Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Darkly Carnivalesqe, Mary Lou Williams-Inspired Themes From Frank Carlberg and Gabriel Bolaños

This is not to imply in any way that the lockdown has been anything other than Hitlerian evil, but it’s forced everybody to think outside the box. We’re now finding out how far outside the box artists have pushed themselves in the past year. One who’s explored unexpected territory is pianist Frank Carlberg, whose phantasmagorical new electroacoustic album of Mary Lou Williams-inspired microtonal music, Charity and Love, a collaboration with Gabriel Bolaños is streaming at Bandcamp.

Carlberg has always had a carnivalesque side, and is a connoisseur of noir, but this is arguably his creepiest record yet. It seems here that his piano is processed to evoke bell-like microtones. Sometimes the effect is akin to an electric piano, sometimes a toy piano, sometimes a carillon. Either way, the effect is persistently disquieting.

Bumping around under the lid, channeling darkly ambered blues, some of the phantasmagoria he so excels at has echoes of stride and boogie and a little crazed tomcat-on-the-keys noise in the album’s title track. Meanwhile, a loop of voices draws closer and closer to the center, becomes painfully unlistenable and fortunately is not a portent for what’s on the rest of the record.

Mary Lou, Mary Blue is a stunningly uneasy, carillonesqe piece that soon goes up and down the funhouse staircase in odd intervals that will keep you on your toes no matter how agitated or woozily surreal the multitracks become. Zodiac Impressions has an echoey, strange web of flitting, rhythmic gestures and Monklike riffs twisted into microtonal shapes, rumbling diesel motor sonics contrasting with the chimes far overhead, decaying to a creepy, sepulchral outro

A brief, murky interlude introduces Mary’s Aries, one of the starker pieces here, its spare, steadily rhythmic, chiming phrases and cascades imbued with the album’s warpiest tonalities. The duo follow that with Broken Stomp, a delicate, marionettish strut encroached on by loops and cascades. The way Bolaños layers the echoes, one long phrase following another, will give you chills.

Big Sky, Dark Clouds is a haunting Lynchian stroll that Carlberg builds emphatically and lets drift away forlornly at the end. Williams’ quote about “Whenever there’s a strong beat, people always want to degrade the music by calling it jazz,” is priceless in context.

The two follow Hop, Skip, Jump, a lively gremlin of a miniature, with the spacious, lingering chords of Water Under the Bridge, strongly evoking the otherworldly, eerie coda of Messiaen’s Quartet For the End of Time. The two close with Waving Goodbye, Carlberg opening with the album’s most darkly carnivalesque, chromatic melody, then taking a twistedly wistful turn that branches off into bizarre multitracks before the piano brings the poignancy back. In a strange way, this makes a good companion piece to Chris Pattishall‘s reinvention of Williams’ Zodiac Suite.

March 30, 2021 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Suspensefully Cinematic, High-Spirited New Classical Works From the CCCC Grossman Ensemble

The Chicago Center for Contemporary Composition’s Grossman Ensemble is the brainchild of Augusta Read Thomas. Her game plan was to create a group which could intensely workshop material with composers rather than simply holding a few rehearsals and then throwing a concert. Their album Fountain of Time – streaming at youtube – is contemporary classical music as entertainment: a dynamic series of new works, many of them with a cinematic suspense and tingly moments of noir. Percussionists Greg Beyer and John Corkill, in particular, have a field day with this.

They open with Shulamit Ran’s picturesque Grand Rounds. Oboe player Andrew Nogal, clarinetist Katherine Schoepflin Jimoh, pianist Daniel Pesca and harpist Ben Melsky get to send a shout-out to Messiaen and then a salute to Bernard Herrmann’s Hitchcock film scores. Terse accents from horn player Matthew Oliphant and saxophonist Taimur Sullivan mingle with the acerbic textures of the Spektral Quartet: violinists Clara Lyon and Maeve Feinberg, violist Doyle Armbrust and cellist Russell Rolen. Furtiveness ensues and then the chase is on! The ending is anything but what you would expect. Told you this was fun!

Anthony Cheung’s triptych Double Allegories begins with sudden strikes amid suspenseful, wafting ambience, heavy on the percussion: Herrmann again comes strongly to mind. The midsection is built around a deliciously otherworldly series of microtonal, stairstepping motives, subtle echo effects and ice-storm ambience. The finale comes across as a series of playful but agitated poltergeist conversations….or intermittent stormy bursts. Or both, Tim Munro’s flute and the percussion front and center.

David Dzubay conducts his new work, PHO, which is not a reference to Vietnamese cuisine: the title stands for Potentially Hazardous Objects. The ensemble work every trick in the suspense film playbook – creepy bongos, shivery swells, tense bustles, pizzicato strings like high heels on concrete, breathy atmospherics and hints of a cynical Mingus-esque boogie – for playfully maximum impact. It’s the album’s most animated and strongest piece.

Tonia Ko‘s Simple Fuel was largely improvised while the ensemble were workshopping it; it retains that spontaneity with all sorts of extended technique, pulsing massed phrasing in an AACM vein, conspiratorial clusters alternating with ominous microtonal haze.

A second triptych, by David “Clay” Mettens, winds up the record. Stain, the first segment, bristles with defiantly unresolved microtones, gremlins in the highs peeking around corners and hints of Indian carnatic riffage. Part two, Bloom/Moon pairs deviously syncopated marimba against slithery strings. The textures and clever interweave in Rain provide the album with a vivid coda. Let’s hope we hear more from this group as larger ensembles begin recording and playing again: day after day, the lockdown is unraveling and the world seems to be returning to normal.

March 1, 2021 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Angelica Olstad Captures the Terror and Alienation of the First Few Months of the Lockdown

Pianist Angelica Olstad ls one of the few New York artists to be able to put the tortuous first several months of the lockdown to creative use. Her new solo release Transmute – streaming at Bandcamp – is a haunting, often downright chilling, rather minimalist recording of a series of themes from four French Romantic works. Olstad reimagines them as a suite illustrating the terror and isolation of the beginning of the most hideously repressive year in American history. And it isn’t over yet. In the meantime we owe a considerable debt to Olstad for how indelibly and lyrically she has portrayed it.

Rather than playing any of the four pieces here all the way through, she deconstructs them, usually to find their most menacing or macabre themes. Then she pulls those even further apart, or loops them. Erik Satie is the obvious reference point. The first and most troubled segment is based on The Fountain of the Acqua Paola from Charles Griffes’ Roman Sketches, Op. 7. It turns out to be a creepy, loopy arpeggio matched by skeletal lefthand, with light electronic touches and snippets of field recordings. Yes, some of them are sirens. A simple, icy upper-register melody develops, then recedes, the menacing music-box melody returning at the end.

Track two, Death + Sourdough is a mashup of a handful of themes from the Ravel Sonatine, at first reducing it to a rising series of Satie-esque snippets. Then Olstad hits an elegant, ornate series of chords, but once again loops them. She returns with an even more troubled, resonant minimalism.

An Awakening, based on the Oiseaux Triste interlude from Ravel’s Miroirs has spacious glitter over spare lefthand, distant sirens and crowd noise from Black Lives Matter protests panning the speakers

The closest thing to a straightforward performance of the original is her steady, rippling, picturesque take of Cygne sur l’eau from Gabriel Faure’s Mirages; she titles it Brave New World. Here and only here does the music grow warmer and offer a glimmer of hope, tentative as she seems to see it. Let’s hope that’s an omen for days to come. If she’s brave, maybe we’ll be lucky to see Olstad in concert somewhere in New York this year.

February 26, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Poignant, Tersely Crystallized Songs Without Words From Antonija Pacek

Pianist Antonija Pacek plays vivid, often haunting songs without words. Her new album Forever – streaming at Spotify – draws on the highest of the High Romantic, but tersely and poignantly. Her righthand typically carries a vocal line, the left either spare chords, arpeggios or a bassline. If you were the pianist in an artsy rock band, this album is what you would give the rest of the crew to learn. Any third-year student can play every track here. There are no solos, no dynamic shifts, just melody – and an invitation to write lyrics. One can only wonder what a great songwriter like Karla Rose or Hannah Fairchild could do with this. Every piano teacher should own this album: it’s the best kind of example of this type of music.

A cynic would say that there are a million wannabe youtube stars with sad rainy day solo piano or synthesizer playlists that rip off every classical composer from Bach to Dvorak. But this is a cut above. The first track, Sofia is an absolutely shattering, toweringly angst-fueled requiem without words, Chopin through the prism of 20th century Slavic balladry.

Pacek follows that with If Only Time Allowed, neoromantic righthand over Lynchian lefthand. Gone Young is another requiem, a portrait of someone obviously full of life cut down unexpectedly, and too soon

The title track is a saloony Tom Waits-ish theme. Lullaby has playful Asian allusions, while Light is a neoromantic analogue to the Church’s classic, haunted Bel Air. If Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen had been a neoromantic guy, he would have written Almost Goodbye.

Before the Rain is catchy, minor-key, almost amusingly insistent and youtube-friendly: it could be Yann Tiersen. In Deep Red, Pacek makes a conflicted piano ballad out of Debussy and a little blues. 

Taken on face value, Wanna Dance has to be the most morose pickup line ever written: as sad waltzes go, this is killer. Pacek finally has fun shifting the melody to the lefthand in the stadium-rock theme What’s Waiting for Me. The album’s “secret” track, Before the Storm follows a familiar descending progression, a castle dark, a fortress strong….a melody secret?

December 30, 2020 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Darkly Lingering, Lynchian Atmosphere From Lucas Brode and Kevin Shea

Guitarist Lucas Brode went to the well for inspiration from David Lynch films and Paul Motian compositions, drank deeply, and came up with his new album Vague Sense of Virtue. A duo recording with brilliant, purposeful drummer Kevin Shea (famously of Mostly Other People Do the Killing), it often brings to mind Bill Frisell, Cameron Mizell or Don Fiorino at their darkest. It’s streaming at Bandcamp.

The two open with There Is Someone Softly Singing in the Other Room, a pensive, reverb-drenched pastoral jazz theme over Shea’s mist of cymbals and muted rumbles. Train-whistle slides emerge mournfully out of a fog as the duo slowly gather steam in We All Missed & Are Missed, rising to a spacious, twangy soundscape that could be a very long outro in the Big Lazy catalog.

The album’s most epic number is You Will Be Remembered Simply As an Idea. Here as everywhere else, Shea’s looming ambience and judicious use of his hardware are masterful while Brode runs variations on a simple, catchy, tremoloing, distantly Lynchian riff.

The title track comes across as a more ambient take on Pink Floyd’s Great Gig in the Sky, with some of Brode’s most unexpectedly lively work here. The album’s fifth number, a triptych, begins with a somber, slowly drifting song without words, Brode spiraling and squiggling around with his slide, hitting his distortion pedal as Shea prowls the perimeter. The twinkling, loopy outro is a surprise touch.

Shea supplies the uneasy energy in the spare nocturne Movement or Motionlessness, One and the Same as Brode parses his deep bag of riffs; he brings the album full circle at the end. This is a quantum leap, creatively speaking: he’s really found his muse in this immersively shadowy music.

December 12, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Subtle, Elegantly Evocative Suspense Film Score From Disasterpeace

Composer Richard Vreeland, a.k.a. Disasterpeace’s orchestral score to the film Under the Silver Lake – streaming at Bandcamp – is a clinic in picturesque, suspenseful new classical composition. The themes are simple, even minimalist in places. Lush, distantly anxious or murky, close-harmonied strings, ambered woodwind/string textures and clarinet/bass contrasts are just a few of the interesting tropes here. There’s a lingering ominousness, delicate ambience punctured by sudden, yet often remarkably subtle figures or percussive accents. Moments of lively activity are infrequent and striking when they appear: the hushed ambience grows quieter and more sinister as the suspense rises toward the end. Featured instruments range beyond the usual orchestral lineup to include pennywhistle, icy electric guitar played through a vintage analog chorus pedal, and what could be either a cimbalom or a prepared piano,

There’s also a jaunty little ragtime strut and a delightful 60s pop hit. And a pointless cover of another hit from that era, a cheesy, orchestrated “R&B” number and a wretched pair of songs from the low point of REM’s career. Beyond that, this is an album will keep you at the edge of your seat for a long time: there are a total of 34 tracks here.

October 25, 2020 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Deliciously Lynchian Guitar From Ari Chersky

Guitarist Ari Chersky plays a darkly hypnotic blend of ambient soundscapes, slashing guitar jazz and film noir themes. His album Fear Sharpens the Dagger is streaming at Bandcamp, and it’s a great Halloween playlist.

The first track Take The Heart, is a noisier and eventually shreddier take on Angelo Badalamenti dub, as that iconic film composer concretized the style on the soundtrack to David Lynch’s Lost Highway.  Chersky’s bass runs a catchy loop over Craig Weinrib’s shuffling drumbeat while the guitar lingers and then cuts loose, Peter Schlamb’s tinkling vibraphone mingling with the mist of reverb in the background. It sets the stage for much of the rest of the record.

Distant elephantine snorts and warpy outer-space textures punch through the even dubbier backdrop of the second number, Dark Flow. A string section – Joanna Mattrey on viola and Christopher Hoffman on cello – plays wistfully over echoey drainpipe sonics in A Creature Divided, then Schlamb returns to add uneasy glitter over a hazy, drifting background in Magnificent Glow.

Chersky hints that he’s going to make a morose waltz out of Old Line; instead, he loops that melancholy riff as the song shifts between dissociation and minimalistic focus. Burn the Scrolls has a similar architecture, but with layers of uneasy, acidic guitar resonance.

Who Am I to You comes across as a mashup of Brian Eno, Pink Floyd and Bill Frisell in a particularly thoughtful moment. The strings return for On Heavy Wings, a gorgeously bittersweet miniature.  Then the vibes take centerstage in the loopy Lynchian dub theme In Human Form.

Sparse guitar phrases resonate over eerie, stairstepping funeral organ in the aptly titled Haunt: it’s the album’s creepiest and best track. Chersky brings in more than a hint of dusky desert rock in the brief, circling Pride in Effort (An Entity Separate).

Low growls and starry glimmer build a spacy contrast in Wizard in Grey, which segues into the album’s final cut, Out of the Shadows, a maze of loops and flickering accordion. Fans of multi-layered guitar instrumental bands like Steelism and Big Lazy, and David Lynch soundtracks have plenty to feast on here.

October 10, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Revisiting a Dark Moment in New York History with Laurie Anderson and the Kronos Quartet

“Sandy was a huge swirl that looked like a galaxy whose name I didn’t know,” Laurie Anderson muses in one of the broodingly atmospheric early numbers on her album Landfall, an epic collaboration with the Kronos Quartet and cellist Jeffrey Ziegler. As Halloweenish music goes, the record – streaming at Spotify – strikes awfully close to home for any New Yorker.

The October 2012 hurricane was a defining moment for Anderson. She lived just off the Hudson River, and lost innumerable, priceless scores, archival material and instruments when her basement was flooded. The irrepressible violinist/composer/agitator has never shied away from dark topics, beginning with O Superman, the cynical Iran hostage crisis-themed single that put her on the map. This is arguably her most personal and most music-centric album: she’s more terse instrumentalist than narrator here.

Most of the thirty tracks here are on the short side, three minutes or less. What’s most intriguing about the album is that each member of the quartet – violinists David Harrington and John Sherba, cellist Sunny Yang and violist Hank Dutt, along with guest cellist Jeffrey Ziegler – get to contribute to the compositions, beginning with an ominous, searching, often Indian-tinged opening theme. As the storm looms on the horizon, there’s heavy, portentous ambience, loopy horror-film trip-hop and leaping agitation.

An allusive danse macabre above murky atmospherics signals Anderson and husband Lou Reed’s move to temporary digs in a hotel after they lose electric power. Evidence of cataclysms more commonplace in warmer climates seem shocking here: boats blown from their docks onto the West Side Highway, street signs twisted in the wind.

Anderson devotes as much if not more time to the aftermath. The music is sometimes austere and melancholy, punctuated by frenetic activity as well as coldly surreal variations on the initial trip-hop theme: Anderson’s long relationship with digital technology has always been conflicted.

To her immense credit, she doesn’t lose her signature sense of humor: her observations on people telling their friends about their dreams is priceless. The epic centerpiece, Nothing Left But Their Names, is considerably more disturbing, reflecting on how 99% of all species that ever existed on earth are now extinct. But the most chilling moment of all is when she finally takes us down to the basement.

October 9, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, poetry, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Haunting New Album From the Perennially Relevant Meredith Monk

“We know these things because some of their ancient ones are still among us,” Michael Cerveris’ space alien character intones midway through the third track on Meredith Monk’s new album Memory Game.

Is it any wonder why the lockdowners are trying to kill off all the old people? After all, they remember what it was like not to be spied on, and tracked, or glued to a screen. If the rest of us have no memory of freedom, can we even aspire to it?

That track, Migration, was first performed at the end of the Reagan years, the era that spawned the “culture wars” ignited by that administration’s most florid extremists. In the years since, Monk has never wavered from her signature playful, questioning stance. And now this icon of the avant garde has a new album, Memory Game – streaming at Bandcamp – with members of her vocal ensemble bolstered by the Bang on a Can All-Stars. It’s a mix of previously unrecorded material from her dystopic opera The Games plus plus new arrangements of earlier Monk works dating back to the 80s. There are both instrumentals and vocal numbers here. On the surface, it’s trippy and playful, with a quirky sense of humor and all kinds of demands on the vocalists’ extended technique. But there’s a frequent undercurrent of unease.

The opening instrumental, Spaceship is a circling theme with bright clarinet, stark violin, starry keyboards and unprocessed, trebly electric guitar over a steady rhythm. It’s a potent reminder of how vast Monk’s influence has been on successive generations of minimalists, not to mention a substantial percentage of the indie classical demimonde.

Bleckmann has fun swooping over Monk’s blippy, warptoned, insistent electric piano in The Gamemaster’s Song, bolstered by spare guitar and bass. The other singers – Katie Geissinger and Allison Sniffin – enter over a creepy music box-like backdrop in Memory Song. The animal allusions are prime Monk, as is the litany of references to everything this civilization lost.

With its macabre synth cascades and Planet of the Apes vocals, Downfall is aptly titled. The similarly sardonic Waltz in 5s has echoey violin, stately circling piano and operatically-tinged vocalese. Tokyo Cha-Cha is a loopy faux-salsa throwback to Monk’s earlier, more carefree work. It’s more Asian than latin, until Ken Thomson’s gruff baritone sax enters the picture.

The best of the instrumentals is Totentanz, a blithely menacing, marionettish theme with gracefully leaping clarinet, piano and grimly insistent percussion. The group return to a closer approximation of salsa to close the album on a jaunty note with Double Fiesta. This coouldn’t have been released at a more appropriate time.

August 3, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Macabre Masterpiece From John Ellis and Andy Bragen

Considering how busy tenor saxophonist John Ellis always seemed to be – before the lockdown, anyway – it’s something of a shock that he was able to find the time to come up with his latest album, The Ice Siren – streaming at Bandcamp – a masterpiece of noir assembled as a collaboration with lyricist Andy Bragen. It’s also arguably the best thing, and definitely the darkest project Ellis has ever been involved with, in a career as one of the most sought-after musicians in jazz for both big bands and smaller ensembles.

The obvious comparison is pioneering, carnivalesque 90s band Kamikaze Ground Crew, who brought a lithe improvisational component into noir, cinematic circus rock tableaux. Is this jazz? Noir cabaret? Art-rock? All that and more, which is why it’s so interesting.

The opening theme, Graveyard Visit, begins with a striking violin cadenza over stark cello and slowly morphs into a macabre chromatic vamp that strongly brings to mind both Philip Glass’ Dracula score as well as Carol Lipnik‘s creepiest work, with the ghosts of Brecht and Weill nodding approvingly out there somewhere. But some of the phantasmagoria here has coy touches: devious accents from Marcus Rojas’ tuba and Miles Griffith’s wry, wobbly vocals over a backdrop that shifts from blithe bossa back to menace.

Ellis finally gets to interject a vividly searching solo over the eerily lingering, vamping backdrop in Heaven or Hell. Gretchen Parlato’s ghostly vocalese over Mike Moreno’s spare, broodingly picked guitar and Chris Dingman’s glitttering vibraphone meld into an increasingly lush horror theme.

Parlato sings Melusina’s Siren Song with an airy angst over a steady, slow bass clarinet pulse that expands back to a sweeping, distantly enticing variation on the central Lynchian theme. Griffith returns for a duet with Parlato in the disquietingly atmospheric She Shows Her Face, the most avant garde number here.

The orchestration grows blippier and balmier in Little Man, but by the end the disquiet returns. Ellis’ liquid clarinet delivers klezmer tinges over a brisk bounce in the next-to-last number, Cold, the most circusy track here. The wistfully waltzing conclusion, Entombed in Ice is chilling, literally and metaphorically. This is a frontrunner for best album of 2020 from a cast that also includes violinists Hiroko Taguchi and Olivier Manchon, violist Todd Low, cellist,Christopher Hoffman and percussionists Daniel Sadownick and Daniel Freedman.

July 20, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment