Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Rebecca Lazier and Newspeak Reinvent Rzewski’s Attica with a Bruising Intensity

Midway through the bruising, intense debut of choreographer Rebecca Lazier’s dance version of two iconic Frederic Rzewski avant garde works, Coming Together and Attica, the crowd at the Invisible Dog Art Center last night slowly moved from one side of the second-floor Cobble Hill loft space to the other. “Why are we doing this?” a gradeschool girl protested to her mother. “I don’t want to move.”

The child’s mother beckoned impatiently. “Come!” Lazier had taken pains to explain in the evening’s program that the performance wass meant not to be dogmatic or carry any specific political meaning, but rather to encourage individual interpretation and questioning. If one possible interpretation is that fascism begins not with a bang but with a whimper, in the case of this child, Lazier made a mighty impact. In prison, you move when you’re told to, whether you want to or not. The simple act of dislodging the audience from their comfortable seats watching Lazier’s six dancers perform some very uncomfortable, often harrowingly violent kinetics, reinforced that point simply but profoundly.

That this dance diptych wasn’t upstaged by the mighty punk-classical ensemble Newspeak, who played Rzweski’s score with a ferocity to match their nimble, Bach-like precision, speaks to the intensity of Lazier’s work. The dancers began by pairing off in a remarkable graceful, sometimes slo-mo, sometimes punishing simulation of hand-to-hand combat, a good guys versus bad guys – or prisoners versus guards – scenario. In this case, the good guys end up winning, the opposite of what happened at the 1971 Attica Prison riots – that is, if you take the view that the Attica inmates, many of whom where killed when troops swarmed the prison to crush the uprising, were the good guys. The menace was enhanced by several almost crushing encounters between the dancers and the audience seated around the perimeter of the action.

Newspeak gave Rzewski’s piece a mighty swing and turned it into a turbulent, irresistible current punctuated by simple, sometimes portentous accents from percussionist Peter Wise and clarinetist/bass clarinetist Eileen Mack. One misstep from the bassist or  pianist James Johnston, who were playing in tandem, would have sent the whole thing off the rails: together, they became a two-headed serpent hell-bent on destruction. Taylor Levine’s electric guitar, Patti Kilroy’s violin and cellist Robert Burkhart’s sometimes austere, sometimes atmospheric lines swept above drummer David T. Little’s groove, which grew more and more organic, shifting artfully further and further toward funk as the piece went on. Overhead, Mellissa Hughes added apprehensive drama, narrating the text of a letter written by Attica inmate Sam Melville, one of the materminds of the revolt, who was killed in the invasion.

Dancewise, the second part began still and silent, the dancers – Rashaun Mitchell, Christopher Ralph, Jennifer Lafferty, Pierre Gilbault, Silas Reiner and Asli Bulbul – seated on bleachers wiping their brows, slowly undoing parts of their prison jumpsuits before a costume change while the music resumed. Then it became more traditionally balletesque, Lazier nevertheless adding an element of surprise by constantly changing the combination of dancers  onstage, just as Rzewski shifts the cell-like clusters of his music. This time around, it was proto-Brian Eno, rising from stillness, overtones and distortion ringing from Levine’s guitar, the ensemble slowly joining in an early dawn ambience that offered a bit of a respite from the relentless aggression of the first half but never let go of its underlying unease, Hughes’ resonant, nebulous vocalese adding a sinister edge.

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June 14, 2013 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, dance, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, NYC Live Music Calendar, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Technology in Music: Sometimes the Enemy, Sometimes Not

In the simpering, twee world of indie rock, technology is a crutch to be employed whenever possible: after all, what could be more lame than using a crutch whether it’s needed or not? Wednesday night at the World Financial Center, WNYC New Sounds Live host John Schaefer asked Victoire bandleader Missy Mazzoli if  electronics were now an essential part of a composer’s arsenal. Not at all, Mazzoli replied, explaining that she simply chose to use them because they were well-suited to her swirling, atmospheric compositional style. And the way she works them into her music, they are, adding subtle colors and textures to her signature gossamer sheen. Yet as much as Mazzoli’s music, especially with this band, is in the here-and-now, the intricacy of her counterpoint and harmonies draws a straight line back to the baroque. Scarlatti would have been mesmerized by what he heard from this group.

They opened with the title track to their 2010 album Cathedral City, Olivia De Prato’s swirling, plaintive violin contrasting with the echoey wishing pool below, mingling with vocals from Caroline Shaw and Mellissa Hughes and Eleonore Oppenheim’s tersely sustained bass. The second song built from nebulously pulsing atmospherics, rising with Eileen Mack’s clarinet, then elegantly handing off to the violin, the exchange of textures pulling tensely away from the center. Meanwhile, keyboardist Lorna Krier got to sink her fingers into some of the night’s juiciest textures: a warped tone not unlike a Hawaiian steel guitar, ominously oscillating organ and reverb-toned electric piano. She also switched back and forth between her keyboard and a mixer, with split-second timing, and made it look easy. Meanwhile, Mazzoli held to stately, terse counterrythms at the keys of her Nord Electro. They closed their short set with A Song for Mick Kelly, imagining how the heroine of Carson McCullers’ The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter might have written as a woman in 1930s Georgia. It wasn’t what you’d expect, echoey violin over an atmospheric drone, eventually building to understatedly apprehensive swirls and flurries made all the more dramatic in the absence of the screaming electric guitar part on the album. The contrast between Hughes’ soaring resonance and Shaw’s plaintive timbre enhanced the song’s distant longing.

You have to hand it to Schaefer. As wide a net as he’s cast over the decades, his coverage can be erratic, compounded by the fact that most of the trust-funded dilettantes who would have set up shop in the lofts of experimental music thirty years ago now make indie rock their luxury condo. But few people other than Schaefer would make the connection between Victoire and the evening’s headline act, Vijay Iyer – it was a segue worthy of Bill Graham. Iyer wrapped up the night – scheduled to air sometime in the near future on WNYC – with an epic, menacing version of Accelerando, the title track from his latest album with his long-running trio, bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore.

You could call it the Halloween remix – and that’s how it started, the staggered ipod beat that opens the version on the album (which famously won all those awards earlier this year) high in the mix to the point where in the early going it drowned out Gilmore’s judicious accents. And Gilmore soon fell out of sync with it – whether this was intentional, as if to say, we don’t need this garbage, or simply because he couldn’t hear it onstage, it was a case where technology was very much the enemy. But it was gone quickly. The rest of the song was an eerie, glimmering feast of ominous chromatics and rich sustain. Iyer is extraordinarily perceptive of his surroundings, and within fifteen seconds of the song’s opening, he’d begun hitting the high notes hard to get the piano resonating and echoing in the atrium’s boomy sonics. Crump danced and somersaulted, trading off pushing the rhythm with Iyer as Gilmore added subtle color with his cymbals – he, too, was feeling the room. Rising and falling, they finally went up to the point where Iyer blasted a macabre seven-note riff over and over and then finally wound it down gracefully at the end. And then the show was over. Which might explain why the performance hadn’t drawn every jazz fan in town: knowing that this would be rebroadcast, they made what ultimately might have been the smart move and decided to wait to hear it in the comfort of home.

October 26, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ted Hearne’s Katrina Ballads: One of the Year’s Best Albums

A blackly hilarious, cerebral portrayal of malfeasance, mismanagement and suffering in the wake of the Bush regime’s failure to react to the Hurricane Katrina disaster, Ted Hearne’s Katrina Ballads evokes the surrealist political performance art of the 1960s. Released on the fifth anniversary of the disaster at the end of August, it balances the cruel cynicism of the Bushites, oblivious in their own comfortable version of reality, with the horrific experiences of the natives who for the most part probably did not vote for them. A mix of cinematic soundscapes and intricate art-rock with operatic vocals, its lyrics are taken entirely from news reports during the early days of the crisis. It’s like the Dead Kennedys for chamber orchestra.

Soprano Abby Fischer channels her inner soul diva on the opening track, stagy yet completely deadpan: “N’awlins is sinking.” She goes on to inform that in 2005, the Federal Emergency Management Agency ranked a New Orleans disaster as likely as a San Francisco earthquake or a terrorist attack on New York, over a backdrop that morphs from artsy indie classical rock to a hypnotic overlay of voices: “To some extent I think we’ve been lulled to sleep,” a quote from the head of the LSU hurricane center. The second track is a suspenseful instrumental that builds to matter-of-factly ominous art-rock. The deadpan operatics recur with the third track, a sadly terse account of a Biloxi resident whose wife was swept from the roof of their home, and with Isaiah Robinson’s recreation of Bush sympathizer Dennis Hastert’s assertion that “a lot of that place could be bulldozed.”

Bridge to Gretna vividly evokes the incident where white racists opened fire on unarmed black residents fleeing the destruction, a dialogue between Eileen Mack’s hopeful bass clarinet and Taylor Levine’s electric guitar slapping her away. The humor returns with CNN personality Anderson Cooper interviewing Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu, done with a wickedly understated, satirical edge by Fischer and Anthony Turner: he’s all faux rage and she’s a robot, their carefully scripted vocal lines enhancing the fakeness. The funniest moment here is Hearne himself doing a sort of lo-fi hip-hop remix of “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.” Anybody remember MC Rove?

Finally, a jazz-flavored piece appears – a salute at a funeral? – with murky David Hanlon piano, followed by more brutal levity, in this case the casual countrypolitan golf-club sway of a piece that quotes Barbara Bush: “Almost everyone I talk to says we’re moving to Houston…what I’m hearing which is sort of scary is that they want to stay in Texas. ” The album concludes with a long, elegiac chamber piece quoting New Orleans resident Ashley Nelson, whose feeling of abandonment is visceral, although she tragically fails to make the connection between 9/11 and the Katrina fiasco. It’s as valuable a piece of history as it is entertaining: look for this on our upcoming Best Albums of 2010 list next week.

December 24, 2010 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Newspeak’s Fearless New Album Out 11/16; CD Release Show at Littlefield on the 14th

Much as there are innumerable great things happening in what’s become known as “indie classical,” there’s also an annoyingly precious substratum in the scene that rears its self-absorbed little head from time to time. Newspeak’s new album Sweet Light Crude is the antidote to that: you could call this punk classical. Fearlessly aware, insightfully political, resolutely defiant, it’s a somewhat subtler counterpart to the work of Joe Strummer, Bob Marley and Marcel Khalife even if it doesn’t sound like any of them. Sometimes raw and starkly intense, other times lushly atmospheric, this new music supergroup of sorts includes bandleader David T. Little on drums, Caleb Burhans on violin, Mellissa Hughes on vocals, James Johnston on keys, Taylor Levine (of hypnotic guitar quartet Dither) on electric guitar, Eileen Mack on clarinets, Brian Snow on cello and Yuri Yamashita on percussion.

The first track is Oscar Bettison’s B&E (with Aggravated Assault), a swinging, percussive Mingus-esque theme set to a blustery trip-hop rhythm with a noir organ break, and pummeling drums as it reaches an out-of-breath crescendo at the end. Stefan Wiseman’s I Would Prefer Not To – inspired by Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, master of tactful disobedience – builds from austerity to another trip-hop vamp, Mack’s plaintive melody and Hughes’ deadpan, operatically-tinged vocals overhead. From there they segue into Little’s title track – essentially, this one’s about Stockholm Syndrome, a love song to a repressive addiction. As before, this one starts out plaintively, builds to a swirl and then a disco beat over which Hughes soars passionately. It’s as funny and over-the-top as it is disconcerting, and the big, booming rock crescendo with its cello chords, distorted guitar, strings and winds fluttering overhead leaves no doubt what the price of this addiction is.

Missy Mazzoli’s In Spite of All This holds to the hypnotic, richly interwoven style of her work with her mesmerizingly atmospheric band Victoire. Violin swoops and dives gently introduce wounded guitar-and-piano latticework, which extrapolates with a characteristically crystalline, unselfconsciously epic sweep as one texture after another enters the picture, only to leave gracefully to make room for another. Brenschluss (the German term for the tip of a ballistic missile), by Pat Muchmore alternates apprehensive, spoken-word passages evoking early Patti Smith or recent Sarah Mucho with tense atmospherics, overtone-spewing metal guitar and a tricky art-rock string arrangement that builds to a conclusion that is…pretty much what you’d expect it to be. The album closes with Burhans’ Requiem for a General Motors in Janesville, WI, a long, cinematically evocative, extremely Lynchian composition that seems to be modeled on Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks theme. As it picks up with slide guitar, vocalese, and dramatic drum crashes, it could be Pink Floyd’s Any Colour You Like for the 21st Century – although that would be Requiem for a Ford Plant in…probably somewhere in Mexico. The album’s out on New Amsterdam Records on Nov 16; Newspeak play the cd release show for this one this Sunday, Nov 14 at Littlefield at around 9. If the album is any indication, it could be amazing.

November 12, 2010 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Victoire’s Debut Album Beckons from the Shadows

Cathedral City, the debut album by all-female chamber-rock group Victoire is a sometimes lush, sometimes austere, otherworldly beautiful suite of nocturnes. Hypnotic, psychedelic, often casually seductive, keyboardist/composer Missy Mazzoli’s songs blend simple, memorable rock melodies with elements of minimalism, horizontal music and classical music from the baroque to the Romantic to the avant garde. Despite the complexity of some of the arrangements here, she doesn’t waste a note: the casual solidity of her melodies gives the jungle of textures swaying overhead a solid foundation. As heavily processed and produced as this music obviously is, it retains a totally organic feel: there’s none of the rote mechanical coldness that you find in, say, Radiohead. The electronic keyboards of Mazzoli and Lorna Krier blend with Olivia De Prato’s violin, Eileen Mack’s clarinet and Eleonore Oppenheim’s upright bass to the point where the playing, and the arrangements, are perfectly seamless: the individual parts often become one.

The album opens with the aptly titled, darkly alluring Door into the Dark, solo Wurlitzer giving way to violin, casually noir menace shifting to warmer, soul-inflected ambience. It segues into the second track, I Am Coming for My Things, which like many of the cuts here has a disconcerting ambiguity: is it supposed to be funny? Plaintive? Menacing? All of the above? Over slowly unwinding atmospherics, a voicemail sample gradually reveals that someone’s coming for her things and she doesn’t have any money: electric piano and strings rise and fall, first with a jazzy riff, then stately with distant echoes of ELO. The title track evokes Stereolab at their most minimal, with some marvelously emphatic, brooding bass work by Oppenheim and a distantly towering vocalese antiphon.

The suspenseful, cinematic Like a Diver masterfully builds a series of slow crescendos, swirly Wurly pitted eventually against the violin, a playful dance emerging amidst the drama before it subsides again. A Song for Mick Kelly is anthemically elegaic, guest guitarist Bryce Dessner (of the National) providing menacing, reverb-drenched guitar that eventually grows to a fullscale roar, natural overtones shrieking from his amp. The album closes with the catchy trip-hop of A Song for Arthur Russell, referencing the late cellist and disco-era cult figure, and then India Whiskey, shifting suddenly and dramatically from out-of-focus, late-night wooziness to a joyous dance and a majestic, triumphant swell with the whole band going full-tilt – as full-tilt as a slow song can go, anyway. When the deadpan male voice reciting a series of numbers (a Philip Glass quote, maybe?) reaches zero, it’s over. There is so much more on this album that it’s impossible to mention all of it: in its own ethereal, methodical way, it’s a blast to listen to with the lights out. Victoire play the cd release show for Cathedral City at Joe’s Pub on October 2 at 7 PM; Mazzoli is also at Galapagos on October 5 for the world premiere of her string quartet Death Valley Junction.

September 30, 2010 Posted by | avant garde music, experimental music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment