Lucid Culture


Celebrating a Tragic, Iconoclastic Hungarian Hero at the National Arts Club

Wouldn’t you wash your hands after you touched a corpse? Hospital physicians at Vienna’s Algelemine Krankenhaus didn’t. From a 21st century perspective, the results were predictably catastrophic.

Ray Lustig’s grim, powerfully resonant song cycle Semmelweis,  which premiered on September 11 at the National Arts Club, begins in 1848, One of Europe’s deadliest outbreaks of puerperal fever is killing one in ten new mothers at the hospital. Hungarian-born obstetrician Ignac Semmelweis is at a loss to explain it.

Semmelweis was a tragic hero in the purest sense of the word. Decades before Louis Pasteur, Semmelweis discovered the bacterial connection for disease transmission. But rather than being celebrated for his discovery and for saving countless of his own patients, he was derided as a medical heretic,  ended up losing his mind and died alone in a mental asylum seventeen years later. If not for the reactionary Viennese medical establishment, terrified of being blamed for the epidemic, today we would say “semmelweissed” instead of “pasteurized.” In an age where leakers are murdered, whistleblowers are jailed as terrorists and 9/11 historians are derided as conspiracy theorists, this story has enormous relevance.

And the music turned out to be as gripping as the narrative. Out in front of an impressively eclectic twelve-piece ensemble for the marjority of the performance, soprano Charlotte Mundy dexterously showed off a vast grasp of all sorts of styles, singing Matthew Doherty’s allusively foreboding lyrics to Lustig’s shapeshifting melodies. Pianist Katelan Terrell. accordionist Peter Flint and violinist Sam Katz wove an alternately austere and lustrous backdrop for the rest of the singers: Lustig himself in the role of Semmelweis, alongside Marcy Richardson, Catherine Hancock, Brett Umlauf, Charlotte Dobbs, Jennifer Panara and Guadalupe Peraza.

The suite began with a wash of close harmonies and ended on a similarly otherworldly note with a Hungarian lullaby sung in eerily kaleidoscopic counterpoint by the choir. The story unwound mostly in flashbacks – by women in peril, ghosts or Semmelweis himself, tormented to the grave by all the dead women he wasn’t able to save.

Many of the songs had a plaintive neoromanticism: the most sepulchral moments were where the most demanding extended technique came into play, glissandoing and whispering and vertiginously shifting rhythms. That’s where the group dazzled the most. Recurrent motives packed a wallop as well, voicing both the dread of the pregnant women and Semmelweis’ self-castigation for not having been able to forestall more of the epidemic’s toll than he did. The Hungarian government will celebrate the bicentennial of Semmelweis’ birth next year, a genuine national hero.

September 21, 2017 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Roger Davidson Hits the Klezmer Road

Whether Roger Davidson knows it or not, he’s just released an elegant gypsy punk record. It’s not likely that the eclectic composer, whose previous work spans the worlds of jazz and tango nuevo, launched into his new album On the Road of Life with that idea in mind. But that’s pretty much what he ended up with. “Pretty much,” because there are no distorted guitars or pummeling drums here – and also because Davidson’s intent was to write an original album of klezmer tunes. Whether this is klezmer, or Balkan music, or gypsy music is really beside the point – whichever way it falls stylistically, it’s a collection of memorably simple themes bristling with the scary/beautiful chromatics and eerie minor keys common to all those genres. Here Davidson is backed by what he calls the Frank London Klezmer Orchestra, an eclectic group with the great klezmer trumpeter alongside another klezmer legend, Andy Statman on mandolin and clarinet, plus Klezmatics drummer Richie Barshay, Avantango bassist Pablo Aslan and Veretski Pass accordionist/cimbalom player Joshua Horowitz.

Some of these are joyous romps. Freedom Dance has solos all around and some especially rapidfire mandolin from Statman. Dance of Hope is sort of a Bosnian cocek with mandolin and clarinet instead of blaring brass, and a tune closer to Jerusalem than to Sarajevo. There’s Harvest Dance, based on a crescendoing walk down the scale; Water Dance, with an absolutely ferocious outro, and Hungarian Waltz, which in a split second morphs into a blazing dixieland swing tune fueled by London’s trumpet. Yet the best songs here are the quieter ones. The title track is basically a hora (wedding processional) that builds gracefully from a pensive, improvisational intro to a stately pulse driven by Aslan’s majestic bass chords. There’s also Equal in the Eyes of God, which reaches for a rapt, reverent feel; Sunflowers at Dawn, which klezmerizes a famous Erik Satie theme; The Lonely Dancers, a sad, gentle Russian-tinged waltz, Statman’s delicate mandolin vividly evoking a balalaika tone; and the epic, nine-minute Night Journey, glimmering with suspenseful, terse piano chords, tense drum accents, allusive trumpet and finally a scurrying clarinet solo.

Davidson may be a limited pianist, but he’s self-aware – his raw chords and simple melody lines only enhance the edgy intensity of the tunes here. That he’s able to blend in with this all-star crew affirms his dedication to good tunesmithing, keeping things simple and proper, as Thelonious Monk would say. Fans of moody minor keys, gypsy music and the klezmer pantheon will find a lot to enjoy here.

August 23, 2011 Posted by | gypsy music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Angela and Jennifer Chun Build a Captivating Suite from Bartok Etudes

The tendency is to ignore a composer’s practice pieces. Sometimes that’s a mistake. The Bach Clavierubung is a goldmine of obscure treasures, the Schumann etudes transcend the genre as they grow more cruelly difficult – and let’s not forget old Fur Elise. In the early 1930s, at the suggestion of a colleague, Bela Bartok decided to take many of the Eastern European folk themes he’d collected over the years and turn them into a series of etudes. His agenda: to further his own cause and get the kids playing bitonalities, atonalities and the astringencies found here which are often more Bartokian than Balkan. Violinists Angela and Jennifer Chun have artfully assembled them as a suite, making for segues that are literally seamless: most of these brief, barely minute-long miniatures blend together. Likewise, their playing is seamless: the two violins often literally join together as one, which might not seem so remarkable considering that the Chuns are sisters.

The melodies are austere, plaintive and often poignant: for the most part, the violins set a steady pace and keep it going. Dances often sound more like marches; the most memorable of the wedding songs here would make a more appropriate theme for a divorce. The most vivid of the traditional themes here include a deliciously fast, chromatically-fueled Ruthenian dance; a Transylvanian theme which disquietingly shifts from the Arabic hijaz scale to hypnotic major-key ambience; a brief, evocative “mosquito dance,” a rather macabre “counting song,” and an eerie Romanian dance tune that’s more closely related to Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring than might seem possible. A whirling bagpipe theme over steady pedalpoint resonates equally well, along with a distantly anguished Hungarian march and a couple of original themes that Bartok snuck in here: a “burlesque” melody that’s more scary than seductive, and a bucolic, atmospheric harvest passage that works as a tone poem (or a tone couplet – it’s over just a handful of bars after it begins). The quieter material here tends to be more brooding and acidic, with the exception of a couple of amusing interludes like one of the “teasing songs” and a handful of blithe dance themes. This one’s out now on Harmonia Mundi.

December 5, 2010 Posted by | classical music, folk music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Marta Sebestyen – I Can See the Gates of Heaven

This new album, available for the first time outside Hungary, collects an alternately haunting, rousing and mystical mix of traditional songs. Sometimes austere, sometimes lush, it sets Marta Sebestyen’s voice either soaring or hushed against a background of bagpipe, flutes, sax and tarogato (Hungarian clarinet) by Balazs Dongo Sokolay and a thicket of lute and zither played by Matyas Bolya. The effect is rustic and often absolutely gorgeous. Marta Sebestyen is hardly unknown outside her native Hungary – in addition to being a leading European exponent of her country’s folk music, she won a Grammy for her contributions to a Deep Forest album and had a song on the soundtrack to the film The English Patient. Here, she explores music both sacred and profane – for a non-Hungarian speaker, which is which is pretty much impossible to tell.

The first couple of tracks start out tersely, Sebestyen voicing an understated clarity over a rather hypnotic mix of fujara (overtone bass flute), throat-singing and lute. Several of the tracks here combine two or more songs: for example, the almost nine-minute Invocation, beginning with a somewhat troubled, rhythmically shifting ballad and segueing with lute and what sounds like a krummhorn into a more atonal feel with echoes of Middle Eastern taqsim improvisation. There’s a waltz that sounds an awful lot like Scarborough Fair that picks up the pace with flutes and then powerful bagpipes, like a sea chantey. There’s a suite about the liberation of Hungary from the Ottoman Empire that begins with a bouncy, apprehensive Middle Eastern dance, Sebestyen’s vocals stately and nuanced, replete with longing – and then it accelerates with a bounce, the bagpipes and flute swirling in celebration. Another follows what could have been a dramatic Fairport Convention ballad with a boisterous waltz tune. Sebestyen errs on the side of caution, a welcome trait – she never overdoes anything, so when she rises to meet a lyric or an instrumental passage, you know she has good reason. This ought to appeal to the gypsy music contingent every bit as much as fans of Middle Eastern and western folk music. Yet another good Eastern European vocal album to come out in recent months, echoing the New York scene with AE, Black Sea Hotel et al.- if what’s happening here is a microcosm for what’s happening throughout the world, so much the better.

January 28, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Lucid Culture Interview: Laci Kollar-Klemencz of Little Cow

Little Cow are arguably the hottest band in the former Eastern Bloc. The Hungarian sensation’s mix of gypsy music, punk, ska and even indie rock scored them a platinum album on their home turf and a fanatical European following. Now they’re taking their high-energy stage act to the US, with a NYC date on Sept 18 at City Winery. With tongue planted firmly in cheek, the band’s self-described “lead vocal, composer, songwriter, at home film director, and writer” Laci Kollar-Klemencz took some time out of Little Cow’s whirlwind tour schedule to chase the devil out of the details with Lucid Culture’s somewhat confused interviewer:

Lucid Culture: How does your set list for a show here differ from what you play in Romania. Woops, I mean Hungary?

Laci Kollar-Klemencz:  OK, why a question about Romania? We are from Hungary. Set list is the same, exactly, just we’re singing the songs which have been translated from Hungarian to English.

LC: Do you find that audiences around the world prefer different songs?

LKK: No. Their reaction is sometimes different – short people in Spain jump higher, and tall people in Holland keep just one hand up, but Little Cow is the same.

LC: Are your songs that are big hits at home just as popular on the road?

LKK: Yes, but the most popular at home is Cyber Kid, and we are sick of it and if it’s possible we do not play it here [in the US] – it’s topical song which is very famous in Hungary, but nobody else understands it.

LC: What other countries have you toured? What kind of reaction do you get? It seems to me that for example anyone who likes Gogol Bordello would like you…

LKK: In Hungary people and magazines talk about us something like that. This kind of punk rock based on Balkan rhythm is very famous now in Europe, and if anybody sounds a little bit like that, it’s easy to say GOGOL BORDELLO, but there are lot of thin differences. And you know the devil always hides between the little things. And I think Little Cow talks about much more  – philosophy, personal behavior, attitude – than only a style.

LC: I see that you have a smaller acoustic version of the band. Which version of the band is on this tour?

LKK: Both. In theaters we will play the “Melancholic” acoustic program, but in rock clubs and festivals we will do the electric dance songs.

LC: How much of your set list on this tour is in English?

LKK:  Half and half, maybe more.

LC: Your songs are often very funny. Are you aware that in the indie rock scene here in New York, people aren’t supposed to laugh or make jokes? Does that seem as weird to you as it is to me?

LKK: Yes, it is interesting, the  underground scene never was about laughing – from the 80’s dark feeling till today people think underground, or indie band, that they are cool, sad, depressed, or untouchable mad, sick, but some artists  – for me Warhol, and many dadaists, and musicians, like David Byrne, Pere Ubu – were pretty funny. And the sadness and the fun are big brothers as we know from Buddhism for example. And I hope people, who see some dark story one night from Grizzly Bear, or Tom Waits, they will go home and will laugh all night, and people who come to see Little Cow, and laugh a lot through the concert, they will commit suicide after the concert. It’s just a good joke, sorry.

LC: How did the band start? I see that you did the soundtrack for a very popular children’s cartoon, the Little Yellow Cow.  Is that cartoon something that adults would also enjoy, like the Simpsons?

LKK: Yes you can see it on our myspace... it’s a short film for kids and parents and grandparents, doesn’t matter,  it has been on screen in many Hungarian cinemas as the opening film for a Woody Allen film in 2002.

LC: I hear some punk, gypsy music, new wave, even ska in what you play. I know you get this question all the time, but what bands have influenced your sound?

LKK: It’s not only the bands, it’s many things. Mostly not one music, much more one girl, or one sickness, or a trip, or a bad relationship. I’m always thinking about a feeling, and never about a style, band etc. How I feel, myself, now, and how can I balance it if it is too wrong or too good? Otherwise I’m always looking for that kind of artist who can open one new window in this dark depth blind cultural level, where humans exist now. And there are many artists, and musicians. Last year my favorite was Sigur Ros, MGMT, Beirut, now Grizzly Bear, the Decemberists… From indie music, but  BACK…it could be an artist who can be one of my musical influences as well.

LC: Your last album went platinum in Romania, I mean Hungary. How many albums do you have to sell there to go platinum?

LKK: In Hungary? Twenty thousand.

LC: Tell us about your huge hit Cyber Boy, which set a record for most downloads and most ringtones in Hungary. What’s it about?

LKK: It’s kind of Hungarian punk wedding music… typical Hungarian tone, with danceable rhythm, and crazy lyrics about a cyber generation who want to forget real life and hide in cyberspace.

LC: You’re playing pretty late, I’m guessing about one in the morning on Friday night in New York. Do your concerts always start that late? How long can we expect you to play?

LKK: My information was we will play at 10 PM. We will see, but I don’t like to play too late, it’s not good for our health.

Little Cow play as part of this year’s predictably excellent New York Gypsy Festival at City Winery on Sept. 18 with the incomparable Hazmat Modine; $15 advance tickets are still available as of this writing (Sept. 15) but going fast. It’s not clear who’s playing first but it really doesn’t matter since both bands are good.

September 16, 2009 Posted by | interview, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City | , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment