Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Julia Wolfe String Quartet Cycle at the Jewish Museum: A Major Moment in New York Music History

This past evening a sold-out crowd at the Jewish Museum witnessed what could have been a once-in-a-lifetime event: the first-ever live performance of the Julia Wolfe string quartet cycle on a single bill. On one hand, it’s kind of a shock that it took the composer’s own organization, Bang on a Can, to stage it. Sure, Wolfe’s string quartets are taxing to play, but so are Bartok’s, and hundreds of groups play the Bartok cycle. And Wolfe’s profile has never been higher: it’s hard to remember the last time the New York Philharmonic built a weekend around a work by another living composer, as they did with her epic cantata Fire in My Mouth back in January.

Assuming she writes another string quartet or two – hardly out of the question – putting five or more on a single program would be next to impossible, which would make this night even more historic. Wolfe was in the front row and revealed how she’d been moved to tears by Ethel’s performance of the most recent work on the bill, Blue Dress for String Quartet, so it made sense to give them the herculean task of playing all four this time. And the group captured lightning in a bottle.

It took immense stamina and persistence to get it all in there. All four of the works employ long, slowly mutating, sometimes utterly hypnotic passages of emphatic, insistent quarter notes (and often considerably faster volleys as well). Over the course of almost two hours onstage, violist Ralph Farris, cellist Dorothy Lawson, violinists Corin Lee and Kate Dreyfuss (the latter subbing for Kip Jones) didn’t miss a beat, no small achievement.

They began with Blue Dress, which, like so much of Wolfe’s work, draws on Americana, in this case the old folk song Little Girl with a Blue Dress On. Wolfe cautioned the crowd that this particular girl is fierce. Echoes of Philip Glass and Louis Andriessen blended into a twisted quasi-Appalachian sound world with relentless intensity and sarcasm that bordered on savagery, as the old folk tune filtered in and out of the picture. There was some wry clog-dancing and singing too. Little Girl? As if! This may have been state-of-the-art, end-of-the-decade serious concert music, but the ethos was vintage punk rock.

The other string quartets dated from the 90s. Dig Deep, Wolfe explained, was all about searching, written at a time when she felt “crazy” because she was having trouble trying to conceive. The ensemble worked the contrasts between wisps of hope and crushing reality with a knowing soberness grounded by Lawson’s pitchblende cello resonance. Lee got to give the music a breather with a Vivaldi-esque passage; Farris delivered the ending with cold matter-of-factness.

Four Marys, Wolfe said, was inspired by a Jean Ritchie murder ballad as much as by the “crude, crying sound” of the only stringed instrument she plays, the mountain dulcimer. Creeping up and around a central note, sometimes with slow, lingering glissandos, the ensemble maintained a lush intensity.

They closed with Early That Summer, the one piece that most closely foreshadowed Wolfe’s harrowing Cruel Sister string piece from 2012. She’d written this one in Amsterdam after reading Kai Bird’s The Chairman: John J. McCloy and the Making of the American Establishment, a prophetic book to encounter in the era of GATT, NAFTA and corporate sovereignty over democratically elected governments. Wispy microtones and slow upward trajectories built white-knuckle suspense, a relentlessly troubled mood amidst the calm, Lawson’s cello a stygian river of sound.

The monthly Bang on a Can concert series at the Jewish Museum continues on May 23 at 8 PM with avant garde vocal icon Meredith Monk and two members of her Vocal Ensemble, Katie Geissinger and Allison Sniffin; tix are $20/$16 stud/srs and are still available as of today but probably won’t be much longer. Ethel’s next gig is March 16 starting around 5 PM at the balcony bar at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the performance is free with museum admission.

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February 28, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Missy Mazzoli’s Richly Tuneful, Restless, Enigmatic Works Take Centerstage at the Miller Theatre

Missy Mazzoli’s music is hypnotic yet stormy, intricate yet disarmingly transparent. A strong and influential contingent of New York new music fans consider Mazzoli to be the most vital composer so far to emerge in this century. Thursday night, the Miller Theatre saluted her with a “composer portrait” concert of her work for both string quartet and for soloists playing along with prerecorded multitracks. As accessible and vivid as Mazzoli’s compositions are, they require all kinds of extended technique and are far from easy to play – although they seem, as a rule, to be fun to play, and the performers reveled in them.

The Mivos Quartet opened the bill with an alternately kinetic and atmospheric favorite from 2010, Death Valley Junction. Lit up with innumerable, graceful swoops and dives – Mazzoli LOVES glissandos – the piece takes its inspiration from Martha Becket, an octogenarian opera singer who achieved cult status for her one-woman shows in a desolate sagebrush town on the California-Nevada border. The group also ended the first half of the performance with a nimble electroacoustic take of Harp and Altar, a joyously bustling, circling homage to the Brooklyn Bridge.

Violinist Robert Simonds played Dissolve, O My Heart, a very subtle, gentle and distantly plaintive theme and variations based on the famous Chaconne from Bach’s D Minor Partita. Cellist Jody Redhage sang A Thousand Tongues, contemplating issues of honesty and believability in a soaring soprano while playing its remotely disquieted, ambered lines against a hypnotic backing track of electronically blenderized Mazzoli solo piano.  Likewise, Violist Nathan Schram got to interact with a backing track of processed viola by Nadia Sirota – with the piece’s clever waves of call-and-response, Schram couldn’t resist breaking into a grin, and the audience was there with him. Soprano Marnie Breckenridge then took centerstage, joined by the string quartet Ethel for His Name Is Jan, a “work in progress,” as Mazzoli put it, moody tectonic shifts anchoring its irresistibly droll, animated arioso vocals. It’s part of a forthcoming opera based on the Lars Von Trier film Breaking the Waves, scheduled to premiere in Philadelphia next year.

Ethel closed out the concert with a blustery yet elegant world premiere, Quartet for Queen Mab, an aptly trippy portrait of a mysterious sprite who spirits people off to a surreal dreamworld. The next “composer portrait” program at the Miller Theatre is Feb 19 at 8 PM with the Mivos Quartet, Yarn/Wire and Ekmeles playing and singing the thorny, challenging music of Stefano Gervasoni. Mazzoli’s art-rock band Victoire are playing the album release show for their intense, richly enveloping, forthcoming cd Vespers for a New Dark Age at le Poisson Rouge at 8 PM on May 7.

February 7, 2015 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ethel Violinist Todd Reynolds’ Flavorful Solo Double Album Just Out on Innova

Violinist Todd Reynolds is a founding member of Ethel, possibly the world’s most unpredictable string quartet. His expansive new solo album Outerborough, a double-disc set released on Innova, is virtually all solo violin, produced to the nth degree with dizzying layers of effects. A lot of this is psychedelic. There are occasional dark or even harrowing passages, but most of this is fun – disabuse yourself of any preconception that the avant garde is necessarily stuffy or pretentious. The first of the two discs here, the “inside,” comprises Reynolds originals performed via the Lemur GuitarBot, an effects processor that ably facilitates Reynolds’ one-man orchestra. Its high point, in fact the high point of the album, is the hauntingly otherworldly, cinematic title track with its series of tritone motifs, eventually warming up over a hi-tech bounce which the violin eventually hangs out to dry all by itself as the piece concludes. The sad, brooding, aptly titled End of Day is also absolutely gorgeous.

The rest of the originals are more lively. The opening cut, essentially a trip-hop tune, is an adventure theme with David Gilmour-esque angst balanced against a playful dance. The Indian-flavored second cut sets a jaunty pizzicato melody against a drone, shifting to a Dexys Midnight Runners type tune that builds to an interestingly exploratory crescendo, and then shifts back again. There are also a handful of hypnotic, loop-based compositions, a couple with austere sostenuto lines overhead, another featuring some woozy Dr. Dre tonalities.

The “outside” disc represents an A-list of avant-garde composers. Phil Kline’s A Needle Pulling Fred, another trip-hop number, contrasts majestically sailing melody with motorik rhythms. Michael Gordon’s Tree-Oh sets an echoey fugue to a staggered dance beat; Paul de Jong’s Inward Bound (with the composer on cello) is sort of Kraftwerk-meets-the-avant. A mash-up with an uncredited recording of the blues classic Crossroads, Michael Lowenstern’s composition serves as a launching pad for Reynolds’ gritty blues playing, evocative of Karen Waltuch’s work with the Roulette Sisters. …And the Sky Was Still There, by David T. Little illustrates Army veteran Amber Ferenz’s chilling narrative of her would-be transformation into a killing machine – until she had an epiphany, which is where the music picks up. The strongest of the compositions on the second disc is Ken Thomson’s Storm Drain, with its plaintive Middle Eastern allusions and ominous bass clarinet courtesy of the composer himself. There’s also a blippily hypnotic piece by Nick Zammuto and a cinematically crescendoing one from Paula Matthusen. Many flavors and a characteristically eclectic, genre-busting blend of styles, which is just what you’d expect from a member of Ethel (Reynolds has since left the group).

April 2, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

DVD Review: Phil Kline – Around the World in a Daze

One of this era’s most fearlessly relevant composers, Phil Kline’s oeuvre ranges from the iconic moving “boombox symphony” Unsilent Night (a response to Bush I’s gulf war) to the Zippo Songs suite inspired by the words and phrases American GI’s in Vietnam inscribed on their lighters. Sonically, Kline’s work tends to be gamelanesque, upper-register textures meticulously manipulated and processed into a rippling, reverberating pool of sound. This new two-DVD set – recorded in surround sound and best experienced on a good-quality home system or, ideally, in a club with encircling banks of speakers – is more diverse, a mix of compositions which run the gamut from challenging to confrontational to playfully fun. In addition to the first DVD with its individual videos, the second includes a considerably informative interview conducted by WNYC’s longtime New Sounds host John Schaefer as well as a bonus video, Meditation (Run As Fast As You Can), a lighthearted, characteristically pointillistic soundscape illustrating a brisk early Sunday morning jaunt from the base of the Brooklyn Bridge to the epicenter of New York’s financial district and then back again.

Here, Kline alternates between his usual collection of boomboxes, keyboards, loops and strings to comment acerbically on a range of issues both abstract and concrete, from confronting disaster to the death of New York via gentrification. The first track here, The Housatonic at Henry Street served as impetus for the entire project. Like his main influence Charles Ives, Kline  places himself in the tradition of the American Transcendentalists, the stream here cast in the role of river of life for a whole movement. The piece is a swirl of bell-like overtones (boomboxes slightly out of phase with each other) plus ambient street noise – happily, Kline must have edited out the car alarms and the shriek of the buses moving along Monroe Street a block away!

Svarga Yatra – Sanskrit for Stairway to Heaven – has pioneering string quartet Ethel playing live against themselves on a boombox. It’s a pretty, circular processional with an edge of disquiet enhanced by all the overtones. A madrigal manipulated, The Maryland Sample begins with ambient samples and grows eerie with a chorus of what sounds like a hall full of harpshichords. The DVD’s centerpiece, Pennies from Heaven follows a downward trajectory rather than Kline’s typical crescendo. It’s a sarcastic commentary on the trickle-down theory of economics, illustrating the effect it has on the people at the receiving end. With overlays of carrilonesque melody and variations on a tinkly descending progression, it grows more echoey and chaotic – something that began completely innocuous has gone horribly wrong.

Of the other tracks, Grand Etude for the Elevation (earlier playfully titled the Grand Etude Symphonique) layers  Todd Reynolds’ violin with trebly keyboards and insistent percussion, echoes of the Kronos Quartet’s recent work. Melodically, it’s the strongest composition here with haunting, Balkan-inflected tinges in places. The elegaic Prelude mixes an old recording of a piece from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, reprocessed with a field recording of foot traffic in the Zurich train station. The concluding cut on the first DVD, The Housatonic at Dzanga overlays samples from an oasis in the Central African Republic where hundreds of elephants and grey parrots congregate, resembling a tower of Babel far more than any sort of bucolic Discovery Channel soundtrack. There are also a couple of sillier works here including one “Dude, look what the DVD player just did with my cd!” number that actually succeeds in being a snide swipe at Wagner. New music fans will salivate over this; for more casual listeners, the hypnotic aspect of much of the material here creates a comfortably ambient late-evening soundtrack.

July 1, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments