Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Perennial Relevance, Irrepressible Wit and Catchy Tunes From Meredith Monk at the Jewish Museum

Thursday night at the Jewish Museum, Meredith Monk sang a playful, relentlessly catchy, perennially relevant mix of songs spanning over forty years. Now well into her seventies, the iconic composer still has the same clarity and purity in her upper register that she had back in the 1970s when she first came to prominence as a young lioness of the avant garde. Since then, just about every quirky songstress, from Laurie Anderson, to Bjork, to Carol Lipnik, owes her a shout for blazing the trail.

Monk always looks like the cat who ate the canary, an outward calm masking an inner delight that she can’t resist sharing. Her leaps and bounds and sudden rhythmic shifts seem more seamless – and easy to sing – than they actually are, considering what a brilliant tunesmith she is. Bright, kinetic melodies from throughout the show lingered long after it was over. She opened solo, a-cappella with Wa-li-oh, a 1975 number from her Songs from the Hill collection, where she’d literally gone to the mountaintop for the inspiration to write them. Its subtle echo effects may well have reflected that milieu.

She delivered similarly dappled, sunspotted pointillisms in a couple of other numbers: the Xosa-inflected Click Song, from 1988, and later in a series of brief pieces from last year’s suite of Cellular Songs, the final puckishly titled Lullaby for Leaves. By then, she’d been joined by two members of her Vocal Ensemble, Allison Sniffin and Katie Geissinger, tall blonde valkyries flanking the modestly dressed, slender bandleader. The two womens’ harmonies, frequent upward flights and command of Monk’s frequently challenging counterpoint were the icing on the cake.

The night’s most memorable number was Scared Song, for organ and vocals, its macabre undercurrent reflecting its response to Reagan-era fearmongering. “Fear becomes violence when we don’t know it’s fear,” she advised.

Another starkly relevant moment was when the trio sang Memory Song, from Monk’s dystopic 1984 suite The Games, a calmly surreal evocation from the point of view of a quasi-griot enumerating lost cultural references, from the essential to the ridiculous. That’s why Monk’s work has always had such resonance beyond the cutting edge: there’s always something funny to lighten even the darkest points.

Monk related how she’d recorded the bittersweetly circling Gotham Lullaby in 1975, solo on piano on her debut album, and felt like she’d botched the take. Producer Manfred Eicher told he it was fine – she could do another take if she felt like it, but he’d be going out for coffee while she did. And he was right, she demurred: there was magic in its imperfections, although her take this time out certainly didn’t seem to have any.

The most operatic moment of the night was a song from her 2006 Impermanence suite. The most trickily rhythnic was Waltz in 5’s, from 1996’s The Politics of Quiet. The most enigmatic was her own solo rendition of Happy Woman, from last year. Monk’s everywoman narrator seems on the surface to be perfectly content, but it turns out she’s also troubled in almost innumerable other ways. At face value, she maintained a resolute calm, but the turbulent undercurent cuoldn’t be masked. In an era when state legislatures are falling like dominoes to a lunatic misogynist fringe, that song couldn’t have had more of an impact.

This was it for this spring’s series of concerts at the Jewish Museum sponsored by the Bang on a Can organization, but they typically do an outdoor summer series at the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City as well. Meanwhile, the Museum’s must-see Leonard Cohen exhibit will be up through Sept 8, and trumpeter Steven Bernstein’s noir cinematic trio Sexmob are there for free on June 11 at around 6 as part of this year’s Museum Mile Festival.

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May 25, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Getting Up Close and Personal with Bjork at MOMA PS1

It must be as much fun for the museum staff to watch people watching Stonemilker – the new virtual reality piece by Bjork and filmmaker Andrew Huang at MOMA’s PS1 in Long Island City – as it is for the viewers themselves. Not to spoil the experience, but there’s more than one Bjork in it and she might be somewhere other than in front of you. Which makes for a, um, head-bobbing good time.

It’s a music video, and you’re in it, at the very center. Vertical movement won’t change your perspective much but horizontality will (although the stool you’re sitting on will limit that, probably for the better). The irrepressibly puckish Icelandic songstress/environmentalist is backed by a lush string orchestra in this rhythmically tricky, epically enveloping neoromantic art-rock piece. Its gist is that she wants to “synchronize emotions” with you. The scenery fits the music: it’s more majestic than your typical beachy scene. Bjork is as playful and fun as you would expect, and she gets right up in your face. And turns out to be considerably more petite than she seems onstage.

The 360 Bjork experience continues daily through May 17, Thursday through Monday, noon to 6 PM in the dome at MOMA PS 1, 22-25 Jackson Ave. in Long Island City. It’s about a ten-minute walk up Jackson Ave. from the Vernon-Jackson stop on the 7 train; those on the G should take it to 21st/Van Alst. LIC residents get in free; otherwise, it’s $10/$5 stud/srs, or $5 if you have a MOMA ticket from the previous two weeks. While you’re there, you should also check out the many current-day revolution-themed video installations as well as Simon Denny’s LMAO satire of technosupremacist mythmaking, The Innovator’s Dilemma, and Samara Golden‘s surreal, vertigo-inducing, three-floor cutaway The Flat Side of the Knife.

April 13, 2015 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Film, Music, music, concert, New York City, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bang on a Can Marathon 2011: A Marathon Account

Bang on a Can is a good place to go for weird music that doesn’t fit into any category…that falls through the cracks,” explained co-founder/composer David Lang between a couple of acts late Sunday afternoon at the World Financial Center. This year’s annual Bang on a Can Marathon there was typical in that sense. The scope of the music and parade of performers was less global than in recent years, although Italy and Denmark represented themselves strongly. Consequence of the depression? Maybe. But what was most impressive about this year’s marathon was the extremely high ratio of good music versus bullshit, and the enduring strength of the founding composers themselves. Even as the genre-busting music that Bang on a Can has championed since 1987 has achieved broader recognition, the core crew – Lang, Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe – have never sold out. In fact, two of the trio’s works – Gordon’s Exalted and Wolfe’s Cruel Sister – were arguably the marathon’s biggest hits.

Gordon’s piece, performed by the Young Peoples’ Chorus of New York City with the Jack Quartet, came first. It was the first piece he wrote in the wake of his father’s death, and it was as intense as you can possibly imagine. The choir interpolated the first four words of the Kaddish, in Aramaic, sort of a clinic in minimalism with a max ensemble. A repetitive sliding cello note against a staccato pedal motif from the rest of the quartet was mimicked by the choir, a desperation move that made its way through the voices (if you’re sitting Shiva, everybody eventually shows up whether you like it or not). A wild violin metal solo against hypnotic insistence gave wings to an anguished, hopeful prayer. The crowd, stunned, exploded afterward.

The high point of the marathon was Wolfe’s Cruel Sister (available as a dynamite Cantaloupe recording by Ensemble Resonanz), performed here by the strings of Ensemble Signal conducted by Brad Lubman. It follows the arc of a surreal medieval murder ballad Wolfe discovered via a recording by 70s British folk-rockers Pentangle. A riveting series of suspenseful crescendos and ebbs, the opening tone poem grows frantic and then back down, a brutally tough job of maintaining the rhythm for cellist Kevin McFarland, but his iron right hand wouldn’t let up. Polyrhythms, a ghastly murder scene and a body floating on the water led to a forest of pizzicato, violin coming in plaintively and finally a chilling, possibly karmically fulfilling drone spotlighting the cruel sister who didn’t get to enjoy what her big sister did.

Lang’s contribution was more playful, Philip Glass-style, a subtly shifting mathrock theme for two guitars played with deadpan insouciance by Dither Quartet’s Taylor Levine and James Moore. The fun factor went up another notch later in the night with the Sun Ra Arkestra, 87-year-old bandleader Marshall Allen leading the massive surrealistic swing band through a diverse and tantalizingly short set that moved from hot post-Basie swing to in-your-face hot calypso to a long walk-off where Allen put down the hybrid theremin/melodica he’d been playing in exchange for his alto sax, stunning the crowd with a single mighty wail in front of the stage as the band paraded its way to the middle of the atrium and entertained the crowd there.

Another stunner that deserves special mention was the Prism Saxophone Quartet’s version of Roshanne Etezady’s Keen. A marvelously dark, cinematic horror/suspense film score of sorts, the composer explained that she wrote it on a theme of mourning or grief, “a bereft affect.” Wary explorations against a central tone, an apprehensively tense, Robert Paterson-esque fanfare and relentless unease made it hard to forget.

As much as the marathon is free and easy to get in and out of, there were strikingly few moments where anyone would want to do that, considering the quality of the music. A little before noon, early arrivals got to witness two segments from innovative bagpiper Matthew Welch’s The Self and Other Mirrors, played by the Queens College Percussion Ensemble with Amanda Accardi’s quietly composed intensity on piano and Michael Lipsey on the podium: a stately, pleasant, catchy and smartly textured first movement followed by blithe, hypnotic ripples. Flutist Alejandro Escuer followed, playing Gabriela Ortiz’ Codigos Secretos, not particularly secretive if warmly atmospheric and consonant.

Anthony Gatto’s Portrait of American painter Eva Hesse, done jointly by the Queens Percussion Ensemble in the middle of the space, trading off with the Itkus Ensemble onstage, rumbled eerily close to the World Trade Center site, raising the volume close to painfully loud. Hesse must have been a hell of a presence. The Jack Quartet followed with three US premieres of Richard Ayres’ 3 Small Pieces for String Quartet: small is not the word. They were magnificent. The first featured the cello in percussive, catchy, terse, seemingly Kayhan Kalhor-influenced mode; the second raised the menace, the third shifting to a vigorous dance. The Prism Saxophone Quartet took over the stage after that with Kati Ogocs’ Hymn, warm atmospherics building up with a shriek.

Former Ethel violin powerhouse Todd Reynolds did his hypnotic yet lively Transamerica, a memorably energetic theme whose power was sapped by useless electronics. The Prism Quartet then returned with a tight, energetic, overtone-packed, limit-pushing version of Iannis Xenakis’ Xas – from 1987, the first year of Bang on a Can – a blippy, warped canon juxtaposed with tensely free passages featuring shifting combinations of the ensemble.

Italian group Sentieri Selvaggi got a total of five pieces: a gleeful, circular excerpt from Michael Nyman’s opera Love Always Counts; Michael Daugherty’s coy Sinatra Shag, a ripoff of These Boots Were Made for Walking with some cool oscillating textures toward the end; Filippo Del Corno’s Risvegliatevi (Italian for Wake Up!), replete with Pink Floyd-esque mechanical/industrial sonics (literally Bang on a Can!); Mauro Montalbetti’s Brightness, Emily Dickinson-inspired, hypnotically bubbling color alternating with stillness; and finally their conductor Carlo Boccadoro’s Zingiber (Ginger in Italian), rusticity giving way memorably to an abrasive low-versus-high battle.

Bang on a Can’s latest gimmick, the Asphalt Orchestra marching band, energized the crowd with several numbers: Annie Clark and David Byrne’s Balkan/Afrobeat hybrid Two Ships, a swirling, imaginative arrangement of Bjork’s Hyper Ballad and a thunderous Goran Bregovic dancefloor hit done as a fiery overture, being the best of the bunch.

As the cruel sun moved slowly out of view, Danish composer Poul Ruders’ Song and Rhapsodies were performed by the Athelas Wind Quintet with Frode Andersen on accordion. It’s a tremendously captivating suite: an austere overtone-laden tone poem, a creepy twisted waltz, a baroque rondo, a weird, blithe accordion solo, swelling adventurous cinematic theme a la Gil Evans, ending with a weird, bubbly tone poem.

The big draw of the night – at least from this point of view – was Philip Glass, playing a deliciously precise, impromptu version of his hypnotic, neoromantic Impromptu #4 solo on piano to kick off his mini-set with the Bang on a Can All-Stars. Glass’ potency as a pianist gets overshadowed by the applause for his compositions: there’s no doubt that he can play even his most demanding, persistently rhythmic works easily, as he did in an almost shockingly straight-up rendition of Music in Circular Motion, a relatively early work that typically allows for a certain amount of DIY, at least rhythmically, on the part of the players. Their closing piece featured Glass and pianist Vicky Chow in eerily perfect sync with each other against the band’s dizzying yet perfectly cantabile ambience.

By nine in the evening, for those who had stuck around since the early hours and had been awoken from brain coma by the Sun Ra folks, a payoff was in order, and Evan Ziporyn delivered, playing bass clarinet alongside Michael Lowenstern, with Joshua Rubin and Carol McGonnell on clarinets, through his richly vivid, cleverly entertaining Hive. McGonnell got all the queen bee licks and made the most of them, whether sizzling glissandos or mournful lead lines. Fluttering, creating a droll stereo effect and moving through utterly psychedelic passages where it was impossible to figure out who was playing what, it was the perfect mind melt for the moment.

There were other performances not worth mentioning – bullshit factor being as low as it was, there were a few moments when a trip to the spicy Pakistani steam-table place on Church St. made more sense than watching what was onstage. A Yoko Ono piece opened; Glenn Branca headlined. Idolized by many, known by everyone who was around for the first Bangs on the Can, it made sense that he’d top this oldschool bill. But the prospect of bad trains (more on that later – getting to the Gowanus Saturday night was sheer hell) was enough to make the choice of an early exit outweight anything blasting from the Marshall stacks onstage. Does taking the field midway through the first inning and sticking around til the eighteenth quality as a complete game? The Bang on a Can people aren’t counting. It was nice to hear debate emerging in random conversations throughout the space: new jacks grousing about seeing the same old faces; the oldschool contingent bitching about the trendy shallowness of the newbies’ electroacoustic stuff. Whatever your preference, a word to the wise: show up early for BOAC 2012.

June 21, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Under Byen – Alt Er Tabt

Danish band Under Byen’s latest album offers up more of the intriguingly cinematic, often starkly intense chamber rock that’s earned them an avid worldwide cult following. Frontwoman Henriette Sennenvaldt’s ethereal delivery comes across as something of a cross between Bjork and Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval. The album title translates as “all is lost,” and while an eeriness pervades pretty much everything here, there’s also a lot of quirky fun and innovative, completely out-of-the-box songwriting. Songs swirl and then shift shape suddenly, eschewing any kind of verse/chorus pattern. Instead of using traditional rock drums, they keep their percussion low-key and lo-fi. Banjo, acoustic and electric piano add plaintive, sometimes ominous melody over atmospheric strings and tricky rhythms, established with the breathy first track. The album’s second cut, Territorium echoes Joy Division, its somber bassline over simple drum machine rhythm, layers of strings alternately swooping and crashing. The title track layers catchy, atmospheric vocal overdubs, terse accordion and strings over a clattering Atrocity Exhibition rhythm – imagine a Danish version of the Creatures.

Salades sets whispery, austere vocalese over reverb banjo, gamelanesque percussion and the occasional seemingly random string accent, followed by a warped, atmospheric trip-hop song  that matches disconcertingly out-of-focus vocals to wobbly bent-note banjo. The album’s most intense, epic track is Unoder, atmospherics contrasting with a repetitively looping series of chase themes that alternate noise with melody. Eerie bell-like keyboard tones dominate the next cut, Konstant, vocal and instrumental textures fading into the mix only to disappear in a split second. The album closes with two studies in contrasts, dreamy vocals pushed along by pulsing, astringent string arrangements, and the stately Kapitel 1, a fugue of sorts, voice alternating with accordion, piano, banjo and a big string section. This is a great late-night album.

April 7, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cabaret Review: Sarah Mucho in Subterranean Circus at the Duplex, NYC 12/3/07

This was a triumphant return for Sarah Mucho. Although she’s best known as the frontwoman for the ferocious, artsy rock band System Noise, her roots are in the cabaret scene. Her Ziggy Stardust shows at Mama Rose’s and other rooms a couple of years ago earned her rave reviews in the theatre press and a MAC Award, but since then she’s been busy with the band. Subterranean Circus, as this show is billed, is a futuristic cautionary tale blending surreal, often sacrilegious humor with a haunting, apocalyptic vibe, with echoes of early 80s punk rock performance art. There’s not much of a book, aside from between-song jokes (which are hysterical). The songs are mostly rock, other than a heart-stopping version of Nature Boy, where Mucho, backed only by superb accordionist Annette Kudrak, gets to show off and belt at the very top of her spectacular range. Otherwise, over the course of a little less than an hour, Mucho and her band ran through an impressively imaginative reworking of material ranging from Bjork (Human Behavior, rearranged as acoustic, piano-based funk), to Johnny Cash (Man in Black, augmented with a very funny sermon mid-song and ending with the outro to Stairway to Heaven), to an absolutely wrenching take of Cat Power’s Werewolf, rearranged for just accordion and bass and played with the lights almost all the way down.

Mucho does two Kinks covers, Apeman and Lola, taking an irresistibly silly turn on harmonica on the former. The latter, recast as noir jazz driven by a steady, walking bassline has the phenomenally talented Bobby Peaco coming out from behind the piano to deliver a very amusing turn on vocals. Other highlights include Simon and Garfunkel’s Most Peculiar Man, with horror-movie music-box piano from Peaco, an equally macabre cover of a Blonde Redhead song and a powerhouse rendition of Dress by PJ Harvey.

There’s also a surprise ending (much of which may not have been scripted) that wouldn’t be fair to give away. And then there’s Mucho’s voice. One of the maybe half-dozen most compelling singers in all of rock, (think Mary Lee Kortes intensity and strength throughout her entire range, and Neko Case for all-stops-out sultriness and stylistic diversity), she’s never sung better than she did tonight.

Mucho’s supporting cast gets pretty much everything right. The diversity and authenticity of Peaco’s arrangements are amazing: the guy can literally play anything, from gospel to honkytonk to classical. Director Kristine Zbornik has everything timed so perfectly tight the audience doesn’t even have time to finish laughing before Mucho’s next emotion-tugging move is on them, equally effective in inducing chuckles as well as awestruck silence. The show continues this Friday Dec 7 at 9:30 PM and as of this writing reservations (required: the first show sold out quickly) are available, call (212) 255-5438.

December 4, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music, theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments