Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Bang on a Can Marathon 2018 – A Marathon Report

“I know so many of you have followed our nomadic trail to so many locations,” composer Julia Wolfe demurred, introducing today’s 31st anniversary of the Bang on a Can Marathon at NYU’s Skirball Auditorium. 

“Great to be in a space where we can all listen,” mused her fellow composer and husband Michael Gordon, possibly alluding to less sonically welcoming venues the annual New York avant garde music summit has occupied.

This year’s program was the most compact and New York-centric in a long time, and considering the venue, it’s no surprise that NYU alums mentored by the Bang on a Can composers featured prominently on the bill. Terry Riley’s influence circulated vastly throughout much of the early part of the show; the ageless lion of indie classical took a turn on vocals as the concert wound up.

“We have a duty to go up to the people who come in afterward and brag,” grinned Bang on a Can’s David Lang, referring to the afternoon’s first piece, Galina Ustvolskaya’s relatively brief Symphony No. 2. The NYU Contemporary Ensemble – with woodwinds, brass and percussion – negotiated it calmly but forcefully. David Friend’s steady hamfisted piano thumps ushered in and then peppered steadily rhythmic, massed close harmonies from the rest of the group, Vocalist Robert Osborne implored a grand total of three Russian words – God, truth and eternity – over and over in between pulses as the music veered between the macabre and the simply uneasy. The ensemble really nailed the surprise ending – gently.

Michael Gordon’s Sonatra, the composer explained, is the only solo piano piece in his repertoire, quite a surprise considering that he’s a strong pianist and the best musician among the Bang on a Can hydra. “Somehow Vicky Chow has learned how to play it,” he deadpanned. She made Gordon’s vast, subtly contrasting, rigorously crosshanded Terry Riley-like expanses of steady eighth notes seem easy, engaging every single one of the piano’s eighty-eight keys.

Murky faux-boogie woogie lefthand paired against relentlessly twinkling righthand riffage; that Chow could incorporate Gordon’s relentlessly tongue-in-cheek glissandos with as much aplomb as she did reaffirms her mighty chops as one of the world’s foremost avant garde musicians.

Chamber orchestra Contemporaneous tackled a carbonated, caffeinated, endlessly circling fifteen-minute slice of cellist Dylan Mattingly’s similarly daunting, epically ecstatic six-hour opera Stranger Love. The Bang on a Can All-Stars – as amazingly mutable as ever – made the first of their many appearances with Gabriella Smith’s Panitao, evoking the swoops and high swipes of whale song amid increasingly animated, rippling, sirening ambience. Then they pounced their way through the staggered math steps of Brendon Randall-Myers’ Changes, Stops, and Swells (For B).

A sextet subset of Contemporaneous returned for Fjóla Evans’s turbulent tone poem Eroding, an Icelandic river tableau. With its sharp contrasts – bass clarinet, cello and piano gnashing and swirling amid the flickers from violin, flute and vibraphone – and disarming trick ending, it was the first real stunner among the new material on the bill.

Purple Ensemble – a string trio augmented with vibes, viola and vocals – played three Yiddish songs from Alex Weiser’s cycle And All the Days Were Purple. Singer Eliza Bagg channeled joy shadowed by angst and longing, Lee Dionne’s piano beginning low and enigmatic and then slithering in a far more Lynchian direction over the strings.    

The All-Stars’ were bolstered by Contemporaneous’ strings and percussion for a trio of  commissions. Jeffrey Brooks was first represented by After the Treewatcher,  based on a trancey earlier work which was the composer recalled being vociferously booed when Gordon premiered it back in the early 80s. Guitarist Taylor Levine’s warily oscillating lines undulated amongst emphatic strings and rustling, peek-a-boo suspense-film percussion riffs, building a Riley-esque web of sound that was as gorgeously hypnotic as it was hard-hitting.

A second new work, Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother, featured additional reeds and brass along with pointillistic twin electric pianos. A bustlingly circular, Bollywood-inflected theme gave way to austere, lingering ambience and then a wryly gritty Beatles guitar knockoff.

The Flux Quartet played their first violinist Tom Chiu’s Retrocon, a meteorologically-inspired, spiraling, Philip Glass-ine series of rising and falling microtonal cell figures. Violinist Mazz Swift and keyboardist Therese Workman juxtaposed electroacoustic string metal, new wave pop, a classic spiritual and faux-EDM in their mini-suite Revolution:House.

The big hybrid ensemble reconfigured for a final Brooks work, The Passion – the triptych “Reflects the kind of suffering that goes on every day, not the biblical kind,” the composer emphasized. Lavishly kinetic pageantry with wry Black Sabbath allusions shifted to dissociative, Laurie Anderson-ish atmospherics, Bagg narrating sobering advice from the composer’s terminally ill sister to her children. The leaping, trebly counterpoint of the final segment brought to mind My Brightest Diamond.

Sō Percussion took the stage for Nicole Lizée’s increasingly dissociative, gamelanesque electroacoustic instrumental White Label Experiment, echoed with considerably louder hi-tech energy later on by neosoul singer/keyboardist/dancer Xenia Rubinos and drummer Marco Buccelli.

Veteran new-music string quartet Ethel’s percussively insistent, clenched-teeth performance of Aleksandra Vrebalov’s Balkan-infected Logbook, Part II took the intensity to redline in seconds flat: it was the highlight of the night. Fueled by cellist Dorothy Lawson’s darkly bluesy glissandos, their take of Jessie Montgomery’s rousing dance theme Voodoo Dolls was a close second. They wound up their trio of pieces, joining voices,instruments and eventually their feet throughout the bracing, allusively Appalachian close harmonies of Wolfe’s enveloping, driving Blue Dress for String Quartet.

The Bang on a Can All-Stars took back the stage alongside narrator Eric Berryman in a cinematic, suspensefully rocking arrangement of Frederic Rzewski’s Attica-themed Coming Together, cellist Ashley Bathgate and bassist Robert Black’s heroically furtive pedalpoint anchoring the story’s grim foreshadowing.

Cellist Maya Beiser and narrator Kate Valk teamed up for Lang’s pensively minimalist, gently amusing loopmusic piece The Day, its lyrics mostly a litany of tongue-in-cheek mundanities sourced off the web via a search on “I remember the day.” He explained that he’d deleted the product references and lewdness – a lot, he admitted. 

The night’s coda was Riley’s Autodreamographical Tales & Science Fiction, the composer joining the All-Stars on vocals. Chow’s bluesy Rhodes piano made a smooth segue out of the Lang work in tandem with Riley’s wry beat-poetry reminiscence. Levine’s Pink Floyd echoes added bulk and bombast; Bathgate’s powerhouse soul vocals were an unexpected treat. As was Riley’s turn solo at the piano, part Satie, part Tom Waits.

What’s the takeaway from all this? This year was less a sounding of what’s happening on a global level, as past years’ and decades’ marathons have been, than a simple celebration of the Bang on a Can inner circle, with a few tentative ventures outside. But that’s ok. They earned that a long time ago.

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May 13, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bearthoven Take a Bite Out of the Accessible Side of the Avant Garde

Bearthoven’s piano/bass/percussion lineup would be as orthodox as orthodox gets if they were a jazz trio, In the world of indie classical and chamber music, that’s a much less likely configuration. The eclectic, disarmingly tuneful debut album by pianist Karl Larson, Gutbucket bassist Pat Swoboda and Tigue percussionist Matt Evans, aptly titled Trios, features the work of seven cutting-edge composers and is due to be streaming this May 5 at the Cantaloupe Music Bandcamp page. They’re playing the album release show at 7:15 sharp on April 18 at the Poisson Rouge; advance tix are $15.

A lot of this music follows a rapid, steady staccato rhythm that is maddeningly difficult to play, but the trio make it sound easy. Brooks Frederickson’s catchy, anvilling, minimalist Understood opens the album, a steady but intricate and subtly polyrhythmic web of melody. A little later on, Ken Thomson’s Grizzly follows a similar tangent with bells, both struck and bowed, dancing through the mix as it brightens, then descends into the murk briefly only to emerge re-energized. By contrast, Anthony Vine’s From a Forest of Standing Mirrors moves glacially and raptly through an Arvo Part-like haze to slightly more kinetic, distantly Japanese-flavored belltones.

Fjóla Evans’ tone poem Shoaling explores individual voicings within a group arrangement, rising out of almost imperceptible, shifting fogbanks of sound to a series of grimly catchy low-register piano melodies within the smoky vortex. Larson’s subtly dynamic yet forceful attack pierces the surface above his bandmates’ bowed bass and other instruments. Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s atmospheric/arrestive dichotomies come to mind: it’s album’s the most intense and captivating track.

Simple Machines, by Brendon Randall-Myers is a a cleverly and dauntingly arranged series of polyrhythmic melodies, its motorik cadence interrupted by the closest thing to free jazz here on its way to a triumphant, cinematic sweep. The album’s final piece is Adrian Knight’s uneasily serene The Ringing World, which appropriates its title from the journal of the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers. Swoboda’s wispy harmonics flit like ghosts in a churchyard amidst Mompou-like belltones played in unison by Larson and Evans on piano and bells. 

As accessible as it is cutting-edge, this album could go a long way toward changing plenty of misconceptions. As if we need more proof that this century’s serious concert music isn’t all necessarily awkward and spastic, this is it.

April 15, 2017 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Auspicious Portrait of Emerging Composers Fjola Evans and Alex Weiser

Student works by emerging composers get a bad rap because they’re so often like term papers, written to display a command of what’s been taught rather than any kind of individual vision. Last night at the Firehouse Space in Greenpoint, two young composers, Fjola Evans and Alex Weiser challenged that stereotype in an eclectic composer portrait concert of chamber works performed with verve by an inspired, talented cast of similarly up-and-coming talent.

The two have an enviable pedigree, mentored by two Bang on a Can luminaries: Evans with Julia Wolfe and Weiser with Michael Gordon. Evans proved to be influenced in a very good way by Wolfe’s relentless purposefulness and and often grim terseness, refusing to waste a single note. Gordon’s translucence, his gift for melody and also his wit were echoed throughout Weiser’s compositions.

The concert opened on an auspicious note with the trio Bearthoven – a band name so good that it hardly seems possible that it went unclaimed til now – slowly and meticulously swaying their way through the stygian whispers and then horror-stricken swells of Evans’ Shoaling, an illustration of long wave motion. Pianist Karl Larson, percussionist Matt Evans and bassist Pat Swoboda established a murky, minimalist ambience that grew and grew until those waves were about to dash the theme on a jagged, rocky shore. It couldn’t have ended more perfectly, as the wail of an ambulance echoed down Kingsland Avenue outside. Starkly ambitious and genuinely profound, it instantly put Evans on the map as someone to keep an eye on.

The composer herself played Augun, more or less a tone poem, solo on cello. It was basically a duet with herself, in tandem with a backing track featuring austere percussive accents and low-register washes, her subtle variations – derived from an Icelandic love ballad – pulling tensely against a central tone. A brief string quartet, Five, played by violinists Megan Atchley and Yu-Wei Hsiao, violist Alex Tasopolous and cellist Alexandra Jones, depicted the angst of the tedium of life in captivity, a marching canon eventually giving way to eye-rolling, seemingly exasperated glissandos and then a series of deft variations. In the end, there seemed to be optimism. Andplay, the duo of violinist Maya Bennardo and violist Hannah Levinson, delivered a graceful take of Dogged, a series of variations on a four-note theme common in Neil Young-style rock that rose from austere building blocks to a warmly sustained conclusion.

Weiser and Evans share a fondness for emphatic, rhythmic motives for a foundation, but that’s where the similarity seems to end. Weiser likes to use a lot of space, especially while laying the groundwork for a piece. He’s drawn to the neoromantic and is a strong songwriter. The highlights among his works were a trio of songs done by Larson and soprano Charlotte Mundy. A distinctive, down-to-earth, disarmingly individualistic singer, she showed off a strong and conversationally direct low range throughout several a-cappella passages, no easy task. More than one person in the crowd remarked that the way she rose from a completely unadorned, intimate delivery to striking highs with just a tinge of gentle vibrato made it seem as if she was singing directly to everyone individually. The triptych’s opener, A Door, rose and fell on Larson’s glimmering waves; the second segment, Night Walk, developed artfully from spacious minimalism to a more lush, ominous nocturnal theme; the third, Marks, had a jauntily dancing flair.

The string quartet played Weiser’s Quake, meant to illustrate a tectonic system on the verge of completely coming apart, an insistently polyrhythmic, artfully dynamic exploration up to an agitatedly galloping coda. Bearthoven Roar, performed by that trio, turned out to be a droll pastiche of Beethoven-like motives interspersed among the instruments, flitting by in seconds. And the night’s concluding piece, Rumbling Waves, played by Larson and Matt Evans, was true to its title.

May 5, 2014 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Composers of the Future Debut Exciting New Works at NYU

Monday night, the NYU Contemporary Music Ensemble played a program of world premieres that transcended the concept of “student works.” Concerts like this are a great way to stay in touch with what the near future of concert music will be. If this show is any indication, spectral and horizontal music is in no danger of disappearing, the presence of Steve Reich looms as close as it did twenty years ago, and there’s no shortage of good up-and-coming talent. NYU’s droll, enthusiastic ensemble director Jonathan Haas and guest conductor Sean Statser took turns on the podium.

Most of the works had no shortage of vivid emotional content, either. Youmee Baek’s Sketches for Yeon, arranged for the group’s mixed strings, winds and percussion, transposed the Romeo and Juliet narrative to feudal Japan. Over a loping, mechanical, rather tongue-in-cheek rhythm spiced with minimalist Asian motifs, a couple of agitated warlords squared off. The group followed with the third segment of Baek’s suite, where Juliet’s lumbering mom chases the disobedient lovers, a showcase for Crystal Chu’s nimble, dynamically-charged percussion as well as her sense of humor.

Laiyo Nakahashi’s Lucid Dream began as a dance from the violins of Patti Kilroy and Maya Bennardo, the viola of Elise Fawley and the cello of Fjola Evans but quickly took on a darkly carnivalesque feel that matched the accompanying animated film by Martina Milova, accented by Matthew Lau’s vibraphone and Tadeusz Domanowski’s piano. A lushly uneasy miniature followed; it was hard to concentrate on both the music and the movie at the same time, but both worked a populist discontent and awareness.

Florent Ghys‘ new tone poem, its title taken from his parents’ phone number, swelled upward, the strings hinting at a slow doppler effect against Manuel Laufer’s apprehensive piano glimmer. Brooks Frederickson’s Be Smart. Be Safe. Stand Back. gave alto saxophonist Bradley Mulholland a workout, moving from almost trombone-ish foghorn lows to a brisk, tiptoeing, baroque interlude, echo motives being passed artfully through the group, its cinematic trajectory rising to a big crescendo driven by Pat Swoboda‘s terse, incisive bass and Evans’ ominously swooping cello accents. The strings took it out with a sirening creepiness.

Leaha Maria Villareal’s spectral The Chasm & the Cliff worked a suspensefully whispery upward climb to a fork in the road where Evans suddenly introduced an agitation that rose to a pummeling, assaultive and intense vortex from the percussion and then faded down again, unresolved. It was the most viscerally exciting piece on the bill. Richard Vagnino’s Night Bus to Boston, a eerily suspensefully, cinematic work, was the most emotionally impactful. Lingering vibraphone drove its creepy crepuscular ambience, alternating voicings with the strings, rising with a neoromantic poignancy. A second part coalesced out of wispy, disjointed voices, fueled by the viola and Nick Mula’s clarinet. Percussion by Abby Fisher and Nick Handahl also factored, sometimes mightily, into the performance.

March 14, 2013 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment