Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Da Capo Chamber Players Jumpstart Black History Month

Gil Scott-Heron famously observed that Black History Month could only happen in February. Last night at Merkin Concert Hall the Da Capo Chamber Players gave it a vigorous jumpstart with a program of music by contemporary black composers that was often as gripping as it was provocative. Da Capo flutist Patricia Spencer and clarinetist Meighan Stoops chose the works, inspired in particular by Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow and its revelation that the percentage of blacks currently incarcerated in the United States is higher than it was in South Africa under apartheid.

Da Capo pianist Blair McMillen opened with a trio of Nkeiru Okoye miniatures: a tightly assembled group of children at play, a droll rain dance and a beautifully nuanced take of Dusk, an elegaic nocturne mingling oldtime gospel and 70s soul themes. A similar darkness and mystery would recur a little later in the night’s quiet showstopper, Alvin Singleton’s La Flora. From the perspective of not having read the liner notes beforehand, it conjured up images of early morning New England industrial parks, plots being hatched among sleepy accomplices who slowly begin to focus as the light grows and then leap into action. However it might be interpreted, it’s a hushed, lush, conspiratorial, powerfully cinematic piece, part minimalist tone poem, part Lynchian noir narrative. The ensemble (McMillen, Stoops, Spencer on bass flute, Curtis Macomber on violin and James Wilson on cello) took their time with it, Wilson working its pianissimo drones for all the tension they were worth, McMillen and guest vibraphonist Matthew Gold adding eerie glimmer in turn alongside the lushness of the winds and strings and percussionist Samuel Nathan’s terse, distantly menacing accents. As it turns out, Singleton’s inspiration was Botticelli’s La Primavera and its subtext-loaded assemblage of dieties and nymphs: go figure. Either way, the foreshadowing lingered long after it was over. The composer was present and seemed pleased: he had every reason to be.

The ensemble’s approach to Jeffrey Mumford’s complex, alternately harsh and balmy A Diffuse Light That Knows No Particular Hour was judicious and matter-of-fact,  its calm/agitated dichotomies highlighted by a swaying, conversational interlude between flute and clarinet that recurred memorably as the work hit a trick ending and then continued an upward arc, developing a visceral sense of longing.

A series of miniatures by the Imani Winds’ Valerie Coleman drew on Langston Hughes poems which were recited in between: a resilient and surprisingly bubbly portrait of Helen Keller; wry jazz and blues-inspired Paris nightclub romps; a Debussy-esque rainstorm and a dark, understatedly majestic Harlem nocturne that was equal parts blues, gospel and art-rock. The ensemble closed with Wendell Morris Logan’s Runagate, Runagate, a jarringly cinematic, shapeshifting, often chilling portrait of slaves escaping to freedom. Trouble was, it was paired with a long Robert Hayden poem – both spoken and sung – on a similar theme. Taken separately, music and lyrics have much to recommend them; together, it seemed that the poem had been grafted haphazardly to the suite, a fault of composition rather than performance. The vocal line never wavered far from a central tone since there was nowhere to go over the leaps and bounds of the rest of the arrangement, and there were moments, especially early on, where operatics actually drowned out the music behind them.

The Da Capo Chamber Players return to Merkin Hall on June 6 at 8 PM to play a new commission from Mohammed Fairouz plus Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire with soprano Lucy Shelton.

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January 30, 2013 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Jay Cloidt/Amanda Moody – D’Arc: Woman on Fire

Like something of a hybrid of Rasputina, Diamanda Galas and This Mortal Coil, this is a timely, imaginative update on the Joan of Arc legend. Actress/chanteuse Amanda Moody’s stage show casts Joan as intercessor in the troubled life of Joanne, an agoraphobic whose daughter has just disappeared in an unnamed, wartorn foreign country. Somewhat obliquely, it’s a telling parable about violence and redemption or lack thereof. Esssentially, this cd, distributed by the esteemed Starkland label, is the soundtrack album, Jay Cloidt’s orchestration alternately haunting and atmospheric with layers of keyboards and a lush string section featuring Kronos Quartet cellist Joan Jeanrenaud. Moody’s voice is as dramatic as one would expect here, ranging literally from a whisper to a scream. 

The opening track, hypnotic with stark, plaintive strings, quietly and assuredly implores a young soldier to go home. Two poignantly atmospheric chamber pieces set the scene for the frantic, anguished, goth-tinged If I Leave the House, cellos ablaze as they reach a shrieking crescendo. After Prayers, macabre vocalese over ambient washes of sound, layers of strings and keys, there’s the stomping Born in Blood, like Siouxsie done ambitious, 80s performance-art style. The rather sarcastically gospel-tinged 10,000 Silver Doves recasts the Joan of Arc execution as a present-day murder. Miracles, a stark aria, sees the narrator sardonically and bitterly remembering her dead daughter as an infant. Surprisingly, the show ends not with a screaming crescendo but with the vivid wartime ballad Born for This. While Cloidt and Moody are best known for their work in the  avant garde, this album is as accessible as it is potently relevant.

July 13, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Leron Thomas – Improvsensation

This one is over the map stylistically, which is actually a strong point for Houston-born trumpeter/composer Leron Thomas since he so defiantly resists categorization. The hilarious rant on the cd booklet’s liner notes is worth the price of the cd by itself, Thomas railing knowingly and aptly against the incompetence and shortsightedness of the dying major labels, band managers who are no more than glorified groupies, and the rigid groupthink that pervades so many of the various New York music scenes, from jazz to pop. As with the liner notes, there’s a lot of anger here, tempered with a disquieting sense of humor that nonetheless is often laugh-out-loud funny. There are a couple of indie rock songs here, the best being the opening cut, an insistent indie rock song with raw, eerie harmonies on the chorus by Thomas’ frequent collaborator Michael Severson. Another, Cut & Paste shares a sarcasm with much of the rest of the album: “I just cut and paste my life.”

Sandmen is sardonically minimalist hip-hop, obviously dating from the days of the Bush regime: “When you see that girl’s ass what you thinking about? Oil, baby!” The next cut, Sanitation Truck is more hip-hop, a bizarre early-morning urban tableau. The inscrutable Kitchen blends an early 80s Midnight Starr proto-hiphop feel with Kool Keith-style weirdness. A couple of instrumentals, When Zelda Replaced GI Joe and In the Silence match lo-fi, clangy guitar with Thomas’ balmy, pensive trumpet. Pearly Whites is sarcastic, Beatlesque pop that grows unabashedly menacing toward the end, a feel echoed earlier by the completely bizarre What’s Done Happen.

Time Travelin’ Love is a funny funk/rap number, a broke guy trying to pick up a girl; EnVino is a drinking song – if Bob Marley’s drug of choice was wine instead of weed, he would have sounded like this. The cd winds up with Fashion, lo-fi Prince-inflected funk bemoaning shallowness all around him; the wee-hours rant 2:34 AM and the sly empowerment anthem Spoils. This is a very strange yet a very honest and straightforwardly compelling album. Whatever direction Thomas wants to go in – he may want to bounce between all of these, which is perfectly ok – this cd is a very entertaining way to get to know him.

July 2, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

DVD Review: Phil Kline – Around the World in a Daze

One of this era’s most fearlessly relevant composers, Phil Kline’s oeuvre ranges from the iconic moving “boombox symphony” Unsilent Night (a response to Bush I’s gulf war) to the Zippo Songs suite inspired by the words and phrases American GI’s in Vietnam inscribed on their lighters. Sonically, Kline’s work tends to be gamelanesque, upper-register textures meticulously manipulated and processed into a rippling, reverberating pool of sound. This new two-DVD set – recorded in surround sound and best experienced on a good-quality home system or, ideally, in a club with encircling banks of speakers – is more diverse, a mix of compositions which run the gamut from challenging to confrontational to playfully fun. In addition to the first DVD with its individual videos, the second includes a considerably informative interview conducted by WNYC’s longtime New Sounds host John Schaefer as well as a bonus video, Meditation (Run As Fast As You Can), a lighthearted, characteristically pointillistic soundscape illustrating a brisk early Sunday morning jaunt from the base of the Brooklyn Bridge to the epicenter of New York’s financial district and then back again.

Here, Kline alternates between his usual collection of boomboxes, keyboards, loops and strings to comment acerbically on a range of issues both abstract and concrete, from confronting disaster to the death of New York via gentrification. The first track here, The Housatonic at Henry Street served as impetus for the entire project. Like his main influence Charles Ives, Kline  places himself in the tradition of the American Transcendentalists, the stream here cast in the role of river of life for a whole movement. The piece is a swirl of bell-like overtones (boomboxes slightly out of phase with each other) plus ambient street noise – happily, Kline must have edited out the car alarms and the shriek of the buses moving along Monroe Street a block away!

Svarga Yatra – Sanskrit for Stairway to Heaven – has pioneering string quartet Ethel playing live against themselves on a boombox. It’s a pretty, circular processional with an edge of disquiet enhanced by all the overtones. A madrigal manipulated, The Maryland Sample begins with ambient samples and grows eerie with a chorus of what sounds like a hall full of harpshichords. The DVD’s centerpiece, Pennies from Heaven follows a downward trajectory rather than Kline’s typical crescendo. It’s a sarcastic commentary on the trickle-down theory of economics, illustrating the effect it has on the people at the receiving end. With overlays of carrilonesque melody and variations on a tinkly descending progression, it grows more echoey and chaotic – something that began completely innocuous has gone horribly wrong.

Of the other tracks, Grand Etude for the Elevation (earlier playfully titled the Grand Etude Symphonique) layers  Todd Reynolds’ violin with trebly keyboards and insistent percussion, echoes of the Kronos Quartet’s recent work. Melodically, it’s the strongest composition here with haunting, Balkan-inflected tinges in places. The elegaic Prelude mixes an old recording of a piece from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, reprocessed with a field recording of foot traffic in the Zurich train station. The concluding cut on the first DVD, The Housatonic at Dzanga overlays samples from an oasis in the Central African Republic where hundreds of elephants and grey parrots congregate, resembling a tower of Babel far more than any sort of bucolic Discovery Channel soundtrack. There are also a couple of sillier works here including one “Dude, look what the DVD player just did with my cd!” number that actually succeeds in being a snide swipe at Wagner. New music fans will salivate over this; for more casual listeners, the hypnotic aspect of much of the material here creates a comfortably ambient late-evening soundtrack.

July 1, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Concert Review: Parissa and Kamilya Jubran at the Asia Society, NYC 6/11/09

A frequently riveting juxtaposition of ancient and modern vocal music from the Muslim world, arguably the highlight of this year’s Muslim Voices festival. Persian classical singer Parissa is something of a feel-good story, having resurrected a promising career interrupted for almost two decades by the 1978-79 Iran counterrevolution. Accompanied by virtuoso tar (four-string lute) player Iman Vaziri and hand drummer Dara Afraz, she delivered musical settings of Rumi poems, essentially soul music with a distinctly antique flavor. In a vibratoless alto more bronze than brassy, seated somewhat inscrutably centerstage, she worked a style that typically allows room for emotional release at the end of a phrase, with melismas and ululations which she delivered with considerable passion yet restraint. From the point of view of a non-Farsi speaker, it was impossible to tell where one poem began and another ended, the segments being linked by the tar, occasionally tar and drum picking up the pace. They mixed the time signature up: among the songs (or segments) were what was essentially a stately waltz, several straight-up, seemingly four-on-the-floor numbers and several that that were much more tricky, timewise. Visibly absent was any dance beat, and for that matter any chord changes, resulting in a very hypnotic feel. The most musically compelling of them approximated a minor scale, Vaziri introducing a particularly anguished theme and then playing off the vocals gently. A couple others were distinctly anthemic, although in this music, the hooks are strictly musical: there are no choruses in the lyrics. The trio maintained a careful, deliberate pace throughout, determined by the meter of the verse – Persian poetry, like Latin poetry, is highly inflected.

 

While Parissa keeps the flame alive, Palestinian oud player/singer Kamilya Jubran – former frontwoman of the courageous Palestinian new-music group Sabreen – breaks new ground. To call her performance cutting-edge would be an understatement. An extraordinarily innovative musician, she displayed a dazzling melodic sensibility on the oud, employing at times equal parts American soul, funk and avante-garde music as well as classical Levantine motifs, with hypnotic tinges possibly evocative of Moroccan gnawa. Playing original settings of contemporary Palestinian poems, she sang with a high, youthful delivery, clear and direct, minutely jeweled with the subtlest shades of angst, regret and longing. For the considerable benefit of English speakers, translations of the poems were included in the program notes, and without exception they were intensely moving. Here’s just the first stanza of the most intense of all of them – if this isn’t well worth the $25 ticket price (tickets still available for tonight’s show), you decide what is:

 

Birds have their homes in the shadows

Echo has longings for hills that she knows

Dew has the dying color of sunset

Nights have their secret to cover the sorrows

Drinkers have wine, and I have the rest

 

She began that one with a touch of the blues, added a little quiet scatting in the middle and then it got haunting and serious. The deeply metaphorical Words (“I wish I were a language on a lip/That is creased with cares/It would neither conceal nor reveal) began with a dexterous series of high harmonics on the oud and a funky feel, further enhanced as the sound engineer brought up the reverb on the vocals. Quietly and determinedly haunting, Hands stayed just this side of macabre as Jubran added pointed passing tones to drive home the frustration and anguish of captivity. The saddest of the poems, Scenes – a bitter concession to wartime defeat – was driven by darkly ringing chords, terse yet heavy with grief and loss. She ended the set with a love song, Hammock, its long outro skipping somewhat skeletally yet soulfully warm, like a vintage Richie Havens song. Considering the quality of all this, one could forgive her for doing karaoke on a couple of numbers, backed by a tape with layers of oud and backing vocals – as complex as the songs were, there are without a doubt plenty of other oudists and singers here who would have welcomed the opportunity to work with such a compelling musician as Jubran.

 

Both Parissa and Kamilya Jubran are playing tonight at the Asia Society, 725 Park Ave. at 70th St. Parissa goes on at 7:30, Jubran at 9:30 and tickets are still available as of this writing (morning of 6/12/09).

June 12, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: Phillip Johnston – Page of Madness

A horror movie soundtrack like no other. In addition to his substantial body of jazz, Microscopic Septet founder Phillip Johnston gets plenty of film work. This one debuted a full ten years ago at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, played live to the 1926 Teinosuke Kinugasa silent film A Page of Madness by the Transparent Quartet:  Johnston on soprano and alto saxes, Joe Ruddick on piano and baritone sax, Dave Hofstra on bass and Mark Josefsburg on vibes. More a haunting portrait of insanity than outright horror, A Page of Madness has achieved cult status as a rare example of 1920s Japanese avante-garde filmmaking (Kinugasa cited Murnau’s The Last Laugh as a major influence). For reasons unknown, literally dozens of record labels were approached but were unwilling to release this album, notwithstanding the fact that a more recent electronic score is absolutely lame and only detracts from the movie.

From his work with the Micros, Johnston makes a good match for the flick, being no stranger to effective, frequently very amusing narrative jazz. This is a radically different side of the composer and quite a departure from his usual approach in that there is a great deal of improvisation going on. This one-off set was played to a relatively slow 18ips projector speed, most likely to maximize shading and minimize the herky-jerky fast-forward effect that plagues so much of early cinema. Like the film, Johnston’s composition is sad, viscerally intense and frequently haunting, the group’s improvisations sometimes rising to shriekingly anguished crescendos to match the script, by far the darkest work Johnston has released to date. To call it schizophrenic attests to its success in tandem with the visuals. Many of the instrumental pieces, some as long as nine or ten minutes, segue into each other. The central theme is an indignant, twisted little march, beginning on the vibraphone but frequently picked up by the piano or, toward the end, by the sax, sometimes traded off between instruments. Counterintuitively, it’s Hofstra’s snapping bass that launches a fullblown episode on track nine where the central character loses it for good. Johnston flutters and floats more than he goes crazy, while Ruddick, definitely the star of the show here, gets to fly completely off the hinges with crazed runs from one end of the keyboard to the other, a couple of murderously raging chordal passages and some plaintive sax work in tandem with Johnston.

Toward the end, there’s a ten-minute dream sequence alternating between troubled and balmy until a fullscale nightmare sets in, followed by sort of an overture and closing with a breezy, tinkly swing number that wouldn’t be out of place in the Micros catalog, morphing into a snazzy tango only to end somberly with the central march theme. As much as possible, it’s closure, coming to grips with madness. This is treat for jazz and vintage cinema fans alike as well as anyone who enjoys listening to the darkest stuff imaginable late at night with the lights out. Watch this space for live dates by Johnston with his many diverse projects.

June 10, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Black Sea Hotel’s Debut Album

Using only their voices, no autotune, synthesizers or computerized effects, Black Sea Hotel’s four singers – Joy Radish, Willa Roberts, Sarah Small and Corinna Snyder – have created the most haunting and beautiful cd of the year so far. Black Sea Hotel are Brooklyn’s own Bulgarian vocal choir, taking both ancient and more modern Bulgarian folk music to a lot of very otherworldly places. It would be easy to say that since they play most of their shows at rock clubs,  they’re sort of the punk rock version of le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares, but that wouldn’t be giving them enough credit. Not only are the group extraordinary singers, they’re also arrangers. As the four members revealed in an enlightening interview here recently, they’re doing new things with an impressive repertoire of haunting old songs, paring down large-scale pieces for just their four voices, embellishing works for solo voice as well as folksongs typically played with instrumentation. The result ranges from chilling or hypnotic to downright psychedelic, gorgeous washes of sound panning across the spectrum, moving in and out of the mix, from one harmony to another in places. Sometimes all four voices harmonize. Sometimes they work in pairs, or a single voice against two or three in counterpoint. Between them, they cover the sonic spectrum from contralto to high soprano with an astonishing ability to go from the lowest to highest registers and vice versa in a split second, using Balkan and Middle Eastern scales, eerie microtones, magically precise melismas or sometimes just a pure, crystalline, fullscale wail. But rather than always going for the jugular with the wild whoops and embellishments for which le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares are best known, they choose theirs spots judiciously, saving the most elaborate and ostentatious ornamentation for when they really need it.

The cd mixes sixteen songs in both Bulgarian and Macedonian from literally across the centuries. There’s a polyrhythmic dance; a mysterious number about witchcraft with a quite operatic bridge; a dirge about a girl swept away in the river; a Middle Eastern-inflected cautionary tale; the sad story of a drunken pasha; a wistful, Celtic-tinged waltz; the suspenseful account of a singing competition between a young girl and nightingale; and an insistent taunt that with all four voices going full steam becomes practically a sonic lynching. If this album doesn’t end up making the top ten in our Best Albums of the Year list at the end of December, 2009 will have been the best year for music in recorded history. Not bad for a quartet of American women who probably never heard a word of Bulgarian until they were in their teens. Black Sea Hotel play the cd release show at Union Pool at 9 on June 4 on an excellent bill with Sxip Shirey, Veveritse and Stumblebum Brass Band.

June 3, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Concert Review: Felix Lajko and Antal Brasnyo at the Schimmel Center, Pace University, NYC 6/1/09

Were Hungarian violinist Felix Lajko and his violist cohort Antal Brasnyo at Bang on a Can on Sunday? Actually not. Carving out new territory embodying elements of gypsy music, classical, jazz and the avante-garde, they would have fit in well at Sunday’s marathon. In their duo performance, Lajko played lead, Brasnyo’s viola functioning much like a harmonium, creating washes of chords anchoring Lajko’s wild glissandos and stark, rapidfire staccato passages. How much was composed and how much was improvised was hard to tell, other than several false endings after which Lajko would meander mysteriously before winding up with a big crescendo or a sudden, cold stop. A couple of the pieces were straight out of the mid-70s Jean-Luc Ponty songbook, fast two-chord jams where Lajko would cavort with a gypsy dance feel. Another was a straight-up four-chord rock melody with a soaring, upbeat chorus.

Lajko switched to zither on a couple of numbers, Brasnyo maintaining the ambience while his partner picked away frenetically (with the size of the auditorium, it would have been nice if the zither, with virtually no sustain, could have been amplified). After a solo series of variations on a gypsy dance by Lajko, the duo played a capitivatingly morphing number that moved from a vintage soul melody to a tango to a joyous dance before closing with another two-chord jam. Despite the blazing speed of pretty much everything they played, neither musician looked like they broke a sweat. Bang on a Can ought to enlist these guys next year. This show was part of the ongoing Extremely Hungary festival, featuring a diverse series of musical, literary and theatrical events running through the end of the year in both New York and Washington, DC.

June 3, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Anne-Marie McDermott Plays Haydn, Wuorinen and Assad at Town Hall, NYC 5/31/09

Pianist Anne-Marie McDermott gets plenty of accolades for chops and versatility and this study in extreme contrasts validated pretty much anything good that’s been said about her. After the intermission at her recital Sunday evening at Town Hall, she told the audience that despite the different of two centuries and several generations of musical evolution, she found a great deal of similarity between Haydn and Wuorinen because their compositions are literally all over the place, an insight that is less obvious than it seems. She opened with Haydn’s Piano Sonata in G Major, Hob XVI: 40, warm and predictably playful and then taking off with a presto section that McDermott milked for all the laughs she could get: it’s quite silly, and the crowd was warmly appreciative. Another sonata, the C Minor, Hob XVI: 20 was even more of an exercise in judicious dynamics and phrasing, McDermott turning what could have been mere wistfulness into real poignancy throughout its andante section.

Then she switched gears (or teleported to another dimension, you could easily say) with the world premiere of Charles Wuorinen’s Fourth Piano Sonata – if anyone in the house recorded it, please let us know! With what seemed a total absence of time signature and a call for complete reckless abandon (and even percussion on the body of the piano itself), it revealed itself as an angry, almost relentlessly railing piece that when it finally calmed down went straight to despair and then back to rage again. The herky-jerky first movement was deliberately dissonant and ugly, a feel only slightly obscured with vaguely Asian tinges on the second movement, going absolutely morose and nocturnal with the third, andante passage before reverting to insistent crashing and banging with Sabre Dance echoes that despite all McDernmott’s energy was anticlimactic compared to the powerful evocation of clinical depression of what had just preceded it.

After another dynamically superb take on another Haydn sonata (E flat Minor, HoB XVI: 52), she closed with the New York premiere of Clarice Assad’s When Art Showed Up. Art, whoever he may be, is a lot of fun but also a sort of crazymaker. The opening theme was warmly romantic without a single hint of the festivities to come, all kinds of vivid appositions across the registers and a coda straight out of Cuba, 1935. The crowd wouldn’t let McDermott go without an encore, so she indulged them with a showy, Flight of the Bumblebee-esque segment of another Haydn sonata.

June 2, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Couple Bars’ Worth of Sunday’s Bang on a Can Marathon

This year’s Bang on a Can Marathon promised to be one of the best ever, in terms of sheer talent if not ambience. Lately this sprawling festival has lacked the freewheeling, anarchic spirit of earlier years, but the performers on the bill just get better and better. The deck is typically stacked with the biggest name acts playing later, this year’s being a criminally good list of performers: Ars Nova Copenhagen playing one composer after another, pipa innovator Wu Man, Missy Mazzoli’s haunting ensemble Victoire, the astonishing string quartet Brooklyn Rider, Tortoise and of course the Bang on a Can All-Stars. But the afternoon’s acts were just as good. To those who might rail against the boomy acoustics and sterile ambience of the World Financial Center Winter Garden, it’s at least a lot easier to negotiate than some of the other spaces BOAC has used.

Cognoscenti who were there at the opening bell raved about Andy Akiho’s psychedelic piece, Alloy, played by the Foundry Steel Pan Ensemble. BOAC co-founder Michael Gordon’s Trance, played by the jazz orchestra SIGNAL, went on for almost an hour. Some said for too long, but to these ears the tension of the band in lockstep with a series of looped vocal fragments and drum machine served well to illustrate a struggle for freedom. They went up, then down, running the same phrase much as the loop they kept in step with, finally crescendoing as the loop faded and disappeared, the band adding a sense of triumph while maintaining the tense, metronomic feel of the first 45 minutes or so. It was very redemptive: man vs. machine, man finally winning out.

Guitar quartet DITHER, augmented by seven ringers on a mix of Fenders and Gibsons did one of Eric km Clark’s deprivation pieces, each guitarist given earplugs and headphones so as to deliberately throw off their timing (doesn’t work: we’re used to bad monitor mixes, being unable to hear a thing onstage, feeling for the drums and playing what’s in our fingers!). Echoes swirling around underneath the big skylight, the effect was akin to a church organ piece, maybe something especially weird from the Jehan Alain songbook with a lot of echo. It ended cold with a single guitarist tossing off a playfully tongue-in-cheek, random metal phrase.

The Todd Reynolds Quartet followed with Meredith Monk’s lone string quartet, Stringsongs, in four bracingly captivating sections. The first, Cliff Light was a hypnotically polyrhythmic, astringent dance, introducing a stillness at the end that carried over to the second part, Tendrils, austere and plaintive but growing warmer and prettier, brief phrases flowing in and out of the arrangement, often repeating. Part three, Obsidian was more dawn than darkness; Phantom Strings, the final segment was practically a live loop, its circular motifs growing more insistent and percussive, the group seizing every dynamic inch the score would allow them.

The daylight hours’ highlight was, of course, Bill Frisell. The preeminent jazz guitarist of our time turned in a characteristically thoughtful, deliberately paced, absolutely brilliantly constructed series of three solo pieces, the first one of his typical western themes spiced with harmonics and drenched in reverb, a welcoming, friendly, comfortable way to ease into what would quickly become more difficult terrain. The clouds came in quickly with his second instrumental, eerie and minimalistically noir. Finally, Frisell hit his distortion pedal and upped the ante, bending and twisting the notes, adding glissandos and hitting his loop pedal in places where he’d found one that would resonate beneath the methodically Gilmouresque menace. One of those loops made a sturdy underpinning for a brief segue into a bright, optimistic, latin-tinged theme that quickly morphed into a common 4-chord soul motif and it was then that Frisell pulled out a little shimmery vibrato to wind it up on a warmly optimistic note.

One of the maddening things about Bang on a Can is that somebody like Frisell will give you chills, and then the next act will leave you scowling and wondering why anyone on earth thinks they belong onstage. This time the culprits were Your Bad Self playing a trio of Ted Hearne compositions, the first a straight-up noir rock ballad in 6/8, the singer setting off a crazy, screaming crescendo on the second verse that lingered after they’d brought it down again. Too bad the best he could do was scream, because he was off-key and positively lame on the next two numbers, a fractured, frantic musette with a jazzy trumpet fanfare and a moodier tune. This is what happens when classically trained people who don’t know rock but think they do anyway try to incorporate it in their music. Or maybe they do, but they don’t know soul from affectation, at least when it comes to vocals. At least the band was good. After that, the UK’s Smith Quartet launched into a Kevin Volans piece with which they’re supposedly associated – too bad, because it didn’t leave a mark. Then it was time to go uptown. But all that was a small price to pay for a free set by Frisell, not to mention the early afternoon’s program.

Only one complaint: where were the kids? Most of the crowd was older than the performers. New music is for young people! Maybe because we don’t have money, we don’t get invited these days? For those missing out on the evening’s festivities, Feast of Music was there to provide some insight.

June 2, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments