It took until about the halfway point in Bing and Ruth’s album release show last night at the Greene Space before the brunette in the front row finally rested her head on the shoulder of the adjacent sweaterboy. New Yorkers have been cocooning a lot lately: it’s hard to think of a more apt, or possibly more hopeful soundtrack for quiet reflection than the ensemble’s new record No Home of the Mind – available on vinyl and streaming at WNYC – which they played from start to finish.
Pianist David Moore has scaled down the original scope of the band from almost a dozen members to the current five, in the process further concretizing his signature blend of minimalism, indie classical and electroacoustic trance music. As the group’s instrumentals segued from one into another, they brought to mind acts as diverse as Anton Bagatov, Dawn of Midi without the thump, George Winston without the sentimentality, or even Bruce Hornsby if he’d gone into minimalism after his time with the Grateful Dead.
What was most impressive was how little the group relies on electronics. Other acts would take Moore’s looping phrases and have a pedal do all the heavy lifting. Not Moore: it’s one thing to play his gnomic clusters, and elegant arpeggios, and Philip Glass-ine phrases once with perfect timing; Moore did it over and over, with unwavering intonation and touch and rhythm and made it seem easy. Much of the time, he had his eyes closed. Clarinetist Jeremy Viner, who supplied subtly shifting shades enhanced by a pedalboard, might have opened his once during about 45 minutes onstage. The two bassists – Greg Chudzik and Jeff Ratner – took different roles, one anchoring the music with a series of low drones, the other playing higher up the fingerboard and adding the occasional, understatedly emphatic slow glissando. Mike Effenberger sat stage left, running the sound through a series of mixers, sometimes for minute timbral shirts or oscillations, occasionally for dramatic low-versus-high effect. Moore began with his most energetic phrasing, segued down toward enigmatic ambience, took a turn into minor keys for the night’s most acerbic moments and ended on a warmly nocturnal note.
Considering that Bing and Ruth usually play much larger spaces, it was something of a shock to see that the intimate Greene Space – a former deli about the same size as Hifi Bar – wasn’t sold out. Then again, everyone’s cocooning these days. Bing and Ruth’s next New York show is on April 10 at the San Damiano Mission, 85 N 15th St in Williamsburg, time/price TBA.
Just for the record, there is nobody with either the name Bing or Ruth in Bing and Ruth. There’ve been thousands of illustrious Ruths over the centuries; beyond a crooner of cheesy 1930s pop hits, a baseball executive, and the world’s most useless search engine, there haven’t been too many Bings. Here’s to this group for redeeming the name.
Sarah Small’s work draws you in and then makes you think. It says, “Get comfortable, but not too comfortable.” It questions, constantly. Throughout her fascinating, understatedly provocative multimedia work Secondary Dominance last night at Here – part of this year’s Prototype Festival – there was so much happening onstage that the leader of the Q&A afterward confessed to having a page worth of notes and no idea where to start.
Executive produced by Rachelle Cohen, the roughly hourlong performance began immediately as the audience settled into their seats, a warm, lustrous voice singing a gorgeous love song in Arabic wafting over the PA. Who was responsible for this gentle and reassuring introduction? It turned out to be Small’s Black Sea Hotel bandmate Shelley Thomas, seated stage right with an assortment of drums and percussion implements.
About midway through, the composer herself emerged from behind her two keyboards and mixing desk – mounted on a podium colorfully decorated like a curbside shrine out of the George Lucas universe – and stooped over, to the side as a trio of dancers – Jennifer Keane, Eliza S. Tollett and Carmella Lauer, imaginatively choreographed by Vanessa Walters – floated on their toes. Meanwhile, Small’s chalked-up collaborator Wade McCollum lurked tenuously behind her as her calmly uneasy vocalese mingled with the atmospherics looming from Marta Bagratuni’s cello, Peter Hess’ flute and Thomas’ voice and drums. A simultaneous projection of the action onstage played on a screen overhead, capturing Small’s lithely muscular, spring-loaded presence in shadowy three-quarter profile.
McCollum’s wordless narrative behind Small’s music explores power dynamics, memory and family tension. Gloria Jung and Henry Packer exuded regal integrity and a stolidity that cut both ways: there was a moment where someone tried to pry something out of someone’s hand that was as cruelly funny as it was quietly vaudevillian. Ballet school, its rigors and demands was another metaphorically-loaded, recurrent motif, and the dancers held up under duress while barely breaking a sweat. McCollum’s ghostly character didn’t emerge from a fetal position until the spectacle had been underway for awhile, which ended up transcending any ordinary, otherworldly association.
What was otherworldly was the music, which, characteristically, spans the worlds of indie classical, art-rock and the Balkan folk traditions that Small has explored so vividly, as a singer, arranger and composer since her teens. What’s most notable about this surreal, nonlinear suite is that while it encompasses Balkan music – with brief, acerbic, closer harmonies sung by Small, Thomas, Bagratuni and McCollum, in addition to a projection of a lustrously lit seaside Black Sea Hotel music video directed by Josephine Decker – the majority of it draws on western influences. Inspired by a series of dreams and an enigmatic, recurrent character named Jessica Brainstorm – who may be an alter ego – the sequence has the same cinematic sweep as Small’s work for the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, grounded by Bagratuni’s austere, sometimes grim low register, Hess sailing warily overhead, sometimes mingling with the voices and electronic ambience. As the show went on, the music grew more detailed, with interludes ranging from gently pulsing, midtempo 80s darkwave, to rippling nocturnal themes evocative of Tuatara’s gamelanesque mid-90s psychedelia.
The work as a whole is a stunning example of how Small so often becomes the focal point of a collaboration that brings out the best in everyone involved. Over the years, these efforts cross a vast swath of art forms: from her playfully ambitious body of photography in the early zeros, to Black Sea Hotel, to her surrealistically sinister starring role in Decker’s cult classic suspense/slasher film Butter on the Latch, and her lavish “tableaux vivants” staged earlier in this decade, equal parts living sculpture, slo-mo dance flashmob, dada theatre and fearless exploration of intimacy in an era of atomization, data mining and relentless surveillance. Small and McCollum have plans for both a more small-scale, “chamber version” of this piece as well as an epic 1200-person version for the Park Avenue Armory, still in the early stages of development. For now, you can be provoked and thoroughly entertained at the remaining three performances at 9 PM, tonight, Jan 12 through 14 in the downstairs theatre at Here, 145 6th Ave south of Spring (enter on Dominick Street). Cover is $30.
Lesley Flanigan is sort of this decade’s counterpart to Laurie Anderson. Like Anderson, Flanigan has a background in sculpture, which informs her dynamic, sometimes disarmingly intimate, sometimes toweringly lush soundscapes. Where Anderson leads an ensemble on violin or keys, Flanigan creates her aural sculptures with layers of vocals and custom-made speakers, which she builds herself and utilizes for subtle layers of feedback. She has a characteristially enveloping, hypnotic new album, Hedera – streaming at Bandcamp – and a show on April 1 (no joke) at 7 PM at National Sawdust, sharing a bill with similarly adventurous vocalists C Spencer Yeh, Daisy Press & Nick Hallet, and Maria Chavez. Cover is $20
The album comprises two epic tracks. The title cut, set to the looping, trance-inducing rhythm of a broken tape deck, subtly builds variations on an otherworldly, strangely disquieting two-chord vamp. Without effects, Flanigan sings in a strong yet ethereal voice that takes on an even more otherworldly quality as she subtly adds layers and layers of to the mix, with subtle changes in reverb, rhythm and timbre. As the piece rise to the level of a fullscale choir, Flanigan caps it with a lead line that soars overhead with uncharacteristic angst. The dynamic underneath – cold mechanical loop versus reassuringly immersive human voices – underscores that unease. But as the voices reach a long peak at the end, there’s a sense of triumph in the sonic cathedral.
The second track – the b-side, if you want – is Can Barely Feel My Feet. Flanigan’s minute shifts in pitch add an enigmatic edge to the lustrous resonance, raised sevefal notches when oscillations from the speakers come into play. While Flanigan’s music is typically dreamy and peaceful, she gives herself a real workout in live performance. There’s practically a dance component to her stage work, lithe and agile as she tirelessly glides and scooches between her mixing board and speakers, even more impressive considering that all the while she doesn’t miss a beat and her voice continues to resonate, unwaveringly.
Violist Jessica Meyer has an intriguingly vivid new solo electroacoustic album, Sounds of Being, streaming at Bandcamp. It’s her first collection of original compositions. Its seven instrumental tracks are explorations of specific emotions, from unabashed joy to clenched-teeth angst. You could lump these pieces under the wide umbrella of indie classical, although they also have echoes of film music, ambient music and the spectral side of the avant garde. She’s playing the album release show at 8 PM on Dec 15 at the Cell Theatre, 338 W 23rd St (8th/9th Aves); cover is $20.
Although this is a loopmusic album, Meyer often creates the effect of a one-woman orchestra, with animated dynamic shifts and changing segments, rather than long, hypnotic one-chord jams in the same vein as her fellow string players Jody Redhage and Nadia Sirota have recorded in the recent past.
Meyer builds a steady theme that rises toward a shivery franticness on the opening track, Getting Home (I Must Be…), ending with a big, distinctly Indian-flavored crescendo. The second track, Hello is more of a soundscape, assembled around subtle, dancing Steve Reich-ish variations on a simple, cellular theme. She orchestrates Into the Vortex with deft swoops, washes, frenetic clusters and microtonal displays of extended technique, sort of a mashup of Rasputina and the Mivos Quartet in particularly experimental mode.
Afflicted Mantra introduces another Indian-tinged melody and variations – albeit more tense and menacing – out of a keening, enervated intro. A simple, morose spoken phrase anchors its increasing agitation. By contrast, Source of Joy builds a jauntily leaping if considerably more measured, pensive atmosphere than the title suggests. The album’s most expansive piece is Touch, again reaching for distantly Indian overtones with a gently pulsing rhythm that contrasts with its enveloping sonics. The final piece, Duende follows a troubling trajectory upward out of more of hints of the Indian music that Meyer seems to love so much, to a cruel false ending. Who is the audience for this? Fans of the more edgy, intense side of classical music, obviously, as well as anyone who enjoys any of the abovementioned artists.
Last week’s triumphant reprise of the initial show at Littlefield staged by composer/violinist/impresario Christopher Tignor, a.k.a. @tignortronics was magical. Sometimes lush and dreamy, other times stark and apprehensive or majestically enveloping, often within the span of a few minutes, Tignor and the two other acts on the bill, cellist Julia Kent and guitarist Sarah Lipstate a.k.a. Noveller put their own distinctly individualistic marks on minimalism and atmospheric postrock. There was some stadium rock, too, the best kind – the kind without lyrics. And much as the three composer-performers were coming from the same place, none of them were the least constrained by any kind of genre.
Kent and Lipstate built their sweeping vistas out of loops, artfully orchestrating them with split-second choreography and elegant riffage, both sometimes employing a drum loop or something rhythmic stashed away in a pedal or on a laptop (Lipstate had two of those, and seemed to be mixing the whole thing on her phone). Tignor didn’t rely on loops, instead fleshing out his almost imperceptibly shapeshifting variations with an octave pedal that added both cello-like orchestration and washes of low-register ambience that anchored his terse, unselfconsciously plaintive motives.
Kent opened her all-too-brief set with apprehensive, steady washes that built to an aching march before fading out quickly. Between songs, the crowd was rapt: although there were pauses in between, the music came across as a suite. An anxious upward slash gave way to a hypnotic downward march and lush, misty ambience; a little later, she worked a moody, arpeggiated hook that would have made a good horror movie theme into more anthemic territory that approached Led Zep or Rasputina, no surprise since she was a founding member of that band (no, not Led Zep). Slithery harmonics slashed through a fog and then grew more stormy, then Kent took a sad fragment and built it into a staggered, wounded melody. She could have played for twice as long and no one would have said as much as a whisper.
Tignor flavored his judicious, sometimes cell-like themes with deft washes of white noise and his own slightly syncopated beat, which he played on kick drum for emphatic contrast with his occasionally morose, poignant violin phrases. A long triptych moved slowly upward into hypnotic, anthemic cinematics, then back and forth and finally brightened, with a surprisingly believable, unexpectedly sunny trajectory that of course Tignor had to end enigmatically. A slow, spacious canon of sorts echoed the baroque, more melodically than tempo-wise, its wary pastoral shades following a similarly slow, stately upward tangent. He played a dreamy nocturne with a tuning fork rather than a bow for extra shimmer and echoey lustre and wound up his set with another restless if judiciously paced partita.
Where Kent and Tignor kept the crowd on edge, Lipstate rocked the house. She began with a robust Scottish-tinged theme that she took unexpectedly from anthemic terrain into looming atmospherics. A rather macabre loop hinting at grand guignol became the centerpiece of the big, anthemic second number, long ambient tones shifting overhead.
She followed a broodingly circling, more minimalist piece with an increasingly ominous anthem that more than hinted at David Gilmour at his most lushly concise, then a postrock number that could have been Australian psych-rock legends the Church covering Mogwai, but with even more lustre and sheen. She lept to a peak and stayed there with a resounding, triumphant unease as the show wound out, through an ominous, cumulo-nimbus vortex and then a long, dramatically echoing drone-based vamp that brought the concert full circle. Tignor promises to stage another concert every bit as good as this one this coming spring; watch this space.
[republished from Lucid Culture’s more adventurous younger sister blog New York Music Daily]
Violinist/composer Christopher Tignor plays music that transcends pigeonholing. His slow tempos underscore the thoughtfulness and consideration that goes into his vividly evocative, often achingly angst-fueled sonic narratives. The former leader of popular indie classical/postrock ensemble Slow Six is also an impresario, working under the Twitter handle @Tignortronics. His latest show at 8 PM on November 21 at Littlefield is a real killer one, for those who like lush, richly enveloping sounds. Former Rasputina cellist and loopmusic maven Julia Kent opens the night, followed by Tignor and then cinematic, atmospheric guitarist/composer Sarah Lipstate a.k.a. Noveller. Tignor took some time away from his studio production and engineering, among other things, to answer a few pointed questions about what he’s up to:
New York Music Daily: We have a situation – which the Village Voice, of all places, touched on in an article last week – where rehearsals for performances of new, serious composed music, are becoming more and more burdensome. Moneywise, spacewise, timewise, the works. Obviously, when an ensemble is presenting a new piece of music, it’s vastly more enjoyable for everybody, not just the musicians, if the group has some familiarity with it rather than struggling through a reading, more or less cold. How does @Tignortronics offer a solution to that problem?
Christopher Tignor: Probably a few ways. I’m booking artists that deliver a cohesive voice they’ve developed over many years. To a large degree, credit needs to go to these artists who’ve already had to figure this out in order to create at the high level that they do. These aren’t classical concerts where the players live with these works for a few rehearsals. These performers have typically toured this music far and wide.
But I know from personal experience that this doesn’t scale well. The practical demands of what it takes to put together this kind of music takes a toll. To this end, I make my full rehearsal studio in Bed-Stuy freely available to artists preparing for one of my bills. Makes sense really – if they sound good, we all sound good.
But probably the most important thing I can do is make these gigs worth it for the artists. I try to fight for good deals and real soundcheck time at a venue that sounds great and that people love going to on weekends. Costs aside, artists first and foremost want to be heard and a solid gig that’s well put together can be hard to find at this end of the musical spectrum.
NYMD: You’re staging on your third consecutive bill of cutting-edge new work, this time around on November 21 at 8 PM at Littlefield. It’s a great lineup. Julia Kent, the former Rasputina cellist and a first-rate composer in her own right, then yourself, then Sarah Lipstate, a.k.a Noveller, whose music is cinematic to the nth degree. Other than the fact that there’s a lot of tunefulness, and a hypnotic, sometimes electroacoustic aspect, with loops and effects, etcetera, is there a theme to the night – other than just plain good music? Slow tempos but high energy, maybe?
Christopher Tignor: I think we all share a uniquely compatible aesthetic on this bill. It seems like we’re all bowing here. For Julia on cello and me on violin, literally, and with the sounds Noveller evokes from her guitar, sonically. Rich long tones. Aesthetic cohesion is definitely something important to these shows. Most instrumental or experimental concerts feel a like a total grab bag to me which I find annoying.
NYMD: Is this a theme that you’re going to continue, or do you have others in mind for future performances?
Christopher Tignor: I build each bill around the artists. The more experimental an aesthetic experience is, the more aesthetically focused it needs to be to work. If I encounter artists I think fit the vibe then I reach out to them and look for ways to build a show they’ll be psyched about.
NYMD: Your previous lineup, at the Silent Barn a few weeks ago, featured Sontag Shogun and their kitchen-sink assembly of instruments and loops and epic swells and fades, then Hubble, a.k.a. Ben Greenberg and his roaring guitar vortex, along with yourself. And it was on a weeknight in the middle of Bushwick and you managed to fill the room. Clearly there’s an audience for this kind of music out there among young people. Do you have a game plan for building this kind of a scene, that stays pretty much DYI and doesn’t rely on foundation funding like, say, Roulette?
Christopher Tignor: In my opinion, all today’s most interesting art comes from one of the various DIY scenes. The moneyed culture at large is generally fucked and if you’re not pushing back against it, i.e. acting counter-culturally, you’re just not getting it. Note in 2014, this does not mean starting a noisy punk band to scream lyrics about your girlfriend over chords through some hip new distortion pedal. Have fun doing that, but make no mistake that that sound is but the expected background noise of youth made right before going back to school for a “real” degree and flipping on Sex and the City. If you want to really fuck with people in a way that counts, then stop and actually think it through. Make something thoughtful before emptying your heart into it. As for growing the scene, all I can do is put this philosophy into practice and play Kevin Costner, seeing if indeed they will come.
NYMD: Why Littlefield? I happen to like the place a lot, the sonics there are fantastic and it’s actually pretty easy to get to: you just walk downhill from the Atlantic Avenue subway a few blocks and you’re right there…
Christopher Tignor: Littlefield sounds really good and looks great. It’s a fun place to actually go and really hear music with friends. That’s a prerequisite for my shows. If the shows aren’t going to feel amazing, it’s not worth my time, and certainly not yours. However, if the shows are worth my time, it turns out they are also in fact worth yours because I know what you’ve got going and it’s cool, but really this is much, much cooler.
Paul Dresher‘s Double Duo made a stop at Roulette last night that included a shattering world premiere played by Twosense, and the New York debut of a couple of brand-new instruments. Joel Davel played the marimba lumina – a digital marimba whose library of samples includes a full symphonic percussion section, and is enabled to mix and match a vast number of timbres beyond the instrument’s typical acoustic range. Dresher and Davel aired out the epic sonic capabilities of the quadrachord, which is basically a giant (i.e. twenty-foot) bass lapsteel. The results spanned the emotional spectrum, from nerve-wracking angst to joyous musical acrobatics, It was one of the best New York concerts of the year, without a doubt.
Variations on an eerie theme circled uneasily and then gave pianist Lisa Moore the opportunity to deliver the gamelanesque loops of Dresher’s Double Ikat, Part II with a Bach-like precision, joined in tight choreography with Davel on the marimba lumina and Karen Bentley Pollick‘s alternately dancing and atmospheric violin. A pervasive Philip Glass influence became clear as the trio took it down from an insistent peak to an elegaic outro, Pollick low and affectingly austere.
Dresher’s Glimpsed from Afar paired the composer on the quadrachord with Davel’s marimba lumina. It was sort of a demo of everything the instruments can do together – swoops and dives, sustained sheets of sound, shivery dynamic shifts, ghostly lulls, sly oscillations, joyous percussion samples bursting from the marimba lumina, pointillistic loops and finally a tightly percussive yet deliriously jaunty outro with both players on the quadrachord hammering away on mallets, a cymbal and other percussion objects placed under the strings. Hypnotic yet explosive, much of it sounded like a more concise take on what Michael Gordon did with Timber, his longscale work for amplified sawhorses, a few years back.
The highlight of the concert was Moore and cellist Ashley Bathgate playing the world premiere of Dresher’s triptych Family Matters. Packed with dark chromatics and ominous passing tones, it was a study in contrasts, all of which eventually took on an aspect that ranged from funereal to downright macabre. The duo built subtly out of a dancing theme to a lively but equally agitated series of rises and falls throughout the first part. Then it fell to Moore to keep the steady, almost baroque rhythms going as the piece slowed down, Bathgate employing a viscerally aching vibrato and a chilling sense of longing and loss as its morose dance wound down. Moore took Mood Swings, a harrowing dirge, to a menacing, modal minuet at its peak, then Bathgate brought back a relentless, inconsolable angst with starkly resonant, stygian, sometimes microtonally-tinged lines that were nothing short of harrowing.
The concert wound up with Martin Bresnick’s Fantasia on a Theme of Willie Dixon, which turned out to be simply the minor third interval on which his song Spoonful is based. You know it: Howlin’ Wolf did the original; the Allman Brothers made it famous. Dresher’s hovering electric guitar lines mingles with Moore’s impressionistic piano and Pollick’s jaunty cadenzas and simmering sustain while Davel served as a one-man percussion section on the marimba lumina. It was like early ELO with more challenging tonalities, Moore delivering its most unsettlingly delicious, glimmering interludes
Phil Kline has been at the forefront of cutting-edge composition since the 80s. His eclectic work ranges from the shimmering, kaleidoscopic sound paintings for which he’s best known, to art-song, to orchestral pieces and edgy rock (he played with Jim Jarmusch in the early 80s, and toured the world as a guitarist in Glenn Branca’s mighty ensemble). And his 1992 processional “boombox symphony” Unsilent Night – which took shape against the backdrop of the Bush I Gulf War – grew from an underground New York attraction to a global phenomenon. At this year’s BAM Next Wave Festival, there’ll be an important moment in New York music history when adventurous ensemble ACME and crooner Theo Bleckmann premiere Kline’s new arrangement of his powerful Vietnam-themed Zippo Songs – which haven’t been staged in this city in eight years -, along with the composer’s Rumsfeld Songs, and selections from his new cycle Out Cold, inspired by the Frank Sinatra/Nelson Riddle collaborations of the 1950s.
One consistent trait that runs throughout Kline’s music is his wry wit, which comes through in the man himself. Kline generously took some time out of the usual pre-concert havoc to share some insights on his career and what he’s up to lately:
Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: You’ve made a career out of writing important, socially relevant music. Yet – as I ask myself all the time – to what degree do you find yourself preaching to the converted? Isn’t BAM Next Wave a progressive crowd anyway? Is there an aisle, or some other kind of border we have to reach across to really make a difference?
Phil Kline: I’m not convinced that music can convert one to another political viewpoint, at least not directly. But it has the ability to arouse strange, untranslatable impulses within us, and that might possibly lead one to states where the mind is open to change.
If everyone who likes my music is already converted, that’s OK. The people in the choir need a little comfort, too.
LCC: If there’s any work that humanizes the life of a soldier, it’s the Zippo Songs. With the ongoing war in Afghanistan – and wars in Syria and Mali, ad infinitum – do you think that the suite has greater relevance today than when you wrote it?
PK: I think it remains constant because the focus is not on the war but the individual.
LCC: You’re quoted on the BAM event page as saying that you often have doubts about yourself as a composer but not as an arranger. Which made me laugh: to my ears, your music is extremely meticulous, the exact quality you’d want in a good arranger. Don’t the two skills go hand in hand? Ellington and Strayhorn, for example?
PK: It’s a little joke I tell myself to avoid getting psyched out when I begin a piece. There is some truth in it, though. I am a good editor and arranger, and I use that skill to straighten out whatever mess I might start out with.
LCC: A lot of people are less aware of you as a lyricist than a composer, although lyrics have continued to play an increasingly important role in your work. Your new song cycle, Out Cold, explores songcraft in a 1950s Frank Sinatra-Nelson Riddle vein. As someone who’s made a career in far less constricting, less stylized music, how do you approach the constraints of verse/chorus and rhyme schemes…or are these songs an attempt to push the envelope with the genre?
PK: Actually, I like to embrace different styles as I go along, like the allusions to Renaissance music or barbershop or the Beach Boys in John the Revelator. To me it’s a bit like falling into the voice of a character as you tell a story. But Out Cold really does engage one genre, which is the so-called standard song, especially torch songs and ballads. The whole idea was to emulate the craft of that genre, the elegant tunes and lyrics of the great 30s-40s-50s songwriters. I suppose in a way I felt I could reveal myself best by wearing a costume.
LCC: How about the new arrangements of Zippo Songs and Rumsfeld Songs for ACME? Was that a challenge for the arranger/transcriptionist in you?
PK: Actually, I was surprised by how easily they translated to strings, percussion and piano. The originals are very spare and the main challenge is not to add too much. It’s easy to feel a bit apologetic when you ask ace players to do whole notes for a half hour, but that’s what is required sometimes. Bruckner sometimes holds notes for pages!
LCC: Ha, so does Messiaen for that matter. Now this is a reunion of sorts with you and Theo Bleckmann – if I’m correct, this is the first time the Zippo Songs have been performed in New York in eight years. What specifically aboutt him made you say, yup, he’s the one to put these across?
PK: It’s his inner Sinatra, the beautiful flow of legato and smart timing. I’d been thinking about writing him a group of orchestral love songs for several years.
LCC Do you still actually participate in Unsilent Night every year? And back in, I think 1993, when you led the first parade of boomboxes through the Village, did it ever occur to you in your wildest dreams that this would become a worldwide phenomenon?
PK: A – yes, B – no! I sort of dread it when I realize the season is coming, like “oh boy, another sleet-filled night,” but when it’s over I’m always glad we did it. At least one of the Unsilent Nights every year has something amazing happen in it.
LCC: You’ve gone on record as saying that you’re simply following a tradition of American transcendentalists: Charles Ives, et al. Yet your music, as abstract-sounding as some of it is, especially your earlier work, is very specific. To what degree has your career been simply doing what you love, and connecting the tradition of the composers who’ve obviously inspired you with a new level of social commitment and awareness?
PK: I would say that’s exactly what my career has been.
LCC: Jim Jarmusch is an old college friend and bandmate of yours. Tell us about your latest, forthcoming collaboration with him.
PK: We actually met in the 6th grade! Tesla in New York is an operatic fantasy of the inventor Nikola Tesla’s exploits over the 50 years he lived and died in New York City. Most of his glory days were spent in the general vicinity of SoHo.
LCC: Around the World in a Daze, your DVD from 2009 is a favorite – and I think one of amazon’s bestselling releases on DVD if I remember correctly. The Housatonic at Henry Street, one of your “boombox symphonies” which opens the DVD, depicts an evening scene. Yet the corner of Henry and Madison Street where it was shot has a bus stop, and the projects, and a McDonalds since a few years back. I’ve always wondered how you managed to get such tranquility at that location…
PK: You’re one block away. I made the field recording on my corner, Henry and Rutgers. Not as quiet as it used to be, but not quite as bustling as Madison Street. I’m on the 5th floor and I was responding to that moan the city has when you listen from above. It’s a soft roar comprised of a thousand little things going by and echoing in the concrete pond below. I guess I thought of the parade as a river of life, just as the Housatonic was Ives’ river of life, flowing by inexorably. Come to think of it, the Ganges isn’t exactly clean and quiet, either.
ACME (American Contemporary Music Ensemble), Theo Bleckmann and Phil Kline present the Zippo Songs, Rumsfeld Songs and Out Cold -produced by American Opera Projects – at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival at 7:30 PM, Oct 25-27. Tickets are $20; the October 26 show includes a post-performance chat with the composer and ensemble.
The release of the posthumous 301 album by genre-defying Swedish cult favorites the Esbjorn Svensson Trio (better known as EST), via the German ACT label, was worth the wait. Recorded in 2007 in Australia, less than a year before the tragic death of pianist Esbjorn Svensson in a scuba diving accident, it’s been tweaked and fine-tuned by the surviving band members, bassist Dan Berglund and drummer Magnus Ostrom, along with their longtime live sound engineer Ake Linton. This session captures the band at the peak of their powers, and will only add to the Svensson legend – it’s a characteristically rich, shapeshifting mix of third stream piano, cinematic themes, more straightforward American jazz, and a crushingly powerful centerpiece that characteristically resists categorization.
That work is a practically 21-minute diptych titled Three Falling Free. The introduction, with Svensson scattering neoromantic imagery that draws just as much on Brubeck as it does on Chopin, offers not the slightest hint of the mayhem that will ensue when Ostrom propels the thirteen-minute second part with a feral series of cascades. To call this tribal would not do it justice: the effect is something akin to the Grateful Dead doing Pink Floyd, with their entire percussion battery fully charged, but more intense than that. That Ostrom could vary his phrasing as subtly as he does, let alone get through it unscathed, is something else entirely. Berglund’s overdriven bass roars with distortion and eventually begins to throw off overtones that eventually linger as Ostrom chooses his spots, echoing the theme’s elegant central hook. Svensson, meanwhile, colors it with alternately minimalist and bluesy phrasing. It’s one of the most adrenalizing songs in any style released this year.
The rest of the album is less intense and more melodic. The opening nocturne, Behind the Stars, evokes Angelo Badalamenti’s most noirish work, Svensson’s spacious glimmers contrasting with Ostrom’s boomy minimalism as it slowly crescendos. The closing cut, The Childhood Dream, is similar, moving further toward a melodically bluesy ambience that reminds of Frank Foster at his most lyrical. A Monk-influenced, moody modal piece, The Left Lane develops a creepy ambience as Ostrom and Berglund embellish it against Svensson’s resonant whole-note chords, rising and falling with dark, glittery piano phrases that finally climb as the beat coalesces out of counterrythms. There’s also the hypnotically mysterious, almost imperceptibly crescendoing Inner City Lights, the band slowly developing a wary, blues-infused theme against some of the more prominent electronic touches that flicker, mostly in the background, throughout the album.
It’s not known if this most recent release is the final installment of the EST archive, or if there is more to come. Whatever the case, this is a rich addition to the band’s legacy, one that came to an end far too soon.
The chambered nautilus is a snail-like marine creature native to the Pacific, prized for centuries for its intricate, spiral shell. With their debut recording, a collection of new William Brittelle compositions out recently from New Amsterdam, ACME (American Contemporary Music Ensemble) pays homage to this strange creature. The whole album, Loving the Chambered Nautilus, is streaming at Brittelle’s Bandcamp page (something that more composers should be doing!). Brittelle considers the nautilus to be part organic and part inorganic, and therefore a metaphor for the electroacoustic nature of these works – although that could be said about just about any creature with a shell. Come to think of it, this could just as easily be called Loving the Hermit Crab. Like the crab as it lurches across the sand, the music here has the same kind of jaunty, carefree pulse, albeit a vastly more elegant and precise one. Do Brittelle’s arrangements reflect an obvious organic/inorganic dichotomy? Not so much. The machine-made timbres here tend to be wry, playful and tongue-in-cheek: they ping, oscillate and swoosh, mingling with the more nuanced, emotionally resonant tones of Caleb Burhans’ violin and banjo, Nadia Sirota’s viola, Clarice Jensen’s cello, Eric Lamb’s flute and Megan Levin’s harp. And the playing is lively and animated, about as far from mechanical as you can get, enhanced by the use of electronic effects on the harp and violin and possibly other instruments. Some of the arrangements are so intricate that the consideration of who’s playing what takes a backseat to the overall effect of the work.
Which is more or less a party. The instruments swoop and dive, frequently in unison, when they’re not interchanging voices, sometimes tense and staccato, sometimes more casually and fluidly, with the feel of a round. Sometimes, especially when the synth is going full tilt, this reaches toward a sardonic Rick Wakeman-esque bombast. More frequently, it recalls Jean-Luc Ponty’s early 80s work, Jensen putting a considerably more soulful spin on Ralphe Armstrong’s busy basslines. The first work is Brittelle’s Future Shock (For String Quartet), in three parts. An irrepressibly joyous, dancing, cinematic piece of music, it intertwines a kaleidoscope of synth textures with the ensemble. They move from rhythmic and balletesque to a flurrying intro to the second movement that sounds like it was nicked from ELO’s Last Train to London (a defining piece of electroacoustic music if there ever was one). Sweeping ambience trades off with staccato flurries, big snowbanks of low lushness spiced with glimmering harp, stark cello, frenetic high string cadenzas and shimmering, sustained upper-register lines.
The ensemble follows that with the swirling midrange ambience of Acid Rain on the Mirrordome, a miniature tone poem, and then Future Shock (For Cello), a spirited, jauntily pulsing song without words that swoops up to a crescendo as the chorus kicks in, Jensen’s biting intensity paired off against woozy Dr. Dre-style portamento synth and similarly sardonic voicings. The darkest and most emotionally vivid piece here is Loons Lay in Crystal Mesh, both direct-miked and electronically processed individual voices exchanging pensive motifs over slowly shifting, sustained long-tone sheets. Unfortunately, the title track is just a mess: reaching for a more ornate take on a plinky Tears for Fears 80s-pop vibe, it doesn’t have the hooks to be a good pop song or the depth to be anything else. Poor nautilus: he deserves something as good as the irrepressibly entertaining material that comprises the rest of this album.