It’s likely that there’s a crowd of people who think the idea of playing classical music on bluegrass instruments is flat-out absurd. Then again, music is always evolving, and the musicians pushing that evolution are usually the bravest. The Jake Schepps Quintet have chops to match their utter lack of fear. Wednesday night at Subculture, the five-string banjoist and his group – Ryan Drickey on violin, Jordan Tice on acoustic guitar, Andrew Small on bass and Matt Flinner on mandolin – played an ambitious program that encompassed so-called indie classical as well as Nordic fiddling and a healthy dose of traditional Appalachian music. At worst, they came across as a less fussy take on the Punch Brothers; at best, they took a lot of chances, danced on cinders and came away for the most part unsinged.
The centerpiece of the program was Flinner’s four-part Migration, a vivid, uneasy suite that, as the mandolinist explained to a pretty full house, sought to explore how bluegrass made its way from rural areas to larger population centers like Knoxville and Baltimore. Growing from a stern, terse, ruggedly minor-key gospel theme, it slowly brightened, although it ended with a lingering lack of resolve. Along the way, there were plenty of choice moments for soloists throughout the band, at one point Small pushing a waltz interlude with a practically new wave bassline. And it worked as well as it did, because, as Schepps put it, Flinner comes out of “the tradition” and never lost sight of it, no matter how minimalist, or avant garde, or for that matter, cinematic, the piece became.
Small revealed himself as an inspired country fiddler on an animatedly pulsing, biting, original bluegrass number on which the band was joined by a guest bassist who just happened to be in town. Tice alternated between big, expansive, jazzy chords and nimble flatpicking, particularly on an elaborate, dynamically-charged, waltzing original. Drickey led the group through a bracing number from the Swedish-Norwegian border which gave the quintet a launching pad for plenty of high-octane solos.
The night got off to a slow start with a couple of works by contemporary composers from outside the group. The first was gingerly blues-tinged, with the unfocused yet cautious feel of a student work, one that came across as trying to avoid failure rather than reaching for victory. The second rehashed Steve Reich and Windham Hill with the kind of preciousness that plagues so much of the indie classical demimonde. So when Schepps led the group from there into a mashup of a Bartok Mikrokosmos etude (#87, maybe?) and a high lonesome traditional number, it took awhile for the band to shake off the stiffness. One up-and-coming composer that the group ought to seek out is mandolinist Vivian Li, whose irrepressible, distinctive style is a richly intertwining blend of traditional bluegrass and cutting-edge contemporary composition for traditional folk instruments.
The Jake Schepps Quintet is currently on tour; their next concert is Feb 7 at 8 PM at the Theatre at 291 Gay St. in Washington, VA, tix are $20/$10 18-and-under.
Anyone who thinks classical music is stuffy didn’t go out into the storm last night to see Karine Poghosyan play Beethoven at the DiMenna Center. Joining her in an uproariously conspiratorial performance of the Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 15 and then switching gears with a fiery, impassioned take of the Piano Concerto No. 3, Op. 37 were conductor David Bernard and a good proportion of the majestically sweeping Park Avenue Chamber Symphony. The first part of the performance was like watching two good friends share a long, amusing yarn, making sure at the same time that everyone in the audience was in on it. It’s as if Bernard had pulled Poghosyan aside during rehearsal and said something like, “Look, we both know how funny Beethoven is. Let’s see who besides us and the orchestra gets this, huh?”
To which Poghosyan probably replied with a wink (she made her orchestral debut with this same piece while still in middle school). And the synergy worked like a charm, Poghosyan’s erudite wit matched to Bernard’s usual meticulously dynamic direction. Some of the humor in the first of the concertos is rather subtle and deadpan but much of it is very broad, particularly in the series of peek-a-boo phrases between the piano and voices throughout the orchestra. Poghosyan, in particular, got tons of punchlines and made the most of them, beginning with her introduction where she really took her time sidling in as the orchestra backed off, as if to say, “What was that racket all about? Get lost. I’m going to show you how this is done!”
Between movements, conductor and pianist exchanged over-the-shoulder peeks at each other; neither could resist breaking into a grin. Beyond the hijinks, it was fun to watch how much Beethoven was already pushing the envelope with this piece, engaging the orchestra more than simply as a backdrop for piano pyrotechnics. But fun ultimately won out of whatever paradigms were being shifted. “It’s such a goofy piece of music!” Poghosyan confided afterward.
The backstory to both the works on the bill, which Bernard couldn’t resist relating, is that Concerto No. 1 is not the first one Beethoven wrote, nor is No. 3 in correct sequence either – that’s just the order in which they were published. That solves the dilemma of how some of the cadenzas in No. 3 echo those in No. 4 – publishers just couldn’t keep up with the guy. And this one required everyone onstage to put their serious hats on, which they did, especially Poghosyan. From the faux-gypsy themes, dripping with sarcasm, that open the piece, all the way through to a vindictive cadenza that Poghosyan hit with pure venom, to its more jaunty if still somewhat cynical conclusion, the musicians left no doubt that this was a kiss-off. Had Beethoven been spurned? Had someone reneged on a fat commission? Whatever might have inspired him, the performance vividly grounded the buffo theatrics that opened the show.
Poghosyan, a leading advocate of the music of Aram Kachaturian, explores that repertoire at an intimate benefit performance on Feb 11 at 7 PM at the Louis Meisel Gallery, 141 Prince Street in SoHo in conjunction with an exibition of her father Razmik‘s paintings. And Bernard directs the Park Ave. Chamber Symphony in a performance of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps and Lorin Maazel’s arrangement of Wagner themes, The Ring Without Words at Rose Theatre at Jazz at Lincoln Center on February 22 at 3 PM.
To New York audiences, lapsteel virtuoso Raphael McGregor might be best known as a key ingredient in Brain Cloud, Dennis Lichtman’s western swing band. Before that, McGregor served as the source of the vintage country flavor in Nation Beat‘s driving mashup of Brazilian maracatu and Americana sounds. But he’s also a first-rate, eclectic composer and bandleader in his own right. In addiiton to his more-or-less weekly Monday 7 PM Barbes residency with Brain Cloud, he has a monthly residency at Freddy’s, where he’ll be on Nov 20 at 8 PM.
His most recent show at Barbes leading a band was a quartet gig with with Larry Eagle on drums, Jim Whitney on bass and Rob Hecht on violin. They opened with a moody oldschool noir soul vamp and quickly built it into a brooding rainy-day theme over Eagle’s tense shuffle beat. Hecht took his time and then went spiraling and sailing upwards. Why is it that blues riffs inevitably sound so cool when played by strings? McGregor had a hard act to follow so he walked the line between Lynchian atmosphere and an express-track scurry, then handed off to Whitney who picked up his bow and took the song all the way into the shadows.
McGregor began the night’s second number with a mournful solo lapsteel intro that moved slowly toward C&W and then shifted uneasily into moody swing. It was like a more animated take on the Friends of Dean Martinez doing oldtime string band music. After that, they put a swinging southwestern gothic spin on a Django Reinhardt tune.
They also did a couple of straight-up western swing numbers, a brisk trainwhistle romp and a fetching version of Waltz Across Texas With You: much as they were a lot of fun, McGregor was pleasantly surprised to find that the crowd was more interested in hearing his originals. They opened their second set with a piece that began as an Indian-inflected one-chord jam that morphed into a bluesy duel between violin and bass, followed by a Frisellian pastoral interlude and then back to trip-hop Indian funk – all that in under ten minutes. All this is just a small sampling of what McGregor could pull off at Freddy’s.
If there’s one thing that defines Maria Schneider‘s work, it’s color. So why would this era’s most dynamic composer in any style of music want to make a monochromatic album? Maybe because it was a challenge. Although Schneider’s big band jazz can be lush and enveloping to the nth degree, writing for string orchestra as she does here gives her a chance to build lingering long-tone themes that would be less suited to the reeds and brass of her jazz orchestra. Both suites on her most recent, death-obsessed album Winter Morning Walks are sung by Dawn Upshaw, an apt choice of vocalist considering that she’s as at home in both the avant garde and in jazz – notably in her collaborations with Wynton Marsalis – as she is in the classical world.
The first suite is orchestrations of poems by Ted Kooser, which debuted on NPR and document his predawn strolls while battling through chemotherapy (which he happily survived). The second is Schneider’s orchestral scores of text by iconic Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade. The music of both is remarkably cohesive, and pretty much through-composed in keeping with the uneven meters of the poems: there’s very little repetition here. Upshaw is backed by the Australian Chamber Orchestra on the first and on the second by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra along with core members of the Maria Schneider Orchestra: pianist Frank Kimbrough, bassist Jay Anderson and multi-reedman Scott Robinson on alto and bass clarinet.
Music inspired by impending doom has seldom been more gorgeous. An aptly drifting tone poem opens the initial suite, Upshaw’s clipped vocals growing more agitated against scurrying strings which then drive the music to a lull. Kimbrough’s steady, minimalist piano pairs with Robinson’s optimistic clarinet, then Upshaw delivers a mantra of sorts over a theme that grows uneasy despite the lushness underneath. A tender piano/strings interlude illustrates the point where Kooser’s wife joins him on one of his excursions. A calmly pulsing after-the-storm tableau gets followed by the menacing miniature Our Finch Feeder, with echoes of circus rock and noir cabaret, then a hopeful, crescendoing interlude. Nebulous, balmy orchestration gives way to a big bravura vocal crescendo on the final segment.
The de Andrade suite is more in the vein of Schneider’s extraordinarily vivid large ensemble jazz. The opening prologue sounds like an Ernesto Lecuona piece with lusher strings and English vocals – it gets creepier as it trails out. The Dead in Frock Coats, a plaintive, cello-fueled waltz in disguise, comes next, followed by the minimalist lullaby Souvenir of the Ancient World. The best song on the album, the absolutely chilling, majestically menacing Don’t Kill Yourself, blends hints of Arabic music with vintage Gil Evans Out of the Cool noir (which makes sense since Schneider was Evans’ greatest protegee). The album ends with an ominously throbbing vamp concealed in a cloud of strings. This is an album best enjoyed on your phone or your pod or your earphones – it’s best heard up close where Schneider’s intricacies can draw you into a reverie and then jar you out of it when least expected.
Now where else can you hear this album? Not at Spotify, or Instantencore (the classical counterpart to Bandcamp). Not at Schneider’s Youtube channel. However, Schneider streams much of her catalog at her site: you can get absolutely lost in the amazing stuff that’s up there.
It’s that time of year again when the Django Reinhardt Festival takes over Birdland, starting at 8 PM on June 25 and continuing through June 30. Fortuitously, the Django Festival Allstars have a new album out, Live at Birdland, recorded at last year’s festival. The sound quality is outstanding, as you would expect from this venue, and the playing is sensational, even by the rigorous standards of le jazz manouche. The track selection is eclectic and draws deeply on originals with contributions from several members of the band, rather than simply recycled Django Reinhardt classics. As timelessly enjoyable as the Django catalog is, it’s good to see this group pushing hard on the envelope at the forefront of the tradition.
There are three numbers associated with Django here. The band kicks it off with Swing Gitan, lead guitarist Dorado Schmitt adding a bluesy ominousness over the swirl of Ludovic Beier’s accordion, the two joining forces as the song winds out in flurry of tremolo-picking. Nuages, true to its name, builds a rich, Gil Evans-tinged reflecting-pool backdrop for Schmitt’s spacious hanmer-on work and guest Anat Cohen’s slinky soprano sax. There’s also Manoir de Mes Reves, essentially My Funny Valentine recast as a steady Romany jazz ballad. The other covers here are an accordion-fueled Beier arrangement of Caravan, with a droll new title, Camping Car, a feature for cellist Jisoo Ok, as well as an amped-up take of Out of Nowhere and a rather unexpectedly, hard-rocking, early 70s-tinged version of Them There Eyes.
But it’s the originals here that make this band what they are. Dorado Schmitt’s ballad For Pierre carefully sets up an austere feature for violinist Pierre Blanchard. Blanchard’s Balkanic Dance juxtaposes his biting lines against Beier’s nonchalantly sizzling chromatics. The plaintive Valse en Exil, another Blanchard tune, sets moody violin over elegantly dancing guitars, a lush backdrop rising and falling behind them. Schmitt’s El Dorado is a lively bossa in disguise, a rhythm they revisit as the album closes with Bossa Dorado, building suspense with a relentless intensity as they resist the urge to take it over the top.
The poignant, elegaic spaghetti western bolero Song for Etorre, another Schmitt tune, might be the album’s strongest track. The rest of the cuts include Pat’s Waltz, a bouncy Beier number built around rapidfire, clustering guitars; a hypnotically shuffling, Brazilian-flavored tune by co-lead guitarist Bronson Schmidt; and Dorado Schmitt’s funk-tinged Melissa. To call this one of the best jazz albums of the year seems almost unfair to the rest of this year’s releases, considering the sheer talent that this good-natured family bands bring to the material.
It wouldn’t be fair to let the month go by without a tip of the hat to some of the groups who’ve received ink here before, and continue to play concerts that range from the rapt to the exhilarating. Self-conducted string ensemble the East Coast Chamber Orchestra (a..k.a. ECCO) seem to have a special place for edgy, emotionally resonant music. Their previous appearance at the wildly popular Upper Westside Music Mondays series featured Shostakovich’s Sinfonia, Op. 110 (based on the String Quartet No. 8, a requiem for victims of the Holocaust, World War II and fascism in general), along with Ginastera’s Concerto Por Corde, which rose from delicate atmospherics to a scream. Their most recent concert here opened with a matter-of-fact take on Mozart’s Divertimento for Strings in F Major, K. 138. From there they aired out the strikingly forward-looking, modern tonalities in a couple of Purcell fantasias, following with a stormy, slithery, darkly dancing, minutely detailed take of Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge. They took it out on a high note with a menacingly dancing, sweepingly intense, enveloping version of Bartok’s Divertimento for String Orchestra, its many voices alternating murmurs within an incessent, brooding tension.
Austria’s Minetti Quartett made a couple of Manhattan stops last month, including one downtown at Trinity Church. While the obvious piece de resistance was a steady but nuanced performance of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 9 in C major, Op. 59, No. 3, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 12 in A Major with Andreas Klein at the piano was an unexpected treat. The second movement, reputedly a requiem for Bach, doesn’t make much of a segue with the rest of the piece, but in this group’s hands it got a spacious, vividly intense workout and was arguably the higlight of the concert. It’s always refreshing to see an ensemble go as deeply into a piece of music and pull out as much raw emotion as this group did here.
Wadada Leo Smith has gotten plenty of press here, most recently for his magnum 4-cd Civil Rights era -themed opus Ten Freedom Summers (rated best album of the year for 2012) and for the opening night of his three-night stand at Roulette last week. Having seen all three nights, it’s an understatement to say that this series of concerts was a major moment in New York music history. Smith took considerable pride from the visceral reaction on the part of several key players of the movement to the live debut of these works earlier this year in California, where the Mississippi-born trumpeter and composer now resides. A finalist in this year’s competition for the Pulitzer Prize in music, it’s probably safe to say after seeing this that he has an inside track. Of the other finalists, Aaron Jay Kernis has won before, and there isn’t much precedent for multiple winners, and Caroline Shaw, talented as she may be as a violinist, composer and singer, is still in her twenties. And Smith has almost a half a century on her.
Much as Smith can be playful and great fun in an improvisatory context, his compositions are rigorously thought out. He told the crowd this past Thursday night that “a lot of White-Out” went into the suspensefully sweeping, dynamically rich, spectrally influenced string quartet premiered with a knife’s-edge sensitivity by Shalini Vijayan and Mona Tian on violins, Andrew Macintosh on viola and Ashley Walters on cello. While his suite portrays considerable struggle, the triumphant moments took centerstage on the second and third night of the stand, from the eclectic, spacious. blues and gospel-charged vistas of America, Parts 1, 2 and 3 to the stalking, shatteringly explosive Martin Luther King tableau that wound it up, with alternately soaring and elegaic tributes to the Freedom Riders, Medgar Evers and the crusaders who walked for miles to their voting stations during the early Missisippi voter registration drives. “Freedom isn’t when you’ve strugged and reached here,” he pointed, chest-high. “Freedom is here,” he pointed to his heart, “Knowing that you have the power to act.” The triumph was bittersweet, and as Smith made clear, this struggle is still ongoing after all these years.
This weekend, March 23 and 24 at Drom (85 Ave. A),there’s a jazz drum summit to end all jazz drum summits. An all-weekend pass can be obtained as cheaply as $20 or even $15 with student ID at the door. With as many generations of A- list drummers – the legendary Jimmy Cobb, Tain Watts, Billy Hart, EJ Strickland and others – leading their respective bands, early arrival is highly advised. Music begins each night at 7 PM. Revive Music’s Meghan Stabile put together the bill; Revive’s Eric Sandler took some time to share his insight on how exciting this is going to be:
Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: First, congratulations on getting all of these artists together on the same bill. That was definitely not easy since they’re all so busy. How long did it take you to pull this together?
Eric Sandler: The Generations of the BEAT Festival is definitely an idea that has been on our minds for quite a while from a conceptual standpoint. As far as putting it together, it’s always fun from a scheduling standpoint, but throughout the years our team has become pretty great at making our live events happen to their greatest potential. All of these drummers immediately realized the historical significance behind the event, so convincing them was not a struggle at all!
LCC: You have several generations of drummer bandleaders represented, from Jimmy Cobb, to Tain, to the Cookers’ Billy Hart, to the up-and-coming EJ Strickland. Obviously you did your homework. Are you a drummer as well? What’s your agenda with this?
ES: It’s not so much doing our homework as being a part of the scene. Revive Music Group has become a staple in the live music scene both through our live events and our online journal, The Revivalist. Our agenda is really just to expose as many people as possible to the best music that is out there. It is absolutely incredible to have artists like Jimmy Cobb and Billy Hart still performing. As musicians and fans ourselves, this is not something anyone should miss. Moreover, with the Generations of the BEAT Festival we are bringing together different generations of artists, an integral aspect of progressing the music and fostering innovation.
LCC: Drummer-led bands are usually especially good, in my experience. Do you agree? Why do you think that is?
ES: Drummers have a very unique perspective, compared to everyone else in the band. They tend to think in shapes, colors, forms, and rhythms in addition to harmonies and melodies. In short, they are generally more focused on making the music feel good than anything else. A great drummer can really make a band. Conversely, a bad drummer can really ruin one too. It is very interesting that drummers tend to make incredible bandleaders as well as producers. I have to think it has something to do with how they hear music.
LCC: I’ve got a much easier explanation: everybody needs a good drummer! Drummers always have the deepest address books – because the good ones play with so many other great artists. Now – do you have a list of the supporting musicians? I know that up-and-coming bassist Michael Feinberg – who recently put out an intriguing Elvin Jones tribute album – is playing with Billy Hart, one of the few guys I would trust to do justice to Elvin…
ES: Michael Feinberg’s tribute to Elvin Jones with Billy Hart will most certainly be one of the most exciting parts of the BEAT Festival. Funny enough, when we interviewed Michael about the festival, he told us that he was a little nervous to perform for so many amazing drummers both onstage and in the audience. I think being a bass player in a drummer’s festival is a tough role to fill, but Michael and the other bass players are surely up to the task — otherwise they wouldn’t be performing at the festival. You can check out more info on the bands that will be performing on The Revivalist. In addition to putting together these live events, we also strive to educate audiences about the music. For the Generations of the BEAT Festival we also launched an online Drummer’s Issue to feature the artists in interviews and analytical profiles.
LCC: No Roy Haynes on the bill, I see. Too busy? Did you ask?
ES: We have something very special planned for Roy Haynes on the horizon. For now that’s all I’m going to say.
LCC: Are these two concerts basically repertory material, or are they focused on original compositions from the artists involved?
ES: A mix of both actually. A lot of the drummers are bringing original compositions to perform with their groups, but there will also be many tribute pieces within the sets as a nod to the drummers who influenced the performers. Keep your ears perked for a lot of surprises.
LCC: Are there any $15 two-day passes left? If so, how and where can you get one?
ES: $15 festival passes are available all weekend for any students who can present a valid student ID at the door. Presale tickets are also available.
LCC: This is an exciting bill. Is there going to be room on the floor for people who want to get up and dance?
ES: There’s always room to dance!
This blog doesn’t spend much time in the past these days: if you’re just getting into jazz and discovering the classics for the first time, there are plenty of places to do that and this isn’t usually one of them. For that reason, coverage of recordings here typically focuses on original material by artists who are usually if not always flying a little under the radar. But every so often an album appears that offers a fresh take on older sounds. Tenor saxophonist Virginia Mayhew’s recent quartet album, Mary Lou Williams – The Next 100 Years is a delightful example.
For starters, just the idea of doing a Williams homage without piano is intriguing. But maybe it’s just as well – it saves some piano player from cruel comparisons. This album also gives guitarist Ed Cherry – who explores a whole ‘nother side on his jaunty new B3 record, It’s All Good – a chance to go deep into moody blues. Williams’ long career spanned from the hot jazz era of the 20s to the avant garde of the 70s; like Williams, Mayhew is comfortable in diverse milieus from inside to out. Rounding out the group here are bassist Harvie S and drummer Andy Watson, plus contributions from Wycliffe Gordon on trombone.
The songs here are often disarmingly beautiful: Williams had a rare command of the blues and a laserlike, uncluttered sense of melody, which the band grasps impressively. They take their time getting into J.B.’s Waltz – one of a number of jazz waltzes here – and work there way up to an absolutely gorgeous, chordally-infused Cherry solo. Medi II follows a moody chromatic trajectory to some wry, almost vaudevillian fun from the rhythm section. By contrast, Medi I, a 1973 piece alternately titled Searching for Love is a nonchalantly intense soul/blues tune – it sounds a lot like Doc Pomus’ Lonely Avenue – dark stuff lit up with vivid and spacious Mayhew and Cherry solos.
The 1954 tune O.W., inspired by Don Byas, swings a minor blues with incisive, staccato work from bass, sax and guitar in turn, followed by the richly suspenseful Cancer, from Williams’ 1945 Zodiac Suite, twelve minutes of judicious chromatic intensity and a fleet-footed, terse Mayhew solo. What’s Your Story Morning Glory – the original version of the standard Black Coffee, for which Williams was never credited -sounds here like it’s the prototype for One for My Baby. Mayhew does this as a story for two voices, first wistful in the wee hours with the sax and guitar and ending by contrasting against Gordon’s completely unexpected, comedic lines.
NME – short for New Musical Express – draws inspiration from Byas and also the Ellington band, a vividly flurrying swing tune. The last of the Williams numbers is Waltz Boogie, one of her catchiest. Mayhew also includes two inspired originals. The first is the nebulously Monk-ish One for Mary Lou, which the saxophonist builds to an allusive triumph – to swing it would be too obvious. The album closes with the warmly bluesy, relaxed 5 For Mary Lou. Beyond what they offer musically, albums like this serve other purposes – they make you want to revisit the originals as well as to go deeper into the works of a bandleader who completely gets what this music is all about: soul.
Mayhew is also featured on another soulful recent revisitation of vintage material, the Duke Ellington Legacy’s Single Petal of a Rose.
Phil Kline has been at the forefront of cutting-edge composition since the 80s. His eclectic work ranges from the shimmering, kaleidoscopic sound paintings for which he’s best known, to art-song, to orchestral pieces and edgy rock (he played with Jim Jarmusch in the early 80s, and toured the world as a guitarist in Glenn Branca’s mighty ensemble). And his 1992 processional “boombox symphony” Unsilent Night – which took shape against the backdrop of the Bush I Gulf War – grew from an underground New York attraction to a global phenomenon. At this year’s BAM Next Wave Festival, there’ll be an important moment in New York music history when adventurous ensemble ACME and crooner Theo Bleckmann premiere Kline’s new arrangement of his powerful Vietnam-themed Zippo Songs – which haven’t been staged in this city in eight years -, along with the composer’s Rumsfeld Songs, and selections from his new cycle Out Cold, inspired by the Frank Sinatra/Nelson Riddle collaborations of the 1950s.
One consistent trait that runs throughout Kline’s music is his wry wit, which comes through in the man himself. Kline generously took some time out of the usual pre-concert havoc to share some insights on his career and what he’s up to lately:
Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: You’ve made a career out of writing important, socially relevant music. Yet – as I ask myself all the time – to what degree do you find yourself preaching to the converted? Isn’t BAM Next Wave a progressive crowd anyway? Is there an aisle, or some other kind of border we have to reach across to really make a difference?
Phil Kline: I’m not convinced that music can convert one to another political viewpoint, at least not directly. But it has the ability to arouse strange, untranslatable impulses within us, and that might possibly lead one to states where the mind is open to change.
If everyone who likes my music is already converted, that’s OK. The people in the choir need a little comfort, too.
LCC: If there’s any work that humanizes the life of a soldier, it’s the Zippo Songs. With the ongoing war in Afghanistan – and wars in Syria and Mali, ad infinitum – do you think that the suite has greater relevance today than when you wrote it?
PK: I think it remains constant because the focus is not on the war but the individual.
LCC: You’re quoted on the BAM event page as saying that you often have doubts about yourself as a composer but not as an arranger. Which made me laugh: to my ears, your music is extremely meticulous, the exact quality you’d want in a good arranger. Don’t the two skills go hand in hand? Ellington and Strayhorn, for example?
PK: It’s a little joke I tell myself to avoid getting psyched out when I begin a piece. There is some truth in it, though. I am a good editor and arranger, and I use that skill to straighten out whatever mess I might start out with.
LCC: A lot of people are less aware of you as a lyricist than a composer, although lyrics have continued to play an increasingly important role in your work. Your new song cycle, Out Cold, explores songcraft in a 1950s Frank Sinatra-Nelson Riddle vein. As someone who’s made a career in far less constricting, less stylized music, how do you approach the constraints of verse/chorus and rhyme schemes…or are these songs an attempt to push the envelope with the genre?
PK: Actually, I like to embrace different styles as I go along, like the allusions to Renaissance music or barbershop or the Beach Boys in John the Revelator. To me it’s a bit like falling into the voice of a character as you tell a story. But Out Cold really does engage one genre, which is the so-called standard song, especially torch songs and ballads. The whole idea was to emulate the craft of that genre, the elegant tunes and lyrics of the great 30s-40s-50s songwriters. I suppose in a way I felt I could reveal myself best by wearing a costume.
LCC: How about the new arrangements of Zippo Songs and Rumsfeld Songs for ACME? Was that a challenge for the arranger/transcriptionist in you?
PK: Actually, I was surprised by how easily they translated to strings, percussion and piano. The originals are very spare and the main challenge is not to add too much. It’s easy to feel a bit apologetic when you ask ace players to do whole notes for a half hour, but that’s what is required sometimes. Bruckner sometimes holds notes for pages!
LCC: Ha, so does Messiaen for that matter. Now this is a reunion of sorts with you and Theo Bleckmann – if I’m correct, this is the first time the Zippo Songs have been performed in New York in eight years. What specifically aboutt him made you say, yup, he’s the one to put these across?
PK: It’s his inner Sinatra, the beautiful flow of legato and smart timing. I’d been thinking about writing him a group of orchestral love songs for several years.
LCC Do you still actually participate in Unsilent Night every year? And back in, I think 1993, when you led the first parade of boomboxes through the Village, did it ever occur to you in your wildest dreams that this would become a worldwide phenomenon?
PK: A – yes, B – no! I sort of dread it when I realize the season is coming, like “oh boy, another sleet-filled night,” but when it’s over I’m always glad we did it. At least one of the Unsilent Nights every year has something amazing happen in it.
LCC: You’ve gone on record as saying that you’re simply following a tradition of American transcendentalists: Charles Ives, et al. Yet your music, as abstract-sounding as some of it is, especially your earlier work, is very specific. To what degree has your career been simply doing what you love, and connecting the tradition of the composers who’ve obviously inspired you with a new level of social commitment and awareness?
PK: I would say that’s exactly what my career has been.
LCC: Jim Jarmusch is an old college friend and bandmate of yours. Tell us about your latest, forthcoming collaboration with him.
PK: We actually met in the 6th grade! Tesla in New York is an operatic fantasy of the inventor Nikola Tesla’s exploits over the 50 years he lived and died in New York City. Most of his glory days were spent in the general vicinity of SoHo.
LCC: Around the World in a Daze, your DVD from 2009 is a favorite – and I think one of amazon’s bestselling releases on DVD if I remember correctly. The Housatonic at Henry Street, one of your “boombox symphonies” which opens the DVD, depicts an evening scene. Yet the corner of Henry and Madison Street where it was shot has a bus stop, and the projects, and a McDonalds since a few years back. I’ve always wondered how you managed to get such tranquility at that location…
PK: You’re one block away. I made the field recording on my corner, Henry and Rutgers. Not as quiet as it used to be, but not quite as bustling as Madison Street. I’m on the 5th floor and I was responding to that moan the city has when you listen from above. It’s a soft roar comprised of a thousand little things going by and echoing in the concrete pond below. I guess I thought of the parade as a river of life, just as the Housatonic was Ives’ river of life, flowing by inexorably. Come to think of it, the Ganges isn’t exactly clean and quiet, either.
ACME (American Contemporary Music Ensemble), Theo Bleckmann and Phil Kline present the Zippo Songs, Rumsfeld Songs and Out Cold -produced by American Opera Projects – at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival at 7:30 PM, Oct 25-27. Tickets are $20; the October 26 show includes a post-performance chat with the composer and ensemble.