Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Roomful of Teeth Take Choral Music to the Next Level

It’s hard to imagine a more exciting vocal group than Roomful of Teeth. Friday night at Lincoln Center, at the release show for their new album – just out from New Amsterdam – it became clear that to be a part of this band, it’s not only necessary to have powerful pipes and spectacular range, and soul, but also an aptitude for Tuvan throat singing, yodeling, microtones and Balkan music. The nine-piece ensemble, directed with casual assurance by Brad Wells, wowed the crowd with their command of techniques from around the globe, but also with their passion and acuity for a series of almost cruelly difficult, often absolutely gorgeous works by contemporary composers that bring out every octave worth of these singers’ talent.

They opened with a Judd Greenstein piece titled Montmartre. Greenstein is a showy composer and this piece was characteristic, but it had melody to match the theatrics: the women punching in contrapuntally against the mens’ low, oscillating, pulsing throat-singing. The group switched nimbly to lushly shifting ambient harmonies with intertwined call-and-response, soprano Virginia Warnken bringing its central crescendo to a vivid peak. The men ended it with a triumphantly flangey swirl of throat-singing – it’s one thing to do that individually, it’s another to do it in harmony and with the kind of precision they showed off here.

There were two Missy Mazzoli compositions on the bill. The first, Vesper Sparrow, was written just a couple of weeks ago. The women swooped with distant echoes of birdsong which gave way to Mazzoli’s signature swirls of attractively consonant melody with just the hint of apprehension. The women in the group displayed unexpeced power in their low registers, soprano Caroline Shaw lighting the way as the piece took on a considerably somber, plainchant aspect, pulsing richly with every available harmony. The second number, The Shield of the Heart Is the Heart playfully switched from a half-yodeled round to another intricate thicket of shifting polyphony and counterrythms thinly disguising a jaunty doo-wop theme.

The most striking composition on the bill might have been Sarah Kirkland Snider’s The Orchard, sung with vivid uneasse by bass Cameron Beauchamp over rhythmic insistence from the women and warily shifting textures from the rest of the crew. In its dark heart, it turned out to be a pensive, folk-tinged art-rock anthem for choir. After a descent into moody ambience, the ensemble let it linger austerely at the end. In its own understated way, it was a showstopper.

The night’s wildest momehts came during William Brittelle’s dramatically shapeshifting Amid the Minotaurs. Brittelle has great musical wit, and this triptych was loaded with it. Inspired by famed Alabama coach Bear Bryant, who died barely a month after retiring from football, it juxtaposed a deadpan, sarcastic hymn with faux-operatic cheerleading and finally a power ballad of sorts that had Warnken namechecking Louis Farrakhan at the top of her register at full gale force: as Brittelle’s lyrics made clear beyond any doubt, death is not the least bit subtle.

Other works on the bill included a Shaw composition, Courante, its rustic, hymnal melody featuring vivid high/low contrasts speckled with unexpectedly jarring accents and bookended by whispery, breathy rhythmic interludes. Rinde Eckert’s Cesca’s View also explored rustic Americana, setting leaping, yodeling motifs against a warmly nocturnal backdrop punctuated by clever echo effects.

A piece by mErRiLl gArBuS, tHe oNcE aNd fUtUrE tUnEyArDs, wAs A sIgNaL tHaT iT wAs tImE tO lEaVe [sorry, couldn’t resist]. With groups like these, the obvious stars are found at the extremes: high soprano Esteli Gomez, with her effortless, spun-silk timbre; Shaw with her powerful, crystalline delivery; Beauchamp, who’s not afraid to go down low for laughs as well as power; and baritone Dashon Burton, who not only matched Beauchamp for lowdown impact, but also showed off a dazzling falsetto. Tenor Eric Dudley, soprano Martha Cluver and baritone Avery Griffin also had dazzling moments of their own, particularly when it came to throat-singing. For sheer thrill factor, on a good night for music, Roomful of Teeth were impossible to surpass.

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October 7, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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

Some Auspicious Debuts at le Poisson Rouge

“1982 never sounded so good,” says the tagline at the top of yMusic’s site – a reference to Pierre Boulez and IRCAM, maybe? The adventurous chamber unit – Q2/WQXR star Nadia Sirota on viola, Rob Moose on violin and occasionally guitar, CJ Camerieri on trumpet, Hideaki Aomori on clarinet and bass clarinet, Alex Sopp on flute, plus Clarice Jensen on cello this time around – held up impressively through a physically taxing, two-set performance at le Poisson Rouge Monday night, including the cd release show for Sarah Kirkland Snider’s Penelope.

Beautiful Mechanical, by Ryan Lott a.k.a. Son Lux was first on the bill, a series of playfully constructed, lockstep variations moving from a blippy, percussive introduction, to a brisk tongue-in-cheek fanfare and ending on a cheerily bubbly note. It wasn’t particularly deep, but then it obviously wasn’t meant to be. A possibly as-yet-untitled piece by Gabriel Kahane hinted suspensefully at Romanticism but never went there. The New York premiere of Proven Badlands was an eye-opener, revealing its composer Annie Clark as far more diverse than her pensive indie-pop songwriter alter ego St. Vincent. The ensemble clearly reveled in its intricate, interwoven textures as it built from thoughtful bucolicism to intriguing permutations on what was essentially an orchestrated soul riff, Isaac Hayes updated for a new century, martial flute eventually handing off to some big horn cadenzas. Sirota told the audience that the final piece before the intermission, Judd Greenstein’s Clearing, Dawn, Dance (another New York premiere) was going to be substantial, and she wasn’t kidding. A breakneck sprint through a series of interlocking circular, staccato phrases that spun off each other like a tightly packed fleet of carnival bumper cars gone berserk, it was a maze of echo effects all the way through to a lush, sostenuto string interlude that must have been a welcome break for the musicians before the race began again.

Kirkland Snider, along with Greenstein and William Brittelle, is part of new music avatars New Amsterdam Records’ brain trust. Her new suite, Penelope, began as an Odyssey-inspired theatre piece, a view of the Trojan War from the perspective on the home front. More anxious than overtly angst-laden, a disheartened, abandoned Penelope longs for her missing husband, wonders out loud if he’s still alive and vacillates between hope and hopelessness. As an antiwar statement, it’s subtly explosive. The forthcoming album is performed by SIGNAL, conducted by Brad Lubman. Here, Shara Worden, of My Brightest Diamond, joined the ensemble to sing Ellen McLaughlin’s lyrics and was a terrific choice, her finely honed, clear, round intonation matching the nuance of the group behind her. Musically, the suite is all about tension. Very little resolves, and the melodic terrain is limited and claustrophobic, to the point where it becomes clear that Penelope has an odyssey of her own to endure, if a somewhat more interior one, the question being whether or not she can keep herself together until her husband gets back. With the occasional light electronic drone or loop filtering into the mix from time to time, the group made their way matter-of-factly from circular insistence, to understatedly bitter martial passages, to a brief 6/8 art-rock ballad and then swirling atmospherics. A repetitive foghorn motif signals Odysseus’ final return home, but when he shows up, shellshocked and damaged (a Guantanamo parable, maybe?), Penelope has nothing left to look forward to but to tend to the needs of a cripple, reading him passages of his own story that go “forward and backward like the tide.” Much of this was very intense, and tensely performed: it seemed that it would never let up, and it really didn’t. And as a portrayal of one of the often overlooked consequences of war, it was spot-on. After over an hour of this, the roar of the applause at the end seemed as cathartic as it was genuine.

October 21, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments