Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Rhizoma Evokes Vast, Haunting Vistas

Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s debut collection, Rhizoma, came out late last year on Innova. This minimalistic yet lush, desolate yet forcefully immediate, dark masterpiece hasn’t yet reached the audience it should. Interpolated between its three orchestral works is a murky five-part suite, Hidden, for solo percussed piano, played with judiciously brooding intensity by Justin DeHart. A series of low rumbles punctuated by the occasional sepulchral brush of the piano strings, with deftly placed single notes or simple phrases, the motifs are spaced apart with considerable distance, to the point of creating a Plutonian pace. The piece compares favorably with Eli Keszler’s recent, stygian work – and is best enjoyed as a cohesive whole, resequenced so its segments play consecutively.

The big orchestral works are showstoppers, to put it mildly. The first, Hrim (the Icelandic term for the growth of ice crystals) is performed by the seventeen-piece chamber orchestra Caput Ensemble conducted by Snorri Sifgus Birgisson. A tense, wary tone poem spiced with sudden, jarring cadenzas from the brass, strings, percussion or piano, it begins with a muffled rumble eventually balanced by a high, keening string drone, building to long, shifting tones, a brief, horror-stricken interlude with the piano grappling against fluttering agitation from the violins and then follows a long trajectory downward to eventual silence. Far more dramatic is the potently cinematic Streaming Arhythmia. Once again, mutedly minimal motifs from a long series of voices over a droning rumble build to a scurrying crescendo where everyone seems to have frantically thrown their windows wide to see what horrific event is about to take place. From there the orchestra builds a big black-sky theme (like a wide-open, expansive blue-sky theme but vastly more menacing), low strings in tandem with the timpani and brass at the bottom of their registers. Autumnal hues eventually ebb and fall over the drones; it ends on an unexpectedly playful note, the horror having gone up in smoke, or back into ocean.

The centerpiece, performed by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Daniel Bjarnason is sardonically titled Dreaming – but it’s a fullscale nightmare. Fading up with suspenseful Art of Noise-style footfalls over an amber glimmer, microtonal sheets of sound rise with a stately swirl and a distant menace. Waves of muted, rumbling percussion introduce an ominous cumulo-nimbus ambience and allusively tense minor-key phrases (from a compositional standpoint, this is a clinic in implied melody), fading elegantly to ghostly knocks, flutters and flurries.

To say that this album engages the listener is quite the understatement: obviously, these works were made first and foremost for live performance. On cd, the vast dynamic range Thorvaldsdottir employs requires constant attention to the volume level. This does not facilitate casual listening: it’s inaudible if you turn it down too low, and it can become extremely jarring if you turn it up. But maybe that’s the point of all this. Minimalism has seldom been so in-your-face. Who is the audience for this? Fans of dark sounds in general, dark cinematic composers like Bernard Herrmann, and also those who gravitate toward the horizontal work of Gerard Grisey or Henryk Gorecki but wish it had more rhythm and dynamics.

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August 16, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Energetic Trance Music at le Poisson Rouge

The idea of a low-key guitar-and-violin duo putting on a charismatic, totally psychedelic show might seem improbable, but that’s exactly what Grey McMurray and Caleb Burhans did last night at le Poisson Rouge. It was hypnotic in the purest sense of the word. As the musicians launched into a lingering, gently sustained two-guitar phrase that slowly took on one permutation after another as it made its way through a maze of effects pedals, the crowd slowly assembled around the stage, as if a trance. By now, the lights had completely gone out: the only illumination in the club came from the sconces at the bar and the speakers overhead. The blend of ringing, bell-like tones and dreamily atmospheric washes grew more complex, and then pulled back a bit, Burhans working feverishly over a mixing board. When he introduced a sudden, swooping phrase that slyly panned the speakers, heads turned, virtually in unison. A little later, he broke the spell as he reached for the mic and let out a restrained, tense howl. At that point, a handful of people quickly moved to the bar for a drink. Had the intensity been too much to take?

Burhans’ and McMurray’s new double cd Everybody’s Pain Is Magnificent – released on the New Amsterdam label under the name itsnotyouitsme – is an unselfconsciously beautiful chillout record. This show assembled several of its ethereally ringing, lingering segments as two roughly 25-minute suites. After the first had ended, Burhans encouraged the crowd to sit on the floor and take in the rest of the show, and pretty much everyone complied. If Burhans had suggested that everybody take the L train to Morgan Avenue and then lie down on the subway tracks, would the crowd have done that too? In the age of color-coded terrorist alerts and satellite tracking via foursquare and innumerable other marketing schemes, is this what audiences have become? Or, was this simply the power of the music revealing itself in all its glistening, trippy splendor? Was the experience something akin to what it must have been like to watch Pink Floyd or the Grateful Dead circa 1967?

Maybe. As Burhans lay down one judicious wash after another from his violin, McMurray adding one stately sequence of notes after another, there were tinges of Philip Glass and Gerard Grisey as well: both musicians come from a classical background. In order to maintain the quietly mesmerizing ambience, the two practically danced on their pedals as they added and then subtracted one texture after another from the flow of sound as it looped around. In order to avoid the kind of mechanical monotony that often characterizes this kind of music, they built several polyrhythms into the mix. With split-second timing, they made the effect seamlessly ethereal rather than chaotic. And not everything they played was quiet and soothing, either. For what seemed minutes at a time, McMurray would wail up and down on his strings, add the passage to the mix, then add and subtract minutely measured amounts of distortion, or reverb, or sustain, or a combination of several effects at once. By the time the second suite was over, they’d almost imperceptibly taken the sonic trajectory to wary, somewhat icy terrain much like the best stuff on Radiohead’s Kid A.

Is this meant to be stoner music? From the look of the crowd, quite possibly. Or maybe it was just the heat. Burhans and McMurray were working hard onstage and deserved some air conditioning, and like the crowd, they didn’t seem to be getting any. It’s one thing for the bartender at some dingy Williamsburg bar to show up late and forget to put on the AC, but it’s hard to understand how not a single person out of the Poisson Rouge’s entire nattily uniformed staff couldn’t have flipped a switch and given their customers a respite from a grimly unpleasant global warming-era evening.

September 27, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The New York Philharmonic’s CONTACT Live 11/19/10

We’re liveblogging from New York’s Symphony Space tonight. Latest updates at the bottom of the page.

In a minute or two, what looks like a roughly fifteen-piece ensemble of the New York Philharmonic conducted by Alan Gilbert will open this fall’s first concert of their new music series CONTACT that began so auspiciously last year. First piece on the bill is a world premiere by the NY Phil’s composer-in-residence, Magnus Lindberg titled Souvenir (In Memoriam Gerard Grisey). They’ll follow that with Grisey’s final work, the suite Quatre Chants Pour Franchir le Seuil, featuring soprano Barbara Hannigan. 

Lindberg studied with Grisey, so there’s a personal connection here dating from 1981 until Grisey’s death unexpectedly in 1998.

For those of you on twitter, you can tweet to @nyphilcontact. 

This concert being recorded and will air on Q2 on 11/24 and 11/27 at 8 PM EST and then on 11/30 at 4 PM EST.

Grisey was one of the titans of serial music – airy, atmospheric, horizontal stuff that makes frequent (in this guy’s case, constant) use of microtones. John Schaefer’s emceeing a brief pre-concert conversation with Gilbert and Lindberg. The term “otherworldly” arose early, and that ought to be one way of describing what’s going to happen. Off we go…

Drama right off the bat – a muted crash on the gong, and another – it’s a funeral march, wandering and weaving. The occasional low register accents from the piano anchor the cello and now the bassoon – it’s more melodic, and Romantically tinged, and just plain interesting than one might assume a Grisey homage might be…dark, stately drama, a flourish of the vibraphone, a stormy rise up the scale, the hint of a fanfare – Gilbert is like a kid in a candy store up there but judicious about it…

Piano and cello bustle…staccato violin, and was that just a Sacre de Printemps quote?! Wary woodwind trills…a pause…a somewhat cinematic string-led crescendo…what an interesting person Grisey must have been…

The winds take over, a brass flourish, drums cap the swell, vibes take it down and more mysterious…reminds of a Bill Evans score, and a good one. Drive it home, low brass! Nope. First movement ends quietly and unresolved – as if there would be a resolution…

Second movement – a mournful horn call, the ensemble rises warily – it’s austerity versus bubbles with the harp and the vibes…big swell, vibes kick in with a bang at the top, down a bit – is anybody else hearing Stravinsky here? Moonlight piano breezes, cold ones – colder, beautifully twinkling…a bass drum pulse grows beneath rising uneasy atmospherics, a shift and a downshift…and now the funeral procession has come together. Maybe it’s just running up here in the cold with just a suit jacket on, but this really captures an atmosphere. And the strings rustle, everybody knows what time it is, nobody wants to go to the grave, everybody just wants to start drinking…but that won’t happen. This is magnificent.

The low brass weigh in lugubriously, the strings and those vibes again, they’re all nerves, searching for a frivolous note to hold reality at bay…but the tritone won’t let them. Nice. Still and sad out.

Fluttering and dark and chillly intro to the third movement. And more percussive drama – why did this have to happen? Shostakovian swell, a mini-rondo with the vibes and the strings and a gentle little Gallic dance – remember the Debussy string quartet? – a little like that…descending into the depths with whacks of the woodblock, down we go…such an autumnal ambience…and a big practically joyous swell as if to say “thanks for the memories.” Unexpected. The crowd are on their feet…check back with us in about fifteen minutes for the Grisey.

A very nice couple in the back here were distracted by all this typing during the performance. They had every right to be hostile, but they were diplomatic. Same thing happened while liveblogging here last time. The most obvious solution would be to do this oldschool style: record it and listen back, or take some notes and then work up a review from there afterward. Grisey’s music isn’t exactly thunderous. But since we’re halfway through – and we promised you the whole show – we’ll finish it this time.

Grisey’s songs are titled The Death of the Angel, The Death of Civilization, The Death of the Voice and The Death of Humanity. Upbeat and cheery – not. The ensemble for this is slightly smaller – no piano, but twin harps. More pre-performance chatter with John Schaefer – Lindberg credits Grisey as the most philosophical composer of his era. “You have to submerge yourself in this piece,” explains Gilbert, equating it to the drama in watching drops of water. Stephen Jay Gould’s description of evolution as “punctuated equilibrium,” catastrophism rather than a slow, steady rate of change as an analogy – stillness punctuated by drama (hmmm…that’s Wagner, isn’t it?).

Pianissimo white noise into muffled , terse, atonal descending progressions; Barbara Hannigan interjects a couple moments of staccato operatic angst…hearing this live for the first time, it’s surprisingly tight, much more of an ensemble piece than the way others have interpreted it…translation from the French: “Like an angel, I owe it to myself to die.” Offcenter vibraphone tones provide a ghostly gamelan tinge…and speaking of a gamelan, there goes the big bass gong…airy stillness over distantly boomy percussion…would “Ballardian soundscape” be completely over-the-top?

All these low yodel-like melismas into dramatic octave-plus jumps for Hannigan are incredibly tough and she’s absolutely nailing them…and a low rumble out. The Black Angel’s Death Song?

No, that might be La Mort de la Civilisation, though: brooding quiet chromatics and a narration taken from Egyptian mummy cases: “destroyed…almost completely destroyed…” etc. Profound stillness beneath plaintive vocals, marvelously done. They get this music. Big vocal leaps against slightly sharp tones (i.e. sharp versus flat)…it could have ended pretty much anywhere, which is where it did.

Now the voice succumbs…oh no it doesn’t. Scary scrapy violin, the rumble of the gong and bass clarinet and is that a contrabassoon – more of a study in contrasts than anything up to this point. When there’s so much stillness, the temptation is to seize on the dramatic moments, few and far between as they are here – but they’re building this, and it’s not looking optimistic…

So let’s kill off all of humanity now. Ominous low swells into a fluttery helicoptering of a snare drum, or two, mechanically acoustic Alan Parsons ambience…this is based on the Epic of Gilgamesh – footsteps, and a rise, and Hannigan sends a shudder down everybody’s spine with a couple of hair-raising out-of-the-blue wails…angst against the dying of the light…what a chilling set of compositions to go out with! Grisey died shortly after completing these, maybe he sensed his time was short…pianississimo, a last glimmer of life in the distance…pregnant pause…decaying overtonal overture…airy and bell-like, a soft-focus apocalypse…they march it with surprising lack of rage as it winds out…

The reaction is slow – now the trance is over, the stunned crowd reacts. Time for a drink now!!

November 19, 2010 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The New York Philharmonic’s Contact! Demystified

The New York Philharmonic’s debut performance of Contact!, their new series dedicated to cutting-edge music by contemporary composers got off to an auspicious start at Symphony Space last December. They’re doing another program at Symphony Space featuring pieces by Nico Muhly, Matthias Pintscher and Sean Shepherd this Friday, April 16 at 8, which we’ll be liveblogging (wave to us up in the balcony but please don’t disturb your neighbor). The program repeats at the Metropolitan Museum of Art at 7 PM on the 17th. John Mangum, the orchestra’s Artistic Administrator, didn’t let a computer crash stop him from helping us shed some light on what promises to be an equally auspicious performance:

Q: The first question is the most crucial one: are tickets still available for the April 16 show at Symphony Space and the one on the 17th at the Metropolitan Museum of Art?

A: Yes.

Q: The New York Philharmonic are not strangers to championing contemporary composers. Other than the fact that Contact! so far has featured pieces for smaller ensembles, what differentiates this series from other programs featuring the avant-garde?

A: The Contact! series for the current season, 2009/10, features exclusively commissioned works – each program is comprised entirely of world premieres. In future seasons, we’re looking at expanding the series’ mandate to make room for some of the classics from the last two decades. For example, in November 2010, we’ll have a program pairing a world premiere by Magnus Lindberg with the “Quatre chants pour franchir le seiul” (“Four Songs for Crossing the Threshhold”), the last work of Magnus’ teacher, the pivotal French composer Gerard Grisey, which he completed in 1994.

Q: Is there a common link between the composers that led to their selection for this program? Or a common thread, musical or thematic, that links the compositions?

A: They’re all crucial voices from among the younger generations of composers living and working in the New York area – both Matthias Pintscher and Nico Muhly are here in the City, and Sean Shepherd, who recently graduated from Juilliard, is working at Cornell with Steven Stucky and Roberto Sierra. The striking thing is how different each composer’s approach is, and that really comes to the fore when their works are placed on the same program. It makes a strong statement about the variety and vitality of music today.

Q: What criteria and whose decisions determine who gets a commission from the NY Phil as Muhly, Shepherd and Pintscher have here? Is there a line around the block, or is is the secret star chamber that decides immune to persuasion?

A: We try to be really aware of who is out there. Members of the Orchestra, Magnus Lindberg (our Composer-in-Residence), Alan Gilbert (our Music Director), and I all play a part. We meet, talk, look at scores – both those we’ve requested and those that have just come in unsolicited – and make the decision based on what turns us on. It’s exciting to be part of creating new art, and we want to share that excitement with our audiences.

Q: The debut of Contact! had minimalism, an intricate rondo, horizontal music, orchestrated Mongolian throat-singing chants and a jungly thicket of Brazilian percussion. What do audiences have to look forward to in this program?

A: Matthias’ piece is a wonderfully refined, tremendously thoughtful setting of sacred Hebrew texts for our Artist-in-Residence Thomas Hampson. There are strikingly beautiful sonorities, and really sophisticated use of the instrumental ensemble. Sean’s work is very energetic, full of all sorts of references to itself and other pieces. It’s a piece in seven sections, with a real arc, a real shape to it, and the use of the ensemble is, like Matthias’ work, again very sophisticated, though the result is different. Nico’s piece also has that same sense of energy and structure – there seems to be something about New York that brings this energy, this life out in composers.

Q: The ensemble was divided into unusual permutations last time around – for example, one of the pieces featured four string quartets with a bass at each end of the stage. Can the audience expect any such thing like on this bill?

A: The ensembles for these three pieces are similar, so there won’t be that kind of contrast like we had last time, with Lei Liang’s piece for four string quartets and two double basses. The contrast in this program comes from the different styles of the three composers, and it is striking.

Q: This is the first time Contact! has featured vocal music – will there be vocal music at upcoming performances?

A:Yes. On the November program next season, the Grisey work is for high soprano and ensemble.

Q: Why do this at Symphony Space and the Met? Why not just stay home at Avery Fisher Hall?

A: We really wanted to take this project out into the city, and after considering several different venues, these two proved ideal for a variety of practical and artistic reasons. At Symphony Space, the programming is a good fit with the work Laura Kaminsky, their artistic director, is doing there. It’s also right in the heart of the Upper West Side, close to Columbia as well. At the Met Museum, I like the statement it makes – we’re putting contemporary music on stage there, streaming new art into the flow and tradition of millennia of artistic achievement. That you literally go from ancient Egypt to New York, 2010 – I think that’s pretty cool.

April 14, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, interview, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment