Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Magical, Otherworldly Guitar Music Inspired by the Art of Sol Lewitt

The number of musicians whose albums were either sidelined, or more or less disappeared without a trace after the lockdown, is staggering. Guitarist Gabriel Birnbaum’s otherworldly, mysterious, often haunting solo record, Wall Music For Sol Lewitt – streaming at Bandcamp – was one of them. And that’s tragic. If you like magical, spacious, stark sounds, you’ll love this album: fans of the bell-like piano works of Federico Mompou are especially encouraged to check it out. It’s best appreciated as a cohesive whole rather than track by track. It was tempting to save the album for the annual October-long Halloween celebration here, but that’s way too long to deprive you, considering that Birnbaum released it six months ago.

Each piece takes its title from a number of the pieces in Lewitt’s Wall Drawings. In  keeping with Lewitt’s architectural approach, Birnbaum created graphic scores for his elegantly looping, very subtly microtonal compositions. #11 is the first, with subtle polyrhythms woven into the eerily chiming, stately, circling theme.

#16 is a skeletal, somber march. His precisely plucked belltones are more delicate and intricate, akin to a carillon, in #17. He expands the sonic frame, adding harmonics on the high end in the enigmatic #19. Then he introduces lushly strummed chords for a much warmer sound in #38 – imagine Glenn Branca at low volume, without the distortion.

Birnbaum shifts gears again with the slow, sirening swoops of #46. Resonant major-key ambience shifts back and forth between creepy tritones and minimalist clock-chime phrases in #47, then he basically works that dynamic in reverse in #85

He winds up the album, taking inspiration from four works beginning with #154 over the course of thirty-eight minutes. This suite has the album’s airiest, most atmospheric moments: tritones linger briefly before an utterly hypnotic web of saxophone drones sets in. The way Birnbaum works more disquieting tonalities into it, at a glacial pace, is artful to the extreme. It makes you want to visit find the museum where Birnbaum’s inspirations are housed to see what springboarded this strange and beguiling record. Oh wait, you can’t, museums are locked and dead now in most parts of the world. Music isn’t the only art form the would-be engineers of the New Abnormal are trying to destroy.

January 21, 2021 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

James Ilgenfritz Makes a Troubling, Acidically Relevant Operatic Suite Out of a William Burroughs-Classic

In keeping with this month’s epic theme, today’s album is bassist James Ilgenfritz’s musical interpretation of William Burroughs’ cult classic novel The Ticket That Exploded, an “ongoing opera” streaming at Bandcamp. A collaboration with video artist Jason Ponce – who also contributes to the sound mix – it features Anagram Ensemble playing a mashup of surreal, often dadaistic free jazz and indie classical sounds. The text is delivered both as spoken word and by a rotating cast of singers including Nick Hallett, Ted Hearne, Ryan Opperman, Anne Rhodes and Megan Schubert. Burroughs’novel can be maddeningly dissociative, although in its more accessible moments it’s witheringly aphoristic, and often uproariously funny. That sense of humor does not often translate to the music here: it’s usually serious as death and relentlessly acidic. Most of it seems improvised, although that could be Ilgenfritz, a fixture of the New York creative jazz scene prior to the lockdown, toying with the audience.

With his weathered New York accent, Steve Dalachinsky – who knew Burroughs – was a good choice of narrator. In its best moments, this is classic jazz poetry. “It’s the old army thing: get dicked firstest with the brownest nose,” Nick Hallett muses about midway through. Sound familiar?

“If I had a talking picture of you, would I still read you?” Dalachinsky ponders a little later. Again, Burroughs is being prophetic: remember, this was written in the 1960s. An astringent guitar duel – Ty Citerman and Taylor Levine – pushes him out of the picture, only to be eclipsed by an almost shockingly calm moment from the string section at the end. That’s characteristic of how this unfolds.

After a rather skeletal opening number, the two women’s voices reach crushingly screaming and tumbling peaks, contrasting with a persistently offkilter minimalism. Many of the most ominous moments here pair the strings – Julianne Carney on violin and Nathan Bontrager on cello – with Denman Maroney’s eerie piano tinkles.

Ted Hearne gets the plum assignment of introducing the cast of characters in the Nova Mob which several generations of writers and punk rockers would reference in the decades that followed. The brass and strings drift and rustle uneasily, occasionally coalescing for unexpected pockets of clarity or a rare vaudevillian interlude. Percussionists Andrew Drury, John O’Brien and Vinnie Sperazza squirrel around, sparely, on anything that can be wacked.

Dichotomies – man versus machine, the sacred versus the very sacreligious, reason versus unbridled lust, reality versus hallucination – abound, both lyrically and musically. As challenging a listen as this is, in an age where surveillance is becoming a more and more omnipresent threat, it’s also timely:

Why don’t we shut this machine off?
I had all the answers a thousand years ago…
All we had to do is shut the thing off
Soundtrack calls the image police?
Shut off the soundtrack!

January 20, 2021 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Magical New Music For Bass and Harp Duo

The River Town Duo‘s lineup – bass and concert harp – may be extremely rare, but they’re not the only such ensemble in the world. In fact, more than twenty composers have written for this unorthodox and magical pairing, which was somewhat more prevalent during the baroque era. The new album by the duo of bassist Philip Alejo and harpist Claire Happel Ashe – which hasn’t hit the web yet – comprises six fascinating, mostly rather quiet pieces by contemporary composers, covering all the bases throughout pretty much the entirety of the sonic spectrum. Alejo is called on to use his bow more than his fingers here, although he does both, while Ashe is occasionally engaged for extended technique as well.

They open with Caroline Shaw‘s dedication to them, For Claire & Philip. It’s pensive, driven by suspenseful pedalpoint from both instruments, and although the two get to build to some of the jaunty polyrhythms often found in Shaw’s work, it’s absolutely unique in her catalog.

Whitney Ashe‘s spaghetti western-influenced The Circuitous Six is even more starrily mysterious, Alejo’s stark bowing beneath its rhythmically shifting variations on a circling phrase. Derick Evans‘ surreallistically shapeshifting tableau On Lotusland draws inspiration from overlooking the Tucson cityscape at night, its cluster of lights surrounded by desolation. Alejo shifts from gritty overtones to keening, harmonically-tinged glissandos, Ashe bending her notes, the two rising to a slinky pulse tapped out on the body of the bass and eventually a plaintive neoromantic theme.

Hannah Lash‘s diptych Leaves, Space calmly and broodingly explores terse contrapuntal riffs and echo effects as well as the ways the harp can amplify phrases from the bass, Alejo fingerpicking emphatically before he picks up his bow again. The sepulchral second half is arguably the high point of the album.

Evan Premo contributes Two Meditations on Poems of Mary Oliver. The first, Early Morning, New Hampshire is a wistful, bucolic portrait of an old stone wall in the woods, Alejo backing away to provide atmospherics behind Ashe’s more enigmatic plucking. Although the second, Linen of Words explores the workmanlike, repetitive side of creating art, its folksy theme and variations make it one of the album’s catchiest tunes.

The duo conclude with Stephen Andrew Taylor‘s brief, lively five-part suite Oxygen. They follow a dancing, enigmatically circling theme with depictions of blood components, DNA and breathing. Alejo strains, bounces, slides and squirrels around while Ashe frequently mutes her strings for timbral unease. The moments of clarity are especially striking, especially the somber/twinkling dichotomies of the coda. It’s like the notorious PCR test come to life: you never know what kind of gunk might be floating through your veins until after many orders of magnification.

January 19, 2021 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dark, Pensive Two-Bass Soundscapes From Daniel Barbiero and Cristiano Bocci

Bassists Daniel Barbiero and Cristiano Bocci have just released their starkly evocative, immersive new duo album Now/Here on the reliably adventurous Acustronica label, where it’s streaming. The former also plays the Korean geomumgo bass lute on the album’s second track; the latter plays six-string electric bass and handles the electronic component. Like the best ambient music, it’s best appreciated as a cohesive whole, although the playing is more animated and considerably less reliant on drones than usual in this genre.

The first track is Nowhere, Barbiero beginning it by bowing a somber, Pink Floyd-like riff over the icy swirl behind him. Bocci eventually echoes him over down-the-drainpipe sonics. The second track, Paths (A Winter Day in a Seaside Town) features Barbiero bowing starkly, adding wispy high harmonics, Asian pentatonics and squirrelly accents over samples of waves and shorebirds.

Ten Lines for Nowhere is much the same but focused in the low registers with a more hypnotic, loopy backdrop. The two bassists switch roles for the first part of the diptych Elegy For Time and Space, Bocci’s spare plucks over dark, overtone-rich washes from Barbiero, then the textures grow denser and a simple, anthemic theme sneaks into the picture. Similarly, Bocci rumbles and adds bell-like accents as Barbiero supplies atmosphere as the second half begins; then there’s another role reversal. It’s both the catchiest and most hypnotic interlude on the album.

Green Over Grey is the most subtly shifting, drone-oriented, haunting piece here. The two wind up the album with the title cut, which follows the same pattern, but more minimalistically.

January 15, 2021 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | 1 Comment

A Massive, Exhilarating Double Album From the Spektral Quartet

One unexpectedly entertaining feature of the Spektral Quartet’s lavish double album Experiments in Living is an “online card deck emulator” that facilitates very strange, quirky yet also insightful ways to create playlists from its vast range of material. Modeled after a tarot deck, it’s meant to defamiliarize the listener and, one suspects, lure them into hearing something they might not otherwise choose. Plenty of diehards will see the Ruth Crawford Seeger quartet here and immediately dial up all four movements, in order. But the card deck is a cool idea: it never hurts to listen outside the box. And if you just want to listen to the album inside the box, literally, it’s streaming at Bandcamp.

The material ranges from the well-worn to the once-and-still-radical to the more recent, adventurous sounds the group are best known for. How do they approach the Brahms String Quartet No. 1? The first movement seems fast, a little skittish, very acerbically rhythmic: they’re keeping their ears wide open. Even if you find the music impossibly dated, this version definitely isn’t boring. Those echo effects really come into sharp focus!

By contrast, the nocturnal second and third movements come across as careful, pastoral tableaux, the changes very proto-ELO. The group – violinists Clara Lyon and Maeve Feinberg, violist Doyle Armbrust and cellist Russell Rolen – cut loose on the intertwining finale. The close-miked clarity of the individual instruments in the mix is superior: Rolen’s quasi-basslines have a welcome presence.

Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 3 is right up their alley, from the first movement’s icepick exchanges to its hypnotic yet restlessly acidic counterpoint and a paint-peeling ending. Dynamic contrasts are subtle but striking, particularly in the more muted second movement. Balletesque precision alternates with sullen sustain and soaring highs in the third; the quartet’s unexpectedly slinky groove in the fourth is a revelation. Defiance has seldom been more resolute than this.

It’s a hard act to follow, but the Seeger quartet is every bit as gripping and a brilliantly contemporaneous segue (1931 for her, 1927 for him). In a word, wow. The ensemble attack it with a light-fingered, sometimes almost fleeting pointillism, an endess thicket of echo effects and sudden tradeoffs in the first couple of movements. The griptite resonance of the third seems almost backward-masked as phrases or single notes pass around the sonic frame; the group, particularly Rolen, really dig in vigorously up to a sudden end that’s just as coy as Schoenberg’s.

The first of the 21st century pieces is a Sam Pluta diptych, a shivery, punchy round-robin punctuated with droll, often cartoonish extended technique: harmonics, white noise, things that go bump in general, all of it amusing to hear and brutally hard to play.

Flutist Claire Chase joins the quartet for Anthony Cheung‘s 2015 suite The Real Book of Fake Tunes. Her assertive, rhythmic swells balance with the strings’ pizzicato bounce, then a microtonal haze sets in, punctuated by wry echoes and leaps. The third segment, with its stark microtonal chords and flute scurrying amid them, is edgy fun, as is the alternatingly whirling and grittily suspenseful fourth part. The conclusion bristles with good jokes and peek-a-boo riffage: it stands up amidst some very formidable material here.

Singer Charmaine Lee, who writes and improvises in phonetic language, teams up with the group for her surrealistically playful 2018 piece Spinals. This is what the word “sillypants” on the tarot card generator will get you, complete with what sounds like turntable scratching, whether acoustic or electronically generated.

The quartet close with George Lewis’ String Quartet 1.5: Experiments in Living, from two years earlier. Keening glissandos and flickers dance and swing over chugging, sputtering, often ridiculous riffage, with circular, microtonal clusters punctuated by droll flicks and punches. Definitely sillypants – with daunting extended technique and a little horror movie ambience to keep you (and the band) on your toes.

January 7, 2021 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Uneasy Treat From Noa Fort and Vinnie Sperrazza

The new short album Small Cities by multi-keyboardist Noa Fort and drummer Vinnie Sperrazza – streaming at Bandcamp – is a real change of pace for both of them because it’s so minimalist. The centerpiece, Only Happy When I’m Haunted, is the real showstopper here. Bookended by a wry drum solo, and a final, playful vocal-and drum-tune, it features Fort on what sounds like an old Yamaha organ instead of her usual piano. And it’s creepy, with an almost-unhinged tension similar to Serena Jost’s improvisational work in a completely diffferent context.

All proceeds of purchases go to Planned Parenthood.

December 27, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Transient Canvas Have Irrepressible Fun with Bass Clarinet and Marimba

What is the likelihood that a bass clarinet and marimba duo would even exist, let alone commission over sixty new compositions for such an unorthodox pairing? Transient Canvas – bass clarinetist Amy Advocat and marimba player Matt Sharrock – cover all the bases in the lows and the highs, and have built an often absolutely fascinating body of work. For anyone who feels daunted or overwhelmed by the sheer effort it’s going to take for us to end the lockdown, this group’s very existence is an inspiration: if they can succeed, so can we. The irrepressible duo’s latest album Right Now, in a Second is streaming at Bandcamp.

As is typical for this pair, there’s a lot going on here: this is new classical music as entertainment. They open with Barbara White’s Fool Me Once, beginning with a series of variations on a catchy, circling bass clarinet riff, Advocat up the scale just a little below the marimba. If the squall and then the hazy atmospherics afterward aren’t improvised, White’s done a great job imitating it. Looming ambience, a playful game of knuckles and a more wistful conversation ensue, going out with a wry whisper. Likewise, Jonathan Bailey Holland’s Rebounds begins with good-natured call-and-response and then calms, the amusement factor growing more subtle. 

Emily Koh’s \Very/ Specifically Vague is inspired by from Singaporean English patois, Advocat’s precise trills and the occasional upward flare contrasting with Sharrock’s anchoring accents and ripples. Clifton Ingram’s triptych Cold Column, Calving draws on the 2008 Jakobshavn Glacier calving incident where a chunk of ice the size of lower Manhattan broke off into the Atlantic.  The composer also seeks to explore the development (some would say devolution) of bicameral brain hemispheres. Again, a lot of call-and-response is involved, in a spare, spritely, noirish, Bernard Herrmann-ish sense. Told you there was a lot going on here!

Resonance Imaging, by Crystal Pascucci reflects the composer’s many angst-filled experiences inside a MRI tube, both via a sardonic evocation of mechanical blips and buzzes, and Advocat’s resolute spirals and sheets of sound as Sharrock edges toward more lyrical territory. A MRI as edge-of-your seat carnival ride, who knew?

The album’s title track, by Stefanie Lubkowski is a neat interweave of alternately sustained and rhythmic riffs for the duo to negotiate. They wind up the record with the jaunty, lilting, minimalist variations of Keith Kirchoff’s Monochrome.

December 24, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lively Ambience From Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti and Anna Thorvaldsdottir

Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti is a violist on a mission to build the repertoire for her instrument. One of the most captivating, immersive albums she’s released to date is her recording of Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s electroacoustic triptych Sola, streaming at Bandcamp.

For many listeners and critics, Thorvaldsdottir epitomizes the vast, windswept Icelandic compositional sensibility of recent decades. This mini-suite is on the livelier side of that zeitgeist. The first movement begins with slow modulations, dopplers and flickers of wind in the rafters of some abandoned barn on the tundra – or at least its sonic equivalent. However, Lanzilotti gets many chances to add austere color and the occasional moment of levity via steady, emphatic phrases and the occasional coy glissando.

There are places where it’s hard to figure out which is which, Lanzilotti’s nuanced, delicate harmonics, or Thorvaldsdottir’s own keening electronics, which are processed samples recorded earlier on the viola. The brooding, droning, fleeting second movement seems to be all Lanzilotti – at least until the puckish ending. The conclusion is more lush, similarly moody and enigmatically microtonal, again with the occasional playful flourish. Even in the badlands, life is sprouting in the ruts.

As a bonus, the album includes a podcast of sorts with both performers discussing all sorts of fascinating nuts-and-bolts details, from composing to performing. Listening to Thorvaldsdottir enthusing about traveling to premieres and leading master classes will break your heart: based in the UK, her career as a working composer has been crushed by the Boris Johnson regime.

December 24, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Enigmatic, Immersive Mini-Suite From Majel Connery

Singer Majel Connery‘s work, like pretty much every first-rate vocalist, spans a lot of styles. In her case, that runs from the baroque to the avant garde, as part of new music ensemble Oracle Hysterical and the duo Hae Voces. Her album Anything Chartreuse – streaming at Bandcamp – is a four-part suite told a woman’s perspective. in response to Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo.

The first part of August, the opening piece, recalls the catchy minimalism of recent Serena Jost: “Since we’ve washed ashore let’s shiver, sense the sensation of grasping flesh,” Connery intones, up to a big enveloping swell. Oracle Hysterical’s orchestration eventually recedes and the song comes full circle with an echoey, dissociative but triumphant conclusion.

This Much and More has a glitchy trip-hop groove and strangely oscillating, icily processed loops behind Connery’s pensive, calmly expressive voice. Pulsing with backward-masked textures, Rebeam Me could be Shara Nova in a particularly calm moment. Connery winds up this immersive and strange little partita with This Kind of Love, which distantly brings to mind the old Cindy Lauper hit Time After Time run through a pitch pedal for a chilly choir effect.

December 20, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | Leave a comment

Troubled, Intertwining Atmospherics in Trumpeter Nate Wooley’s Latest Seven Storey Mountain Installment

Trumpeter Nate Wooley’s ongoing Seven Storey Mountain project has a new sixth edition available and streaming at Bandcamp. It’s nothing like anything else in the series: haunting, often chaotic and even downright macabre in places. Although it was recorded prior to the lockdown, it uncannily seems to prefigure what the world has suffered this year.

The single 45-minute work begins with allusions to Renaissance polyphony fueled by the slightly off-key violins of C. Spencer Yeh and Samara Lubelski. Met by droning washes of harmonies from Susan Alcorn’s pedal steel, the atmosphere grows more ominous, Emily Manzo’s spare piano building funereal ambience.

Isabelle O’Connor’s similarly minimalist Rhodes piano enters the picture and suddenly a disorientingly syncopated clockwork interweave appears, with the flutters from drummers Chris Corsano, Ryan Sawyer and Ben Hall. From there it grows even loopier, circular riffs and nebulous atmospherics filtering through the mix in the vein of a contemporary, electronically-enhanced horror film score. It’s here that Wooley’s agitated, echoey lines first appear through the sonic thicket.

Sirening violins, broodingly steady Rhodes chords and a kaleidoscope of flickering noise ensue. It’s not clear where or even whether guitarists Ava Mendoza or Julien Desprez join in, or whether those scrapes which could be guitar strings are coming from the percussion section, until finally an icy, squalling patch played through an analog chorus pedal. It’s probably Mendoza but maybe not.

Drums and guitars and who knows what else reach a terrorized Brandon Seabrook-like stampede as the band hit fever pitch. The group bring it full circle with what seems to be a twisted parody of an organ prelude and a baroque chorale: the final mantra is “You can’t scare me.” This is by far the darkest, most psychedelic, and ultimately most assaultive segment in Wooley’s series yet, perhaps an inevitability considering the state of the world in 2020.

December 18, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment