“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.
As yesterday’s wryly named Super Bolus at Footlight Bar in Ridgewood got underway, it felt strange just to sit and watch Typically, improvising musicians all end up playing with each other. Fifteen minutes into the show, that moment appeared. The long trip to the Cloisters a couple of weeks ago to jam a Pauline Oliveros chorale turned out to be useful practice!
After a duo set with trumpeter Daniel Levine, where Rallidae tenor saxophonist Angela Morris had introduced a jaunty Mardi Gras theme of sorts and the two had gracefully intertwined with it, eventually taking it down to misty ambience and then back, she left the stage and went into the crowd.
Drawing us closer to her, she led what seemed for a minute to be a ditzy yoga mantra – “Beauty is above me, below me, around me,” that sort of thing. Instead, it turned out to be a round where she encouraged everyone to sing either a specific part or a sustained note. The resulting web of voices and close harmonies that converged on a warm center was as otherworldly as it was fun to be part of. In moments like this, there’s no thinking involved. Anyone can do it: the music tells you what it needs, all you have to do is pay attention. That’s pretty much what everybody on this often rapturously fun bill did in over three hours of music.
As organizer Dave Ruder put it, the premise of the show was either improvisation, new material or reinventions of previously released compositions from other members of the Gold Bolus circle.
Anne Rhodes of Broadcloth joined voices with Anais Maviel, who anchored Sam Sowyrda’s virtuosic vibraphone work on the evening’s next improvisation with her minimalist pulse on a small-scale kora lute. Rhodes’ full, emotive soprano contrasted with Maviel’s more low-key nuance and extended technique, trombone and trumpet-like sputters included, while Sowyrda rippled and pinged and bowed his bells for sepulchral textures, at one point taking the music so far down that it was almost imperceptible. That, or he was just messing with the audience.
Kills to Kisses leader and bassist Lisa Dowling blended haunting Middle Eastern allusions and fiery but terse flamenco riffs into a dynamic set of Kate Bush-inflected art-rock loopmusic. Arguably the high point of the show was when oboeist Dave Kadden, of Invisible Circle, played volleys of microtonal tension against a central tone, his diabolical. virtuosically jajouka-esque phrasing manipulated by a guy with a laptop, which sometimes worked, and sometimes didn’t. By itself, the echo effect wasn’t ultimately even necessary, although admittedly it did add a deliciously dark resonance. This was a relentlessly searching, imploring call to arms. Amir ElSaffar played a very similar one of these solo on trumpet at a gig earlier in the year and this was every bit as inspiring. Clearly, it’s a meme among players of wind instruments.
Singing and playing guitar, Ruder – joined by Dowling and saxophonist Erin Rogers, on soprano – had fun with a number about being unable to move in a straight line, literally and metaphorically. Solo on accordion, Brian McCorkle sang a dadaesque, viciously sarcastic Rogers suite on a love-versus-money theme, and had a great time chewing the scenery: the audience loved it. In contrast, the trio of Morris, Sowyrda and keyboardist Ellen O ended the show with a raptly Eno-like ambient soundscape.
This show was typical of the Gold Bolus stable. Many of the artists lean toward the theatrical or performance art; their home base is the Panoply Performance Lab space in Bushwick. And Dowling is at the Gateway, 1272 Broadway in Bushwick on Feb 23, time TBA. Take the J to Gates Ave.
If you think that group improvisation is challenging for an instrumentalist, try doing that as a vocalist – along with about hundred and twenty other singers. Friday afternoon at the Cloisters, WQXR’s Nadia Sirota led a determined ensemble of college kids, tourists and at least one proprietor of a music blog through two performances of Pauline Oliveros’ 1971 improvisational chorale Tuning Meditation, the shorter of which will be broadcast on Sirota’s Meet the Composer.
The intimate sonics and medieval polished marble ambience of the Fuentidueña Chapel there made for a choice of venue that did justice to the composer who fine-tuned the concept of deep listening. Beyond a few gaggles of college-age friends, it didn’t appear that any of the singers knew each other. While it also wasn’t clear what percentage of the participants were trained or had performing experience, many of them, especially the women, turned out to have strong and expressive vocal range. Having been in the audience at what might have been Oliveros’ final New York performance – a lustrously crafted, largely improvisational set in Fort Greene in 2015 where she played accordion alongside members of International Contemporary Ensemble – there’s no question that she would have found this experience validating.
The instructions for the piece – an etude, essentially, designed to build listening and collaborative skills – were very simple, Sirota explained. You take a deep breath – in both senses of the word – then you hit a pitch of your choice (and hopefully maintain it). Your second note matches one sung by one of your choirmates; your third is a pitch that has not been used before. Barely a minute elapsed before the slowly but methodically shifting blend of voices had combined to produce just about every note that a human voice can reach.
The music itself was enveloping, and otherworldly, and often absolutely magical, in both an unselfconscious and very self-conscious way. The latter became a central issue because the singers started out rather tentatively, no one ever reaching for the rafters throughout about twenty-five minutes worth of music. But in the context of this performance, cutting loose and belting wouldn’t have worked.
Which was a challenge, as anyone who’s ever fronted a band, or sung in a choir, or harmonized around a guitar or a piano would realize. It’s one thing to stay on key while you’re projecting; it’s another thing to hold a long tone quietly. But everyone was game, and stayed focused to the point that a rhythmic cycle developed, the echoey mist of notes contracting toward a center and then expanding outward.
What was it like to be part of the choir? It was hard work, not only singing alongside some terrific voices, but matching their pitches and resonances. Ironically, it was more daunting to find a rhythm within the music’s elegant sway than if there had been a steady beat to follow. It was also easy to get hopelessly lost: was that last note supposed to be a new one, or a match for somebody else’s? After awhile, it became hard to keep track. As the improvisation went on, higher pitches began to stand out, as women in the crowd became more expressive – or had run out of lower notes. This resulted in extra sparkle and lustre – and also created the need for balance on the low end.
Which is a biased argument. If you buy the premise that low registers should be utilized whenever feasible – a stereotypical bass player-like point of view – that development opened up plenty of space for extra anchorage in the bass clef. Which is where the opportunity to cheat and go off script proved irresistible. If you manage to catch Sirota’s broadcast and hear a long series of simple, long-tone variations on the E below middle C during the last five minutes or so, let’s hope they’re on key. If not, you know who to blame.
As a participant, what was the takeaway? Oliveros’ etude is everything she meant it to be, a great exercise in listening, and vocal control, and being a good bandmate in general. It’s worth repeating, especially if your own creative music is limited to playing an instrument. Any group of people can do this, anywhere: the glorious natural reverb of an old stone chapel is a luxury option.
While this performance certainly qualified as microtonal, trying to sing microtonally turned out to be anything but easy. An internal autotune kicked in, along with a tendency to resolve to a nearby pitch. Clearly, to paraphrase Wadada Leo Smith, the tyranny of the key of C runs deep. So here’s a variation on Oliveros for the microtonally-challenged:
1. Take a deep breath and exhale the note of your choice.
2. Choose a pitch just a hair lower or higher than your neighbor’s, but not a sharp or a flat in the western scale. It could be a halftone, or a quartertone, or something more shady. And hold it!
3. Take that note you just sang and sharp it.
4. Repeat steps 1-3!
Sarah Small’s work draws you in and then makes you think. It says, “Get comfortable, but not too comfortable.” It questions, constantly. Throughout her fascinating, understatedly provocative multimedia work Secondary Dominance last night at Here – part of this year’s Prototype Festival – there was so much happening onstage that the leader of the Q&A afterward confessed to having a page worth of notes and no idea where to start.
Executive produced by Rachelle Cohen, the roughly hourlong performance began immediately as the audience settled into their seats, a warm, lustrous voice singing a gorgeous love song in Arabic wafting over the PA. Who was responsible for this gentle and reassuring introduction? It turned out to be Small’s Black Sea Hotel bandmate Shelley Thomas, seated stage right with an assortment of drums and percussion implements.
About midway through, the composer herself emerged from behind her two keyboards and mixing desk – mounted on a podium colorfully decorated like a curbside shrine out of the George Lucas universe – and stooped over, to the side as a trio of dancers – Jennifer Keane, Eliza S. Tollett and Carmella Lauer, imaginatively choreographed by Vanessa Walters – floated on their toes. Meanwhile, Small’s chalked-up collaborator Wade McCollum lurked tenuously behind her as her calmly uneasy vocalese mingled with the atmospherics looming from Marta Bagratuni’s cello, Peter Hess’ flute and Thomas’ voice and drums. A simultaneous projection of the action onstage played on a screen overhead, capturing Small’s lithely muscular, spring-loaded presence in shadowy three-quarter profile.
McCollum’s wordless narrative behind Small’s music explores power dynamics, memory and family tension. Gloria Jung and Henry Packer exuded regal integrity and a stolidity that cut both ways: there was a moment where someone tried to pry something out of someone’s hand that was as cruelly funny as it was quietly vaudevillian. Ballet school, its rigors and demands was another metaphorically-loaded, recurrent motif, and the dancers held up under duress while barely breaking a sweat. McCollum’s ghostly character didn’t emerge from a fetal position until the spectacle had been underway for awhile, which ended up transcending any ordinary, otherworldly association.
What was otherworldly was the music, which, characteristically, spans the worlds of indie classical, art-rock and the Balkan folk traditions that Small has explored so vividly, as a singer, arranger and composer since her teens. What’s most notable about this surreal, nonlinear suite is that while it encompasses Balkan music – with brief, acerbic, closer harmonies sung by Small, Thomas, Bagratuni and McCollum, in addition to a projection of a lustrously lit seaside Black Sea Hotel music video directed by Josephine Decker – the majority of it draws on western influences. Inspired by a series of dreams and an enigmatic, recurrent character named Jessica Brainstorm – who may be an alter ego – the sequence has the same cinematic sweep as Small’s work for the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, grounded by Bagratuni’s austere, sometimes grim low register, Hess sailing warily overhead, sometimes mingling with the voices and electronic ambience. As the show went on, the music grew more detailed, with interludes ranging from gently pulsing, midtempo 80s darkwave, to rippling nocturnal themes evocative of Tuatara’s gamelanesque mid-90s psychedelia.
The work as a whole is a stunning example of how Small so often becomes the focal point of a collaboration that brings out the best in everyone involved. Over the years, these efforts cross a vast swath of art forms: from her playfully ambitious body of photography in the early zeros, to Black Sea Hotel, to her surrealistically sinister starring role in Decker’s cult classic suspense/slasher film Butter on the Latch, and her lavish “tableaux vivants” staged earlier in this decade, equal parts living sculpture, slo-mo dance flashmob, dada theatre and fearless exploration of intimacy in an era of atomization, data mining and relentless surveillance. Small and McCollum have plans for both a more small-scale, “chamber version” of this piece as well as an epic 1200-person version for the Park Avenue Armory, still in the early stages of development. For now, you can be provoked and thoroughly entertained at the remaining three performances at 9 PM, tonight, Jan 12 through 14 in the downstairs theatre at Here, 145 6th Ave south of Spring (enter on Dominick Street). Cover is $30.
Lesley Flanigan is sort of this decade’s counterpart to Laurie Anderson. Like Anderson, Flanigan has a background in sculpture, which informs her dynamic, sometimes disarmingly intimate, sometimes toweringly lush soundscapes. Where Anderson leads an ensemble on violin or keys, Flanigan creates her aural sculptures with layers of vocals and custom-made speakers, which she builds herself and utilizes for subtle layers of feedback. She has a characteristially enveloping, hypnotic new album, Hedera – streaming at Bandcamp – and a show on April 1 (no joke) at 7 PM at National Sawdust, sharing a bill with similarly adventurous vocalists C Spencer Yeh, Daisy Press & Nick Hallet, and Maria Chavez. Cover is $20
The album comprises two epic tracks. The title cut, set to the looping, trance-inducing rhythm of a broken tape deck, subtly builds variations on an otherworldly, strangely disquieting two-chord vamp. Without effects, Flanigan sings in a strong yet ethereal voice that takes on an even more otherworldly quality as she subtly adds layers and layers of to the mix, with subtle changes in reverb, rhythm and timbre. As the piece rise to the level of a fullscale choir, Flanigan caps it with a lead line that soars overhead with uncharacteristic angst. The dynamic underneath – cold mechanical loop versus reassuringly immersive human voices – underscores that unease. But as the voices reach a long peak at the end, there’s a sense of triumph in the sonic cathedral.
The second track – the b-side, if you want – is Can Barely Feel My Feet. Flanigan’s minute shifts in pitch add an enigmatic edge to the lustrous resonance, raised sevefal notches when oscillations from the speakers come into play. While Flanigan’s music is typically dreamy and peaceful, she gives herself a real workout in live performance. There’s practically a dance component to her stage work, lithe and agile as she tirelessly glides and scooches between her mixing board and speakers, even more impressive considering that all the while she doesn’t miss a beat and her voice continues to resonate, unwaveringly.
Longtime LaMaMa impresario Nicky Paraiso reminded last night’s sold-out crowd at Object Collection’s latest experimental opera, Cheap & Easy October, that the experience would be what used to be called “total theatre” back in the 80s – a description that really nailed it. With a tight, often scorchingly intense four-piece band playing behind a ratty knitted curtain of sorts and cast members scampering, leaping and chasing each other around the stage, it’s more of a concert with a cast acting out a dadaesque video of sorts than it is anything else. And what a show it is. As immersive and pummeling as composer Travis Just’s score is, it’s far less abrasive than it is enveloping: you are drawn into the heart of the cyclotron, violently thrust out or, surprisingly, cast gently into a starlit reverie. Earplugs will be handed out, hut you don’t really need them. The run at LaMaMa is coming to a close, with final performances tonight, October 17 and then tomorrow at 10 PM; tix are $18/$13 stud/srs.
The band shifts abruptly but strangely elegantly through dreampop, post-hardcore and Mogwai-esque nightmarescapes, with acidic mid-80s Sonic Youth close harmonies, furious percussive interludes that recall taiko drumming, moments of what seem to be free improvisation, and echoes of the cumulo-nimbus swirl of guitarist Taylor Levine’s quartet Dither. Violinist Andie Springer uses a lot of extended technique and nails-down-the-blackboard harmonics; she also plays bass. Explosive drummer Owen Weaver doubles on Telecaster, while keyboardist Aaron Meicht also adds the occasional trumpet flourish or joins the stomp on a couple of floor toms.
The text – drawn from Soviet revolutionary histories by Leon Trotsky and John Reed as well as conversations between writer/director Kara Feely and cast member Fulya Peker (whose butoh background informs the simmering menace she channels throughout the show) veers from lickety-split spoken word to a bizarre, falsettoey singsong. Sardonic symbolism is everywhere: there’s a zombie apocalypse subplot, a telephone gets abused, and swordplay abounds. The rest of the cast – Deborah Wallace, Daniel Allen Nelson, Tavish Miller and Avi Glickstein – take on multiple roles, some of them living, some of them presumably dead.
There’s some toying with poststructuralist japes, springboarding off the premise that if you control the conversation, you control the situation. “Do you think a revolution of words can be as profound as an actual revolution?” one of the cast poses in one of the performance’s less chaotic moments. Much of the iconography in the set is sarcastic and ultimately portends a lot of very gloomy endings: as Feely and Just see it, revolutions tend to disappoint.
No less august a personality than Robert Ashley gave this group’s work the thumbs-up. For those who need their ideas packaged neatly and cohesively, this isn’t going to work. And it raises fewer questions than it intimates – which by itself is reason to see this provocative piece, one more nuanced than its sonic cauldron might initially suggest.
Let’s say you’re a keyboardist and sick of the same old notes: as Wadada Leo Smith would say, maybe you feel hemmed in by the “tyranny of the key of C.” Maybe you want to voice the kind of in-between notes that a fretless instrument can deliver…or you want to go inside the piano a la George Crumb…or you’ve got a fondness for microtones or weird tunings in general. But as much as you’d like to bring in a real piano that you can play around with and/or torture a little, there’s no way it’s going to fit through your doorframe, or up the five rickety flights of stairs to your place…and you can’t afford a crane and a crew to pop out the window and put it back in again. Not to worry: Dan Trueman‘s new Bitklavier software, compatible with any MIDI keyboard, will empower you many times over. To illustrate its many capabilities, Trueman has a new album, Nostalgic Synchronic, played by So Percussion‘s Adam Sliwinski and streaming at Bandcamp. The album release show features Sliwinski and So Percussion, pianist Cristina Altamura playing Bach, and Trueman airing out his chops on the hardanger fiddle this Tuesday, October 6 at 7:30 PM at le Poisson Rouge. There will also be Bitklavier workstations set up for adventurous keyboardists to have fun with. Advance tix are $15.
To what degree is this album a demo reel – lookit all the wild things my gizmo can do! – and how genuinely musical is it? Obviously, Trueman is having a ball with all the echo and backward-masking and pitch-bending effects, and as much as his eight etudes here seeem obviously designed with those things in mind, the music is more listenable than you might expect – and trippy beyond belief. An apt comparison is Vijay Iyer‘s work on the actual acoustic prepared piano on Hafez Modirzadeh‘s cult classic Postchromadal Out! album from a couple of years ago. The first track is minimalist, steadily rhythmic and staccato, showcasing how subtly and intricately echo can be deployed, along with minute changes in pitch that are all the more prominent considering the tune’s static quality. The slow second piece mimics the almost glacial shifts of tidal motion, with gentle variances in rhythm – an important and useful feature of the software – and the decay of notes. The third takes a simple, folksy melody and quickly disassembles it, with dizzying, rhythmically altered echo: imagine an acid flashback experience of slapback reverb.
Track four has creepy fun with a steady raindroplet tune. The one after that, a homage to Norwegian pianist Christian Wallumrød, wastes no time shifting from what promises to be a Beatlesque psychedelic rock stroll and then offers a look at how the software could be applied to blues or jazz riffage. Etude six is especially tuneful, a jauntily echoing, balletesque number exploring the software’s rhythmic effect on counterpoint: the point seems to be, “see, you can play Bach with this.” The seventh piece, an old Norwegian folk melody transposed from its original strange tuning to an arguably even stranger new one, relates to how neoromantic phrases can be cut, pasted and staggered. The concluding etude, slow and steady, offers a delightfully menacing hint at where David Lynch could go with this. Let’s see – there’s a new Twin Peaks series coming up, isn’t there?
Jane LeCroy and Bradford Reed‘s kinetically hypnotic, thought-provoking performance last night at Dixon Place was a booster shot to the synapses. Becoming immersed in their performance was like re-reading Steppenwolf, or La Nausée, a gut check to make sure all systems are still working. Reed played not his famous invention, the pencilina, but a thicket of multicolored wires and effects, like something from under the hood of Martin Rev’s earliest synthesizer. Reed activated it by beating out a steady, syncopated groove on a snare and and an ominous-looking, upside-down, jet-black steel chemical drum, then running those beats through the maze of wires and boxes for textures that varied from bleeps and bloops to gentle pulses and washes. The chemistry between the two performers was intuitive, varying the dynamics as the emotional arc of LeCroy’s vocals and poetry rose and fell. Meanwhile, time-lapse footage of boats on the Hudson and cloud formations overhead flitted and shifted shape, projected on a screen above the stage.
