Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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

Till by Turning Plays Katherine Young’s Shattering, Messiaen-Inspired Four Chambered Heart

As a coda to their performance of Katherine Young‘s Four Chambered Heart this evening at the Music First series in downtown Brooklyn, quartet Till by Turning employed a trope that was once employed more often than it is now. It wouldn’t be fair to spoil the surprise, but it was effective to the extreme: this is one dark, riveting, transcendent piece of music. The composer played bassoon in this eight-part suite inspired by Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time alongside violist Amy Cimini, violinist Erica Dicker and pianist Emily Manzo.

Messiaen wrote his famous Quartet – for piano, cello, violin and clarinet – in a Nazi prison camp. Although much of it is haunting minutiae and ominously anguished, slow, practically interminable passages, it’s also a quietly defiant, resolute middle finger raised at the Nazis. Although it ends as eerily as any piece of music ever written, it’s far from pessimistic, with an unforgettably furtive escape sequence. While the architecture of Young’s suite echoes the Messiaen Quartet to a degree, it doesn’t pilfer Messiaen motives or themes. Instead, it turned out to be a dynamically bristling, mysterious series of shifts between elegantly rhythmic, occasionally dancing mimimalism, otherworldly, spectral sheets of sound and some of the Reichian circularity that continues to be all the rage in indie classical circles. Young’s background in the noisier, more atmospheric side of jazz – her album on Brooklyn label Prom Night got the thumbs-up here last year – and her work as a member of Anthony Braxton‘s ensemble were evident in both her playing and composition.

A handful of distantly menacing flourishes from Manzo grounded the graceful pizzicato of the first movement, followed by a viola-piano duo that built to creepy, tritone-laced, looped phrases. Other composers might well have simply used a loop pedal or a phrase on a laptop, but Young’s decision to play all of this live paid off massively in terms of maintaining suspense. As they did with several of the other movements, the ensembled stripped it down to its bare bones over Manzo’s graceful, precisely emphatic phrasing.

Young began the third movement low and austere and then sound coalesced with the entire ensemble – was this resilience in the face of fascism, maybe? Brooding piano chords wound it down as Young blew dark winds through a delay pedal that sent stygian waves echoing through the church. From there the strings matter-of-factly disassembled the theme and then hit an insistent, nonchalantly murderous, Julia Wolfe-esque, minimaliist rhythm.

If that wasn’t the evening’s peak moment, it was a little later when Manzo hit a single glimmering, resonant chord and then handed off to Dicker, who responded with a series of perfectly modulated, ghostly flickers. Or when the host First Presbyterian Church’s organist, Wil Smith, slowly built an oscillating drone that took on all sorts of overtones against Young’s pitchblende washes in the seventh movement. The work ended with a solo segment from Young, which quickly grew troubled and stormy as she worked her pedalboard, and then wound down to its most basic elements, matter-of-fact yet enigmatic, with an over-the-shoulder nod to Messiaen. The crowd was stunned. The only thing missing from this performance was what could have been more amplification on Manzo’s vocals during one of the early movements – her calm mezzo-soprano added a welcome warmth to the blend of textures, but it would have been even more interesting to hear the lyrics.

When Messiaen’s work first premiered in France after the composer had been sprung from captivity, was anyone in the audience stricken with the thought that the piece might not be performed again? The instrumentation is unorthodox for a quartet, as Young’s is, and Young’s piece in many ways is just as hauntingly memorable as Messiaen’s. What a rare treat it would be to hear both on the same bill.

September 6, 2013 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Intriguing Atmospherics from Katherine Young and TimeTable

For fans of gamelan music, insurgent Brooklyn jazz label Prom Night has put out After Party Vol. 2: Releasing Bound Water from Green Material. It’s an intriguingly through-composed Katherine Young score for percussion, played with trippy verve by TimeTable (Matthew Gold, Alex Lipowski and Matt Ward) with improvisation from an ensemble including the composer on bassoon plus Brad Henkel and Jacob Wick on trumpets, Emily Manzo on piano, Nathaniel Morgan on tenor sax, Dan Peck on tuba and Jeff Snyder on keyboards. As a whole, their role is basically to add atmospherics, with the occasional brief, ghostly cameo. It’s an enjoyable, roughly 22-minute exchange of intriguing textures.

Quietly keening drones, a few things falling into place, frenetically scraping, squishy galoshes-on-wet-street sonics and low bell tones contrast in the opening piece. Is some of this an attempt to mimic PA speaker feedback, acoustically? If so, it’s amazingly authentic. The long, central track is a set piece from the Court of the Stainless Steel King. Ringing gamelanesque bells rise, more swirly than plinky, and then recede against boomy low gongs. Insistent drum accents lead to a cadenza that ushers in more lively ambience in the background. Something slides; something scurries; woodblocks enter and then vary their cadences and timbres.

The final track blends fat, bassy, booming low gong swells with a grating overtone drone (bowed crotales, maybe?) and oscillating white noise that pushes in and attempts to take centerstage. Who is the audience for this? Anyone with an ear for atmospheric or chillout music; it makes a ride up the Broadway line on the express track between Brooklyn and Manhattan considerably more interesting, and strangely, more soothing.

November 7, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment