drones? Overtones at the very top and also the very bottom of the sonic spectrum? Innumerable false endings, good-natured exchanges between the players (who’d memorized the entire, practically hourlong score) and a light show triggered by just about every crescendo? Check, check, check and doublecheck. Gordon may be best known for his gravitas and otherworldly intensity, but his music can be great fun and this was exactly that. With its rolling drones echoing throughout the atrium like a distant storm on the Great Plains, it sent the crowd out into the night on a note that was both adrenalizing and soothing. It’s hard to imagine anything more fun to wind up a Sunday night in June in New York.
The last time Max Lifchitz performed in the Lincoln Center neighborhood, he was at the piano, delivering a characteristically diverse and eye-opening program of 20th century Mexican composers including works by Carlos Chavez, Manuel Enriquez, Manuel M. Ponce, Maria Teresa Prieto, Silvestre Revueltas, and an eclectically lively partita by Brian Banks along with a pastorale partita of his own. Much of the bill could be characterized as the Second Viennese School gone south of the border. Tuesday night, Lifchitz conducted his North/South Chamber Orchestra in a matter-of-factly transcendent program of contemporary compositions.
Katherine Hoover‘s South Zephyr was an evocatively buoyant, gently kinetic evocation of an enveloping, warmly comforting wind from the tropics, Lisa Hansen’s flute afloat on a lush bed of strings. Victor Kioulaphides‘ Summer Concerto, a string piece, was the big hit with the audience with its misterioso pulse, dynamic shifts, subtly flamenco-tinged interlude and allusions to Andalucia and the Middle East.
Alla Pavlova‘s Concertino came across as the great lost Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto #5, or something from late Tschaikovsky. It didn’t have the virtuoso piano passages of Rachmaninoff, but it was packed with the kind of direct, emphatic, angst-ridden, stunningly memorable riffage that defines that composer’s work. And it featured plenty of original tropes as well, most notably the shivery string passages in the opening segment as a backdrop to Helen Lin’s icepick piano and Mioi Takeda’s steely but cantabile violin.
Soloist Edmundo Ramirez brought a graceful but plaintive, sometimes vividly aching edge and an acerbic tone to the night’s most stunning work, Anna Veismane‘s Concerto for Viola d’Amore. A tone poem, more or less, its tectonic sheets shifted slowly and methodically and grew more haunting as it went on, building a surreal, dangerously otherworldly mood with close harmonies from the strings. Lifchitz concluded with his own song suite, Forget Me Not, sung with deadpan wit by soprano Carol Wilson. Over the lilting sway of the strings, Wilson managed to keep a straight face through a long interlude about a potato, something some of the audience could do but others could not. It made for comic relief in the wake of a lot of searing emotion.
Lifchitz’s agenda with his long-running North/South Consonance concerts is to cross-pollinate on a global level and promote the work of composers from across the Americas alongside their counterparts from literally everywhere else. It’s an ambitious project, and something to keep an eye on if first-rate new works (and plenty of older rarities) by under-the-radar composers are your thing.
Staging Friday night’s Terry Riley concert in the round at Federal Hall on Wall Street was a brilliant idea, making full use of the space’s majestically enveloping natural reverb. An eclectic program featuring choral, guitar, chamber and piano works drew equally on the minimalism that Riley is best known for along with elements of the baroque, jazz, blues and plenty of lively improvisation. As a portrait of where the composer is right now and where he’s been, it made a strong case for the argument that Riley might be the most influential composer associated with the avant garde, ever.
A string quartet including violinists Cornelius Dufallo and Jenny Choi, cellist Jeffrey Zeigler and the peripatetic Ljova Zhurbin on viola joined with the Young People’s Chorus of New York City for the lush swells and ebbs of Riley’s new work Another Secret eQuation, making their way methodically from jaunty, lighthearted swoops to a close harmony-fueled lushness that was considerably more pensive. Riley’s son Gyan followed with a solo classical guitar piece, shifting from fragmented baroque motives to a bit of a fugue, then teaming with electric violinist Tracy Silverman for a canon of sorts that cleverly cached microtones in the violin melody.
Riley’s own work at the piano, predictably, drew the most applause of the night. Riding the pedal, he slowly and measuredly built elegant permutations on simple, three or four-note phrases that morphed, sometimes completely unexpectedly, from Philip Glass-like circularity to passages steeped in the blues, gospel, a couple of graceful swing jazz interludes and some glimmering neoromantic balladry. His son and then Silverman joined him, trading bars and riffs with a steely grin. Riley’s music is so exacting and so economical that it’s a tight fit: only a similar precision will do, but the junior players onstage were up to the old lion’s challenge.
John Zorn joined the festivities for the evening’s most adrenalizing and thematically varied number, adding his signature noir resonance on alto sax before pushing the music toward hard bop as Riley anchored it with a stately lefthand. The pianist wound up the night with what appeared to be a mostly improvised piece, imbuing it with an apt wee hours feel, moving nonchalantly from a contemplative bluesiness to something of a jazz ballad where for the second time he threw in a brief quote from In C, his legendary 1964 composition that inspired seemingly every keyboard-driven European art-rock band from the 70s. Stylistic puddlejumping has seldom seemed so effortless or natural; then again, Riley has been doing this for a long time.
[republished from Lucid Culture’s sister blog New York Music Daily]
What’s the likelihood of seeing two octogenarian Armenian music legends in a single week, outside of Armenia, anyway? Thursday night was Souren Baronian at Barbes, Saturday night was Jivan Gasparyan at the World Financial Center, on a transcendent doublebill with Iranian spike fiddle virtuoso and composer Kayhan Kalhor. Only in New York, right?
Though Gasparyan’s show was billed as his farewell American concert – he’s 86 and about to quit touring after more than six decades of it – this was unmistakably a victory lap. Gasparyan was a renowned symphony player and soloist on the duduk – the small but lower-pitched, moody wind instrument, sort of a Middle Eastern counterpart to the bassoon – for decades in his native land, finally finding a global audience with his suite I Will Not Be Sad in This World, from a Brian Eno-produced album in the late 80s. That was the set’s last number, a new arrangement by Kalhor played by the two headliners plus Gasparyan’s grandson (also named Jivan) on clarinet and Behrouz Jamali on dumbek. It made a suitably eclectic, majestic coda to what had been a riveting concert, beginning as a lullaby before growing more bracing, through a brief canon of sorts and then a series of graceful exchanges between the musicians.
Gasparyan and his grandson had taken their time getting to that point. The elder player began with a saturnine, distantly majestic theme, his younger counterpart choosing his spots to add harmonies while a low E drone lingered in the sound system. Was it a harmonium stashed away offstage? An electroacoustic element? A fluke of the ventilation system that the two had decided to incorporate? There was no explanation. From there, the two slowly, methodically and unselfconsciously magically made their way through an unexpectedly lighthearted, gracefully dancing number, a brief prelude of sorts with echoes of the baroque, and a couple of nonchalantly chilling nocturnes, first by Gasparyan senior, then his younger counterpart.
Kalhor’s compositions and improvisations vividly reflect contemporary Iranian experience. Themes of exile and alienation figure heavily in his work, as they did his single, long piece this particular night, which he played in a duo set with Jamali. Kalhor began it solo with plaintive, anguished, sustained lines, then picked up with sudden, seemingly horror-stricken cadenza that signaled a long crescendo. Kalhor – playing his signature custom-made “shah kaman,” a genuinely regal instrument whose range is similar to a cello’s, but with a more biting tone – wove slithery, crystalline glissandos into his alternatively austere and frenetic melodies. The duo took them up and down, galloping and then relenting, never letting go of a pervasive unease, ending sudden and unresolved.
But there was also a very funny interlude when some unexpected harmonies joined Kalhor midway through his set, wafting from behind a curtain to the right of the stage. On the spur of the moment, one of the Gasparyans decided to flex his chops and play along – and much as this drew a lot of quizzical looks from the crowd, whichever guy had his duduk out blended in as seamlessly as anyone could have under the circumstances. For all we know, Kalhor might have planned it as a joke, considering that he didn’t seem the least bit perturbed when the playing started or when it suddenly stopped.
[republished from Lucid Culture’s sister blog New York Music Daily]
What’s the likelihood of a legend like Souren Baronian bringing his long-running Middle Eastern jazz ensemble Taksim to a small bar in Park Slope? Thursday night at Barbes, the back room was packed for a transcendent, hypnotically groove-driven set by the multi-reedman’s paradim-shifting quintet. Baronian is 84, looks and sounds at least a quarter century younger. He bantered self-effacingly with the crowd: “We play music from the Middle East, and anything else we can steal.” But when he picked up his reed, or the riq he tapped out beats on when someone else was soloing, he was all business.
Although born here, Baronian personifies everything that’s good about Middle Eastern reed players, delivering his genre-defying material with a directness and clarity that was nothing short of scary. So many jazz players squeal and squawk; Baronian goes straight for the tune. His embellishments tend to be more Middle Eastern and microtonal than they are blue notes in the conventional jazz sense. The bassist, introduced by Baronian as “Sprocket,”, played slinky, undulating microtonal vamps that mingled with the mesmerizing clip-clop of the percussionist – on a couple of darboukas – in tandem with the drums. Oud player Adam Good gets a ton of gigs because he has such a distinctive, individual style, and he managed to sneak plenty of unexpected chords and raga riffage into his bracing, serpentine lines, often doubling the melody in tandem with Baronian.
Baronian opened on soprano sax and then played clarinet for most of the show save for a couple of especially haunting, low-key numbers where he switched to the small, moody, low-midrange duduk. One of the set’s early numbers worked a Macedonian-style trope, happy-go-lucky verse into bitingly apprehensive chorus. Another featured wry variations on a couple of familiar Charlie Parker themes – and then went doublespeed. Desert Wind, a diptych of sorts, began with a brooding duduk improvisation and hit a peak with a matter-of-factly intenese oud solo. When the waitress signaled that it was time to wrap up the set, Baronian laughed and told her that most of his songs were about 25 minutes long – and then picked up his sax and led the band through a scampering number that went on for about half that. What a treat to see such an ageless, soulful master of so many styles, still at the top of his game, in such an intimate space
Avishai Cohen is on a roll. The Israeli jazz bassist specializes in moody, often haunting compositions which draw equally on Middle Eastern and western classical music as well as jazz. Like another brilliant Israeli jazz bassist, Omer Avital, Cohen has gone deeper into the Middle East lately, although Cohen takes less of the spotlight than Avital typically does, and tends to be more compositionally than improvisationally-inclined. His most recent album, Almah is a blend of Middle Eastern and contemporary classical music and features both oboe and a string quartet. Like Cohen’s two previous efforts, Duende and Aurora, the lineup also includes brilliant third-stream pianist Nitai Hershkovits, who’s joining Cohen along with drummer Daniel Dor for a trio show at Highline Ballroom on June 22 at 8 PM; tix are $30.
Over Cohen’s past three albums, you can see a trajectory unfold and a distinctive, individualistic style continue to evolve. Cohen’s intimate, straightforward, emotionally direct songs without words often take on a Spanish tinge throughout Aurora, which is basically a trio album featuring Shai Maestro on piano with occasional oud from Amos Hoffman and vocalese from Karen Malka. There are plenty of tricky time signatures, generous amounts of rubato, and dynamics galore. Duende, a duo album with Hershkovits, is more rhythmic, swings more and relies more on blues-based tradition rather than the apprehensive chromatics of Aurora – other than the gorgeous theme-and-variations that comprise the former’s opening tracks. Almah has a starkly orchestrated overture, a little minimalist indie classical, austerely rhythmic Arabic melodies, an uneasy lullaby, a couple of bracingly acerbic, chromatically-fueled waltzes, and a bitingly rhythmic, rather ferocious piano feature for Hershkovits that might be its strongest track.
Since Cohen is playing this show with the trio, you can most likely expect lots of stuff from the two older albums and maybe material from even earlier. Settle in, wait for the lights to go down and let the suspense begin.
When the members of the orchestra outnumber the audience, that’s usually a sign of trouble. While that was the situation the sold-out crowd who’d been lucky enough to score early reservations for the American Composers Orchestra‘s annual Underwood New Music Readings found themselves in at the DiMenna Center Saturday night, there isn’t much room for anyone other than the orchestra in that space’s cozy confines. And much as sitting in the front row at an orchestral performance doesn’t typically offer much in the way of sightlines, it’s a sonic thrill, and this was a thrilling program. Conductor George Manahan cautioned the audience that this would be a working rehearsal, strictly a series of works in progress. But the ensemble’s passion and enthusiasm for the pieces, for which they’d had all of one previous rehearsal, was visceral. And it should have been: a mix of ACO-affiliated composers had chosen the program from scores of submissions from around the world, the culmination of their EarShot program, which pairs up-and-coming American composers with orchestras to refine and then perform their works.
The unifying link among new compositions by Harry Stafylakis, Andy Akiho, Jared Miller, Melody Eotvos, Kyle Peter Rotolo and Wang A-Mao was chase scenes. If this bill is an accurate reflection of what composers in general are doing, they’re after the same thing as their counterparts in the rock world: getting on a film soundtrack, preferably a big-budget action thriller. Most of the pieces being showcased shared a cinematic quality, dynamics turning on a dime from hushed to frenetic, replete with ebbs and swells that relied heavily on the orchestra’s percussion section. The rear of the orchestra was like the deck of an aircraft carrier under fire, switching up bells and timpani and marimbas and everything in their arsenal with an aplomb that was even more impressive under the circumstances.
Stafylakis’ Brittle Fracture, a turbulent, dramatic overture of sorts, opened the concert, ominously pulsing low brass contrasting with midrange resonance, its chase scene appearing midway through. Andy Akiho, a virtuoso steel pan player, included the instrument in the score of his similarly energetic, suspensefully picturesque Tarnished Mirrors, but blended it into the overall mix of timbres as the work rose from wave motion fueled by koto-like harp, to a lithe dance, a chase scene and a completely unexpected, warily atmospheric ending.
An “inherent sense of creepiness,” as Eotvos put it, permeated her quartet Beetles, Dragons & Dreamers. With its relentless unease and occasional explosiveness, it made for a sensationally good centerpiece. The opening theme, Draconian Measures, had a tense lushness, rippling cascades and then what was by now the expected pursuit segment. Lilith, Begone was both the most accessible and menacing piece on the bill, followed by a restless tone poem, The Inanimate Spider and then a lingering, knife’s-edge conclusion, Trojan Horse. Over and over, Eotvos punctured shifting, atmospheric sheets from the strings with sudden, jagged motives from throughout the orchestra to max out the suspense factor.
Composer Robert Honstein explained that Rise, his attempt at crafting a 21st century pastorale, was trickier than it would have been before the age of global warming. A trouble-in-paradise tableau, it artfully developed an increasing apprehension as it grew from a spectral, nebulous ambience to a coldly sarcastic march and a decidedly unresolved ending.
Imbued with considerable dry wit, Miller’s Contrasted Perspectives – a joint homage to Dali and Fellini – were a lot of fun. The first part, awash in surrealistic close harmonies, segued well out of Miller’s troubled ambience. The second echoed Prokofiev with its animated rhythms, phantasmagorical colors and shapeshifting trajectory spiced with hints of vaudeville and jazz.
Rotolo’s Apophis followed the trajectory of an asteroid on its way to a collision with Earth, a fluttering, frantic theme juxtaposed against an eerie, recurrent calm and then a split-second coda: a sort of Planet X from Holst’s suite. The concert wound up with Wang A-Mao’s Characters in Theatre, a deviously propulsive, explosively rhythmic male/female character study based on Chinese opera. Its lively, stagy bombast occasionally diverging to a resolute if infrequent calm, sensibility versus bluster, could be interpreted as a feminist reading of kabuki theatre. As little time as the woman got in the spotlight, she was a voice of reason to an oblivious if entertaining buffoon. If this is the future of classical music, we have no worries, at least on the composition side.
Over the past several years, photographer/filmmaker Philip Grossman made several trips to the site of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor meltdown in Pripyat, Ukraine. Notwithstanding the Soviet Union’s bungling attempts to downplay the disaster and evacuate the area during the crucial first few hours of the April 26, 1986 meltdown at Reactor #4 there, considerable documentation of the disaster’s aftermath exists. Filmmaker Vladimir Shevchenko took a camera into the disaster site in the days afterward: he was dead within the year. One hopes that Grossman either used an unmanned drone (as film footage he’s taken there seems to indicate), or that he at least had sufficient protective gear, if such a thing even exists. To say that the matter-of-factly haunting and foreboding full-color images he’s assembled are a heroic achievement is an understatement. Many of them, as well as a film of the area as it looked in the spring of 2011, are currently on display at the Wald and Kim Gallery, 417 Lafayette Street, 4th Floor through June 28. Gallery hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 11 AM to 6 PM; ring the fourth-floor buzzer.
Grossman’s photos both underscore a familiar narrative and open frightening new ones. The army of half a million “liquidators” enlisted by the Soviets to secure the area and clean up the worst of the toxic wreckage may have actually amplified the disaster’s effects many times over by stripping metal from abandoned buildings and vehicles and selling it for scrap, effectively poisoning an unknown and probably significant amount of the Soviet steel and aluminum supply. Grossman’s shots, particularly of the interior of homes and municipal buildings in the area, reconfirm this deadly harvest. The same applies to the random bundles of metal beams and building materials lying around, seemingly for the taking (let’s hope that a hundred, or a thousand, or ten thousand years from now, when all this material is practically still as deadly as it is today, that people will know to leave it where it is).
But that’s been documented elsewhere. What Grossman has to offer that’s new is the disaster site as it exists today. The concrete “sarcophagus” built to contain the most toxic part of the reactor complex looks like a crack house, as if a good snowstorm would be enough to cave it in. Grossman’s shots of the skeleton structure for a fifth reactor, abandoned in the wake of the meltdown, are chillingly ironic. Even more chilling is a look at what’s left of the control room for Reactor #4, juxtaposed against another control room at the site that wasn’t consumed in the initial blaze. Cheapness and a cynical disregard for maintenance leap from the dust and fading plastic: how many other reactors like this are there in the world, and why haven’t they been shut down yet?
Grossman’s photos of the surrounding area show a ghost town. There are a couple of low-rent memorials; homes where the only things left are old shoes and beer bottles; a preschool full of decaying, murderously radioactive stuffed toys; an abandoned hospital, a recreation center and sleepaway camp for children. The implications are extreme: perish the thought that this could have happened in the summer and subjected even more children to the consequences. The official Soviet report of the health effects of the disaster mirrors the coverup of the early days: we’ll probably never know the full amount of casualties. The World Health Organization estimates that cancers caused by radioactive poisons released at Chernobyl killed a million people worldwide, a shocking number tempered by the WHO’s notoriously alarmist predictions. And yet, for the reliably pro-industry WHO to come up with such a staggering estimate could well indicate that the death toll so far may be even higher.
And will be in the decades and centuries to come. There are two “sons of Chernobyl,” as they’re called in Russia, on the way. The contaminants in the water table inching toward the Black Sea are expected to reach there in thirty years or so. There’s also the threat of forest fires in the area. Over the past decades, fire crews have routinely been sent into the forest there to hose down the soil to help prevent the kind of conflagration that could literally rekindle the catastrophe. Almost thirty years after Chernobyl, more than half of all wild mushrooms in Germany, thousands of miles away, remain too contaminated with nuclear toxins for human consumption. At least the Germans had the sense to make it illegal to harvest those mushrooms, or, for that matter, to sell wild game meat.
Meanwhile, the United States and other nations continue to allow the importation of vehicles and products from Japan. What’s even more troubling, of course, is that the Fukushima disaster released more lethal radioactive contaminants than every previous nuclear meltdown – Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, LP-1 in Idaho and Oak Ridge in Tennesee – plus the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atom bombs, plus every atom bomb test and nuclear leak in history, COMBINED. In simpler terms, the world became more than twice as deadly on March 11, 2011. Levels of nuclear contamination in Tokyo, a hundred miles from the Fukushima disaster site, are so high that if that the city was in the United States, it would be off limits not only to human habitation but also to human traffic: the danger of spreading those toxins via car and truck tires is considered too high to risk in this country.
The Japanese response to Fukushima in many ways was the same as the Soviets’ was to Chernobyl. According to an official Japanese government website that was abruptly taken down about a week after the Fukushima calamity, only forty people were killed by the meltdowns there. But while high levels of toxins as deadly as those released at Chernobyl continue to drain into the Pacific – whether the result of leakage, deliberate dumping, or both – the carnage left in the wake of Chernobyl may only be a small fraction of the toll Fukushima may ultimately claim. Can anybody say “global extinction event?”
What’s most heartbreaking about Manfred Kirchheimer‘s practically dialogue-less 1981 documentary Stations of the Elevated is that all of the artwork featured in the film is gone forever. Some of it was sandblasted, some sent to the scrapyard and the rest of it is at the bottom of the Atlantic. Did you know that’s where most New York City subway cars have gone to their final resting place in recent years, ostensibly serving as artificial reefs, asbestos insulation and all? Fortunately, you can see all of the long-gone, distinctively New York-flavored guerrilla art immortalized when the film – the first full-length documentary on New York City subway art – screens on June 27 at 8 PM at BAM’s Harvey Theatre. Advance tix are $25 and highly recommended. What’s also hard to believe is that this screening kicks off the movie’s first-ever theatrical run (it premiered at the 1981 New York Film Festival but lacked the music licenses necessary for a fullscale release). As a special enticement, the Charles Mingus repertory ensemble Mingus Dynasty will perform beforehand – it’s a good assumption that they’ll be playing music from the film soundtrack.
How fortuituous for future generations of New Yorkers that the filmmaker was out trainspotting with his camera, catching subways (mostly on the 4 and 5 line) as they rolled past, or into the Dyre Avenue station. Without Kirchheimer, there’s be far less evidence of the haphazard talent of legendary graffiti artists like Lee, Fab 5 Freddy, Shadow, Daze, Kase, Butch, Blade, Slave, 12 T2B, Ree, and Pusher, all of whom are represented. Kirchheimer wisely chose to film from spots where the trains would be moving at little more than a walking pace, and his lens lingers. Yet the effect is often akin to a series of jump cuts, tantalizing the viewer. Obviously, Kirchheimer wanted to capture as much as he could in a limited amount of time (45 minutes): to say that he scored is an understatement.
Kirchheimer’s background, other than as a documentarian, is as a film editor, which served him well here. Juxtaposed with the languid, now rather quaint (and for New Yorkers of a certain age and sensibility, impossibly nostalgic) shots of the trains in all their spraycan glory are images of campy billboards (the smoking Marlboro Man is priceless) and an upstate prison that from above bears a remarkable resemblance to the MTA train yards. The sound editing mirrors the editing of the film itself, a handful of Charles Mingus compositions cut and pasted with a rather sardonic bass solo from the composer himself front and center. There’s also a long gospel refrain from Aretha Franklin as the film winds out.
Kirchheimer has been quick to admit that he knew little about graffiti art when he began work on the film, and that the project opened his eyes to what he has termed a “scream from the ghetto.” Ironically, much as many of the deaths heads, cartoon figures and hastily painted yet stunningly lavish car-length tableaux make for a perverse celebration of civic pride. New York may have been gritty in those days, but it was those artists’ New York. Shame on the powers that be for failing to realize that and for destroying it (a sick cycle that perpetuates itself – yesterday’s cover of Metro featured a gang of gung-ho volunteers hell-hent on eliminating graffiti and graffiti art completely throughout the five boroughs). And kudos to Kirchheimer for preserving it with such a wry, keenly aware sensibility.