Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Psychedelic Middle Eastern-Flavored Improvisation and a Brooklyn Show by Nadah El Shazly

Multi-instrumentalist singer Nadah El Shazly isn’t the only musician to explore the connection between highly improvisational, classic Egyptian music and American free jazz, but she’s one of the most purposeful and distinctive. El Shazly’s latest release Carte Blanche – streaming at Bandcamp – is an ep featuring Lebanese improvisational ensemble Karkhana. She’s headlinng an intriguing twinbill on April 24 at around 9 at Brooklyn Music School at 126 St Felix St, up the block and around the corner from BAM. Stefan Tcherepnin and Taketo Shimada’s dirgey duo project Afuma open the night at 8. Cover is $20; be aware that if you’re coming from outside the neighborhood, the closest train, the G, is not running, but the Atlantic Ave. station is just around the corner.

The album opens with the allusively creepy Prends-moi un Photo Pendant Que Je Pleure (French for “Take a Picture of Me While I’m Crying”), a blend of loopy, high, bubbling textures with gamelanesque ripples and pings. In between, El Shazly’s otherworldly, tectonic vocalese and stark, surreal oud spike the midrange. The second track – whose title translates roughly as “Lift the Sidewalk, I Can’t Figure Out Where to Go From Here” – begins with a gentle, deft series of exchanges – more of that gamelesque twinkle, plus elegant guitar clang, buzzy synth, and a backward masking effect. From there, it grows more emphatically percussive and surreal. Imagine Carol Lipnik, tied and muzzled, in a Cairo funhouse mirror.

The English translation of the title of the final cut is In My Mouth, Another Mouth, an electroacoustic trip-hop number with disembodied vocals and pulsing, insectile layers arranged around a simple, echoey sample. While there’s nothing distinctly Middle Eastern about the melody, such that there is one, remember that trip-hop is a rai beat that originated in Tunisia. El Shazly, an erudite oudist with a passion for early 20th century Egyptian improvisation, would probably want something like that to be acknowledged.

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April 22, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lisa Bielawa Makes a Memorable Conducting Debut at the New School

To what degree is iit a blessing, or a curse, for a conductor to make her debut with three world premieres? On one hand, it could be an overwhelming challenge. Until another orchestra plays those works, yours is the definitive version, for better or worse. On the other, it’s a chance to really shine,. Wednesday night at the New School, Lisa Bielawa did exactly that, leading the Mannes String Orchestra through lively debuts of arrangements of a couple of her own powerfully relevant pieces plus similarly striking contemporary works by Jon Gibson, David T. Little and a joyously swinging, dynamic finale with Philip Glass‘ Symphony No. 3.

Of course, Bielawa is best known as a composer, and a singer. She related how she’d been blown away by that symphony, shortly after joining the Philip Glass Ensemble as a vocalist, more or less straight out of Yale, 24 years ago. So she had the inside track for what was obviously a dream gig, seizing that moment with the same kind of muscular meticulousness that defines so much of her work.

So much of Glass’ music has a rapturously unfolding beauty that orchestras tend to play up the lustre factor, gliding through all those mesmerizing, shapeshifting phrases. This performance was much more bright and emphatic, in about as high definition as an ensemble can play it. Individual voices were strikingly distinct, notably violinists Yeji Pyun and Ann-Frances Rokosa, among the group’s nineteen members.
They danced through the playful, baroque-tinged humor in the first movement, tackled some daunting extended technique, notably glissandos and microtonal haze in the second, and accentuated the frequently shifting contrast between celestial sweep and trouble lurking just around the corner as the counterpoint grew more complex and intertwining.

The opening numbers were just as fascinating to wattch unfold. The ensemble arrived in threes for the opening work, Jon Gibson’s elegantly crescendoing Chorales for Relative Calm, with phrasing and more than one riff that sent a shout-out to Glass. Bielawa seemed at ease in her new role in front of the orchestra with that one, and really worked up a sweat with a pulsing, turbulent take of her own piece, The Trojan Women, pulling individual voices and clusters out of the increasing storm with Nielsen-esque color and aplomb.
The string orchestra arrangement of David T. Little’s 1986 – another world premiere – was even more of a challenge as the music leapfrogged between centuries and idioms, imgued with plenty of sarcasm and allusions to other works, and Bielawa and the ensemble held up to the challenge. 1986 was a pretty horrible year for just about everybody other than the Mets, and this piece doesn’t seem to include them.

Soprano Rowen Sabala emerged from the wings to sing two excerpts from Bielawa’s dystopic sci-fi opera Vireo and dispayed steely intensity as well as breathtaking range and a rare ability to enunciate, lyrically, something a lot of bigtime voices can’t do. Playing the role of a teenage visionary who exists simultaneously in three different centuries, she channeled both cynical contentment at being locked away at Alcatraz, away from her tormentors, along with surreal, hallucinatory angst.

Big up to the New School for getting to the guy who’s arguably the greatest American composer of the late 20th and early 21st century and setting up the Philip Glass Institute. Bielawa being their inaugural Composer-in-Residence, there will likely be more like this happening in the weeks to come.

April 19, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Alex Weiser Resurrects a Brilliantly Obscure Tradition of Jewish Art-Song

If you had the good fortune to work at an archive as vast as the YIVO Institute, as composer Alex Weiser does, wouldn’t you explore it? Weiser went deep, and here’s an example of what he found:

Wheel me down to the shore
Where the lighthouse was abandoned
And the moon tolls in the rafters

Let me hear the wind paging through the trees
And see the stars flaming out, one by one
Like the forgotten faces of the dead

I was never able to pray
But let me inscribe my name
In the book of waves

And then stare into the dome
Of a sky that never ends
And see my voice sail into the night

Edward Hirsch wrote that poem; Weiser set it to music, along with eight other texts, on his new album And All the Days Were Purple (streaming at Bandcamp). Tuesday night at YIVO’s comfortable ground-floor auditorium,  an allstar sextet of 21st century music specialists – singer Eliza Bagg, pianist Daniel Schlossberg, violinist Hannah Levinson, violist Maya Bennardo, cellist Hannah Collins and vibraphonist Michael Compitello – played an allusively harrowing take of what Weiser made out of that Hirsch text, along with four other tersely lustrous compositions. That particular number was assembled around a plaintive bell motif; the other works on the bill shared that crystalline focus.

The premise of Weiser’s album looks back to a largely forgotten moment in Russia in 1908 where a collective of Jewish composers decided to make art-song out of folk tunes. Much as composers have been pillaging folk repertoire for melodies and ideas for hundreds of years, it’s refreshing to see that Weiser has resurrected the concept…and a revelation to see what he managed to dig up for texts.

In addition to a swirling, cleverly echoey, suspensefully horizontal instrumental interlude, the group worked starry, hypnotic variations on an ascending theme in Longing, a barely disguised erotic poem by Rachel Korn. My Joy, with text by Anna Margolin – born in 1887, eleven years before Korn – was much more bitter than sweet, a lament for an unfulfilled life. And the simply titled Poetry, a setting of a deviously innuendo-fueled Abraham Sutzkever poem, was rather stern and still – it’s the closest thing to an art-rock ballad as the album has.

For the concert, Weiser also created new arrangements of a handful of songs from the St. Petersburg Society for Jewish Folk Music, with a similar stylistic sweep. A lullaby credited to Lazare Saminsky – who would go on to become music director at New York’s Temple Emmanu-El – and a rueful emigre’s lament by Alexander Veprik were allusively assembled around the kind of gorgeous chromatics and biting minor keys most of us tend to associate with Jewish themes. But a 1923 message to the diaspora by Joel Engel, another member of that circle, and a Saminsky setting of the Song of Songs, were more comfortably atmospheric. And the group took Weiser’s chart for a 1921 Moses Milner lullaby to unexpected heights on the wings of the strings. After the show, the audience filtered out for a mostly purple-colored food to celebrate the album’s release: honey-ginger cake from Russ and Daughters, who knew?

In addition to his work as a composer, Weiser is in charge of public programs at YIVO. The next musical performance is May 1 at 7 PM, with pianist Ted Rosenthal‘s jazz opera Dear Erich, inspired by his grandmother Herta’s letters from Nazi-occupied Germany to her son, who’d escaped to the US after Kristallnacht but was unable to get his parents out. Advance tickets are $15 and highly recommended. 

April 12, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Relive a Lost, Rarely Documented Era in New York Music History…and Discover a New One at the Roulette Archive

If you ran a club, would you record everything ever played there? Among venues around the world, never mind New York, Roulette probably holds the record for owning the most exhaustive archive of concert performances. Smallshas been documenting their own scene since the zeros, but Roulette goes back over two decades before then. What’s most astonishing is the wealth of material in the Roulette archive. Sure – virtually everyone who ever played a gig anywhere in the world where there’s an internet connection has been documented on youtube. But Roulette’s archive goes back to 1980, long before most people even had video cameras. It got a gala, mid-February relaunch, with a characteristically celestial, rippling performance by inventor, composer and one-man electric gamelan Pat Spadine a.k.a. Ashcan Orchestra.

Although Roulette has deep roots as a spot for free jazz, practically since the beginning they’ve been programming music and multidisciplinary work that few other venues would touch. The archive validates founder and trombonistJim Staley’s vision of how crucial that stubborn commitment to music at the furthest, most adventurous fringes would become. Staley originated the Roulette brand in the late 70s. As a New York venue, it opened as a jazz loft on West Broadway in 1980, eventually migrated to Wooster Street and now sits across from the site of another storied New York music hotspot that was forced to move, Hank’s, on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn.

Looking back, it’s astonishing to see how many artists who would become iconic, not only in the free jazz or avant garde demimondes, were part of the 80s Roulette scene. Shows from early in the decade featured a characteristically diverse cast: John Zorn, big band revivalist Jim McNeely and doomed polymath/indie classical pioneer Julius Eastman each played solo piano here. A young Ned Rothenberg led several ensembles, as did Butch Morris, refining his signature conduction in front of a relatively small (for him) improvisational ensemble.

Pauline Oliveros made her Roulette debut in 1984, Elliott Sharp and Bill Frisellthe following year. The earliest performance currently available online dates from 1985: the late Jerry Hunt building a swirl of insistent, astringent analog loops behind what must have been a spectacularly physical, outlandish performance. As the archive describes it, he was “Wearing his ubiquitous jacket and tie, with his equipment suitcase that doubled as a performance seat and percussion instrument, button controllers made from Bakelite dishes, optical sensors triggering video disks, fetish objects including shakers, sticks, and rattles made by David McManaway, and convincing all in attendance that they were watching a ceremonial magician.”

The next one is from October, 1986: Tenko and Kamura singing over skronky guitar and snapping, distorted bass, with Zeena Parkins on both her usual harp and also piano. Later that month the venue booked a night of all women improvisers: once again, Roulette was way ahead of its time.

From later in the decade, you can hear Tom Johnson’s 1978 composition Chord Catalogue, comprising the 8,178 chords that can be made using the notes in a single octave. ”The audio recording is interrupted briefly at the 74 minute point as the original recording media capacity was reached and the tape was changed.” Another rare treat is Frisell playing solo on March 13, 1989: “Solo guitar: electric, acoustic and banjo covering Thelonious Monk, Nino Rota, Disney soundtrack tunes, plus originals.”

The past twenty years are also represented: here’s a random, envelopingly ambient clip of sound sculptor and singer Lesley Flanigan from 2015. The venue also has the Roulette TV series up online, including both live performances and studio footage of artists they’ve championed recently.

These days Roulette keeps programming weird and often rapturously good stuff. Multimedia is big, but they still have regular free jazz, ambient and new orchestral and chamber music. In the past few years, they’ve also become a Brooklyn home for Robert Browning Associates’ annual slate of amazing performers playing traditional music from around the world. One such is this Friday, March 12 at 8 PM, a rare NYC concert of Indian veena music by virtuoso Jayanthi Kumaresh. You can get in for thirty bucks in advance.

April 11, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert | Leave a comment

Intense, Allusively Political Improvisational Epics from Amirtha Kidambi

Singer/keyboardist Amirtha Kidambi’s work spans the worlds of jazz, Indian music and the avant garde. The relentless angst of her vocals was the icing on the cake throughout Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl album. As she puts it, her latest release, From Untruth – streaming at Bandcamp – contains “Four pieces grappling with issues of power, oppression, capitalism, colonialism, white supremacy, violence and the shifting nature of truth. This music means to give the listener momentary relief from the anxiety and pain caused by living in our current reality.”

The first track is the hypnotic, almost fourteen-minute dirge Eat the Rich. Kidambi runs a loopy gothic harmonium riff; Matt Nelson plays his tenor sax through a pedalboard for icy, squiggly effects; bassist Nick Dunston pounces and prances. Kidambi scats an insistent carnatic riff in tandem with the sax, then takes over the music as well while drummer Max Jaffe adds minimalist, thumping flourishes in the background. “Eat the rich or die starving,” is her mantra on the way out.

Nelson’s otherworldly, zurla-like atmospherics mingle with Kidambi’s similarly uneasy vocalese and synth as Dance of the Subaltern opens, then the rhythm section kicks into an insistently pulsing 7/8 groove and everyone goes off to squall by themselves. Murky, toxically pooling synth and video gunners in space ensue before Kidambi returns, handling both sides of a simple and emphatic conversation weighing victory versus defeat. 

Tightly wound atonal clusters from the whole ensemble converge in Decolonize the Mind, which shifts to what sounds like ambient bagpipe music before Nelson’s wryly oscillating chromatic riffage signals a blazing bhangra-inflected crescendo. The album’s coda is the epic, fourteen minute-plus title track. The atmospheric intro brings to mind Amina Claudine Myers’ work with the AACM, then vocals and sax intertwine to a sardonic march beat before Kidambi allows a sense of guarded hope to filter in over anthemic, ominously looping synth. Nelson echoes that with the album’s most lyrical, soaring solo; elastically snapping solo bass ushers in an unresolved ending.

Kidambi is just back from Mary Halvorson tour and playing Luisa Muhr’s Women Between Arts series at the glass box theatre at the New School (the new Stone) on April 13 at 4 PM with dancer Leyna Marika Papach and choreographer Lilleth Glimcher. Cover is $20, but the series’ policy is not to turn anyone away for lack of funds,

March 31, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rumbling in Brooklyn with Josh Sinton

Friday night at Issue Project Room, Josh Sinton sat with his back to the audience in the middle of the stage, breathing into his contrabass clarinet. It’s a secondary instrument for him: his usual axe is the baritone sax, which he plays with some of New York’s most interesting big bands, notably Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society and Amir ElSaffar‘s Rivers of Sound.

The sound of the horn rumbled through a pedalboard and then a bass amp. In his black suit and matching fedora, he made a somber presence. It was clear from his silhouette, larger than life on the northern wall above the marble arch to the side of the stage, that he was breathing pretty hard. It takes a lot of air to fill those tubes. Sinton did that via circular breathing, in an almost nonstop, practically forty-minute improvisation. Is there an Olympic swimmer who can match that for endurance?

Likewise, the music conjured vast, oceanic vistas – when it wasn’t evoking an old diesel tractor. Several other machines came to mind: an encroaching lawnmower; a bandsaw; the hypnotically comforting thrum from the engine room of an ocean liner, through a heavy bulkhead. Overtones echoed, and pulsed, and sometimes hissed or howled, Sinton pulling back on the volume when that happened until the final ten minutes or so.

There was a point about halfway through when it felt utterly shameful to sit back, eyes closed, and get lost in the rumbling ambience, considering how hard Sinton was working to create such a calming effect. Finally, he opted not to pull away from the rising wall of feedback, letting it shriek as the throb of the amp became more like a jackhammer. Suddenly, what had been incredibly soothing was absolutely assaultive: a couple of people exited the front row. Finally, slowly and methodically, Sinton brought the atmosphere full circle to a barely audible wisp. And then silence.

Sinton calls this project Krasa – it’s a deliberate attempt to push himself out of his comfort zone to spur new creative tangents. Another completely different gig which Sinton has excelled at lately has been as the leader of Phantasos, a Morphine cover band. He had a residency with that trio last month at Barbes, putting a somewhat more slinky edge on Mark Sandman’s noir bounces and dirges. He had Dana Colley’s alternately gruff and plaintive sound down cold, and a rotating cast of bassists and drummers – notably Sam Ospovat- rose to the challenge of doing justice to such an iconic band. Much as Issue Project Room was close to sold out for Krasa, Phantasos could be a money gig to be proud of if Sinton could find the time. 

March 19, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, experimental music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Stormy Solo Cello Transcendence with Tamas Varga at Merkin Concert Hall

Last week at Merkin Concert Hall, the Vienna Philharmonic’s principal cellist, Tamas Varga played a transcendent, majestic solo concert built around Kodaly’s Sonata for Violincello. Aaron Jay Kernis, who was in the audience, demurred that he’d never heard the piece before Varga had commissioned him and two others to write solo works to accompany the Hungarian composer’s “great masterwork,” as he called it. He wasn’t kidding.

It’s a symphony for solo cello, requiring all sorts of extended technique: harmonics, simultaneous pizzicato and bowing, and maddening metric shifts, among other things. But Varga dug in with relish. Complicating matters is that the two lowest strings are downtuned, something that the rest of the pieces on the bill shared. Varga cut loose churning rivers of low-register chords before rising to a regal theme that sounded suspiciously sardonic. Distantly Bartokian acidity and Romany-tinged flair were muted in the adagio section but burst into bracing focus in the climactic third movement, which ended cold and unresolved. Throughout the work, Varga’s pacing enhanced the suspense, through a couple of wry Beethovenesque false endings, stormy gusts, brooding lulls and finally the flames that leapt from his bow.

The new pieces were fascinating as well. Kernis’ Blues for Mr. Z was the most allusive yet most resonantly colorful of the three. The composer related that just as Kodaly had drawn on the folk music of his native Hungary, he’d decided to incorporate some austere minor-key blues, which turned out more often than not to be implied rather than explicitly evoked.

Varga opened with a meticulously altered stroll through Gregory Vajda’s Captain Hume’s Last Pavin for Violincello. Inspired by a seventeenth-century rant by British composer Tobias Hume, it built toward several possible resolutions that never arrived. Laszlo Vidovszky’s Two Paraphrases for Violincello Solo, based on two themes from the Kodaly work, built enigmatically ambered variations and ended with a shout out to the composer’s shape note system which is ubiquitous in Hungarian music education. Did Kodaly get the idea from the American shape note system, which was very popular in religious and choral music in the early 1800s? That merits further study.

Varga closed with a plaintive, calmly paced, Bach-influenced miniature written by his son, who couldn’t make it to the show…because he was in school. How many young composers have such a brilliant advocate for their work as Varga? And how many brilliant cellists have kids who can write as poignantly as Varga’s son?

This concert was part of the High Note Hungary series staged by the Hungarian Cultural Center, who have been putting on some incredible shows around town over the last couple of years. The best way to stay on top of what’s happening is to get on their email list: this one was a late addition to the calendar.

March 18, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Julia Wolfe String Quartet Cycle at the Jewish Museum: A Major Moment in New York Music History

This past evening a sold-out crowd at the Jewish Museum witnessed what could have been a once-in-a-lifetime event: the first-ever live performance of the Julia Wolfe string quartet cycle on a single bill. On one hand, it’s kind of a shock that it took the composer’s own organization, Bang on a Can, to stage it. Sure, Wolfe’s string quartets are taxing to play, but so are Bartok’s, and hundreds of groups play the Bartok cycle. And Wolfe’s profile has never been higher: it’s hard to remember the last time the New York Philharmonic built a weekend around a work by another living composer, as they did with her epic cantata Fire in My Mouth back in January.

Assuming she writes another string quartet or two – hardly out of the question – putting five or more on a single program would be next to impossible, which would make this night even more historic. Wolfe was in the front row and revealed how she’d been moved to tears by Ethel’s performance of the most recent work on the bill, Blue Dress for String Quartet, so it made sense to give them the herculean task of playing all four this time. And the group captured lightning in a bottle.

It took immense stamina and persistence to get it all in there. All four of the works employ long, slowly mutating, sometimes utterly hypnotic passages of emphatic, insistent quarter notes (and often considerably faster volleys as well). Over the course of almost two hours onstage, violist Ralph Farris, cellist Dorothy Lawson, violinists Corin Lee and Kate Dreyfuss (the latter subbing for Kip Jones) didn’t miss a beat, no small achievement.

They began with Blue Dress, which, like so much of Wolfe’s work, draws on Americana, in this case the old folk song Little Girl with a Blue Dress On. Wolfe cautioned the crowd that this particular girl is fierce. Echoes of Philip Glass and Louis Andriessen blended into a twisted quasi-Appalachian sound world with relentless intensity and sarcasm that bordered on savagery, as the old folk tune filtered in and out of the picture. There was some wry clog-dancing and singing too. Little Girl? As if! This may have been state-of-the-art, end-of-the-decade serious concert music, but the ethos was vintage punk rock.

The other string quartets dated from the 90s. Dig Deep, Wolfe explained, was all about searching, written at a time when she felt “crazy” because she was having trouble trying to conceive. The ensemble worked the contrasts between wisps of hope and crushing reality with a knowing soberness grounded by Lawson’s pitchblende cello resonance. Lee got to give the music a breather with a Vivaldi-esque passage; Farris delivered the ending with cold matter-of-factness.

Four Marys, Wolfe said, was inspired by a Jean Ritchie murder ballad as much as by the “crude, crying sound” of the only stringed instrument she plays, the mountain dulcimer. Creeping up and around a central note, sometimes with slow, lingering glissandos, the ensemble maintained a lush intensity.

They closed with Early That Summer, the one piece that most closely foreshadowed Wolfe’s harrowing Cruel Sister string piece from 2012. She’d written this one in Amsterdam after reading Kai Bird’s The Chairman: John J. McCloy and the Making of the American Establishment, a prophetic book to encounter in the era of GATT, NAFTA and corporate sovereignty over democratically elected governments. Wispy microtones and slow upward trajectories built white-knuckle suspense, a relentlessly troubled mood amidst the calm, Lawson’s cello a stygian river of sound.

The monthly Bang on a Can concert series at the Jewish Museum continues on May 23 at 8 PM with avant garde vocal icon Meredith Monk and two members of her Vocal Ensemble, Katie Geissinger and Allison Sniffin; tix are $20/$16 stud/srs and are still available as of today but probably won’t be much longer. Ethel’s next gig is March 16 starting around 5 PM at the balcony bar at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the performance is free with museum admission.

February 28, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Trumpeter Steph Richards Brings Her Devious Sense of Humor to Lefferts Gardens Saturday Night

The cover illustration for trumpeter Steph Richards’ solo album Fullmoon (streaming at Bandcamp) shows an open palm holding what could be a postcard of the moon – a pretty warped moon, anyway. But when you click on the individual tracks to play them (on devices that play mp3s, anyway), it turns out that’s a phone the hand is holding, and you’re taking a selfie. Truth in advertising: Richards’ music is deviously fun. She’s bringing her horn and her pedal to a show at the Owl on March 2 at 9 PM; ten bucks in the tip bucket helps ensure she’ll make more appearances at that welcoming, well-appointed listening room.

The album’s opening track, New Moon is based around a catchy, repetitive two-note riff, spiced with gamelanesque electronic flickers via Dino J.A. Deane’s sampler, with unexpected squall at the end. The second number, Snare develops from a thicket of echo effects, insectile sounds and breathy bursts, to a wry evocation of a snare drum. Then, with Piano, Richards moves from desolate, echoey, minimalist phrases to wryly cheery upward swipes: the title doesn’t seem to have anything to do with either the instrument or the dynamic.

The coy humor of the atmospheric miniature Half Moon introduces the album’s first diptych, Gong, which develops into a querulous little march, then a weird kaleidoscope of polyrhythms. Timpani doesn’t sound anything like kettledrums; instead, it’s a funny bovine conversation that all of a sudden grows sinister – although the ending is ridiculously amusing. The album ends with the title track, Richards developing a complicated conversation out of late-night desolation in the first part, then a barnyard of the mind (or the valves). Her levity is contagious – and she’s capable of playing with a lot more savagery than she does here, something that wouldn’t be out of the question to expect Saturday night in Lefferts Gardens.

February 27, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Profoundly Entertaining, Interactive Night of Operatic Fun at the Edge of Chinatown

At his sold-out show last night to close a weekend of performances at the Abrons Arts Center, countertenor Ju-eh hit high notes that were as disconcerting as they were spectacular. It was a profound and often profoundly funny display of awe-inspiring technique matched with witty banter and deep insight into the relationship between audience and performer. In an era where more and more, the act onstage becomes a mere backdrop for social media posturing by wannabes in the crowd, Ju-eh’s generous interaction with the audience had unusual resonance.

He made his entrance from the side of the stage with a soaring aria by Handel over a solo organ recording. Seated centerstage, his verbal sparring partner Hwarg worked a series of mixers and laptop. Although Ju-eh was wearing a skirt, he revealed in a lengthy Q&A after the show that he didn’t choose that to be genderqueer: rather, it was a historical reference to an era when pretty much everyone wore the same robe, or the same daishiki. The rest of the outfit – plain white shirt and blue thermal socks, his hair knotted with a stick – mirrored his background as a Chinese-born New York avant garde artist who’s built a career singing western opera.

He and his collaborator call this piece Living Dying Opera: he lives to sing it, but it’s also killing him sometimes. Self-doubt quickly became a persistent theme, most poignantly portrayed via a plaintive John Dowland version of an old English air. Ju-eh’s voice reached for the rafters with an imploring wail as he crouched in the corner in the darkness, holding a simple lamp, Diogenes-style. On one hand, it’s reassuring to know that someone with such prodigious talent can also be self-critical; on the other, if this guy isn’t satisfied with his achievements, how about us mere mortals?

After the show, he explained that he always wants audiences at his performances to feel loved. That assessment in many respects makes a lot of sense, in that a lot of people go to a performance to transcend, to see themselves in the music or the narrative and come out on the other side to a better place. What he didn’t address is that audiences all too often have other, similarly self-involved reasons for going out. Whether watching something on Facebook Live and texting all your ‘friends” about it confers the same status as taking a selfie at the actual show, with the performer somewhere in the background, is open to debate.

But even with all that talent and that resume, Ju-eh remains a fish out of water, even in the rarefied world of countertenors. He explained that most operatic roles written for men singing in a soprano’s range are antagonists: they’re supposed to sound evil. Ju-eh’s voice, and his style, don’t fit that mold: they’re especially robust, an endless, thick rope ladder reaching into the clouds, with a muscular vibrato to match. Although he’s working in a range usually limited to women, he doesn’t hear his own voice as female, and he shouldn’t: it’s uniquely his.

There were a lot of very amusing, sometimes coy, sometimes disarmingly down-to-earth extemporaneous moments where he and Hwarg discussed how well, or not so well, the show was progressing. There were also points where he took crowd members and put them centerstage, then continued singing from their seats. The most haunting of those moments was when he delivered a stark, aching verse and chorus of Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child from the front row.

The after-show Q&A kept the audience as engaged as the performance itself did. The funniest revelation was that Ju-eh had come up with a brief interlude where he lay on the floor in order to give himself a breather rather than to add any kind of meaning. The man he’d pulled from the crowd to stand onstage – as “Mr. Mango” – confided that he’d encouraged Ju-eh to pick him because he wanted to find out if the other audience members had also been chosen randomly, or if they were shills. Over and over again, Ju-eh’s most existential questions of identity resonated more profoundly than anything else in this provocative encounter sponsored by the New York Chinese Culture Salon.

February 24, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, experimental music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, opera, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment