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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

A Characteristically Vivid, Potently Relevant Performance by Ensemble Pi

For the past ten years, adventurous indie classical chamber group Ensemble Pi have played an annual “peace concert,” featuring socially relevant compositions from across the years as well as most of the classical music spectrum. This year’s sold-out multimedia performance Saturday night in the comfortable downstairs auditorium at the Sheen Center on Bleecker Street explored music and writing on themes of captivity and imprisonment. In an era when the Guantanamo Bay gulag is still open, and in a city where atrocities on Rikers Island have recently come to light, it was especially relevant, played with equal amounts vividness and attention to the underlying content.

Which was harrowing. Group impresario/pianist Idith Meshulam led a sextet comprising cellist Alexis Gerlach, clarinetist Moran Katz, violinist Airi Yoshioka, trumpeter Sycil Mathai and vibraphonist Bill Trigg through the thorny, endlessly looping Coming Together, Frederic Rzewski’s portrait of the 1971 Attica prison uprising. An illustration of the crushing tedium and repetition of prison life, it’s cruelly difficult difficult to play. But Meshulam and her steely right hand were undaunted by the challenge of its endlessly metronomic pulse and dizzying permutations. Meanwhile, actor Joseph Assadourian narrated the text, a similarly looping quote from a letter by inmate Sam Melville, killed when troops and police stormed the prison. Later in the program, Assadourian provided his own blackly amusing chronicle of arbitrary judicial conduct in New York criminal court.

Eleanor Cory‘s poignant, carefully voiced short work Riker’s Island, for piano, clarinet, cello and violin, was preceded by a similarly troubling account of women’s prison, read by poet Ashley Mote. The program wound up auspiciously with an unexpectedly and very strongly dynamic rendition of Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, in fact so dynamic that it seemed as if the group was playing it at a much faster tempo than it was written for. As it turned out, they didn’t, but the effect was visceral. Messiaen famously composed it in the men’s latrine in a Nazi prison camp in 1941, not knowing that he’d survive or be released. its instrumentation derives from the fact that clarinet, violin, cello and piano just happened to be the instruments played by the prisoners who debuted it.

Considering how unorthodox this lineup is, the piece is relatively rarely staged. It’s even harder for a musician to wrap his or her hands around since the group playing it is usually a pickup band, more or less. But Meshulam and the rest of her quartet left no doubt that they’d internalized Messiaen’s angst, and muted terror, and also his defiance. On the surface, like pretty much everything else the composer wrote, it traces a liturgical theme, but it’s also the story of a successful prison break. Katz animatedly voiced the birdsong beyond Messiaen’s cell window, not to mention his anguish at not being able to see his feathered friends…and all the subtext that image carries. Likewise, Meshulam scampered animatedly through the tiptoeing, furtive theme that recurs just before the rapt, awestruck conclusion – which seemed to pass by in a heartbeat rather than lingering as other groups tend to do with it. It’s hard to think of a more apt way to close such an impactful, meaningful program.

October 14, 2015 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Toca Loca’s Shed Offers Some Crazy Crashes

Adventurous Canadian trio Toca Loca’s cryptically titled new album Shed is a strangely captivating, grippingly energetic, strikingly rhythmic collection of new and older avant garde music. Pianist/conductor Gregory Oh, pianist Simon Docking and percussionist Aiyun Huang muscle up on a demanding quartet of numbers made for headphones: you can get lost in this stuff. It’s a wonder they don’t too.

The first piece, Half-Remembered City by Dai Fujikura, is a samurai piano duo for four hands. Oh and Docking have injured each other while playing it. Much of it involves passages where one holds down the keys silently while the other hammers away so as to evince overtones out of the dampened strings. There are a lot of pregnant pauses, along with a little leapfrogging and some furtive scurrying and flying cascades amid the slambang staccato. The album liner notes make no mention of whether the pianists injured themselves this time around, or how (or whether) they avoid making mistakes, or if improvisation is part of the process. Either way, it’s impossible to tell.

Huang premiered Heinz Holliger’s Ma’Mounia in 2002 in Geneva. If anything she does here was overdubbed during recording, that’s understandable: she has her hands full, with seemingly an entire orchestra’s percussion instruments to run the gauntlet with in seconds flat. With vibraphone, gong, timpani and what sounds like bowed bells, she scurries uneasily with accompaniment from guests Max Christie on clarinet, Mary-Katherine Finch on cello, Gabriel Radford on French horn and Stephen Tam on flute. A section with what appears to be simulated applause, a series of long, bustling passages and then a lot of Messienesque birdsong against that bustle eventually winds down and bows out with a squeak. The group’s first commission, Andrew Staniland’s Adventuremusic: Love Her Madly is not a Doors cover but rather a hypnotic, low overtone-driven soundscape colored with rapidfire piano cascades, an Asian theme played on bells and a trancey woodblock solo. The album concludes with Frederic Rzewski’s Bring Them Home, one of his protest songs from the early 70s, this one based on a minor-key Irish folk song. In typical Rzewski fashion, the variations go pretty far afield of the original, with a boogie about a quarter of the way in and a hint of a military march about two-thirds through it. It’s unusually imagistic: Huang gets the motif de resistance, a woodblock solo that snidely mimics an earlier, martial snare drum passage. With wars still going on in Afghanistan and Iraq, it’s nice to see this piece getting aired out as vigorously as Toca Loca do it here. It’s out now on Henceforth.

February 26, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: Kai Schumacher Plays Frederic Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated

Unconventional virtuoso playing a suitably unconventional composition. Kai Schumacher was a good choice to record Frederic Rzewski’s iconic 1975 homage to revolutionary ideals, considering the diversity of his background (conservatory, new music and fulltime gig as keyboardist in scorching German rock band Trustgame). The rock comes in handy here because this is a very physically demanding piece, requiring the pianist to play percussion, vocalize and do all kinds of messing around with sustained overtones. It’s proof that didactic music sometimes makes good listening. Essentially, it’s about how revolutions reach critical mass. Parts of it are rigorously mathematical, carefully grouped into growing clusters of notes to symbolize the growing numbers embracing a paradigm shift, but even more of it is unabashedly Romantic – no matter what ideology you give something, ultimately it’s the way it sounds, the way it comes across that determines whether the people sing along.

After the intial theme – famous Chilean composer Sergio Ortega’s revolutionary song, from which this pieces takes its title – ideas sprinkle themselves out from the upper registers, leading to a few staccato, seemingly random plinks – are they lost in space? No. They come back slowly. Twelve-tone rows cascade in jarring sequence, pregnant pauses go on for what seems like ten or fifteen seconds at a clip, and the various interwoven themes – Hans Eisler’s Solidarity Song, and the Italian Red Brigade anthem – move in and out of focus. A waltz and a deviously bouncy atonal fugue sandwich one of those pregnant pauses. Crescendos alternate between triumphant heroic themes and mad dashes of dissonance. Melody tantalizes much like the promise of post-revolutionary normalcy but obstacles keep it from reaching fruition. Schumacher keeps a level head and plays all but the most savage passages with an understatedly smooth attack, employing a vast range of dynamics for emphasis rather than launching into any kind of garish pyrotechnics. By the time the Cadenza comes around he’s been charged up by eight stabbing minutes of staccato noir cabaret and latin folk tune permutations to the point where there is no stopping anymore and the fireworks finally kick in, ablaze in hard-rocking Rachmaninovian fury.

As Schumacher relates in the liner notes, the piece concludes with a somber restatement of the Ortega theme –  a measure of defeat, or of defiance no matter what the odds? Maybe the listener’s interpretation might determine that. To paraphrase Aurelia Shrenker (whose own paradigm-shifting vocal duo project Æ with Eva Salina Primack we just reviewed), wouldn’t it be cool if this song was one that everybody knew?

March 10, 2010 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Sarah Cahill Premieres Antiwar and Peace Music by Rzewski, Kline, Terry Riley and Others at Merkin Concert Hall, NYC 3/12/09

As WNYC host John Schaefer noted, this concert had been given many names by many people: Composers Against the War, Notes on the War, and, eventually, pianist Sarah Cahill’s choice, A Sweeter Music (a MLK quote referring to the sonics of peace). Cahill has become the go-to pianist for adventurous composers of new music; in this case, these were works that she had commissioned during the waning phases of the Bush regime. Virtually all of these were either world premieres or at least being played in this city for the first time, some of them absolutely transcendent, others less so.

 

The most rewarding composition was Phil Kline’s new piano sonata The Long Winter. While far from the only antiwar piece he’s written, it ranks with his best. Originally begun as a collection of fragments, it coalesced right after 9/11, an extremely personal event for Kline, having been jolted from sleep by as the first plane hit Tower Two. The first part set a horrified, repetitive, upper-register staccato motif against crashing, chaotic bass chords, a viscerally intense evocation of the attack, working its way down into a quiet, insistent anguish. In the program notes, Kline explained that in the weeks afterward, he’d realized that he was now living in a city under siege, illustrated by the sonata’s second part, paring the central theme to its most morbid, dread-filled essence. For anyone who breathed the air here during those hellacious first few months, this is essential listening (you’ll be able to hear it on Schaefer’s next New Sounds Live program on March 26).

 

Frederic Rzewski filled Cahill’s request with a series of eight Peace Dances, a marvelously diverse mix of alternately minimalist and melodically rich vignettes. Through the icy call-and-response of the first, the playful yet reflective tone of the third, the Asian-inflected cascades of the seventh and the bouncy, glissando-spiced final piece, Cahill was given the opportunity to use the entirety of her dynamic range and met the challenge with a seeming effortlessness.

 

Another powerfully satisfying work was Kyle Gann’s War Is Just a Racket (whose first working title was George Bush Is an Asshole), Cahill narrating text by 1920s Congressional Medal of Honor recipient and corporate coup whistleblower hero General Smedley Butler against a jarringly percussive, frequently rubato piece with a deliciously sly humor in places, folksy ragtime or deceptive blues coming out nowhere to underscore the text’s most ironic moments. We’ve reprinted the full text below, something of an early version of what John Perkins would confirm in his bestselling Confessions of an Economic Hit Man in 2004.

 

The rest of the bill included pieces by young composer Preben Antonsen, the Residents, a particularly sadistic work by Jerome Kitzke and a fascinating, rather biting ragtime suite by Terry Riley replete with all kinds of strikingly counterintuitive accents and dissonances making unexpected appearances within its comfortable architecture.

 

And now over to Gen. Butler:

 

“War is just a racket. A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of people. Only a small inside group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few at the expense of the masses. I believe in adequate defense of the coastline and nothing else. If a nation comes over here to fight, then we’ll fight. The trouble with America is that when the dollar only earns 6 percent over here, then it gets restless and goes overseas to get 100 percent. Then the flag follows the dollar and the soldiers follow the flag. I wouldn’t go to war again as I have done to protect some lousy investment of the bankers. There are only two things we should fight for. One is the defense of our homes and the other is the Bill of Rights. War for any other reason is simply a racket.

 

There isn’t a trick in the racketeering bag that the military gang is blind to. It has its “finger men” to point out enemies, its “muscle men” to destroy enemies, its “brain men” to plan war preparations, and a “Big Boss” Super-Nationalist-Capitalism. It may seem odd for me, a military man to adopt such a comparison. Truthfulnesss compels me to. I spent thirty-three years and four months in active military service as a member of this country’s most agile miltary force, the Marine Corps. I served in all comissioned ranks from Second Lieutanant to Major-General. And during that period, I spent most of my time being a high class muscle-man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the Bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a ganster for capitalism.

 

I suspected I was just part of a racket at the time. Now I am sure of it. Like all the members of the military profession, I never had a thought of my own until I left the service. My mental faculties remained in suspended animation while I obeyed the orders of higher-ups. This is typical with everyone in the military service. I helped make Mexico, expecially Tampico, safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefits of Wall Street. The record of racketeeing is long. I heped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers [later Brown Brothers Harriman, where Prescott Bush, George Bush Senior’s father, would become Adolf Hitler’s #1 fundraiser in the United States prior to World War II] in 1909-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. In China I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested.

 

During those years, I had, as the boys in the back room would say, a swell racket. Looking back on it, I feel that I could have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.”

March 14, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments