Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Intriguing, Catchy, Resonant Sounds from Ensemble Et. Al.

Over a year ago, adventurous percussion group Ensemble Et Al sent a package of files over the transom here. Where they sat, and sat, waiting patiently for their turn on the front page. At last, that time has come: their ep When the Tape Runs Out is a lot of fun. Most of it is streaming at the group’s Bandcamp page, along with their ep of group leader Ron Tucker’s arrangements of works by Arvo Part and Goldmund (Keith Kenniff) which is available for free download.

The opening track, A Beautiful Walk Through Industrial Wasteland builds to a groove that closely resembles Bill Withers’ Use Me. If that’s intentional, it’s clever; either way, the intricate, gamelanesque assemblage of lingering vibraphone, marimba and glockenspiel tones along with less resonant metal and wood objects played by Tucker, J. Ross Marshall and Charles Kessenich manages to be both hypnotic and catchy. In a Crowded Room with Nothing to Think About works a playfully direct, Steve Reich-ish circular theme into a series of charmingly chiming layers. A disarmingly attractive, rather Lynchian lullaby, Confessions of an Honest Man balances atmospheric lows against tersely ringing highs.

Finding Simple Wonders As the Day Turns the Night develops a wickedly memorable minimalist melody into an eerie music box-like theme over an implied trip-hop groove. The ep closes with a warily spacious take on Arvo Part’s Fur Elina, a secret bonus track. Fans of downtempo and chillout music as well as indie classical types should check this out. Ensemble Et Al are on an intriguing triplebill of percussion ensembles with Concert Black and Iktus Percussion on March 26 at 8 PM at Galapagos, $15 advance tickets are recommended.

March 18, 2013 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hypnotic Beauty from Maya Beiser and Michael Harrison

The shadow of Philip Glass towers over Michael Harrison and Maya Beiser’s collaboration Time Loops – out earlier this year from Cantaloupe -both in the unselfconscious beauty of the melodies and the hypnotically circling rhythms. Harrison, who plays piano, contributes most of the compositions. As the title implies, the central theme here is simple, looped phrases, whether from an elegant Bach invention, an Arvo Part diptych that finally shifts from a lullaby to more pensive tonalities, or the long three-part suite where cellist Beiser becomes an understatedly epic one-woman string section.

The more ornate loop music becomes, the simpler its motifs have to be in order to avoid dissonance, at least if that is the agenda as it is on Harrison’s opening triptych, Just Ancient Loops. Throughout the suite, Beiser gets to multitrack a rich array of timbres, textures and melodies: Indian classical music, blues, drones, Julia Wolfe-style staccato, cantabile nocturnal interludes and subtle shades of pizzicato all blend together into a seamless whole. There’s also a pretty straight-up indie rock tune, distant allusions to Pink Floyd’s Shine on You Crazy Diamond and less distant ones to Glass. Counterrythms rise to the point where Beiser’s parts swirl out of the mix, one by one, much in the manner of dub reggae. The overall effect is hypnotic and psychedelic to the extreme: Glass’ later string quartets come very much to mind.

The album’s title track artfully juxtaposes a warm, lyrical cello line with backward masking. Somehow Harrison gets the harmonies to work, and Beiser keeps perfect time with them. They follow that with the Bach, then the Part, then Harrison’s Raga Prelude, a nocturne that’s ultimately far more interesting than either of its predecessors as the duo carry it into rippling ballad territory, then work a stately baroque theme until Harrison’s piano brings in the clouds and Beiser backs away while the chill sets in. All things considered, it’s the most consistently gripping composition here.

The final track is Hijaz, which ought to be the best one here, but it’s not, and that’s because annoying things happen here and there. These days, south Indian takadimi drum language seems to be all the rage, at least in academic circles: sure enough, barely three minutes into Harrison’s subtly otherworldly piano arpeggios – defly employing the just intonation which he’s long championed – the diggity-doo begins and then won’t quit. Compounding the problem is that there’s a whole crowd, the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, doing the diggity-doo, at least when they’re not adding a quiet, sostenuto luminosity. The drum language actually has a purpose – in its original vernacular, it’s simply a way to count beats – but here it destroys the genuine hanuting quality of the rest of the work. Those with Protools should upload it and cut out the offending bits; a more oldschool option would be to copy the good parts to a cassette. Live at last year’s Bang on a Can Marathon, the effect was the same: it was like mixing beer and vermouth. A work so darkly majestic and memorable shouldn’t be marred by the vocalese tic-du-jour: it screams out for a new recording that does it justice.

December 13, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Saturday Night Magic with the Spectrum Symphony

It’s always a treat to discover an excellent new orchestra. Saturday night on the upper west side, the Spectrum Symphony and the New York Festival Singers joined forces for a concert as richly captivating as anything that could have possibly been happening just a couple of blocks east at Lincoln Center or at Carnegie Hall. A member of the string section noted sardonically during the intermission that this orchestra is “the pickup group of pickup groups.” If that’s the case, one can only wonder what kind of transcendence they could deliver with a few more rehearsals. As it was, the whole orchestra was cohesive, nuanced and responsive to conductor David Grunberg’s matter-of-fact, determined focus.

They opened with the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 20. This isn’t Mozart in hurried, let’s-get-this-over-with mode. It’s a lively, tuneful piece that recycles a few motifs from Don Giovanni, lit up with dynamic shifts and energetic exchanges between voices. Guest Steven Graff brought an agile, rapidfire, imaginative edge to the piano, notably his own improvised cadenzas, which were as bitingly entertaining as they were anachronistic, taking the piece two hundred years into the future. Yet these made a perfect fit with the music.

A percussionist supplied a single, funereal bell note as the strings swirled and rose in Arvo Part’s Cantus In Memoriam Benjamin Britten with a restrained shimmer, hypnotic and vividly regretful (Part was reputedly chagrined that he never met Britten). The concert concluded with a rewardingly lush, ornate take on the Faure Requiem. Conventional wisdom is that it’s a lighthearted view of death, and that’s hardly the case. Faure reputedly wrote it on a lark, but this ensemble gave it majesty and depth, the richness of the choir blending with the swells of the orchestra, the organ utilizing stops in the center of the church, creating an all-emcompassing, surround-sound experience for those lucky enough to be in the right place.

The soloists, soprano Beverly Butrie and baritone Alec Spencer were superb as well. Butrie has a voice that ought to be heard more. It’s original, and it’s grounded in a considerably lower resonance that you would expect from a true soprano, even though she hit the high notes in this piece with a nonchalance and a liquid yet firmly anchored vibrato that fit like a glove with the demands of her solos. A delivery like hers is more typically found in the Middle East and India, but not so much here, all the more reason to seek her out. By contrast,  Spencer went for intensity, stayed in the haunted zone and never left. As the work shifted from methodical and somber to more airy and ethereal, Grunberg and the orchestra maintained an unhurried focus, letting the piece breathe and the polyphonics reach toward something closer to a spree than a sepulchre. The Spectrum Symphony performs regularly but not frequently; watch this space for future concerts.

November 15, 2012 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

A Quiet Knockout from Bruce Levingston

Pianist Brue Levingston’s new Still Sound is a gorgeously conceptual album of nocturnes that follows a concert-like trajectory. It would be simplistic to reduce it to the mechanics of stately lefthand and glimmering upper righthand, although that’s a fairly accurate description of the most traditionally nocturnal pieces here. Intriguingly, Erik Satie is the connecting link, a brave move considering how specifique Satie is.  Levingston doesn’t take any chances with the famous Gymnopedie No. 2, but he does with Gnossiennes No. 2 and 3, and there his whispery, lento interpretation is a knockout, a welcome change from how most players shy away from anything more than letting Satie’s creepy, otherworldly angst speak for itself. Augusta Gross’ Dance of the Spirits makes a great segue: derivative yet inspired, it could be the long-lost Gnossienne #7.

The spaciousness of the Satie is aptly foreshadowed in Levington’s choices of openers, Arvo Part’s minimalist Fur Alina and the more rhythmic Variationen zur gesundung von Arinuschka. Gross, who serves as a parallel connecting element here, is first represented by the quietly macabre allusions of a brief diptych, Venturing Forth Anew. The brisk twinkles and ripples of Schubert’s Impromptu Op. 9, No. 4 make another tremendously successful segue; Levingston takes full advantage of the opportunity to hit it harder as it moves along and darkens before bringing back the opening ambience. Chopin’s distantly uneasy Chopin Nocturne in B flat, Op. 9, No. 1 leaves no doubt what Satie’s stepping-off point was. The album’s concluding tracks include William Bolcom’s New York Lights, which gets a wistful reading, Levingston’s lefthand mimicking the sonics of an upright bass feeling for steady ground around a central tone, and then a steadily gleaming take on Gross’ Reflections on Air. Out now on Sono Luminus, it’s a quietly powerful reminder of why Levingston has become the go-to pianist for many of this era’s most intriguing composers.

May 6, 2012 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cutting-Edge Contrasts in Brooklyn Heights

Guitar quartet Dither perched themselves high in the organ loft at Brooklyn Heights’ First Presbyterian Church last night. It was a dramatic move and it made perfect sense sonically, as loud as they got at times. Strikingly, they played a raw, stripped-down show rich with dynamic shifts. While everyone in the group brought his pedalboard, they didn’t often reach for the cyclotron swirl of their recently released debut album. Appropriately, they opened with an Arvo Part organ piece, an austere, minimalistically chilly four-bar phrase that repeated over and over again. Their tic-tac-toe arrangement was perfectly paced; it sounded like a miniature from an early Cure album, and it went on long beyond where it could have made any additional impact. Strat player James Moore switched to bass for a Ches Smith composition which they turned into round-robin music-box skronk, a showcase for Taylor Levine’s jaggedly incisive riffage, building to an assaultive, Kowalski/Einsturzende Neubauten crescendo of industrial crunch and then a surprisingly catchy, circular concluding riff.

A composition by guitarist Joshua Lopes was next, a brightly proggy dance with echoes of English folk, Steve Hackett and Weather Report. Their other Strat player, David Linaburg took it down and out elegantly with phrasing that reminded of Jerry Garcia (in “on” mode). Lisa R. Coons’ Cross-Sections, a cut from the new album, was stripped to its inner dread, jarring twin ascending progressions using adjacent notes and a concluding section where the guitars took on a staccato cello attack to maximize its disquiet. The last number, Telegraph, by First Presbyterian impresario and organist Wil Smith, was the icing on the cake, Lopes switching to bass this time. Opening with an echoey, staccato, U2 style pulse, it grew to majestic, otherworldly, Messiaenic proportions, atmospherics punctuated by percussive punches and eventually a magnificent, anguished noiserock gallop, Iron Maiden as played by Mogwai, maybe. It was stunning, and impossible to turn away from.

Accompanied by an eight-piece ensemble including four violins, two trumpets, bowed bass and bassoon, Canadian composer Kyle Bobby Dunn led them on guitar and keyboards (and echoey effects) from the lectern at the back of the church with the lights down low. Beginning with the long, hypnotic drone that would continue almost nonstop throughout the practically hourlong, horizontal work, the nocturne shifted shape almost imperceptibly, with trumpet, violin or the guitar/keys (it became next to impossible to tell which was which) moving a note or five, at the most, from the center. When Dunn added a throbbing pulse to the drone about fifteen minutes in, it was something akin to a long night ride through a Saskatchewan of the mind in an old Cadillac with a bad muffler, sinking comfortably into one of its big, cozy seats, the big shocks of the old gas-guzzler cushioning every impact the road might deliver, V8 rumbling low, warm and irresistibly soothing somewhere outside. Yet it was anything but a trip back to the womb; its judicious shifts in timbre and pitch, and its slow crescendos, evoked a distant anguish. A cautionary tale about the perils of complacency? Maybe. It concluded with what seemed to be a random scan of the radio dial: snippets of a baroque piece, a lush, sleepy wash of strings from a symphonic work (which the violins played along with, gently) and then the intro from She Sells Sanctuary by the Cult, cut off abruptly. In its own deliberate, understated way, it was every bit as intense and gripping as the withering, assaultive conclusion delivered by Dither.

The monthly series of cutting-edge concerts at First Presbyterian Church continues on October 8 at 8 PM with Eleonore Oppenheim.

September 11, 2010 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, experimental music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment