Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Revisiting a Rare Surrealist Relic

One of the most bizarrely entertaining, inimitable largescale ensemble albums to come over the transom here in the past several months is the live recording of Harry Partch‘s “ballet satire” The Bewitched, streaming at Spotify. Recorded by a sixteen-piece group in concert in Berlin in 1980, it’s a dadaesque, often cartoonish suite written as a spoof of musical and societal pretensions. Partch was the quintessential outsider and took great satisfaction in deflating any bloated ego within earshot.

The twenty-minute prologue sets the stage, a defiantly swaying, percussion-heavy, quasi-gamelanesque theme featuring several of Partch’s inventions including the “marimba eroica” and “cloud chamber bowls” along with swooping winds and strings. If Spike Jones did a joint parody of Robert Ashley and Juan Esquivel, it might sound like this. With its persistent clickety-clack phrasing, some might say that you have to be stoned to appreciate this kind of beatnik excess.

Isabella Tercero plays the Witch as an operatic diva, sent to thumb her nose at a long list of hypocrites and other targets of derision, some more obvious than others. She doesn’t get much time singing out in front of the band. The first scene concerns the Transfiguration of American Undergrads in a Hong Kong Music Hall via anvil rhythms, warpy kithara and koto, and ersatz Asian tonalities.

Beyond the titles of the successive variations, it’s often not clear exactly what Partch is critiquing. The Permutation of Exercises in Harmony and Counterpoint turns out to be a comfortable baroque-tinged theme and what sounds like vocal warmups within an increasingly noisy environment. Faux Middle Eastern allusions come to the forefront early on, especially in The Inspired Romancing of a Pathological Liar.

What is The Alchemy of a Soul Tormented by Contemporary Music? Not a happy place to be. It’s easy to imagine a young Terry Riley hearing Partch’s Visions of a Defeated Basketball Team in the Shower Room and having a eureka moment.

The Euphoria on a Sausalito Stairway could be a subtle sendup of suspense film cliches. There is suspense, along with moments of phony jazz, in The Transmutation of Detectives on the Trail of a Culprit.

The haziest interlude is where Partch has a court address its own contempt. From there, a Political Soul wanders Lost Among the Voteless Women of Paradise. Then the ensemble get to pounce and clatter their way through the groupthink of the Demonic Descent of the Cognoscenti While Shouting Over Cocktails. The coda is wry and caricaturesque.

Maybe this is too much to ask for, but the suite also has a visual component involving audience participation and a basketball drill: a DVD might offer additional insight into what Partch is up to here.

January 18, 2022 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Things Go Bump in the Night With the Momenta Quartet

It’s extremely rare that an artist or group make the front page here more than once in a single week. But today, because the Momenta Quartet play such stylistically diverse, consistently interesting music, they’ve earned that distinction – just like the Kronos Quartet have, on two separate occasions, since this blog went live in 2007. Some people are just a lot more interesting than others.

This year’s annual Momenta Festival is in full swing, with its usual moments of transcendence and blissful adrenaline. The Momenta Quartet’s violist Stephanie Griffin programmed night one; night two, violinist Emilie-Anne Gendron took charge. As she put it, the theme was “Lively things that happen at night.” She wasn’t kidding.

Maybe, to provide a little break for her bandmates – who also include violinist Alex Shiozaki and cellist Michael Haas – Gendron supplied a major portion of the adrenaline with an irresistible romp through Erwin Schulhoff’s rarely performed Sonata For Violin Solo. Throughout its eclectic shifts from evocations of Appalachian, Middle Eastern, Asian and rustic Romany music, she swayed and practically clogdanced at one point, and that vivacity was contagious.

The high point of the night was one of the group’s innumerable world premieres, Roberto Sierra‘s sublimely shapeshifting, relentlessly bustling Cuarteto Para Cuerdas No. 3. Flurrying, almost frantic interludes juxtaposed with brief, uneasily still moments and all sorts of similarly bracing challenges for the group: slithery harmonics, microtonal haze spiced with fleeting poltergeist accents, finally a wry series of oscillations from Haas and a savagely insistent coda. Distant references to boleros, and a less distant resemblance to restless, late 50s Charles Mingus urban noir drove a relentless tension forward through a rollercoaster of sudden dynamic changes. There were cameras all over the room: somebody please put this up on youtube where it will blow people’s minds!

There was even more on Gendron’s bill, too. The hypnotic horizontality and subtle development of playful minimalist riffs of Mario Lavista’s String Quartet No. 2 were no less difficult to play for their gauzy microtonality and almost total reliance on harmonics. Harry Partch’s Two Studies on Ancient Greek Scales have a colorful history: originally written for the composer’s own 88-string twin-box invention, the Harmonic Canon II, the Momentas played the string quartet arrangement by the great microtonal composer Ben Johnston, a Partch protege. Part quasi Balkan dance, part proto horror film score, the group made the diptych’s knotty syncopation seem effortless.

They closed with Gyorgy Ligeti’s String Quartet No.1, subtitled “Metamorphoses Nocturnes.” The ensemble left no doubt that this heavily Bartokian 1953 piece was all about war, and its terror and lingering aftershock (Ligeti survived a Nazi death camp where two of his family were murdered). The similarities with Shostakovich’s harrowing String Quartet No. 8 – which it predated by six years – were crushingly vivid. If anything, Ligeti’s quartet is tonally even harsher. In the same vein as the Sierra premiere, these dozen movements required daunting extended technique. Which in this case meant shrieking intensity, frantic evasion of the gestapo, (musical and otherwise) and deadpan command of withering sarcasm and parodies of martial themes. All that, and a crushing, ever-present sense of absence.

The 2019 Momenta Festival winds up tonight, Oct 19 at 7 PM at the Tenri Institute, 43A W 13th St., with a playful program assembled by Shiozaki, including works by Mozart, toy pianist Phyllis Chen (who joins the ensemble), glass harmonica wizard Stefano Gervasoni and an excerpt from Griffin’s delightfully adult-friendly children’s suite, The Lost String Quartet. Admission is free but you should rsvp if you’re going.

October 19, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment