It’s been nineteen years since Philip Glass and his circle decided to begin programming the scores that people around the world were sending him. Since then, the annual MATA Festival has grown into an annual celebration of cutting-edge, and these days, increasingly relevant new music from around the world. In recent years, they’ve found a comfortable home at the Kitchen in Chelsea, where the festival continues nightly at 8 PM through Saturday, April 29; tix are $20; To keep the momentum going, the organizers are also staging a series of shows this summer featuring new chamber music from the Islamic world, as well as intimate house concerts (take THAT, Groupmuse!).
Night one of this year’s festival began with humor and ended, ok, humorously, if your sense of humor extends to unlikely sonic snafus onstage. Festival honcho Todd Tarantino proudly announced that the pieces selected for five nights worth of music were chosen from among works by 1159 composers from 72 countries. In their North American debut, Danish indie classical ensemble Scenatet tackled a dauntingly eclectic program from seven composers and acquitted themselves with equal parts spectacular extended technique and meticulous, minimalist resonance.
Their countryman Kaj Duncan David’s Computer Music was first on the bill, performed by the octet on matching laptops, each reading from a graphic score calling for the musicians to punch in on random heartbeats, more or less. The results created a pulse of light in addition to sound, an aspect that drew inadvertent winces from the performers until they’d become accustomed to a little blast of light from the screen. As it grew from spare to more complex, it got a lot funnier: a bad cop role (or a boss role) was involved. As an electronic music parable of The Office, maybe, it made a point and got the crowd chuckling.
German composer Martin Grütter’s Messer Engel Atem Kling called for some squalling, bow-shredding extended technique from violinist Kirsten Riis-Jensen and violist Mina Luka Fred as they worked an uneasy push-pull against the stygian anchor of My Hellgren’s cello. Yet as much as the high strings pulled away from the center, the harmonies stayed firmly nailed in. Part cello metal, part Zorn string piece, it was a clever study in contradictions – a depiction of a composer struggling to break free of convention, maybe?
Murat Çolak’s electroacoustic Orchid, an astigmatic mashup of eras, idioms and atmospheres, blended grey-sky horizontality, hazily uneasy percussion and shards of brooding, acerbically chromatic Turkish classical music. What would have been even more fun is if there’d been a second ensemble for the group onstage to duel it out with instead of doing haphazardly (and cruelly difficult) polyrhythms with the laptop, clarinetist Vicky Wright front and center. In a similar vein, Japanese/Dutch composer Yu Oda’s Everybody Is Brainwashed blended a simple, cliched EDM thump with live cajon and a simple, rather cloying violin theme that more than hinted at parody.
Like the opening piece, Eric Wubbels’ mini-suite Life-Still – one of several world premieres on the bill – had an aleatoric (improvisational) element, its simple, carefully considered, resonant accents gradually building into a distantly starlit lullaby. For the final movement, string and reed players switched to bells and brought it down to a comfortable landing.
Daniel Tacke’s Musica Ricercata/Musica Poetica for viola, clarinet and vibraphone. followed a similarly starry, nocturnal trajectory, a fragmentary canon at quarterspeed or slower, inspired by the motion of voices in Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Putting two such rapturously calm pieces back to back made for a quietly powerful anti-coda. A final number was derailed by technical difficulties, a rare event at this festival: watching it was like being in an iso booth in a recording session with bad headphones and wondering what everybody else was doing.
Tonight’s show at the Kitchen continues the festival’s vast global sweep with music for piano, viola and percussion. Thursday’s lineup promises to be more lush and expansive; according to Tarantino, Friday’s looks inward, deeply. The final night, Saturday, features all sorts of unusual instruments in addition to those typically employed by chamber orchestra Novus NY. If you happen to miss these, the summer programming is something to look forward to.
The Skylark Vocal Ensemble Bring Their Haunting, Otherworldly Exploration of Near-Death Themes to the French Institute
The Skylark Vocal Ensemble’s latest album, Crossing Over – streaming at Spotify – is as haunting a collection of music as has been released over the past year. It’s meant to be. Making their way through a dynamic mix of works from around the globe and the past hundred years or so, with an emphasis on contemporary composers, the lustrous choir explore themes addressing an end-of-life dream state and the prospect of life after death. They’re bringing their rapt intensity to a concert at the French Institute/Alliance Française, 55 E 59th St. on April 27 at 7:30 PM where they’ll be singing Poulenc’s Figure Humaine along with stark American Civil War hymns. Tix are $30, $10 for students, and worth it.
The album opens with Daniel Elder’s Elegy and its somberly memorable variations on a stark three-chord theme based on the familiar trumpet tune Taps, punctuated by an energetic soprano solo. The group follows that with John Tavener’s Butterfly Dreams, an eight-part suite of mostly Japanese haiku-inspired miniatures. A calm processional sets the stage for brief variations that vary from more hazy to disarmingly direct and minimalist, to fluttering and echoey, often anchored by an unwavering resonance. The suite concludes with the warily anthemic The Butterfly, an austere Acoman Indian folk tune and an overture on the main theme. Hardly easy material to sing, but the performance is steely and focused.
Nicolai Kedrov’s brief Otche Nash maintains the steady, sober ambience, followed by Jón Leifs’ Requiem with its cavatina-like pulse and low//high contrasts. The harmonies grow denser and more nebulous, then pair off in treble and bass registers in the dynamically shifting, brooding John Donne-inspired Heliocentric Meditation, by Robert Vuichard.
The melodies leap around more in William Schuman’a triptych Carols of Death, although they’re far from celebratory and awash in tense close harmonies. Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Heyr þú oss himnum á has the stately pace of a medieval funeral procession. Strange as it is to say, this new setting of an ancient psalm is a lot more upbeat than the rest of the composer’s vast, spacious work. The album concludes with a final hymn-like Tavener piece, Funeral Ikos.
Bearthoven’s piano/bass/percussion lineup would be as orthodox as orthodox gets if they were a jazz trio, In the world of indie classical and chamber music, that’s a much less likely configuration. The eclectic, disarmingly tuneful debut album by pianist Karl Larson, Gutbucket bassist Pat Swoboda and Tigue percussionist Matt Evans, aptly titled Trios, features the work of seven cutting-edge composers and is due to be streaming this May 5 at the Cantaloupe Music Bandcamp page. They’re playing the album release show at 7:15 sharp on April 18 at the Poisson Rouge; advance tix are $15.
A lot of this music follows a rapid, steady staccato rhythm that is maddeningly difficult to play, but the trio make it sound easy. Brooks Frederickson’s catchy, anvilling, minimalist Understood opens the album, a steady but intricate and subtly polyrhythmic web of melody. A little later on, Ken Thomson’s Grizzly follows a similar tangent with bells, both struck and bowed, dancing through the mix as it brightens, then descends into the murk briefly only to emerge re-energized. By contrast, Anthony Vine’s From a Forest of Standing Mirrors moves glacially and raptly through an Arvo Part-like haze to slightly more kinetic, distantly Japanese-flavored belltones.
Fjóla Evans’ tone poem Shoaling explores individual voicings within a group arrangement, rising out of almost imperceptible, shifting fogbanks of sound to a series of grimly catchy low-register piano melodies within the smoky vortex. Larson’s subtly dynamic yet forceful attack pierces the surface above his bandmates’ bowed bass and other instruments. Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s atmospheric/arrestive dichotomies come to mind: it’s album’s the most intense and captivating track.
Simple Machines, by Brendon Randall-Myers is a a cleverly and dauntingly arranged series of polyrhythmic melodies, its motorik cadence interrupted by the closest thing to free jazz here on its way to a triumphant, cinematic sweep. The album’s final piece is Adrian Knight’s uneasily serene The Ringing World, which appropriates its title from the journal of the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers. Swoboda’s wispy harmonics flit like ghosts in a churchyard amidst Mompou-like belltones played in unison by Larson and Evans on piano and bells.
As accessible as it is cutting-edge, this album could go a long way toward changing plenty of misconceptions. As if we need more proof that this century’s serious concert music isn’t all necessarily awkward and spastic, this is it.
Matana Roberts stole the show at the Poisson Rouge last night. And she played solo, without the electronic rig she often employs. Purposefully, with a disarming, often shattering directness, she built songs without words, drawing on two centuries of gospel, blues and a little swing jazz. The first number was a matter-of-factly strolling gospel tune, more or less. After that, she developed a conversation for two or maybe even three voices, calm and resolute versus more agitated: Eric Dolphy and Coltrane together came to mind.
Although she has daunting extended technique and can squall with the best of them, the singing quality of her tone (which critics would have called cantabile in her days as a classical musician) along with her gentle melismatics told stories of hope and resilience rather than terror. In between numbers, sometimes mid-song, she talked to the crowd with a similarly intimate matter-of-factness. A shout-out to Bernie Sanders met with stony silence – this was a $20 ticket, after all, and beyond the means of a lot of 99-percenters – but by the end of the set, she’d won over everyone. “I don’t think Trump has four years in him,” she mused, which met with a roar of applause.
Roberts explained that for her dad, D.L. Roberts – whom she recently lost – music was an inspiration for political engagement. Her most recent solo album – streaming at Bandcamp – is dedicated to the activists at Standing Rock and has a subtle American Indian influence.
As she wound up her tantalizingly brief set, short of forty minutes onstage, she engaged the crowd, directing them to sing a single, rhythmic tone and then played judicious, sometimes stark phrases around it. In between riffs, she commented on how surreal the months since the election have been, fretted about touring internationally because she’s worried about what kind of trouble’s in store for her as an American, and pondered what it would take to bring a racist to New York to kill a random, innocent stranger. “I don’t think you know either, because we’re all in this together,” she said, unassumingly voicing the shock and horror of millions of New Yorkers – and Americans as well.
When Supersilent finally hit the stage for their second-ever New York concert, their first in thirteen years, the blend of Arve Henriksen’s desolate trumpet against the stygian, almost subsonic ambience of Ståle Storløkken’s vintage keyboards seemed like a perfect segue. Electronic music legend Helge Sten a.k.a. Deathprod (who has a show at around 9 tonight at Issue Project Room in downtown Brooklyn) mixed the brooding soundscape into a plaintive noir tableau with artful use of loops, reverb and delay, bringing to mind Bob Belden’s brilliant late-career soundtracks.
Then Storløkken hit a sudden, bunker-buster low-register chord that blasted through the club, following with one bone-crushing wave after another. The effect was visceral, and was loud to the point where Henriksen was pretty much lost in the mix. It was impossible to turn away from: pure bliss for fans of dark sonics.
That’s where the strobes began to flicker, and frantically shredded fragments of dialogue began to flit through the mix in tandem with a spastic, seemingly random rhythm. Was this fast-forward horror show a metaphor for how technology jerks us, and jerks us, and jerks us, and jerks us…? You get the picture. If that was Supersilent’s message, they made their point. But after thirty seconds, it was overkill. This may not be Aleppo, but in a different way we’ve also been tortured, and were being tortured as the PA continued to squawk and sputter. There’s no shame in assaulting an audience to get a point across, but a respite would have packed a mighty impact at that point. Matana Roberts knows a little something about that.
Tuesday night at Roulette, pianist Richard Sussman told the crowd that his nonet the Evolution Ensemble had played its signature composition, his Evolution Suite, maybe five or six times previously, and that this performance was the best of them all. It was his birthday, too. The lush, epic sweep and subtle humor of the performance more than validated the Chamber Music America grant responsible for it.
“I didn’t know I had something programmatic until I’d written it,” Sussman winkingly explained beforehand. Its five movements explore a creation myth, written mostly for piano, bass, drums and strings, with characteristically vivid, intuitive, lyrical solos and textural lustre from trumpeter/flugelhornist Tim Hagans and tenor saxophonist Rich Perry. The duo’s exuberantly intertwining counterpoint literally took the piece out on a high note: the ride there was just as much fun.
Austere fogbanks from the string quartet of violinists Mark Feldman and Mario Forte, violist Ron Lawrence and cellist Peter Sachon kicked off the first of Sussman’s uneasily glistening, spaciously Messiaenic passages that he expanded methodically. The first of Perry’s similarly considered, elegantly crescendoing solos handed off to Hagans, who put on a clinic in finding new and surprisingly subtle ways to color a long series of stairstepping upward and downward chromatic runs.
Since all the gods were tuckered out from creating an entire universe, it made sense that the suite’s second movement would have a balmy swing, in a Gil Evans/Miles Davis vein. Dreamily surrealistic piano ushered in a deep-space tableau spiced with microtonal strings, a drifting Perry solo, a balletesque interlude from bassist Mike Richmond and artful variations on a steady clave from drummer Clarence Penn, who would revisit that trope much more viscerally and impactfully later on.
A rather horror-stricken tritone riff set off the suite’s centerpiece, Nexus, and the chase was on, with a darkly Mingue-esque bustle. A dancing violin solo from Forte heated the mix, Richmond’s black crude bubbles in stark contrast to Sussman’s starlit lines and the shivery string passage that finally fueled an enthusiastic clapalong from the crowd.
The fourth movement opened on an understatedly, portentous note, Penn’s dynamically nuanced and then explosive solo taking centerstage before the piece wound out on an unexpectedly jubilant tangent. Throughout the work, there were all sorts of wry accents: a wisp of a cymbal glissando from Penn; Sussman evincing resonance from the piano lid; and light electronic touches, some of which worked, some of which were superfluous. Wouldn’t it be even more fun if Sussman gets another commission to keep the saga going – maybe that could go in the other direction, an apocalyptic scenario or a cautionary tale at least.
Roulette may be home to some of this city’s most impressive indie classical and avant garde programming these days, but their roots are in jazz, dating back to the Tribeca loft scene of the early 80s. The next jazz show there is on March 20 at 8 PM with the Tomeka Reid Quartet featuring Jason Roebke, Tomas Fujiwara, and Mary Halvorson playing edgy cello jazz; advance tix are $20/$15 stud/srs.
Violinist Elektra Kurtis’ latest album is a fiery, often explosive electric jazz record. But she has many different sides. Last night at the Cornelia Street Cafe, she showed off as much elegance as kinetic energy in a completely acoustic set featuring irrepressibly adventurous indie classical ensemble the PubliQuartet.
She opened solo with a bravura Mozart interlude and closed the night with a full quintet arrangement of one of her signature originals, blending elements of flamenco, Romany dances and tarantella into a lithely stormy, polyrhythmic exchange of voices. An earlier piece, also featuring the quintet, resembled the work of Per Norgard with its enigmatically eerie, steady microtonal motion.
After a couple of flamenco-flavored solo original miniatures, Kurtis brought up Publiquartet violinist Curtis Stewart, who played a raptly hazy solo pastorale: the video for the song made it into the Inwood Film Festival, which makes sense since that’s where he’s from. Then the two violinists exchanged voices deftly throughout a neo-baroque Kurtis piece.
She then left the stage to the quartet. Valencia, a North Atlantic seaside tableau by Caroline Shaw juxtaposed ethereal, saline astringencies with churning, subtly polyrhythmic riffage circulating throughout the ensemble – violinist Jannina Norpoth, violist Nick Revel and cellist Amanda Gookin – who then tackled the evening’s most surreal number, David Biedenbender‘s Surface Tension. It was inspired by a weird dream where a simple glass of water took on the texture of putty and other unexpected substances. Norpoth took care in explaining its strange elasticity, then the ensemble brought its slithery, uneasy shapeshifting trajectory to life, a showcase for pouncing, emphatic voices throughout the group.
Matthew Browne’s Great Danger, Keep Out illustrated what kind of havoc can result when a Tesla coil explodes: Norpoth called it “fiery” and she wasn’t kidding. The Publiquartet’s next gig is with wild, ambitiously carnivalesque large jazz ensemble the Cyborg Orchestra, led by Josh Green at National Sawdust at 7 PM on March 2; $30 advance tix are available. Kurtis plays frequently at the Cornelia; watch this space for upcoming dates.
As if we need more proof that Monday is the new Saturday night, on March 6 at 6:30 PM there’s an enticing indie classical performance on the Lower East Side. It’s free with a rsvp, and there’s a reception afterward. The main enticement is that violinist Kristin Lee, concertmaster of the Metropolis Ensemble will be playing the release show for composer Molly Joyce’s intense, acerbic ep Lean Back and ‘Release (streaming at Bandcamp). As a bonus, the composer will also premiere her new work for toy organ and electronics, ominously titled Form and Deform. The show is at the new gallery space that just opened at 1 Rivington St. just off Bowery. It’s about equidistant from the 2nd Ave. F stop and the J/M at Bowery.
There are just two tracks on this edgy little album, performed by violinists Adrianna Mateo and Monica Germino with unobtrusive electronic touches. The title cut, clocking in around seven minutes, is a stinging study in tension slowly unwinding. built around a rather haunting chromatic riff, descending from icy, airy heights to a nebulous swirl and an eventual, rewarding calm. Getting there isn’t easy: it’s hard to turn away from.
The other track follows a similarly dark but ultimately triumphant trajectory, a human-versus-machine tableau built on variations on an octave. All the more impressive considering that this is Joyce’s debut release. Fans of cutting-edge, intense string music would be crazy to miss this. What else are you doing after work on a Monday night, anyway?
“Give me your poor, your tired, your huddled masses, and we’ll club their heads in,” Laurie Anderson mused last night toward the end of a rapturous series of trio improvisations with bassist Christian McBride and cellist Rubin Kodheli at the Town Hall. She was being sarcastic, of course, As a point of context, she’d brought up Naomi Klein’s book Shock Doctrine, where at the end the author contemplates what might happen if rightwing American bellicosity abroad was launched here. Anderson suggested that the incessant tweets and fake news emanating from that lunatic fringe in the Oval Office could be a harbinger.
Like so many New Yorkers, Anderson was profoundly affected by 9/11, and accurately connected the sense of horror and being blindsided then to the state of the city today. That unease pervaded much of the trio’s hour onstage, balanced by a defiant, surprisingly kinetic joie de vivre. She was obviously the bandleader, and her collaborators were practically jumping out of their shoes to revel in a surreal, richly textural, frequently eerie ambience that gave them a series of launching pads for daunting if terse and purposeful displays of extended technique.
Ominous chromatic piano riff and grey-sky organ from Anderson anchored the centerpiece of her political commentary, strongly evoking a Bat For Lashes hit from the late zeros. The trio’s backdrop for a voiceover of a Lou Reed poem was just as troubling and troubled, rising from starry, elegaic ambience to fluttery horror and then phantasmagorically pulsing, microtonal upward drifts.
Balancing that relentless angst was the coy tale of Anderson’s successful run for middle school student council. As she told it, she’d written to Presidential candidate John F. Kennedy, seeking advice, received a detailed letter in response, took his counsel to heart (kiss up to everyone, he said, more or less), and then won. And then sent him a triumphant thank-you note. Kennedy responded with a dozen roses. When the story made the local paper in Anderson’s Illinois hometown, “Kennedy had won the heart of every woman,” of voting age and otherwise, she told the crowd. They wound up the evening when Anderson hit her pitch pedal, took her vocals down a couple of octaves for a wry deep-space atmosphere: “We like stars because we can’t crush them,” her man-in-the-moon character informed the crowd.
The rest of the set was all instrumental. At one point, McBride responded to a sprightly volley of pizzicato from Anderson with a bittersweet twelve-note rock riff that would have been the envy of any artsy British band from the 70s. It was the night’s single most gorgeous moment. And he never reprised it. Otherwise, he spent most of the evening playing with a bow, parsing minutely inflected high harmonics and even some wryly creeping low-register glissandos when he wasn’t delivering steady, often circular minimalist riffage below the mist.
Anderson, bolstered by light effects via a couple of laptops, introduced monentary, flickering themes with plucky pizzicato phrases, keeningly ethereal microtonal cloudbanks and a couple of menacingly galloping interludes. Caught in the eye of the ice storm, Kodheli had the hardest job of anyone onstage and deftly found a middle ground. Often that meant taking the others’ roles, whether delivering stark staccato harmonic slashes way up the fingerboard, or providing sinewy basslines when McBride pounced and bubbled far beyond his axe’s customary range. The audience roared their approval with a series of standing ovations: clearly, we’ve reached the point where improvised music has the potential to draw a large audience if perhaps not a mass one. The time has come when places like Jazz at Lincoln Center should be booking creative musicians like Steve Swell and Wadada Leo Smith – and lowering ticket prices to where the average New Yorker can afford to see them.
It was a treat to get to hear Concetta Abbate on Sunday at Mayflower Bar in Fort Greene. Abbate is best known as a violinist and composer of beguiling chamber-pop miniatures, but she’s also a magically nuanced, expressive singer. Lately she’s been working on finishing up her Master’s at Columbia, so she hasn’t been playing out a lot.
This time was a rapturous, mostly improvised duo set with Kyle Farrell, who played a marimba-like instrument invented by Skip Laplante. Its series of eighteen evenly tuned metal pipes covered the span of an octave, laid flat atop a styrofoam box doing double duty as resonator and carrying case. Guitar maven Bob Bannister, who was in the house, called it a styrophone, and the name stuck.
Abbate began the show by improvising gracefully strolling melodies. singing and then riffing on a series of Rumi poems from an older and almost surrealistically literal English translation. Meanwhile, Farrell kept the otherworldly, microtonal ripples and pings going, occasionally using a daf frame drum for extra texture or rhythm. Later in the set, he removed a handful of pipes to pare down the available tones for what ended up sounding both more western and more Asian, depending on how close the harmonies were.
Singing in Spanish, Abbate also treated the crowd to a couple of Peruvian tonadas, one a plaintive traditional number and the other an original inspired by a training ritual employed by shamanic healers. After the set was over, impresario Rose Thomas Bannister – who has one of the deepest address books in New York and runs the weekly music series here – took a playful turn on the mallets. The show this coming Sunday, Feb 19 stats at around 2 PM and features excellent cellist/composer Leah Coloff, who’s best known for her Lou Reed collaboration but has an impressively eclectic solo catalog as well.
It took until about the halfway point in Bing and Ruth’s album release show last night at the Greene Space before the brunette in the front row finally rested her head on the shoulder of the adjacent sweaterboy. New Yorkers have been cocooning a lot lately: it’s hard to think of a more apt, or possibly more hopeful soundtrack for quiet reflection than the ensemble’s new record No Home of the Mind – available on vinyl and streaming at WNYC – which they played from start to finish.
Pianist David Moore has scaled down the original scope of the band from almost a dozen members to the current five, in the process further concretizing his signature blend of minimalism, indie classical and electroacoustic trance music. As the group’s instrumentals segued from one into another, they brought to mind acts as diverse as Anton Bagatov, Dawn of Midi without the thump, George Winston without the sentimentality, or even Bruce Hornsby if he’d gone into minimalism after his time with the Grateful Dead.
What was most impressive was how little the group relies on electronics. Other acts would take Moore’s looping phrases and have a pedal do all the heavy lifting. Not Moore: it’s one thing to play his gnomic clusters, and elegant arpeggios, and Philip Glass-ine phrases once with perfect timing; Moore did it over and over, with unwavering intonation and touch and rhythm and made it seem easy. Much of the time, he had his eyes closed. Clarinetist Jeremy Viner, who supplied subtly shifting shades enhanced by a pedalboard, might have opened his once during about 45 minutes onstage. The two bassists – Greg Chudzik and Jeff Ratner – took different roles, one anchoring the music with a series of low drones, the other playing higher up the fingerboard and adding the occasional, understatedly emphatic slow glissando. Mike Effenberger sat stage left, running the sound through a series of mixers, sometimes for minute timbral shirts or oscillations, occasionally for dramatic low-versus-high effect. Moore began with his most energetic phrasing, segued down toward enigmatic ambience, took a turn into minor keys for the night’s most acerbic moments and ended on a warmly nocturnal note.
Considering that Bing and Ruth usually play much larger spaces, it was something of a shock to see that the intimate Greene Space – a former deli about the same size as Hifi Bar – wasn’t sold out. Then again, everyone’s cocooning these days. Bing and Ruth’s next New York show is on April 10 at the San Damiano Mission, 85 N 15th St in Williamsburg, time/price TBA.
Just for the record, there is nobody with either the name Bing or Ruth in Bing and Ruth. There’ve been thousands of illustrious Ruths over the centuries; beyond a crooner of cheesy 1930s pop hits, a baseball executive, and the world’s most useless search engine, there haven’t been too many Bings. Here’s to this group for redeeming the name.