Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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.

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

The Cellar & Point Bring Their Intriguingly Kinetic Postrock Sounds to Glasslands

A project originated by guitarist Chris Botta and drummer Joe Branciforte, the Cellar & Point are sort of Claudia Quintet meets Sleepmakeswaves meets Wounded Buffalo Theory. Mantra Percussion‘s Joe Bergen plays vibraphone, immediately drawing the Claudia Quintet comparison, which is further fueled by the nimble string work of violinist Chistopher Otto and cellist Kevin McFarland, who comprise one-half of the adventurous Jack Quartet. Guitarist Terrence McManus and bassist Rufus Philpot round out the band. The backstory – Botta and Branciforte as teenage buds in New Jersey, hanging out and blasting Rage Against the Machine – makes sense in context. Their debut long-player, Ambit, is just out from the folks at Cuneiform who have it up along with the rest of their vast catalog on bandcamp. The Cellar & Point are playing the album release show on a killer triplebill at Glasslands on Nov 19 starting around 9 with epically sweeping art-rock chorale the Knells and the alternately hypnotic and kinetic Empyrean Atlas. Cover is ten bucks; it’s not clear what the order of bands is but they’re all worth seeing.

The album’s opening track, 0852 is characteristic: tricky prog-rock metrics drive lush ambience with lingering vibraphone, slide guitar (and maybe ebow) and some artfully processsed pizzicato from the string section that adds almost banjo-like textures. Arc builds out of swirly atmospherics to a matter-of-fact march and then an animatedly cyclical dance with tinges of both west African folk music and King Crimson.

There are two Tabletops here, A and B. The first juxtaposes and mingles lingering vibes, stadium guitar bombast and lithely dancing strings. The second layers rainy-day vibes and strings with terse Andy Summers-ish guitar. There are also two White Cylinders: number one being a seemingly tongue-in-cheek mashup of brash jazz guitar, vividly prickly mystery movie textures and Reichian circularity, number two tracing a knottier, somewhat fusiony Olympic film theme of sorts.

If Ruminant is meant to illustrate an animal, it’s a minotaur stewing down in the labyrinth, awaiting an unsuspecting victim – one assumes that’s Bergen playing that gorgeously creepy piano in tandem with the eerily resonant guitars and stark strings. By contrast, Purple Octagon shuffles along with a more motorik take on what John Hollenbeck might have done with its vamping dynamic shifts – or the Alan Parsons Project with jazz chords. The somewhat dirgey, gamelan-tinged title track’s final mix is actually a recording of a playback of the song’s original studio mix made in an old rotunda in the Bronx in order to pick up vast amounts of natural reverb.

There are also a couple of reinvented pieces from the chamber music repertoire: a stately, wary Radiohead-like interpretation of an Anton Webern canon and a György Ligeti piano etude recast as a hypnotically pulsing nocturne. Is all this jazz? Not really. It’s not really rock, either. Indie classical, maybe? Sure, why not? Postrock? That too. Ultimately it boils down to what Duke Ellington said, that there are two kinds of music, the good kind, like this, and the other kind.

November 14, 2014 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Auspicious First Night at This Year’s MATA Festival

The MATA Festival continues tonight and tomorrow night at Roulette’s spacious new digs in Brooklyn across the street from Hank’s Saloon, a thirty-second hop from the Atlantic Avenue subway. If the rest of the program is as richly enjoyable as last night’s was, it’ll be one of the high-water marks of what’s been so far a great year for live music. Tonight features composer-performers including fascinating sound-sculptor Leslie Flanigan along with Cecilia Lopez and Eli Kelzer; tomorrow’s bill features SIGNAL playing works by Francesco Filidei and David Coll, plus a viola quartet by Eric Wubbels and a piece for solo kantele (Finnish autoharp) by Alex Freeman along with the charismatically pyrotechnic Kathleen Supove attacking an Ivan Orozco composition.

MATA has come a long way since it was Music at the Anthology (meaning Anthology Film Archives) about a dozen years ago; this particular program had an ambitiously global scope, with two equally ambitious ensembles, all-female German recorder ensemble QNG (Susanne Fröhlich, Yoshiko Klein,Miako Klein and Heide Schwarz) alternating with the JACK Quartet (violinists Christopher Otto, Caleb Burhans, violist John Pickford Richards and cellist Kevin McFarland). Both groups were playing with ringers – QNG with Yoshiko Klein subbing for Andrea Guttman, and Burhans filling in for JACK’s Ari Streisfeld – and each player blended in flawlessly.

QNG opened, tackling Qin Yi’s new Sound Shadow. Dancing and rippling with a staccato pointillism, the group held it together with a pinpoint rhythmic insistence: Messiaen’s birdsong as Bach might have orchestrated it. It would be difficult enough as a work for piano: it must be doubly so for wind instruments. Even a sonic crisis midway through couldn’t derail the JACK Quartet’s first assignment, a Huck Hodge partita that played permutations of the word “refuse.” Up and away with a swirl they went, the jaggedly acidic tone poem’s microtones pulling hard against a wavery central anchor, bracingly and intensely. A bell-like chorus shot off glissandos like roman candles, atmospherics evoking an accordion with half the keys held down, and an off-center call from the viola and cello against an increasingly agitated, eventually horrified thicket of violins that finally wound up with a grinding, gnashing march. It wasn’t the biggest audience hit of the night – that would come a little later – but it was the most exhilarating piece of music. Their take on a second tone poem, Icelandic composer Hugi Gudmunsson’s Matins, a pastorale depicting sunrise over the mountains, was every bit as cinematically majestic as anyone could possibly want, yet without being the least bit over-the-top.

Frohlich played Oscar Bianchi’s Crepuscolo, from 2004, solo, powerfully amplified so as to capture the most minute sonics escaping from her mighty multi-chamber large-scale recorder. Considering how vast the piece’s dynamic range would become, it’s a good thing she started as quietly as she did, especially since it involves percussion on the recorder almost as much as melody. Precisely oscillating riffs tiptoed, then scurried, then helicoptered suddenly and explosively out of suspenseful stillness, careening off the walls of the theatre. It’s amazing that a single recorder could create such a vast and assaultive array of sounds, especially the low-register ones, and quite the herculean feat to witness, never mind attempt. Frohlich has a place on an Olympic team waiting for her somewhere if she ever gets sick of music.

QNG followed with Gordon Beeferman’s Passages, whose rapt, organ-like ambience offered not the slightest hint of the rousing roller-coaster ride of swoops and dives the group would get to joyously swing through before returning comfortably home. The concert ended with both ensembles joining forces for a mutual commission, Yotam Haber’s Estro Poetico-Armonico. The Vivaldi allusion came through vividly: Haber based this on Benedetto Marcello’s final transcription of a series of psalms sung in a baroque-era Venetian synagogue. Through a glass darkly, it fluttered, microtonal curliques rising, obscuring and then backing away, elegantly ceding centerstage to the stately, wary, old-world stained-glass ambience.

April 19, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The JACK Quartet and Ensemble Signal Play a Riveting Henryk Gorecki Tribute

What a rare treat it was to see a rare all-Henryk Gorecki performance last night at le Poisson Rouge, a tribute concert held on the first anniversary of the great Polish composer’s death. The club hasn’t been so packed, at least for music, since last year’s Winter Jazz Festival. This time, courtesy of the Polish Cultural Institute, the standing-room crowd got to witness intense, haunting versions of Gorecki’s String Quartet No. 2, played by the JACK Quartet, as well as the Kleines Requiem für Eine Polka, Op. 66 by Ensemble Signal conducted by Brad Lubman.

Both pieces date from a couple of years before the recording of Gorecki’s Symphony #3 by the London Sinfonietta with Dawn Upshaw went platinum in the UK, and then became a worldwide sensation back in the early 90s. In a lengthy interview before the concert with one of the club’s personnel, the head of Nonesuch Records admitted that he’d made a “good deal” with the performers on that album, paying them only as musicians for hire, with no royalties. To his credit, when sales exploded – its status as the bestselling album of alltime featuring work by a living composer has yet to be surpassed- he cut both Gorecki and the musicians in on the deal. Gorecki was supposedly so flabbergasted that he carried his first royalty check around with him for a couple of years before he cashed it. The label head also noted insightfully how 1933 in Poland was auspicious for artists: not only Gorecki but also Jerzy Kosinski and Roman Polanski were born that year. And for all three, the defining moment seems to be their survival of Hitler’s terror, which may be one explanation for the enduring popularity of Gorecki’s plaintive, otherworldly music.

Both works contrast lush, hypnotic atmospherics with jarring, terrified passages, the String Quartet the more dramatic and intense of the two. Like the work of another chronicler of that era’s terror, Shostakovich, there are passages in both pieces that mock pageantry and bombast, and also the lockstep conformity of fascism (having also survived the Polish communist regime, Gorecki may also had that in mind when he wrote these). Despite some difficult operating conditions – the club had turned the air conditioning virtually all the way off, making it oppressively hot – the JACK Quartet turned in a raw, powerfully plaintive performance. Brooding and then somewhat warmer atmospherics quickly gave way to shocked, horrified staccato passages anchored by a cello pedal note; the second movement gave the ensemble a platform to grimly and inexorably build to an insistent crescendo of microtones, as Christopher Otto and Ari Streisfeld’s violins played starkly rhythmic harmonics against the menacing low notes of Kevin McFarland’s cello and John Pickford Richards’ viola. The melodies here don’t move around much: it’s all about dynamics, and foreshadowing, and frantic, horror-stricken panic, and the quartet vividly portayed each as it appeared.

Lubman led Ensemble Signal through the little requiem for a polka with dexterity and great respect for its spaciously minimalist architecture: the silences between the bells and piano in the opening movement, and the jarring increases in distance between string motifs later on, are very tricky rhythmically, but the group was as ready for them as anyone can really be: as random as they might sound, the effect is purposeful, and packs a punch. There’s another even more caricaturish faux-martial passage here, and the group sank their teeth into it. The piece wound out slowly, a requiem of slowly shifting string textures punctuated by distant, decreasingly frequent, minimalist bell accents, the funeral winding down pensively, one bitter memory at a time.

The Polish Cultural Institute regularly schedules an excellently yearly series of film, literary, dramatic and musical events, not only in New York but elsewhere in the United States and in Poland as well.

November 9, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bang on a Can Marathon 2010: The Early Hours

This year’s Bang on a Can Marathon aimed to be especially audience-friendly. In the “social media lounge” on the World Financial Center balcony, you could recharge your laptop, play an Evan Ziporyn or Julia Wolfe composition on Rock Band (!?!) and get your hand stamped by the hour. Those with a full twelve hours worth of stamps at the night’s end had earned Marathon Warrior designation, a certificate of merit (suitable for framing!) plus a mention on Bang on a Can’s main site and their twitter page. A little extreme, maybe, but that’s what a marathon’s all about. How does this year’s rank, compared to previous years? From the first four hours’ worth, somewhere around the top. The annual new music showcase runs ’em on and runs ’em off, meaning that if you don’t like the piece or ensemble that’s onstage at the moment, you can always come back in ten minutes and there’ll probably be somebody new up there. This year’s selection of performers and composers was characteristically skewed toward the avant-garde (subcategory: postminimalist) with jazzy edges.

The John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble opened the show auspiciously with the drummer/composer’s Perseverance, the centerpiece of the group’s excellent 2009 album Eternal Interlude. Completed on Election Eve, 2008 and dedicated to Obama, it sends three specific sax voices (played by Ellery Eskelin, Tony Malaby and Jeremy Viner) fluttering and flailing against the big band’s majestic swells and a couple of inspired drum breaks by the composer. Eskelin got the Obama role and hung in there tenaciously for all it was worth.

Innovatively and more than a little deviously, German recorder quartet QNG ran through a New York premiere of Dorothee Hahne’s somewhat understated Dance Macabre and its neat half-time ending, and then Paul Moravec’s Mortal Flesh, shifting from hypnotic horizontality to warped baroque, utilizing at least half a museum’s worth of recorders of various sizes. They brought the big seven-foot model out for the final piece, Moritz Eggert’s LOL funny Flohwalze (that’s German for Chopsticks – the tune, that is), mocking and thrashing its cheesiness to the fullest extent that a recorder quartet can thrash.

The mockery continued with Kyrzyg musicians Kambar Kalendarov and Kutman Sultanbekov playing a simple boing-boing jews harp riff over and over again, completely deadpan until the very end, as if to see if the westerners in the crowd knew they were being had. The crowd’s polite applause seemed to confirm the Kyrzygs’ suspicions. The duo finally played a little country dance on lute and fiddle and that was that.

Florent Ghys effectively took speech patterns and did a one-man band thing, making vaguely baroque-themed loops out of them by playing his upright bass through a series of electronic effects. Eggert then did the same on piano, except that his Hammerklavier III went all-out for laughs and delivered them in droves as he pounded the piano everywhere he could reach, finally kicking up his heel on the low keys and losing his shoe in the process.

The Lucy Moses School’s ensemble Face the Music played Graham Fitkin’s Mesh, which attempts to make a rondo capricioso of sorts out of minimal, circular phrases that eventually move into elevator jazz territory. Following them was a duo playing a Tristan Perich work for tubular bells, electronically processed and amplified to the point that it was like being behind a fleet of garbage trucks with their backup alarms shrieking at full volume: a bathroom break waiting to happen.

Alto saxophonist/composer Steve Coleman, joined by Jonathan Finlayson on trumpet, and David Millares on piano played the captivating suite Formation – Lunar Eclipse, cleverly and often intensely exploring permutations of a hypnotic, circular introductory theme that finally got the chance to cut loose when Millares, whose intensity shadowing Coleman’s sax lines all the way through finally got a chance to break loose and wreak some slightly restrained havoc.

With their marimbas, vibraphones, gongs, water jugs and all sorts of other bangable objects, percussion troupe Slagwerk Den Haag opened their short set with the New York premiere of Seung-Ah Oh’s delightfully playful DaDeRimGill, a dramatic laundry-room scenario that managed to be as purposeful and conversational as it was comedic. Marco Momi’s Ludica (an American premiere) displayed the same kind of conversational tradeoffs and humor.

While one trailerload of instruments was being cleared off the stage for another, the JACK Quartet played Iannis Xenakis’ Tetras on the steps in the back of the atrium, amid the audience, moving from characteristic astringent, percussive phrases to swirling and strikingly melodic ambience. It was the big hit of the day, at least until Evan Ziporyn and his group Gamelan Galak Tika were ready to go. Bang on a Can’s Michael Gordon laughed it up with the composer beforehand since the group follow oldschool gamelan tradition, right down to the matching uniforms and seating arrangements. “I thought it was the Bang on a Can pyjama party,” Ziporyn responded sheepishly. “Xenakis, next to a gamelan, really sums up Bang on a Can,” which pretty much says it all.

And the Ziporyn piece they played, Tire Fire, was as aptly titled as it was transcendent. Ziporyn self-deprecatingly remarked beforehand that the piece really had no real reason to exist. Which maybe it doesn’t – other than to give audiences (and ensemble members) a shot of pure adrenaline exhilaration. It’s a triptych of sorts, each theme introduced by the group’s two electric guitarists. The first movement was the eeriest and the best, the ensemble’s bells ringing out an ocean of overtones against the Telecaster’s ominous shades. The two following movements were more optimistic, the second pulsing along with catchy yet stately electric bass. And with that, after four hours of music, it was time to fly out into the hundred-degree heat. Which combined with the messed-up state of the West Village, the police mystifyingly blocking off access to subways from Christopher to 14th St. despite the presence of a huge crowd who’d come out for the gay parade, made the prospect of a return later in the day a foregone conclusion.

June 28, 2010 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, experimental music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Concert Review: The Loki Ensemble at Music Mondays, NYC 4/26/10

It could have been billed as Schoenberg and His Descendents, a beautifully uneasy, otherworldly upper westside evening of art-songs and some austerely compelling instrumentals that more than did justice to the composer’s legacy. The Loki Ensemble’s mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer has developed not only a great affinity but also a strikingly resonant aptitude for Schoenberg’s paradigm-shifting Book of Hanging Gardens, Op. 18, an otherworldly suite based on a series of heartbroken, imagistic poems by Stefan George. The group played four of those songs: on number two and eleven , pianists Jacob Greenberg and then Wes Matthews wrenched every brooding, moody atonality from the score as Fischer brought a remarkably visceral unease, longing and intensity to the vocals. In the stylized world of classical legit voice, individuality is not an easy quality to channel, but Fischer put her own steely, forcefully indelible stamp on everything she touched. To liven things up further, the group added their own instrumental improvisations, notably tenor saxophonist Noah Kaplan (of marvelously creepy art-song practitioners Dollshot), whose precise yet breathy, baritone-like timbres matched the murk perfectly. Greenberg hinted at an McCoy Tyner bluesiness in his solo on song fourteen, number fifteen dramatically juxtaposing Fischer’s pyrotechnics against Matthews’ plaintive minimalism.

A very recent work for piano trio and vocals (based on an Octavio Paz text), Reinaldo Moya’s La Rima, with the JACK Quartet’s Christopher Otto on violin and Kevin McFarland on cello made a solid segue, strings swooping over a pensive piano rumble, building to a contrast between terse, incisive piano methodically punching against sostenuto atmospherics. A world premiere, William Cooper’s An Den Wassern Zu Babel was an intense and poignant interpretation of Psalm 137 (you may know it from Bach or the Melodians’ By the Rivers of Babylon). Cooper explained how affecting he found the end of the passage, which concludes with “Blessed are those who bash the bones of their children against the rocks,” and while the music, with considerable echoes of Bartok, never reached that level of violence, there was considerable anger and even more frustration. Over the course of seven movements, pianist Liza Stepanova worked the variations of a simple ascending progression lyrically and dynamically, through a sad, angry march, a hypnotically chilling, late Rachmaninovian-style passage and then the methodical, wounded sway of the final movement which ended sudden and cold.

The final piece, Nathan Shields’ Out of the Cradle, Endlessly Rocking set text by Hart Crane and Walt Whitman to severe, sometimes acidic, evocatively wavelike piano played by Ed Neeman, Fischer speaking the final stanzas with a dramatic flair. The counterpoint between vocals and piano was both striking and hypnotic, the unease of the strings adding to the menace (the theme ponders the role of the ocean as both nurturer and destroyer), but as assured and engaged as the performers were, ultimately this was Horse Latitudes: awkward instant, and the first horse of many was jettisoned. What a treat it would be to hear this without the poetry – or with vocalese instead!

The popular, reliably adventurous Music Mondays at Advent Lutheran Church at 93rd and Broadway continues on May 31 with the Brentano Quartet.

April 28, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment