Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

This Year’s Bang on a Can Marathon Focuses on Its Core Talent

What better to jar a sleepy crowd out of a pre-noon summer torpor than a steel pan orchestra? Kendall Williams’ arrangement of a Lord Nelson calypso hit, with its exubertant resemblance to a ballpark organ version of Take Me Out to the Ballgame, made an apt kickoff to this year’s Bang on a Can Marathon. The 2015 edition of the annual avant garde festival differentiated itself from previous concerts with its emphasis on larger-scale works, circling the wagons with a somewhat abbreviated list of performers. Past years featured an often exhilarating mix of global acts, frequently going on til almost dawn. This one was somewhat shorter, focusing more on a rotating cast of characters from the Bang on a Can organization and its triumvirate, composers David Lang, Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe. The live stream is here; much of the concert will air eventually on John Schaefer’s New Sounds program on WNYC.

Pianist Vicky Chow tackled the challenge of an hour’s worth of staccato, motorik minimalism by Tristan Perich while variously processed electronic echoes rose and fell, sometimes subsuming Chow’s literally marathon performance. Echoing Brian Eno, the piece gave the rapidly growing financial district winter garden crowd a chance to sink back into a Sunday reverie before it unexpectly rose to a long series of demandingly energetic ripples. Chow probably welcomed several opportunies to pause and breathe when the machines took over completely. There was a clever false ending and a resonantly minimalist return to stillness and calm. Later in the day, bassist Florent Ghys followed a similar trajectory with a slinky noir groove and increasingly dancing, cinematic variations over kinetic, higher-register loops: a trippy, lively instrumental karaoke performance, essentially.

The Dither Guitar Quartet delivered a deliciously gritty, bitingly chromatic Lainie Fefferman Velvet Underground homage evoking Daydream Nation-era Sonic Youth. Thanks to a few judicious kicks of a boot into a loop pedal, they had a stomping beat behind their savagely crescendoing forest of overtones and blistering roar.

Mighty six-piano ensemble Grand Band hit a similar peak a bit later on with Lang’s Face So Pale, a substantially slower reworking of a Guillaume du Fay renaissance composition that did double duty as a mass and a “pop song,” as Lang put it. The group meticulously synchronized its pointillistically hypnotic, staccato incisions with the same precision that the sheet music on each player’s tablet flipped from page to page. What a treat it was to be in the second row for a dreamy surround-sound experience of that one.

Asphalt Orchestra played three joyous reinventions of Pixies favorites, reaffirming how well that band’s output translates to brass band. Sousaphone player John Altieri anchored the music, alto saxophonist Ken Thomson and trumpeter Stephanie Richards providing some of the afternoon’s most unselfconsiously adrenalizing moments. Then the Crossfire Steel Orchestra returned for a dancing but bracing Kendall Williams composition, rising and falling insistently.

Within minutes, Thomson was back onstage, this time on clarinet with the house art-rock band the Bang on a Can All-Stars, playing material from their latest album Field Recordings. They did Wolfe’s lilting, Acadian-flavored Reeling to accompany a recording of Canadian “mouth music.” Arguably the high point of the festival, Johann Johannsson‘s Hz built a vast, ominously looming horizontal expanse punctuated by David Cossin’s creepily twinkling vibraphone and Mark Stewart’s mighty washes of distorted guitar chords. Anna Clyne‘s A Wonderful Day grounded a sunny African-flavored melody in the dark textures of Robert Black’s bass, Thomson’s bass clarinet and Ashley Bathgate’s cello. Composer Todd Reynolds introduced his gospel choir mashup Seven Sundays witih a shout-out to the victims of the past week’s South Carolina massacre. Fueled by Bathgate’s sinewy lines, it turned out to be a characteristically jaunty dance with stadium rock heft and trippy hip-hop tinges.

The group’s final performance of the night, written by the BOAC three in collaboration with composer Lao Luo, was backing Chinese theatre chanteuse Gong Linna, pulling out all the stops for a dramatic triptych based on ancient shamanic songs.. The first invoked a fertility god, rising from rustic bluesiness to a towering vocal crescendo. The second, directed in English to a destructive river god, built from shivery low-string menace to a big, looping gallop, eventually coming full circle wih a visceral menace. The finale was a tonguetwistingly rapidfire polysyllabic love song to the mountain spirit – “Everybody in China knows this one,” grinned Linna – the mighty goddess ultimately spurning the shaman’s entreaties. You could call it kabuki rock.

Pianist Tomoko Mukaiyama made her way energetically through a creepy, Philip Glass-esque series of cellular motives from Somei Satoh‘s Ostinato Variations and then his alternately neoromantic and resonantly minimalistic, dynamically shifing Incarnations.  Third Angle New Music tackled Julian Day’s electroacoustic cut-and-paste Quartz, veering from sputtery to atmospheric as the piece ostensibly incorporated passages from two famous unfinished works, Haydn’s String Quartet in D and Schumann’s Quartettsatz. As it went on, it echoed Wolfe’s ominous adventures in string music, notably her chilling Cruel Sister suite.

Playing in the center of the atrium, Asphalt Orchestra’s versions of a trio of tunes by the pyrotechnic magician of Bulgarian clarinet music, Ivo Papasov swirled and blended into the space’s echoey sonics to the point where it wasn’t possible to tell if the band was actually playing his signature, machinegunning volleys note for note, or whether they were just holding them. But either way, what a way to send the energy to redline in a split second. Wisely, they returned to the more hospitable sonics of the stage for the final barn-burner.

Grand Band returned for their bandmate Paul Kerekes‘ Wither and Bloom, a diptych illustrating decay and rebirth. The first section’s flitting motives shifting elegantly into more minimal terrain, the second going in the opposite direction. Their final performance was a sardonic commissioned work from Gordon informed by childhood piano lesson trauma, a percussive, polyrhythmic roller-coaster ride punctuated by the occasional etude-like cascade.

So Percussion, with guitarist Nels Cline, did Bobby Previte’s Terminal 3 and 4, the composer on drums. Cline’s reverb roar, skronky Keith Levene-esque whistles and wails and white noise on the first number, outdoing the Dither guys for sheer volume, echoed out over staccato drum volleys like the Grateful Dead’s Space on crack. The second was a shticky but mercilessly funny portrait of the kind of torture drummers suffer, as well as the ones they inflict on the rest of us.

Brazilian percussionist/showman Cyro Baptista, leading a trio with Brian Marsella on multikeys and Tim Keiper on second drumkit, got a loud, jungly drone going and then launched into an animated shuffle, using a thicket of offbeat instruments from a big gong to a jawharp. Spacy, frantic hardbop gave way to vaudevillian audience-response antics, lots of pummeling and a return to dissociative disco.

Glenn Branca wound up the marathon, conducting a band with four guitars – two Fenders, an Ibanez Fender copy  and something else – plus minimal bass and pounding drums. It’s not the first time he’s done it and it probably won’t be the last. Branca still air-conducts with a very physical, Jimmy Page-style presence, in contrast to the group’s low-key focus. They opened with German Expressionism, a slowly swaying exchange of disquieting tritone-laced riffs; Jazzmaster player Arad Evans played the solo part on Branca’s looming Smoke guitar concerto, a turbocharged look back at a time when New York acts like Live Skull pulverized audiences. The group wound up with a trio of the composer’s signature more-or-less one-chord jams, part no wave orchestra, My Bloody Valentine and Also Sprach Zarathustra. Although this year’s marathon was about as abbreviated – relatively speaking – as other recent ones have been, it felt even shorter. Maybe that’s because there were so few lulls, the music and performances being consistently strong almost all the way through.

Some random observations: a painfully precious spoken-word component ruined an intriguingly swoopy and spiky LJ White piece for violin and cello played agilely by a subset of Third Angle New Music. The upstairs food court drew all the rugrats and their parents, leaving the downstairs mostly to concertgoers. Joy! The grounds crew shut off that obnoxious alarm on the elevator at the rear of the area: double joy! The roof leaking rain, not so joyful – the pianos got it good but this blog’s laptop escaped undamaged.

Another marathon, this one on the Upper West Side begininng on Saturday and ending this morning, offered a more improvisational kind of fun based on Erik Satie’s Vexations. A creepy, loopy piece designed to be played over and over a total of 840 times, it inspired composers Randall Woolf and Art Jarvinen to come up with their own variations.  A relay team of pianists assembled by Jed Distler began the performance at 8 AM and were planning on finishing up 24 hours later: a stop in on them late Saturday morning found both a pianist and electronic keyboardist blending textures over a loop of the Satie, occasionally embellished by both players, including a droll quote from one of the Gymnopedies. It would have been fun to have been able to stick around for more.

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June 21, 2015 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mimesis Ensemble Champions Stunning Contemporary Works at Carnegie Hall

If there’s anybody who doesn’t think that the contemporary string quartet repertoire is one of the world’s most exhilarating, they weren’t onstage or in the crowd last night at Carnegie Hall. In a multi-composer bill along the same lines as what the Miller Theatre does, Mimesis Ensemble staged a program featuring works of four current composers – Anna Clyne, Alexandra du Bois, Daniel Bernard Roumain and Mohammed Fairouz – to rival any Shostakovian thrills filling the halls further up Broadway.

These were dark, moody, otherworldly thrills, first from Clyne’s rhythmic suite Prima Vulgaris (meaning “evening primrose”), delivered with verve by violinists Alex Shiozaki and Curtis Stewart, violist Hannah Levinson and cellist Saeunn Thorsteinsdottir. She, in particular, is a player who relishes low tonalities, who’s not afraid to dig in and go deep into the well, taking charge to the point where she was essentially leading the ensemble. Austerity punctuated by pregnant pauses built to hints of an English reel, a long passage that gave Levinson a launching pad for vividly plaintive unease, then a pensive microtonal romp over an ominous cello drone. Tension-packed runs down a memorably uncertain scale set off an increasingly agitated series of variations that ended surprisingly quietly, but no less hauntingly. In its troubled way, it’s a stunning piece of music.

As was du Bois’ String Quartet No. 3, Night Songs, inspired by the journals of Holocaust memoirist and victim Esther Hillesum. As one would expect from a suite inspired by a philosophically-inclined bon vivant murdered at 29 by the Nazis, it has a wounded, elegaic quality. Dread and apprehension are everywhere, even in its most robust moments. It’s less a narrative than a series of brooding crescendos leading to horror, whether sheer terror or heart-stopping stillness. The melody and shifting motifs don’t move a lot, hinting and sometimes longing for a consonance that’s always out of reach. Levinson once again took centerstage with a series of raw chords, setting off a scurrying, pell-mell passage that led to keening overtones and then distantly menacing swoops. Hints of a dance gave no inkling of the considerably different tangent the piece would take as it cruelly but gracefully wound down. The audience exploded afterward.

The program wasn’t limited to string quartets. Roumain was best represented by an intricately woven, lively, dancing, George Crumb-inspired work played by a wind quintet of clarinetist Carlos Cordeiro, oboeist Carl Oswald, bassoonist Brad Balliett and flutist Jonathan Engle, with Jason Sugata’s horn calm in the center of the storm.

Fairouz, who amid innumerable projects is reinvigorating the venerable art-song catalog, likes to collaborate with poets (maybe because his compositions tend to be remarkably terse and crystallized). For this he brought along  poet David Shapiro, whose bittersweet Socratically-themed texts were fleshed out by a septet with strings and flute, strongly sung by soprano Katharine Dain and masterfully lowlit by Katie Reimer’s alternately vigorous and murkily resonant piano. Closely attuned to lyrical content, sometimes agitated, sometimes playful insistent, this quartet of songs seemed to mock death as much as dread it.

Mimesis Ensemble are at Merkin Concert Hall on May 4 at 8:30 PM playing a Lynchian elegy by Caleb Burhans, a cruelly sarcastic take on eco-disaster by David T. Little, powerful and historically aware chamber pieces by Fairouz as well as other works. Advance tickets are only $10 (students $5) and are highly recommended.

January 25, 2013 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The American Composers Orchestra Plays It Unsafe

The American Composers Orchestra has taken to doing what the New York Phil has, offering recordings of their concerts online – and why not? Their Playing It Unsafe program at Carnegie Hall from February, 2009 with Jeffrey Milarsky conducting is unselfconsciously accessible, yet much of it is cutting-edge, and the ensemble turns in a characteristically inspired performance.

The concert opens with Anna Clyne’s Tender Hooks, percussive swirl with distant martial allusions eventually giving way to a suspensefully punctuated tone poem. From there, the orchestra methodically drives to a crescendo with piano and percussion, followed by an eerily starlit little piano waltz that quotes liberally from the Moonlight Sonata – and ends cold, mid-phrase. With echoes of John Williams or Gustav Holst, Charles Norman Mason’s Additions is an austerely staccato, marionettish dance bookended by water-drip percussion. Dan Trueman’s Silicon/Carbon: An Anti-Concerto-Grosso begins with a seemingly unrelated allusions to Appalachian fiddling and then offers spaciously horizontal, Uranian ambience punctuated by occasional percussion and bell-like tones, a handful of crescendos to restart the suspense and a clever rhythmic tradeofff between the percussion section and the entire orchestra toward the end.

Overture and Ballet Music from Armide, by Jonathan Dawe works disconnected, overlapping passages that in places seem to parody generic classical crescendos and percussion breaks, hinting at florid but never going there. There’s a jarring vocal interlude that does nothing to enhance it, but the “passacaille” that closes the work vividly sets a multitude of matter-of-fact phrases entering the picture and then disappearing in turn rather than stepping all over each other, a trick from the world of dub reggae. The final piece, Ned McGowan’s Bantammer Swing features his own contrabass flute for some intriguing tonalities. Like the Clyne and Trueman pieces, it’s cinematic, the most suspenseful work here. The first movement moves steadily and pensively up and down; the brooding andante sostenuto of the second is the most gripping part of this album, sheets of noise finally rising ominously as the brass exchanges uneasy flutters. It ends on an unexpectedly playful, genuinely funny note with swooping motifs, a couple of jagged bass solos and a fun little rondo to wind it out. The whole album is streaming at instantencore, a very smart marketing move since a listen all the way through is the best advertisement this entertaining performance could possibly have.

March 19, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Kathleen Supové’s Piano Threatens to Explode

A titan of the new music community, Kathleen Supové has been a go-to pianist for important, innovative composers since the 80s. Her latest album The Exploding Piano – her first since 2004’s stunningly virtuosic Infusion – is characteristically eclectic and cerebral. Where much of Infusion weaves a dizzying lattice of textures, this one – except for the final, practically 25-minute cut – is more direct and more of a showcase for Supové’s legendary chops. Except for that final cut, the electronics here are pretty much limited to lightly processed sound and the occasional loop.

Missy Mazzoli’s Isabelle Eberhardt Dreams of Pianos is the opening track, replete with Mazzoli’s signature traits: terse, richly interlocking melodies, counterrythms, and hypnotically circular motifs. It’s a tribute to the great adventurer, imagining her riding across her adopted Sahara Desert on horseback, reflecting on the comfort of her early life inVienna high society as bits and pieces of Schubert’s A Major Sonata float to the surface. And then the melody spreads away from the tonic, insistent forte chords create a Radiohead-inflected swirl against a repetitive loop, and the flood that will kill her at age 27 is upon her. It’s as poignant as it is intense.

Michael Gatonska’s A Shaking of the Pumpkin is meant to illustrate activity in the insect kingdom, alternating low rumble with judicious righthand melody and a lot of sustain that finally reaches a roar – and then goes on and on, A Day in the Life style. The placement of a bass drum under the piano lid enhances the boomy sustain of the low tonalities. It ends with a series of muted thumps – a pedal springing back into place? Shots? A salute?

Anna Clyne’s On Track is a launching pad for Supové’s trademark deadpan wit. Inspired by a spoken-word quote from Queen Elizabeth about how quickly circumstances change (which recurs as a sample here), it walks resolutely until the Mission Impossible theme appears for an instant, insistently in the left hand. Eventually Mission Impossible will casually interrupt the busy, rippling melody again and again until it finally shuts it off cold. Dan Becker’s circular Revolution illustrates a Martin Luther King speech (sampled here) using the story of Rip Van Winkle as a parable for how America is sleeping through a revolution. It’s a duet between Supové and a prepared Disklavier (a sort of digital player piano with strings modified to produce what amounts to a percussion track here). After running a series of widening circles, Supové finally breaks free of the rhythmic stranglehold – a hint, it seems – and then lets the melody fall away gracefully as it winds down to just a few repetitive, increasingly simple chords.

Supové’s husband Randall Woolf’s intense, bristling, bluesily magisterial suite Adrenaline Revival was the highlight of Infusion. Here, he’s represented by Sutra Sutra, a long work punctuated by many spoken word passages which reach to string theory as an explanation for both life and matter: as expressed here, vibration is everything (which for a musician it pretty much is). But in less than a couple of minutes, the genuine plaintiveness of the melody is subsumed by all the psychedelic effects and a whispery crash course in subatomic physics. It would be a treat to hear just the piano all the way through. Supove has been busy this year – her performance at the new music series at Brooklyn’s First Presbyterian Church was a 2010 highlight – and her Music with a View series coming next spring at the Flea Theatre is always chock-full of surprises.

December 6, 2010 Posted by | avant garde music, experimental music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Janus Gets You Coming and Going

Like the mythical character, indie classical trio Janus looks in two directions, forward and backward. Backward, with a genuinely lovely, often baroque-tinged sense of melody; forward, with a compellingly hypnotic edge occasionally embellished by light electronic touches. This is an album of circular music, motifs that repeat again and again as they slowly and subtly shift shape, textures sometimes floating mysteriously through the mix, occasionally leaping in for a sudden change of atmosphere. Many of the melodies are loops, some obviously played live, others possibly running over and over again through an electronic effect. Either way, it’s not easy to follow flutist Amanda Baker, violist/banjoist Beth Meyers and harpist Nuiko Wadden as they negotiate the twists and turns of several relatively brief compositions by an all-New York cast of emerging composers. A series of minimalist miniatures by Jason Treuting of So Percussion – some pensive, some Asian-tinged – begin, end and punctuate the album, concluding on a tersely gamelanesque note.

Keymaster, by Caleb Burhans (of Janus’ stunningly intense labelmates Newspeak) is a wistful cinematic theme that shifts to stark midway through, then lets Baker add balmy contrast against the viola’s brooding staccato. Drawings for Mayoko by Angelica Negron adds disembodied vocalese, quietly crunching percussion and a drone that separates a warmly shapeshifting, circular lullaby methodically making its way around the instruments. Cameron Britt’s Gossamer Albatross weaves a clever call-and-response element into its absolutely hypnotic theme, a series of brief movements that begin fluttery and grow to include a jazz flavor courtesy of some sultry low flute work by Baker. There’s also the similarly trancelike Beward Of, by Anna Clyne, with its gently warped series of backward masked accents and scurrying flurry of a crescendo, and Ryan Brown’s Under the Rug, which builds matter-of-factly from sparse harp and banjo to a series of crystalline crescendos with the viola. Gently psychedelic, warmly atmospheric and captivating, it’s a great ipod album. It’s out now on New Amsterdam Records.

November 28, 2010 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment