Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Julia Wolfe’s Rage Against the Machine

John Schaefer was onto something when he picked a Carnegie Hall performance of Julia Wolfe’s Steel Hammer by the Bang on a Can All-Stars as his favorite concert of the year a few years back. Then again, that wasn’t such a difficult choice for the WNYC host. To say that it doesn’t get performed enough simply means that we need more stagings of this eclectic and intense choral/instrumental suite by the Bang on a Can avant garde institution’s house band. It was a rare treat to see the group play it last night at the World Financial Center. If you missed it, you’ll be able to hear the concert in the weeks to come on Q2 and then on Schaefer’s Soundcheck program on WNYC  along with the show tomorrow night, Oct 16 at 7:30 PM here, a new arrangement of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells (better known as the Exorcist Theme) played by guitarist Grey McMurray with the Wordless Music Orchestra.

Wolfe’s music can be harrowing, but it can also be playful and fun: this piece is both, but more the former than the latter. As usual with her work, context and subtext are everything. This one mashes up the lyrics from a grand total of over 200 versions of the folk song John Henry, the tale of the man with the hammer in his hand who went up against the steam drill. Droll Americana riffs were sprinkled throughout the sometimes austere, sometimes lush, insistently and sometimes cruelly rhythmic work. Singers Molly Quinn, Emily Eagen and Katie Geissinger opened it, developing a hypnotically rapturous theme with the anxiously enveloping quality of a renaissance motet. Then percussionist David Cossin introduced the anvil beat which would serve as antagonist to the resilience and persistence of the echo-fueled vocals and shifting, Louis Andriessen-ish, percussive melodies of the rest of the piece.

Wolfe grew up steeped in Americana, and as she explained before the show, her first stringed instrument was the dulcimer. Guitarist Mark Stewart played some of that, and also the banjo, hammered on his body along with clarinetist Ken Thomson and ended up supplying percussion for a long interlude by stomping out a clog dance rhythm with his boots. Much as that was comic relief, it also viscerally voiced the angst of the man-versus-machine theme. A hauntingly murky, resonant segment about midway through built by bassist Robert Black and cellist Ashley Bathgate drove home the point that John Henry did not survive the duel. Take that forward into the present, then do the math.

Pianist Vicky Chow supplied dulcimer-like plucking inside the piano when she wasn’t hammering out an endless anvil choir on the keys, while Cossin switched between drumkit (heavy on the toms), vibraphone and boomy low timpani. Quinn’s crystalline soprano soared over the meticulous rhythms of the other two singers’ mantralike volleys of lyrics, phrases and syllables, which they repeated ad infinitum, sometimes comedically, sometimes to raise the menace level. Anyone wondering what this was all about needed only to watch how Bathgate was reacting: when things got funny, she couldn’t resist a big grin, but when things got intense, she’d be all business. The original folk song theme finally appeared as a stark coda right before the swirling atmospherics of the conclusion, which turned out to be part gospel, part Arvo Part. Bookmark the Q2 homepage if you want to experience all this for yourself at a yet-to-be-determined date.

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October 15, 2014 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Bang on a Can Marathon 2014: A Short Version (Sort Of)

This year’s Bang on a Can Marathon continued a trend back toward the hallowed annual all-day avant garde/indie classical music celebration’s early years. Yesterday’s 2014 edition was shorter than any in recent memory – for awhile these things would start before noon and continue into the wee hours of the following day. This year’s roughly ten-hour extravaganza also drew more heavily on the Bang on a Can triumvirate – composers Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe, David Lang and their circle – than on the global cast who numbered heavily and often spectacularly among the composers and performers featured throughout the previous decade. The reason? Construction at the World Financial Center atrium, where the marathon returned after being squeezed into an auditorium at Pace University last year.

The seven-piece Great Noise Ensemble, conducted by Armando Bayolo, opened auspiciously with a new chamber arrangement of Bayolo’s own Caprichos. Inspired by Goya’s series of the same name, it was a dynamic and colorful series of miniatures: apprehensive airiness, a fleeting carnivalesque passage, darkly rhythmic, looped variations, and dreamy drones juxtaposed with a lively outro. The following work, Carlos Carrillo‘s De La Brevidad De La Vida drew on the Seneca treatise, a rivetingly austere, resigned, spaciously cinematic tone poem of sorts punctuated by muted anguish, notably from Andrea Vercoe’s violin.

Violinist Adrianna Mateo became a one-woman string orchestra with Molly Joyce‘s biting, matter-of-factly crescendoing loopmusic piece Lean Back and Release. The trio Bearthoven – pianist Karl Larson, bass guitarist Pat Swoboda and drummer Matt Evans – followed a bit later with a similarly upward-sloping stoner postrock piece, Undertoad, by Brooks Frederickson. It recalled the relentless dancefloor minimalism that Cabaret Contemporain performed at the 2013 marathon.

Acclaimed vocal quartet Anonymous Four – who are sadly hanging it up after this year – shifted direction plaintively with The Wood and the Vine, from Lang’s demanding, richly echo-laden, hypnotically intertwining partita, Love Fail. Atmospheric postrock minimalists Dawn of Midi made a thematically clever segue with excerpts from their cult favorite suite, Dysnomia, replete with subtle polyrhythmic shifts that  rose rather than fell at the end. How pianist Amino Belyamani, bassist Aakaash Israni and drummer Qasim Naqvi managed to keep their place as the trance pounded onward was hard to figure. Or maybe they were just jamming.

Choral octet Roomful of Teeth sang the first two movements from Caroline Shaw‘s Pulitzer-winning Partita for 8 Voices,  incorporating squaredance calls and “a little bit of pansori,” as Shaw put it. That, and an indomitable, fresh-faced ebullience that rose and fell through ambitious rhythmic and harmonic shifts, the composer’s powerful soprano front and center. Nineteen-piece chamber orchestra Contemporaneous gave voice to Andrew Norman’s Try, a frantically bustling work replete with sardonic humor: every hint of calm gets dashed by agitated cadenzas from throughout the ensemble in a split second. There was a contrasting, calm second half, mostly for vibraphone and piano, which got lost in the real bustle of the crowd making their way up the escalator to the new mallfood court to the left of the stage.

Meredith Monk is fun! She and fellow singer Theo Bleckmann revisited four segments of her witty, Canadian wilderness-inspired Facing North song cycle, which the duo had premiered on the stage here two decades ago. Indians gamely trying to keep warm, long winter shadows and droll conversations eventually gave way to playful, wordless jousting, Bleckmann keeping a straight face as Monk needled him mercilessly. It was the big audience hit up to this point. The two returned a little later for some more monkeyshines with members of the Bang on a Can All-Stars.

Contemporaneous also returned, this time with a handful of Jherek Bischoff pieces. A brief, lushly neoromantic overture of sorts and a subdued, unexpectedly somber pavane were the highlights.

Pianists Emily Manzo and David Friend performed the day’s first genuinely herculean numbers, a pair of long, hammering, menacingly Lynchian compositions from the 80s by the late Monk collaborator and composer Julius Eastman. Jace Clayton‘s echoey sound mix subsumed the music in places – as a musician would say, he didn’t have a feel for the room – but all the same he deserves props as an advocate for Eastman’s frequently harrowing, undeservedly obscure work, further underscored by a brief, pretty hilarious skit that imagined a busy Julius Eastman section at a theme park.

These marathons typically pick up at the end and this one was no exception. Well-loved art-rock house band the Bang on a Can All-Stars stomped through the Trans-Siberian Orchestra style bombast of JG Thirlwell‘s Anabiosis, then vividly echoed the otherworldly, watery ambience inside the old Croton Aqueduct via Paula Matthusen‘s Ontology of an Echo. Wolfe introduced the night’s big showstopper, Big Beautiful Dark & Scary as a contemplation on the possibility of personal happiness amidst disaster, its ineluctable, anguished, frenetic waves just as viscerally thrilling as they were chilling for the New Yorkers in the crowd who’d lived through 9/11 and the aftermath that the piece portrays.

After a long lull, the ensemble returned in a slightly augmented version for Louis Andriessen’s Hoketus. It’s a diptych of sorts: two maddening, claustrophobically minimalist melodies varied only by constantly changing rhythms, a study in authoritarianism and the human impulse to resist it. When clarinetist Ken Thomson led the ensemble with a leap into the animated second movement, it seemed that the people would win this fight. Or do they?

Gordon supplied the marathon’s coda, Timber, which turned out to be the shadow image of the Andriessen work, a wry, bone-shaking exploration of the kind of fun that can be had within a set of parameters. Where Andriessen set rules, Gordon offered guidelines. Played by sextet Mantra Percussion on a series of amplified sawhorses, it worked every trope in the avant garde stoner repertoire. Trancey motorik rhythms? Deep-space pulsar drones? Overtones at the very top and also the very bottom of the sonic spectrum? Innumerable false endings, good-natured exchanges between the players (who’d memorized the entire, practically hourlong score) and a light show triggered by just about every crescendo? Check, check, check and doublecheck. Gordon may be best known for his gravitas and otherworldly intensity, but his music can be great fun and this was exactly that. With its rolling drones echoing throughout the atrium like a distant storm on the Great Plains, it sent the crowd out into the night on a note that was both adrenalizing and soothing. It’s hard to imagine anything more fun to wind up a Sunday night in June in New York.

June 23, 2014 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bang on a Can Marathon 2011: A Marathon Account

Bang on a Can is a good place to go for weird music that doesn’t fit into any category…that falls through the cracks,” explained co-founder/composer David Lang between a couple of acts late Sunday afternoon at the World Financial Center. This year’s annual Bang on a Can Marathon there was typical in that sense. The scope of the music and parade of performers was less global than in recent years, although Italy and Denmark represented themselves strongly. Consequence of the depression? Maybe. But what was most impressive about this year’s marathon was the extremely high ratio of good music versus bullshit, and the enduring strength of the founding composers themselves. Even as the genre-busting music that Bang on a Can has championed since 1987 has achieved broader recognition, the core crew – Lang, Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe – have never sold out. In fact, two of the trio’s works – Gordon’s Exalted and Wolfe’s Cruel Sister – were arguably the marathon’s biggest hits.

Gordon’s piece, performed by the Young Peoples’ Chorus of New York City with the Jack Quartet, came first. It was the first piece he wrote in the wake of his father’s death, and it was as intense as you can possibly imagine. The choir interpolated the first four words of the Kaddish, in Aramaic, sort of a clinic in minimalism with a max ensemble. A repetitive sliding cello note against a staccato pedal motif from the rest of the quartet was mimicked by the choir, a desperation move that made its way through the voices (if you’re sitting Shiva, everybody eventually shows up whether you like it or not). A wild violin metal solo against hypnotic insistence gave wings to an anguished, hopeful prayer. The crowd, stunned, exploded afterward.

The high point of the marathon was Wolfe’s Cruel Sister (available as a dynamite Cantaloupe recording by Ensemble Resonanz), performed here by the strings of Ensemble Signal conducted by Brad Lubman. It follows the arc of a surreal medieval murder ballad Wolfe discovered via a recording by 70s British folk-rockers Pentangle. A riveting series of suspenseful crescendos and ebbs, the opening tone poem grows frantic and then back down, a brutally tough job of maintaining the rhythm for cellist Kevin McFarland, but his iron right hand wouldn’t let up. Polyrhythms, a ghastly murder scene and a body floating on the water led to a forest of pizzicato, violin coming in plaintively and finally a chilling, possibly karmically fulfilling drone spotlighting the cruel sister who didn’t get to enjoy what her big sister did.

Lang’s contribution was more playful, Philip Glass-style, a subtly shifting mathrock theme for two guitars played with deadpan insouciance by Dither Quartet’s Taylor Levine and James Moore. The fun factor went up another notch later in the night with the Sun Ra Arkestra, 87-year-old bandleader Marshall Allen leading the massive surrealistic swing band through a diverse and tantalizingly short set that moved from hot post-Basie swing to in-your-face hot calypso to a long walk-off where Allen put down the hybrid theremin/melodica he’d been playing in exchange for his alto sax, stunning the crowd with a single mighty wail in front of the stage as the band paraded its way to the middle of the atrium and entertained the crowd there.

Another stunner that deserves special mention was the Prism Saxophone Quartet’s version of Roshanne Etezady’s Keen. A marvelously dark, cinematic horror/suspense film score of sorts, the composer explained that she wrote it on a theme of mourning or grief, “a bereft affect.” Wary explorations against a central tone, an apprehensively tense, Robert Paterson-esque fanfare and relentless unease made it hard to forget.

As much as the marathon is free and easy to get in and out of, there were strikingly few moments where anyone would want to do that, considering the quality of the music. A little before noon, early arrivals got to witness two segments from innovative bagpiper Matthew Welch’s The Self and Other Mirrors, played by the Queens College Percussion Ensemble with Amanda Accardi’s quietly composed intensity on piano and Michael Lipsey on the podium: a stately, pleasant, catchy and smartly textured first movement followed by blithe, hypnotic ripples. Flutist Alejandro Escuer followed, playing Gabriela Ortiz’ Codigos Secretos, not particularly secretive if warmly atmospheric and consonant.

Anthony Gatto’s Portrait of American painter Eva Hesse, done jointly by the Queens Percussion Ensemble in the middle of the space, trading off with the Itkus Ensemble onstage, rumbled eerily close to the World Trade Center site, raising the volume close to painfully loud. Hesse must have been a hell of a presence. The Jack Quartet followed with three US premieres of Richard Ayres’ 3 Small Pieces for String Quartet: small is not the word. They were magnificent. The first featured the cello in percussive, catchy, terse, seemingly Kayhan Kalhor-influenced mode; the second raised the menace, the third shifting to a vigorous dance. The Prism Saxophone Quartet took over the stage after that with Kati Ogocs’ Hymn, warm atmospherics building up with a shriek.

Former Ethel violin powerhouse Todd Reynolds did his hypnotic yet lively Transamerica, a memorably energetic theme whose power was sapped by useless electronics. The Prism Quartet then returned with a tight, energetic, overtone-packed, limit-pushing version of Iannis Xenakis’ Xas – from 1987, the first year of Bang on a Can – a blippy, warped canon juxtaposed with tensely free passages featuring shifting combinations of the ensemble.

Italian group Sentieri Selvaggi got a total of five pieces: a gleeful, circular excerpt from Michael Nyman’s opera Love Always Counts; Michael Daugherty’s coy Sinatra Shag, a ripoff of These Boots Were Made for Walking with some cool oscillating textures toward the end; Filippo Del Corno’s Risvegliatevi (Italian for Wake Up!), replete with Pink Floyd-esque mechanical/industrial sonics (literally Bang on a Can!); Mauro Montalbetti’s Brightness, Emily Dickinson-inspired, hypnotically bubbling color alternating with stillness; and finally their conductor Carlo Boccadoro’s Zingiber (Ginger in Italian), rusticity giving way memorably to an abrasive low-versus-high battle.

Bang on a Can’s latest gimmick, the Asphalt Orchestra marching band, energized the crowd with several numbers: Annie Clark and David Byrne’s Balkan/Afrobeat hybrid Two Ships, a swirling, imaginative arrangement of Bjork’s Hyper Ballad and a thunderous Goran Bregovic dancefloor hit done as a fiery overture, being the best of the bunch.

As the cruel sun moved slowly out of view, Danish composer Poul Ruders’ Song and Rhapsodies were performed by the Athelas Wind Quintet with Frode Andersen on accordion. It’s a tremendously captivating suite: an austere overtone-laden tone poem, a creepy twisted waltz, a baroque rondo, a weird, blithe accordion solo, swelling adventurous cinematic theme a la Gil Evans, ending with a weird, bubbly tone poem.

The big draw of the night – at least from this point of view – was Philip Glass, playing a deliciously precise, impromptu version of his hypnotic, neoromantic Impromptu #4 solo on piano to kick off his mini-set with the Bang on a Can All-Stars. Glass’ potency as a pianist gets overshadowed by the applause for his compositions: there’s no doubt that he can play even his most demanding, persistently rhythmic works easily, as he did in an almost shockingly straight-up rendition of Music in Circular Motion, a relatively early work that typically allows for a certain amount of DIY, at least rhythmically, on the part of the players. Their closing piece featured Glass and pianist Vicky Chow in eerily perfect sync with each other against the band’s dizzying yet perfectly cantabile ambience.

By nine in the evening, for those who had stuck around since the early hours and had been awoken from brain coma by the Sun Ra folks, a payoff was in order, and Evan Ziporyn delivered, playing bass clarinet alongside Michael Lowenstern, with Joshua Rubin and Carol McGonnell on clarinets, through his richly vivid, cleverly entertaining Hive. McGonnell got all the queen bee licks and made the most of them, whether sizzling glissandos or mournful lead lines. Fluttering, creating a droll stereo effect and moving through utterly psychedelic passages where it was impossible to figure out who was playing what, it was the perfect mind melt for the moment.

There were other performances not worth mentioning – bullshit factor being as low as it was, there were a few moments when a trip to the spicy Pakistani steam-table place on Church St. made more sense than watching what was onstage. A Yoko Ono piece opened; Glenn Branca headlined. Idolized by many, known by everyone who was around for the first Bangs on the Can, it made sense that he’d top this oldschool bill. But the prospect of bad trains (more on that later – getting to the Gowanus Saturday night was sheer hell) was enough to make the choice of an early exit outweight anything blasting from the Marshall stacks onstage. Does taking the field midway through the first inning and sticking around til the eighteenth quality as a complete game? The Bang on a Can people aren’t counting. It was nice to hear debate emerging in random conversations throughout the space: new jacks grousing about seeing the same old faces; the oldschool contingent bitching about the trendy shallowness of the newbies’ electroacoustic stuff. Whatever your preference, a word to the wise: show up early for BOAC 2012.

June 21, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment