Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Rare City Park Show and a Mighty, Harrowing New Suite From Stephanie Chou

For the last couple of years, Barnard College has staged an amazingly eclectic, entertaining annual concert under the trees in the crabapple grove in Riverside Park just north of 91st Street. This years’s festival is this Satruday night, May 18, starting at 5 PM with one of New York’s most socially relevant and ambitious jazz talents, alto saxophonist/singer Stephanie Chou. This time out she’ll be leading a trio with pianist Jason Yeager and drummer Ronen Itzik Other acts on the bill include the Bacchantae, Barnard College’s all-female a cappella group, ferociously dynamic, tuneful, female-fronted power trio Castle Black, and the Educadorian-flavored Luz Pinos Band

Chou’s latest larger-scale project is titled Comfort Girl. It’s a harrowing, phanstasmagorical song cycle based on the terrors faced by the over two hundred thousand women who were forced into sexual slavery during the Japanese occupation of China during World War II. Some of those women were raped thousands of times. To add insult to injury, when those who survived were able to return home after the Japanese retreat, many of them were shunned. Chou debuted it at Joe’s Pub at the end of March. What was most striking about the show was not only Chou’s ability to shift between musical styles, but her prowess as a lyricist.

A flurry from Kenny Wollesen’s drums signaled the intro to the jaunty march Manchurian Girl, a late 30s Chinese pop hit. The lyrics are innocuous: a young woman waiting for her boo to return home so she can tie the knot. Chou sang it with more than a hint of foreshadowing, the music rising to a shivery tightness, Andy Lin’s vibrato-tinged violin over his sister Kelly Lin’s emphatic piano.

Narrator Peregrine Heard continued the story; girl meets boy and everything seems rosy in the countryside, echoed by a sax-violin duet that began coyly and then took on a swirling, triumphantly pulsing tone which turned wary and enigmatic as the two diverged harmonically.

The violinist switched to the even more shivery, plaintive-toned erhu fiddle for a Chinese parlor-pop ballad of sorts, Forever I Will Sing Your Song, crooner Orville Mendoza’s anticipatory drama contasting with Chou’s more demure delivery. The music grew suddenly chaotic as Japanese soldiers crushed the wedding ceremony, knocking out the groom and tearing his bride away.

Surrealistic piano glimmer over Wollesen’s noir percussion ambience supplied the backdrop for Chou’s wounded vocals in Shattered. Mendoze sang the pretty straight-up, determined piano rock ballad after that, the groom determined to get his beloved back. Meanwhile, she’s being paraded through one of the Japanese rape camps – the euphemistically named “Jade Star Hotel” – along with a group of captives. The piece’s simple military chorus was as chilling as any moment through the show, as was the haunting, phamtasmagorical waltz after that; “No name,, no hope: No life”

The young woman was thrown into a a cell, got a new Japanese name, and with a portentous crescendo and diabolical flickers from the violin, the music became a horror film score, It would have been historically accurate for the music to remain a morass of atonalities and cruel slashes punctuated by brief, mournful stillness, but Chou went deeper, with an aptly aching, Chinese-language ballad, her narravor terrified that her husband-to-be will reject her after all she’s had to suffer.

A coldly circling interlude captured the soldiers in line waiting for their turn with the “military provisions,” as the women were called. “We can do whatever we want to do,” Mendoza’s narrator sniffeed. A haunting, Pink Floyd-tinged interlude depicted her fiance giving up his search, miles away; Chou’s heroine remained defiant through a vindictive, venomous English-language anthem.

A spare, bucolic folk song – the kind the women would sing to remind each other of home – was next on the bil, followed by an anxious but undeterred ballad sung by Mendoza. Kelly Lin’s plaintive Debussy-esque crescendos lit up the number after that.

Flourishes from violin and sax underscored the young woman’s determination to beat the odds and survive, via a variation on the earlier, soul-tnnged revenge anthem. Unlike most of her fellow captives, this woman was able to escape, the piano driving a deliciously redemptive theme. And although her future husband realizes at the end that as she makes is back to her old village, “There’s still someone in there,”most of these women were not so lucky. Good news: Chou plans to release the suite as a studio recording.

Advertisements

May 16, 2019 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Stephanie Chou Unveils Her Powerful, Socially Relevant New Suite

What makes Stephanie Chou’s music so much more interesting than most jazz these days? It’s a lot more tuneful, it’s often very playful, draws frequently on Chinese themes from over the centuries, and Chou isn’t afraid to take all this and rock out sometimes. And she’s a double threat, on the horn and the mic: she has a bright, edgy tone on the alto sax and sings in a soulful mezzo-soprano in both English and Chinese. Her most recent album, Asymptote – taking its name from one of the most philosophical constructs in mathematics – is streaming at youtube. Her next gig, at 7 PM on March 29 at Joe’s Pub, has special importance for Women’s History Month: it’s the debut of her harrowing new suite Comfort Girl, which explores the lives of the over two hundred thousand women exploited by sex traffickers in China during the World War II Japanese occupation. Cover is $15

The compositions on Asymptote aren’t as harrowing as that, but Chou doesn’t shy away from deep topics. She opens it with Kangding Love Song, a moody, latinized take on Chinese folk, John Escreet’s piano anchoring the music alongside bassist Zack Lober and drummer Kenny Wollesen, Andy Lin’s erhu fiddle floating sepulchrally overhead.

Wollesen gets to indulge in his signature Wollesonics with his homemade gongs and such in Eating Grapes, a popular Chinese tongue-twister that Chou recites without missing a syllable. Escreet’s elegant pointillisms and Lin’s aching erhu propel the Moon You’ll See My Heart, a bittersweetly starry English-language art-rock update on a 1970s Chinese pop hit. The title track is a less memorable take on acoustic coffeehouse folk-pop.

Does the recording of Penelope live up to how this blog described it in concert last year, “a haunting, crescendoing backbeat rock ballad fueled by Lin’s aching viola and a spiraling, smoky sax solo [that] would have been a huge radio hit for an artsy band like the Alan Parsons Project thirty years ago?” No smoky sax solo here, but otherwise, doublecheck!

General’s Command, an old Fujianese zither song gets reinvented as a stern, martial theme, then quickly goes in a lightheartedly strutting direction punctuated by a couple of blustery interludes. It sounds like this guy’s soldiers are having lots of fun behind his back.

A steady, brooding piano-and-sax intro, Chou overdubbing both instruments herself, opens Quiet Night Thought, Wollesen’s stately, minimalist percussion adding a tropical edge. As this setting of a Li Bai poem picks up steam, the lush blend of Chou’s vocals and sax is very affecting.

Making Tofu, a jazz waltz, is much more astringent and soaringly anthemic than a song about those flavorless little cubes would have you believe. The enigmatic, troubled tone poem In the Forest brings to mind Jen Shyu’s work with her Jade Tongue ensemble: it’s a salute to a legendary hermit from Chou’s upstate New York hometown. She winds up the album with the brief, uneasily twinkling Moon Recrudescence. It’s a shock this album has slipped so far under the radar up to now.

March 22, 2019 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Stephanie Chou’s Chinese Jazz Shifts the Paradigm at Lincoln Center

Lincoln Center booked Stephanie Chou and her quartet to celebrate International Women’s Day. They couldn’t have made a more imaginative choice. Chou is a strong singer with an unadorned mezzo-soprano, a strong saxophonist and a brilliantly individualistic composer who’s shifting the paradigm, blending Chinese themes from over the centuries with jazz, classical and more than a little rock in places. Her show last night drew heavily from her latest, innovative album, Asymptote. Her music is relevant, and lyrical, and amazingly eclectic, typical of the programming here lately.

The concert began with Isamu McGregor’s pointillistic, twinkling upper-register piano, joined by Andy Lin’s stark erhu fiddle. Then in a split second he picked up his viola and plucked out a spiky pizzicato riff before returning to the erhu as In the Moon You’ll See My Heart, a new version of the famous 1970s Teresa Teng Chinese pop hit, picked up steam.

Chou picked up her alto sax for General’s Command, reinventing an old Fujianese zither song as hard-hitting, kinetic postbop with more than a hint of gospel, Lin’s violin adding shivery ambience behind Chou’s calm, resolute melody.

“We’re gonna switch gears a little bit,” the college math major and bandleader explained, introducing the lustrous title cut from the new album. “The more you look the less you really see,” she sang: the enveloping, enigmatic sweep of the sax, viola, piano and drummer Vinnie Sperrazza’s muted mallets on the toms dovetailed with the philosophical paradox it alludes to, two lines converging infinitely but never reaching the same point.

Quiet Night Thought – a tropically-tinged setting of a Li Bai poem – followed a similarly lush, distantly brooding nocturnal tangent, Chou singing in Chinese. Then they switched gears again: Lin’ s solo version of an old folk song about birds flutttered, and chirped ,and soared, but with a fluidity that would make any feathered friend jealous.

Chou illustrated Odysseus’ arduous journey home to his true love with Penelope, a haunting, crescendoing backbeat rock ballad fueled by Lin’s aching viola and a spiraling, smoky sax solo. It would have been a huge radio hit for an artsy band like the Alan Parsons Project thirty years ago.

Chou returned to Chinese with her vocals in Making Tofu – inspired by a funny proverb about an only slightly less arduous process – a moody jazz waltz with a gorgeous, sternly crescendoing meteor shower of a piano solo and ominously modal sax work. Who knew so much energy was required to make those innocuous little cubes!

She led the crowd in a Chinese tongue-twister – the gist of it was, “If you eat grapes you spit out the peel, if you don’t eat grapes then you don’t” – then scatted it as Sperrazza rattled his toms and woodblock. She got serious again with the somberly verdant, astringently crescendoing tonalities of In the Forest, inspired by Johann Stolting, a 19th scientist turned hermit and something of a tragic character in her Irvington, New York hometown

Chou’s latest project explores the struggles of the women forced into prostitution by the Japanese in World War II. The world premiere of Manchurian Girl, a reworking of a 1938 Chinese pop song, had a sardonic martial beat: the longing and disillusion in Chou’s voice was visceral and transcended any linguistic limitations. She followed with a dramatic ballad, McGregor’s lingering glitter contrasting with Lin’s insistent attack and closed with a brief tone poem of sorts, part Debussy and part stately Chinese folk.

The next jazz show at Lincoln Center the atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. is an especially amazing one, with ageless latin jazz piano icon Eddie Palmieri and his band on March 16 at 7:30 PM The show is free so get there early or else.

March 9, 2018 Posted by | concert, folk music, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Otherworldly Pan-Asian Transcendence From Jen Shyu

Over the span of less than a year, Jen Shyu lost two dear friends: Taiwanese nuclear scientist and poet Edward Cheng, and Javanese wayang (gamelan shadow puppetry) master Joko Raharjo, known as Cilik. The latter died along with his wife and infant daughter in a car crash; their other daughter, Naja, age six, survived. Shyu’s latest suite, Song of Silver Geese – streaming at Pi Recordings – is dedicated to those friends, and imagines Naja encountering a series of spirit guides from throughout Asian mythology, who give her strength.

The result is a hypnotic, otherworldly, sometimes harrowing  narrative. Shyu is performing her characteristically theatrical, solo Nine Doors suite at the Jazz Gallery on Jan 24, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30; cover is $25. She’s also at the Stone the following night, Jan 25 at 8:30 PM as part of pianist Kris Davis’ weeklong stand there; the band also includes Ikue Mori on laptop percussion samples, Trevor Dunn on bass, Mat Maneri on viola and Ches Smith on drums. Cover is $20.

The suite is divided into nine “doors” – portals into  other worlds. Shyu plays Taiwanese moon lute, piano and the magically warpy Korean gayageum, singing in both English and several Asian vernaculars. She’s joined by the strings of the Mivos Quartet as well as vibraphonist Chris Dingman’s Jade Tongue ensemble with violist Mat Maneri, bassist Thomas Morgan, drummer Dan Weiss, percussionist Satoshi Takeishi and flutist Anna Webber.

Shyu opens solo on moon lute, with a stark, direct vocal:

I am no longer able to recount
In the tale, the story of my life…
When now it is twilight
And there is so much silence…
From the east to west
All you see in between
That deep black sky
Is everything…

Door 2, World of Java is a hauntingly suspenseful nightscape, cautious flute underscored by a low rumble of percussion. Door 3, Dark Road, Silent Moon rises methodically from pensive, allusively Asian solo flute to an astringent string quartet interlude that reaches toward frenzy.

Shyu’s stark, plaintively melismatic vocals slowly build and then soar over spare gayageum and moon lute in Door 4, Simon Semarangam, the suite’s epic centerpiece. The flute flutters and spirals as the strings gain force and then recede for cellist Victor Lowrie’s brooding, cautious solo against sparse piano and percussion. Dingman and Morgan interchange quietly within Shyu’s plucks as the she segues into Door 5, World of Hengchun, her dreamy vocals contrasting with gritty lute, striking melismatic cello, an acidic string canon and the lush sweep of the full ensemble.

Door 6, World of Wehali (a mythical Timorese warrior maiden) begins with a furtive percussion-and-gong passage and crescendos uneasily, with flitting accents from throughout the band: it’s the suite’s most straightforwardly rhythmic segment. The segue into Door 7, World of Ati Batik arrives suddenly, an insistently syncopated chant shifting to a thicket of sound with scurrying piano at the center

Door 8, World of Baridegi (a Korean princess who made a legendary journey to the underworld) is the dancingly explosive, almost tortuously shamanistic coda where Shyu imagines that Cilik’a family is saved. Her narration and then her singing offer a closing message of hope and renewal over spare accents in Door 9, Contemplation. Nocturnes don’t get any more surrealistically haunting than this. 

January 22, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jen Shyu Debuts Her Spellbinding, Relevant New Suite at Roulette

Ultimately, Jen Shyu‘s mission is to break down cultural barriers and unite people. In her own work, the singer/multi-instrumentalist has assimilated an astonishing number of styles, both from her heritage – Taiwan and East Timor – as well as from Korea, Indonesia, China and the United States, among other places around the world. Last night at Roulette she celebrated her birthday by unveiling a bracingly dynamic, otherworldly surrealistic, envelopingly beautiful new suite, Song of Silver Geese, a characteristically multilingual work combining the strings of the Mivos Quartet as well as vibraphonist Chris Dingman’s Jade Tongue ensemble with violist Mat Maneri, bassist Thomas Morgan, drummer Dan Weiss and flutist Anna Webber.

Shyu opened with a series of judicious plucks on her Korean gayageum lute, then switched to piano, Taiwanese moon lute and eventually a small Indonesian gong. Throughout the roughly hourlong piece, dancer Satoshi Haga struck dramatic poses when he wasn’t moving furtively or tiptoeing in the background when the music reached a lull.

The storyline, according to the program notes, involves the interaction between two characters from Timorese and Korean folklore, both known for their disguises, in addition to an iconic Taiwanese freedom fighter and a Javanese schoolgirl who was tragically orphaned at age six in a car accident.

Spare exchanges between the strings and the gayageum grew to an uneasy lustre evocative of 80s serialism, Cellist Mariel Roberts’ wounded, ambered lines eventually giving way to sinister microtones from Maneri. Shyu’s switch to the moon lute signaled a long upward climb through a dreamlike sequence punctuated by Weiss’ increasingly agitated rumble and the flutter of the strings, texturally ravishing yet troubled.

Shyu’s uncluttered vocals were just as dynamic, ranging from a whisper, to an imploring, angst-fueled Carol Lipnik-like delivery, to an insistent, earthy, shamanistic growl and pretty much everywhere in between. The big coda, seemingly meant to illustrate the fatal crash, built to a pandemonium that came as a real shock in view of the lustre and glistening atmospherics that had been lingering up to that point.

The performance ended with the ensemble members performing a candle ceremony of sorts and then walking out through the audience as Shyu sang a mantra: “I am alone, but not lonely; Life has no boundaries when every place can be home.” Something for everybody in the audience to take home.

Shyu’s next performance features another premiere,of a dance piece at 7 PM on April 21 at the Czech Center, 321 E 73rd St. Those who were lucky enough to catch this performance would probably also enjoy the concert of rare, delicately haunting folk music from Amami Island, Japan, played by Anna Sato and Shogo Yashi at Roulette on May 14 at 8. Tix are $25/$21 stud/srs.

March 29, 2016 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Surreal, Paradigm-Shifting Night of Music and Film at the Asia Society

On face value, the idea of mashing up Beijing opera with icily cinematic, Bob Belden-esque, post-Miles Davis tableaux might seem like a particularly farfetched exercise in hippie esoterica. But for guitarist and Chinese sanxian lute player Zhu Ma, the blues scale and the Asian pentatonic scale are peas in a pod, and he’s right. For that matter, most folk music traditions around the world have some connection to the blues, which shouldn’t be any surprise since the blues has its roots in Ethiopia, the birthplace of humanity itself. Last night at the Asia Society, the bandleader and his eight-piece ensemble brought those commonalities into sharp focus, throughout a set that began by making terse Western horizontal music out of ancient Chinese themes and ended with dissociative, distantly menacing, air-conditioned psychedelia. In between songs – and a slowly crescendoing, stormy live film soundtrack – the guitarist carefully and colorfully articulated his mission as both an advocate for the music of his home country and its infinite possibilities

The bandleader opened the performance on sanxian, joined by his band Pi-Huang Club – Jiang Kenan on bass, Liu Sheng on drums, Lu Jaiwei on pingtan lute and vocals, Yan Jonathan Boodhoo on percussion and gong, with Erik Deutch on keys, Nolan Tsang on trumpet and filmmaker David A. Harris on alto sax. Together they slowly worked their way up from wispy minimalism to a cumulo-nimbus peak as ornately costumed chanteuse Dong Xueping and singer Lu Su delivered stately, often otherworldly versions of the Beijing opera pieces featured in Harris’ new film, Sever, which was projected behind them. The movie, part slapstick and part surrealist Lynchian noir, is a hoot. The storyline follows a famous Chinese folk narrative, in which the rather buffoonish Guan Yu is betrayed by and eventually gets even with vixen Diao Chan by cutting off her head. The two singers play those respective roles in the film, the female lead a more allusive presence in contrast to Lu Su’s tragicomic, befuddledly Falstaffian persona, wandering a modern Beijing and slowly losing bits and pieces of his elaborate opera costume to thieves and misadventures. Anyone looking for the root source of a lot of David Lynch’s ideas ought to see this: it’s coming from a lot of the same places.

The rest of the concert brought to mind artists as diverse as Ennio Morricone and Pink Floyd. Playing a vintage hollowbody Gibson, Zhu Ma’s style often echoed his training in traditional Chinese music. with stately, steadily rhythmic passages that would go on for bars at a time. But he also brought to mind David Gilmour as he added savage curlicues and achingly angst-infused tension, pulling away from the center, during the most bluesy interludes. The highlight of the set was a nebulous boudoir noir soundsscape that could have been Morricone, or maybe even a Roy Ayers b-movie theme from the 70s, infused with stark Chinese motives.

The Asia Society’s impresario, Rachel Cooper, enthused about Zhu Ma being an old soul, and that’s true, but he’s also a perennially young, adventurous one. This concert was staged jointly by PS122 and the R.A.W. (Rising Artists’ Works) project of the Shanghai International Arts Festival. While one might expect stodgy and doctrinaire from such a program, if this was any indication, audiences there are in for an edgy time.

January 14, 2016 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Film, folk music, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Epic, Majestic, Transcendent Carnegie Hall Concert by the China National Traditional Orchestra

Prosaically speaking, the China National Traditional Orchestra play both old folk themes and new works on traditional instruments, using western-style symphonic arrangements. Sunday night at Carnegie Hall, the mighty, majestic group performed a riveting, dynamically rich program of both ancient and contemporary music that was as vast and historically rich as China itself, a paradigm-shifting and potentially life-changing experience. This was not safe, self-congratulatory, doctrinaire state-sponsored music. It was as avant garde as anything staged in this city this year…yet pretty much everybody in the house knew the source material, and by the final sprint through a blustery coda, the majority of the crowd was clapping or singing along.

While this group’s setup is modeled on the typical European symphony orchestra, the timbres are uniquely Chinese, subtly spiced with overtones and microtones that don’t typically exist in the western classical canon. The choice of instrumentation alone creates a brand-new genre, considering that traditional Chinese ensembles tend to be smaller and more focused on either strings or winds. In place of oboes and clarinets, this group substitutes the high midrange suona, along with bamboo alto flutes and a series of shengs, giant counterparts to the harmonica. In place of cellos, the magical, overtone-generationg low-midrange erhu, but also a section of Chinese zhongruan guitars. Other plucked textures, from harp, pipa lute and yangqin zither added alternately delicate and spikily sizzling sounds that grounded the music in centuries of tradition. In the back, in place of timpani, an entire row of big bass drums and gongs which on occasion were employed to deliver torrentially roaring washes unheard of in the most explosive western symphonic music.

Several works by the ensemble’s visionary composer-in-residence, Jiang Ying, took centerstage. The most stunning, slinky, suspenseful one was the opening mini-suite, Silk Road, which set the stage for much of the rest of the concert as it built suspense from a hushed conversation between Wu Yuxia’s pipa and Wang Ciheng’s xiao flute. With titanic swells and dips, a graceful pipa solo and constantly shapeshifting variations on a swaying caravan pace awash in edgy Middle Eastern-tinged tonalities, it was the most cinematic of all the material on the bill.

Ying’s Impressions Suite was hilarious. From one of the second-tier boxes close to the stage, a lively birdcall began to warble, answered from the center section, and then the whole venue came alive with the chattering of flutes. We had been infiltrated by flutists! Suddenly the forest was flickering with what seemed to be hundreds of species, in a constantly mutating stereo swirl! Conductor Liu Sha spun and beamed and tackled the daunting task of keeping the flock together with seamless aplomb.

The second half of the program began with a bellicose, wildly atonal, chord-chopping pipa duel between Zhao Cong and Yu Yuanchun, augmented by similarly kinetic percussion: it was the most improvisational and challenging piece of the night. An ancient fishing boat song brought to mind a blustery if successful days’ worth of hauling in a catch, fueled by Wu Lin’s graceful, balletesque harp. Hua Yanjun’s The Moon Reflected on the Spring for erhu and orchestra, as its title would imply, contrasted stark, stately strings against a balmy, plushly nocturnal backdrop.

Zhongruan player Feng Mantian seized the role of frontman and lead guitarist on Ying’s arrangement of the traditional Rhapsody of Xintianyou, sort of a Chinese counterpart to a Richard Thompson Britfolk anthem. The program closed with a soaring, ecstatically galloping take of the 1939 Xian Xinghai suite Yellow River, a defiant narrative of Chinese resistance and triumph over the brutal Japanese invasion. For the encores, the orchestra went into similarly rousing, stampeding Mongolian folk territory, leaving the audience breathles and on their feet. It’s too bad that there weren’t more non-Chinese speakers in the crowd: this music embraces tonalities far beyond traditional Asian scales and would resonate with just about any global audience, if only they could hear it.

December 24, 2015 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Philip Glass Curates a Deliciously Eclectic Benefit Concert at the Town Hall

Thursday night at the Town Hall featured a global cast of talent assembled by Philip Glass for a benefit concert for the Garrison Institute, a Westchester County nonprofit think tank. As befits an organization housed in a former monastery space, the music had a mystical quality, no surprise considering Glass’ involvement. Early music choir Pomerium opened the evening with a garden of unearthly delights, conductor  Alexander Blachly immediately setting the tone with Gesualdo’s haunting, strikingly ominous O Vox Omnes (whose Biblical lyrics, from the Book of Lamentations, have Jesus asking passersby how their pain might compare with his). From there the ensemble lightened somewhat and went deeper into hypnotically meticulous polyphony from Talls, Desprez and Lassus. This expertly lush, velvet-toned group is at Corpus Christi Church, 529 W 121st St., at 4 PM on Oct 27 if Renaissance choral treasures are your thing.

The most tantalizing piece of the night was a brand-new Glass composition which the composer played as a duet with pipa innovator Wu Man, his murky resonance contrasting with her Chinese lute’s airy, acerbic, ghostly overtones. She also played a suspenseful, slowly rising improvisation on a Chinese folk song as well as Glass’ 2004 chamber work, Orion, teaming with the Scorchio Quartet (violinists Amy Kimball and Rachel Golub, violist Martha Mooke and cellist Leah Coloff) for an eclectic and biting journey through its alternately Indian and Middle Eastern passages. The quartet also joined with pianist Nelson Padgett and baritone Gregory Purnhagen for another New York premiere, Glass’ Songs of Milarepa, whose exquisitely meta-Glass music – nuevo baroque mingled with hauntingly minimalist, Dracula-esque arpeggiation and echoes of a couple of Glass string quartet themes – far surpassed the prosaic translations of doctrinaire Buddhist lyrics written by an eleventh-century Tibetan monk.

Longtime Glass collaborator Foday Musa Suso, the Gambian-born griot, opened the second half of the show solo on kora harp, maintaining a balance between hypnotic and spikily insistent, a one-man orchestra of circular rhythmic riffage and intricate ornamentation. Turkish virtuoso multi-instrumentalist Omar Faruk Tekbilek followed and was arguably the high point of the show, with a slinky, crescendoing, all-too-brief set with his son Murat on frame drum. The father began with a long, enigmatically searching taqsim (improvisation) on flute while hitting the occasional rhythmic chord on baglama lute. Then he picked up the lute and delivered a slowly crescendoing, impassioned, microtonally-charged setting of a rather epic Rumi poem. Austin, Texas-based Riyaaz Qawwali brought the energy level up to redline, ending the night with a joyously undulating, percussive homage to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

October 26, 2013 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Getting to Know Wu Man

Wu Man is one of the world’s leading advocates and virtuosos of the pipa, the spiky, ancient Chinese lute which has enjoyed a renaissance over the last fifty years. Last night at Symphony Space presented an opportunity to get to know her a little and hear a little music as well. She hails from the city of Hangzhou, where she was born into a family of traditional music fans who encouraged her to pursue her passion: as she told it, by the time she was eleven, she’d envisioned a professional life as a pipa player. In a coolly melodious voice, she took her time contemplating the challenges and rewards of someone playing an instrument and a repertoire that are both vastly different from what they were a thousand or even two thousand years ago when Iranian traders first introduced an early version of the tar lute to China.

As one would expect from such a fiery, technically skilled player, Wu Man is a gearhead. She took care to emphasize how the instrument – once limited to the range commonly employed by the viola or even the cello – expanded upwards, particularly since the 1930s, along with its repertoire. She’s very particular about craftsmanship: her pipa has ivory – recycled, she took care to note – on the lower frets and bamboo in the upper regions. Depending on the repertoire and the tuning involved (as with the guitar, there’ve been plenty of pipa tunings over the centuries), she’ll vary her choice of strings. This time out, she was using nylon, rather than steel or gut, to match the downstairs theatre’s intimate sonics.

Though she’s an expat, politics weren’t discussed – although she did admit to being hassled by Chinese cops while trying to film her recent crowd-funded half-hour documentary, Discovering a Musical Heartland: Wu Man’s Return to China, which explores a handful of the nation’s rapidly vanishing folk styles. Looking back, there’s no doubt that like many conservatory students throughout the world, she felt cloistered: her recent immersion in ancient folk traditions seems to be an attempt to make up for lost time. That theme comes to the forefront on her most recent album, the starkly beautiful, eclectic Borderlands, released earlier this year by Traditional Crossroads.

Much as it was interesting to hear her perspective, Wu Man speaks more eloquently through her instrument than any words could possibly express. She played about half a dozen short pieces, the highlight being a trio of Ukrainian and Chinese folk songs where she duetted with Ukrainian bandura lute virtuoso Julian Kytasty. As Ukrainian or Russian speakers would quickly realize, Kytasty comes from a family with roots in the China trade, and he is cognizant of them, explaining that these days he “looks to the east” for inspiration. The two hadn’t played together in at least a couple of years (he’s a big part of her hit album Wu Man and Friends), so this was a heartwarming reunion of sorts and it wasn’t long before sparks were flying, particularly on an old Ukrainian tribute to a fallen warrior that wound gracefully from a stately, resonant elegy to a volcanic ending driven by Wu Man’s feral tremolo-picking. A bit later on, solo, she also played a traditional dance that was her (successful) audition piece for the conservatory, a jaunty number that can be heard throughout many subway stations in lower Manhattan, played by a new generation of musicians who no doubt look to emulate her achievements.

This particular mix of meet-and-greet and concert was assembled under the auspices of the World Music Institute, who’ve been staging memorable concerts from a global cast of characters here for literally decades.

December 8, 2012 Posted by | concert, folk music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Moving Sound Puts Their Original Spin on Ancient Chinese Music

Taiwanese group A Moving Sound’s music is not deferential or folkloric, at least in the sense that it tries to fossilize a traditional musical style for the same of mass appeal, or for yuppie cultural tourists who assuage their bourgeois guilt by proving to the world how multicultural they are. It’s cutting-edge, entertaining stuff that just happens to be played on instruments that go back several hundred years, using ancient Chinese folk tunes as a springboard for original songs and arrangements that draw on influences as diverse as indie classical and worldbeat. The songs’ lyrics are in native dialects. Frontwoman/singer/dancer Mia Hsieh’s heritage is mainland Chinese: her parents fled the terror of Mao to Taiwan, only to end up under Chiang Kai-Shek’s iron thumb. Hsieh won a Fulbright scholarship, studied with Meredith Monk and then returned home, bringing along multi-instrumentalist Scott Prairie, with whom she founded the group. The members also include Zheng-jun Wu on percussion and erhu (spike fiddle), Tang-hsuan Lo on erhu, Hua-zhou Hsieh on guitar and zhong ruan (four-string lute) along with guest sitarist Yi-chen Chang on one track.

The microtonal erhu adds an acidic bite to many of the songs, notably on the stately, processional opening suite, Silk Road – it’s hard to to tell where the erhu leaves off and Hsieh’s voice takes over, such is the clarity of both the vocals and Lo’s playing here. An instrumental, The First Thunder of Spring takes a graceful walk down the Asian scale and turns it into dramatic, ominous acoustic art-rock with an absolutely wicked chorus. The slowly slinky, joyously minimalist Harvest is followed by The Market Song, sort of like a Taiwanese Pogues tune, memorializing Hsieh’s parents’ hectic days as open-air vendors. At a semi-private mini-concert for bloggers and such earlier today, Hsieh lit into this one with a cheery, animated grace; as a singer, she switched confidently between hushed nuance and the stratospherically high leaps that give away her avant garde background.

Gu Gin, based on an 11th century poem, drolly celebrates playing in the rain, while Flying Dombra moves slowly and deliberately with Prairie’s spaciously placed bass chords. Dynasty has an upbeat, jangly folk-rock feel, nicking an old Allman Brothers lick at one point, followed by Toh Deh Gong, which contrasts Hsieh’s irrepressible vocal swoops and dives with stern, austerely percussive melodies. The album ends with the bouncy Howling Wind and then the aptly titled Ghost Lake, an ancient traditional song reinvented as a long, hypnotic tone poem with a trick ending. It’s out now on Motema; a Moving Sound plays Drom this Friday, Sept 23 at 9:30 PM. $12 advance tickets are still available as of today.

By the way, just in case it’s crossed your mind lately, this music is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what the world stands to lose in the wake of Fukushima (Taiwan got hammered by the tailwind from 3/11). Think about that for a minute. Isn’t it time we got rid of nuclear power forever?

September 21, 2011 Posted by | folk music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment