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

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

Deep Listening, Courtesy of Starkland

It’s hard to imagine why anyone would go to some random club just to hear a ten-year-old album playing over the PA when they could do the same thing at home without any of the stress. Last night at the delightfully laid-back new Ludlow Street new-music venue New Spectrum (lots of “news” there), Starkland Records’ Thomas Steenland and his dedicated engineering crew staged a special kind of listening party for the label’s well-loved Immersion DVD compilation – a release from 2000 that’s one of the avant garde’s alltime greatest hits – along with Phil Kline’s fascinating, landmark 2009 DVD Around the World in a Daze. The drawing card? Both recordings were played in surround sound, revealing the complete, trippy mix that most stereo systems, let alone DVD players, can’t come close to replicating. Steenland explained beforehand how he’d been intrigued by the idea of recording a high-definition surround-sound DVD, and marveled at how many composers had responded to his offer of commissions considering that when he began reaching out to them for the project, the technology to make it didn’t yet exist. Given how few times these recordings have been publicly staged – Kline’s was screened once at the old Tonic a few blocks east about ten years ago, Immersion maybe never – this was a rare opportunity to witness some deliciously clever early 21st century works exactly as their composers intended them to be heard. It was like seeing a series of black-and-white images in color for the first and maybe only time.

Hearing Pamela Z mess with the fundamental premise of the recording – via her composition Work/Live, which she said she hadn’t heard in so long that she could barely remember it – was surreal and amusing to the extreme, her tongue-in-cheek operatics not just panning between right and left but from behind, then right-center, then straight ahead. Bruce Odland’s Tank, a swaying, thinly veiled trip-hop percussion piece with washes of microtonal Ron Miles trumpet, also took on playfully unpredictable new dimensions. The effect repeated itself ad infinitum, with varying degrees of surprise, humor and intensity. Another composer in attendance, Lukas Ligeti, explained how his contribution, Propeller Island, took its title from the Jules Verne cautionary tale and its source tonalities from samples of homemade Caribbean-style steel pans. Ligeti’s signature stylistic trait is polyrhythms, which in their original context here turned out to multiply from all angles to the point where the center completely disappears, adding a welcome undercurrent of unease to this bright and attractive work. Paul Dresher’s Steel, a similarly pointillistic work, was transformed much in the same way into a bustling, cheery factory floor.

2000 White Turbulence, by Maggi Payne, was the most ominously enveloping of the bunch with its echoing cumulonimbus sonics. The most downright comedic piece, Twilight’s Dance by Paul Dolden has a punchline whose straightforwardness was made even more amusing by how un-quadrophonic it was, while Ingram Marshall’s Signs and Murmurs: A SeaSong offered more subtle revelations: that moody neoromantic piano isn’t at the seashore at all, it’s on the opposite side! The final track from the DVD was Meredith Monk’s Eclipse Variations: hearing this in its original form was something akin to being in the 21st century church where Thomas Tallis suddenly found himself teleported from his medieval sanctuary and was inspired to come up with a work to celebrate it. A Carl Stone composition was the only one that grew tiresome: its 33-RPM-at-78 conceit was fun for thirty seconds but got old quickly.

Having a primitive homemade stereo recording from the listening party for reference later on turned out to be useful, to a point, but there’s no substitute for the real thing. It would undoubtedly have been just as much fun to stick around for the entirety of the Kline DVD. Where should these works be staged next? At the Hayden Planetarium. Move over, Pink Floyd.

June 19, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, experimental music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The NYFA Collection – Best Album of 2010?

The new NYFA Collection, just out on Innova, aims to be the Rosetta Stone of cutting-edge new music in New York, a goal that may be as impossible to achieve as it is admirable to shoot for. But by any standard, this massive five-cd set is extraordinary, a genuine classic. It’s the new music equivalent of the Harry Smith albums. In over six hours of recordings, 52 composers are represented, most of them not more than once, the well-known outnumbered by those who deserve to be. Stylistically, it runs the gamut: vocal, chamber and large-scale works, the avant garde alongside the Romantic. Very impressively, the compilation does not ignore jazz – there’s a whole cd’s worth, and it’s choice. On the other hand, rock is represented only once, and maybe just as well, because the lone rock/pop song here is a dud. Nor is there a lot that falls into a non-western tradition, nor any hip-hop at all. But any perceived shortcomings are literally dwarfed by the collection’s strengths: it’s a brain-warping, provocative feast for the ears, a triumph of smart curating and reason for absolute optimism for this generation’s composers. Not everything here is genius, but a lot of it is.

The premise of the collection is new(er) works by composers who’ve been on the receiving end of NYFA music fellowships since the grants were established in 1983 (talk about taxpayer money put to good use!). CD one is has an emphasis on percussion, and various flutes feature prominently. It’s the most hypnotic, and best-suited one for sleeping or thinking about it. The second emphasizes slightly larger-scale pieces; the third is jazz, the fourth wins hands-down for scary intensity, and the fifth is mostly large ensembles. Although this is all over the map stylistically, the compilers have very cleverly juxtaposed similar works as sort of mini-suites, to the point where it’s sometimes difficult to tell when one ends and another begins.

The collection opens with a playfully warped, percussive waltz by Annie Gosfield. The rest of the cd includes a gamelanesque miniature by David van Tieghem; gamelan interludes on the factory floor by Joseph Bertolozzi; a shakuhachi tone poem by Bruce Germo; ambience versus bustle assembled by Lukas Ligeti; a mystery movie in space for theremin by Jed Chadabe; and an acidically crescendoing chamber-metal piece by Iconoclast.

The highlight of cd two is a work for solo faucet by Eric John Eigner. It’s pretty amazing – who knew how many eerie textures a simple plumbing fixture could create, whether bowed like a cello, used as percussion or for the groan of the pipes as the water runs? Other points of interest here include pianist Anthony de Mare’s elegant arrangement of Meredith Monk’s Urban March; a John Morton music box piece deftly processed to mimic a gamelan; a brooding, tangoish string duo by Monteith McCollum; Daniel Goode’s Tuba Thrush, done by Flexible Orchestra with effectively jarring switches between warm Romanticism and boisterously playful noise; and a texturally ingenious version of an apprehensive Annea Lockwood piano piece played both on and inside the piano by Sarah Cahill.

Diverse jazz styles, both traditional and modern, are represented on cd three: a revolutionary suite by Fred Ho and ensemble dedicated to the survivors of the Golden Venture immigrant smuggling ship; a brief and very funny foghorn piece called Blob, by Robust Bog; a balmy yet boisterous ballad by Rudresh Mahanthappa; a brightly lyrical romp by Laura Kahle featuring Jeff “Tain” Watts, JD Allen and Yosvany Terry; a wistful, carillonesque piano work by Angela Read Thomas played by Nicola Melville; a jaggedly funky late 60s style small combo piece by Howard Prince featuring the late John Stubblefield; and a bracing New Orleans second line drum solo by Newman Taylor Baker.

CD four is a feast of ominous melodies, motifs and tonalities. Andy Tierstein conducts the Interschools String Orchestra of NY in a horror movie soundtrack for boys’ voices and strings, then Bora Yoon evinces some deliciously creepy sounds out of singing bowls in a performance recorded live at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Mary Jane Leach’s Night Blossoms, performed a-cappella by Eileen Clark, Karen Goldfeder, Gregory Davidson and Jared Stamm offers distantly operatic, sarcastic menace. The highlight of the entire collection is the University of Wisconsin River Falls Concert Choir and Percussion Quartet’s sepulchrally disembodied, absolutely macabre performance of Pauline Oliveros’ Sound Pattern and Tropes for mixed chorus and percussion, a feeling echoed with slightly less intensity by the chamber choir Volti’s eerily shifting version of Aaron Jay Kernis’ Ecstatic Meditation. With a nod to David Gilmour, guitarist Joel Harrison virtuosically evokes a wrenching anguish in a duet with percussionist Paul Motian plus string quartet. There are also a couple of vivid nocturnes, a rich, chromatically charged one by Judith Sainte Croix played by Oren Fader on guitar plus Andrew Bolotowsky on flute, plus an absolutely beautiful one by Ray Leslee played by Ashley Horne on violin and Barbara Bilach on piano, a black-and-white early 30s sound movie.

The final cd reaches majestic, epic proportions. Raphael Mostel’s Night and Dawn effectively signals a bad summer day about to begin. Far more aggressive than Erik Satie, George Tsontakis’s own Gymnopedies range from bubbly, Bernard Herrmann-esque tension to Debussy-style austerity. Randall Woolf’s Romantically-tinged Franz Schubert is less homage than cleverly rhythmic, circular mood piece; Jay Anthony Gach’s concerto La Vita Autumnale offers darkly dramatic Rachmaninovian ripples and intensity, followed by Peter Golub’s aptly titled, tense Less Than a Week before Xmas featuring choir and orchestra. The collection winds up with the astringent circularity of The Gathering, from Neil Rolnick’s Extended Family suite; the uneasy atmospherics of Lisa Bielawa’s Trojan Women, and Joan Tower’s towering, magnificent Tambor, ablaze with thundering, ominously portentous percussion. There are literally dozens of other artists here who at this moment in time may be somewhat less known, but whose work is no less important or captivating. Thankfully, this collection represents them. It wouldn’t be a difficult choice for best album of 2010: check back with us in about a month and see where it ends up on our list.

November 17, 2010 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, experimental music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

A Couple Bars’ Worth of Sunday’s Bang on a Can Marathon

This year’s Bang on a Can Marathon promised to be one of the best ever, in terms of sheer talent if not ambience. Lately this sprawling festival has lacked the freewheeling, anarchic spirit of earlier years, but the performers on the bill just get better and better. The deck is typically stacked with the biggest name acts playing later, this year’s being a criminally good list of performers: Ars Nova Copenhagen playing one composer after another, pipa innovator Wu Man, Missy Mazzoli’s haunting ensemble Victoire, the astonishing string quartet Brooklyn Rider, Tortoise and of course the Bang on a Can All-Stars. But the afternoon’s acts were just as good. To those who might rail against the boomy acoustics and sterile ambience of the World Financial Center Winter Garden, it’s at least a lot easier to negotiate than some of the other spaces BOAC has used.

Cognoscenti who were there at the opening bell raved about Andy Akiho’s psychedelic piece, Alloy, played by the Foundry Steel Pan Ensemble. BOAC co-founder Michael Gordon’s Trance, played by the jazz orchestra SIGNAL, went on for almost an hour. Some said for too long, but to these ears the tension of the band in lockstep with a series of looped vocal fragments and drum machine served well to illustrate a struggle for freedom. They went up, then down, running the same phrase much as the loop they kept in step with, finally crescendoing as the loop faded and disappeared, the band adding a sense of triumph while maintaining the tense, metronomic feel of the first 45 minutes or so. It was very redemptive: man vs. machine, man finally winning out.

Guitar quartet DITHER, augmented by seven ringers on a mix of Fenders and Gibsons did one of Eric km Clark’s deprivation pieces, each guitarist given earplugs and headphones so as to deliberately throw off their timing (doesn’t work: we’re used to bad monitor mixes, being unable to hear a thing onstage, feeling for the drums and playing what’s in our fingers!). Echoes swirling around underneath the big skylight, the effect was akin to a church organ piece, maybe something especially weird from the Jehan Alain songbook with a lot of echo. It ended cold with a single guitarist tossing off a playfully tongue-in-cheek, random metal phrase.

The Todd Reynolds Quartet followed with Meredith Monk’s lone string quartet, Stringsongs, in four bracingly captivating sections. The first, Cliff Light was a hypnotically polyrhythmic, astringent dance, introducing a stillness at the end that carried over to the second part, Tendrils, austere and plaintive but growing warmer and prettier, brief phrases flowing in and out of the arrangement, often repeating. Part three, Obsidian was more dawn than darkness; Phantom Strings, the final segment was practically a live loop, its circular motifs growing more insistent and percussive, the group seizing every dynamic inch the score would allow them.

The daylight hours’ highlight was, of course, Bill Frisell. The preeminent jazz guitarist of our time turned in a characteristically thoughtful, deliberately paced, absolutely brilliantly constructed series of three solo pieces, the first one of his typical western themes spiced with harmonics and drenched in reverb, a welcoming, friendly, comfortable way to ease into what would quickly become more difficult terrain. The clouds came in quickly with his second instrumental, eerie and minimalistically noir. Finally, Frisell hit his distortion pedal and upped the ante, bending and twisting the notes, adding glissandos and hitting his loop pedal in places where he’d found one that would resonate beneath the methodically Gilmouresque menace. One of those loops made a sturdy underpinning for a brief segue into a bright, optimistic, latin-tinged theme that quickly morphed into a common 4-chord soul motif and it was then that Frisell pulled out a little shimmery vibrato to wind it up on a warmly optimistic note.

One of the maddening things about Bang on a Can is that somebody like Frisell will give you chills, and then the next act will leave you scowling and wondering why anyone on earth thinks they belong onstage. This time the culprits were Your Bad Self playing a trio of Ted Hearne compositions, the first a straight-up noir rock ballad in 6/8, the singer setting off a crazy, screaming crescendo on the second verse that lingered after they’d brought it down again. Too bad the best he could do was scream, because he was off-key and positively lame on the next two numbers, a fractured, frantic musette with a jazzy trumpet fanfare and a moodier tune. This is what happens when classically trained people who don’t know rock but think they do anyway try to incorporate it in their music. Or maybe they do, but they don’t know soul from affectation, at least when it comes to vocals. At least the band was good. After that, the UK’s Smith Quartet launched into a Kevin Volans piece with which they’re supposedly associated – too bad, because it didn’t leave a mark. Then it was time to go uptown. But all that was a small price to pay for a free set by Frisell, not to mention the early afternoon’s program.

Only one complaint: where were the kids? Most of the crowd was older than the performers. New music is for young people! Maybe because we don’t have money, we don’t get invited these days? For those missing out on the evening’s festivities, Feast of Music was there to provide some insight.

June 2, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments