Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Pitch Black American Pie

That the American Composers Orchestra’s program Saturday night at the World Financial Center, closing this year’s SONIC Festival, would be saddled with a title that evoked boomer nostalgia made no sense at all. Maybe it was an inside joke, or a stroke of sarcasm. Instead, the ensemble treated the crowd to a fiery, frequently noir and brilliantly played series of ambitious new works by up-and-coming American composers. Conductor George Manahan led them with an almost casual but ironclad confidence, beginning with Paul Yeon Lee’s showstopper Echo of a Dream. A towering, often ferocious work that arranged modern tonalities in familiar High Romantic architecture, it was a tour of a monstrous landscape with fear and apprehension at every turn. A bellicose March of the Orcs! A swooping, darting, terrified Flight of the Nazgul! And The Siege of Minas Something, which ended minus the orchestra as Lee deftly dropped almost everything out for a split-second of cliffhanger suspense. For all the sturm und drang, the orchestra delivered it so matter-of-factly that it couldn’t have been anything other than genuine. Such storms do in fact exist, and it was a blast to hear this one and know that Lee is keeping an old flame very, very much alive while fueling it with something that could only have been invented in this century.

Ruby Fulton’s Road Ranger Cowboy was much quieter, but packed just as much of a wallop. Based on a caricature used by the Road Ranger chain of truck stops in the midwest, it’s a portrait of both incongruity – a horseman at a truck stop? – and clinical narcissism, and its pathological effects on the personality. Like the best political art, it manages to be very funny: a cowboy theme that disintegrates slowly and inevitably, leading up to an absolutely hilarious ending, in this case where the first violinist got to deliver the punchline and was obviously having such a good time that she could barely keep a straight face.

Ryan Gallagher’s Grindhouse might have been sarcastically titled as well. A classy, sometimes macabre film noir mini-suite, it was the high point of the night. Eerily shifting atmospherics contrasted with an aghast crescendo with the brass and high winds shrieking, skeleton key percussion, a furtive pizzicato spy vs. spy theme scene, a handful of pummelling, murderous scenes and a titanic ending that wouldn’t be out of place in Shostakovich. Suzanne Farrin’s equally gripping Infinite Here was brooding and more ambient but maintained the dark mood, slowly and methodically building tension and apprehension. In this piece, here is limbo, next door to hell.

Andrew Norman’s Unstuck was the most diverse piece on the bill, matching some of the drama of Lee’s work with Gallagher’s noirisms and Farrin’s vividly overcast milieu. Creepy swirls of strings, doppler brass and unpredictable percussion made a lethal combination that set off a chain of ominous little explosions which grew absolutely ballistic, then went down morosely and back up again to a surprise ending.

The biggest surprise of the night was Bryce Dessner’s St. Carolyn by the Sea, on which he and his brother Aaron joined the orchestra on electric guitars. The Dessners’ band the National is a derivative but very effective cure for insomnia: this piece was anything but. Inspired by Kerouac’s Big Sur, it’s supposed to evoke loneliness and lost love. From its windswept, desolate overture, carefully articulated thematic shifts throughout the orchestra, and pensive circular motif that ran over and over as an underpinning toward the end, the ensemble took what could have been an awkward 5/4 tempo and made it comfortable and effortless. Perhaps ironically, perhaps not, the guitar melodies were the least memorable, whether recycled 17 Seconds-era Robert Smith meandering or sotto-voce Grey McMurray tremolo-picking. Maybe the Dessners were just trying to blend in with the orchestra. Either way, it looks like Bryce Dessner has found his muse in a big way.

Much of this will be airing at some future date on Q2 – tune in and find out.

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October 24, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Victoire’s Debut Album Beckons from the Shadows

Cathedral City, the debut album by all-female chamber-rock group Victoire is a sometimes lush, sometimes austere, otherworldly beautiful suite of nocturnes. Hypnotic, psychedelic, often casually seductive, keyboardist/composer Missy Mazzoli’s songs blend simple, memorable rock melodies with elements of minimalism, horizontal music and classical music from the baroque to the Romantic to the avant garde. Despite the complexity of some of the arrangements here, she doesn’t waste a note: the casual solidity of her melodies gives the jungle of textures swaying overhead a solid foundation. As heavily processed and produced as this music obviously is, it retains a totally organic feel: there’s none of the rote mechanical coldness that you find in, say, Radiohead. The electronic keyboards of Mazzoli and Lorna Krier blend with Olivia De Prato’s violin, Eileen Mack’s clarinet and Eleonore Oppenheim’s upright bass to the point where the playing, and the arrangements, are perfectly seamless: the individual parts often become one.

The album opens with the aptly titled, darkly alluring Door into the Dark, solo Wurlitzer giving way to violin, casually noir menace shifting to warmer, soul-inflected ambience. It segues into the second track, I Am Coming for My Things, which like many of the cuts here has a disconcerting ambiguity: is it supposed to be funny? Plaintive? Menacing? All of the above? Over slowly unwinding atmospherics, a voicemail sample gradually reveals that someone’s coming for her things and she doesn’t have any money: electric piano and strings rise and fall, first with a jazzy riff, then stately with distant echoes of ELO. The title track evokes Stereolab at their most minimal, with some marvelously emphatic, brooding bass work by Oppenheim and a distantly towering vocalese antiphon.

The suspenseful, cinematic Like a Diver masterfully builds a series of slow crescendos, swirly Wurly pitted eventually against the violin, a playful dance emerging amidst the drama before it subsides again. A Song for Mick Kelly is anthemically elegaic, guest guitarist Bryce Dessner (of the National) providing menacing, reverb-drenched guitar that eventually grows to a fullscale roar, natural overtones shrieking from his amp. The album closes with the catchy trip-hop of A Song for Arthur Russell, referencing the late cellist and disco-era cult figure, and then India Whiskey, shifting suddenly and dramatically from out-of-focus, late-night wooziness to a joyous dance and a majestic, triumphant swell with the whole band going full-tilt – as full-tilt as a slow song can go, anyway. When the deadpan male voice reciting a series of numbers (a Philip Glass quote, maybe?) reaches zero, it’s over. There is so much more on this album that it’s impossible to mention all of it: in its own ethereal, methodical way, it’s a blast to listen to with the lights out. Victoire play the cd release show for Cathedral City at Joe’s Pub on October 2 at 7 PM; Mazzoli is also at Galapagos on October 5 for the world premiere of her string quartet Death Valley Junction.

September 30, 2010 Posted by | avant garde music, experimental music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment