Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Stirring Drama and Persistent Unease in Huang Ruo’s First Symphonic Album

Huang Ruo’s music is instantly recognizable and completely unique. He likes brass and percussion, but utilizes both in surprisin ways, especially in his most horizontal moments. The many traditions of his native China are an influence, but subtly. Close harmonies, dense orchestration and the stately grandeur of Chinese court music are persistent tropes throughout his diverse new album Into the Vast World – streaming at Spotify – the first collection of his symphonic works. Liang Zhang conducts the Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra with equal parts fire and precision in this live concert performance from the fall of 2019.

Ruo himself shows off a dramatic, highly ornamented falsetto in his long a-cappella introduction to the pulsing first number, Shattered Steps – in an imaginary, improvised language. In the beginning this is a fanfare, it’s a dance, it’s driving and dramatic, with lots of bracing close harmonies. A sudden stillness fueled by unsettled brass and low flutters ensues; Zhang meticulously leads the ensemble up a long slope toward starrier but also more suspenseful textures. After a hint of a spring ritual, Ruo returns for the shivery coda.

Becoming Another, a study in contrasts between stillness and activity, has a persistent, enveloping tension, horizontality looming behind a series of increasingly animated motives. Counterintuitively, it grows more lustrously atmospheric as a minimalist fanfare spirals up through the cloud: John Luther Adams’ recent environmentally-themed work is a good point of comparison.

Ruo returns to the same dichotomy in Stil/Motion, which is more minimal, with simpler, persistent rhythms, and covers a wider dynamic range.

Mezzo-soprano Guang Yang sings two segments from Ruo’s opera An American Soldier, based on the short life of Private Danny Chen, who was murdered by fellow American troops during his first tour of duty in Afghanistan. The first part, So That’s the Man, has an acidic, accusatory, gusty intensity as his mother witnesses the courtmartial of the racists who killed him. Yang delivers the first moment of distinctly Chinese pentatonics over restlessly drifting, brass-tinged atmosphere in the second, Lullaby: Sleep Now, Little One

The Two Pieces For Orchestra begin with a Fanfare which has more of the same brass and fleeting upper-register motives puncturing a dense, nebulous atmosphere. The second part, Announcement opens with a distant paraphrase of a Chinese riverboat song, tossing and then floating while the percussion section maintains a relentless intensity. The massed string glissandos are an unexpected extra shot of adrenaline and offer no hint of the windswept cello-fueled interlude afterward. The orchestra calmly sing the outro before one of Ruo’s characteristic, dramatic gong crashes at the end.

The orchestra wind up the album with four shorter works also based on folk themes. With its precise, racewalking beat and stabbing flutes, Flower Drum Song from Feng Yang has a martial feel. Love Song from Kang Ding and Little Blue Flower are the album’s most hypnotically circling piece, yet each also rises to a pulsing drama, the latter with a plaintive violin solo. The ensemble make a triumphant anthem out of The Girl from Da Ban City, a catchy taxi driver’s song, to wind up the album.

January 31, 2021 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Revisiting One of the Funnest Albums Released by a Big Band in Recent Years

One of the funniest, most individualistically lavish albums ever to be featured on this page is Josh Green & the Cyborg Orchestra’s Telepathy & Bop, streaming at Spotify. The album cover image says a lot: a cartoon cyclops bounding down the subway stairs at 14th St. and 6th Ave., just as the doors on the L train are closing.

Just to be clear, this isn’t electronic music. Green’s compositions are totally organic, wildly picturesque and often irresistibly cartoonish. Brian Carpenter‘s many surreal rediscoveries from the 1930s and 1940s are a good point of comparison; Juan Esquivel’s most adventurous largescale works also come to mind. Green is a brilliant musical surrealist: all options seem to be on the table as these unpredictable and counterintuitive sonic narratives unfold.

The seventeen-piece group open the Basquiat-inspired first track, Boy & Dog in a Jonnypump with a big, brassy splash and then a wry, staggered cha-cha; Green very subtly builds tiptoeing but pillowy suspense, up to a long, gritty, Balkan-tinged Sungwon Kim guitar solo. Accordionist Nathan Koci takes over as everybody but the rhythm section drops out, then Green brings back the string section – that’s the PUBLIQuartet with violinists Curtis Stewart and Jannina Norpoth, violist Nick Revel and Amanda Gookin bolstered by violist Nathan Schram and cellist Clarice Jenson. As the orchestra punch in and out, Kim goes shredding again. By ten minutes in, Todd Groves has wrapped up his cheery flute solo and the strings do A Day in the Life. They would really love to turn you on.

Green conjures a busy tv studio setting, individual voices bustling and skulking down the hallway in The Lauer Faceplant, based on a real-life head-on collision with a tv personality who was enjoying his fifteen minutes at the time. A gruff sax solo (that’s either Groves or Charles Pillow) leads to the moment of impact, which leaves the orchestra reeling, echo phrases bounding back and forth. A balletesque flute theme gives way to trombonist Chris Misch-Bloxdorf’s return to tongue-in-cheek gruffness. Are we having fun yet?

The album’s title track is a triptych. The first part is a mashup of a woozily sirening cartoon tableau, Georgyi Ligeti somberness and a sideshow shooting gallery of individual voices, dat wabbit thumbing his nose at Elmer Fudd. Green brings back an expansion of an earlier Indian-flavored sax riff for the acidically resonant, fleetingly brief part two. The group tiptoe and pounce up to caffeinated clarinet and sax solos, the latter a duet with drummer Josh Bailey and a reprise of an earlier theme that’s too good to give away. Telepathic? Maybe. Bop? No question.

The gorgeously epic centerpiece here is La Victoire, inspired by Magritte’s famous cloud floating through a disembodied door. A wistful accordion theme quickly sinks in lush, nocturnal ambience, a jaunty sax solo leading the group upward as Michael Verselli’s piano adds incisive gleam amid the warmly inviting wash of sound. A dip to folksy contentment with the accordion quickly grows more luminous, sax leading the vividly triumphant upward drive: it’s Maria Schneider-worthy music.

Verselli introduces the distantly haunting, Ligeti-esque Nebula with a similarly glistening, eerily modal solo, drifting into deep-space minimalism and then icy contrasts. With individual voices shifting through a Darcy James Argue-esque staccato theme, the humor in Reverie Engine: The Ambiguous Rhumba is more distant, at least until a ridiculous synth solo. The album’s closing cut, Soir Bleu – A Rag of Sorts draws on a surreal Edward Hopper image of a clown in a Parisian cafe. After a flicker of Django Reinhardt, the group work a pulse and a theme that grow more carnivalesque, Koci’s ambiguous solo enhancing the unease. With the strings edging into the macabre and Verselli’s noir cabaret solo, it’s by far the album’s darkest number. Nobody in this band is ever going to forget playing on this record: the rest of a very inspired cast includes clarinetist Jay Hassler, trumpeter John Lake and bassist Brian Courage.

So where the hell was this blog the night the band played the album release show at National Sawdust in the spring of 2017? At Barbes – big surprise, considering the New York music scene that year. Rest assured, there will be a music scene in this city again…and let’s hope Green has another album ready to go by then. How long it takes this city to be open to that eventuality is really up to us.

January 31, 2021 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment