Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Chilly Album of Solo Atmospherics For Our Time From Violinist Sarah Bernstein

Violinist Sarah Bernstein has written everything from microtonal jazz to string quartets to jazz poetry. As many artists have done this year, she’s released a solo album, Exolinger, streaming at Bandcamp. As you would expect, it’s her most minimalist yet, a chilly series of reverb-drenched instrumental and vocal soundscapes that directly and more opaquely reflect the alienation and inhumanity we’ve all suffered under the lockdown – outside of Sweden, or Nicaragua, or South Dakota, anyway.

The album’s first track, Carry This is a series of loopy car horn-like phrases that get pushed out of the picture by noisy fragments pulsing through the sonic picture, the reverb on Bernstein’s violin up so high that it isn’t immediately obvious she’s plucking the strings. It could be a song by Siouxsie & the Banshees spinoff the Creatures.

The second track, Ratiocinations is an increasingly assaultive series of variations on echo effects using a variety of chilly reverb timbres. The third piece, Tree, is definitely one for our time:

Crisis of mixed proportions
Manageable in ways
Mitigated, maximized, handled, contained
Sitting outside the birds have sirens
Fresh city air
The tree has been here awhile,
Has always been here
Before 1984, before 2020

Does Ghosts Become Crowds refer to a return toward normalcy…or a parade of the dead? The mechanical strobe of the grey noise behind Bernstein’s spare vocalese seems to indicate the latter.

The Plot works on multiple levels. On the surface, it’s a lengthy, shivery, blustery commentary – and demonstration – of the music inherent in language, and vice versa. In this case, apocalyptic industrial chaos trumps pretty much everything.

Through Havoc is a series of echoey, crunchy, noisy loops. “How strong is your will? Do you last a few hours?” Bernstein asks in We Coast, a moody study in resonance versus rhythm. She closes the album with its one moment of levity, Whirling Statue, which opens with what sounds like a talkbox.

November 19, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Given Unlimited Time, Catherine Christer Hennix and Hans Isgren Wrapped It Up in Under an Hour

What if the time available to musicians was unlimited? Not only in terms of how long a venue might be open, or willing to put up with musical self-indulgence, but in terms of eternity? What would music sound like if a beat didn’t have to land, or a there was no limit to how long a tone could resonate…or if the guy behind the sound board was never going to pass out no matter how long the show went on?  That’s what Karlheinz Stockhausen sought to explore with Unbegrenzt, his 1968 score that relies on poetic cues rather than notation.

Fifty years after he proposed it, the idea is just as radical, realized even more radically by percussion duo Catherine Christer Hennix and Hans Isgren in 1974. What’s just as extraordinary as their performance – a cleverly terse, generally calm, metallic experience – is that they had the presence of mind to record it. And that there would be an organization as far-reaching as Blank Forms to track down the original analog recording, and digitize it, and release it this year. That kind of dedication transcends accolades. You can hear the whole sometimes ghostly, fitfully turbulent 52-minute concert as a single track at Bandcamp.

Ironically, Hennix came out of a jazz background: a teenage phenom in her native Stockholm, she’d drummed with some pretty big names before she turned twenty. By contrast to the animated rhythms of postbop jazz, this is vast, magically immersive music.

Computer-generated bubbles filter in and out of the mix as Isgren weaves reverberating quilts of sound while Hennix colors the space with steady, sharply echoey temple block riffs that echo through the electronics, sometimes seemingly despite them. The recitations from a Buddhist text are mercifully spare, leaving plenty of room – that was the point, right? – for Hennix’s electric stalactite drips and allusions to craggy drama mingled within Isgren’s creepy metallic ambience.

Listen closely and you’ll hear points where a seemingly organic thicket of mutedly echoing hits recedes for more mechanical atmosphere, then the humans quietly and defiantly regain control, and gently push into deep space. Much as machines can be useful, ultimately it’s up to us to claim our territory, not the other way around. A delightfully enveloping yet equally chilling sonic metaphor for these times.

November 3, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Lush, Sweeping Debut Album From the String Orchestra of Brooklyn

Although the String Orchestra of Brooklyn have been championing new composers for more than ten years, their debut album – streaming at Bandcamp – only came out late last year. It has two spacious, rather horizontal contemporary pieces alongside a couple of unselfconsciously vigorous Italian Renaissance works, The dynamics and range of the ensemble, as well as the singers, really shine here.

The first piece is Christopher Cerrone‘s High Windows, beginning with shivery sixteenth-notes behind sudden doppler bursts and a low drone. A sudden airy horizontality slowly gains momentum with terse moodiness rising from the low strings, the violins finally descending and joining the lattice. A muted loopiness in the return of the opening theme has icy echoes of electronic music; it ends in a long, somber series of waves.

Jacob Cooper‘s Stabat Mater Dolarosa unfolds at a glacial pace, sheets of sound drifting through the mix, akin to watching cirrus clouds on the horizon on a relatively windless day. Uneasy close harmonies rise and then fade away. The composer’s use of implied melody as the sound rises with an allusive ominousness from the low strings is very clever, especially as a choir enter wordlessly. With the singers sometimes adding harmony, sometimes doubling the violin lines, the atmosphere grows more somber, leading to a long descent into the abyss led by the basses. The rise to density afterward is much more disquieting, with a series of slow, massed glissandos. The effect where the singers have to pause for a breath is, well, breathtaking. Soprano Mellissa Hughes adds stark, plainchant-inspired lines over the waves of the concluding movement

Paganini’s Caprice No. 6 in G minor is actually more of a canon, also built around slowly shifting sustained lines, but with rapidfire, tremoloing violin. The ensemble close the album with a steadfastly marching interpretation of the first movement of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, the choir enhancing a gothic undercurrent.

May 21, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Catchy, Edgy Themes and Contrasting Textures From Big Dog Little Dog

The duo of violinist Jessie Montgomery and bassist Eleonore Oppenheim call themselves Big Dog Little Dog. That may have something to do with the relative size of their instruments, or maybe not. The two were asked who is which animal at a show at a mesmerizing show at Metropolis Ensemble’s Lower East Side digs late last year: “We switch off,” Montgomery grinned. Their edgy, dynamic debut album is streaming at Bandcamp. As a unit, they like long crescendos and playing off catchy, direct ideas.

It begins with a brief, nocturnal bit of found sound: somebody crosses a yard and approaches a house, tree frogs contentedly peeping in the background. Then the duo launch into the first piece, Panorama, a catchy, swaying series of variations on a couple of terse, blues-rooted riffs, Oppenheim bowing steady, overtone-rich chords as Montgomery plays slithery, rapidfire arpeggios and cascades.

Hypnotically pulsing, loopy bass anchors Montgomery’s drifting airiness and incisive pizzicato chords as Man Without a Face builds momentum, up to a stabbing peak with echoes of Appalachian music. In Ice, the two shift between variations on coyly slipsliding, “wheeeeeee” phrases and a keening, rather wistful horizontality over Oppenheim’s rich, chocolatey chords.

With its punchy, rhythmic drive, Woods seems to be an increasingly lively woodchopper’s ball. Wafting sheets of harmonics slowly make their way through the sonic picture and finally coalesce into stern chords in the album’s most expansive and most horizontal track, Blue Hour. The coda, a contrast between Montgomery’s enigmatic close harmonies and Oppenheim’s rumbling low E drone, is just plain luscious.

Brisk wave pulses echo with an increasingly animated syncopation in Cipher, one of several tracks here that bring to mind Julia Wolfe‘s work for strings. Ultraviolet makes a good segue, Montgomery’s stabbing, muted phrases and uneasy movement outward from a central note above Oppenheim’s deadpan bump-bump and glissandos. They go out the way they came in, peepers and all.

March 4, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lea Bertucci Brings Her Otherworldly Sonic Cocoon to Downtown Brooklyn

Sound artist Lea Bertucci‘s magically enveloping ep Resonant Field materialized here back in May and is streaming at Bandcamp. She’s playing on a great twinbill on Oct 22 at 8:30 PM at Issue Project Room in a duo set with alternately feral and meticulous singer Amirtha Kidambi  opening for improvisational Japanese noise band Asa-Chang & Junray in their US debut. Cover is $15/$12 stud/srs.

The first track on the album is Wind Piece, a desolately drifting tableau with creepy microtones, close-harmonied resonances and stealthy, squiggly accents filtering through the mix. Finally, at the end, Robbie Lee fires off (or more likely, loops) a series of triumphant riffs on baroque flute.

The second track, Warp & Weft comes across as what might happen if the reeds around the low A key on an accordion decided to all meditate themselves into a vast poppy field populated by the occasional slug or wandering bee, eventually taking shelter as a gentle rain moves in. Bassist James Ilgenfritz’s increasingly unhinged, tremoloing, heavily processed lines as the piece winds out raises the adrenaline factor exponentially.

Bertucci layers drones, slowly rising sheets of sound and uneasy, wavering phrases in the even more epic, practically eighteen-minute title track. A multi-layered, ghostly, gently echoing, dynamically shifting, Pink Floydian rainscape ensues.

Bertucci closes the recording with Deliquescence, its flickers and then eerie, concentric upper-register circles over omious brown noise wafting in the background, You are returning to the primordial ooze that spawned you and still loves you after many thousands of years, so dive in.

October 20, 2019 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

Rumbling in Brooklyn with Josh Sinton

Friday night at Issue Project Room, Josh Sinton sat with his back to the audience in the middle of the stage, breathing into his contrabass clarinet. It’s a secondary instrument for him: his usual axe is the baritone sax, which he plays with some of New York’s most interesting big bands, notably Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society and Amir ElSaffar‘s Rivers of Sound.

The sound of the horn rumbled through a pedalboard and then a bass amp. In his black suit and matching fedora, he made a somber presence. It was clear from his silhouette, larger than life on the northern wall above the marble arch to the side of the stage, that he was breathing pretty hard. It takes a lot of air to fill those tubes. Sinton did that via circular breathing, in an almost nonstop, practically forty-minute improvisation. Is there an Olympic swimmer who can match that for endurance?

Likewise, the music conjured vast, oceanic vistas – when it wasn’t evoking an old diesel tractor. Several other machines came to mind: an encroaching lawnmower; a bandsaw; the hypnotically comforting thrum from the engine room of an ocean liner, through a heavy bulkhead. Overtones echoed, and pulsed, and sometimes hissed or howled, Sinton pulling back on the volume when that happened until the final ten minutes or so.

There was a point about halfway through when it felt utterly shameful to sit back, eyes closed, and get lost in the rumbling ambience, considering how hard Sinton was working to create such a calming effect. Finally, he opted not to pull away from the rising wall of feedback, letting it shriek as the throb of the amp became more like a jackhammer. Suddenly, what had been incredibly soothing was absolutely assaultive: a couple of people exited the front row. Finally, slowly and methodically, Sinton brought the atmosphere full circle to a barely audible wisp. And then silence.

Sinton calls this project Krasa – it’s a deliberate attempt to push himself out of his comfort zone to spur new creative tangents. Another completely different gig which Sinton has excelled at lately has been as the leader of Phantasos, a Morphine cover band. He had a residency with that trio last month at Barbes, putting a somewhat more slinky edge on Mark Sandman’s noir bounces and dirges. He had Dana Colley’s alternately gruff and plaintive sound down cold, and a rotating cast of bassists and drummers – notably Sam Ospovat- rose to the challenge of doing justice to such an iconic band. Much as Issue Project Room was close to sold out for Krasa, Phantasos could be a money gig to be proud of if Sinton could find the time. 

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

Mesmerizing Contrabass Clarinet Atmospherics From John McCowen

One of the most subtly magical atmospheric albums released in recent months is John McCowen’s Solo Contra album, streaming at Bandcamp. It’s a trio of solo compositions for contrabass clarinet. McCowen is a protege of Roscoe Mitchell and has a background in punk jazz; this album brings to mind the former if not the latter. Lesley Flanigan’s experiments with speakers and audio feedback are another strong point of comparison. McCowen’s formula seems simple but is actually very technically daunting: to employ this relatively rare, low-pitched instrument to produce surrealistically oscillating, keening high textures via tireless circular breathing.

Gritty, simmering ambience rises out of a mist as the first track, Fur Korv gets underway. Valves pop delicately in the room’s tantalizing natural reverb; high harmonics build slowly and disappear in a second.

It’s amazing how many of those harmonics McCowen is able to simultaneously tease out of the horn in the second number, Chopper HD, a study in burred high frequencies. Much as the sonics often evoke a circular saw, or a loose fanwheel that could use some grease, it doesn’t appear that McCowen uses any electronic effects to make his job easier.

McCowen’s magnum opus here is the practically seventeen-minute suite Berths 1-3. Digeridoo-like spirals contrast with barely audible, breathy white noise; as the pitches grow higher and more acidically scratchy, it’s a clinic in rattle and hum, a treble counterpart to the diesel-beyond-the-bulkhead ambience of Gebhard Ullmann’s BassX3 project. This isn’t music that will hit you over the head, but you can get completely lost in it.

January 9, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Jack Quartet Play the Darkest Show of the Year

What was it like to hear the Jack Quartet play Georg Friedrich Haas’ In Iij. Noct.at the Austrian Cultural Forum in midtown last night in more-or-less total darkness, as the composer intended? On the most prosaic level, the ensemble performed it in stereo, mirroring how the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony incorporated the audience into their stage plot for their performances of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony earlier this year. In this case, cello and viola (Kevin McFarland and John Pickford Richards) were behind the audience, violins (Christopher Otto and Ari Streisfeld) onstage, with only the occasional twinkle from a tiny overhead light (a CO2 alarm, maybe) and a couple of orange neon fire door lights, muted and obscured from much of the sold-out crowd. In any case, it was impossible to see the performers. Were they able to make out a shadow or two in the audience? That depends on how sharp their eyesight might be.

The performance was playful, and fun, and gripping, and full of surprises, and harrowing in places. The quartet, who’ve played it a couple of dozen times, at least, have it more or less in their fingers, although the score is mostly improvised, based on a series of riffs and a brief quote from Gesualdo which surfaced about three-quarters of the way in. What was most stunning was how meticulously the group made the slow slide downward, then upward, from basic major to minor triadic harmony and then back again. There were flickering, irresistibly fun hide-and-seek interludes, lots of austere, acidic atmospherics that required extended technique to sustain challenging overtones and harmonics, and a couple of chillingly insistent codas that reminded of Julia Wolfe.

One might think that hearing it in such relative sensory deprivation would be a solitary experience, but that turned out to be 180 degrees the opposite. Being in the dark enhanced the sense of everybody being in the same boat. Basic questions of urban diplomacy quickly posed themselves. Why didn’t that narcissist with her paroxysms and grossness just stay home instead of sharing her sickness? Does an oniony lunchtime falafel carry through the air like the homey scent of hand sanitizer coming in on the left? If anything, an experience like this reinforces how much a little compassion, or just plain common courtesy, really make a difference at a public event.

As far as hearing the music in near pitch-blackness, we’ve all done that, at least those of us whose windows face a shaftway rather than the street. If you’ve ever drifted off to sleep with something wafting from the boombox or the turntable rather thnn from the glow of a phone or a laptop, with, say, a cat or a girlfriend nestled in your arms, this was somewhat more impersonal but required no less attention to the consequences of disturbing the peace.

The Austrian Cultural Forum puts on a lot of adventurous shows like this. There’s another tomorrow night, February 26 at 7:30 PM at the Czech Center 4th floor ballroom at 321 E 73rd St. featuring works by Haas performed by members of the Talea Ensemble, including the world premiere of a piece for solo trumpet, dedicated to the memory of Eric Garner, to be played by Gareth Flowers.

February 25, 2016 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

ThingNY Debuts a Blackly Amusing, Sonically Rich Reflection on Hurricane Sandy

ThingNY‘s provocative, often hilarious performance piece This Takes Place Close By debuted last night, making maximum use of the spacious, sonically rich Knockdown Center in Maspeth, a former doorframe factory recast as adventurous performance venue. Through the eyes of various witnesses to Hurricane Sandy, the multimedia work explores apathy, anomie and alienation in the wake of disaster. It raises more questions than it answers – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Is this limousine liberal self-flagellation, a vain attempt to demonstrate eleventh-hour empathy? A simpering, self-congratulatory meme for gentrifiers hell-bent on their fifteen minutes on Instagram? A welcome dose of perspective on where the hurricane falls, historically speaking, in terms of disastrous consequences? A caustic and often poignant critique of narcissism raising its ugly head at the least opportune moment? You can find out for yourself when the piece repeats, tonight, September 25 through Sunday the 27th at 8 PM; general admission is $20.

Ostensibly an opera, this is more of an avant garde theatre piece with music. The six-piece ensemble lead the audience from one set to another, creating a surround-sound atmosphere, voices and instruments leaping unexpectedly from the shadows. The live electroacoustic score – a pulsing, rather horizontal, minimalistic theme and variations – is gripping and often reaches a white-knuckle intensity, and the distance between the performers has no effect on how tightly they play it. The narratives vary from more-or-less straight-up theatre vignettes, to phone calls, harrowing personal recollections and surrealist spoken-word interludes. Other than Gelsey Bell – whose pure, translucent chorister’s soprano is the icing on the sonic cake – the rest of the ensemble do not appear to be trained singers. Yet they gamely hold themselves together through some challenging, distantly gospel-inspired four-part harmonies. Violinist Jeffrey Young‘s shivery cadenzas and the occasional creepy glissando enhance the suspense, while Bell’s keyboards and Dave Ruder’s clarinet supply more resonantly ominous ambience. Percusssionist Paul Pinto wryly doubles as roadie and emcee of sorts with his trusty penlight. Bassist Andrew Livingston distinguishes himself by playing creepy tritones while sprawled flat on his back in the rubble; meanwhile, Bell projects with undiminished power despite the presence of Livingston’s bass on top of her diaphragm.

Intentionally or not, the star of this show is multi-saxophonist Erin Rogers, whose vaudevillian portrayal of a 911 operator slowly losing it under pressure – in between bursts of hardbop soprano sax – is as chilling as it is funny. Happily, she later gets to return to give the poor, bedraggled, unappreciated woman some dignity. And playing alto, she teams with Livingston for a feast of brooding foghorn atmospherics during a portrait of a philosophical old bodega owner for whom the storm is “been there, done that.”

The characters run the gamut from enigmatic or gnomic to extremely vivid. Young gets to relish chewing the scenery as he channels a wet-behind-the-ears, clueless gentrifier kid who’s just self-aware enough to know that he ought to cover his ass while expunging any possible guilt for gettting away with his comfortable life intact. Livingston’s shoreline survivor, horror-stricken over the possible loss of his girlfriend, really drives the storm’s toll home. Bell’s baroque-tinged ghost is more nebulous, as is Pinto’s mashup of tummler and historian at the end – in a set piece that seems tacked on, as if the group had to scramble to tie things together just to get the show up and running in time. Yet even that part is grounded in history – which, if this group is to be believed, does not portend well for how we will react when the waters rise again. And they will.

September 25, 2015 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, drama, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment