For over a decade, the American Contemporary Music Ensemble have relentlessly championed American composers, and the New York indie classical scene in particular. Since the mid-zeros, this semi-rotating chamber group – many of whose members are composers themselves – have recorded music as diverse as noir film themes, works for dance and a New York Mets themed song cycle (go Mets in 2017!). The group are playing the album release show for their latest one, Thrive on Routine – streaming at WQXR – at 8 PM on Feb 13 at Roulette; $20 advance tix are still available as of today.
ACME member and violist Caleb Burhans’ string piece Jahrzeit, which opens the album, has an uneasy, lustrous haze that shifts through a series of changing meters. A requiem for his father, it comes across as a search to capture an image lost forever, a longing for a return to focus. Just as that clarity seems to be within reach, the music becomes more loopy and hypnotic.
Clarice Jensen plays the first of two Caroline Shaw pieces, In Manus Tuas, solo on cello. Inspired by a particular striking moment in a Thomas Tallis motet, the lingering mini-suite is a surreal mashup of a single, imaginary Elizabethan choral line and echoey, insistent minimalism, a pleasant Groundhog Day of sorts. Shaw is a singer, and a good one: there’s a strong, resonantly cantabile quality that’s often strikingly subsumed in a wash of overtones.
Timo Andres plays a second and similarly hypnotic Shaw piece, Gustave le Gray, solo on piano. Although the composer took her inspiration from Chopin’s A Minor Mazurka, the obvious comparison is the famous E Minor prelude. When it suddenly becomes untethered from an aching insistence, the effect is stunning.
Burhans, Jensen and violinists Yuki Numata Resnick and Ben Russell play the title track, an Andres string quartet inspired by Charles Ives’ predawn gardening and Bach obsession. It’s funny: tweety birds waking up in stillnes, a dazed man with a hoe, a bustling rush hour scene, oblique references to the venerable American transcendentalist and to Philip Glass eventually all make an appearance.
The final piece is John Luther Adams’ desolate and ultimately macabre tableau In a Treeless Place, Only Snow, the string quartet and Andres’ piano bolstered by Peter Dugan on celesta and the twin vibraphones of Chris Thompson and Chihiro Shibayama. Its starry stillness brings to mind the vibraphone nocturnes of Robert Paterson. And its allusive themes of eco-disaster – and maybe eco-revenge – speak as strongly as his global warming-themed suite Become Ocean.
To paraphrase Rebecca Turner, Brooklyn is so big because it has to hold a lot of beautiful voices. Last night at the newly opened and sonically exquisite National Sawdust in Williamsburg, approximately fifty of those voices performed an exhilarating, richly dynamic program of new works for choir and chamber ensemble by four of this era’s outstanding women composers. The singers’ average age, from the looks of it, was around sixteen. In case you haven’t seen them, director Dianne Berkun-Menaker has shaped the Brooklyn Youth Chorus into a magnificent, meticulous powerhouse of an ensemble. There are young women in this group who will be able to sing for a living, especially the two high sopranos on the far end, stage right. To the young blonde lady in the black suit and her bandmate in the peroxide pageboy and glasses: stick with this and you’ll never need a dayjob.
As if we need further proof that music doesn’t have to be dumbed down to appeal to younger musicians, this concert was it. These works were sophisticated, employed all kinds of intricate counterpoint, required considerable amounts of what an instrumentalist would call extended technique, and the group rose to meet those demands efficiently and expertly: they schooled the old people in the house. Caroline Shaw was represented by two works, Its Motion Keeps and Anni’s Constant. The former was pinpoint-precise, full of quirky staccato, dizzying polyrhythns, a delightfully dancing groove and the occasional playful, hair-raising accent leaping in unexpectedly. The latter took a comfortable, homespun folk tune and made an ecstatically swinging, sometimes stomping celebration out of it – with some hilariously goofy vocalisms midway through.
For Sarah Small‘s Around the Forest, A Youth Roams – an electrifying, bracing mashuup of Bulgarian folk and postminimalism – the paradigm-shifting composer/arranger and Balkan music specialist was joined by both the choir and her a-cappella trio Black Sea Hotel with Shelley Thomas and Willa Roberts. The trio handled its challenging whoops, microtones and exotic ornamentation while the chorus grounded the piece with equal parts lushness and austerity, bolstered by Rima Fand’s darkly ambered string score.
National Sawdust impresario Paola Prestini joined the chorus to narrate the choral segments of her forthcoming multimedia work Aging Magician, a soberingly surreal collaboration with director Julian Crouch, with lyrics by Rinde Eckert. The pieces worked well as a stand-alone suite, sharing a trickily rhythmic and dynamically-charged playfulness with the Shaw works, but were both more pensive and more baroque-tinged in places. While it wouldn’t be fair to spoil Prestini’s occasional musical jokes, they were pretty hilarious. Throughout the program, the chorus were accompanied seamlessly by the American Contemporary Music Ensemble: Ben Russell and Caleb Burhans on violins, Hannah Levinson on viola and Clarice Jensen on cello, augmented by Dave Cossin on percussion, David Dunaway on bass and Geremy Schulick on electric guitar plus a pianist uncredited in the program.
The Brooklyn Youth Chorus’ next performance will also be alongside Black Sea Hotel to celebrate the opening of the new space at St. Ann’s Warehouse on October 17 featuring works by Shaw, Aleksandra Vrebalov and others plus world premieres from Mary Kouyoumdjian and Sahba Aminikia. There are two performances, one for free beginning at noon and another at 8 PM for $25.
Before the world premiere of his new arrangement of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells last night, guitarist Grey McMurray encouraged WNYC’s John Schaefer to take a few slugs from the hip flask that he’d just flashed to the audience. The joke was that the original album was ostensibly fueled by a lot of alcohol (and obviously a lot of other stuff – it was 1973, after all). What was it like to experience McMurray’s new version without the help of any of that? It was definitely an improvement on the original, worthy of Brian Eno in places. The question is whether or not the original merited as much. Running late to get to the early afterwork show, there wasn’t time to hit the wine store beforehand, something that might have been a good idea.
Seriously: beyond the prog-rock/mathrock cult, who’s ever listened to side two of the album, let alone the sequence of tracks after the iconic tune in 15/4 time that was cut-and-pasted into the theme to the Exorcist? That hit single has been a staple of Halloween playlists for four decades. How Halloweenish did it sound, as played by McMurray and the Wordless Music Orchestra? Not very. The main theme wasn’t even played on tubular bells: drummer Qasim Naqvi introduced it by plinking it out on glockenspiel. From a listener’s point of view, it was harder to defamiliarize, and experience that deliciously eerie theme with fresh ears, than it must have been for McMurray and the group to recontextualize it. He’d explained beforehand that he’d discouraged them from listening to the original for inspiration: smart advice.
What is the rest of the album like? The original, mostly overdubbed by Oldfield himself on a large studio’s supply of instruments, is showoffy, endlessly vamping and not particularly substantial. It’s short of second-rate Pink Floyd. For that matter, it’s not second-rate Jethro Tull, another obvious influence, either. Yet McMurray found beauty and elegance in it, building a joyously Enoesque, clear-sky gleam that lingered until the piece took a detour into secondhand Americana. Violinist Caleb Burhans, acoustic guitarist Aaron Roche, keyboardist/singer Olga Bell, pianist Justin Carroll and cellist Clarice Jensen reveled in those expansive textures.
Sound engineer Richie Clarke was given a shout-out in the program notes and earned that many times over: the World Financial Center atrium, where highs spin off the walls like electrons from what’s left of the Fukushima plant, is hardly conducive to rock bands, even an elegant art-rock band like this one. But he made it work, and McMurray gets credit for much of that because he also felt the room and kept his amp down in the mix so that the strings in particular could be heard. The lone shiver-inducing moment belonged to Jensen, whose sinewy, raspy reprise of the horror movie theme came completely by surprise about a third of the way through the suite. Bassist Chris Morrissey, like McMurray, looked like he was about to jump out of his shoes at times, resisting the urge to stand up and blast out his loopily propulsive groove. And Schaefer himself supplied the deadpan spoken-word introduction of the instruments, unable to resist a grin as he did so: by then, maybe he’d gotten into the sauce.
What it is like to listen back to it after having a few? It sounds better. You can decide for yourself when the concert airs on Q2 and then on Schaefer’s New Sounds program on November 20: you might want to make it a party night. Memo to the band: release this album on vinyl and you stand a good chance of topping the Billboard charts. No joke. If Leonard Cohen could do it, so can you. There’s an awful lot of old people, and young people too, who will buy it.
Since the World Financial Center atrium, home to the annual Bang on a Can avant garde music marathon for the past several years, is undergroing renovations, this year’s marathon was moved to the Schimmel auditorium at Pace University on the opposite side of town on Spruce Street. How long did it take for both the downstairs and balcony seats to fill up? About an hour. Three hours after the daylong concert began, there was a line at least a hundred deep outside. On one hand, it’s heartwarming to see how popular the event has become; on the other, it’s impossible not to feel bad for those who didn’t make it in.
Especially since the music was so consistently excellent. Chamber orchestra Alarm Will Sound opened the festivities auspiciously with a lively, bubbling, south-of-the-border-tinged movement titled El Dude (a Gustavo Dudamel reference) from Derek Bermel’s Canzonas Americanas. Their next piece, Jeffrey Brooks’ After the Treewatcher, took its inspiration from an early Michael Gordon work. The composer, who was in the house, explained that when he asked Gordon for a score, Gordon said no: he wanted Brooks to work from memory instead. Guitarist Ryan Ferreira, stepping in on literally a few hours notice. provided hauntingly resonant twelve-string Rickenbacker guitar against permutations on a distantly creepy, circular motif. At the end, pianist John Orfe mimicked the conclusion of the Gordon work, insistently ringing a dinner bell, which surprisingly ramped up the surreal menace.
Charlie Piper’s Zoetrope cleverly interpolated simple, insistent, echoingly percussive motives from throughout the orchestra into an increasingly fascinating, dynamically shifting web of sound, while Caleb Burhans’ O Ye of Little Faith, Do You Know Where Your Children Are? returned both the ambient menace and sweeping, Reichian circularity of Brooks’ piece.
Mostly Other People Do the Killing trumpeter Peter Evans played solo, much in the same vein as Colin Stetson’s solo bass saxophone work. It was a free clinic in extended technique via circular breathing: supersonic glissandos throwing off all kinds of microtonal quark and charm, whispery overtones, nebulous atmospherics contrasting with a little jaunty hard bop. He was rewarded with the most applause of any of the early acts.
Druimmers David Cossin and Ben Reimer teamed up for a steady yet trickily polyrhythmic, Ugandan-inspired Lukas Ligeti duet. French instrumentalists Cabaret Contemporain then made their American debut with a couple of hypnotic dancefloor jams, part dark dreampop, part disco, part romping serialism and great fun to watch, especially when some early technical glitches were fixed and the band’s two bassists, Ronan Coury and Simon Drappier, were playing subtle interchanges.
Jonathan Haas conducted the NYU Contemporary Music Ensemble with the NYU Steel in a nimbly intricate performance of Kendall Williams’ Conception, expanding the universe of what the steel pan is capable of, the group methodically rising from a comfortable ripple to ominously majestic torrents. Tibetan chanteuse Yungchen Lhamo and pianist Anton Batagov followed with a hypnotic triptych of works from their recently released album Tayatha, a trance-inducing, tersely graceful exercise in the many interesting things that can be done with resonant one-chord, south Asian-tinged jams gently lit by Lhamo’s shimmering melismatics.
Then it was time to go see Ghosts in the Ocean, chanteuse Carol Lipnik and pianist Matt Kanelos’ often chillingly atmospheric experimental noir pop project, who were playing several blocks north at Zirzamin. They made a good segue. It’s surprising that they haven’t made an appearance at Bang on a Can yet.
Composer Joseph Byrd is best known for his work in film, and for his role as leader of pioneering chamber pop/psychedelic band the United States of America in the late 60s. But the wildly eclectic guy responsible for the CBS Evening News theme got his start in the avant garde, palling around with Yoko Ono and her minions in New York in the early part of the decade. Byrd’s quirky, hypnotically minimalist early works have recently been resurrected on a playful album by the American Contemporary Music Ensemble a.k.a. ACME and released by Brooklyn’s New World Records. Wispy and skeletal as many of these pieces are, there’s also a subtle humor here. This was music made for and quite possibly by people who were smoking pot and laughing a lot: it was the 60s, after all.
The first tracks have a deadpan, winking mechanical feel, a clockwork arrythmia. Clarice Jensen’s hypnotic cello bassline blends with the distant piledriver of Timothy Andres‘ prepared piano, the coy accents of Caleb Burhans‘ and Caroline Shaw’s violins and Nadia Sirota’s viola, with an unexpectedly agitated pots-and-pans interlude from Chihiro Shibayama’s marimba and Chris Thompson’s vibraphone, both instruments muted for a strangely muffled effect.
Loops and Sequences mirrors what Luciano Berio was doing around the same time, a study in negative space. A tantalizing hint of melody bobs to the suface in a couple of piano miniatures, followed by a long-tone piece with the viola at its peaceful center, interrupted by the occasional wry blip, evocative of the later work of Eleanor Hovda (subject of an often rapturously still retrospective from Innova that came out a couple of years ago, the enhanced cd’s including both scores and exhaustive liner notes).
Byrd’s String Trio employs keening overtones and spaciously swooping, doppler-like motifs. The most captivating piece here, Water Music, sets percussionist Alan Zimmerman’s gamelanesque phrases and cymbal ambience over a low tape drone, gradually building to an unexpectedly uneasy nebulosity.
As often happens with oddities from the 60s, there’s some bizarro randomness here as well: a dadaist spoken-word collage and a party joke involving the slow deflation of rubber balloons which made its dubious debut at one of Yoko’s loft extravaganzas and was assuredly never meant to be repeated: one suspects that the original cast didn’t tone down the flatulence as the ensemble does here. Who is the audience for this? Beyond fans of vintage esoterica, anyone with a taste for quiet, calming sounds. This album has become a favorite at naptime here at Lucid Culture HQ – to put that in context, other albums that work well in that capacity are Brooklyn Rider’s set of Philip Glass quartets, a bootleg concert recording of Renaissance choir Stile Antico, and the recent BassX3 album for two basses and bass clarinet.
Thursday night at BAM’s Next Wave Festival was one of those magical evenings that sends you spilling out into the street afterward, every synapse invigorated, glad to be alive. It was the world premiere of Phil Kline’s lush new arrangement of his iconic Zippo Songs, plus an intoxicatingly enveloping new cycle, Out Cold, played and sung luminously by ACME with crooner Theo Bleckmann at the absolute top of his evocative game. The new Fisher Space black-box theatre was either sold out or close to it. The final performance is tonight, and it isn’t sold out as of this writing (early affernoon). If transcendence is what you’re looking for, get over to BAM by 7 or so. The show starts at 7:30; the space is not on Lafayette Avenue but on that short street that runs perpendicular to it up to the Atlantic Avenue mall.
The program began with three Rumsfeld Songs, three quotes from “the comic evil spirit, if there ever was one,” to quote Kline’s program notes. The dark levity started with the famous pseudo-ontological one about “known knowns” and “known unknowns,” set to a deadpan, mechanically circular tune that gave Bleckmann a platform for just a tinge of Teutonic grandiosity, making for cruelly delicious satire. The second song was a march, the third more restrained, leaving the Iraq war villain’s long-winded, disingenuous disavowal of mass murder to linger. They made a good setup for the Zippo Songs, Kline’s musical setting of aphorisms and poems inscribed on cigarette lighters by American combatants during the Vietnam War.
These songs hadn’t been staged in New York in eight years. The sparseness of the originals played up the cruel irony, bitterness and sheer horror of the soldiers’ words; the new arrangements turned out to be far more rich and sweeping than expected, yet without subsuming any of the lyrical content. The genius of Kline’s craft is simplicity: like his great influence Charles Ives, he pushes the envelope, but he knows a catchy motif when he hears it. Hide a hook in a haystack, turn Kline loose, and he will find it. Which is why the new charts worked as well as they did; ironically, the richer the orchestration, the more memorable the melodies became. Pianist Timothy Andres and vibraphonist Chris Thompson got the choicest intervals, as Kline’s tensely straightforward, gleaming phrases reached the top of their arcs, over pillowy, sustained, shifting sheets held aloft by violinists Caleb Burhans, Ben Russell and Keats Dieffenbach, yMusic violist Nadia Sirota, cellist Clarice Jensen, oboeist Michelle Farah, bassist Logan Coale and flutist Alex Sopp. As with the original versions, the music does not disavow the darkness of the lyrics, instead providing a distantly apprehensive backdrop.
The airiest of these, appropriately enough, was the first one, voicing the soldiers whose goal it was to stay high all the time. The most haunting was the warily pulsing fourth in the series: “If I had a farm in Vietnam and a home in hell, I’d sell my farm and go home,” Bleckmann intoned. The most pensive, atmospheric segment was the most disillusioned: “We are the unwilling, led by the unqualified, doing the unnecessary for the ungrateful.” Emma Griffin’s stage direction had Bleckmann nonchalantly changing costumes and assuming roles to go with them: somehow he was able to hold a perfectly unmodulated, resonant legato through a quick series of pushups and situps that would have had most people panting.
The trippy bossa beat of that song foreshadowed what was to come with Out Cold. Taking his cue from Schubert’s Kafka-esque Winterreise suite as well as the ethereal 1950s “suicide song” collaboration between Frank Sinatra and Nelson Riddle, Kline brought the broodingly hypnotic lushness up several notches and so did the ensemble and singer. Beginning with a low, raspy wash of strings and throat-singing and ending on a wistful, aptly elegaic note, these were torch songs for a new generation, blending the best of several previous decades’ worth. The bossa nova pulse returned memorably a couple of times, fueled by suspenseful woodblock, vibes and piano; the suite reached a high-point, volumewise with its most rocking number, Million Dollar Bill, noir Orbison chamber pop taken to understated heights of angst, tinkly David Lynch piano contrasting with the blue velvet wash underneath.
Bleckmann shuffled between tables in a darkened bar – One for My Baby in 3D – drinking from random half-empty glassses in A Final Toast, its insistent low strings reminding of Julia Wolfe in a particular intense mood. Where’s the Rest of Me, a creepily dreamy waltz, was followed by the slightly vaudevillian The Season Is Over, which grew dark fast and made a potent segue with To the Night, its noir lustre punctuated by uneasy close harmonies from the ensemble. In its own elegant way, the suite is as evocative a portrayal of loneliness and alienation as Joy Division. Kline has been writing eclectic, relevant music since the 80s; once again, he’s embraced a new genre and made it indelibly his own.
The chambered nautilus is a snail-like marine creature native to the Pacific, prized for centuries for its intricate, spiral shell. With their debut recording, a collection of new William Brittelle compositions out recently from New Amsterdam, ACME (American Contemporary Music Ensemble) pays homage to this strange creature. The whole album, Loving the Chambered Nautilus, is streaming at Brittelle’s Bandcamp page (something that more composers should be doing!). Brittelle considers the nautilus to be part organic and part inorganic, and therefore a metaphor for the electroacoustic nature of these works – although that could be said about just about any creature with a shell. Come to think of it, this could just as easily be called Loving the Hermit Crab. Like the crab as it lurches across the sand, the music here has the same kind of jaunty, carefree pulse, albeit a vastly more elegant and precise one. Do Brittelle’s arrangements reflect an obvious organic/inorganic dichotomy? Not so much. The machine-made timbres here tend to be wry, playful and tongue-in-cheek: they ping, oscillate and swoosh, mingling with the more nuanced, emotionally resonant tones of Caleb Burhans’ violin and banjo, Nadia Sirota’s viola, Clarice Jensen’s cello, Eric Lamb’s flute and Megan Levin’s harp. And the playing is lively and animated, about as far from mechanical as you can get, enhanced by the use of electronic effects on the harp and violin and possibly other instruments. Some of the arrangements are so intricate that the consideration of who’s playing what takes a backseat to the overall effect of the work.
Which is more or less a party. The instruments swoop and dive, frequently in unison, when they’re not interchanging voices, sometimes tense and staccato, sometimes more casually and fluidly, with the feel of a round. Sometimes, especially when the synth is going full tilt, this reaches toward a sardonic Rick Wakeman-esque bombast. More frequently, it recalls Jean-Luc Ponty’s early 80s work, Jensen putting a considerably more soulful spin on Ralphe Armstrong’s busy basslines. The first work is Brittelle’s Future Shock (For String Quartet), in three parts. An irrepressibly joyous, dancing, cinematic piece of music, it intertwines a kaleidoscope of synth textures with the ensemble. They move from rhythmic and balletesque to a flurrying intro to the second movement that sounds like it was nicked from ELO’s Last Train to London (a defining piece of electroacoustic music if there ever was one). Sweeping ambience trades off with staccato flurries, big snowbanks of low lushness spiced with glimmering harp, stark cello, frenetic high string cadenzas and shimmering, sustained upper-register lines.
The ensemble follows that with the swirling midrange ambience of Acid Rain on the Mirrordome, a miniature tone poem, and then Future Shock (For Cello), a spirited, jauntily pulsing song without words that swoops up to a crescendo as the chorus kicks in, Jensen’s biting intensity paired off against woozy Dr. Dre-style portamento synth and similarly sardonic voicings. The darkest and most emotionally vivid piece here is Loons Lay in Crystal Mesh, both direct-miked and electronically processed individual voices exchanging pensive motifs over slowly shifting, sustained long-tone sheets. Unfortunately, the title track is just a mess: reaching for a more ornate take on a plinky Tears for Fears 80s-pop vibe, it doesn’t have the hooks to be a good pop song or the depth to be anything else. Poor nautilus: he deserves something as good as the irrepressibly entertaining material that comprises the rest of this album.
2012 being the 25th anniversary of the Bang on a Can avant garde music marathon, it makes sense that this year’s marathon yesterday at the World Financial Center would be a more oldschool one than in years past, with more emphasis on familiar faces and American composers than the wide-ranging internationalist vibe of recent years. Judging from the first forty percent of the show, not to mention the tantalizing bill that loomed ahead for the evening, this year’s was one of the best in recent memory. Unlike the last few years, where BOAC would cleverly seem to work the occasional obvious bathroom break or even a dinner break into the programming, from noon to about half past five there wasn’t a single tune-out: not everything on the bill was transcendent, but a lot was.
Lois V Vierk was one of the composers on the program along with Pauline Oliveros, Steve Reich and Martin Bresnick at the first marathon in 1988; this time out she was represented by her galloping, hypnotically enveloping, Reich-esque Go Guitars, performed by the Dither guitar quartet – Taylor Levine, James Linaburg, Josh Lopes and James Moore. Cellist Ashley Bathgate followed, solo, with Daniel Wohl’s insistently minimalist, echoing, rhythmic Saint Arc, a good segue with its bracing atmospherics. The crowd’s focus shifted to the rear of the atrium for trombone quartet Guidonian Hand playing Jeremy Howard Beck’s Awakening, a pro gay marriage polemic inspired by the chants of protestors as well as Jewish shofar calls. Vividly evocative of uneasy crowd noise, a sense of reason developed, and then a triumphantly sostenuto fanfare with wry echoes of Also Sprach Zarathustra.
BOAC All-Star Vicky Chow played Evan Ziporyn’s In Bounds. Inspired by essay about basketball, Ziporyn explained that he had mixed feelings about asking Chow to tackle such a demanding task as essentially becoming a one-woman piano gamelan with this work – but she was up for it. It’s classic Ziporyn, catchy blues allusions within a rapidfire, characteristically Javanese-influenced framework. Moving from attractive concentric ripples to some tongue-in-cheek Tubular Bells quotes to a welcome spaciousness as the piece wound down, Chow’s perfectly precise, rapidfire music-box attack raised the bar for pretty much everyone who followed.
The NYU Contemporary Music Ensemble conducted by Jonathan Haas negotiated their way through Ruben Naeff’s Bash, its point being an attempt at making a party out of group tensions. Its interlocking intricacies were a workout especially for vibraphonist Matthew Lau, but he didn’t waver, alongside Patti Kilroy on violin, Maya Bennardo on viola, Luis Mercado on cello, Florent Ghys on bass, Charles Furlong on clarinet, Anne Dearth on flute and Jeff Lankov on piano. Steadily and tensely, they illustrated an uneasily bustling party scene that eventually reached for a slightly more lush, relaxed ambience without losing its incessant rhythmic intensity.
Bass clarinetist Michael Lowenstern was then joined by extrovert violin virtuoso Todd Reynolds for an unexpectedly catchy new wave pop melody and then Footprints (not the Wayne Shorter composition), a genially bluesy, upbeat number where the BOAC All-Stars’ Dave Cossin joined them on drums. They’d busked with this one during a European tour and made enough for dinner from it one night in Vienna about twenty years ago. Then Guidonian Hand took the stage for Eve Beglarian’s In and Out of the Game, inspired by her epic Mississippi River trip a couple of years ago: an anthemic, upbeat piece, it was delivered rather uptightly, perhaps since the ensemble was constrained by having to play along with a tape.
Julia Wolfe’s My Lips From Speaking isn’t one of her white-knuckle intense, haunting numbers: it’s a fun extrapolation of the opening riff from Aretha Franklin’s Think (played by Aretha herself on the record). Piano sextet Grand Band – Chow, David Friend, Paul Kerekes, Lisa Moore, Blair McMillen and Isabelle O’Connell had a ball with it, each wearing an ear monitor so as to catch the innumerable, suspenseful series of cues as the gospel licks grew from spacious and minimalist to a joyously hammering choir. Ruby Fulton’s The End, sung by Mellissa Hughes with Dither’s Taylor Levine on uke and M Shanghai String Band’s Philippa Thompson on spoons, made a good segue. Inspired by the Beatles’ The End – as Fulton explained, one of the few places on record where Ringo ever took a bonafide drum solo – its hypnotic, insistent rhythm and Hughes’ otherworldly harmonies in tandem with the drones and then overtones rising from Levine’s repetitive chords built an increasingly complex sense of implied melody, as captivating as it was clever.
The first piece delivered by the BOAC All-Stars – Chow, Bathgate and Cossin on vibraphone and percussion this time plus Robert Black on bass, Mark Stewart on guitars and Ziporyn on clarinets – was Nibiru, by Marcin Stanczyk, one of the composers who’s come up through BOAC’s MassMoCa mentoring program. An apprehensive blend of anxious, intense percussion and ominous outer-space motifs, it pondered the existence of the phantom planet from harmonic-laden drones to surfy staccato guitar to where Bathgate finally took it to the rafters, her cello’s high harmonics keening eerily over Ziporyn’s bass clarinet wash.
The biggest audience hit of the afternoon – big surprise – was Thurston Moore’s Stroking Piece #1. It took a long time to for the All-Stars to build from faux Glenn Branca to critical mass but when they finally got the chance, a minor chord abruptly and rather chillingly making an appearance, Cossin slamming out a four-on-the-floor beat, the band had a great time with it even if it wasn’t particularly challenging. As it wound out, Stewart artfully led them from a crazed noise jam back into quiet, mantra-like atmospherics.
That may have been the peoples’ choice, but the next piece, Gregg August’s A Humble Tribute to Guaguanco, performed by his bass quartet Heavy Hands with Greg Chudzik, Lisa Dowling and Brian Ellingsen, was the most memorable of the afternoon. “Taking advantage of the percussion and the vocal quality that we can get from the bass,” as the bandleader (and four-string guy from sax powerhouse JD Allen’s amazing trio) explained, they made it unexpectedly somber and terse, alternately bowing, picking and tapping out an interlocking beat, eventually adding both microtones and polyrhythms. A dancing pulse gave way to sharp, bowed chromatic riffs, part flamenco, part Julia Wolfe horror tonalities. The second they finished, a little sparrow landed in front of the stage as if to signal its approval.
The following work, Besnick’s Prayers Remain Forever was performed by by TwoSense (Bathgate and Moore). Introducing the composer, Julia Wolfe reminded that he taught all three of the BOAC founders, and that his Yale School of Music ensemble Sheep’s Clothing was the prototype for BOAC. “At a certain point in life existential questions become extremely important,” he explained – the title of the work is from the last line of the Yehuda Amichai poem Gods Come and Go. A plaintively elegaic, part mininalist, part neoromantic work, as it expanded from a simple chromatic motif, a sense of longing became anguish and then descended to a brooding, defeated atmosphere, the cello and piano switching roles back and forth from murky hypnotics to bitterly rising phrases, with a particularly haunting solo passage from Bathgate. Yet what was even more impressive about her playing is how closely she communicates with her bandmates, Moore especially: the duo played as a singleminded voice.
Then things got loud and memorably ugly with “punk classical” ensemble Newspeak, whose late-2010 album Sweet Light Crude is a gem. They played that tune, a savagely sarcastic love song to an addiction that will eventually prove lethal, Hughes’ deadpan, lushly Romantic vocals soaring over cinematics that built from anxiously sweeping to metal grand guignol fueled by Brian Snow’s cello, Levine’s guitar and bandleader/composer David T. Little’s coldly stomping drums. They also rampaged through Oscar Bettison’s B & E (with Aggravated Assault), emphasizing its jagged math-rock rhythms and a pummeling series of chase scenes.
Michael Gordon, one of the original BOAC trio with Wolfe and David Lang, led his band – the BOAC All-Stars’ Stewart, Cossin and Zioporyn plus Reynolds on violin and Caleb Burhans on viola – through his own Thou Shalt/Thou Shalt Not from behind a keyboard. This was a disappointment and didn’t measure up to Gordon’s usual high standard. Juicy textures – creepy funeral organ, staccato twin microtonal violins, foghorn bass clarinet – overshadowed simplistic percussive riffage, which carried on far too long without much focus: if he could cut this down to 3:05, he’d have a hit. Next on the bill was soprano saxophonist Jonas Braasch, who performed his alternately rapt and amusingly echoey Quasi Infinity through a digital effect he’d created to approximate an amazing 45-second natural reverb that Oliveros had reveled in while recording in a Washington State cistern in 1988. That boded well for Oliveros and her Deep Listening Band, who played digeridoo-heavy, warmly enveloping works immediately afterward. And while it’s hubris to walk out on an artist as perennially fresh and compelling as she is, there’s a point where concerts of this length and the demands of having a life don’t coincide. Apologies to Oliveros and her crew for not sticking around for their entire set.
One final issue that ought to be addressed, and not just by BOAC and the World Financial Center landlords, is that there needs to be a no-under-fours rule here. And for that matter, at every serious music event in New York, maybe everywhere in this country. This didn’t used to be an issue, but with the helicopter parenting fad, children having become yuppie bling, national restaurant chains and thousands of other businesses are retaliating. A reasonably bright four-year-old can be taught to sit quietly or at least move around quietly while a concert is in progress; a two-year old can’t. Too bad that there’s no way to ban the yuppies along with their annoying, sniveling, whiny spawn, which would solve the whole problem.
The MATA Festival continues tonight and tomorrow night at Roulette’s spacious new digs in Brooklyn across the street from Hank’s Saloon, a thirty-second hop from the Atlantic Avenue subway. If the rest of the program is as richly enjoyable as last night’s was, it’ll be one of the high-water marks of what’s been so far a great year for live music. Tonight features composer-performers including fascinating sound-sculptor Leslie Flanigan along with Cecilia Lopez and Eli Kelzer; tomorrow’s bill features SIGNAL playing works by Francesco Filidei and David Coll, plus a viola quartet by Eric Wubbels and a piece for solo kantele (Finnish autoharp) by Alex Freeman along with the charismatically pyrotechnic Kathleen Supove attacking an Ivan Orozco composition.
MATA has come a long way since it was Music at the Anthology (meaning Anthology Film Archives) about a dozen years ago; this particular program had an ambitiously global scope, with two equally ambitious ensembles, all-female German recorder ensemble QNG (Susanne Fröhlich, Yoshiko Klein,Miako Klein and Heide Schwarz) alternating with the JACK Quartet (violinists Christopher Otto, Caleb Burhans, violist John Pickford Richards and cellist Kevin McFarland). Both groups were playing with ringers – QNG with Yoshiko Klein subbing for Andrea Guttman, and Burhans filling in for JACK’s Ari Streisfeld – and each player blended in flawlessly.
QNG opened, tackling Qin Yi’s new Sound Shadow. Dancing and rippling with a staccato pointillism, the group held it together with a pinpoint rhythmic insistence: Messiaen’s birdsong as Bach might have orchestrated it. It would be difficult enough as a work for piano: it must be doubly so for wind instruments. Even a sonic crisis midway through couldn’t derail the JACK Quartet’s first assignment, a Huck Hodge partita that played permutations of the word “refuse.” Up and away with a swirl they went, the jaggedly acidic tone poem’s microtones pulling hard against a wavery central anchor, bracingly and intensely. A bell-like chorus shot off glissandos like roman candles, atmospherics evoking an accordion with half the keys held down, and an off-center call from the viola and cello against an increasingly agitated, eventually horrified thicket of violins that finally wound up with a grinding, gnashing march. It wasn’t the biggest audience hit of the night – that would come a little later – but it was the most exhilarating piece of music. Their take on a second tone poem, Icelandic composer Hugi Gudmunsson’s Matins, a pastorale depicting sunrise over the mountains, was every bit as cinematically majestic as anyone could possibly want, yet without being the least bit over-the-top.
Frohlich played Oscar Bianchi’s Crepuscolo, from 2004, solo, powerfully amplified so as to capture the most minute sonics escaping from her mighty multi-chamber large-scale recorder. Considering how vast the piece’s dynamic range would become, it’s a good thing she started as quietly as she did, especially since it involves percussion on the recorder almost as much as melody. Precisely oscillating riffs tiptoed, then scurried, then helicoptered suddenly and explosively out of suspenseful stillness, careening off the walls of the theatre. It’s amazing that a single recorder could create such a vast and assaultive array of sounds, especially the low-register ones, and quite the herculean feat to witness, never mind attempt. Frohlich has a place on an Olympic team waiting for her somewhere if she ever gets sick of music.
QNG followed with Gordon Beeferman’s Passages, whose rapt, organ-like ambience offered not the slightest hint of the rousing roller-coaster ride of swoops and dives the group would get to joyously swing through before returning comfortably home. The concert ended with both ensembles joining forces for a mutual commission, Yotam Haber’s Estro Poetico-Armonico. The Vivaldi allusion came through vividly: Haber based this on Benedetto Marcello’s final transcription of a series of psalms sung in a baroque-era Venetian synagogue. Through a glass darkly, it fluttered, microtonal curliques rising, obscuring and then backing away, elegantly ceding centerstage to the stately, wary, old-world stained-glass ambience.
The idea of a low-key guitar-and-violin duo putting on a charismatic, totally psychedelic show might seem improbable, but that’s exactly what Grey McMurray and Caleb Burhans did last night at le Poisson Rouge. It was hypnotic in the purest sense of the word. As the musicians launched into a lingering, gently sustained two-guitar phrase that slowly took on one permutation after another as it made its way through a maze of effects pedals, the crowd slowly assembled around the stage, as if a trance. By now, the lights had completely gone out: the only illumination in the club came from the sconces at the bar and the speakers overhead. The blend of ringing, bell-like tones and dreamily atmospheric washes grew more complex, and then pulled back a bit, Burhans working feverishly over a mixing board. When he introduced a sudden, swooping phrase that slyly panned the speakers, heads turned, virtually in unison. A little later, he broke the spell as he reached for the mic and let out a restrained, tense howl. At that point, a handful of people quickly moved to the bar for a drink. Had the intensity been too much to take?
Burhans’ and McMurray’s new double cd Everybody’s Pain Is Magnificent – released on the New Amsterdam label under the name itsnotyouitsme – is an unselfconsciously beautiful chillout record. This show assembled several of its ethereally ringing, lingering segments as two roughly 25-minute suites. After the first had ended, Burhans encouraged the crowd to sit on the floor and take in the rest of the show, and pretty much everyone complied. If Burhans had suggested that everybody take the L train to Morgan Avenue and then lie down on the subway tracks, would the crowd have done that too? In the age of color-coded terrorist alerts and satellite tracking via foursquare and innumerable other marketing schemes, is this what audiences have become? Or, was this simply the power of the music revealing itself in all its glistening, trippy splendor? Was the experience something akin to what it must have been like to watch Pink Floyd or the Grateful Dead circa 1967?
Maybe. As Burhans lay down one judicious wash after another from his violin, McMurray adding one stately sequence of notes after another, there were tinges of Philip Glass and Gerard Grisey as well: both musicians come from a classical background. In order to maintain the quietly mesmerizing ambience, the two practically danced on their pedals as they added and then subtracted one texture after another from the flow of sound as it looped around. In order to avoid the kind of mechanical monotony that often characterizes this kind of music, they built several polyrhythms into the mix. With split-second timing, they made the effect seamlessly ethereal rather than chaotic. And not everything they played was quiet and soothing, either. For what seemed minutes at a time, McMurray would wail up and down on his strings, add the passage to the mix, then add and subtract minutely measured amounts of distortion, or reverb, or sustain, or a combination of several effects at once. By the time the second suite was over, they’d almost imperceptibly taken the sonic trajectory to wary, somewhat icy terrain much like the best stuff on Radiohead’s Kid A.
Is this meant to be stoner music? From the look of the crowd, quite possibly. Or maybe it was just the heat. Burhans and McMurray were working hard onstage and deserved some air conditioning, and like the crowd, they didn’t seem to be getting any. It’s one thing for the bartender at some dingy Williamsburg bar to show up late and forget to put on the AC, but it’s hard to understand how not a single person out of the Poisson Rouge’s entire nattily uniformed staff couldn’t have flipped a switch and given their customers a respite from a grimly unpleasant global warming-era evening.