Tin Hat’s new album The Rain Is a Handsome Animal isn’t what you might expect: it goes in much more of a jazz direction than their earlier material, most famously their haunting contributions to the Everything Is Illuminated soundtrack. This one’s similar to the Hot Club of Detroit’s work with Cyrille Aimee but with a wider sonic palette – if that’s possible. Some of the tracks – a mix of instrumentals and vocal numbers sung by violinist Carla Kihlstedt – are airy and bouncy. Some of them have considerably more weight and gravitas. Minor key melodies dance and leap to a mix of beats, some of them tropical, with upper-register ambience from Kihlstedt, animatedly swirling interplay between accordionist Rob Reich and clarinetist Ben Goldberg providing a shimmery backdrop for guitarist Mark Orton’s spiky melody lines and gypsy-tinged pulse. It’s lively but bittersweet, measured but energetic.
A word about the lyrics: these are all settings of e.e. cummings poems (resisting the temptation to capitalize that name here is not easy). Those aren’t as whimsical as you might expect, but they’re still pretty obvious – although the genuineness and occasional unselfconscious urgency of Kihlstedt’s vocals gives them an unexpected dignity. One can only wonder what she could do with more substantial lyrical material. A couple of tracks wouldn’t be out of place in the more carefree section of the Rachelle Garniez songbook. The first, If Up’s the Word, works its way down from intertwining, reedy harmonies to a suspenseful interlude that underscores the lyrics’ urgent carpe-diem message. The second, Yes Is a Pleasant Country takes what’s essentially a blithely bluesy torch song and almost imperceptibly moves it into more pensive terrain on the wings of Kihlstedt’s increasingly biting lines.
The album’s opening track begins as a samba of sorts and builds from there, Kihlstedt’s vocals mining a coy breathiness. The instrumental title track blends gleefully brisk, swooping violin, gypsy guitar picking and a neat solo from Goldberg that rises from low and soulful to a joyous spin capped by Kihlstedt’s stratospherics. Sweet Spring, a love song, begins suspensefully and hushed before moving into uneasily dreamy territory fueled by contrasting piano-versus-violin textures.
Open His Head and the aptly citrusy Grapefruit both develop tango melodies out of acidic atmospherics, as does Unchanging, shifting from a fugue of sorts, to a rich mix of upper-register tonalities over the twin pulse of the bass clarinet and guitar bassline. A western gothic song that reminds of John Cale, Buffalo Bill shifts from a vivid brass to a drony atmospheric outro. The tour de force here is The Enormous Room, an epic that moves from quietly mysterious atonalities to pulsing wariness driven by the bass clarinet, a rather slashing Kihlstedt solo and then a warmer, anthemic guitar melody.
The most overtly jazzy track here is the brief So Shy Shy Shy; the most easygoing is the cheery, bucolic 2 Little Who’s. Human Rind has an uncharacteristically dark lyric matched by a bracing, intense interlude that circles out with a troubled insistence, while Anyone Lived in a Pretty How Town reaches for a big rock anthem feel, with mixed results.
There are three more tracks here – the folks over at New Amsterdam don’t shortchange you! Diminutive works a sad rainy day tableau with fluttery violin front and center; the album wraps up with Little I, a hypnotic yet incisive tone poem, and Now (More Near Ourselves Than We), a torchy ballad that quickly goes in a more uneasy direction. Seventeen songs, many shades of grey, many shades of understated brilliance. Whoever would have thought that an e.e. cummings album would turn out like this?
This season’s concluding concert of the New York Festival of Song series Tuesday night at the Baryshnikov Arts Center was characteristically challenging and entertaining. NYFOS’ definition of art-song takes the idea of lieder (essentially, operatic songs without the opera) and brings it into the 21st century, musically and lyrically. Some of the works on the bill were basically opera songs but a lot weren’t, with a nod to the adventurous downtown 80s and what are turning out to be the equally adventurous teens. Put together by New Yorker scribe (and prolific art-song writer and advocate) Russell Platt, it teamed a talented parade of singers with versatile pianist Thomas Sauer, who deserved top billing here for tackling a dizzyingly diverse, technically challenging series of compositions and pulling them off with flair and sensitivity. Platt explained that this year’s theme was “a snapshot of Generation X music,” which for him meant taking “an irreverent tone to text.” Which when you think about it is punk rock, pure and simple: it may be more comforting than accurate to assign credit to GenX for much more than effeteness, at least as far as the arts are concerned.
The highlight of the evening was a trio of songs by Lisa Bielawa, a powerful and eclectic composer who looks back far beyond her own generation – in this particular case, to Franz Kafka. Violinist/singer Carla Kihlstedt smartly chose to read the texts before launching into the songs (written for her by Bielawa around 2001-03), alongside Matthias Bossi on pump organ and percussion. A parable of the longing to find order in disorder was vividly anxious, lit up with the violin’s quavery intensity, overtones and glissandos against the organ’s placid tones, followed by a more playful take on existential angst and then a piece about the nature of ghosts illustrated with sepulchrally muted pizzicato. Kihlstedt followed this with her own take on a Robert Louis Stevenson poem on a “nevermore” theme, which she’d discovered via a Google search (could it be that the Edgar Allen Poe estate or its equivalent needs to pay off Google to get top billing for that particular keyword?). She began on trumpet-violin, again contrasting against the warm washes of the organ, eventually switching to violin for a bitingly rustic, minor-key theme that eventually came full circle, ending pensively and unresolved.
Unsurprisingly, the biggest crowd-pleaser of the night was a parody of MTA snafus and subway announcements written by Gilda Lyons, delivered with grand guignol drama, a-cappella, by Sarah Wolfson and Blythe Gaissert. In its own cruelly sarcastic way, it was just as Kafkaesque as Bielawa’s songs. Harold Meltzer also contributed three settings of texts by Ohio poet James Wright, given coloratura nuance by tenor Kyle Bielfield over piano melodies that ranged from creepy, inchoate iciness, to Pat Metheny-ish meandering against a central tone, to allusions to gospel and the blues, all handled deftly by Sauer. A sadness pervaded all of them, roadkill juxtaposed against dead dreams and unrequited homoeroticism.
And Platt also included a quartet of his own songs, mining a similarly dispirited Midwestern milieu via texts by Paul Muldoon set to noirish, chromatically-fueled piano that ranged from bracing atonalism to neoromantic angst. Bass-baritone Mischa Bouvier dignified these portraits of a smaller, claustrophobic world (Platt spent some time there after college and clearly wanted out) with a raw, rugged intensity, finding drama in the seemingly mundane without going over the top, at least for the most part.
Not everything on the bill was as successful. Sometimes the stylized “scaramouche, scaramouche, can you do the fandango” operatics (Bouvier found himself rolling his R’s periodically although he was singing in English) overwhelmed the content. And a coy hail-mary pass, sort of a composer’s equivalent of “the dog ate my homework,” should have been left on the rehearsal room floor. Still, it was good to see a full house respond enthusiastically to a program that so often embraced the cutting edge.
Day two in Halifax wouldn’t have been complete without a leisurely hourlong stroll to Fairview Lawn Cemetery and the graves of the Titanic victims – many of them still unidentified – who weren’t so badly decomposed that they were thrown back into the water after checking to see if they had I.D. on them. In the meantime, as we do every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Wednesday’s album, #580, is an aptly creepy one:
Minamo – Kuroi Kawa
Minamo is Japanese for “surface of the water;” Kuroi Kawa means “black river.” This largely improvisational double-cd duo album by Japanese pianist Satoko Fujii and American violinist Carla Kihlstedt is aptly titled: it’s menacing, often impenetrable and sometimes downright macabre. There are playful moments – a musical lolcat, and two sisters struggling to open a window – but most of it is just plain white-knuckle intense. Kihlstedt moves from a whisper to a scream and back again against Fujii’s murderous cascades, ghostly music-box interludes and raw assaultiveness. It ends with long, color-coded suite: the rain-drenched Blue Slope; the head-on attack of Purple Summer; the surprisingly carefree Red Wind, hallucinatory Green Mirage and lethal, relentless snowstorm that winds up well over an hour’s worth of music. It came out on Tzadik in 2009 and still hasn’t made it to the usual sites but is well worth tracking down if raw adrenaline is your thing.
Composers have been writing for their favorite performers and ensembles for centuries. Lisa Bielawa wrote much of the music on her lavish new double cd In Medias Res specifically for the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. Directed by Gil Rose, they return the gesture with a sweeping, potently attuned performance that does justice to the poignancy, and intensity, and playfulness of the four integral works and suite here. For lack of a better word, this is a deep album, a milestone in the career of a composer who deserves to be ranked as one of this era’s most powerful and compelling. It couldn’t have come at a better moment. It’s a lot more than Bielawa arriving in a cloud of dust to rescue the world of “indie classical” from the simpering, infantile whimsy that’s seeped in from the indie rock demimonde, but that’s part of the deal. Or at least we can hope so.
The first piece here is Roam, dating from 2001, on a theme of exile inspired by Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. It’s a marvelously suspenseful, ambient piece worthy of Tschaikovsky or Bernard Herrmann. A tone poem with unexpected and extremely effective digressions, it works the subtlest dynamics and a chromatic tug-of-war in lieu of any kind of overt consonance, crescendos rising slowly out of slow, plaintive tectonic shifts, wary and absolutely desolate in places. Bielawa wrote her Double Violin Concerto specifically for the solists here: Carla Kihlstedt, who sings an English translation from Faust (along the lines of “let’s get the hell out of here and find some peace”) while playing, and Brooklyn Rider’s Colin Jacobsen. It’s another quiet stunner, plaintive with a vivid sense of longing, shades of Henryk Gorecki. Rapt, quiet, simple motifs diverge and converge austerely in the first movement. The second literally revolves around creepily circling violins as Kihlstedt channels Goethe in a soaring, unadorned high soprano; the third, inspired by the Lamentations of Jeremiah mixes suspenseful horizontality with a distantly Indian melody, which Jacobsen makes the most of, in the same vein of his work on Brooklyn Rider’s delicious new double cd of Philip Glass string quartets. The dance at the end becomes a danse macabre as the two violins close in on each other.
A cantata of sorts, Unfinish’d, was inspired by Shakespeare’s Richard II and his winter of discontent made summer. It packs a wallop in just short of nine minutes, austere and then blustery, and then suddenly down to a chilly expanse, Bielawa’s crystal-cutter soprano leading the way back to a breathless coda. In Medias Res, her concerto for orchestra, is a cinematic tour de force, swooping out of tune, building suspense with locomotive force, a creepily recurring waltz, starlit ambience straight out of the Gustav Holst playbook and a long, apprehensive, deeply satisfying crescendo out.
The second cd , titled Synopses, is a a series of miniatures and extended solo pieces for individual orchestra members. Some of these are actual motifs from In Medias Res; others foreshadow it, others seemingly allow for improvisation (particularly from trumpeter Terry Everson, who tackles it joyously). The most amusing piece is for drums and spoken word, done by Robert Schultz, whose accents are spot-on, but who could have used a voice like Kihlstedt’s or Bielawa’s to deliver a series of disturbingly or entertainingly allusive comments overheard on the street. All together, these pieces demand repeated listening. It was tempting to add this to our ongoing countdown of the thousand best albums of all time. We resisted. That might have been a mistake. Bielawa and an ensemble are playing several of the Synopses with choreography at New York City Center on 56th St. tomorrow, April 16th at 7:30 PM.
Sunday at Galapagos composer/singer/multi-instrumentalist Lisa Bielawa and an inspired cast of indie classical types played a stunningly eclectic mix of new material from her two latest albums, Chance Encounter (with the Knights and soprano Susan Narucki) and In Medias Res (with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project conducted by Gil Rose). The concert got off to a rough start: drummer Bob Schultz was game to recite a series of occasionally bizarre, frequently amusing overheard-on-the-street quotes over what turned out to be pretty steady solo drums, but he wasn’t given a soundcheck (big mistake) and consequently the lyrics were often inaudible. And in the rap era, making the beats fit is part of the fun; this piece seemed more of an slapdash attempt at jazz poetry with random words set to an unrelated rhythm.
Things got exciting fast after that. Harpist Ina Zdorovetchi played another piece from the BMOP album, shifting from unselfconsciously Romantic cinematics to a mysterioso theme, followed by pianist Sarah Bob playing another solo work that went in the opposite direction, a tug-of-war between consonant comfort and bracing, wide-open, sky-at-night atonalities. After a pause for technical difficulties, the excitement went up another notch. Split between the stage and the back balcony, members of the reliably surprising indie orchestra the Knights turned in a marvelously orchestrated (in both senses of the word), strikingly stereo version of Bielawa’s Prologue and Topos Nostalgia section from Chance Encounter. Alternating fugal astringencies between the two sections of the ensemble with still, quiet beauty and the occasional playful conversation between instruments, it was a showstopper: flutists Alex Sopp and Lance Suzuki along with violinist Carla Kihlstedt backlit by the sound booth while Narucki and several of the Knights held court onstage, among them violinists Colin Jacobsen and Christina Courtin, violist Nicholas Cords, oboeist Adam Hollander and Bielawa herself adding terse, pensive accents on piano.
The program concluded with Kihlstedt singing the Song from Bielawa’s Double Violin Concerto, a potently effective transposition of modernist melodicism to a traditionally classical framework, accompanied by string quartet, viola, piano and harp. That Kihlstedt was able to sing her tricky counterrhythms while playing was impressive enough: what was breathtaking was how powerfully she belted those off-center tonalities. Clear, pure and laserlike, she didn’t have much of anything in common with Narucki’s virtuosically operatic delivery, but she was every bit as intense and compelling, maybe more.
In addition to the music, two short films were screened: Lisa Guidetti’s 2007 lushly summery, awardwinning look at Chance Encounter being played in Chinatown’s Seward Park, and Renato Chiocca’s view of Chance Encounter as it was created – to expose random outdoor audiences, pretty much anywhere (in this case, Rome), to the work of new composers. It’s as simple as bringing a truckload of chairs and letting the audience assemble without knowing that they’re in store for what could be an amazing free concert.
Minamo is the Japanese term for the water’s surface. Beneath this particular surface runs an aptly titled Black River, occasionally bubbly and playful but often murderously powerful. This might be the best jazz album of the year, or the best album of the year in any style – the latest Tzadik cd by the duo project of Japanese pianist Satoko Fujii and American violinist Carla Kihlstedt is equal part avant-garde/new music, with frequent references to Japanese folk themes. With its often violent drama, much of it would make a killer (sorry) horror film score. It’s a double cd, one featuring subtly and cleverly improvised, often Satie-esque miniatures, the other a live recording far more expansive and dangerous. What’s most immediately striking is the practically telepathic interplay between Fujii amd Kihlstedt – one would think they were twins, or at least sisters. Both use the totality of their instruments, Kihlstedt adept at hair-raising overtones, Fujii raking the inside of the piano with what sounds like steel wool when she isn’t generating tonalities on the keys that literally run the length of the sonic spectrum. For those with the courage to take the plunge, it’s an exhilarating ride.
Everything here seems rubato – while each musician will often introduce a steady rhythm, they’ll both cut loose without warning, yet without losing their grip on the atmosphere at hand unless they do so deliberately. The opening cut, The Murmur of Leaves sets a brooding, pensive tone that will recur again and again, sometimes much more harshly. The third track, East comes skidding in, Kihlstedt’s violin like a banshee astride a steed from hell, moving to a full-on horror-film assault before ending on a surprisingly subdued if still disquieting note. A music-box theme matching midrange piano against pizzicato violin maintains the suspense, which lets up with a completely silly if equally evocative vignette, two girls struggling to open what must be one heavy window. Another lighthearted number is literally a musical lolcat – it’s hard to imagine a funnier or more evocative depiction of ADD. Elsewhere, a pretty, reflective tone poem grows menacing; Fujii glimmers ominously in the upper registers against Kilhlsted’s graceful glides; Kihlstedt plays what sounds like a rousing bagpipe tune against Fujii’s circular hypnotics; and finally, with a big, fluttery crescendo, the sun emerges triumphantly from behind the clouds! But that’s not til track twelve.
The second cd opens with the title track, which explodes with a crash and a scream (Fujii and Kihlstedt, respectively), moving hauntingly in the span of almost fourteen minutes to the most minimal, plaintive ambience punctuated dramatically with empty space, Kihlstedt finally leading a hauntedly resigned, swirlingly hypnotic climb out of the hole. The compositions here are all color-coded, though musically their colors don’t vary much from various shades of black and grey. Blue Slope scrapes and murmurs with rain-drenched sadness until Kihlstedt lets loose a couple of shrieks at the end, to which Fujii replies gracefully and sympathetically. Purple Summer is raw and aggressive, accentuated with vigorous vocalese. Red Wind is a game of tag, both instruments introducing playful, rather carefree motifs that sometimes make a strikingly jarring contrast with the darker tinges that rise up unexpectedly. Green Mirage – what’s up with these titles, huh? – masterfully works a slow crescendo into characteristically murky call-and-response. The concert concludes with a deadly snowstorm, Kihlstedt’s insistent wail signaling the start of the avalanche that they’re going to ride as it devastates everything in its path. Whew! There isn’t a rollercoaster around that can compare with this. Look for it at the end of the year around the top of the Best Albums of 2009 list here.