Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

ACME Unearths Rare Early 60s Sonics

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.

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March 2, 2013 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

yMusic’s New Album: Beautiful and Not Particularly Mechanical

YMusic’s new album Beautiful Mechanical transcends the “indie classical” label. It definitely rocks, but it’s not exactly rock music. The instrumentation is typical of a classical chamber ensemble, but they have a guitar, some of the music here follows a steady, often rigorously precise rock beat, and frequently features imaginatively unorthodox arrangements. Whatever you want to call it, it’s a lot of fun. The group is a formidable mix of relatively young, familiar faces on the new music and classical scene, a couple of whom make money playing with trendy indie bands: Nadia Sirota (of Q2 fame) on viola; ACME leader Clarice Jensen on cello; Hideaki Aomori on clarinet and bass clarinet; CJ Camerieri on trumpet and horn; Rob Moose on violin and guitars, and Alex Sopp on violin and piccolo. On face value, the album title is an oxymoron: is it sarcastic, or purposefully paradoxical? The answer is not as readily accessible as the tunes themselves.

They get off to a false start with a dazzling display of technique (including what is most likely a live loop that the group plays with micro-perfect precision for over a minute) that’s more impressive than this coldly whimsical math-music vignette, something that might fit into a larger piece as a portrayal of shallowness and wasted energy, but doesn’t stand on its own. Track two is where the group strikes gold and you’ll probably want to start uploading. Proven Badlands, by Annie Clark (better known to indie rock fans as St. Vincent) starts pensively, but the guitar quickly signals a swing shuffle that works its way up to a bright Philly soul riff and then a gently swaying chorus pulsing along on the bass clarinet’s nimbly circling bassline as the woodwinds chirp energetically. And then the instruments start to trade themes.

Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond contributes the two most imaginative compositions here. A Whistle, a Tune, a Macaroon is a cinematic mini-suite, opening like a vintage Gil Evans arrangement (think Sketches of Spain), slowly shifting to a mysterious minimalist ambience punctuated by distant staccato accents, building almost imperceptibly until a catchy 60s pop theme emerges, hints at menace and then rides off on a big rock riff! Her other one, A Paper, a Pen, a Note to a Friend – now that’s oldschool – is bright and lively, with deliberate, fluttery strings and catchy bass clarinet that contrasts with all the highs.

Sarah Kirkland Snider contributes Daughter of the Waves, which makes a great segue. Even more so than the previous piece, it’s simultaneously anthemic and hypnotic, and also ebbs and goes out gracefully, almost like a ghost. Clearing, Dawn, Dance by Judd Greenstein is a triptych centered around a bubbly riff: fans of 60s rock will be reminded of Viv Stanshall’s orchestral breaks on the Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed. Sopp’s animated piccolo over matter-of-factly paced strings leads to a more anthemic turn, followed by quiet atmospherics (that must be the dawn) and then a tug-of-war, bubbles vs. leaps and bounds. The album ends auspiciously with a brief, allusively chromatic trumpet tune by Gabriel Kahane simply titled Song, hinting at noir but never quite going all the way there. It could be a great new direction for a guy who first made a name for himself writing songs about internet dating. The album’s out now on New Amsterdam Records.

September 18, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Some Auspicious Debuts at le Poisson Rouge

“1982 never sounded so good,” says the tagline at the top of yMusic’s site – a reference to Pierre Boulez and IRCAM, maybe? The adventurous chamber unit – Q2/WQXR star Nadia Sirota on viola, Rob Moose on violin and occasionally guitar, CJ Camerieri on trumpet, Hideaki Aomori on clarinet and bass clarinet, Alex Sopp on flute, plus Clarice Jensen on cello this time around – held up impressively through a physically taxing, two-set performance at le Poisson Rouge Monday night, including the cd release show for Sarah Kirkland Snider’s Penelope.

Beautiful Mechanical, by Ryan Lott a.k.a. Son Lux was first on the bill, a series of playfully constructed, lockstep variations moving from a blippy, percussive introduction, to a brisk tongue-in-cheek fanfare and ending on a cheerily bubbly note. It wasn’t particularly deep, but then it obviously wasn’t meant to be. A possibly as-yet-untitled piece by Gabriel Kahane hinted suspensefully at Romanticism but never went there. The New York premiere of Proven Badlands was an eye-opener, revealing its composer Annie Clark as far more diverse than her pensive indie-pop songwriter alter ego St. Vincent. The ensemble clearly reveled in its intricate, interwoven textures as it built from thoughtful bucolicism to intriguing permutations on what was essentially an orchestrated soul riff, Isaac Hayes updated for a new century, martial flute eventually handing off to some big horn cadenzas. Sirota told the audience that the final piece before the intermission, Judd Greenstein’s Clearing, Dawn, Dance (another New York premiere) was going to be substantial, and she wasn’t kidding. A breakneck sprint through a series of interlocking circular, staccato phrases that spun off each other like a tightly packed fleet of carnival bumper cars gone berserk, it was a maze of echo effects all the way through to a lush, sostenuto string interlude that must have been a welcome break for the musicians before the race began again.

Kirkland Snider, along with Greenstein and William Brittelle, is part of new music avatars New Amsterdam Records’ brain trust. Her new suite, Penelope, began as an Odyssey-inspired theatre piece, a view of the Trojan War from the perspective on the home front. More anxious than overtly angst-laden, a disheartened, abandoned Penelope longs for her missing husband, wonders out loud if he’s still alive and vacillates between hope and hopelessness. As an antiwar statement, it’s subtly explosive. The forthcoming album is performed by SIGNAL, conducted by Brad Lubman. Here, Shara Worden, of My Brightest Diamond, joined the ensemble to sing Ellen McLaughlin’s lyrics and was a terrific choice, her finely honed, clear, round intonation matching the nuance of the group behind her. Musically, the suite is all about tension. Very little resolves, and the melodic terrain is limited and claustrophobic, to the point where it becomes clear that Penelope has an odyssey of her own to endure, if a somewhat more interior one, the question being whether or not she can keep herself together until her husband gets back. With the occasional light electronic drone or loop filtering into the mix from time to time, the group made their way matter-of-factly from circular insistence, to understatedly bitter martial passages, to a brief 6/8 art-rock ballad and then swirling atmospherics. A repetitive foghorn motif signals Odysseus’ final return home, but when he shows up, shellshocked and damaged (a Guantanamo parable, maybe?), Penelope has nothing left to look forward to but to tend to the needs of a cripple, reading him passages of his own story that go “forward and backward like the tide.” Much of this was very intense, and tensely performed: it seemed that it would never let up, and it really didn’t. And as a portrayal of one of the often overlooked consequences of war, it was spot-on. After over an hour of this, the roar of the applause at the end seemed as cathartic as it was genuine.

October 21, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments