Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

New Music for Harp With Edge, Bite and a Killer Sense of Humor

Once in a great while, someone writes album liner notes so priceless that they scream to be quoted. Here’s Michael Lewanski offering some background for Ben Melsky‘s album New Works for Harp with his group Ensemble Dal Niente:

“There might be many things that strike you as odd about the idea of a new music harp album…the first is that there’s very little, strictly speaking, that is less new than the harp… it seems that earliest exemplars are found in the Sumerian city of Ur, from the mid-fourth millennium BCE, perhaps before very many people had figured out how to write. You also find them, starting in 3000 BCE or so, painted on tombs of Egyptian pharaohs who apparently wanted enjoyable-but-not-too-noisy entertainment in the afterlife.) It doesn’t get much more basic than plucking a string; no wonder this instrument has been around for awhile.

Another has to do with the hackneyed cliché, found among both musicians and non-, of the harp as an instrument that is the ne plus ultra of the elegant and genteel, nudging in the direction of the effete and decadent. (Along those lines, one of its best known moments in the so-called “standard repertoire” is the cadenza in the Valse des fleurs from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker: a work titled in a language foreign to the composer for a piece in which a waltz (a genre inextricably bound up with the most ennui’d of aristocracy) is danced by flowers in the Land of Sweets. I challenge you to find me something more froo-froo in the history of art.”

Needless to say, Melsky’s record – streaming at Bandcamp– is not exactly froo-froo. The first number is Tomás Gueglio‘s brief After L’Addio, its muted glissandos punctuated by spare accents and percussive figures along with a handful of coy doppler riffs. The title references a Salvatore Sciarrino work for harp which attempts to maximize what little sustain the instrument can deliver. Steadily plucked close harmonies and deliciously subtle overtones dominate the diptych’s second half, Felt For Harp.

Emma Hospelhorn joins Melsky for a duo piece, Alican Çamci’s staggeredly syncopated, spacious Perde for Bass Flute and Harp, which with the flutist basically humming through her instrument much of the time is as playful as it is distantly disquieting. An alternate title for this increasingly magical, microtonally-spiced tableau could be Sonata for Fly and Music Box.

Another duo work, Fredrick Gifford’s Mobile 2015: Satirise features guitarist Jesse Langen and lots of extended technique, with plenty of whirry noise along with the spare, chiming interplay.

A Wang Lu shout-out to Christian Wolff contrasts Melsky’s slo-mo, acerbically circular phrases with Katie Schoepflin Jimoh’s alternately hazy and fluttery clarinet. The album’s longest, funniest and best number is Igor Santos‘ Anima. Percussionist Kyle Flens adds warpy. singing bowl-like textures and all sorts of quasi-vocalized buffoonery, going back and forth with Melsky’s wry whistles and peek-a-book moments. As cartoon music goes, it doesn’t get any better than this.

With its sudden swells and triumphantly gritty flourishes contrasting with moments of silence, the album’s final number is Eliza Brown‘s On-dit (French for “they say”), soprano Amanda DeBoer Bartlett adding perhaps the album’s most terse, minimalistic contribution. This is a great late-night listen for people who like quiet, thoughtful music with an edge.

June 22, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Revisiting a Rewarding, Diverse Collection of New Classical Works

Today’s album is Dreamfall, released by distinctive indie classical group Now Ensemble in 2015 as a follow-up to their harrowing 2012 recording of Missy Mazzoli‘s Songs From the Uproar. It’s more stylistically diverse and somewhat more upbeat but just as adventurous for this wind ensemble enhanced by guitar and piano. The album is still streaming at Bandcamp.

A low, looming metallic fog rises, keening with overtones as Scott Smallwood‘s Still in Here gets underway, flickering bits appearing from time to time. As the drone becomes more of a rumble, tectonic sheets of sound color the upper part of the picture, oscillating at a glacial pace. Although there are discernibly piano and reed textures, the rest of the murk is deliciously mysterious.

The album’s title track, by Mark Dancigers, is a triptych. The first part begins with a playfully dripping piano phrase over orchestration that grows more stark, then the casual, intricately synocopated mood returns. Big neoromantic cadenzas alternate with more carefree interludes: the appearance of the composer’s ringing, ever-so-slightly distorted electric guitar is something of a shock, all the more so because it anchors the music in an attractively wistful folk rock-tinged theme.

Part two follows a dancing, sparkling staccato tangent that grows more kaleidoscopic and then coalesces back toward the neoromantic. Clarinet floats over a gritty, insistent piano-driven glitter in the first half of the conclusion, then the group use a momentary solemn Michael Mizrahi solo piano interlude as a springboard for a lively upward drive over insistent, loopy staccato strings. It’s a fun ride.

Divine the Rest, by John Supko is still and echoey, awash in reverb, with a whispery spoken-word component and gently fluttery phrases that rise toward the end. An enigmatic calm and hammering bustle alternate in Nathan Williamson‘s Trans-Atlantic Flight of Fancy; bristling suspense-movie accents from throughout the ensemble grow more warmly agitated

Sarah Kirkland Snider’s Pale As Centuries is the album’s most striking piece. Its wary guitar theme recedes for Terry Riley-ish upper-register circles, clarinet floating amid piano turbulence and eerie concentric circles just below: it wouldn’t be out of place in the Darcy James Argue catalog.

Andrea Mazzariello‘s Trust Fall makes a great segue, from its similarly uneasy slow guitar/bass/clarinet interweave, rising to exchanges between triumphant peaks, a twinkling calm and river of a coda from the piano. The album concludes with Judd Greenstein’s City Boy, sparkling with spiky, circular motives, a bit of a jig, and hints of Carole King woven together up to an unexpectedly sober ending.

June 12, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Fun, Playful Solo Percussion Album by Adam Holmes

Percussionist Adam Holmes has a very entertaining short solo album, Compartments, streaming at Bandcamp. To an extent, it’s ambient, but there’s a lot going on here. Holmes’ music has a welcome sense of humor, so often missing from the indie classical scene he comes out of: he validates the argument that drummers by nature tend to be funny people.

The album’s opening, title track is is a very playful, hypnotic seven-minute piece for small metal gongs, Holmes working subtle variations on a racewalking, steady rhythm. If this isn’t loopmusic, Holmes has the steadiest hands on the planet. The dynamics, and the overtones ringing out as he varies his attack, are very cool.

Track two, Deluge, is an electroacoustic piece, an echoey circling-the-drainpipe loop punctuated by what sounds like a crazed plumber trying to get a handle on what’s going on down there. Hypnotic, blippy muted polythythms on what could be a glass marimba spiral around backward masked loops in the third track, Cambium. Holmes winds up the record with All-American, those metal gongs again creating an increasingly complex web akin to a music box approximating the sound of dripping stalactites.

Who is the audience for this? Anyone who likes drifty music, wherever your mind might be drifting to.

June 6, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Defying Category With Svjetlana Bukvich’s Rich, Dramatic Compositions

As a composer, Svjetlana Bukvich has made a career out of jumping off cliffs and landing on her feet. Few other artists are able to bridge such a seemingly ridiculous number of styles without seeming the least bit out of place. Most, but not all, of her vibrant, dramatic, often darkly bristling compositions are electroacoustic, imbued with an irrepressible joie de vivre as wel as both a striking clarity and embrace of the absurd. It seems that she just writes what she wants to and lets everybody else figure out how to categorize it..or just leave it alone and enjoy its vitality. Her new album Extension – streaming at Spotify – is by turns surreal, futuristic, troubling and triumphant.

She plays zither harp through a maze of effects, joined by Susan Aquila on electric violin and David Rozenblatt on percussion, on the album’s opening track, The Beginning, flitting space junk and dancing, pingponging phrases over stygian washes. Bukvich builds the hypnotically circling prelude Utopia around a simple, insistent, wordless vocal riff spiced with her own bright electric piano, flickers from Jacqueline Kerrod’s electric harp over terse syncopation from bassist Patrick Derivaz and drummer Wylie Wirth. Is this art-rock? Indie classical? Does it matter?

Singers Kamala Sankaram and Samille Ganges harmonize uneasily over Bukvich’s dancing synth lines in the album’s title track: imagine an Ethiopian contingent passing through Jabba the Hut’s space lounge. Once You Are Not a Stranger is featured in three different versions throughout the album. Derivaz dips low to open the first one, string quartet Ethel building a pensive series of echo riffs overhead.

Janis Brenner sings a much more minimalist take of the second over the composer’s spacious piano chords. The lush final version, which concludes the album, switches out the string quartet for the Shattered Glass String Orchestra,

Graves, with Bukvich joined by Kerrod, Wirth, Nikola Radan on alto flute and Richard Viard on acoustic guitar comes across as a moody, distantly Middle Eastern-tinged art-rock dirge. Sankaram brings both gentle poignancy and operatic flair to Tattoo, backed by Bukvich’s brooding piano and orchestration.

The bandleader switches to synth, teaming up with cellist Raphael Saphra and bassist Joseph Brock for Stairs, a similarly uneasy miniature. Then Jane Manning trades off with Sankaram over Bojan Gorišek’s piano and Bukvich’s wry electronics in the Balkan-inflected Nema Te (You Aren’t Here, You Aren’t There). Fans of acts as diverse as Radiohead, Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, exploding pianist Kathleen Supove and postminimalist composers like David Lang will love this stuff.

May 14, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Canland: A Goldmine of Rare, Legendary New York Performances

What better time than now to launch an archive of irreplaceable live recordings from the past thirty-three years? Canland just went live a couple of days ago with several days worth of footage of concert performances by iconic figures as well as fringe players from across the worlds of the avant garde, jazz and new classical music since 1987.

On May 10 of that year, a trio of rising star composers – Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe and David Lang – staged the first annual Bang on a Can Marathon of new music in a stuffy Soho loft. Over the next three decades, the mostly-annual event would take over larger and larger venues and become a New York institution.

If you ever went to one of the marathons, it was obvious that everything was being painstakingly recorded. Relatively little has made it to youtube, one of the reasons why Canland is such a goldmine. The other is that it’s still a work in progress: what’s up now is merely a greatest-hits version, along with some obscure treasures from the marathon’s early years, plus some footage from various shows by the house art-rock band, the Bang on a Can All-Stars.

In keeping with the organization’s goal of breaking down boundaries between musical genres, the diversity of the music is astonishing. Need something soothing and soul-nourishing? Innov Gnawa‘s fifteen minutes of ancient Moroccan trance-dance grooves will do the trick (for the record, this blog wasn’t there when the band played it at the 2017 marathon at the Brooklyn Museum).

If you can handle something harrowing, click on Ensemble Signal’s meticulously grim 2011 version of Wolfe’s Cruel Sister, at the World Financial Center atrium. One of many other fascinating Wolfe works here is her microtonal, drifiting, echoey Williamsburg Bridge, from the inaugural 1987 marathon.

Lots of big names are represented: Pauline Oliveros, Guy Klucevsek, Meredith Monk, the World Saxophone Quartet, Tania Leon, Phil Kline, Tan Dun, Keeril Makan and both guitarists in Sonic Youth. There are iconic pieces like Frederic Rzewski’s Coming Together – which appears many times in several different arrangements. Terry Riley’s In C is also here, less frequently. There are pioneering works by Ives, Xenakis, Glass, Andriessen and Saariaho plus snippets of Brian Eno’s Music For Airports.

As the years go on, it’s obvious the Bang on a Can hydra are keeping their collective eyes on the ball, showcasing new music by younger artists including Bora Yoon, Gabriella Smith, Amir ElSaffar, Missy Mazzoli and the late Johann Johannsson. The roots of this music also get their due. The Cassatt String Quartet revel in the otherworldliness of Ruth Crawford Seeger’s 1931 quartet. International Contemporary Ensemble play Galina Ulstvolskaya’s strange, insistent (and very brief, barely twelve-minute-long) Symphony No. 5.

And the more off-the-wall material is just as entertaining. The Kazue Sawai Koto Ensemble play one of the very first compositions to feature bass koto (some of it sounds like a posse of possums under the lid of a concert grand piano). In 1989, a pickup group who call themselves the World Casio Quartet play no wave guitar legend David First’s looming, atmospheric Plate Mass; nineteen years later, the Bang on a Can All-Stars tackle a similar yet more somber and animated Erdem Helvacioglu piece. All this is just the of the iceberg. In the mood to go way, way down the rabbit hole? This is your chance.

May 6, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Vivid String-and-Piano Tableaux From Drum and Lace

Drum and Lace a.k.a. film composer Sofia Hultquist’s tantalizingly short album Semi Songs – streaming at her music page– comprises a quartet of bracingly tuneful, often hypnotically circling instrumentals for violin, two cellos and piano. You could call it minimalism, or new classical music: however you categorize it, this brief, verdant release leaves you wanting more.

The album begins and ends with a diptych, Outsider Complex. The first part opens with a burst of strings followed by some furious, machete-chop sixteenth notes. The piano joins the frenzy, then recedes with a brooding elegance; the strings follow as the song calms before a final volley. As terse and minimalistic as this is at heart, it takes serious chops to play. To wind it up, the piano rises to a loopy insistence, strings leading to a moody lull and tantalizing hints of what will eventually be a deliciously ominous return to tightly orchestrated savagery.

There are two other tracks. The swaying, summery Parhelion begins with a loopy contrast between stark, insistent cello and hazy violin; then the two switch roles as the harmonic web grows more complex, a rondo of sorts. Coyly bouncy piano suddenly leaps in; it ends brightly.

The epic, fourteen-minute Gardenia has a slower, more pensive sway, spacious piano chords and a steady, lullaby-like melody that begins to sound completely improvised. A light, echoey electronic drone moves toward the forefront as the strings echo each other; the piano kicks off the first of several successive rounds of circular riffs. Composer Matt McBane’s ensemble Build comes to mind, although Drum and Lace’s music is more springlike, closer in spirit if not in sound to Vivaldi than, say, Bach.

March 20, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dusky, Enveloping Ambience and a West Village Album Release Show by Cellist Clarice Jensen

Clarice Jensen has been one of the prime movers of the New York scene in new classical music for over a decade, both as a cellist and as artistic director of the American Contemporary Music Ensemble. But she’s also a composer. Her long awaited, atmospheric solo debut album, For This From That Will Be Filled is streaming at Bandcamp. She’s playing the release show with a typically stellar cast this Friday night, March 13 at 8 PM at the Tenri Institute; cover is $25.

The album’s ten-minute opening epic, BC, is a co-write with the late film composer Jóhann Jóhannsson. Its slowly shifting, hypnotic series of tectonic sheets and simple chords drifts through the sonic picture, sometimes with subtle doppler, backward-masked or pitch-shifting effects. The encroaching unease of Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s work comes to mind.

Awash in low, sitar-like drones, keening harmonics, pulsing echo effects and circling oscillations, Cello Constellations, by Michael Harrison comes across as a more stately take on Brian Jones-style loopmusic – or Brian Eno in darkly enigmatic mode. The unexpected coda packs such a punch that it’s too good to give away.

The opening echoes and textures of Jensen’s title diptych – a Dag Hammarskjold reference – are much more icily otherworldly. Here she begins to sound more like a one-woman orchestra. In the second part, Jensen blends Eno-esque layers amid a gathering storm that recalls Gebhard Ullmann‘s rumbling multi-bass adventures in ambient music as much as it does Bach cello suites. Those who gravitate toward both the calmer and more psychedelic fringes of the new music world have a lot to savor here.

March 10, 2020 Posted by | avant garde 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

A Smashing Debut by Percussion Ensemble Pathos Trio

It takes a lot of nerve for a group to play four world premieres at their first-ever concert together. Friday night at Arete Gallery, Pathos Trio validated both their confidence in choice of composers as well as their mutual talents, making a debut to remember. That may be all the more impressive in that they didn’t even have all their regular members. Peter White, playing vibraphone, bells and a vanload of other bangable objects, subbed manfully for percussionist Marcelina Suchocka.

This may be a new ensemble, but each of the members has extensive credits in the world of new music. The three opened with Alyssa Weinberg‘s dynamically churning Delirious Phenomena, a surreal portrait of a factory haunted by mischievous ghosts, or so it seemed. White, Felix Reyes and Alan Hankers worked the guts of a meticulously prepared piano, using mallets for murk and looming swells, then piano wires wrapped around individual strings inside for timbres that ranged from keening, to whispery, to a spot-on facsimile of a french horn. Hypnotically circling patterns and atmospheric washes rose and fell, up to a sudden, coy ending.

Thundering bursts from bass drum and gongs contrasted with eerily tinny resonance emanating from bowed bells, vibraphone and spare piano in Finola Merivale‘s Oblivious Oblivion, a macabre, apocalyptic global warming tableau. A long, cruelly crushing study in wave motion and long, ineluctable upward trajectories, it also ended suddenly, but 180 degrees from where Weinberg’s piece had landed. It was the showstopper of the night.

Evan Chapman‘s Fiction of Light came across as the kind of piece a group can have fun playing, but that didn’t translate to the audience. Reyes and White really got a workout keeping its machinegunning sixteenth notes on the rails, but ultimately this loopy triptych didn’t cohere despite a rather compelling, minimalist rainy-day piano interlude midway through.

The three closed by employing the entirety of their gear throughout Alison Yun-Fei Jiang‘s spacious, vivid Prayer Variations, an increasingly majestic depiction of the vastness of cathedrals the composer’s been visiting lately. As with Merivale’s work, the group nimbly developed its series of long, meticulously interwoven crescendos, from White’s rippling, gamelanesque vibraphone, to Hankers’ tersely plaintive piano, to Reyes’ triumphant accents on the drums and cymbals.

Over the past ten years or so, New York has become a hotbed of good percussion ensembles who’ve drawn the attention of similarly innovative, ambitous composers. With just one show under their respective belts, Pathos Trio have elevated themselves into those elite ranks alongside Yarn/Wire, So Percussion, Tigue, Iktus and Ensemble Et Al. Pathos Trio’s next show is a free concert at 7 PM on March 16 at the New World Center, 500 17th St, in Miami Beach.

March 2, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Surreal Mechanical Sounds and a Week at the Stone From Avant Garde Adventurers Yarn/Wire

The artists that John Zorn books into weeklong stands at the Stone are typically bandleaders improvising with various supporting casts. So it’s unusual that a full ensemble like perennially adventurous indie classical piano-and-percussion quartet Yarn/Wire – Ian Antonio and Russell Greenberg on bangable objects, Laura Barger and Ning Yu on pianos – would spend a week there, which they’re doing starting this Jan 29 at 8:30 PM; cover each night is $20. The most enticing installment is on the 31st with thoughtful, atmospherically-inclined bassoonist/composer Katie Young.

Yarn/Wire’s latest recording – streaming at Bandcamp – is Alex Mincek‘s sometimes bracingly insistent, occasionally comedic eight-part suite Images of Duration (In Homage to Ellsworth Kelly). Louis Andriessen’s adventures in analog similations of mechanical sounds seem to be an inspiration, along with Kelly’s landscapes.

The introduction, Points on a Spiral 1 begins ambiently, then the piano introduces an elegantly minimalist low-midrange theme against a high pianissimo echo in the far distance. Turn down the volume on your device for the sudden, jarring drumhits of Girls in Black and White and its assaultive industrial sonics.

Inviting low drones with slowly rising harmonic overtones drift through the sonic picture in Oblique, eventually receding for spare, serious piano figures: a pensively minimalist and then acerbically ringing, subtly microtonal conversation develops. Diagonal is a surreal blend of foreboding Asian temple theme, Terry Riley-ish ripples and churning steam piston-like sonics, cuisinarted and playfully reassembled at the end.

Trippily staggered, incisively chiming microtonal phrases grow more oddly mechanical in Vermillion Becomes Cobalt as wavelike gong washes and a growing low drone loom closer. Oxblood Becomes Orchid has anvil-like accents paired with mutedly bassy marimba responses, first as if through a wall, then more discernibly echoey. Way, way back in the distance, there’s a signature Black Sabbath theme, but once again Mincek pushes back the clouds with even more ridiculous comic relief.

Points on a Spiral 2 is a more somber variation on the earlier theme; the suite concludes with the brief, droll Quartz and Feldspar, Casper the Friendly Ghost monkeying around in the concert hall. Indie classical music doesn’t get much more psychedelic than this.

January 23, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment