Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Visionary, Sardonically Hilarious, Grimly Dystopic New Opera Looking at You Debuts in the West Village

Kamala Sankaram and Rob Handel’s new opera Looking at You is as funny as it is dystopic – and it’s extremely dystopic, and just as visionary. George Orwell predicted that people would become so enamored of technology that they’d willingly let it enslave them, and so far western society seems to be on the express track. The premise of this outlandish multimedia extravaganza extrapolates from that observation, and although it’s a grimly familiar story, it keeps the audience guessing, adding layer upon layer of meaning until the inevitable, crushing coda. The New York premiere was last night; the show continues at Here, 145 Sixth Ave. south of Spring, and west of the park in the middle of the block, tomorrow night, Sept 8 at 4 PM and then Sept 11-14 and 17-21 at 8:30 PM. Cover is $25

Billed as a mashup of the Edward Snowden affair and Casablanca, this satire of Silicon Valley technosupremacists falling for their own bullshit is ruthlessly spot-on, right from the first few seconds. The first of many levels of meta occurs as the audience becomes the crowd at a breathless product launch for the app to kill all other apps. See, it connects not only your Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Tinder, ad nauseum, but also your phone camera, Amazon Alexa, the spycams outside your door, inside your apartment and your bathroom…and presumably every other spycam in existence. Access is universal: the miracle of face recognition technology gives you unlimited data on everyone, and vice versa. Full disclosure: as an April Fool joke several years ago, this blog published a spoof which reached the same conclusion that Sankaram and Handel do here.

The Snowden stand-in (Brandon Snook) sees where all this is leading and decided to spill the beans. His ex-girlfriend (Blythe Gaissert) isn’t convinced: her refrain, heard over and over from several voices throughout the show, is “But I’ve got nothing to hide!”A brief media circus ensues – Kristin Marting’s haunting backdrop leaves no doubt what’s behind those cold, flickering screens – followed by a long cat-and-mouse game with Homeland Security.

In a delicious stroke of irony, Gaissert’s get-out-of-jail-free card turns out to be the enterprise’s crown jewel: it erases every electronic footprint you’ve ever left (mirroring the the real-life Silicon Valley cynicism of how it’s considered bad form to give children screen time until they reach school age), This little gizmo is bestowed on Gaissert by her wide-eyed, relentlessly exuberant, boundaryless boss, played with relish by Paul An. His supporting cast – Adrienne Danrich, Eric McKeever and Mikki Sodergren, in multiple roles – are just as cluelessly dedicated to the cult of Big Data, spouting ditzy homilies about how benign it all is in perfect techno-speak.

Snook imbues the Snowden standin with a steely determination: he seems less interested in reigniting the relationship with his careerist girlfriend than simply persuading her to come over from the dark side. Beyond the acting, we get to watch their affair unravel – in reverse, via text message. An aborted clandestine meeting between Snook and a reporter brings Homeland Security in for the first time; the black-jacketed team’s interview technique stops short of torture but is eerily accurate.

Meanwhile, at many intervals throughout the narrative, Instagram photos and Facebook posts made by audience members play on several screens behind the stage. In a brief Q&A after the performance, the directorial crew explained that they promise not to show anything embarrassing they discover about those in attendance. As an incentive to share your “socials,” you get a free drink for signing into the system operating from the tablet at your table. It takes about an hour to datamine everything available on a given individual, legally, the opera company’s head spy explained. If you don’t want your mug and your stupid pix and who knows what else up onscreen for everyone to see, show up on the night of the show and pay cash like a sensible person.

Beyond the suspense involving the characters, we all know how this is going to end. It’s been said that humankind’s ability to reason is what differentiates us from animals, but in this tale it’s denial that makes us unique among the species. Although the dialogue doesn’t address it, the computer-generated alerts flashing across the many screens reinforce, over and over, how the most seemingly innocuous online or social media interaction has sinister consequences. After all, there’s no human reason involved with this dystopia’s magic algorithm. As Gaissert finally screams, contemptuously, “It’s a fucking computer!”

Trouble is, that computer was programmed by people with a very specific agenda. Big Data was not devised to exonerate anyone. It’s a snare. And as Sankaram and Handel remind, again and again, it’s working better than ever. More than anything, Looking at You reaffirms how its creators’ bleak vision is as vast and shattering as Sankaram’s five-octave vocal range.

Her original score, played by a diversely talented ensemble of keyboardist Mila Henry with saxophonists Jeff Hudgins, Ed RosenBerg, and Josh Sinton, is fantastic, from the cartoonish faux-techno of the opening scene, through ominous noir tableaux, snarky pageantry and brooding neoromantic interludes. It isn’t until the end that Sankaram draws on the Indian raga themes that she mashes up with cumbia when leading her slinky, surfy rock band Bombay Rickey. Even Kate Fry’s costumes are priceless: these true believers sport shimmery pseudo-lab outfits with circuitboards embedded in the fabric. And while the quasi-disguise that Snook wears in the next-to-last act is hardly subtle, it might be the opera’s cruellest and best joke.

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September 7, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, drama, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, opera, 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

Murky Noir Classics and Devious Jousting from Baritone Sax Titan Josh Sinton

Gritty lows, epic solos, smoky riffage, paint-peeling extended-technique freakout: baritone saxophonist Josh Sinton does it all. He’s played on some of the most memorable big band gigs in New York in recent years, but he’s also a mainstay in the far reaches of improvisational music. That’s why his latest project, Phantasos – a Morphine cover band – might be a surprise, considering how straightforward it is. But for anyone who misses that iconic noir trio, Sinton channels Dana Colley’s blend of murk and lyricism while a rotating rhythm section adds a little extra slink. Nobody in the band is using a two-string bass, as Mark Sandman did, but the group’s debut at Barbes a week ago is the next best thing. Phantasos are back at Barbes every Saturday evening at 6 PM this month, tonight included.

Sinton’s latest album with his Predicate Trio – cellist Chris Hoffman and drummer Tom Rainey – is completely different, and streaming at Bandcamp. So much jazz improvisation is awkward and spastic: this is all about conversations, and good jokes, and spontaneous entertainment. Sinton opens it with a sepulchral solo miniature, the ghosts of baritone saxophonists past wafting and keening up through the valves.

Tellingly, there’s more than a hint of Morphine in the epic second number, Sinton pulling away from the catchy theme, up to a burning cello-and-bass interlude with Hoffman’s chords pulsing over Rainey’s colorful, textured syncopation. The sly humor and subtle drift back toward the theme in the jam at the end are characteristically erudite.

The staccato, rhythmic triangulation in Taiga is much the same, after the wry cat-on-the-steppes-in-midwinter interlude that opens it. A Dance is elegant and rather somber, from Hoffman’s long, terse solo intro, through hypnotically catchy, circling riffs, a divergent interlude contrasting Sinton’s carefree accents against Rainey’s majestic tom-tom resonance and an unexpectedly calm resolution.

After an amusing, improvisational rondo of sorts, the group stray even further outside in Unreliable Mirrors, with its rustles and flutters and a coy quasi-march, Rainey coloring the exchange with every timbre he can coax from the depths of his kit, finally rising to a chuffing crescendo.

Sinton and Hoffman growl in tandem as the aptly titled Propulsive steams aong,; then the volcano boils over with a memorable squall. Hoffman hints at a stroll in the improvisation after that, shadowed by fleeting sax and drums. Sinton brings the album full circle with a sly squawk.

February 9, 2019 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bassist Lisa Mezzacappa Brings Her Ambitious, Adventurous New Song Cycle to Brooklyn

Bassist Lisa Mezzacappa has been at the forefront of the most intriguing side of jazz improvisation for a long time. Her work has a consistent sense of purpose and often a narrative: unlike so many other well-intentioned free jazz types, her ensembles go places rather than just stumbling around in the dark. So it makes sense that her ambitious, upcoming show on Oct 12 at 8 PM at Roulette with a hefty twelve-piece orchestra would feature a new song cycle, Glorious Ravage, inspired by female explorers. $20 advance tix are still available and highly recommended.

Mezzacappa’a most recent New York show was at Downtown Music Gallery last month, leading an auspiciously low-register lineup withi Josh Sinton and Aaron Novik on bass clarinets and Jason Levis on drums, which transcended any kind of preconceptions about those instruments.

There were moments where she’d be bowing matte-black washes of sound while Novik growled along with her in the lows, but at those moments Sinton would be running judicious volleys of postbop much further up the scale. He did the same thing as a member of Amir ElSaffar’s large ensemble back in June at their album release show downtown, on both occasions infusing the music with a welcome energy and purist erudition.

In an about an hour, Mezzacappa led the quartet through three expansive numbers marked more by cohesive interplay than soloing. The group quickly flickered upward with a series of brief, flitting exchanges and found their footing. Levis provided a tersely floating swing most of the time, like an old Cadillac: you don’t hear the engine but you feel it. Meanwhile, Mezzacappa perambulated and did some elbowing, especially with Novik, who was essentially playing bad cop opposite Sinton’s matter-of-fact good cheer. There were also a few whispery moments, especially in the final, roughly twelve-minute piece, where the four echoed the ghostly exchanges that the night’s first act, the twin-bass duo of Thomas Helton and Michael Bisio had sent wafting through the space for minutes at a time. With all these low-register instruments, the night promised all sorts of darkness, but this was more of a clinic in how much further off their home turf these axes, and their players, could go. It portends well for for the Roulette gig.

October 9, 2017 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Visionary Trumpeter Amir ElSaffar Explores Indian Themes at a Familiar Lincoln Center Haunt

Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Ensemble played the most epic, richly ironic show of 2017. Deep in the wicked heart of the financial district, completely unprepared for a frequent drizzle that threatened to explode overhead, they swept through a vast, oceanic suite largely based on Arabic modes in the shadow of a building festooned with the most hated name in the English language. That the visionary trumpeter/santoorist/singer’s mighty, heavily improvisational orchestra would be able to pull off such a darkly majestic, ultimately triumphant feat under such circumstances is reason for great optimism.

While this monumental suite, Not Two, references an Indian vernacular on occasion, that isn’t a major part of the work. However, ElSaffar has an auspicious concert coming up this Friday, September 8 at 7:30 PM at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St., where he’ll be leading a septet much deeper into Indian-inspired themes. Fans of the most deliciously rippling sounds imaginable should be aware that this band will feature both the Egyptian kanun and the Iraqi santoor. The show is free, and ElSaffar’s previous performance here sold out: it can’t hurt to get here early.

Another great irony is that this mid-June performance of Not Two featured lots of pairings between instruments. ElSaffar’s title reflects how few questions can be answered in black-and-white terms, and how manichaean thinking gets us in trouble every time. This is a profoundly uneasy, symphonic work with several themes: the two that jumped out the most at this show were a cynical fanfare of sorts and a swaying, anthemic Egyptian-influenced melody and seemingly endless variations.

The most poignant and plaintive duet was between ElSaffar, who played both santoor and trumpet, and his similarly talented sister Dena (leader of brilliant Indiana Middle Eastern band Salaam) on viola. Playing a spinet piano retuned to astringent microtones, Aruan Ortiz calmly found his footing, then lept a couple of octaves and circled animatedly while vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, at the opposite edge of the stage, maintained a warier, more lingering presence.

As the suite rose and fell, Ole Mathisen’s desolate microtonal tenor sax and Mohamed Saleh’s oboe emerged and then receded into the mist. Three of the night’s most adrenalizing solos were pure postbop jazz: ElSaffar’s cyclotronic Miles-at-gale-force trumpet swirls, baritone saxophonist Josh Sinton’s artfully crescendong development of a moody circular theme, and finally alto saxophonist Aakash Mittal’s rapidfire, surgically slashing foreshadowing of the coda. Many of the rest of the players got time in the spotlight, ranging from cautious and ominous to an intensity that bordered on frantic, no surprise in an era of deportations and travel bans. For this distinguished cast, which also comprised cellist Naseem Alatrash, oudists/percussionists Zafer Tawil and Georges Ziadeh, multi-reedman JD Parran, guitarist Miles Okazaki, buzuq player Tareq Abboushi, bassist Carlo DeRosa, percussionist Tim Moore and drummer Nasheet Waits, it was the show of a lifetime.

ElSaffar has a similarly stellar lineup for the September 8 show: Alatrash on cello plus Firas Zreik on kanun; Arun Ramamurthy on violin; Abhik Mukherjee on sitar; Jay Gandhi on bansuri flute, and Shiva Ghoshal on tabla. What’s more, this show is the first in Lincoln Center’s new series Outside India, a collaboration with the Brooklyn Raga Massive and the India Center Foundation. The game plan is to “disrupt the hierarchical nature of many Indian music collaborations and position Indian classical music as a space for inclusion and conversation in an innovative and radical new way.” Artists who will be joined by Massive members at future concerts include adventurous Afro-Cuban drummer Román Diaz on Nov 10, and Malian singer Awa Sangho on Feb 9.

September 3, 2017 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, jazz, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment