Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Cutting Edge Night at the Jewish Museum

It took a lot of nerve for the Jewish Museum to stage their first collaboration with the Bang on a Can folks. That the Bang on a Can folks – New York’s most entrenched avant garde franchise – could deliver a program that required as much nerve to sit through as this one did testifies to their ongoing vitality. The bill last night – designed to dovetail with the Museum’s current minimalist-themed sculpture exhibits – was as electrifying as it was exasperating.

Both of those qualities were intentional, and in tune with the compositions on the program.  The duo of guitarists James Moore and Taylor Levine, from the reliably exciting Dither guitar quartet, opened with David Lang’s Warmth [dude: get to know Title Case lest you someday wind up in the E.E. Cummings category], a series of subtly interwoven circular riffs which Moore attributed to Lang as being “really sad stadium rock, two guitars doing their best to play together and failing miserably.” As a subtle parody of dramatic gestures, it made a point, even if that point could have been made in somewhat less time than it took.

They followed with a selection of early John Zorn extended-technique guitar etudes that were more challenging to hear than they were to play. Those dated from the late 70s, in the days when Zorn might have been found blowing bubbles through his alto sax into a bucket of water in the basement of King Tut’s Wah-Wah Hut (now Niagara Bar on Avenue A; you can google it). By contrast, Michael Gordon’s City Walk,  the lone instrumental piece from an opera the Bang on a Can triumvirate (Gordon, Lang and Julia Wolfe) did back in the 90s with iconic New York cartoonist Ben Katchor, worked a tirelessly counterrhythmic, counterintuitive, minimalistic pulse, the guitarists joined by Bang on a Can Allstars‘ David Cossin on percussion (was that a car muffler, and then vibraphone?) and Vicky Chow on piano.

Moore switched to bass, but played it through a more trebly Fender DeVille guitar amp, for a take of Philip Glass’ even more hypnotic, subtly shapeshifting Music in Fifths, true to Cossin’s description as being “quite epic and really fun to do.” They wound up the show with Louis Andriessen’s Worker’s Union, a defiantly hammering 1975 piece that a larger Bang on a Can contingent had performed a couple of weeks previously at this year’s Marathon at the World Financial Center. That performance left any kind of resolution open: would the drilling, industrialist rhythm, absent harmony or melody, be triumphant, or a failed revolution? The answer wasn’t clear. Stripping it down to just bass, guitar, percussion and Chow’s electric piano – a cruelly difficult arrangement that she often wound up playing on the sides of her hands, chopping her way up the scale – they circled and circled and finally found what looked like a victory. The audience – a surprisingly diverse demographic – gave them the win. The next Bang on a Can event here is on November 6 featuring iconic progressive jazz composer and alto saxophonist Steve Coleman.

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July 11, 2014 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bang on a Can Marathon 2010: The Early Hours

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.

June 28, 2010 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, experimental music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Music with a View at the Flea Theatre, NYC 5/2/10

Pianist Kathleen Supové puts these bills together, an imprimatur that instantly signals both innovation and fun. Sunday afternoon’s show at the Flea Theatre incorporated elements of prose and drama along with all kinds of characteristically out-of-the-box musical ideas, sort of a mini-Bang on a Can marathon. The concert began arrestingly with Portable by Paula Matthusen, performed by eight people, each toting a specially designed radio receiver or transmitter encased in a vintage suitcase, filing around a la Phil Kline’s Unsilent Night in what would have been total darkness except for the players’ flashlights. At its most innocuous, it sounded like a chorus of hair dryers or an industrial-size vaccuum cleaner, but those moments came early and disappeared quickly. The rest was an increasingly disquieting blend of white noise with the occasional doppler-like effect, something akin to being blindsided by a heavy truck blasting down Canal Street at four in the morning, or just the hint of a radio broadcast, distant echoes of station promos or commercials. It made a pointedly effective commentary on how surrounded we are by a rather sinister, labyrinthine mosaic of data exchanges.

Rocco Di Pietro’s Rajas for John Cage, a new piece, featured Mike Brown on upright bass, Bill Cook on ragini (a harmonium of sorts), Robert Dick on flutes, Ryan Jewell getting a luminous resonance out of his cymbals by running a long dowel against their edges, Larry Marotta plucking a violin in the style of a Japanese biwa, and Di Pietro providing recitations interspersed with rhythmic bursts on sheng or harmonica. The stories frequently took on a parable vibe – sometimes they hit the mark, sometimes they didn’t but a lot of them had an irresistible, puckish humor. A drag queen freaking out in a San Francisco Chinatown restaurant, a crafty driver finding an innovative and somewhat cruel way to quiet a noisy busload of school kids, and a small handful wartime references that would have been as relevant in the Vietnam era as today were some of the highlights. Meanwhile, the ensemble improvised against a nebulous, quasi-Asian drone, only the violin or bass occasionally providing ornamentation, sometimes introducing a new rhythm for the rest of the group to ponder or subtly alter. Otherwise, it was a frequently hypnotic exercise in horizontality, careful listening and collaboration.

A performance piece by instrument inventor Ranjit Bhatnagar and Asami Tamura was titled Five Leaves…hmmm, now which plant could that possibly be? That leaf, or, more aptly, bud, was featured as the basis for one of “five variations on mechanical and organic improvisation, for toy, handmade and robotic instruments.” The other leafy stuff included fern, seaweed, catnip and gingko (“Ancient lullabies that stink in the fall”), but it was the most obvious one that seemed to drive this particular piece. Beginning at the piano, Tamura took a stab at a pretty, Scarlatti-esque melody against a similar laptop loop and the two quickly separated, never to return. But maybe that was the point. After that, she and Bhatnagar meowed at each other (that was the catnip talking), carried on an animated conversation via primitive, battery-powered toys that made a silly, theremin-like sound, treated the audience to a simulated drum solo played on a hunk of paper, a demonstration of how cool it is when you add reverb to the sound of pouring water, and an endless succession of similarly unexpected, random devices. It was impossible not to laugh, and the crowd loved it, especially the kids. The only thing missing was a toilet. The gingko piece was last, an overlay of music boxes straight out of the scariest part of an early talkie film – or a Siouxsie and the Banshees record.

Gold Ocean, by Tan Dun and Ken Ueno, seemingly a reworking of a Hawaiian fable, was intriguing musically: it would have been rewarding to find out how they created their tortuously oscillating atmospherics. But practically everything was on a laptop – which poses the obvious question, why bother to stage it at all? An interminable, stilted “libretto,” as joyless as it was pointless, only detracted from what could have been a successful mood change after the hilarity of the previous piece – but in this case Bhatnagar and Tamura proved an impossible act to follow. There was another act scheduled afterward, but the poor guy’s laptop wasn’t working and by then it was well past five and time to exit regretfully into the heat. The Music with a View series wraps up on June 6 at 3 PM at the Flea with music and dance by Michael Evans and Susan Hefner as well as works by Nick Didkovsky and Elan Vytal.

May 3, 2010 Posted by | concert, experimental music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Louis Andriessen – La Passione: Boston Modern Orchestra Project/Gil Rose

This is an important album – to the unitiated, it may seem strange, but stay with it, there’s a payoff at the end. Louis Andriessen is no stranger to adventurous listeners: he’s been a fixture of the avant garde for over forty years. This album begins with a carillonesque instrumental and then a series of art songs, all but one based on poems by legendary, mad Italian poet Dino Campana. Campana spent much of his life institutionalized, including his final years: his surreal, twisted, horrific imagery and sense of anguish compare with Baudelaire at his most crazed. Taking an approach which is severe yet atmospheric, the subtlety of Andriessen’s interpretation underscores its often extreme intensity. The Boston Modern Orchestra Project under the direction of Gil Rose vigorously emphasizes the compositions’ otherworldy ambience, enhanced by the incisive violin of Monica Germino (selected specifically by Andriessen  for this project) and vocals of Cristina Zavalloni. Throughout the songs, her voice serves as an key ensemble instrument rather than a narrator, sometimes leading, sometimes taking a complementary role.

The first piece, Bells for Haarlem layers several keyboards including a macabre synthesizer patch to mimic churchbells, starting out minimalistically before its permutations set in: with its unsettling overtones, there’s a considerable resemblance to Phil Kline’s work. The first of the Campana pieces is a seven-minute song that marks the beginning of an ongoing collaboration between Andriessen and Zavalloni, a singer he credits as being as versatile as another longtime performer of his works, the legendary Cathy Berberian. Utilizing more strangely ringing keyboards in the beginning, Zavalloni follows with her own call-and-response over starkly acidic ambience from the orchestra. As they will later on, restless atonalities illustrate images of madness, in this case an understated depiction of a train ride to hell – or from hell perhaps.

The following piece, Letter from Cathy cleverly illuminates the complete text of a letter from avant garde vocal legend Berberian to Andriessen relating how Stravinsky almost didn’t choose her to sing his Elegy for JFK. The composition is a portrait – Andriessen’s melody matches Berberian’s exact wording, capturing his favorite singer in all her many moods: capricious, exacting, divaesque, irrepressible, with a childlike, rapt creativity and similar response to same. Minute passages of jarring dissonance, dreamy ambience, echoes of disappointment and a big, catchy pop ballad all make their entry and depart just as quickly. Those familiar with Berberian’s work will find it picture-perfect.

The cd’s title track is a suite, a remarkably tense, suspenseful work especially considering the madness and of its subject matter: there’s limitless potential for grand guignol here, but Andriessen doesn’t go there. It begins with a vividly wary fanfare, then Zavalloni comes in, gleefully eerie over bustling, Mingus-esque strings. The third poem is about abandonment and despair, an interesting place for Andriessen to have the electric keyboards do an echoey, surreal clog dance.

Satan enters, to a vigorous violin solo: this is where Andriessen most closely evokes his big influence, Stravinsky. He follows it with a severe, understated prayer to Satan, a supremely satisfying, fullscale horror movie segment that stalks along to the first of only two big crescendos. Only during the execution scene that concludes the suite is the orchestra allowed to unleash a scream at full, roaring volume and the effect is visceral. And then it ends as quietly and atmospherically as it began. Who is the audience for this? Bang on a Can and more adventurous NPR fans, certainly, as well as more open-minded opera devotees – Zavalloni’s unadorned, crystalline voice is not mined for its beauty here, but she comes across as someone who could sing pretty much anything. Play this back to back with the Rites of Spring and enjoy both the similarities and the innovations of this strange and often riveting album.

September 5, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, 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