Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

yMusic’s New Album: Beautiful and Not Particularly Mechanical

YMusic’s new album Beautiful Mechanical transcends the “indie classical” label. It definitely rocks, but it’s not exactly rock music. The instrumentation is typical of a classical chamber ensemble, but they have a guitar, some of the music here follows a steady, often rigorously precise rock beat, and frequently features imaginatively unorthodox arrangements. Whatever you want to call it, it’s a lot of fun. The group is a formidable mix of relatively young, familiar faces on the new music and classical scene, a couple of whom make money playing with trendy indie bands: Nadia Sirota (of Q2 fame) on viola; ACME leader Clarice Jensen on cello; Hideaki Aomori on clarinet and bass clarinet; CJ Camerieri on trumpet and horn; Rob Moose on violin and guitars, and Alex Sopp on violin and piccolo. On face value, the album title is an oxymoron: is it sarcastic, or purposefully paradoxical? The answer is not as readily accessible as the tunes themselves.

They get off to a false start with a dazzling display of technique (including what is most likely a live loop that the group plays with micro-perfect precision for over a minute) that’s more impressive than this coldly whimsical math-music vignette, something that might fit into a larger piece as a portrayal of shallowness and wasted energy, but doesn’t stand on its own. Track two is where the group strikes gold and you’ll probably want to start uploading. Proven Badlands, by Annie Clark (better known to indie rock fans as St. Vincent) starts pensively, but the guitar quickly signals a swing shuffle that works its way up to a bright Philly soul riff and then a gently swaying chorus pulsing along on the bass clarinet’s nimbly circling bassline as the woodwinds chirp energetically. And then the instruments start to trade themes.

Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond contributes the two most imaginative compositions here. A Whistle, a Tune, a Macaroon is a cinematic mini-suite, opening like a vintage Gil Evans arrangement (think Sketches of Spain), slowly shifting to a mysterious minimalist ambience punctuated by distant staccato accents, building almost imperceptibly until a catchy 60s pop theme emerges, hints at menace and then rides off on a big rock riff! Her other one, A Paper, a Pen, a Note to a Friend – now that’s oldschool – is bright and lively, with deliberate, fluttery strings and catchy bass clarinet that contrasts with all the highs.

Sarah Kirkland Snider contributes Daughter of the Waves, which makes a great segue. Even more so than the previous piece, it’s simultaneously anthemic and hypnotic, and also ebbs and goes out gracefully, almost like a ghost. Clearing, Dawn, Dance by Judd Greenstein is a triptych centered around a bubbly riff: fans of 60s rock will be reminded of Viv Stanshall’s orchestral breaks on the Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed. Sopp’s animated piccolo over matter-of-factly paced strings leads to a more anthemic turn, followed by quiet atmospherics (that must be the dawn) and then a tug-of-war, bubbles vs. leaps and bounds. The album ends auspiciously with a brief, allusively chromatic trumpet tune by Gabriel Kahane simply titled Song, hinting at noir but never quite going all the way there. It could be a great new direction for a guy who first made a name for himself writing songs about internet dating. The album’s out now on New Amsterdam Records.

September 18, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The AME’s Star Crossing – Film Noir for the Ears

You know the “ping” moment in a horror or suspense movie where suddenly everything that had been going smoothly suddenly hits a bump…and then it’s obvious that at some point, terror will set in? This is a whole album of those moments. The American Modern Ensemble’s new album Star Crossing: Music of Robert Paterson is a noir film for the ears: for fans of dark, suspenseful music, this is heaven. Paterson is a percussionist, so it’s no surprise that bells, crotales and other brightly ringing instruments are featured here along with flutes and clarinets, piano and cello working contrasts in the lower registers.

The opening mini-suite, Sextet, traces the trail of a criminal on the run – even in his dreams. As expected, it doesn’t end well. Through volleys of furtive footsteps, hallucinatory nightmare sequences, frozen moments of sheer terror and endlessly echoing, apprehensive flute cadenzas, the poor guy doesn’t have a prayer. The Thin Ice of Your Fragile Mind is hypnotic, warm and starlit, tantalizing bits of Romantic melody – and even a jaunty dance – interwoven with eerie bell tones. It’s something akin to the familiar comfort of a radio fading in and out in the midst of a wasteland. The title track is an offhandedly dazzling display of creepy, chilly Hitchcockian ambience, sepulchral woodwind flourishes and simple, seemingly random piano motifs against disembodied ringing tonalities. Although it’s meant to evoke an otherworldly, outer-space milieu, the tension is relentless. Embracing the Wind, an attempt to evoke various sonics created by air currents, has an uneasy, allusive Romanticism in the same vein as the second track here, but considerably creepier.

It’s only fitting that this album should include a requiem. Elegy for Two Bassoons and Piano is a homage to bassoonist Charles McCracken’s cellist father, drawing liberally from one of his favorite pieces, Bach’s Fifth Cello Suite. Like its ancestor, it has a murky poignancy, but it’s also unexpectedly lively. Skylights, an attempt to make airy music with dark-toned instruments, magnificently evokes noir dread througout its nine-plus minutes: somebody kill that light before somebody gets killed! Paterson plays marimba (using both mallet heads and handles simultaneously) on the final work, Quintus, a bubbly, polyrhythmic maze that eventually takes on a grim boogie-woogie tinge. The album as a whole features lively and acerbic playing by Sato Moughalian on flutes; Meighan Stoops on clarinets; Robin Zeh on violin; Robert Burkhart on cello; Matthew Ward on percussion; Blair McMillen, Elizabeth DiFelice and Stephen Gosling on piano; Danielle Farina on viola; Jacqueline Kerrod on harp, and Gilbert Dejean and Charles McCracken on bassoons. Count this among the half-dozen best releases of 2011 so far, in any style of music.

July 11, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Brave New and Old Works by the Knights in Central Park

Transcending any kind of “indie classical” typecasting, symphony orchestra the Knights tackled a tremendously ambitious program Monday night at the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park and pulled it off mightily. Composer Lisa Bielawa introduced the world premiere of her Templehof Etude, taking care to explain how it was an etude for her, not the orchestra. In addition to her substantial body of work for orchestra and smaller ensembles, Bielawa is a pioneer in the use of outdoor sonics and settings for classical and new-music ensembles. She’s orchestrated surreal conversations overheard on the street, and explored the possibilities created between roving audiences – and sometimes roving musicians – in public spaces. This particular piece is a prototype for Bielawa’s most ambitious project yet, a grand-scale work scheduled to debut in the fall of 2012 on the grounds of the Berlin park that was once the Templehof airport, the Berlin Wall airlift’s final destination [she explains this with typical diligence and grace in this New York Times piece].

And it didn’t sound anything like a typical etude, either. Knowing the backstory helped. Conductor Colin Jacobsen led the ensemble through a memorably direct, bright, brassy DID YOU SEE THAT exchange across a runway that took on a staggered echo effect with the strings and timpani whirling in – airlift to the rescue? Rich with suspense, a bracing passage of horror-film atmospherics playfully pushed aside by a bassoon, hypnotic counterpoint and a blustery, crescendoing overture, it was as catchy as it was lushly arranged.

The orchestra brought it down from there with a Morton Feldman piece dedicated to his late piano teacher. Quietly ambient atonal layers shifted slowly behind an incessant cuckoo motif that seemed to be an inside joke: was his teacher a cuckoo fan? Did she have a favorite clock, maybe?

Then they played Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Jacobsen explained unassumingly to emcee Midge Woolsey that he’d always wanted to conduct it: its humanity, he said, was what strikes him the most. How do you tackle something so iconic, something that’s become part of so many classical music fans’ DNA…and a potential minefield for performers? The Knights did it fast, and precisely, and guilelessly, letting the joy resound, crisply: this was party music. And if the piece is part of your DNA, how do you experience it as an audience member? Pondering how the sonics of the birdcalls all around and airplanes overhead might fit with the music? By watching the shadowplay of the musicians on the bandshell’s back wall, or the bird overhead on its way home to the roof? Could its wings have been keeping time with the music? No. A strong bloody mary came in useful here. There should be a Beethoven’s Fifth drinking game: drink for every false ending, chug every time the meter changes.

Beethoven probably came up with da-da-da-DA in 1804, a long time before his most paradigm-shifting stuff. Knowing the backstory, it’s easy to close your eyes and imagine it’s Haydn in the courtly second movement. But when the endless series of conclusions kicks in, it could only be Beethoven, and this time you’re at the bar, and he’s needling you. And he’s having fun too. And it’s impossible not to smile back.

Special thanks to Martha Sullivan, singer and composer of symphonic music for organ, and to Gail Wein, bassoonist and impresario to the stars, for their insight and good company.

June 22, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Kathleen Supové’s Piano Threatens to Explode

A titan of the new music community, Kathleen Supové has been a go-to pianist for important, innovative composers since the 80s. Her latest album The Exploding Piano – her first since 2004’s stunningly virtuosic Infusion – is characteristically eclectic and cerebral. Where much of Infusion weaves a dizzying lattice of textures, this one – except for the final, practically 25-minute cut – is more direct and more of a showcase for Supové’s legendary chops. Except for that final cut, the electronics here are pretty much limited to lightly processed sound and the occasional loop.

Missy Mazzoli’s Isabelle Eberhardt Dreams of Pianos is the opening track, replete with Mazzoli’s signature traits: terse, richly interlocking melodies, counterrythms, and hypnotically circular motifs. It’s a tribute to the great adventurer, imagining her riding across her adopted Sahara Desert on horseback, reflecting on the comfort of her early life inVienna high society as bits and pieces of Schubert’s A Major Sonata float to the surface. And then the melody spreads away from the tonic, insistent forte chords create a Radiohead-inflected swirl against a repetitive loop, and the flood that will kill her at age 27 is upon her. It’s as poignant as it is intense.

Michael Gatonska’s A Shaking of the Pumpkin is meant to illustrate activity in the insect kingdom, alternating low rumble with judicious righthand melody and a lot of sustain that finally reaches a roar – and then goes on and on, A Day in the Life style. The placement of a bass drum under the piano lid enhances the boomy sustain of the low tonalities. It ends with a series of muted thumps – a pedal springing back into place? Shots? A salute?

Anna Clyne’s On Track is a launching pad for Supové’s trademark deadpan wit. Inspired by a spoken-word quote from Queen Elizabeth about how quickly circumstances change (which recurs as a sample here), it walks resolutely until the Mission Impossible theme appears for an instant, insistently in the left hand. Eventually Mission Impossible will casually interrupt the busy, rippling melody again and again until it finally shuts it off cold. Dan Becker’s circular Revolution illustrates a Martin Luther King speech (sampled here) using the story of Rip Van Winkle as a parable for how America is sleeping through a revolution. It’s a duet between Supové and a prepared Disklavier (a sort of digital player piano with strings modified to produce what amounts to a percussion track here). After running a series of widening circles, Supové finally breaks free of the rhythmic stranglehold – a hint, it seems – and then lets the melody fall away gracefully as it winds down to just a few repetitive, increasingly simple chords.

Supové’s husband Randall Woolf’s intense, bristling, bluesily magisterial suite Adrenaline Revival was the highlight of Infusion. Here, he’s represented by Sutra Sutra, a long work punctuated by many spoken word passages which reach to string theory as an explanation for both life and matter: as expressed here, vibration is everything (which for a musician it pretty much is). But in less than a couple of minutes, the genuine plaintiveness of the melody is subsumed by all the psychedelic effects and a whispery crash course in subatomic physics. It would be a treat to hear just the piano all the way through. Supove has been busy this year – her performance at the new music series at Brooklyn’s First Presbyterian Church was a 2010 highlight – and her Music with a View series coming next spring at the Flea Theatre is always chock-full of surprises.

December 6, 2010 Posted by | avant garde music, experimental music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Top Ten Songs of the Week 11/8/10

We’re getting better at this. Our weekly Kasey Kasem-inspired luddite DIY version of a podcast is supposed to happen on Tuesdays; last week we didn’t get to it til Friday, so at this rate we’ll be back on schedule by December! Every week, we try to mix it up, offer a little something for everyone: sad songs, funny songs, upbeat songs, quieter stuff, you name it. We’ve designed this as something you can do on your lunch break if you work at a computer (or if you can listen on your iphone at work: your boss won’t approve of a lot of this stuff). If you don’t like one of these songs, you can always go on to the next one: every link here will take you to each individual song. As always, the #1 song here will appear on our Best Songs of 2010 list at the end of the year.

1. Elvis Costello – One Bell Rings

From his sensational new album National Ransom, this chillingly allusive account of a torture victim draws on the murder of Jean Charles de Menezes as inspiration.

2. LJ Murphy – Fearful Town

One of New York’s greatest chroniclers takes on the gentrification era, live with the superb New Orleans pianist Willie Davis. This one topped the charts here in 2007 so we can’t put it up at #1 again…that would be cheating.

3. The Newton Gang – Westbound

JD Duarte’s soulful Texas baritone delivers this pedal steel-driven country escape anthem: live, they really rock the hell out of it. They’re at the Brooklyn County Fair at the Jalopy on 11/13 at 10.

4. The New Collisions – Dying Alone

This is the video for their offhandedly chilling new powerpop smash from their new album The Optimist. “God knows you hate the quiet, when you’re dying, dying alone.”

5. The Gomorran Social Aid & Pleasure Club – The Great Flood

Noir cabaret by a brass band with a scary girl singer. They’re at the Jalopy on 11/18.

6. Ljova Zhurbin & Clifton Hyde – Theme from The Girl and Her Trust

A new theme for the DW Griffith silent film, live in Brooklyn’s Atlantic Ave. Tunnel.

7. Los Crema Paraiso – Shine on You Crazy Diablo

Venezuelan tinged Floyd cover – for real.

8. Shara Worden with Signal – The Lotus Eaters

The frontwoman of My Brightest Diamond singing one of the highlights of Sarah Kirkland Snider’s new song cycle Penelope.

9. Wayman Tisdale – Let’s Ride

The late NBA star doing some serious funk, featuring George Clinton – this is the cartoon video.

10. Witches in Bikinis – All Hallows Eve

Not the surf punk original but a disco remix, even more over the top and just as funny

November 11, 2010 Posted by | avant garde music, blues music, classical music, country music, funk music, lists, Music, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Knights at Night in Central Park

With all the great new music out there, and the Knights – one of the most adventurous, new-music-inclined orchestras in the world – on the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park last night, why did they play so much old stuff? Maybe because they knew they could bring so much joy to it – and counterintuitivity, too. Conventional wisdom is that name-brand orchestras surpass the smaller or lesser-known outfits, but all too often the big ensembles are basically sightreading and not much more. One of the benefits of a less strenuous season than what the Philharmonics of the world have to tackle is that there’s enough time for everyone to really get their repertoire in their fingers, discover it on an individual level and let its nuances fly rather than trampling them in a quest to simply get the job done. Conductor Eric Jacobsen (who doubles as the cellist in celebrated string quartet Brooklyn Rider) offered a prime example during the second movement of Beethoven’s Romance for Violin and Orchestra in F Major. It’s a series of swooping arabesques on the strings, followed by variations that the entire ensemble picks up and tosses around. Jacobsen turned them into a mystery theme, then shifted gears with the tempo, a couple of times, with a wink and a grin as the melody split and shifted kaleidoscopically on the wings of the winds. Likewise, he led the Knights through two waltzes by Shostakovich (newly arranged with jazzy Kurt Weill verve by Ljova Zhurbin) with a jaunty cabaret swing, taking a brooding Russian folk theme and then a more Weimar-inflected tune and making something approaching real dance music out of them, guest violinist Vera Beths clearly enjoying herself as much as she had during the devious swoops and slides of the Beethoven.

The rest of the program was more traditional. They’d opened with Rossini’s Barber of Seville Overture, something akin to the Simpsons Theme from another time and place. As with the Simpsons Theme, less is more with this one, and that’s how the Knights played it. Debussy’s Children’s Corner Suite was written for a favorite niece, said WQXR’s Bill McLaughlin, standing in as MC in place of a honeymooning Midge Woolsey (congratulations, Midge!). The two miniatures weren’t Fur Elise but they weren’t bad either. The orchestra wound up the program with a warmly cantabile performance of Haydn’s Symphony No. 101, commonly known as The Clock (from the metronomic sway of a prominent pizzicato passage). All counterpoint and comfortably familiar chord resolutions, to New Yorkers of a certain stripe it made a perfect soundtrack for wine and quiet conviviality on Central Park grass. This was the final Naumburg Bandshell classical concert for 2010; watch this space early next summer for information on next year’s schedule.

August 4, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment