Last week’s triumphant reprise of the initial show at Littlefield staged by composer/violinist/impresario Christopher Tignor, a.k.a. @tignortronics was magical. Sometimes lush and dreamy, other times stark and apprehensive or majestically enveloping, often within the span of a few minutes, Tignor and the two other acts on the bill, cellist Julia Kent and guitarist Sarah Lipstate a.k.a. Noveller put their own distinctly individualistic marks on minimalism and atmospheric postrock. There was some stadium rock, too, the best kind – the kind without lyrics. And much as the three composer-performers were coming from the same place, none of them were the least constrained by any kind of genre.
Kent and Lipstate built their sweeping vistas out of loops, artfully orchestrating them with split-second choreography and elegant riffage, both sometimes employing a drum loop or something rhythmic stashed away in a pedal or on a laptop (Lipstate had two of those, and seemed to be mixing the whole thing on her phone). Tignor didn’t rely on loops, instead fleshing out his almost imperceptibly shapeshifting variations with an octave pedal that added both cello-like orchestration and washes of low-register ambience that anchored his terse, unselfconsciously plaintive motives.
Kent opened her all-too-brief set with apprehensive, steady washes that built to an aching march before fading out quickly. Between songs, the crowd was rapt: although there were pauses in between, the music came across as a suite. An anxious upward slash gave way to a hypnotic downward march and lush, misty ambience; a little later, she worked a moody, arpeggiated hook that would have made a good horror movie theme into more anthemic territory that approached Led Zep or Rasputina, no surprise since she was a founding member of that band (no, not Led Zep). Slithery harmonics slashed through a fog and then grew more stormy, then Kent took a sad fragment and built it into a staggered, wounded melody. She could have played for twice as long and no one would have said as much as a whisper.
Tignor flavored his judicious, sometimes cell-like themes with deft washes of white noise and his own slightly syncopated beat, which he played on kick drum for emphatic contrast with his occasionally morose, poignant violin phrases. A long triptych moved slowly upward into hypnotic, anthemic cinematics, then back and forth and finally brightened, with a surprisingly believable, unexpectedly sunny trajectory that of course Tignor had to end enigmatically. A slow, spacious canon of sorts echoed the baroque, more melodically than tempo-wise, its wary pastoral shades following a similarly slow, stately upward tangent. He played a dreamy nocturne with a tuning fork rather than a bow for extra shimmer and echoey lustre and wound up his set with another restless if judiciously paced partita.
Where Kent and Tignor kept the crowd on edge, Lipstate rocked the house. She began with a robust Scottish-tinged theme that she took unexpectedly from anthemic terrain into looming atmospherics. A rather macabre loop hinting at grand guignol became the centerpiece of the big, anthemic second number, long ambient tones shifting overhead.
She followed a broodingly circling, more minimalist piece with an increasingly ominous anthem that more than hinted at David Gilmour at his most lushly concise, then a postrock number that could have been Australian psych-rock legends the Church covering Mogwai, but with even more lustre and sheen. She lept to a peak and stayed there with a resounding, triumphant unease as the show wound out, through an ominous, cumulo-nimbus vortex and then a long, dramatically echoing drone-based vamp that brought the concert full circle. Tignor promises to stage another concert every bit as good as this one this coming spring; watch this space.
Celia Berk’s website is gramercynightingale.com. It might just as well be seriouschutzpah.com. It’s one thing for a singer to namecheck the world’s best-loved songbird…but one with a key to the park, too? That takes some nerve. In her Metropolitan Room debut last night, the cabaret-jazz chanteuse packed the room and wowed the crowd with a richly dynamic, urbane, minutely jeweled performance. Elegantly backed by her pianist/musical director Alex Rybeck along with guitarist Sean Harkness and bassist Michael Goetz, Berk delivered a program studded with gems that she and Rybeck had rescued from obscurity. Fans of cosmopolitan songcraft ought to see this show, which repeats on November 30 at 7 PM and December 6 at 4 PM for $25: considering the turnout at yesterday’s show, reservations are a good idea.
As a singer, Berk revealed herself as a stylist with laser focus on meaning and subtext, with an irrepressible, sophisticated wit. As her domain name implies, she is New York to the core. Her expressive alto has some grain around the edges: it’s the voice of a survivor, though one who hasn’t lost her joie de vivre. She expressed this most forcefully, airing out her low register on a gale-force take of David Shire’s What About Today as the band took it up from a latin-tinged stroll to a gusty crescendo. That same bittersweetness resonated more quietly but no less potently throughout Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley’s This Dream, with its theme of hope against hope.
But Berk can also be very funny. The biggest hit with the crowd was a droll new translation of an early Irving Berlin vaudeville number, Yiddisha Nightingale, its centerpiece an excerpt from a Puccini aria that gave Berk a chance to go to the very top of her register for full-throttle thrills. The sly version of the Cliff Friend novelty song The Broken Record – recorded by Barbra Streisand, among others – made a good segue, with its metrically tricky choruses mimicking a needle stuck in a groove. The funniest of all the songs was Berk’s New York cabaret premiere of Tex Arnold and Lew Spence’s Such a Wonderful Town, a very sideways shout-out to a tonguetwisting Long Island burg, riddled with irresistibly amusing wordplay.
Berk channeled plenty of other emotions from across the spectrum. She bookeneded a luminous take of Stairway to the Stars (the showtune, not the Blue Oyster Cult hit) with a lushly evocative interpretation of Will Jason and Val Burton’s Penthouse Serenade, explaining how pefectly the song captures her feeling for her hometown, which turned out to be a mix of rapt appreciation, wistfulness and a tinge of angst. A recurrent theme was evoked poignantly via a lesser-known Alan and Marilyn Bergman number, I’ve Been Waiting All My Life: Berk is not new to this, as was immediately evident from her command of its nuances, and was on a mission to leave a mark as someone who’s no ingenue and has decided to embrace that role, one with the depth n0 ingenue could reach.
Many of the songs from this performance are on Berk’s new album You Can’t Rush Spring, with Rybeck and an expanded cast of musicians.
It’s been a good season for edgy orchestras around town, and it was a particularly good evening for the Greenwich Village Orchestra this past Sunday, performing a program heavy on the late Romantics packed with twists and turns, and nuance, and thrills. They opened with Charles Tomlinson Griffes’ overture of sorts, The White Peacock, completed as an orchestral piece just a year before the American composer died at 35 in 1920. How such a lush, buoyant, attractively enveloping and quite cinematic tableau could have been inspired by such a horrible, florid poem (the program notes reproduced the text in full) is hard to fathom. The orchestra either said the hell with the poem or never paid any mind, letting emotion fly free before reining it back in with the Schumann Cello Concerto. Soloist Brook Speltz played methodically and confidently, adding a robust quality that had him breaking a sweat before the first movement was over (it may have been seasonably cold outside, but it was comfortably toasty in the auditorium). The orchestra matched his steady, commanding presence as conductor Barbara Yahr led them through the contrasting tempo shifts, matter-of-fact exchanges of voices and sudden gusts with an aptly Teutonic aplomb.
All that seemed like an afterthought in light of the showstopper they made out of Sibelius’ Symphony No. 1. Yahr reminded the crowd that although Sibelius is known for vast, sweeping vistas, and picturesque panoramics, the portait this symphony paints is an interior one, uneasy to extremes. Verging on manic depression would be another way to put it. Gary Dranch‘s clarinet, plaintive and searching, opened it and provided calmly chilling moments throughout, as the ensemble pounced and swept their way through racing flurries of strings and eventually a mad dash upward as the opening movement hit one of its many peaks.
Apprehension recurs constantly in this symphony, and the orchestra seized every opportunity to keep the tension at redline, whether when building a brooding lustre with dancing strings overhead, or when a delicate Joy Plaisted harp solo set off volleys of brass, or switching in a split-second from a sarcastic fanfare to shivery pulses of winds. All of the back-and-forth dynamics could only be described as mood swings. What inner demons was the composer exorcising?
Next on the bill for the GVO is their annual family concert, an East Village institution which features favorites like Tubby the Tuba and the famous “instrument petting zoo” afterward where kids can get friendly with a violin, or the timpani, or whatever they might find intriguing. It’s at 3 PM on Sunday, Dec 7; suggestion donation is $20/$10/srs and kids get in free, reception to follow.
Miguel Zenon Explores Multimedia Jazz and Nuyorican Identity on His Majestically Insightful New Big Band Album
It’s never safe to nominate anybody as being the very best on a given instrument – unless maybe it’s something obscure like the contrabass clarinet. As long as Kenny Garrett’s around, it’s especially unsafe to put an alto saxophonist at the front of that pack. But it is probably safe to say that no other alto player has been on as much of a creative roll as Miguel Zenon has been lately. His sound, and his songs, can be knotty and cerebral one minute, plaintive and disarmingly direct or irresistibly jaunty the next. His latest album, Identities Are Changeable (streaming at Spotify), explores the complexities of Nuyorican heritage with characteristic thoughtfulness and verve. He and his longtime quartet – pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Hans Glawischnig and drummer Henry Cole – have a a rare Bronx show coming up on March 20 at 7:30 PM at the Hostos Center Theater, 450 Grand Concourse, 2/4/5 to Grand Concourse/149th St. Tix are very reasonable, $15/$7.50 stud/srs.
It’ll be especially interesting to see how Zenon handles the music from the new album onstage, not only because it’s a big band album but that it’s a mix of jazz and spoken word. The ensemble opens with De Donde Vienes (i.e. “where you from?”), which sets a pastiche of Zenon’s friends and family explaining their sometimes tangled roots over a lively, circularly vamping backdrop. The title track begins the same way, a discussion of cultural identity and assimilation set to a more skeletal vamp, which then builds to a bright, trumpet-fueled largescale arrangement. Zenon finally makes his entrance on a dancing yet pensive note, aptly depicting the New York/Puerto Rico dichotomy that sometimes pulls at Nuyoricans. Perdomo follows with one of his signature glistening interweaves before the brass brings back a tense balminess, a storm moving in on Spanish Harlem.
My Home, another big band number moves from shifting sheets of horns into a moody, syncopated clave lit up by more carefree Zenon phrasing behind the snippets of conversation and finally a majestic, darkly pulsing coda. Same Fight, an elegantly but intensely circling big band waltz offers some fascinating insights on commalitities between Nuyoricans and American blacks: “If I didn’t speak Spanish, people would assume I was African-American,” one commentator relates. A somewhat more sternly rhythmic variation, First Language, follows, with some deliciously interwoven brass and Tim Albright’s thoughtfully crescendoing trombone solo
Second Generation Lullaby bookends a starkly dancing bass solo with a more lavishly scored, warmly enveloping variation on the initial waltz theme. The most salsafied track is Through Culture and Tradition, mixing up high-voltage bomba and plena rhythms and riffage into a large ensemble chart that’s just as epically sweeping as it is hard-hitting. Zenon closes with a relatively brief outro that brings the album full circle. What might be coolest about the entire project is that all the talking isn’t intrusive and actually offers a very enlightening look at how cultures in New York both blend and stay proudly true to their origins. It’s a sweet album from Miel Music (sorry, couldn’t resist).
To New York audiences, lapsteel virtuoso Raphael McGregor might be best known as a key ingredient in Brain Cloud, Dennis Lichtman’s western swing band. Before that, McGregor served as the source of the vintage country flavor in Nation Beat‘s driving mashup of Brazilian maracatu and Americana sounds. But he’s also a first-rate, eclectic composer and bandleader in his own right. In addiiton to his more-or-less weekly Monday 7 PM Barbes residency with Brain Cloud, he has a monthly residency at Freddy’s, where he’ll be on Nov 20 at 8 PM.
His most recent show at Barbes leading a band was a quartet gig with with Larry Eagle on drums, Jim Whitney on bass and Rob Hecht on violin. They opened with a moody oldschool noir soul vamp and quickly built it into a brooding rainy-day theme over Eagle’s tense shuffle beat. Hecht took his time and then went spiraling and sailing upwards. Why is it that blues riffs inevitably sound so cool when played by strings? McGregor had a hard act to follow so he walked the line between Lynchian atmosphere and an express-track scurry, then handed off to Whitney who picked up his bow and took the song all the way into the shadows.
McGregor began the night’s second number with a mournful solo lapsteel intro that moved slowly toward C&W and then shifted uneasily into moody swing. It was like a more animated take on the Friends of Dean Martinez doing oldtime string band music. After that, they put a swinging southwestern gothic spin on a Django Reinhardt tune.
They also did a couple of straight-up western swing numbers, a brisk trainwhistle romp and a fetching version of Waltz Across Texas With You: much as they were a lot of fun, McGregor was pleasantly surprised to find that the crowd was more interested in hearing his originals. They opened their second set with a piece that began as an Indian-inflected one-chord jam that morphed into a bluesy duel between violin and bass, followed by a Frisellian pastoral interlude and then back to trip-hop Indian funk – all that in under ten minutes. All this is just a small sampling of what McGregor could pull off at Freddy’s.
A project originated by guitarist Chris Botta and drummer Joe Branciforte, the Cellar & Point are sort of Claudia Quintet meets Sleepmakeswaves meets Wounded Buffalo Theory. Mantra Percussion‘s Joe Bergen plays vibraphone, immediately drawing the Claudia Quintet comparison, which is further fueled by the nimble string work of violinist Chistopher Otto and cellist Kevin McFarland, who comprise one-half of the adventurous Jack Quartet. Guitarist Terrence McManus and bassist Rufus Philpot round out the band. The backstory – Botta and Branciforte as teenage buds in New Jersey, hanging out and blasting Rage Against the Machine – makes sense in context. Their debut long-player, Ambit, is just out from the folks at Cuneiform who have it up along with the rest of their vast catalog on bandcamp. The Cellar & Point are playing the album release show on a killer triplebill at Glasslands on Nov 19 starting around 9 with epically sweeping art-rock chorale the Knells and the alternately hypnotic and kinetic Empyrean Atlas. Cover is ten bucks; it’s not clear what the order of bands is but they’re all worth seeing.
The album’s opening track, 0852 is characteristic: tricky prog-rock metrics drive lush ambience with lingering vibraphone, slide guitar (and maybe ebow) and some artfully processsed pizzicato from the string section that adds almost banjo-like textures. Arc builds out of swirly atmospherics to a matter-of-fact march and then an animatedly cyclical dance with tinges of both west African folk music and King Crimson.
There are two Tabletops here, A and B. The first juxtaposes and mingles lingering vibes, stadium guitar bombast and lithely dancing strings. The second layers rainy-day vibes and strings with terse Andy Summers-ish guitar. There are also two White Cylinders: number one being a seemingly tongue-in-cheek mashup of brash jazz guitar, vividly prickly mystery movie textures and Reichian circularity, number two tracing a knottier, somewhat fusiony Olympic film theme of sorts.
If Ruminant is meant to illustrate an animal, it’s a minotaur stewing down in the labyrinth, awaiting an unsuspecting victim – one assumes that’s Bergen playing that gorgeously creepy piano in tandem with the eerily resonant guitars and stark strings. By contrast, Purple Octagon shuffles along with a more motorik take on what John Hollenbeck might have done with its vamping dynamic shifts – or the Alan Parsons Project with jazz chords. The somewhat dirgey, gamelan-tinged title track’s final mix is actually a recording of a playback of the song’s original studio mix made in an old rotunda in the Bronx in order to pick up vast amounts of natural reverb.
There are also a couple of reinvented pieces from the chamber music repertoire: a stately, wary Radiohead-like interpretation of an Anton Webern canon and a György Ligeti piano etude recast as a hypnotically pulsing nocturne. Is all this jazz? Not really. It’s not really rock, either. Indie classical, maybe? Sure, why not? Postrock? That too. Ultimately it boils down to what Duke Ellington said, that there are two kinds of music, the good kind, like this, and the other kind.
It obviously wasn’t conductor David Bernard’s intention to write his own review of the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony’s concert this past Sunday on the Upper East Side. But he was in a particularly good mood to share some insights about how he and the ensemble were going to approach the program – and what might be useful from a listener’s perspective. And those insights were right on the money – thanks for your help, maestro! He joked that the bill was”essentially a tribute to the New York Philharmonic,” being that their recently retired principal clarinetist Stanley Drucker would be featured on the Mozart Clarinet Concerto, followed by Dvorak’s New World Symphony, which the NY Phil famously premiered.
Bernard explained the dramatic opening piece, Carl Nielsen’s Helios Overture as a “postcard,” which it is, since the Danish composer wrote it on holiday in Greece. But as Bernard took care to mention, it’s no ordinary postcard, and the orchestra did justice to its sheer, majestic magnificence, from an almost impeceptible intro, a long climb upward, bright beams bursting through and then dancing clouds voiced by high strings amidst a bright brass-fueled fugue. It’s more Classical than Romantic when it comes to the interchange of voices that make Nielsen’s music so much fun to conduct – and witness close up.
Bernard introduced some controversy, voicing the opinion that the Mozart Clarinet Concerto, being the composer’s final finished work, is more of a self-penned obituary than the famous Requiem. Since so much of the Requiem is either repetition, or wasn’t even written by Mozart himself, that’s plausible, and as the group played it, Bernard’s contention was hard to argue against. Drucker – who’s played this as much or more than any symphony orchestra clarinetist alive – brought a wise, woody tone and a bubbly but measured joie de vivre to the more animated sections over a lush backdrop. Bernard described it as wistful rather than morose, and the orchestra nailed that emotion, especially when the dancing cascades in the third movement interchanged with a pensive expansiveness, as if to say, you mean we have to stop here? But we’re having so much fun!
Introducing the Dvorak, the conductor implored the audience to listen with fresh ears: “We’ve all heard this before,” he admitted, “But it is a masterpiece.” And the performance reaffirmed that: the PACS record and release a lot of their concerts on itunes and at Spotify and on cd, and this one deserves to be one of them. Individual voices, whether from the bass section, Brett Bakalar’s crystalline English horn solos, and the rest of the group were precise and distinct, the strings cohesive and pillowy – and sometimes blustery – and the suspense nonstop, for those in the crowd with the ability to defamiliarize from previous experiences with it. Here’s one possible interpretation: the two most recurrent themes are a cowboy tune and a minor-key blues riff, right? So, with all the aggressively circling battle scenes and fervent marches, could this be a coded history of American imperialism: cowboys versus Indians? Slavers and slaves? Or something more Slavic, maybe? After all, Dvorak knew how often his own turf in what’s now the Czech Republic had been overrun by invaders, so could this ostensibly American symphony have a subtext that’s much closer to home?
The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony’s next concert is an auspicious one, on February 22, 2015 at 3 PM at Rose Theatre in the Jazz at Lincoln Center complex, where they’ll be playing Lorin Maazel’s Wagner arrangement, The Ring Without Words, as well as Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps.
And coming up at the Czech Center (321 E 73rd St.) in the upstairs gallery, Dvorak’s original score for the New World Symphony will be on display daily from Nov 17 to 21 from 1 to 8 PM. It’ll be the first time in decades that the manuscript has been outside of Czech territory.
Since the late 90s, Gutbucket have distinguished themselves as purveyors of moody, sardonic, cinematic instrumentals that combine jazz improvisation with noirish rock themes. You could call them a more jazz-inclined version of Barbez, and you wouldn’t be far off. If you miss the days when Tonic was still open and edgy sounds were an everyday thing on the Lower East Side, you’ll be psyched to know that Gutbucket are doing a stand at the Stone from Nov 18 through 23 with two sets nightly at 8 and 10 PM; cover is $10. As you would expect from pretty much everybody who plays there, the band are doing several interesting collaborations and are making a live album in the process. The most enticing set of all might be the early show on opening night when the music will have some added lushness via the strings of the Jack Quartet.
Frontman/guitarist Ty Citerman also has a wickedly fun, tuneful, genre-defying sort-of-solo Tzadik album, Bop Kabbalah, out with his Gutbucket bandmates Ken Thomson on bass clarinet, Adam D. Gold on drums plus Balkan trumpeter Ben Holmes. Although the themes draw on traditional Jewish music, jazz tropes and rock riffage take centerstage. The first track, The Cossack Who Smelt of Vodka (possible ommitted subtitle: what cossack doesn’t smell of vodka?) follows a tensely cinematic, noirish trajectory to a long outro where Citerman’s tensely insistent guitar pairs against Thomson’s calmness.
Conversation with Ghosts works a catchy minor-key theme punctuated by droll leaps and bounds up to a long Holmes solo, then the band reprises it but much more loudly and darkly. Snout moves from squirrelly free jazz into a brief Romany dance, then the band refract it into its moody individual pieces, transforming what under other circumstances would be a party anthem into a fullscale dirge.
The Synagogue Detective bookends a tongue-in-cheek cartoon narrative with alternately biting and goodnaturedly prowling solos from Citerman, Holmes and Thomson. Likewise, they liven the skronky march After All That Has Happened with squalling Steven Bernstein-esque flourishes. In lieu of hip-hop flavor, Talmudic Breakbeat has an unexpected lushness, neatly intertwining voices, some drolly shuffling rudiments from Gold and the album’s most snarling guitar solo.
The album’s most deliciously epic track, Exchanging Pleasantries with a Wall moves up from echoey spaciousness, through a disorienting, funereal groove that brings to mind low-key Sonic Youth as much as it does Bernstein’s arrangements of old Hasidic nigunim. The closing cut puts a clenched-teeth, crescendoing noir dub spin on a broodingly austere old prayer chant. Now where can you hear this treat online? Um…try Citerman’s soundcloud page and youtube channel for starters; otherwise, the Stone is where it’s at, next week.
The Spectrum Symphony of New York put on a tremendous performance including a world premiere as well as two dynamic, electrifying versions of a couple of perennial symphonic favorites in the West Village about ten days ago, more than hinting at the kind of brilliance they’re capable at their next performance. The natural reverb at the Church of St. Joseph on Sixth Avenue added a welcome sonic dimension as conductor David Grunberg led the ensemble tightly and conversationally through the world premiere of the string orchestra arrangement of Ljova Zhurbin‘s Mecklenburg, then the Brahms Double Concerto and an alternatingly lickety-split and ravishing interpretation of the Beethoven Symphony No. 3.
Ljova writes a lot of film music, so it was no surprise that his work would be a mood piece, a concerto of sorts for pizzicato viola, a moodily vamping contrast between dancing motives building to a lushness awash in austere, misty harmony. The cello added a vibrato-fueled ache as it circled along, Steve Reich adrift on the Gowanus.
Violinist Artur Kaganovskiy and cellist Miho Zaitsu joined forces on an acerbically intertwining take of the Brahms Double Concerto. Majestic lushness alternated with plaintive angst through sinuous climbs and tradeoffs as the two soloists dug in hard on the lustrous lament in the second movement, then pulled back as Brahms’ hynmlike raptness took centerstage. The composer’s take on a Romany dance and its variations was a delicious romp before the final Beethovenesque coda.
Grunberg and the orchestra wrapped up the program with an astonishingly good performance of the Beethoven Symphony No. 3. It was so good, it’s releasable: if the orchestra wants to record it at some point, it should be an album. It was on the brisk side, but, hey, it’s the Eroica Symphony: bring it on! And that’s exactly what they did. It was a rollercoaster ride of leaping, lively, bubbling voices, but also a measured appreciation of the angst and suspense in the troubled second movement, giving way to jaunty triumph and balletesque acrobatics in an almost breathless salute to one of the most exhilarating pieces of music ever scored. There’s a famous George Szell recording of this symphony with the Cleveland Orchestra up at grooveshark that’s pretty much unrivalled for sheer fun factor, but this orchestra’s version delivered a challenge. The Spectrum Symphony’s next concert is this coming January 14 at 7:30 PM at St. Joseph’s Church, 371 Sixth Ave.just north of W 4th St, featuring the world premiere of JunYi Chow’s Serenade along with a Massenet piece, Mozart’s Concerto for Oboe and Haydn’s Symphony No. 101, “The Clock.”
Filmmaker Josephine Decker is also an accomplished accordionist, and a member of all-female accordion group the Main Squeeze Orchestra. She credits the first time she saw a show by Raya Brass Band – the explosive Balkan brass jamband – as a life-changing experience. So it’s no surprise that experience would springboard what would ultimately become her first feature film, the deliciously creepy Butter on the Latch, which opens at the IFP Center, 30 John St. in Dumbo (on a double feature with her second full-length horror film, Thou Wast Mild & Lovely) on Nov 14, when it will also be out on VOD.
Reduced to most basic terms, Butter on the Latch contemplates how men disrupt or fracture relationships between women (although women do the same thing to men – talk to your buddy at the bar, if you can find him on a night when he’s not off with his girlfriend). The disruptions and fractures in this film come suddenly and unexpectedly, even if the progression toward those cataclysmic events makes perfect sense as the narrative unfolds. Sarah Small and Isolde Chae-Lawrence are pure dynamite in contrasting roles as students at Balkan camp, a retreat in what at first seems like an idyllic northern California woodland setting where bemused expats from Eastern Europe teach the eerie harmonies and befuddling rhythms of their native folk music to an eager cast of American kids.
On face value, Balkan camp seems like the funnest place in the world, where half the population is half in the bag by lunchtime, and where getting laid seems like part of the curriculum. Although Decker’s version maxes out the dread of its deep-woods milieu, it owes less to the Blair Witch films than to David Lynch (much of its iconography borrows heavily from both Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks), with a fond nod to Bergman’s Persona. The woman-to-woman dialogue couldn’t have been written any better, or more spot-on, than Sarah and Isolde (who each use their real first names in the film) improvise here. Their sometimes winking, sometimes feral, sometimes tender intimacy captures both the spontaneity and snark that Lou Reed was shooting for with the girls in the Velvet Underground’s The Gift, but couldn’t quite nail.
Ashley Connor’s cinematography careens in and out of focus, which is jarring at first, until it’s obvious that this story is being told from the point of view of a woman who literally can’t see straight. Complicating the picture is that Isolde relies on Sarah for stability, a misjudgment with disturbing consequences. One particular scene, the two staggering into the woods with what’s left of a bottle of wine as the sun goes down and then out, is as chilling as it is funny – and it’s absolutely hilarious.
Further complicating matters is the appearance of Steph (Charlie Hewson), a hunky guitarist that one of the duo can’t resist. A cat-and-mouse game with interchanging roles heightens the suspense, their interaction interspersed among what seem to be actual unstaged moments from music class or performances which help illustrate what the serious (i.e. not alcohol or sex-related) side of Balkan camp is all about. As cruel and cynical as it is surreal, Butter on the Latch is a riveting debut that solidly establishes Decker as an individual voice in 21st century noir cinema.
The soundtrack is sensationally good and appropriately haunting, with contributions by ensembles led by Merita Halili and Raif Hyseni along with Small’s own otherworldly Balkan choral trio Black Sea Hotel and others. It’s a playlist that deserves to exist as a stand-alone album: it could convert as wide an audience to Balkan music as the initial Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares albums did twenty-odd years ago.