LeCroy alternated between a tersely considered spoken-word delivery imbued with a puckish existentialist humor, and hazy, dreamy vocals informed by vintage boudoir soul music. On the night’s most dramatic and intense piece, her voice took on a stern, stark, defiant quality that drew heavily on centuries-old African-American spirituals. Steadily and methodically, she drew the audience in and never let them go. Trying to figure out what was improvised and what was not was a lot of fun. As the music and grooves unwound, it was hard not to get lost in them, but LeCroy’s sometimes gentle, sometimes biting challenges to the audience peppered the reverie and, intentionally or not, jarred the crowd out of their dream state.
The grim progression of time, and by implication, the ravages of age, were recurrent themes. LeCroy offered matter-of-fact cajolement to anyone willing to listen, to exercise their freedom and seize the moment. But her tightly crystallized litany of images and mantras owed far more to Sartre or Kierkegaard than to any new age source. Her funniest stream of consciousness rap involved teeth and what happens to them when they’re neglected. Her final piece was an improvisation based on themes suggested by the audience, which turned out to be kindness and smoke. How she wove those images together into a bigger picture, bringing her calmly determined, angst-fueled contemplation full circle, was as subtly amusing as it was nonchalantly and unselfconsciously profound: LeCroy loves double entendres and subtext and can’t resist employing as much as she can come up with, on the fly, plotting her next move. The experience was as therapeutic as it was challenging.
Bora Yoon is a connoisseur of high, ringing sounds, and the things that make them. Wednesday night at La MaMa, in the first of a four-day run of her new program Sunken Cathedral, she employed her signature instrument, singing bowls, in addition to rattles, chimes, a music box, pizzicato violin and several items typically found on the stove or in the cupboard. She also played piano, tersely and evocatively, in a thoroughly opiated Erik Satie-meets-Cab Calloway vein, acting out a surrealistic, shadowy, existential one-woman play of sorts against a shapeshifting prerecorded backdrop incorporating both electronic atmospherics and snatches of material from her enveloping, enigmatic new album from which the production takes its name.
Onstage, the exit and re-entry point was the grandfather clock in the corner, giving Yoon the chance to change costumes – and also allow for flitting appearances by a male dancer dressed in traditional Korean garb, complete with twirling tassel atop his colorful cap. Yoon bookended the performance with pre-renaissance vocal works augmented by atmospherics: she has a crystalline chorister’s voice and held the sold-out crowd rapt along with her. In between, she took brief detours into brooding art-rock, lengthy, nebulous vocalese sculptures and a couple of horror-film interludes complete with scary shadow puppetry and projections. Early on, she got an almost imperceptible doppler effect going with what looked like a crystal on a spinning turntable, a more subtle take on an old Andrew Bird shtick.
The theme of the album – recently reviewed here – and the show are something along the lines of “if you don’t make your life happen, it’ll happen to you.” Despite the pretty relentlessly moody ambience, what was most striking was how absolutely hilarious Yoon can be. A couple of momentary appearances by Yoon’s mom speaking animated Koreanglish into her voicemail drew predictable chuckles. But the funniest sequence involved a countertop, an oven and the things around it. The sight gags were priceless, and it wouldn’t be fair to spoil them – suffice it to say that Yoon is hardly the first person to peel and then munch on a carrot while singing, but she didn’t let it throw her off, pitchwise or otherwise, no small achievement. The rest of the La MaMa run, continuing through tomorrow night as part of this year’s Prototype Festival, is sold out, but there is a wait list and several people on that list made it into Wednesday’s show.