Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Colin Stetson Hauntingly Reinvents an Iconic Eulogy For the Victims of Genocide

What’s more Halloweenish than the arguably most evil event in human history? Friday night at the World Financial Center, saxophonist Colin Stetson led a twelve-piece jazz orchestra through his inventive, intensely immersive original arrangement of Henryk Gorecki’s third Symphony, better known as the “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs.” The Polish composer dedicated it to victims of the Holocaust and World War II; the 1992 recording by the London Sinfonietta with soprano Dawn Upshaw remains one of the very last classical recordings to sell a million copies worldwide.

Stetson pointedly remarked before the show that he’d remained true Gorecki’s original melodies, beyond extending or sustaining certain climactic passages, “Amplified for these times.” That ominousness rang especially true right from the start. The main themes are a solemn processional and a round of sorts, both of which rose to several mighty crescendos that were far louder than anything Gorecki ever could have imagined.

Spinning his axes – first a rumbling contrabass clarinet, then his signature bass sax and finally an alto – through a pedalboard along with his looming vocalese, Stetson anchored the dense sonic cloud. Bolstering the low end on multi-saxes and clarinets were Matt Bauder (of darkly brilliant, psychedelic surf rockers Hearing Things) and Dan Bennett, along with cellist Rebecca Foon and synth players Justin Walter and Shahzad Ismaily. Violinists Amanda Lo and Caleb Burhans were charged with Gorecki’s most ethereal tonalities, while guitarists Grey Mcmurray and Ryan Ferreira got a serious workout, tirelessly chopping at their strings with endless volleys of tremolo-picking. It’s amazing that everybody got through this without breaking strings.

The addition of Greg Fox on drums resulted in an unexpected, sometimes Shostakovian satirical feel, adding a twisted faux-vaudevillian edge to a section of the second movement. Stetson’s sister Megan ably took charge of the Upshaw role with her dramatic but nuanced arioso vocal stylings. After the smoke had risen and fallen and risen again across the battlefield, the air finally cleared, an apt return to the stillness and meditative quality of the original score, matching the guarded optimism of the ending as much as the group had channeled the grief and muted anguish of the rest of the work. One suspects the composer – who toiled under a repressive Iron Curtain regime for much of his life – would have approved.

You’ll be able to hear this when the performance airs on John Schaefer’s New Sounds Live on WNYC, most likely early in November.

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October 17, 2017 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

This Year’s Bang on a Can Marathon Focuses on Its Core Talent

What better to jar a sleepy crowd out of a pre-noon summer torpor than a steel pan orchestra? Kendall Williams’ arrangement of a Lord Nelson calypso hit, with its exubertant resemblance to a ballpark organ version of Take Me Out to the Ballgame, made an apt kickoff to this year’s Bang on a Can Marathon. The 2015 edition of the annual avant garde festival differentiated itself from previous concerts with its emphasis on larger-scale works, circling the wagons with a somewhat abbreviated list of performers. Past years featured an often exhilarating mix of global acts, frequently going on til almost dawn. This one was somewhat shorter, focusing more on a rotating cast of characters from the Bang on a Can organization and its triumvirate, composers David Lang, Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe. The live stream is here; much of the concert will air eventually on John Schaefer’s New Sounds program on WNYC.

Pianist Vicky Chow tackled the challenge of an hour’s worth of staccato, motorik minimalism by Tristan Perich while variously processed electronic echoes rose and fell, sometimes subsuming Chow’s literally marathon performance. Echoing Brian Eno, the piece gave the rapidly growing financial district winter garden crowd a chance to sink back into a Sunday reverie before it unexpectly rose to a long series of demandingly energetic ripples. Chow probably welcomed several opportunies to pause and breathe when the machines took over completely. There was a clever false ending and a resonantly minimalist return to stillness and calm. Later in the day, bassist Florent Ghys followed a similar trajectory with a slinky noir groove and increasingly dancing, cinematic variations over kinetic, higher-register loops: a trippy, lively instrumental karaoke performance, essentially.

The Dither Guitar Quartet delivered a deliciously gritty, bitingly chromatic Lainie Fefferman Velvet Underground homage evoking Daydream Nation-era Sonic Youth. Thanks to a few judicious kicks of a boot into a loop pedal, they had a stomping beat behind their savagely crescendoing forest of overtones and blistering roar.

Mighty six-piano ensemble Grand Band hit a similar peak a bit later on with Lang’s Face So Pale, a substantially slower reworking of a Guillaume du Fay renaissance composition that did double duty as a mass and a “pop song,” as Lang put it. The group meticulously synchronized its pointillistically hypnotic, staccato incisions with the same precision that the sheet music on each player’s tablet flipped from page to page. What a treat it was to be in the second row for a dreamy surround-sound experience of that one.

Asphalt Orchestra played three joyous reinventions of Pixies favorites, reaffirming how well that band’s output translates to brass band. Sousaphone player John Altieri anchored the music, alto saxophonist Ken Thomson and trumpeter Stephanie Richards providing some of the afternoon’s most unselfconsiously adrenalizing moments. Then the Crossfire Steel Orchestra returned for a dancing but bracing Kendall Williams composition, rising and falling insistently.

Within minutes, Thomson was back onstage, this time on clarinet with the house art-rock band the Bang on a Can All-Stars, playing material from their latest album Field Recordings. They did Wolfe’s lilting, Acadian-flavored Reeling to accompany a recording of Canadian “mouth music.” Arguably the high point of the festival, Johann Johannsson‘s Hz built a vast, ominously looming horizontal expanse punctuated by David Cossin’s creepily twinkling vibraphone and Mark Stewart’s mighty washes of distorted guitar chords. Anna Clyne‘s A Wonderful Day grounded a sunny African-flavored melody in the dark textures of Robert Black’s bass, Thomson’s bass clarinet and Ashley Bathgate’s cello. Composer Todd Reynolds introduced his gospel choir mashup Seven Sundays witih a shout-out to the victims of the past week’s South Carolina massacre. Fueled by Bathgate’s sinewy lines, it turned out to be a characteristically jaunty dance with stadium rock heft and trippy hip-hop tinges.

The group’s final performance of the night, written by the BOAC three in collaboration with composer Lao Luo, was backing Chinese theatre chanteuse Gong Linna, pulling out all the stops for a dramatic triptych based on ancient shamanic songs.. The first invoked a fertility god, rising from rustic bluesiness to a towering vocal crescendo. The second, directed in English to a destructive river god, built from shivery low-string menace to a big, looping gallop, eventually coming full circle wih a visceral menace. The finale was a tonguetwistingly rapidfire polysyllabic love song to the mountain spirit – “Everybody in China knows this one,” grinned Linna – the mighty goddess ultimately spurning the shaman’s entreaties. You could call it kabuki rock.

Pianist Tomoko Mukaiyama made her way energetically through a creepy, Philip Glass-esque series of cellular motives from Somei Satoh‘s Ostinato Variations and then his alternately neoromantic and resonantly minimalistic, dynamically shifing Incarnations.  Third Angle New Music tackled Julian Day’s electroacoustic cut-and-paste Quartz, veering from sputtery to atmospheric as the piece ostensibly incorporated passages from two famous unfinished works, Haydn’s String Quartet in D and Schumann’s Quartettsatz. As it went on, it echoed Wolfe’s ominous adventures in string music, notably her chilling Cruel Sister suite.

Playing in the center of the atrium, Asphalt Orchestra’s versions of a trio of tunes by the pyrotechnic magician of Bulgarian clarinet music, Ivo Papasov swirled and blended into the space’s echoey sonics to the point where it wasn’t possible to tell if the band was actually playing his signature, machinegunning volleys note for note, or whether they were just holding them. But either way, what a way to send the energy to redline in a split second. Wisely, they returned to the more hospitable sonics of the stage for the final barn-burner.

Grand Band returned for their bandmate Paul Kerekes‘ Wither and Bloom, a diptych illustrating decay and rebirth. The first section’s flitting motives shifting elegantly into more minimal terrain, the second going in the opposite direction. Their final performance was a sardonic commissioned work from Gordon informed by childhood piano lesson trauma, a percussive, polyrhythmic roller-coaster ride punctuated by the occasional etude-like cascade.

So Percussion, with guitarist Nels Cline, did Bobby Previte’s Terminal 3 and 4, the composer on drums. Cline’s reverb roar, skronky Keith Levene-esque whistles and wails and white noise on the first number, outdoing the Dither guys for sheer volume, echoed out over staccato drum volleys like the Grateful Dead’s Space on crack. The second was a shticky but mercilessly funny portrait of the kind of torture drummers suffer, as well as the ones they inflict on the rest of us.

Brazilian percussionist/showman Cyro Baptista, leading a trio with Brian Marsella on multikeys and Tim Keiper on second drumkit, got a loud, jungly drone going and then launched into an animated shuffle, using a thicket of offbeat instruments from a big gong to a jawharp. Spacy, frantic hardbop gave way to vaudevillian audience-response antics, lots of pummeling and a return to dissociative disco.

Glenn Branca wound up the marathon, conducting a band with four guitars – two Fenders, an Ibanez Fender copy  and something else – plus minimal bass and pounding drums. It’s not the first time he’s done it and it probably won’t be the last. Branca still air-conducts with a very physical, Jimmy Page-style presence, in contrast to the group’s low-key focus. They opened with German Expressionism, a slowly swaying exchange of disquieting tritone-laced riffs; Jazzmaster player Arad Evans played the solo part on Branca’s looming Smoke guitar concerto, a turbocharged look back at a time when New York acts like Live Skull pulverized audiences. The group wound up with a trio of the composer’s signature more-or-less one-chord jams, part no wave orchestra, My Bloody Valentine and Also Sprach Zarathustra. Although this year’s marathon was about as abbreviated – relatively speaking – as other recent ones have been, it felt even shorter. Maybe that’s because there were so few lulls, the music and performances being consistently strong almost all the way through.

Some random observations: a painfully precious spoken-word component ruined an intriguingly swoopy and spiky LJ White piece for violin and cello played agilely by a subset of Third Angle New Music. The upstairs food court drew all the rugrats and their parents, leaving the downstairs mostly to concertgoers. Joy! The grounds crew shut off that obnoxious alarm on the elevator at the rear of the area: double joy! The roof leaking rain, not so joyful – the pianos got it good but this blog’s laptop escaped undamaged.

Another marathon, this one on the Upper West Side begininng on Saturday and ending this morning, offered a more improvisational kind of fun based on Erik Satie’s Vexations. A creepy, loopy piece designed to be played over and over a total of 840 times, it inspired composers Randall Woolf and Art Jarvinen to come up with their own variations.  A relay team of pianists assembled by Jed Distler began the performance at 8 AM and were planning on finishing up 24 hours later: a stop in on them late Saturday morning found both a pianist and electronic keyboardist blending textures over a loop of the Satie, occasionally embellished by both players, including a droll quote from one of the Gymnopedies. It would have been fun to have been able to stick around for more.

June 21, 2015 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Grey McMurray Reinvents a Classic Horror Movie Theme and Its Aftermath

Before the world premiere of his new arrangement of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells last night, guitarist Grey McMurray encouraged WNYC’s John Schaefer to take a few slugs from the hip flask that he’d just flashed to the audience. The joke was that the original album was ostensibly fueled by a lot of alcohol (and obviously a lot of other stuff – it was 1973, after all). What was it like to experience McMurray’s new version without the help of any of that? It was definitely an improvement on the original, worthy of Brian Eno in places. The question is whether or not the original merited as much. Running late to get to the early afterwork show, there wasn’t time to hit the wine store beforehand, something that might have been a good idea.

Seriously: beyond the prog-rock/mathrock cult, who’s ever listened to side two of the album, let alone the sequence of tracks after the iconic tune in 15/4 time that was cut-and-pasted into the theme to the Exorcist? That hit single has been a staple of Halloween playlists for four decades. How Halloweenish did it sound, as played by McMurray and the Wordless Music Orchestra? Not very. The main theme wasn’t even played on tubular bells: drummer Qasim Naqvi introduced it by plinking it out on glockenspiel. From a listener’s point of view, it was harder to defamiliarize, and experience that deliciously eerie theme with fresh ears, than it must have been for McMurray and the group to recontextualize it. He’d explained beforehand that he’d discouraged them from listening to the original for inspiration: smart advice.

What is the rest of the album like? The original, mostly overdubbed by Oldfield himself on a large studio’s supply of instruments, is showoffy, endlessly vamping and not particularly substantial. It’s short of second-rate Pink Floyd. For that matter, it’s not second-rate Jethro Tull, another obvious influence, either. Yet McMurray found beauty and elegance in it, building a joyously Enoesque, clear-sky gleam that lingered until the piece took a detour into secondhand Americana. Violinist Caleb Burhans, acoustic guitarist Aaron Roche, keyboardist/singer Olga Bell, pianist Justin Carroll and cellist Clarice Jensen reveled in those expansive textures.

Sound engineer Richie Clarke was given a shout-out in the program notes and earned that many times over: the World Financial Center atrium, where highs spin off the walls like electrons from what’s left of the Fukushima plant, is hardly conducive to rock bands, even an elegant art-rock band like this one. But he made it work, and McMurray gets credit for much of that because he also felt the room and kept his amp down in the mix so that the strings in particular could be heard. The lone shiver-inducing moment belonged to Jensen, whose sinewy, raspy reprise of the horror movie theme came completely by surprise about a third of the way through the suite. Bassist Chris Morrissey, like McMurray, looked like he was about to jump out of his shoes at times, resisting the urge to stand up and blast out his loopily propulsive groove. And Schaefer himself supplied the deadpan spoken-word introduction of the instruments, unable to resist a grin as he did so: by then, maybe he’d gotten into the sauce.

What it is like to listen back to it after having a few? It sounds better. You can decide for yourself when the concert airs on Q2 and then on Schaefer’s New Sounds program on November 20: you might want to make it a party night. Memo to the band: release this album on vinyl and you stand a good chance of topping the Billboard charts. No joke. If Leonard Cohen could do it, so can you. There’s an awful lot of old people, and young people too, who will buy it.

October 17, 2014 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 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