Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Julia Wolfe String Quartet Cycle at the Jewish Museum: A Major Moment in New York Music History

This past evening a sold-out crowd at the Jewish Museum witnessed what could have been a once-in-a-lifetime event: the first-ever live performance of the Julia Wolfe string quartet cycle on a single bill. On one hand, it’s kind of a shock that it took the composer’s own organization, Bang on a Can, to stage it. Sure, Wolfe’s string quartets are taxing to play, but so are Bartok’s, and hundreds of groups play the Bartok cycle. And Wolfe’s profile has never been higher: it’s hard to remember the last time the New York Philharmonic built a weekend around a work by another living composer, as they did with her epic cantata Fire in My Mouth back in January.

Assuming she writes another string quartet or two – hardly out of the question – putting five or more on a single program would be next to impossible, which would make this night even more historic. Wolfe was in the front row and revealed how she’d been moved to tears by Ethel’s performance of the most recent work on the bill, Blue Dress for String Quartet, so it made sense to give them the herculean task of playing all four this time. And the group captured lightning in a bottle.

It took immense stamina and persistence to get it all in there. All four of the works employ long, slowly mutating, sometimes utterly hypnotic passages of emphatic, insistent quarter notes (and often considerably faster volleys as well). Over the course of almost two hours onstage, violist Ralph Farris, cellist Dorothy Lawson, violinists Corin Lee and Kate Dreyfuss (the latter subbing for Kip Jones) didn’t miss a beat, no small achievement.

They began with Blue Dress, which, like so much of Wolfe’s work, draws on Americana, in this case the old folk song Little Girl with a Blue Dress On. Wolfe cautioned the crowd that this particular girl is fierce. Echoes of Philip Glass and Louis Andriessen blended into a twisted quasi-Appalachian sound world with relentless intensity and sarcasm that bordered on savagery, as the old folk tune filtered in and out of the picture. There was some wry clog-dancing and singing too. Little Girl? As if! This may have been state-of-the-art, end-of-the-decade serious concert music, but the ethos was vintage punk rock.

The other string quartets dated from the 90s. Dig Deep, Wolfe explained, was all about searching, written at a time when she felt “crazy” because she was having trouble trying to conceive. The ensemble worked the contrasts between wisps of hope and crushing reality with a knowing soberness grounded by Lawson’s pitchblende cello resonance. Lee got to give the music a breather with a Vivaldi-esque passage; Farris delivered the ending with cold matter-of-factness.

Four Marys, Wolfe said, was inspired by a Jean Ritchie murder ballad as much as by the “crude, crying sound” of the only stringed instrument she plays, the mountain dulcimer. Creeping up and around a central note, sometimes with slow, lingering glissandos, the ensemble maintained a lush intensity.

They closed with Early That Summer, the one piece that most closely foreshadowed Wolfe’s harrowing Cruel Sister string piece from 2012. She’d written this one in Amsterdam after reading Kai Bird’s The Chairman: John J. McCloy and the Making of the American Establishment, a prophetic book to encounter in the era of GATT, NAFTA and corporate sovereignty over democratically elected governments. Wispy microtones and slow upward trajectories built white-knuckle suspense, a relentlessly troubled mood amidst the calm, Lawson’s cello a stygian river of sound.

The monthly Bang on a Can concert series at the Jewish Museum continues on May 23 at 8 PM with avant garde vocal icon Meredith Monk and two members of her Vocal Ensemble, Katie Geissinger and Allison Sniffin; tix are $20/$16 stud/srs and are still available as of today but probably won’t be much longer. Ethel’s next gig is March 16 starting around 5 PM at the balcony bar at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the performance is free with museum admission.

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February 28, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The New York Philharmonic Bring Epic Relevance to a Grim, Pivotal Moment in New York History

Has there ever been such a massive, grimly determined crowd of musicians onstage – and in the aisles – as there were at Lincoln Center last night for the New York Philharmonic’s performance of Julia Wolfe’s Fire in My Mouth? For an especially lavish production of Beethoven’s Ninth, conceivably. But even in that case maestro Jaap van Zweden wouldn’t have had to signal four separate choirs behind his back while facing the orchestra and choirs in front of him.

That he and the ensembles could keep the composer’s maze of insistent counterpoint so steady and seamless speaks to a genuinely epic commitment to do justice to Wolfe’s theme: the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and its 146 victims. The title of the piece is actually a quote from labor organizer Clara Lemlich, referring to her passion for battling factory owners’ private gestapos in her early days as an advocate for worker’s rights. In an era where working people around the world are facing Industrial Revolution conditions, and amazon.com employees in the UK forego bathroom breaks for fear of being fired, the legacy of the most deadly calamity on New York soil prior to 9/11 has more relevance than ever.

Wolfe has made a career of writing impactful, historically rich work. To be clear, this isn’t her most harrowing composition: that would probably be her utterly macabre string orchestra piece, Cruel Sister. This latest extravaganza follows the insistently rhythmic, towering, Pulitzer Prize-winning intensity of her oratorio Anthracite Fields. Both are unflinching and relentless: the lives of early 1900s New York sweatshop employees and Pennsylvania coal miners are cruelly similar.

As theatre, this performance was immersively effective: there’s no escaping the angst of these exploited women, in their matching smocks, when they’re singing in unison right next to you. Choral ensemble the Crossing remained onstage while several subsets of the Young People’s Chorus of New York City migrated matter-of-factly from station to station. Dead center amid the maelstrom, van Zweden remained a calm guide through what was often a hailstorm of beats. One of Wolfe’s favorite tropes is to shake up the music with all sorts of rhythmic complexity when a melody is more or less horizontal, and she does that a lot here. The result, tight as a drum, was impressive to say the least.

The introduction took awhile, requiring some patience from the audience before the massed groups gathered steam. “Crushing poverty” became a vivid motif amid a constant, flitting interchange of voices as a transatlantic immigrant’s tale finally offered foreshadowing of the tragedy to come. The interpolation of a plaintive Yiddish song and a phantasmagorical tarantella – most of the fire victims were either Eastern European Jewish or Italian immigrants – was stunningly executed.

Sharply menacing sheet metal shears are a new addition to the world’s symphonic instruments: the choirs were choreographed to employ them to snap out a rhythm attesting to the dangers and mind-numbing repetition inherent to sweatshop labor. Likewise, the way the singers hammered on the word “want” over and over again, a bit later on, resonated on every conceivable level. The coda to this all-too-familiar tale turned out to be more dynamic, and longer, than expected, ending with a kaleidoscopically arranged incantation of the victims’ names.

The first half of the program underscored the difference between decent music direction and genuine brilliance. Maybe it was just a stroke of fate van Zweden had been on the podium for the world premiere of Steven Stucky’s oratorio, August 4, 1964, but making a segue with Copland’s Concerto for Clarinet and String Orchestra was as perfect as it was counterintuitive. The instrumental Elegy from Stucky’s suite, and the first part of Copland’s would-be diptych share eerie Twin Peaks vamps and variations, and also jazz influences: crepuscular Gil Evans-like lustre in the former, jaunty faux dixieland in the latter. Clarinetist Anthony McGill matched coyness to muscle while van Zweden couldn’t resist shaking a tail feather, a chance to blow off steam before reality returned with a vengeance in the second half of the program.

There’s a final performance tonight, Jan 26 at 8 PM. Although last night appeared to be pretty much sold out, tickets are available as of this writing (Saturday, 11 AM); at yesterday’s show, the box office was doing brisk business right up til curtain time. This is an important moment in New York history: you should see it.

January 26, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Bang on a Can Marathon 2018 – A Marathon Report

“I know so many of you have followed our nomadic trail to so many locations,” composer Julia Wolfe demurred, introducing today’s 31st anniversary of the Bang on a Can Marathon at NYU’s Skirball Auditorium. 

“Great to be in a space where we can all listen,” mused her fellow composer and husband Michael Gordon, possibly alluding to less sonically welcoming venues the annual New York avant garde music summit has occupied.

This year’s program was the most compact and New York-centric in a long time, and considering the venue, it’s no surprise that NYU alums mentored by the Bang on a Can composers featured prominently on the bill. Terry Riley’s influence circulated vastly throughout much of the early part of the show; the ageless lion of indie classical took a turn on vocals as the concert wound up.

“We have a duty to go up to the people who come in afterward and brag,” grinned Bang on a Can’s David Lang, referring to the afternoon’s first piece, Galina Ustvolskaya’s relatively brief Symphony No. 2. The NYU Contemporary Ensemble – with woodwinds, brass and percussion – negotiated it calmly but forcefully. David Friend’s steady hamfisted piano thumps ushered in and then peppered steadily rhythmic, massed close harmonies from the rest of the group, Vocalist Robert Osborne implored a grand total of three Russian words – God, truth and eternity – over and over in between pulses as the music veered between the macabre and the simply uneasy. The ensemble really nailed the surprise ending – gently.

Michael Gordon’s Sonatra, the composer explained, is the only solo piano piece in his repertoire, quite a surprise considering that he’s a strong pianist and the best musician among the Bang on a Can hydra. “Somehow Vicky Chow has learned how to play it,” he deadpanned. She made Gordon’s vast, subtly contrasting, rigorously crosshanded Terry Riley-like expanses of steady eighth notes seem easy, engaging every single one of the piano’s eighty-eight keys.

Murky faux-boogie woogie lefthand paired against relentlessly twinkling righthand riffage; that Chow could incorporate Gordon’s relentlessly tongue-in-cheek glissandos with as much aplomb as she did reaffirms her mighty chops as one of the world’s foremost avant garde musicians.

Chamber orchestra Contemporaneous tackled a carbonated, caffeinated, endlessly circling fifteen-minute slice of cellist Dylan Mattingly’s similarly daunting, epically ecstatic six-hour opera Stranger Love. The Bang on a Can All-Stars – as amazingly mutable as ever – made the first of their many appearances with Gabriella Smith’s Panitao, evoking the swoops and high swipes of whale song amid increasingly animated, rippling, sirening ambience. Then they pounced their way through the staggered math steps of Brendon Randall-Myers’ Changes, Stops, and Swells (For B).

A sextet subset of Contemporaneous returned for Fjóla Evans’s turbulent tone poem Eroding, an Icelandic river tableau. With its sharp contrasts – bass clarinet, cello and piano gnashing and swirling amid the flickers from violin, flute and vibraphone – and disarming trick ending, it was the first real stunner among the new material on the bill.

Purple Ensemble – a string trio augmented with vibes, viola and vocals – played three Yiddish songs from Alex Weiser’s cycle And All the Days Were Purple. Singer Eliza Bagg channeled joy shadowed by angst and longing, Lee Dionne’s piano beginning low and enigmatic and then slithering in a far more Lynchian direction over the strings.    

The All-Stars’ were bolstered by Contemporaneous’ strings and percussion for a trio of  commissions. Jeffrey Brooks was first represented by After the Treewatcher,  based on a trancey earlier work which was the composer recalled being vociferously booed when Gordon premiered it back in the early 80s. Guitarist Taylor Levine’s warily oscillating lines undulated amongst emphatic strings and rustling, peek-a-boo suspense-film percussion riffs, building a Riley-esque web of sound that was as gorgeously hypnotic as it was hard-hitting.

A second new work, Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother, featured additional reeds and brass along with pointillistic twin electric pianos. A bustlingly circular, Bollywood-inflected theme gave way to austere, lingering ambience and then a wryly gritty Beatles guitar knockoff.

The Flux Quartet played their first violinist Tom Chiu’s Retrocon, a meteorologically-inspired, spiraling, Philip Glass-ine series of rising and falling microtonal cell figures. Violinist Mazz Swift and keyboardist Therese Workman juxtaposed electroacoustic string metal, new wave pop, a classic spiritual and faux-EDM in their mini-suite Revolution:House.

The big hybrid ensemble reconfigured for a final Brooks work, The Passion – the triptych “Reflects the kind of suffering that goes on every day, not the biblical kind,” the composer emphasized. Lavishly kinetic pageantry with wry Black Sabbath allusions shifted to dissociative, Laurie Anderson-ish atmospherics, Bagg narrating sobering advice from the composer’s terminally ill sister to her children. The leaping, trebly counterpoint of the final segment brought to mind My Brightest Diamond.

Sō Percussion took the stage for Nicole Lizée’s increasingly dissociative, gamelanesque electroacoustic instrumental White Label Experiment, echoed with considerably louder hi-tech energy later on by neosoul singer/keyboardist/dancer Xenia Rubinos and drummer Marco Buccelli.

Veteran new-music string quartet Ethel’s percussively insistent, clenched-teeth performance of Aleksandra Vrebalov’s Balkan-infected Logbook, Part II took the intensity to redline in seconds flat: it was the highlight of the night. Fueled by cellist Dorothy Lawson’s darkly bluesy glissandos, their take of Jessie Montgomery’s rousing dance theme Voodoo Dolls was a close second. They wound up their trio of pieces, joining voices,instruments and eventually their feet throughout the bracing, allusively Appalachian close harmonies of Wolfe’s enveloping, driving Blue Dress for String Quartet.

The Bang on a Can All-Stars took back the stage alongside narrator Eric Berryman in a cinematic, suspensefully rocking arrangement of Frederic Rzewski’s Attica-themed Coming Together, cellist Ashley Bathgate and bassist Robert Black’s heroically furtive pedalpoint anchoring the story’s grim foreshadowing.

Cellist Maya Beiser and narrator Kate Valk teamed up for Lang’s pensively minimalist, gently amusing loopmusic piece The Day, its lyrics mostly a litany of tongue-in-cheek mundanities sourced off the web via a search on “I remember the day.” He explained that he’d deleted the product references and lewdness – a lot, he admitted. 

The night’s coda was Riley’s Autodreamographical Tales & Science Fiction, the composer joining the All-Stars on vocals. Chow’s bluesy Rhodes piano made a smooth segue out of the Lang work in tandem with Riley’s wry beat-poetry reminiscence. Levine’s Pink Floyd echoes added bulk and bombast; Bathgate’s powerhouse soul vocals were an unexpected treat. As was Riley’s turn solo at the piano, part Satie, part Tom Waits.

What’s the takeaway from all this? This year was less a sounding of what’s happening on a global level, as past years’ and decades’ marathons have been, than a simple celebration of the Bang on a Can inner circle, with a few tentative ventures outside. But that’s ok. They earned that a long time ago.

May 13, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Philip Glass’ Agenda Remains the Same

“The years catch up with you, but my agenda remains the same,” Philip Glass said, five years ago. This past evening at Carnegie Hall, to celebrate Glass’ eightieth birthday, Dennis Russell Davies led the Bruckner Orchestra Linz through two New York premieres of Glass works as well as the world premiere of his Symphony No. 11. By and large, the concert was as much of a present to what appeared to be a sold-out audience as it was to the composer.

It was a shock to discover that Glass’ 1997 Days and Nights in Rocinha – an equally kinetic and hypnotic tone poem of sorts – had never been performed here. It’s sort of the Ravel Bolero as the bastard child of Julia Wolfe and Angelo Badalamenti might have written it. The orchestra gave it a meticulously dynamic performance. Davies, a longtime Glass champion, looked nervous as its first unexpected, muted burst of low brass appeared, but by the end the music had reached his hips and he was swaying along triumphantly. Meanwhile, Glass sat in the front row of his balcony box, leaning on his elbow, chin in hand, inscrutable. The piece made a good choice of opener: the few moments of percussive sprinkling, wryly humorous stops-and-starts and hints of Egberto Gismonti tropical elegance foreshadowed a good proportion of the music to come.

Angelique Kidjo sang the New York premiere of a Yoruban creation triptych that she’d written with Glass. He’d done his homework, a rigorous analysis of the language’s phonetics and syllables so as to enable a smooth correspondence between lyrics and music. The first part was something akin to Jeff Lynne gone latin. The second, with its steady volleys of arpeggios over uneasy chromatics, was a striking and familiarly haunting look back to Glass’ iconic and perhaps career-defining Dracula soundtrack. The third was the closest to an orchestrated African folk song. Kidjo matched raw emotion to blues-inflected sophistication, notwithstanding some sonic issues early on – she was amplified, the orchestra wasn’t.

The show concluded with the new symphony, which could be viewed as a career retrospsective. It had every one of Glass’ signature tropes: dry humor matched by a similar flair for the unexpected; artfully subtle rhythmic reshaping; those broken major triads that the composer loves as much as wary chromatic vamps and moodily shifting accidentals; and unabashedly resonant beauty. Much of it was like one of his string quartets fleshed out with dense washes of extra strings.

Until the third movement, there weren’t many individual voices flickering through the enigmatic cycles of notes, but when they appeared, those motives – a droll oboe, a ghost of a tuba, a woodsy clarinet – were perfectly precise. The ensemble negotiated the second movement’s sudden but very cleverly disguised change of beats with similar aplomb. The third began with a rather vaudevillian percussion intro and for awhile was a real scherzo, until the orchestra turned a corner abruptly and…that’s where Glass’ joke became too good to give away. Glass’ music is so easy to get lost in that there are some things that are hard to see coming despite what can be innumerable deadpan hints of it.

What you should really do is not spoil the ending for yourself: just go see it the next time it’s performed here. Which it will be, probably sooner than later. Lucky concertgoers in Chapel Hill, North Carolina can see the orchestra play the first and last pieces plus Glass’ Violin Concerto No. 1 with soloist Robert McDuffie tomorrow, Feb 1 at 7:30 PM at UNC Memorial Hall at 114 E. Cameron Ave; $30 tix are available.

January 31, 2017 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

This Year’s Bang on a Can Marathon Focuses on Its Core Talent

What better to jar a sleepy crowd out of a pre-noon summer torpor than a steel pan orchestra? Kendall Williams’ arrangement of a Lord Nelson calypso hit, with its exubertant resemblance to a ballpark organ version of Take Me Out to the Ballgame, made an apt kickoff to this year’s Bang on a Can Marathon. The 2015 edition of the annual avant garde festival differentiated itself from previous concerts with its emphasis on larger-scale works, circling the wagons with a somewhat abbreviated list of performers. Past years featured an often exhilarating mix of global acts, frequently going on til almost dawn. This one was somewhat shorter, focusing more on a rotating cast of characters from the Bang on a Can organization and its triumvirate, composers David Lang, Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe. The live stream is here; much of the concert will air eventually on John Schaefer’s New Sounds program on WNYC.

Pianist Vicky Chow tackled the challenge of an hour’s worth of staccato, motorik minimalism by Tristan Perich while variously processed electronic echoes rose and fell, sometimes subsuming Chow’s literally marathon performance. Echoing Brian Eno, the piece gave the rapidly growing financial district winter garden crowd a chance to sink back into a Sunday reverie before it unexpectly rose to a long series of demandingly energetic ripples. Chow probably welcomed several opportunies to pause and breathe when the machines took over completely. There was a clever false ending and a resonantly minimalist return to stillness and calm. Later in the day, bassist Florent Ghys followed a similar trajectory with a slinky noir groove and increasingly dancing, cinematic variations over kinetic, higher-register loops: a trippy, lively instrumental karaoke performance, essentially.

The Dither Guitar Quartet delivered a deliciously gritty, bitingly chromatic Lainie Fefferman Velvet Underground homage evoking Daydream Nation-era Sonic Youth. Thanks to a few judicious kicks of a boot into a loop pedal, they had a stomping beat behind their savagely crescendoing forest of overtones and blistering roar.

Mighty six-piano ensemble Grand Band hit a similar peak a bit later on with Lang’s Face So Pale, a substantially slower reworking of a Guillaume du Fay renaissance composition that did double duty as a mass and a “pop song,” as Lang put it. The group meticulously synchronized its pointillistically hypnotic, staccato incisions with the same precision that the sheet music on each player’s tablet flipped from page to page. What a treat it was to be in the second row for a dreamy surround-sound experience of that one.

Asphalt Orchestra played three joyous reinventions of Pixies favorites, reaffirming how well that band’s output translates to brass band. Sousaphone player John Altieri anchored the music, alto saxophonist Ken Thomson and trumpeter Stephanie Richards providing some of the afternoon’s most unselfconsiously adrenalizing moments. Then the Crossfire Steel Orchestra returned for a dancing but bracing Kendall Williams composition, rising and falling insistently.

Within minutes, Thomson was back onstage, this time on clarinet with the house art-rock band the Bang on a Can All-Stars, playing material from their latest album Field Recordings. They did Wolfe’s lilting, Acadian-flavored Reeling to accompany a recording of Canadian “mouth music.” Arguably the high point of the festival, Johann Johannsson‘s Hz built a vast, ominously looming horizontal expanse punctuated by David Cossin’s creepily twinkling vibraphone and Mark Stewart’s mighty washes of distorted guitar chords. Anna Clyne‘s A Wonderful Day grounded a sunny African-flavored melody in the dark textures of Robert Black’s bass, Thomson’s bass clarinet and Ashley Bathgate’s cello. Composer Todd Reynolds introduced his gospel choir mashup Seven Sundays witih a shout-out to the victims of the past week’s South Carolina massacre. Fueled by Bathgate’s sinewy lines, it turned out to be a characteristically jaunty dance with stadium rock heft and trippy hip-hop tinges.

The group’s final performance of the night, written by the BOAC three in collaboration with composer Lao Luo, was backing Chinese theatre chanteuse Gong Linna, pulling out all the stops for a dramatic triptych based on ancient shamanic songs.. The first invoked a fertility god, rising from rustic bluesiness to a towering vocal crescendo. The second, directed in English to a destructive river god, built from shivery low-string menace to a big, looping gallop, eventually coming full circle wih a visceral menace. The finale was a tonguetwistingly rapidfire polysyllabic love song to the mountain spirit – “Everybody in China knows this one,” grinned Linna – the mighty goddess ultimately spurning the shaman’s entreaties. You could call it kabuki rock.

Pianist Tomoko Mukaiyama made her way energetically through a creepy, Philip Glass-esque series of cellular motives from Somei Satoh‘s Ostinato Variations and then his alternately neoromantic and resonantly minimalistic, dynamically shifing Incarnations.  Third Angle New Music tackled Julian Day’s electroacoustic cut-and-paste Quartz, veering from sputtery to atmospheric as the piece ostensibly incorporated passages from two famous unfinished works, Haydn’s String Quartet in D and Schumann’s Quartettsatz. As it went on, it echoed Wolfe’s ominous adventures in string music, notably her chilling Cruel Sister suite.

Playing in the center of the atrium, Asphalt Orchestra’s versions of a trio of tunes by the pyrotechnic magician of Bulgarian clarinet music, Ivo Papasov swirled and blended into the space’s echoey sonics to the point where it wasn’t possible to tell if the band was actually playing his signature, machinegunning volleys note for note, or whether they were just holding them. But either way, what a way to send the energy to redline in a split second. Wisely, they returned to the more hospitable sonics of the stage for the final barn-burner.

Grand Band returned for their bandmate Paul Kerekes‘ Wither and Bloom, a diptych illustrating decay and rebirth. The first section’s flitting motives shifting elegantly into more minimal terrain, the second going in the opposite direction. Their final performance was a sardonic commissioned work from Gordon informed by childhood piano lesson trauma, a percussive, polyrhythmic roller-coaster ride punctuated by the occasional etude-like cascade.

So Percussion, with guitarist Nels Cline, did Bobby Previte’s Terminal 3 and 4, the composer on drums. Cline’s reverb roar, skronky Keith Levene-esque whistles and wails and white noise on the first number, outdoing the Dither guys for sheer volume, echoed out over staccato drum volleys like the Grateful Dead’s Space on crack. The second was a shticky but mercilessly funny portrait of the kind of torture drummers suffer, as well as the ones they inflict on the rest of us.

Brazilian percussionist/showman Cyro Baptista, leading a trio with Brian Marsella on multikeys and Tim Keiper on second drumkit, got a loud, jungly drone going and then launched into an animated shuffle, using a thicket of offbeat instruments from a big gong to a jawharp. Spacy, frantic hardbop gave way to vaudevillian audience-response antics, lots of pummeling and a return to dissociative disco.

Glenn Branca wound up the marathon, conducting a band with four guitars – two Fenders, an Ibanez Fender copy  and something else – plus minimal bass and pounding drums. It’s not the first time he’s done it and it probably won’t be the last. Branca still air-conducts with a very physical, Jimmy Page-style presence, in contrast to the group’s low-key focus. They opened with German Expressionism, a slowly swaying exchange of disquieting tritone-laced riffs; Jazzmaster player Arad Evans played the solo part on Branca’s looming Smoke guitar concerto, a turbocharged look back at a time when New York acts like Live Skull pulverized audiences. The group wound up with a trio of the composer’s signature more-or-less one-chord jams, part no wave orchestra, My Bloody Valentine and Also Sprach Zarathustra. Although this year’s marathon was about as abbreviated – relatively speaking – as other recent ones have been, it felt even shorter. Maybe that’s because there were so few lulls, the music and performances being consistently strong almost all the way through.

Some random observations: a painfully precious spoken-word component ruined an intriguingly swoopy and spiky LJ White piece for violin and cello played agilely by a subset of Third Angle New Music. The upstairs food court drew all the rugrats and their parents, leaving the downstairs mostly to concertgoers. Joy! The grounds crew shut off that obnoxious alarm on the elevator at the rear of the area: double joy! The roof leaking rain, not so joyful – the pianos got it good but this blog’s laptop escaped undamaged.

Another marathon, this one on the Upper West Side begininng on Saturday and ending this morning, offered a more improvisational kind of fun based on Erik Satie’s Vexations. A creepy, loopy piece designed to be played over and over a total of 840 times, it inspired composers Randall Woolf and Art Jarvinen to come up with their own variations.  A relay team of pianists assembled by Jed Distler began the performance at 8 AM and were planning on finishing up 24 hours later: a stop in on them late Saturday morning found both a pianist and electronic keyboardist blending textures over a loop of the Satie, occasionally embellished by both players, including a droll quote from one of the Gymnopedies. It would have been fun to have been able to stick around for more.

June 21, 2015 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

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

An Auspicious Portrait of Emerging Composers Fjola Evans and Alex Weiser

Student works by emerging composers get a bad rap because they’re so often like term papers, written to display a command of what’s been taught rather than any kind of individual vision. Last night at the Firehouse Space in Greenpoint, two young composers, Fjola Evans and Alex Weiser challenged that stereotype in an eclectic composer portrait concert of chamber works performed with verve by an inspired, talented cast of similarly up-and-coming talent.

The two have an enviable pedigree, mentored by two Bang on a Can luminaries: Evans with Julia Wolfe and Weiser with Michael Gordon. Evans proved to be influenced in a very good way by Wolfe’s relentless purposefulness and and often grim terseness, refusing to waste a single note. Gordon’s translucence, his gift for melody and also his wit were echoed throughout Weiser’s compositions.

The concert opened on an auspicious note with the trio Bearthoven – a band name so good that it hardly seems possible that it went unclaimed til now – slowly and meticulously swaying their way through the stygian whispers and then horror-stricken swells of Evans’ Shoaling, an illustration of long wave motion. Pianist Karl Larson, percussionist Matt Evans and bassist Pat Swoboda established a murky, minimalist ambience that grew and grew until those waves were about to dash the theme on a jagged, rocky shore. It couldn’t have ended more perfectly, as the wail of an ambulance echoed down Kingsland Avenue outside. Starkly ambitious and genuinely profound, it instantly put Evans on the map as someone to keep an eye on.

The composer herself played Augun, more or less a tone poem, solo on cello. It was basically a duet with herself, in tandem with a backing track featuring austere percussive accents and low-register washes, her subtle variations – derived from an Icelandic love ballad – pulling tensely against a central tone. A brief string quartet, Five, played by violinists Megan Atchley and Yu-Wei Hsiao, violist Alex Tasopolous and cellist Alexandra Jones, depicted the angst of the tedium of life in captivity, a marching canon eventually giving way to eye-rolling, seemingly exasperated glissandos and then a series of deft variations. In the end, there seemed to be optimism. Andplay, the duo of violinist Maya Bennardo and violist Hannah Levinson, delivered a graceful take of Dogged, a series of variations on a four-note theme common in Neil Young-style rock that rose from austere building blocks to a warmly sustained conclusion.

Weiser and Evans share a fondness for emphatic, rhythmic motives for a foundation, but that’s where the similarity seems to end. Weiser likes to use a lot of space, especially while laying the groundwork for a piece. He’s drawn to the neoromantic and is a strong songwriter. The highlights among his works were a trio of songs done by Larson and soprano Charlotte Mundy. A distinctive, down-to-earth, disarmingly individualistic singer, she showed off a strong and conversationally direct low range throughout several a-cappella passages, no easy task. More than one person in the crowd remarked that the way she rose from a completely unadorned, intimate delivery to striking highs with just a tinge of gentle vibrato made it seem as if she was singing directly to everyone individually. The triptych’s opener, A Door, rose and fell on Larson’s glimmering waves; the second segment, Night Walk, developed artfully from spacious minimalism to a more lush, ominous nocturnal theme; the third, Marks, had a jauntily dancing flair.

The string quartet played Weiser’s Quake, meant to illustrate a tectonic system on the verge of completely coming apart, an insistently polyrhythmic, artfully dynamic exploration up to an agitatedly galloping coda. Bearthoven Roar, performed by that trio, turned out to be a droll pastiche of Beethoven-like motives interspersed among the instruments, flitting by in seconds. And the night’s concluding piece, Rumbling Waves, played by Larson and Matt Evans, was true to its title.

May 5, 2014 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The NY Phil’s Contact Series Hits a Couple of Bullseyes

It’s heartwarming to see an organization as estimable as the New York Philharmonic taking notice of young composers whose work they can deliver as only such a formidable ensemble can. One would think that every major orchestra would have the same agenda, but sadly that’s not the case. For every nineteen-year-old Shostakovich whose first symphony was premiered shortly after it was written, there are dozens of Iveses slaving away at the insurance company by day and directing the church choir on the weekend. So it’s good to have the NY Phil’s Contact series, focusing on chamber orchestra-scale works written mostly by emerging composers. Last night’s program at Symphony Space featured two rather stunning world premieres, a resonant suite of songs from a lion of the 20th century avant garde and a New York premiere, bravely played but less successful.

The stunner on the bill was the world premiere of Andy Akiho’s Oscillate, for string ensemble, percussion and piano, nimbly conducted by Jayce Ogren. Akiho is a percussionist whose unlikely main axe, at least in the classical music world, is the steel pan. There was nothing remotely calypsonian about this work: excellent and eclectic as Akiho’s debut album from last year was, this is the best thing he’s written. Inspired by Nicola Tesla (the title is an anagram of “Tesla coil”), it’s meant to illustrate an inventor or creator’s toil over a span of many sleepless nights, a battle to remain inspired as fatigue becomes more and more of a problem. Beginning with sirening strings against a restlessly mechanical pulse, shades of Julia Wolfe with hints of Bernard Herrmann, it took on an increasingly noirish, dissociative atmosphere, livened by a familiar Messiaen quote. A series of increasingly hallucinatory chase scenes driven by insistent staccato cellos finally gave way to uneasy ambience at the end: the triumph in question here seemed simply to be to get through a waking nightmare.

Another world premiere, Jude Vaclavik’s Shock Waves, for brass and percussion took rousing advantage of the vast expanses of sonics at the composer’s disposal, mutes being employed from time to time on virtually all of the wind instruments throughout the piece. Tuba player Alan Baer drew a round of chuckles as he nonchalantly stuck a huge mute the size of a couple of french horns into his instrument’s gaping bell. Inspired by the mechanics of sonic booms, the piece is built around a series of doppler-like swells that mutate, pulse,  blast and intermingle with a Stravinskian elan. Like Akiho’s work, the suspense was relentless: it was impossible to know what was coming, and what would be next.

Coloratura soprano Elizabeth Futral sang four Jacob Druckman songs from the 1990s: two ethereal but bracing settings of Emily Dickinson poems and two utilizing Apollinaire lyrics with considerably more unease. In both cases, her melismatic lower register was especially strong and vividly plaintive. The composer’s son Daniel Druckman played percussion as he had on the premiere of this particular chamber arrangement fifteen years ago.

The one piece on the bill that didn’t work was Andrew Norman’s Try, a portrait of a composer concocting and then nixing motifs one by one before he finally comes up with something he likes. While it wasn’t without wit, the ideas flew by in such a breathless, whizbang fashion that it was impossible to focus on any one of them until they were already gone. And the minimalist piano ending felt forced, and interminable. This work screamed out for shredding more of those ideas and maybe taking what’s left at halfspeed.

December 24, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ethel’s Latest Album Is Worth the Wait

Extrovert violinist Todd Reynolds may have left adventurous string quartet Ethel to pursue his solo career, but the group continues on with Mary Rowell filling his place. And the group’s long-awaited new album, Heavy – out from Innova in a charmingly vintage, oversize package – proves to be worth that wait. The title is a little misleading: the moods evoked here run the gamut from raw, unleashed menace to playful and fun. The centerpiece is an early Julia Wolfe composition, Early That Summer. It’s classic Wolfe: driven by a cruelly emphatic, incessant staccato rhythm that the ensemble never wavers from, it begins with creepy, tritone-fueled exchanges of machinegun fire between the ensemble with intricate dynamic shifts. Cellist Dorothy Lawson is the star of this one early on over the suspenseful ambience of the higher strings, Rowell plus violist Ralph Farris and violinist Neil Duffalo. Disjointed Giant Steps phrases bring on more relentless staccato and increasingly unsettling microtones, growing more stately and then fading. Like so much of Wolfe’s work, it takes your breath away – it might be the most viscerally intense piece of music released this year in any style of music.

John Halle’s Sphere [‘]s developes a summery plantation soul ambience, its rustic charm underpinning subtly alternating voices with bluesy allusions, trainwhistle slides, and variations that crescendo with an elegant spiritual feel. John King’s pensively bucolic No Nickel Blues moves from quavery off-pitch ambience to slow, soulful, judicious variations, steady over a tricky tempo. Another standout track, Raz Mesinai’s La Citadelle takes a swooping, diving gypsy dance and expands on it, alternately minimalist and cinematic – this particular citadel is as active as a busy airport, and fraught with chromatically-charged tension. By contrast, David Lang’s pensive, rather horizontal Wed works subtle variations on simple, memorable sostenuto motifs.

Kenji Bunch joins the ensemble for a lively take on his String Circle, blending Celtic and bluegrass motifs into its shapeshifting architecture colored by subtle microtonal shades and an intricate divergence of voices. As it builds, it becomes more classical than bluegrass, developing a warmly balmy, cantabile pulse. The album’s final track, Marcelo Zarvos’ Rounds ends the album on a resonantly cantabile note, a pretty, Britfolk-inflected song without words exchanging hypnotic, circular pizzicato passages with a swelling, cantabile pulse. There’s also a string quartet by Don Byron that opens the album and which you will probably want to leave off your phone, or your machine, whatever that may be, when you upload this. Otherwise, this is a rich and rewarding mix that ought to appeal to rock fans as well as those with a taste for more challenging sonics.

August 14, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

40% of the 25th Anniversary Bang on a Can Marathon

2012 being the 25th anniversary of the Bang on a Can avant garde music marathon, it makes sense that this year’s marathon yesterday at the World Financial Center would be a more oldschool one than in years past, with more emphasis on familiar faces and American composers than the wide-ranging internationalist vibe of recent years. Judging from the first forty percent of the show, not to mention the tantalizing bill that loomed ahead for the evening, this year’s was one of the best in recent memory. Unlike the last few years, where BOAC would cleverly seem to work the occasional obvious bathroom break or even a dinner break into the programming, from noon to about half past five there wasn’t a single tune-out: not everything on the bill was transcendent, but a lot was.

Lois V Vierk was one of the composers on the program along with Pauline Oliveros, Steve Reich and Martin Bresnick at the first marathon in 1988; this time out she was represented by her galloping, hypnotically enveloping, Reich-esque Go Guitars, performed by the Dither guitar quartet – Taylor Levine, James Linaburg, Josh Lopes and James Moore. Cellist Ashley Bathgate followed, solo, with Daniel Wohl’s insistently minimalist, echoing, rhythmic Saint Arc, a good segue with its bracing atmospherics. The crowd’s focus shifted to the rear of the atrium for trombone quartet Guidonian Hand playing Jeremy Howard Beck’s Awakening, a pro gay marriage polemic inspired by the chants of protestors as well as Jewish shofar calls. Vividly evocative of uneasy crowd noise, a sense of reason developed, and then a triumphantly sostenuto fanfare with wry echoes of Also Sprach Zarathustra.

BOAC All-Star Vicky Chow played Evan Ziporyn’s In Bounds. Inspired by essay about basketball, Ziporyn explained that he had mixed feelings about asking Chow to tackle such a demanding task as essentially becoming a one-woman piano gamelan with this work – but she was up for it. It’s classic Ziporyn, catchy blues allusions within a rapidfire, characteristically Javanese-influenced framework. Moving from attractive concentric ripples to some tongue-in-cheek Tubular Bells quotes to a welcome spaciousness as the piece wound down, Chow’s perfectly precise, rapidfire music-box attack raised the bar for pretty much everyone who followed.

The NYU Contemporary Music Ensemble conducted by Jonathan Haas negotiated their way through Ruben Naeff’s Bash, its point being an attempt at making a party out of group tensions. Its interlocking intricacies were a workout especially for vibraphonist Matthew Lau, but he didn’t waver, alongside Patti Kilroy on violin, Maya Bennardo on viola, Luis Mercado on cello, Florent Ghys on bass, Charles Furlong on clarinet, Anne Dearth on flute and Jeff Lankov on piano. Steadily and tensely, they illustrated an uneasily bustling party scene that eventually reached for a slightly more lush, relaxed ambience without losing its incessant rhythmic intensity.

Bass clarinetist Michael Lowenstern was then joined by extrovert violin virtuoso Todd Reynolds for an unexpectedly catchy new wave pop melody and then Footprints (not the Wayne Shorter composition), a genially bluesy, upbeat number where the BOAC All-Stars’ Dave Cossin joined them on drums. They’d busked with this one during a European tour and made enough for dinner from it one night in Vienna about twenty years ago. Then Guidonian Hand took the stage for Eve Beglarian’s In and Out of the Game, inspired by her epic Mississippi River trip a couple of years ago: an anthemic, upbeat piece, it was delivered rather uptightly, perhaps since the ensemble was constrained by having to play along with a tape.

Julia Wolfe’s My Lips From Speaking isn’t one of her white-knuckle intense, haunting numbers: it’s a fun extrapolation of the opening riff from Aretha Franklin’s Think (played by Aretha herself on the record). Piano sextet Grand Band – Chow, David Friend, Paul Kerekes, Lisa Moore, Blair McMillen and Isabelle O’Connell had a ball with it, each wearing an ear monitor so as to catch the innumerable, suspenseful series of cues as the gospel licks grew from spacious and minimalist to a joyously hammering choir. Ruby Fulton’s The End, sung by Mellissa Hughes with Dither’s Taylor Levine on uke and M Shanghai String Band’s Philippa Thompson on spoons, made a good segue. Inspired by the Beatles’ The End – as Fulton explained, one of the few places on record where Ringo ever took a bonafide drum solo – its hypnotic, insistent rhythm and Hughes’ otherworldly harmonies in tandem with the drones and then overtones rising from Levine’s repetitive chords built an increasingly complex sense of implied melody, as captivating as it was clever.

The first piece delivered by the BOAC All-Stars – Chow, Bathgate and Cossin on vibraphone and percussion this time plus Robert Black on bass, Mark Stewart on guitars and Ziporyn on clarinets – was Nibiru, by Marcin Stanczyk, one of the composers who’s come up through BOAC’s MassMoCa mentoring program. An apprehensive blend of anxious, intense percussion and ominous outer-space motifs, it pondered the existence of the phantom planet from harmonic-laden drones to surfy staccato guitar to where Bathgate finally took it to the rafters, her cello’s high harmonics keening eerily over Ziporyn’s bass clarinet wash.

The biggest audience hit of the afternoon – big surprise – was Thurston Moore’s Stroking Piece #1. It took a long time to for the All-Stars to build from faux Glenn Branca to critical mass but when they finally got the chance, a minor chord abruptly and rather chillingly making an appearance, Cossin slamming out a four-on-the-floor beat, the band had a great time with it even if it wasn’t particularly challenging. As it wound out, Stewart artfully led them from a crazed noise jam back into quiet, mantra-like atmospherics.

That may have been the peoples’ choice, but the next piece, Gregg August’s A Humble Tribute to Guaguanco, performed by his bass quartet Heavy Hands with Greg Chudzik, Lisa Dowling and Brian Ellingsen, was the most memorable of the afternoon. “Taking advantage of the percussion and the vocal quality that we can get from the bass,” as the bandleader (and four-string guy from sax powerhouse JD Allen’s amazing trio) explained, they made it unexpectedly somber and terse, alternately bowing, picking and tapping out an interlocking beat, eventually adding both microtones and polyrhythms. A dancing pulse gave way to sharp, bowed chromatic riffs, part flamenco, part Julia Wolfe horror tonalities. The second they finished, a little sparrow landed in front of the stage as if to signal its approval.

The following work, Besnick’s Prayers Remain Forever was performed by by TwoSense (Bathgate and Moore). Introducing the composer, Julia Wolfe reminded that he taught all three of the BOAC founders, and that his Yale School of Music ensemble Sheep’s Clothing was the prototype for BOAC. “At a certain point in life existential questions become extremely important,” he explained – the title of the work is from the last line of the Yehuda Amichai poem Gods Come and Go. A plaintively elegaic, part mininalist, part neoromantic work, as it expanded from a simple chromatic motif, a sense of longing became anguish and then descended to a brooding, defeated atmosphere, the cello and piano switching roles back and forth from murky hypnotics to bitterly rising phrases, with a particularly haunting solo passage from Bathgate. Yet what was even more impressive about her playing is how closely she communicates with her bandmates, Moore especially: the duo played as a singleminded voice.

Then things got loud and memorably ugly with “punk classical” ensemble Newspeak, whose late-2010 album Sweet Light Crude is a gem. They played that tune, a savagely sarcastic love song to an addiction that will eventually prove lethal, Hughes’ deadpan, lushly Romantic vocals soaring over cinematics that built from anxiously sweeping to metal grand guignol fueled by Brian Snow’s cello, Levine’s guitar and bandleader/composer David T. Little’s coldly stomping drums. They also rampaged through Oscar Bettison’s B & E (with Aggravated Assault), emphasizing its jagged math-rock rhythms and a pummeling series of chase scenes.

Michael Gordon, one of the original BOAC trio with Wolfe and David Lang, led his band – the BOAC All-Stars’ Stewart, Cossin and Zioporyn plus Reynolds on violin and Caleb Burhans on viola – through his own Thou Shalt/Thou Shalt Not from behind a keyboard. This was a disappointment and didn’t measure up to Gordon’s usual high standard. Juicy textures – creepy funeral organ, staccato twin microtonal violins, foghorn bass clarinet – overshadowed simplistic percussive riffage, which carried on far too long without much focus: if he could cut this down to 3:05, he’d have a hit. Next on the bill was soprano saxophonist Jonas Braasch, who performed his alternately rapt and amusingly echoey Quasi Infinity through a digital effect he’d created to approximate an amazing 45-second natural reverb that Oliveros had reveled in while recording in a Washington State cistern in 1988. That boded well for Oliveros and her Deep Listening Band, who played digeridoo-heavy, warmly enveloping works immediately afterward. And while it’s hubris to walk out on an artist as perennially fresh and compelling as she is, there’s a point where concerts of this length and the demands of having a life don’t coincide. Apologies to Oliveros and her crew for not sticking around for their entire set.

One final issue that ought to be addressed, and not just by BOAC and the World Financial Center landlords, is that there needs to be a no-under-fours rule here. And for that matter, at every serious music event in New York, maybe everywhere in this country. This didn’t used to be an issue, but with the helicopter parenting fad, children having become yuppie bling, national restaurant chains and thousands of other businesses are retaliating. A reasonably bright four-year-old can be taught to sit quietly or at least move around quietly while a concert is in progress; a two-year old can’t. Too bad that there’s no way to ban the yuppies along with their annoying, sniveling, whiny spawn, which would solve the whole problem.

June 18, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment