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JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Bang on a Can Marathon 2018 – A Marathon Report

“I know so many of you have followed our nomadic trail to so many locations,” composer Julia Wolfe demurred, introducing today’s 31st anniversary of the Bang on a Can Marathon at NYU’s Skirball Auditorium. 

“Great to be in a space where we can all listen,” mused her fellow composer and husband Michael Gordon, possibly alluding to less sonically welcoming venues the annual New York avant garde music summit has occupied.

This year’s program was the most compact and New York-centric in a long time, and considering the venue, it’s no surprise that NYU alums mentored by the Bang on a Can composers featured prominently on the bill. Terry Riley’s influence circulated vastly throughout much of the early part of the show; the ageless lion of indie classical took a turn on vocals as the concert wound up.

“We have a duty to go up to the people who come in afterward and brag,” grinned Bang on a Can’s David Lang, referring to the afternoon’s first piece, Galina Ustvolskaya’s relatively brief Symphony No. 2. The NYU Contemporary Ensemble – with woodwinds, brass and percussion – negotiated it calmly but forcefully. David Friend’s steady hamfisted piano thumps ushered in and then peppered steadily rhythmic, massed close harmonies from the rest of the group, Vocalist Robert Osborne implored a grand total of three Russian words – God, truth and eternity – over and over in between pulses as the music veered between the macabre and the simply uneasy. The ensemble really nailed the surprise ending – gently.

Michael Gordon’s Sonatra, the composer explained, is the only solo piano piece in his repertoire, quite a surprise considering that he’s a strong pianist and the best musician among the Bang on a Can hydra. “Somehow Vicky Chow has learned how to play it,” he deadpanned. She made Gordon’s vast, subtly contrasting, rigorously crosshanded Terry Riley-like expanses of steady eighth notes seem easy, engaging every single one of the piano’s eighty-eight keys.

Murky faux-boogie woogie lefthand paired against relentlessly twinkling righthand riffage; that Chow could incorporate Gordon’s relentlessly tongue-in-cheek glissandos with as much aplomb as she did reaffirms her mighty chops as one of the world’s foremost avant garde musicians.

Chamber orchestra Contemporaneous tackled a carbonated, caffeinated, endlessly circling fifteen-minute slice of cellist Dylan Mattingly’s similarly daunting, epically ecstatic six-hour opera Stranger Love. The Bang on a Can All-Stars – as amazingly mutable as ever – made the first of their many appearances with Gabriella Smith’s Panitao, evoking the swoops and high swipes of whale song amid increasingly animated, rippling, sirening ambience. Then they pounced their way through the staggered math steps of Brendon Randall-Myers’ Changes, Stops, and Swells (For B).

A sextet subset of Contemporaneous returned for Fjóla Evans’s turbulent tone poem Eroding, an Icelandic river tableau. With its sharp contrasts – bass clarinet, cello and piano gnashing and swirling amid the flickers from violin, flute and vibraphone – and disarming trick ending, it was the first real stunner among the new material on the bill.

Purple Ensemble – a string trio augmented with vibes, viola and vocals – played three Yiddish songs from Alex Weiser’s cycle And All the Days Were Purple. Singer Eliza Bagg channeled joy shadowed by angst and longing, Lee Dionne’s piano beginning low and enigmatic and then slithering in a far more Lynchian direction over the strings.    

The All-Stars’ were bolstered by Contemporaneous’ strings and percussion for a trio of  commissions. Jeffrey Brooks was first represented by After the Treewatcher,  based on a trancey earlier work which was the composer recalled being vociferously booed when Gordon premiered it back in the early 80s. Guitarist Taylor Levine’s warily oscillating lines undulated amongst emphatic strings and rustling, peek-a-boo suspense-film percussion riffs, building a Riley-esque web of sound that was as gorgeously hypnotic as it was hard-hitting.

A second new work, Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother, featured additional reeds and brass along with pointillistic twin electric pianos. A bustlingly circular, Bollywood-inflected theme gave way to austere, lingering ambience and then a wryly gritty Beatles guitar knockoff.

The Flux Quartet played their first violinist Tom Chiu’s Retrocon, a meteorologically-inspired, spiraling, Philip Glass-ine series of rising and falling microtonal cell figures. Violinist Mazz Swift and keyboardist Therese Workman juxtaposed electroacoustic string metal, new wave pop, a classic spiritual and faux-EDM in their mini-suite Revolution:House.

The big hybrid ensemble reconfigured for a final Brooks work, The Passion – the triptych “Reflects the kind of suffering that goes on every day, not the biblical kind,” the composer emphasized. Lavishly kinetic pageantry with wry Black Sabbath allusions shifted to dissociative, Laurie Anderson-ish atmospherics, Bagg narrating sobering advice from the composer’s terminally ill sister to her children. The leaping, trebly counterpoint of the final segment brought to mind My Brightest Diamond.

Sō Percussion took the stage for Nicole Lizée’s increasingly dissociative, gamelanesque electroacoustic instrumental White Label Experiment, echoed with considerably louder hi-tech energy later on by neosoul singer/keyboardist/dancer Xenia Rubinos and drummer Marco Buccelli.

Veteran new-music string quartet Ethel’s percussively insistent, clenched-teeth performance of Aleksandra Vrebalov’s Balkan-infected Logbook, Part II took the intensity to redline in seconds flat: it was the highlight of the night. Fueled by cellist Dorothy Lawson’s darkly bluesy glissandos, their take of Jessie Montgomery’s rousing dance theme Voodoo Dolls was a close second. They wound up their trio of pieces, joining voices,instruments and eventually their feet throughout the bracing, allusively Appalachian close harmonies of Wolfe’s enveloping, driving Blue Dress for String Quartet.

The Bang on a Can All-Stars took back the stage alongside narrator Eric Berryman in a cinematic, suspensefully rocking arrangement of Frederic Rzewski’s Attica-themed Coming Together, cellist Ashley Bathgate and bassist Robert Black’s heroically furtive pedalpoint anchoring the story’s grim foreshadowing.

Cellist Maya Beiser and narrator Kate Valk teamed up for Lang’s pensively minimalist, gently amusing loopmusic piece The Day, its lyrics mostly a litany of tongue-in-cheek mundanities sourced off the web via a search on “I remember the day.” He explained that he’d deleted the product references and lewdness – a lot, he admitted. 

The night’s coda was Riley’s Autodreamographical Tales & Science Fiction, the composer joining the All-Stars on vocals. Chow’s bluesy Rhodes piano made a smooth segue out of the Lang work in tandem with Riley’s wry beat-poetry reminiscence. Levine’s Pink Floyd echoes added bulk and bombast; Bathgate’s powerhouse soul vocals were an unexpected treat. As was Riley’s turn solo at the piano, part Satie, part Tom Waits.

What’s the takeaway from all this? This year was less a sounding of what’s happening on a global level, as past years’ and decades’ marathons have been, than a simple celebration of the Bang on a Can inner circle, with a few tentative ventures outside. But that’s ok. They earned that a long time ago.

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May 13, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

This Year’s Bang on a Can Marathon Focuses on Its Core Talent

What better to jar a sleepy crowd out of a pre-noon summer torpor than a steel pan orchestra? Kendall Williams’ arrangement of a Lord Nelson calypso hit, with its exubertant resemblance to a ballpark organ version of Take Me Out to the Ballgame, made an apt kickoff to this year’s Bang on a Can Marathon. The 2015 edition of the annual avant garde festival differentiated itself from previous concerts with its emphasis on larger-scale works, circling the wagons with a somewhat abbreviated list of performers. Past years featured an often exhilarating mix of global acts, frequently going on til almost dawn. This one was somewhat shorter, focusing more on a rotating cast of characters from the Bang on a Can organization and its triumvirate, composers David Lang, Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe. The live stream is here; much of the concert will air eventually on John Schaefer’s New Sounds program on WNYC.

Pianist Vicky Chow tackled the challenge of an hour’s worth of staccato, motorik minimalism by Tristan Perich while variously processed electronic echoes rose and fell, sometimes subsuming Chow’s literally marathon performance. Echoing Brian Eno, the piece gave the rapidly growing financial district winter garden crowd a chance to sink back into a Sunday reverie before it unexpectly rose to a long series of demandingly energetic ripples. Chow probably welcomed several opportunies to pause and breathe when the machines took over completely. There was a clever false ending and a resonantly minimalist return to stillness and calm. Later in the day, bassist Florent Ghys followed a similar trajectory with a slinky noir groove and increasingly dancing, cinematic variations over kinetic, higher-register loops: a trippy, lively instrumental karaoke performance, essentially.

The Dither Guitar Quartet delivered a deliciously gritty, bitingly chromatic Lainie Fefferman Velvet Underground homage evoking Daydream Nation-era Sonic Youth. Thanks to a few judicious kicks of a boot into a loop pedal, they had a stomping beat behind their savagely crescendoing forest of overtones and blistering roar.

Mighty six-piano ensemble Grand Band hit a similar peak a bit later on with Lang’s Face So Pale, a substantially slower reworking of a Guillaume du Fay renaissance composition that did double duty as a mass and a “pop song,” as Lang put it. The group meticulously synchronized its pointillistically hypnotic, staccato incisions with the same precision that the sheet music on each player’s tablet flipped from page to page. What a treat it was to be in the second row for a dreamy surround-sound experience of that one.

Asphalt Orchestra played three joyous reinventions of Pixies favorites, reaffirming how well that band’s output translates to brass band. Sousaphone player John Altieri anchored the music, alto saxophonist Ken Thomson and trumpeter Stephanie Richards providing some of the afternoon’s most unselfconsiously adrenalizing moments. Then the Crossfire Steel Orchestra returned for a dancing but bracing Kendall Williams composition, rising and falling insistently.

Within minutes, Thomson was back onstage, this time on clarinet with the house art-rock band the Bang on a Can All-Stars, playing material from their latest album Field Recordings. They did Wolfe’s lilting, Acadian-flavored Reeling to accompany a recording of Canadian “mouth music.” Arguably the high point of the festival, Johann Johannsson‘s Hz built a vast, ominously looming horizontal expanse punctuated by David Cossin’s creepily twinkling vibraphone and Mark Stewart’s mighty washes of distorted guitar chords. Anna Clyne‘s A Wonderful Day grounded a sunny African-flavored melody in the dark textures of Robert Black’s bass, Thomson’s bass clarinet and Ashley Bathgate’s cello. Composer Todd Reynolds introduced his gospel choir mashup Seven Sundays witih a shout-out to the victims of the past week’s South Carolina massacre. Fueled by Bathgate’s sinewy lines, it turned out to be a characteristically jaunty dance with stadium rock heft and trippy hip-hop tinges.

The group’s final performance of the night, written by the BOAC three in collaboration with composer Lao Luo, was backing Chinese theatre chanteuse Gong Linna, pulling out all the stops for a dramatic triptych based on ancient shamanic songs.. The first invoked a fertility god, rising from rustic bluesiness to a towering vocal crescendo. The second, directed in English to a destructive river god, built from shivery low-string menace to a big, looping gallop, eventually coming full circle wih a visceral menace. The finale was a tonguetwistingly rapidfire polysyllabic love song to the mountain spirit – “Everybody in China knows this one,” grinned Linna – the mighty goddess ultimately spurning the shaman’s entreaties. You could call it kabuki rock.

Pianist Tomoko Mukaiyama made her way energetically through a creepy, Philip Glass-esque series of cellular motives from Somei Satoh‘s Ostinato Variations and then his alternately neoromantic and resonantly minimalistic, dynamically shifing Incarnations.  Third Angle New Music tackled Julian Day’s electroacoustic cut-and-paste Quartz, veering from sputtery to atmospheric as the piece ostensibly incorporated passages from two famous unfinished works, Haydn’s String Quartet in D and Schumann’s Quartettsatz. As it went on, it echoed Wolfe’s ominous adventures in string music, notably her chilling Cruel Sister suite.

Playing in the center of the atrium, Asphalt Orchestra’s versions of a trio of tunes by the pyrotechnic magician of Bulgarian clarinet music, Ivo Papasov swirled and blended into the space’s echoey sonics to the point where it wasn’t possible to tell if the band was actually playing his signature, machinegunning volleys note for note, or whether they were just holding them. But either way, what a way to send the energy to redline in a split second. Wisely, they returned to the more hospitable sonics of the stage for the final barn-burner.

Grand Band returned for their bandmate Paul Kerekes‘ Wither and Bloom, a diptych illustrating decay and rebirth. The first section’s flitting motives shifting elegantly into more minimal terrain, the second going in the opposite direction. Their final performance was a sardonic commissioned work from Gordon informed by childhood piano lesson trauma, a percussive, polyrhythmic roller-coaster ride punctuated by the occasional etude-like cascade.

So Percussion, with guitarist Nels Cline, did Bobby Previte’s Terminal 3 and 4, the composer on drums. Cline’s reverb roar, skronky Keith Levene-esque whistles and wails and white noise on the first number, outdoing the Dither guys for sheer volume, echoed out over staccato drum volleys like the Grateful Dead’s Space on crack. The second was a shticky but mercilessly funny portrait of the kind of torture drummers suffer, as well as the ones they inflict on the rest of us.

Brazilian percussionist/showman Cyro Baptista, leading a trio with Brian Marsella on multikeys and Tim Keiper on second drumkit, got a loud, jungly drone going and then launched into an animated shuffle, using a thicket of offbeat instruments from a big gong to a jawharp. Spacy, frantic hardbop gave way to vaudevillian audience-response antics, lots of pummeling and a return to dissociative disco.

Glenn Branca wound up the marathon, conducting a band with four guitars – two Fenders, an Ibanez Fender copy  and something else – plus minimal bass and pounding drums. It’s not the first time he’s done it and it probably won’t be the last. Branca still air-conducts with a very physical, Jimmy Page-style presence, in contrast to the group’s low-key focus. They opened with German Expressionism, a slowly swaying exchange of disquieting tritone-laced riffs; Jazzmaster player Arad Evans played the solo part on Branca’s looming Smoke guitar concerto, a turbocharged look back at a time when New York acts like Live Skull pulverized audiences. The group wound up with a trio of the composer’s signature more-or-less one-chord jams, part no wave orchestra, My Bloody Valentine and Also Sprach Zarathustra. Although this year’s marathon was about as abbreviated – relatively speaking – as other recent ones have been, it felt even shorter. Maybe that’s because there were so few lulls, the music and performances being consistently strong almost all the way through.

Some random observations: a painfully precious spoken-word component ruined an intriguingly swoopy and spiky LJ White piece for violin and cello played agilely by a subset of Third Angle New Music. The upstairs food court drew all the rugrats and their parents, leaving the downstairs mostly to concertgoers. Joy! The grounds crew shut off that obnoxious alarm on the elevator at the rear of the area: double joy! The roof leaking rain, not so joyful – the pianos got it good but this blog’s laptop escaped undamaged.

Another marathon, this one on the Upper West Side begininng on Saturday and ending this morning, offered a more improvisational kind of fun based on Erik Satie’s Vexations. A creepy, loopy piece designed to be played over and over a total of 840 times, it inspired composers Randall Woolf and Art Jarvinen to come up with their own variations.  A relay team of pianists assembled by Jed Distler began the performance at 8 AM and were planning on finishing up 24 hours later: a stop in on them late Saturday morning found both a pianist and electronic keyboardist blending textures over a loop of the Satie, occasionally embellished by both players, including a droll quote from one of the Gymnopedies. It would have been fun to have been able to stick around for more.

June 21, 2015 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Cutting Edge Night at the Jewish Museum

It took a lot of nerve for the Jewish Museum to stage their first collaboration with the Bang on a Can folks. That the Bang on a Can folks – New York’s most entrenched avant garde franchise – could deliver a program that required as much nerve to sit through as this one did testifies to their ongoing vitality. The bill last night – designed to dovetail with the Museum’s current minimalist-themed sculpture exhibits – was as electrifying as it was exasperating.

Both of those qualities were intentional, and in tune with the compositions on the program.  The duo of guitarists James Moore and Taylor Levine, from the reliably exciting Dither guitar quartet, opened with David Lang’s Warmth [dude: get to know Title Case lest you someday wind up in the E.E. Cummings category], a series of subtly interwoven circular riffs which Moore attributed to Lang as being “really sad stadium rock, two guitars doing their best to play together and failing miserably.” As a subtle parody of dramatic gestures, it made a point, even if that point could have been made in somewhat less time than it took.

They followed with a selection of early John Zorn extended-technique guitar etudes that were more challenging to hear than they were to play. Those dated from the late 70s, in the days when Zorn might have been found blowing bubbles through his alto sax into a bucket of water in the basement of King Tut’s Wah-Wah Hut (now Niagara Bar on Avenue A; you can google it). By contrast, Michael Gordon’s City Walk,  the lone instrumental piece from an opera the Bang on a Can triumvirate (Gordon, Lang and Julia Wolfe) did back in the 90s with iconic New York cartoonist Ben Katchor, worked a tirelessly counterrhythmic, counterintuitive, minimalistic pulse, the guitarists joined by Bang on a Can Allstars‘ David Cossin on percussion (was that a car muffler, and then vibraphone?) and Vicky Chow on piano.

Moore switched to bass, but played it through a more trebly Fender DeVille guitar amp, for a take of Philip Glass’ even more hypnotic, subtly shapeshifting Music in Fifths, true to Cossin’s description as being “quite epic and really fun to do.” They wound up the show with Louis Andriessen’s Worker’s Union, a defiantly hammering 1975 piece that a larger Bang on a Can contingent had performed a couple of weeks previously at this year’s Marathon at the World Financial Center. That performance left any kind of resolution open: would the drilling, industrialist rhythm, absent harmony or melody, be triumphant, or a failed revolution? The answer wasn’t clear. Stripping it down to just bass, guitar, percussion and Chow’s electric piano – a cruelly difficult arrangement that she often wound up playing on the sides of her hands, chopping her way up the scale – they circled and circled and finally found what looked like a victory. The audience – a surprisingly diverse demographic – gave them the win. The next Bang on a Can event here is on November 6 featuring iconic progressive jazz composer and alto saxophonist Steve Coleman.

July 11, 2014 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Bang on a Can Marathon 2014: A Short Version (Sort Of)

This year’s Bang on a Can Marathon continued a trend back toward the hallowed annual all-day avant garde/indie classical music celebration’s early years. Yesterday’s 2014 edition was shorter than any in recent memory – for awhile these things would start before noon and continue into the wee hours of the following day. This year’s roughly ten-hour extravaganza also drew more heavily on the Bang on a Can triumvirate – composers Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe, David Lang and their circle – than on the global cast who numbered heavily and often spectacularly among the composers and performers featured throughout the previous decade. The reason? Construction at the World Financial Center atrium, where the marathon returned after being squeezed into an auditorium at Pace University last year.

The seven-piece Great Noise Ensemble, conducted by Armando Bayolo, opened auspiciously with a new chamber arrangement of Bayolo’s own Caprichos. Inspired by Goya’s series of the same name, it was a dynamic and colorful series of miniatures: apprehensive airiness, a fleeting carnivalesque passage, darkly rhythmic, looped variations, and dreamy drones juxtaposed with a lively outro. The following work, Carlos Carrillo‘s De La Brevidad De La Vida drew on the Seneca treatise, a rivetingly austere, resigned, spaciously cinematic tone poem of sorts punctuated by muted anguish, notably from Andrea Vercoe’s violin.

Violinist Adrianna Mateo became a one-woman string orchestra with Molly Joyce‘s biting, matter-of-factly crescendoing loopmusic piece Lean Back and Release. The trio Bearthoven – pianist Karl Larson, bass guitarist Pat Swoboda and drummer Matt Evans – followed a bit later with a similarly upward-sloping stoner postrock piece, Undertoad, by Brooks Frederickson. It recalled the relentless dancefloor minimalism that Cabaret Contemporain performed at the 2013 marathon.

Acclaimed vocal quartet Anonymous Four – who are sadly hanging it up after this year – shifted direction plaintively with The Wood and the Vine, from Lang’s demanding, richly echo-laden, hypnotically intertwining partita, Love Fail. Atmospheric postrock minimalists Dawn of Midi made a thematically clever segue with excerpts from their cult favorite suite, Dysnomia, replete with subtle polyrhythmic shifts that  rose rather than fell at the end. How pianist Amino Belyamani, bassist Aakaash Israni and drummer Qasim Naqvi managed to keep their place as the trance pounded onward was hard to figure. Or maybe they were just jamming.

Choral octet Roomful of Teeth sang the first two movements from Caroline Shaw‘s Pulitzer-winning Partita for 8 Voices,  incorporating squaredance calls and “a little bit of pansori,” as Shaw put it. That, and an indomitable, fresh-faced ebullience that rose and fell through ambitious rhythmic and harmonic shifts, the composer’s powerful soprano front and center. Nineteen-piece chamber orchestra Contemporaneous gave voice to Andrew Norman’s Try, a frantically bustling work replete with sardonic humor: every hint of calm gets dashed by agitated cadenzas from throughout the ensemble in a split second. There was a contrasting, calm second half, mostly for vibraphone and piano, which got lost in the real bustle of the crowd making their way up the escalator to the new mallfood court to the left of the stage.

Meredith Monk is fun! She and fellow singer Theo Bleckmann revisited four segments of her witty, Canadian wilderness-inspired Facing North song cycle, which the duo had premiered on the stage here two decades ago. Indians gamely trying to keep warm, long winter shadows and droll conversations eventually gave way to playful, wordless jousting, Bleckmann keeping a straight face as Monk needled him mercilessly. It was the big audience hit up to this point. The two returned a little later for some more monkeyshines with members of the Bang on a Can All-Stars.

Contemporaneous also returned, this time with a handful of Jherek Bischoff pieces. A brief, lushly neoromantic overture of sorts and a subdued, unexpectedly somber pavane were the highlights.

Pianists Emily Manzo and David Friend performed the day’s first genuinely herculean numbers, a pair of long, hammering, menacingly Lynchian compositions from the 80s by the late Monk collaborator and composer Julius Eastman. Jace Clayton‘s echoey sound mix subsumed the music in places – as a musician would say, he didn’t have a feel for the room – but all the same he deserves props as an advocate for Eastman’s frequently harrowing, undeservedly obscure work, further underscored by a brief, pretty hilarious skit that imagined a busy Julius Eastman section at a theme park.

These marathons typically pick up at the end and this one was no exception. Well-loved art-rock house band the Bang on a Can All-Stars stomped through the Trans-Siberian Orchestra style bombast of JG Thirlwell‘s Anabiosis, then vividly echoed the otherworldly, watery ambience inside the old Croton Aqueduct via Paula Matthusen‘s Ontology of an Echo. Wolfe introduced the night’s big showstopper, Big Beautiful Dark & Scary as a contemplation on the possibility of personal happiness amidst disaster, its ineluctable, anguished, frenetic waves just as viscerally thrilling as they were chilling for the New Yorkers in the crowd who’d lived through 9/11 and the aftermath that the piece portrays.

After a long lull, the ensemble returned in a slightly augmented version for Louis Andriessen’s Hoketus. It’s a diptych of sorts: two maddening, claustrophobically minimalist melodies varied only by constantly changing rhythms, a study in authoritarianism and the human impulse to resist it. When clarinetist Ken Thomson led the ensemble with a leap into the animated second movement, it seemed that the people would win this fight. Or do they?

Gordon supplied the marathon’s coda, Timber, which turned out to be the shadow image of the Andriessen work, a wry, bone-shaking exploration of the kind of fun that can be had within a set of parameters. Where Andriessen set rules, Gordon offered guidelines. Played by sextet Mantra Percussion on a series of amplified sawhorses, it worked every trope in the avant garde stoner repertoire. Trancey motorik rhythms? Deep-space pulsar drones? Overtones at the very top and also the very bottom of the sonic spectrum? Innumerable false endings, good-natured exchanges between the players (who’d memorized the entire, practically hourlong score) and a light show triggered by just about every crescendo? Check, check, check and doublecheck. Gordon may be best known for his gravitas and otherworldly intensity, but his music can be great fun and this was exactly that. With its rolling drones echoing throughout the atrium like a distant storm on the Great Plains, it sent the crowd out into the night on a note that was both adrenalizing and soothing. It’s hard to imagine anything more fun to wind up a Sunday night in June in New York.

June 23, 2014 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The New York Festival of Song Transcends Category

For almost three decades now, the New York Festival of Song has staged many concert series around town that fall loosely under the category of art-song. Some of the material is on the operatic side, some veering toward cabaret, occasionally venturing toward art-rock or further to the edge of the avant garde. While the most recent one last week was staged at the National Opera Center, both the bill and the performance were characteristically eclectic.

Composition-wise, it was no surprise that the high point of the evening would be a triptych of text from Hamlet, brought to life with a vividly acidic austerity by Amy Beth Kirsten. Soprano Justine Aronson gave it an aptly grim, arioso rendition over brilliantly diverse pianist Thomas Sauer‘s haunting, bell-like resonance. The night’s funniest moment was a snarkily ridiculous portrait of a paparazzi (or someone who seems to want to be one) written by jazz piano luminary Fred Herschalso performed by Aronson and Sauer. Aronson later brought  richly nuanced, poignant vocalese to a setting of an Elizabeth Bishop poem by composer Russell Platt, pianist Michael Barrett adding a nocturnal lustre.

Harold Meltzer, who’d organized the night, was also represented by an unorthodox series of chamber ensembles featuring both acoustic guitar and mandolin: his circular, Reichian riffs and spacious phrases were the bill’s most modern elements. Aronson and Sauer delivered a dynamically-charged, crescendoing triptych by James Matheson whose idioms spanned from the baroque to the neoromantic. Mezzo-soprano Mary Nessinger took a Scott Wheeler setting of Wallace Stevens straight into grand guignol. And toward the end, Aronson again teamed with Barrett for a droll litany of “ark luggage” (flea powder and champagne included on the list) by David Lang.

The next concert in NYFOS’ current season is at Merkin Concert Hall on April 14 at 8 PM, a Spanish-inspired bill with music of Shostakovich, Taneyev, Wolf, Schumann, Granados and others, sung by soprano Corinne Winters and tenor Theo Lebow, with Barrett or Steven Blier at the piano. There’s also a spring gala at Carnegie Hall and the more informal, theatrically-infused ongoing series uptown at Henry’s Restaurant at 2745 Broadway.

April 3, 2014 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ethel’s Latest Album Is Worth the Wait

Extrovert violinist Todd Reynolds may have left adventurous string quartet Ethel to pursue his solo career, but the group continues on with Mary Rowell filling his place. And the group’s long-awaited new album, Heavy – out from Innova in a charmingly vintage, oversize package – proves to be worth that wait. The title is a little misleading: the moods evoked here run the gamut from raw, unleashed menace to playful and fun. The centerpiece is an early Julia Wolfe composition, Early That Summer. It’s classic Wolfe: driven by a cruelly emphatic, incessant staccato rhythm that the ensemble never wavers from, it begins with creepy, tritone-fueled exchanges of machinegun fire between the ensemble with intricate dynamic shifts. Cellist Dorothy Lawson is the star of this one early on over the suspenseful ambience of the higher strings, Rowell plus violist Ralph Farris and violinist Neil Duffalo. Disjointed Giant Steps phrases bring on more relentless staccato and increasingly unsettling microtones, growing more stately and then fading. Like so much of Wolfe’s work, it takes your breath away – it might be the most viscerally intense piece of music released this year in any style of music.

John Halle’s Sphere [‘]s developes a summery plantation soul ambience, its rustic charm underpinning subtly alternating voices with bluesy allusions, trainwhistle slides, and variations that crescendo with an elegant spiritual feel. John King’s pensively bucolic No Nickel Blues moves from quavery off-pitch ambience to slow, soulful, judicious variations, steady over a tricky tempo. Another standout track, Raz Mesinai’s La Citadelle takes a swooping, diving gypsy dance and expands on it, alternately minimalist and cinematic – this particular citadel is as active as a busy airport, and fraught with chromatically-charged tension. By contrast, David Lang’s pensive, rather horizontal Wed works subtle variations on simple, memorable sostenuto motifs.

Kenji Bunch joins the ensemble for a lively take on his String Circle, blending Celtic and bluegrass motifs into its shapeshifting architecture colored by subtle microtonal shades and an intricate divergence of voices. As it builds, it becomes more classical than bluegrass, developing a warmly balmy, cantabile pulse. The album’s final track, Marcelo Zarvos’ Rounds ends the album on a resonantly cantabile note, a pretty, Britfolk-inflected song without words exchanging hypnotic, circular pizzicato passages with a swelling, cantabile pulse. There’s also a string quartet by Don Byron that opens the album and which you will probably want to leave off your phone, or your machine, whatever that may be, when you upload this. Otherwise, this is a rich and rewarding mix that ought to appeal to rock fans as well as those with a taste for more challenging sonics.

August 14, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Bang on a Can All-Stars Strike Again

Putting a boy from a well-known indie rock band front and center on the Bang on a Can All-Stars’ new album Big Beautiful Dark and Scary is a marketing move gone awry. The audience for this genre-defying indie classical/art-rock band is probably somewhere in the gypsy rock, or Balkan brass, or jazz or maybe even what’s left of the punk rock camp, as the album cover alludes. Like the idiom he comes from, the pieces by the indie guy are carefree and shallow, and the rest of this album is anything but: even the Evan Ziporyn rearrangements of works by weirdo player piano composer Conlon Nancarrow reach toward communicating an agoraphobe’s angst, even if they don’t quite succeed. Indie rock has been suspect from the git-go and hasn’t been relevant for a long, long time: as it stands in 2012, it’s a ghetto for one-percenters and one-percenter wannabes, the kind of posers who are just as annoying an addition to the indie classical scene (e.g. this year’s Ecstatic Music Festival) as they are in the neighborhoods they’ve suburbanized with their simpering gentrifier sensibility.

But that’s the bad news. The album’s title track is a classic Julia Wolfe showstopper, a series of ascending progressions that grows from agitated, staccato suspense to terrified and anguished, then somber and quickly up again, Ziporyn’s elegaic clarinet rising over the increasingly swirling, insistent intensity of Ashley Bathgate’s cello and Robert Black’s bass. It’s not quite as shattering as Wolfe’s Cruel Sister suite, released last year, but it’s awfully close: as an evocation of the horrors of 9/11, it ranks as one of the most intense, right up there with Robert Sirota’s equally anguished, morbidly picturesque Triptych.

David Lang’s Sunray maintains a brooding mood, with minimalistic, trickily rhythmic piano-and-bass accents over an austerely staccato circular guitar riff that gradually fills out to a rather martial grandeur that wouldn’t be out of place in Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. Michael Gordon’s For Madeline, with its slowly sirening strings over echoey, horror-film piano-and-guitar ambience, packs a wallop. Ziporyn’s Music from Shadowbang is a three-part suite. Its opening segment sets his own nimbly scurrying clarinet accents over elegantly dancing bass – with its warmly inviting Brazilian inflections, it’s the most overtly jazz-oriented piece here. That’s followed by Ocean, a terse, pensive art-rock anthem without words, pianist Vicky Chow layering creepily precise water-droplet piano over a hypnotic central hook. The concluding segment grows from absolutely creepy to triumphant in the same manner of the Lang work, bringing this triptych full circle.

Louis Andriessen’s Life (with short films by Marijke van Warmerdam on the enhanced cd) is a moody and extraordinarily vivid work, one of his most straightforwardly melodic, and it too packs a punch, from the pensive, opening string-and-piano tone poem, through hypnotic, nocturnally strolling, elegaic ambience and then expectant, suspensefully minimalist cinematics. The album ends with Kate Moore’s Ridgeway, which builds from menacingly minimalism to a swooping, sweeping, Gilmouresque intensity driven by Mark Stewart’s biting slide guitar and Chow’s fiery, percussive piano in tandem with the bass. For those who don’t already have this (it’s already had a monthlong life as a free download for those with the broadband to haul in the whole thing), this double-disc set is worth owning for the Wolfe piece alone, let alone the substantial works  by her old BOAC pals Lang and Gordon and the other first-rate composers here.

February 24, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bang on a Can Marathon 2011: A Marathon Account

Bang on a Can is a good place to go for weird music that doesn’t fit into any category…that falls through the cracks,” explained co-founder/composer David Lang between a couple of acts late Sunday afternoon at the World Financial Center. This year’s annual Bang on a Can Marathon there was typical in that sense. The scope of the music and parade of performers was less global than in recent years, although Italy and Denmark represented themselves strongly. Consequence of the depression? Maybe. But what was most impressive about this year’s marathon was the extremely high ratio of good music versus bullshit, and the enduring strength of the founding composers themselves. Even as the genre-busting music that Bang on a Can has championed since 1987 has achieved broader recognition, the core crew – Lang, Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe – have never sold out. In fact, two of the trio’s works – Gordon’s Exalted and Wolfe’s Cruel Sister – were arguably the marathon’s biggest hits.

Gordon’s piece, performed by the Young Peoples’ Chorus of New York City with the Jack Quartet, came first. It was the first piece he wrote in the wake of his father’s death, and it was as intense as you can possibly imagine. The choir interpolated the first four words of the Kaddish, in Aramaic, sort of a clinic in minimalism with a max ensemble. A repetitive sliding cello note against a staccato pedal motif from the rest of the quartet was mimicked by the choir, a desperation move that made its way through the voices (if you’re sitting Shiva, everybody eventually shows up whether you like it or not). A wild violin metal solo against hypnotic insistence gave wings to an anguished, hopeful prayer. The crowd, stunned, exploded afterward.

The high point of the marathon was Wolfe’s Cruel Sister (available as a dynamite Cantaloupe recording by Ensemble Resonanz), performed here by the strings of Ensemble Signal conducted by Brad Lubman. It follows the arc of a surreal medieval murder ballad Wolfe discovered via a recording by 70s British folk-rockers Pentangle. A riveting series of suspenseful crescendos and ebbs, the opening tone poem grows frantic and then back down, a brutally tough job of maintaining the rhythm for cellist Kevin McFarland, but his iron right hand wouldn’t let up. Polyrhythms, a ghastly murder scene and a body floating on the water led to a forest of pizzicato, violin coming in plaintively and finally a chilling, possibly karmically fulfilling drone spotlighting the cruel sister who didn’t get to enjoy what her big sister did.

Lang’s contribution was more playful, Philip Glass-style, a subtly shifting mathrock theme for two guitars played with deadpan insouciance by Dither Quartet’s Taylor Levine and James Moore. The fun factor went up another notch later in the night with the Sun Ra Arkestra, 87-year-old bandleader Marshall Allen leading the massive surrealistic swing band through a diverse and tantalizingly short set that moved from hot post-Basie swing to in-your-face hot calypso to a long walk-off where Allen put down the hybrid theremin/melodica he’d been playing in exchange for his alto sax, stunning the crowd with a single mighty wail in front of the stage as the band paraded its way to the middle of the atrium and entertained the crowd there.

Another stunner that deserves special mention was the Prism Saxophone Quartet’s version of Roshanne Etezady’s Keen. A marvelously dark, cinematic horror/suspense film score of sorts, the composer explained that she wrote it on a theme of mourning or grief, “a bereft affect.” Wary explorations against a central tone, an apprehensively tense, Robert Paterson-esque fanfare and relentless unease made it hard to forget.

As much as the marathon is free and easy to get in and out of, there were strikingly few moments where anyone would want to do that, considering the quality of the music. A little before noon, early arrivals got to witness two segments from innovative bagpiper Matthew Welch’s The Self and Other Mirrors, played by the Queens College Percussion Ensemble with Amanda Accardi’s quietly composed intensity on piano and Michael Lipsey on the podium: a stately, pleasant, catchy and smartly textured first movement followed by blithe, hypnotic ripples. Flutist Alejandro Escuer followed, playing Gabriela Ortiz’ Codigos Secretos, not particularly secretive if warmly atmospheric and consonant.

Anthony Gatto’s Portrait of American painter Eva Hesse, done jointly by the Queens Percussion Ensemble in the middle of the space, trading off with the Itkus Ensemble onstage, rumbled eerily close to the World Trade Center site, raising the volume close to painfully loud. Hesse must have been a hell of a presence. The Jack Quartet followed with three US premieres of Richard Ayres’ 3 Small Pieces for String Quartet: small is not the word. They were magnificent. The first featured the cello in percussive, catchy, terse, seemingly Kayhan Kalhor-influenced mode; the second raised the menace, the third shifting to a vigorous dance. The Prism Saxophone Quartet took over the stage after that with Kati Ogocs’ Hymn, warm atmospherics building up with a shriek.

Former Ethel violin powerhouse Todd Reynolds did his hypnotic yet lively Transamerica, a memorably energetic theme whose power was sapped by useless electronics. The Prism Quartet then returned with a tight, energetic, overtone-packed, limit-pushing version of Iannis Xenakis’ Xas – from 1987, the first year of Bang on a Can – a blippy, warped canon juxtaposed with tensely free passages featuring shifting combinations of the ensemble.

Italian group Sentieri Selvaggi got a total of five pieces: a gleeful, circular excerpt from Michael Nyman’s opera Love Always Counts; Michael Daugherty’s coy Sinatra Shag, a ripoff of These Boots Were Made for Walking with some cool oscillating textures toward the end; Filippo Del Corno’s Risvegliatevi (Italian for Wake Up!), replete with Pink Floyd-esque mechanical/industrial sonics (literally Bang on a Can!); Mauro Montalbetti’s Brightness, Emily Dickinson-inspired, hypnotically bubbling color alternating with stillness; and finally their conductor Carlo Boccadoro’s Zingiber (Ginger in Italian), rusticity giving way memorably to an abrasive low-versus-high battle.

Bang on a Can’s latest gimmick, the Asphalt Orchestra marching band, energized the crowd with several numbers: Annie Clark and David Byrne’s Balkan/Afrobeat hybrid Two Ships, a swirling, imaginative arrangement of Bjork’s Hyper Ballad and a thunderous Goran Bregovic dancefloor hit done as a fiery overture, being the best of the bunch.

As the cruel sun moved slowly out of view, Danish composer Poul Ruders’ Song and Rhapsodies were performed by the Athelas Wind Quintet with Frode Andersen on accordion. It’s a tremendously captivating suite: an austere overtone-laden tone poem, a creepy twisted waltz, a baroque rondo, a weird, blithe accordion solo, swelling adventurous cinematic theme a la Gil Evans, ending with a weird, bubbly tone poem.

The big draw of the night – at least from this point of view – was Philip Glass, playing a deliciously precise, impromptu version of his hypnotic, neoromantic Impromptu #4 solo on piano to kick off his mini-set with the Bang on a Can All-Stars. Glass’ potency as a pianist gets overshadowed by the applause for his compositions: there’s no doubt that he can play even his most demanding, persistently rhythmic works easily, as he did in an almost shockingly straight-up rendition of Music in Circular Motion, a relatively early work that typically allows for a certain amount of DIY, at least rhythmically, on the part of the players. Their closing piece featured Glass and pianist Vicky Chow in eerily perfect sync with each other against the band’s dizzying yet perfectly cantabile ambience.

By nine in the evening, for those who had stuck around since the early hours and had been awoken from brain coma by the Sun Ra folks, a payoff was in order, and Evan Ziporyn delivered, playing bass clarinet alongside Michael Lowenstern, with Joshua Rubin and Carol McGonnell on clarinets, through his richly vivid, cleverly entertaining Hive. McGonnell got all the queen bee licks and made the most of them, whether sizzling glissandos or mournful lead lines. Fluttering, creating a droll stereo effect and moving through utterly psychedelic passages where it was impossible to figure out who was playing what, it was the perfect mind melt for the moment.

There were other performances not worth mentioning – bullshit factor being as low as it was, there were a few moments when a trip to the spicy Pakistani steam-table place on Church St. made more sense than watching what was onstage. A Yoko Ono piece opened; Glenn Branca headlined. Idolized by many, known by everyone who was around for the first Bangs on the Can, it made sense that he’d top this oldschool bill. But the prospect of bad trains (more on that later – getting to the Gowanus Saturday night was sheer hell) was enough to make the choice of an early exit outweight anything blasting from the Marshall stacks onstage. Does taking the field midway through the first inning and sticking around til the eighteenth quality as a complete game? The Bang on a Can people aren’t counting. It was nice to hear debate emerging in random conversations throughout the space: new jacks grousing about seeing the same old faces; the oldschool contingent bitching about the trendy shallowness of the newbies’ electroacoustic stuff. Whatever your preference, a word to the wise: show up early for BOAC 2012.

June 21, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Uncategorizably Fun Triplebill at Littlefield

Sunday night concerts are a bitch. The trains are still messed up from the weekend and most everybody who’s not unemployed yet is dreading the work week ahead. But clubs still book shows, antipating a handful of the brave souls who aren’t daunted the prospect of Monday’s exhaustion along with a probably larger crowd who don’t have that problem because their parents’ or their parents’ parents’ money has assured that they never will. From the looks of it, this triplebill drew the braver contingent.

With trombone, trumpet, bass clarinet and vocals, quartet Loadbang loosened up the crowd with a series of jokey little Nick Didkovsky pieces with a skronky free jazz flavor, a couple of improvisations and then a genuinely disconcerting, strung-out version of David Lang’s arrangment of I’m Waiting for My Man, their singer’s anxious vocals channeling the dread of a dope jones far more vividly than Lou Reed ever did.

Loud third-stream rock unit Kayo Dot followed, intelligently aggressive. With violin, alto and tenor sax, keys, bass or guitar (or with the enhancement of a pedal or two and a few tuning modifications, sometimes both) and drums, they shifted tempos and dynamics incessantly. Bandleader Toby Driver’s compositions changed shape dramatically from pounding, inexorably crescendoing passages, to still violin atmospherics. Textures shifted just as much as the dynamics, intricately woven lines passed from one instrument to another. One tricky, fusionesque groove coalesced and morphed into a festive if astringent dance with an Ethiopian feel. Until a plaintively swaying, rather majestic art-rock guitar song with an obvious Radiohead influence emerged, they’d avoided any kind of rock-oriented sense of resolution or hint of where a central tonality might be lurking. So when that moment arrived, it was on the heels of over a half hour of tension and it was a welcome respite. Their last piece seemed at first to be a series of dramatic endings, which went on past the point of overkill to where it started to make sense as a Groundhog Day of sorts, an endless series of calamities ending in some kind of blunt trauma. The crowd wanted more, but after that, there wasn’t anywhere higher the band could have gone.

Newspeak were celebrating the release of their potent new album Sweet Light Crude, an equally diverse mix of politically-charged music by an A-list of rising composers. Early on, they followed the album sequence. On the cd, the opening cut, B&E (with Aggravated Assault), by Oscar Bettison takes on a blustery, Mingus-esque tone; here, it swung mightily, stampeding percussively to the end in a cloud of dust. Stefan Wiseman’s I Would Prefer Not To contrasted plaintively, a subtle tribute to civil disobedience, cello and violin mingling with singer Mellissa Hughes’ vocalese. The title track, a cautionary tale about the perils of addiction (in this case to oil), emphasized volume and texture rather than the tongue-in-cheek disco pulse of the recorded version, amped to the point of crunchy rockness. Likewise, they took Missy Mazzoli’s In Spite of All This to a swirl of intricately inseparable counterthemes that grew from wounded and damaged to a dizzying series of crazed crescendos. The angst went up another level on Caleb Burhans’ requiem for the padlocked GM plant in his depressed hometown of Janesville, Wisconsin, a sort of harder-rocking Twin Peaks theme driven by guitarist Taylor Levine’s twangy, ominous, reverb-toned southwestern gothic lines. Then they threw all caution aside, with a savagely punked-out cover of Taking Back Sunday’s If You See Something Say Something – a raised middle finger at gentrifier paranoia – and then a full-length, pretty much note-for-note cover of Black Sabbath’s War Pigs, Burhans’ violin delivering all Tony Iommi’s showiest fills with lightning precision as Hughes alternated between a sneer and a smirk. It was better than the original and probably more in touch with its molten-metal antiwar core.

November 19, 2010 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, experimental music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment