Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Perennial Relevance, Irrepressible Wit and Catchy Tunes From Meredith Monk at the Jewish Museum

Thursday night at the Jewish Museum, Meredith Monk sang a playful, relentlessly catchy, perennially relevant mix of songs spanning over forty years. Now well into her seventies, the iconic composer still has the same clarity and purity in her upper register that she had back in the 1970s when she first came to prominence as a young lioness of the avant garde. Since then, just about every quirky songstress, from Laurie Anderson, to Bjork, to Carol Lipnik, owes her a shout for blazing the trail.

Monk always looks like the cat who ate the canary, an outward calm masking an inner delight that she can’t resist sharing. Her leaps and bounds and sudden rhythmic shifts seem more seamless – and easy to sing – than they actually are, considering what a brilliant tunesmith she is. Bright, kinetic melodies from throughout the show lingered long after it was over. She opened solo, a-cappella with Wa-li-oh, a 1975 number from her Songs from the Hill collection, where she’d literally gone to the mountaintop for the inspiration to write them. Its subtle echo effects may well have reflected that milieu.

She delivered similarly dappled, sunspotted pointillisms in a couple of other numbers: the Xosa-inflected Click Song, from 1988, and later in a series of brief pieces from last year’s suite of Cellular Songs, the final puckishly titled Lullaby for Leaves. By then, she’d been joined by two members of her Vocal Ensemble, Allison Sniffin and Katie Geissinger, tall blonde valkyries flanking the modestly dressed, slender bandleader. The two womens’ harmonies, frequent upward flights and command of Monk’s frequently challenging counterpoint were the icing on the cake.

The night’s most memorable number was Scared Song, for organ and vocals, its macabre undercurrent reflecting its response to Reagan-era fearmongering. “Fear becomes violence when we don’t know it’s fear,” she advised.

Another starkly relevant moment was when the trio sang Memory Song, from Monk’s dystopic 1984 suite The Games, a calmly surreal evocation from the point of view of a quasi-griot enumerating lost cultural references, from the essential to the ridiculous. That’s why Monk’s work has always had such resonance beyond the cutting edge: there’s always something funny to lighten even the darkest points.

Monk related how she’d recorded the bittersweetly circling Gotham Lullaby in 1975, solo on piano on her debut album, and felt like she’d botched the take. Producer Manfred Eicher told he it was fine – she could do another take if she felt like it, but he’d be going out for coffee while she did. And he was right, she demurred: there was magic in its imperfections, although her take this time out certainly didn’t seem to have any.

The most operatic moment of the night was a song from her 2006 Impermanence suite. The most trickily rhythnic was Waltz in 5’s, from 1996’s The Politics of Quiet. The most enigmatic was her own solo rendition of Happy Woman, from last year. Monk’s everywoman narrator seems on the surface to be perfectly content, but it turns out she’s also troubled in almost innumerable other ways. At face value, she maintained a resolute calm, but the turbulent undercurent cuoldn’t be masked. In an era when state legislatures are falling like dominoes to a lunatic misogynist fringe, that song couldn’t have had more of an impact.

This was it for this spring’s series of concerts at the Jewish Museum sponsored by the Bang on a Can organization, but they typically do an outdoor summer series at the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City as well. Meanwhile, the Museum’s must-see Leonard Cohen exhibit will be up through Sept 8, and trumpeter Steven Bernstein’s noir cinematic trio Sexmob are there for free on June 11 at around 6 as part of this year’s Museum Mile Festival.

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May 25, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Laurie Anderson at the Town Hall: Perennially Relevant and Hilarious

Mohammed el Gharani was a teenager when he was captured by Pakistani bandits and then sold to Bush-era army troops for five thousand dollars. His case mirrors many if not all of the prisoners in the American Guantanamo gulag. In 2013, Laurie Anderson beamed his image onto a mammoth, Lincoln Memorial-esque setting at the Park Avenue Armory.

Beyond the complications of a live projection from Chad, where el Gharani returned after Reprieve.org worked to secure his release from prison, what Anderson remembered most vividly from the installation was how audiences reacted. She recounts the story in her new book All the Things I Lost in the Flood, whose release she celebrated with a solo show at the Town Hall last night. In a surveillance state, “Crowds have become very much aware of where the camera is,” she reminded.

Those who moved to the front, where their images would be transmitted back to Chad, were mouthing the words “I’m sorry.” It was the one moment in the performance where Anderson appeared to be close to tears. Considering that the book title references the devastating effects of Hurricane Sandy flooding on her basement archive, and also addresses the loss of her husband, Lou Reed, her usual deadpan stoicism in this case carried even more weight than usual.

Anderson’s work has always been intrinsically political, if not in a doctrinaire or sectarian  way. Over and over again, this mostly spoken-word performance reaffirmed that fearless populist sensibility. Her work is also usually outrageously funny, and this greatest hits show of sorts reflected that as well. An archival clip staged in the back of a diner, Anderson musing about the merits of the Star Spangled Banner versus alternative, less stressfully arpeggiated national anthems was as funny as it was back in 1980. More soberingly, she contemplated how Aristophanes’ The Birds might serve as a metaphor for the current administration.

Otherwise, Anderson shared a lot of remarkably candid insight into the nuts and bolts of staging provocative multimedia installations around the world. Homeland Security didn’t waste any time putting a stop to the idea of beaming in images of US prisoners serving life sentences – although the Italian government had given its stamp of approval to that same concept, which eventually springboarded Habeas Corpus, the installation el Gharani appeared in. That’s another typical Anderson trope: more often than not with her, plan B works just as well as plan A.

And she has a way of staying relevant: she allowed herself just a single moment to bask in that, recalling how she’d played her one big radio hit, O Superman, at the Town Hall right after 9/11 and found crowds resonating to it as much as they had during the Iranian hostage crisis twenty years before.

Her musical interludes, played solo on violin with plenty of pitch-shifting effects and layers stashed away digitally, only amounted to about ten uneasily wafting minutes. The stories, one after another, were very revealing, especially for an artist who ultimately doesn’t give much away about herself. As a “burnt-out multimedia artist” in Greece around the turn of the century, she recalled getting up the nerve to ask her Athens guide – a curator at the Parthenon – what happened to the country that invented western civilization. His response? That the Parthenon became so filled with tchotchkes that Athenians took their praying and philosophy private. “You can’t pray in an an art museum,” he explained.

Anderson pondered that and found it shocking. It was just as provocative to be reminded how she’s equated prisons and galleries over the years – both are heavily guarded and meant to keep what’s inside from leaving. On the lighter side, she recalled a late 90s project whose laser-fixated curator staged what could have been “group eye surgery” for extra shock appeal along with the pyrotechnics he’d mastered in the Israeli army.

At the end of the show, she sent out a salute to her husband with a brief tai chi demonstration, reminding how much she missed the banter of 21 years of marriage to a similarly legendary raconteur. One can only hope that if they ever recorded any of that, it survived the flood and future generations might be able to hear it someday.

February 16, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, experimental music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Revealing, Lavishly Illustrated New Book and a Midtown Release Show by Laurie Anderson

Laurie Anderson is the world’s best-loved avant garde artist. Yet as much as her forty-plus year career has encompassed music, art, sculpture, film, video, literature and cutting edge technology, ultimately her work boils down to narratives. Ask anyone what they love about Anderson, and inevitably the first thing they’ll mention is her storytelling. And it’s that keen sense of purpose, that inimitable, dry sense of humor, and that unpretentious, matter-of-fact midwestern sensibility that draws an audience in, that succeed in getting us to think outside the box along with her.

You wouldn’t expect a coffee-table book to be much of a revelation, but that’s exactly what Anderson’s new book All the Things I Lost in the Flood is. A lavishly illustrated, self-curated career retrospective, it’s a rare opportunity to explore the nuts and bolts of how Anderson conceives and then brings a work to life. And it’s hardly self-congratulatory, While out of necessity, she devotes a large proportion of the book to her best-known works – Homeland, United States in its many parts, and Habeas Corpus – she spends just as much time on early projects, some of which weren’t fully realized, others which ran into roadblocks. Either way, it’s a feast of ideas for any artist in any discipline.

Anderson’s impetus for the book – and her new album, Landfall, with the Kronos Quartet – was Hurricane Sandy. In salvaging what was left of her basement full of instruments and memorabilia after the storm, she was thrown into revisitation mode. Obviously, if there’s any living artist who deserves a retrospective at, say, the Met or MOMA, it’s Anderson; in the meantime, this will suffice – and you can take it home with you. Anderson is celebrating the release of the book – just out from Skira Rizzoli – on Feb 15 at 8 PM with a performance including many special guests at the Town Hall. Presumably there will an opportunity to get books signed afterward.

Although Anderson’s work is the antithesis of TMI, she’s surprisingly revealing. As a child, she almost drowned her twin younger brothers in a frozen pond whose ice gave way – and then miraculously saved them. Much as she loves “lossy” media – where the limits of technology interfere with the delivery of an image or an idea – she’s always been fascinated by the state of the art. She was using a lo-fi, landline-based prototype for Skype in 1979…and much as she initially resisted virtual reality and computer language, she has recently delved into both, if with a little prodding from fans who were experts in those fields.

What might be most astonishing here is that Anderson had already pretty much concretized her subtly provocative vision by the early 1970s. A violin filled with water; talking statues with loaded messages (who may well be alter egos); convicted murderers beamed into installations, and her interactive piece featuring a survivor of Guantanamo torture hell during the Bush years, are all chronicled here.

The visuals are just as fascinating. The black-and-white photos from 1972 forward say a lot. The young Anderson, it turns out was just as calmly determined as the famous one Americans know much better. There are also all sorts of sketches, diagrams, stage directions and plenty of tour photos. The latter, many of them outlandishly large onstage, don’t translate to the format of the book as well, but the rest are a literal how-to guide for inspired multimedia artists.

And she’s hilarious. Both the anecdotes and the offhand sociological commentary are choice. Having memorized a Japanese translation of one of her spoken-word pieces, she discovers during a Japanese tour that the guy who gave her the cassette to memorize had a bad stutter – which she dutifully copied. Although she’s hardly convinced that her fulfillment of an early 70s grant – playing solo violin, unamplified on the Upper East Side of Manhattan – was any kind of success, there’s a charming photo of some chivalrous gentleman passing the hat for her. Many of the jokes are too good, and still valid after many years, to give away here.

And relevance has always been front and center in her work – from the coy, sardonic questions of her early 70s work, to her hit single O Superman – a cynical look at Jimmy Carter’s failed attempt at a rescue during the Iranian hostage crisis – to the sinister implications of global warming in Landfall.

Much as this is a very funny book, a sobering undercurrent lingers. It’s one thing to lose the record stores that used to sell Anderson’s albums; it’s another to lose the bookstores she had in every city, that she relished visiting between gigs while on tour. She quotes Karl Rove, referencing how fake news has been part of the totalitarian agenda long before the current Presidential administration. And much as she has come to employ new technology, she’s dismayed by social media’s atomizing and alienating effects. Anderson herself is not on Facebook.

February 13, 2018 Posted by | Art, avant garde music, experimental music, Literature, Music, music, concert, photography, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Laurie Anderson Leads a Magically Enveloping, Deeply Relevant Series of Improvisations in Midtown

“Give me your poor, your tired, your huddled masses, and we’ll club their heads in,” Laurie Anderson mused last night toward the end of a rapturous series of trio improvisations with bassist Christian McBride and cellist Rubin Kodheli at the Town Hall. She was being sarcastic, of course, As a point of context, she’d brought up Naomi Klein’s book Shock Doctrine, where at the end the author contemplates what might happen if rightwing American bellicosity abroad was launched here. Anderson suggested that the incessant tweets and fake news emanating from that lunatic fringe in the Oval Office could be a harbinger.

Like so many New Yorkers, Anderson was profoundly affected by 9/11, and accurately connected the sense of horror and being blindsided then to the state of the city today. That unease pervaded much of the trio’s hour onstage, balanced by a defiant, surprisingly kinetic joie de vivre. She was obviously the bandleader, and her collaborators were practically jumping out of their shoes to revel in a surreal, richly textural, frequently eerie ambience that gave them a series of launching pads for daunting if terse and purposeful displays of extended technique.

Ominous chromatic piano riff and grey-sky organ from Anderson anchored the centerpiece of her political commentary, strongly evoking a Bat For Lashes hit from the late zeros. The trio’s backdrop for a voiceover of a Lou Reed poem was just as troubling and troubled, rising from starry, elegaic ambience to fluttery horror and then phantasmagorically pulsing, microtonal upward drifts.

Balancing that relentless angst was the coy tale of Anderson’s successful run for middle school student council. As she told it, she’d written to Presidential candidate John F. Kennedy, seeking advice, received a detailed letter in response, took his counsel to heart (kiss up to everyone, he said, more or less), and then won. And then sent him a triumphant thank-you note. Kennedy responded with a dozen roses. When the story made the local paper in Anderson’s Illinois hometown, “Kennedy had won the heart of every woman,” of voting age and otherwise, she told the crowd. They wound up the evening when Anderson hit her pitch pedal, took her vocals down a couple of octaves for a wry deep-space atmosphere: “We like stars because we can’t crush them,” her man-in-the-moon character informed the crowd.

The rest of the set was all instrumental. At one point, McBride responded to a sprightly volley of pizzicato from Anderson with a bittersweet twelve-note rock riff that would have been the envy of any artsy British band from the 70s. It was the night’s single most gorgeous moment. And he never reprised it. Otherwise, he spent most of the evening playing with a bow, parsing minutely inflected high harmonics and even some wryly creeping low-register glissandos when he wasn’t delivering steady, often circular minimalist riffage below the mist.

Anderson, bolstered by light effects via a couple of laptops, introduced monentary, flickering themes with plucky pizzicato phrases, keeningly ethereal microtonal cloudbanks and a couple of menacingly galloping interludes. Caught in the eye of the ice storm, Kodheli had the hardest job of anyone onstage and deftly found a middle ground. Often that meant taking the others’ roles, whether delivering stark staccato harmonic slashes way up the fingerboard, or providing sinewy basslines when McBride pounced and bubbled far beyond his axe’s customary range. The audience roared their approval with a series of standing ovations: clearly, we’ve reached the point where improvised music has the potential to draw a large audience if perhaps not a mass one. The time has come when places like Jazz at Lincoln Center should be booking creative musicians like Steve Swell and Wadada Leo Smith – and lowering ticket prices to where the average New Yorker can afford to see them.

February 24, 2017 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, experimental music, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Laurie Anderson’s Requiem for New York Haunts Lincoln Center

Last night at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, Laurie Anderson played a requiem for New York, possibly titled Delirium. The nocturnal atmosphere settled in from the first few notes of Rob Burger’s accordion, the highly processed quality of the music giving it an air-conditioned chill. Throughout the suite, which went on for over an hour, it was sometimes hard to tell who was playing, Anderson’s trio or a machine, but that was the point. All these machines we rely on so much distance us from a reality we can’t bring ourselves to face. This piece was all about denial – denial of reality, denial of impending doom, and in that doom, the death of a beloved city, by gentrification, by greed, and especially by denial. “This is the real New York,” was the mantra early on, spoken quietly, matter-of-factly, giving away nothing, Anderson letting her narrative’s fragmentary images speak for themselves against the lushly icy backdrop. She got it all – global warming (a recurrent allusion); mindless “if you see something, say something” paranoia; Fukushima; Wall Street swindlers getting rich on worthless paper (and then shredding it) while the rest of the world riots. Familiar city sights – fire escapes in midsummer; the San Gennaro Festival and its “onions marinara;” Madison Square Garden, a three-way oxymoron; crowds swiping their way into the subway on the way home from work – grounded the piece in an indelible New York milieu. Behind the narrative, sheets of strings, real and synthesized, rose and fell, sometimes with mechanical electronic percussion behind them, often with astringent, vividly wary lines by violinist Eyvind Kang and Anderson herself while Burger shifted from accordion, to simple piano lines, to more nebulous atmospherics. Creepy, occasionally sleepy, it reached with an elegant menace toward a fever dream, especially when a police siren wailed for close to a minute a block further west, slowly making its way uptown.

“‘Hard times,’ says the maid, as she begins her lawsuit against the next President of France, now known worldwide as a chimpanzee in rutting mode, his DNA in her spit on the carpet,” Anderson deadpanned. In this netherworld, technology nerds produce nothing more than speeches full of hot air and time-wasting gadgets; hotel rooms are indistinguishable from offices open 24/7; and, in one blackly funny vignette set to faux boudoir sonics, advertising makes us miss places we’ve never been. And while Anderson never said it directly, this is what our world has come to. How do we deal with it? Midway through, Anderson alluded to suicide, once. She didn’t go near it again.

But it wasn’t all gloom and doom. The funniest moment of many was when Anderson mocked the pseudo-sophistication of the usual Lincoln Center crowd driving down from Westchester, by reciting a litany of google map directions, straight to the parking garage on 62nd St. Clearly, Anderson is still downtown. She closed the suite by returning to a theme that had arisen earlier, that we tend to reinvent people we’ve lost by cutting them down to size, right or wrong, because once we’ve shed that emotional baggage, we can “travel lite.” By implication, this is how a generation of New Yorkers, maybe more than a generation, deal with the loss of the city where thirty years ago an opportunity existed for Anderson to springboard avant-garde ideas into a successful global career. An entire city park felt that, and was transfixed. The show ended with a coda where Anderson brought out her husband, Lou Reed to play fluidly atonal, biting yet graceful noiserock guitar as the overture swelled and then gently faded down.

Ex-Ethel violinist Todd Reynolds opened the show, first entertaining the crowd by building the animated title track to his new album Outerborough all by himself with a series of loops, from a simple beat to heated, virtuosic lead lines. He was joined a bit later by Luminescent Orchestrii frontman Sxip Shirey – playing percussion on innumerable found objects – and a string section including Caleb Burhans, Conrad Harris, Pauline Kim Harris, Yuki Numata, Courtney Orlando, and Ben Russell. Together they made their way gently and hypnotically through a warmly thoughtful, somewhat minimalist Philip Glass-inflected piece by a composer friend from Michigan, as well as a couple of rousing songs straight out of the Hazmat Modine catalog that were equal parts Balkan and blues. But where Anderson used the chill of technology to make a point, any point that Reynolds might have made with it was lost, especially when he brought out a “human beatboxer.” For decades, real hip-hop has pilfered rhythms from every other style of music ever invented, from jazz to funk to classical, so as to sidestep the mechanical monotony of a drum machine. The cold, unwavering beat managed only to sabotage the liveliness and goodnatured energy of Reynolds and his fellow musicians.

August 11, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, experimental music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment