The New York composer/performer collective Counter)Induction has an intriguing collection of new and relatively new chamber works, Group Theory, just out. The quintet of Steven Beck on piano, Miranda Cuckson on violin, Benjamin Fingland on clarinet, Sumire Kudo on cello and Jessica Meyer on viola tackle an ambitious and challenging series of works and pull them off with flair and conscientious attention to emotional content. The most unabashedly atonal of the lot is a piece by Salvatorre Sciarrino which is more of a study in textures and waves of shifting dynamics than melody. The real knockout here is Kyle Bartlett’s Bas Relief, a grimly resolute diptych unexpectedly juxtaposing twisted boogie woogie piano bass, icy upper register piano glimmers, apprehensively fluttering strings and a chilling crescendo anchored by an ominous bass clarinet drone. It’s avant noir in the best possible sense of those two words; as with many of the works here, the quintet’s somewhat unorthodox instrumentation enhances its plaintive edge.
Right up there with it is Douglas Boyce’s triptych Deixo Sonata. Spacious fugal tradeoffs between voices lead to a creepy dance of sorts that quickly descends to a furtive sway, rises to a crescendo with hints of ragtime and old-world Romanticism and then a neat false ending. Ryan Streber’s Partita, for solo cello utilizes a similar architecture, sostenuto forebearance versus insistent staccato, steady arpeggiated cadences punctuated by the occasional dramatic flourish or chordally-charged crescendo. Lee Hyla’s rather minimalist Ciao Manhattan is considerably less sad than the title might imply: pensive hints of the baroque and graceful, sustained layers of strings shift to a simple but affecting piano/violin duet that ends on a surprise note.
Eric Moe’s Dead Cat Bounce (Wall Street slang for a stock on the way down that’s recovered for just a second) follows a jauntily bittersweet trajectory, from a rondo to a sort-of-tango to a fullscale dance, the entire ensemble in and out of the melee, winding out on a puckishly ironic note. The longest work here, Erich Stem’s four-part suite Fleeting Thoughts juxtaposes a terse, balletesque pulse with icily moody piano-and-string interludes that eventually leads to a richly satisfying noir bustle on the way out. Frequently dark, challenging, compelling music utilizing an imaginative mix of devices and genres from across the decades to the present: watch this space for upcoming NYC concerts.
Critical Models: Chamber Works of Mohammed Fairouz, the composer’s debut collection, came out on Sono Luminus last year. WQXR did a little piece on it: they didn’t really get it. The album title is something of a misnomer: while there is considerable rigor in Fairouz’s work, he also happens to be one of the great wits in contemporary composition. But his wit is biting and edgy, sometimes caustic, qualities that elevate even the most obvious pieces here (and there are a couple) above the frivolity that defines so much of what’s considered “indie classical.” The rest of the album, a remarkably diverse collection of works for wind quartet and bass, violin-and-sax duo, solo piano, guitar and string quartet, imaginatively and utterly unpredictably blends postminimalism, neoromanticism, bracing atonalities and occasional satire. In places, it’s harrowing; elsewhere, it can be hilarious.
The opening composition, Litany, performed by bassist James Orleans and a wind quartet of Claire Cutting on oboe, Jonathan Engle on flute, Vasko Dukovski on clarinet and Thomas Fleming on bassoon could easily be titled “Pensively Apprehensively.” A sense of longing pervades as the ensemble strolls plaintively with chilly, fanfare-ish counterpoint and a rondo of sorts; it ends unresolved. The title’s Critical Models are violin/sax duos, two questions,each followed by a response. The first, Catchword: A Modernist’s ‘Dilemma,’ employs a bustling, anxious semi-conversation between Michael Couper’s alto sax and Rayoung Ahn’s violin to illustrate a Milton Babbitt quote about the struggle for serious music’s survival. If this is to be taken at face value, it will. Its rejoinder employs tersely quavery microtonal intricacies and a stillness-vs-animation tension, inspired by something Theodore Adorno once opined. A satirical faux-bellydance theme with actually quite lovely violin, Catchword: An Oriental Model illustrates a hideous anti-Arab screed by British Victorian playboy imperialist Evelyn, Lord Cromer; its vividly optimistic response, inspired by Edward Said, has Couper playing the voice of reason via mystical, airy microtones, and when Ahn gets the picture, she grabs it with both hands.
Pianist Katie Reimer plays six delicious miniatures with a potently precise understatement: she clearly also gets this material. The first is an uneasy, distantly Ravel-esque etude of sorts; the second, a creepy phantasmagorical march; a bustling, ragtimish variation on that theme; an exercise in creepy faux operatics; an obvious but irresistible exercise in descending progressions; and a minimalist, spacious nocturne.
The Lydian String Quartet play a diptych, Lamentation and Satire. The first part builds from mingling, dissociative funereal voices to a rather macabre crescendo, followed by austere, brooding solo viola and foreboding cello passages. The second seems to be a cruel parody of funereal music, with sarcastic rustles, a snide martial passage and a predictable if still quite moving solo cello passage to end it. Reimer and Couper than team up for Three Novelettes: the first, Cadenzas, cleverly interpolates satirical motifs within a moody architecture; the second, Serenade, has to be the saddest serenade ever written and is the most haunting work on the album; and a simply hilarious Dance Montage that has to be heard to be appreciated.
The album concludes with four works for solo classical guitar, played with deadpan clarity by Maarten Stragier. Baroque rhythms and tropes get twisted up in modern tonalities, tongue-in-cheek staccato stomps alternate with skeletal Italianate melody; the suite ends with a slowly spacious work that Fairouz calls a toccata, with seemingly snide, offhand references to both Bach and Elizabethan guitar music. Eclectic to the extreme and very successfully so, it’s an accurate portrait of where Fairouz is right now. Unsurprisingly, his latest project has him branching out into opera: last week, his first, Sumeida’s Song, based on a classic Tawfiq El Hakim play, debuted at Carnegie Hall. It’s something of an understatement to say that he’s a composer to keep your eye on.
As we do pretty much every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Wednesday’s album was #476:
Arnold Schoenberg – Pierrot Lunaire
With Halloween coming up, here’s the creepiest and possibly least listenable album on this list so far, a 1940 recording with the composer himself conducting an insane clown posse with Erika Steidry-Wagner on vocals. The group – piano, violin, cello, flute and clarinets – do a chilly, methodical job with this four-part suite’s creepy atonalities, many of which you may recognize since they’ve been used over and over again in many horror movies. Catchy, singalong material? Hardly. But it’ll wake you up – and maybe keep you up. You can stream the whole thing and also download it free from archive.org. Those preferring a more up-to-date, slightly more polished (but less crazy) version might want to investigate the 1998 recording by Ensemble Intercontemporain with Pierre Boulez on piano and Christine Schafer singing, all up on youtube here, here, here and here. If you want to download the album, it’s here.
This year’s Bang on a Can Marathon aimed to be especially audience-friendly. In the “social media lounge” on the World Financial Center balcony, you could recharge your laptop, play an Evan Ziporyn or Julia Wolfe composition on Rock Band (!?!) and get your hand stamped by the hour. Those with a full twelve hours worth of stamps at the night’s end had earned Marathon Warrior designation, a certificate of merit (suitable for framing!) plus a mention on Bang on a Can’s main site and their twitter page. A little extreme, maybe, but that’s what a marathon’s all about. How does this year’s rank, compared to previous years? From the first four hours’ worth, somewhere around the top. The annual new music showcase runs ’em on and runs ’em off, meaning that if you don’t like the piece or ensemble that’s onstage at the moment, you can always come back in ten minutes and there’ll probably be somebody new up there. This year’s selection of performers and composers was characteristically skewed toward the avant-garde (subcategory: postminimalist) with jazzy edges.
The John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble opened the show auspiciously with the drummer/composer’s Perseverance, the centerpiece of the group’s excellent 2009 album Eternal Interlude. Completed on Election Eve, 2008 and dedicated to Obama, it sends three specific sax voices (played by Ellery Eskelin, Tony Malaby and Jeremy Viner) fluttering and flailing against the big band’s majestic swells and a couple of inspired drum breaks by the composer. Eskelin got the Obama role and hung in there tenaciously for all it was worth.
Innovatively and more than a little deviously, German recorder quartet QNG ran through a New York premiere of Dorothee Hahne’s somewhat understated Dance Macabre and its neat half-time ending, and then Paul Moravec’s Mortal Flesh, shifting from hypnotic horizontality to warped baroque, utilizing at least half a museum’s worth of recorders of various sizes. They brought the big seven-foot model out for the final piece, Moritz Eggert’s LOL funny Flohwalze (that’s German for Chopsticks – the tune, that is), mocking and thrashing its cheesiness to the fullest extent that a recorder quartet can thrash.
The mockery continued with Kyrzyg musicians Kambar Kalendarov and Kutman Sultanbekov playing a simple boing-boing jews harp riff over and over again, completely deadpan until the very end, as if to see if the westerners in the crowd knew they were being had. The crowd’s polite applause seemed to confirm the Kyrzygs’ suspicions. The duo finally played a little country dance on lute and fiddle and that was that.
Florent Ghys effectively took speech patterns and did a one-man band thing, making vaguely baroque-themed loops out of them by playing his upright bass through a series of electronic effects. Eggert then did the same on piano, except that his Hammerklavier III went all-out for laughs and delivered them in droves as he pounded the piano everywhere he could reach, finally kicking up his heel on the low keys and losing his shoe in the process.
The Lucy Moses School’s ensemble Face the Music played Graham Fitkin’s Mesh, which attempts to make a rondo capricioso of sorts out of minimal, circular phrases that eventually move into elevator jazz territory. Following them was a duo playing a Tristan Perich work for tubular bells, electronically processed and amplified to the point that it was like being behind a fleet of garbage trucks with their backup alarms shrieking at full volume: a bathroom break waiting to happen.
Alto saxophonist/composer Steve Coleman, joined by Jonathan Finlayson on trumpet, and David Millares on piano played the captivating suite Formation – Lunar Eclipse, cleverly and often intensely exploring permutations of a hypnotic, circular introductory theme that finally got the chance to cut loose when Millares, whose intensity shadowing Coleman’s sax lines all the way through finally got a chance to break loose and wreak some slightly restrained havoc.
With their marimbas, vibraphones, gongs, water jugs and all sorts of other bangable objects, percussion troupe Slagwerk Den Haag opened their short set with the New York premiere of Seung-Ah Oh’s delightfully playful DaDeRimGill, a dramatic laundry-room scenario that managed to be as purposeful and conversational as it was comedic. Marco Momi’s Ludica (an American premiere) displayed the same kind of conversational tradeoffs and humor.
While one trailerload of instruments was being cleared off the stage for another, the JACK Quartet played Iannis Xenakis’ Tetras on the steps in the back of the atrium, amid the audience, moving from characteristic astringent, percussive phrases to swirling and strikingly melodic ambience. It was the big hit of the day, at least until Evan Ziporyn and his group Gamelan Galak Tika were ready to go. Bang on a Can’s Michael Gordon laughed it up with the composer beforehand since the group follow oldschool gamelan tradition, right down to the matching uniforms and seating arrangements. “I thought it was the Bang on a Can pyjama party,” Ziporyn responded sheepishly. “Xenakis, next to a gamelan, really sums up Bang on a Can,” which pretty much says it all.
And the Ziporyn piece they played, Tire Fire, was as aptly titled as it was transcendent. Ziporyn self-deprecatingly remarked beforehand that the piece really had no real reason to exist. Which maybe it doesn’t – other than to give audiences (and ensemble members) a shot of pure adrenaline exhilaration. It’s a triptych of sorts, each theme introduced by the group’s two electric guitarists. The first movement was the eeriest and the best, the ensemble’s bells ringing out an ocean of overtones against the Telecaster’s ominous shades. The two following movements were more optimistic, the second pulsing along with catchy yet stately electric bass. And with that, after four hours of music, it was time to fly out into the hundred-degree heat. Which combined with the messed-up state of the West Village, the police mystifyingly blocking off access to subways from Christopher to 14th St. despite the presence of a huge crowd who’d come out for the gay parade, made the prospect of a return later in the day a foregone conclusion.