Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Transcendent Rarities and World Premieres to Open The 2019 Momenta Festival

A few months ago at a panel discussion at a major cultural institution, a nice mature lady in the crowd asked a famous podcaster – such that a podcaster in the 21st century serious-music demimonde can be famous, anyway – what new composers she should be listening to. Given a prime opportunity to bigup her favorites, the podcaster completely dropped the ball. She hedged. But if she’d thought about the question, she could have said, with complete objectivity, “Just go see the Momenta Quartet. They have impeccable taste, and pretty much everything they do is a world premiere.”

This year marks the fifth anniversary of the annual Momenta Festival, and the fifteenth for the quartet themselves. There was some turnover in the early years, but the current lineup of violinists Emilie-Anne Gendron and Alex Shiozaki, violist Stephanie Griffin and cellist Michael Haas has solidified into one of the world’s major forces in new music. Opening night of the 2019 Momenta Festival was characteristically enlightening and often genuinely transcendent.

Each of the quartet’s members takes a turn programming one of the festival’s four nights; Griffin, the only remaining member from the original trio that quickly grew into a fearsome foursome, took charge of the opening festivities. Each festival has a theme: this year’s is a retrospective, some of the ensemble’s greatest hits.

In a nod to their trio origins, Shiozaki, Griffin and Haas opened with Mario Davidovsky’s 1982 String Trio. Its central dynamic contrasted sharp, short figures with lingering ambience, the three musicians digging into its incessant, sometimes striking, sometimes subtle changes in timbre and attack.

The night’s piece de resistance was Julian Carrillo’s phantasmagorical, microtonal 1959 String Quartet No. 10, a piece the Momentas basically rescued from oblivion. Alternate tunings, whispery harmonics and a strange symmetric logic pervaded the music’s slowly glissandoing rises and falls, sometimes with a wry, almost parodic sensibility. But at other times it was rivetingly haunting, lowlit with echo effects, elegaic washes underpinned by belltone cello and a raptly hushed final movement with resonant, ambered, mournfully austere close harmonies.

In typical Momenta fashion, they played a world premiere, Alvin Singleton‘s Hallelujah Anyhow. Intriguing variations on slowly rising wave-motion phrases gave way to stricken, shivering pedal notes from individual voices in contrast with hazy sustain, then the waves returned, artfully transformed. Haas’ otherworldly, tremoloing cello shortly before the coy, sudden pizzicato ending was one of the concert’s high points.

After a fond slideshow including shots of seemingly all of the violinists who filtered through the group in their early years, conductor David Bloom and baritone Nathaniel Sullivan joined them for another world premiere commission, Matthew Greenbaum’s Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, a setting of Walt Whitman poetry. The program notes mentioned that the text has special resonance for the composer, considering that he grew up close to where the old ferry left Manhattan, and now resides across the river near the Brooklyn landing. Brain drain out of Manhattan much?

It took awhile to gel. At first, the music didn’t seem to have much connection to the text, and the quartet and the vocals seemed to be in alternate rhythmic universes – until about the time Sullivan got to the part cautioning that it is not “You alone who know what it is to be evil.” At that point, the acerbic, steady exchange of voices latched onto a tritone or two and some grimly familiar, macabre riffage, which fell away for longer, rainy-day sustained lines.

The Momenta Festival continues tonight, Oct 16 at 7 PM at the Americas Society, 680 Park Ave at 70th St. with works by Harry Partch, Mario Lavista, Roberto Sierra, Gyorgy Ligeti and Erwin Schulhoff programmed by Gendron. How much does this fantastic group charge for tickets? Fifty bucks? A hundred? Nope. Admission is free but a rsvp is very highly advisable.

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October 16, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Two Michael Hersch Works Top the List of the Most Disturbing Music of 2018

One of the most sepulchral and chilling albums of recent years is the Blair String Quartet’s 2014 recording of Michael Hersch’s Images From a Closed Ward. That one was inspired by Michael Mazur sketches made inside a Rhode Island mental asylum in the early 1960s. The latest recording of Hersch’s characteristically harrowing work is even more so, evoking the fitful last gasps and lingering pain of the final stages of terminal illness. Hersch’s Violin Concerto, performed by soloist Patricia Kopatchinskaja with International Contemporary Ensemble is paired with his End Stages suite, played by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and streaming at New Focus Recordings.

The twisted march that introduces the concerto – arranged with an emphasis on strings rather than a full orchestra – kicks in with a savage downward slash from Kopatchinskaja. Within the first minute, the message is clear: the horror is going to be relentless. The brooding string quartets of Per Norgard are an antecedent. Kopatchinskaja’s role is less traditional soloist than member of the ensemble who gets the most shivery, terror-stricken lines and cruelly demanding cadenzas.

A sense of desperation pervades this piece, foreshadowing the suite to follow, Evil faces from every corner of the sonic picture peek out and then slash at each other, the horns rising over a cruel, emphatic low note from the piano. Astringent microtones linger side by side, a macabre march anchoring the shrieks overhead – not that anyone would want to be anchored in this skin-peeling acidity.

That’s the first movement. In the second, Similar shrieks burst from accordion-like textures throughout as much welcome calm as there is, the occasional piano accent piercing the veil. The third is a vast, spacious, defeated tableau punctuated by funereal piano, a horrified fragment from the strings eventually leading to a horrified quasi-march with a frantic couple of duels amid the string section, then a series of cruelly sarcastic faux-fanfares. The stillness in the fourth remains constant and sadistically icy: Hersch’s orchestration is every bit as inventive as his music is disturbing.

End Stages, which is also a microtonal work, begins with an austere mist punctuated by a sudden evocation of a scream or a brief moment of neoromantic clarity. The rest of the movements, many of them barely a minute or two long, shift from surreal, cinematic, conversational exchanges, to macabre dirges.

Bells and stark string horror permeate the third movement. There could be a death in a sudden pained cadenza here, and also in the grim codas of the fourth and fifth, puncturing their lingering, ghastly suspense. A sadistic parody of churchbells and grey-sky Shostakovian ambience sit side by side with long shrieking motives and every foreshadowing device ever invented, as these tortured voices stare down the end.  This is the best piece of new orchestral music since Julia Wolfe’s Cruel Sister album back in 2011.

October 5, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Twisted Tonalities from David Fiuczynski

An image of a person or an object which is grossly distorted is typically perceived as cartoonish. But take a portrait and distort the eyes, or the mouth, or the teeth just a little, and suddenly it becomes grotesque, even menacing. That’s exactly what guitarist David Fiuczynski does on his latest album, Planet Microjam, and that’s why it’s one of the most deliciously creepy releases of recent years. He uses familiar architecture – jazz, funk, classical and even a reggae groove or two – as a framework for slippery, quavery tonalities that refuse to resolve in any ordinary sense. The average listener might say that he sounds like he’s playing out of tune, which actually is just the opposite of what’s happening: there’s a very distinct (and fascinating, and often thrilling) harmonic language here, it’s just that he and his bandmates seem to be the only ones who speak it. The group includes Evan Marien on bass, Evgeny Lebedev on piano, David Radley on violin, Takeru Yamazaki on keyboards and a rotating cast of drummers including Kenwood Dennard, Jovol Bell, Jack DeJohnette and Club D’Elf’s Eric Kerr.

Obviously, microtonal music has been around for centuries. Every time a horn player or guitarist hits a blue note, that’s a microtone; rock bands like Public Image Ltd. and Sonic Youth built careers out of shimmery, otherworldly guitar sonics that resonate beyond the usual major and minor scales. One of Fiuczynski’s many tricks here is to do the opposite of what a blues or jazz guitarist typically does, bending a note to add an element of tension: playing a fretless or quartertone guitar, he hits a note that in the western scale would be considered flat, then bends that upward to land squarely where he’s going. There are plenty of other tricks here, some borrowed from Indian and Asian music, some uniquely his own, and he blends them artfully for an effect that ranges from chilling to comedic. Fiuczynski can be very funny: there are a couple of instances where he does a “look, ma, see how many notes there are in this scale” thing, other times doing microtonal Wes Montgomery, or a twisted fanfare, or an off-key quote or two. But most of the album is serious and disconcerting.

With the exception of a spaciously bucolic arrangement of a traditional Chinese melody, this is an upper-register album: there aren’t a lot of low notes, even from the bass and the piano. Fiuczynski will frequently wiggle around a note in the style of a Hawaiian slack key guitarist; other times, he swoops and dives like a sitarist, plays with a slide or matter-of-factly walks his way through the wobbly sonics. The album opens cleverly with Micro Emperor, an arrangement of Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto, reinvented as a rather joyous Indian-flavored dance. Lebedev’s piano offers artful chromatic allusions to his bandmates’ murkily keening tonalities on the second track, set to a slow, sludgy reggae-tinged groove. There are two tracks based on a quartertone string quartet by Julian Carrilo: the first pensive and blues-tinted, the second a sinister, Lynchian nocturne with a delicious contrapuntal guitar interlude. Sun Ra’s Sun Song gets redone as a cross between a slide blues and a sitar piece (although it isn’t exactly either one); they follow that with Fiuczynski’s Horos Fuzitivos, a cryptic, energetic, microtonal take on current-day gypsy jazz fusion. A little later they slide into a spacious approximation of a tango, DeJohnette’s quiet rumble enhancing the otherworldly mood.

A minimalist, querulous mini-raga, Green Lament segues into the album’s most intense, memorable track, the aptly titled Apprehension. That one begins with warped washes of sound over tricky polyrhythms, stretches out with an anxious, sustained violin solo, muddles around and then winds down like a broken toy at the end. The album ends on an equally anxious, unresolved note with a dark solo guitar piece featuring samples of Fiuczynski’s dog. In a 25-plus year career distinguished by a distinctive, idiosyncratic style and prodigious chops that are equally at home in funk, metal, jazz and Middle Eastern music, most notably with his Moroccan-inspired Kif ensemble, this is the best thing Fiuczynski has ever done. No doubt there’ll more of it.

May 30, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment