ThingNY‘s provocative, often hilarious performance piece This Takes Place Close By debuted last night, making maximum use of the spacious, sonically rich Knockdown Center in Maspeth, a former doorframe factory recast as adventurous performance venue. Through the eyes of various witnesses to Hurricane Sandy, the multimedia work explores apathy, anomie and alienation in the wake of disaster. It raises more questions than it answers – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Is this limousine liberal self-flagellation, a vain attempt to demonstrate eleventh-hour empathy? A simpering, self-congratulatory meme for gentrifiers hell-bent on their fifteen minutes on Instagram? A welcome dose of perspective on where the hurricane falls, historically speaking, in terms of disastrous consequences? A caustic and often poignant critique of narcissism raising its ugly head at the least opportune moment? You can find out for yourself when the piece repeats, tonight, September 25 through Sunday the 27th at 8 PM; general admission is $20.
Ostensibly an opera, this is more of an avant garde theatre piece with music. The six-piece ensemble lead the audience from one set to another, creating a surround-sound atmosphere, voices and instruments leaping unexpectedly from the shadows. The live electroacoustic score – a pulsing, rather horizontal, minimalistic theme and variations – is gripping and often reaches a white-knuckle intensity, and the distance between the performers has no effect on how tightly they play it. The narratives vary from more-or-less straight-up theatre vignettes, to phone calls, harrowing personal recollections and surrealist spoken-word interludes. Other than Gelsey Bell – whose pure, translucent chorister’s soprano is the icing on the sonic cake – the rest of the ensemble do not appear to be trained singers. Yet they gamely hold themselves together through some challenging, distantly gospel-inspired four-part harmonies. Violinist Jeffrey Young‘s shivery cadenzas and the occasional creepy glissando enhance the suspense, while Bell’s keyboards and Dave Ruder’s clarinet supply more resonantly ominous ambience. Percusssionist Paul Pinto wryly doubles as roadie and emcee of sorts with his trusty penlight. Bassist Andrew Livingston distinguishes himself by playing creepy tritones while sprawled flat on his back in the rubble; meanwhile, Bell projects with undiminished power despite the presence of Livingston’s bass on top of her diaphragm.
Intentionally or not, the star of this show is multi-saxophonist Erin Rogers, whose vaudevillian portrayal of a 911 operator slowly losing it under pressure – in between bursts of hardbop soprano sax – is as chilling as it is funny. Happily, she later gets to return to give the poor, bedraggled, unappreciated woman some dignity. And playing alto, she teams with Livingston for a feast of brooding foghorn atmospherics during a portrait of a philosophical old bodega owner for whom the storm is “been there, done that.”
The characters run the gamut from enigmatic or gnomic to extremely vivid. Young gets to relish chewing the scenery as he channels a wet-behind-the-ears, clueless gentrifier kid who’s just self-aware enough to know that he ought to cover his ass while expunging any possible guilt for gettting away with his comfortable life intact. Livingston’s shoreline survivor, horror-stricken over the possible loss of his girlfriend, really drives the storm’s toll home. Bell’s baroque-tinged ghost is more nebulous, as is Pinto’s mashup of tummler and historian at the end – in a set piece that seems tacked on, as if the group had to scramble to tie things together just to get the show up and running in time. Yet even that part is grounded in history – which, if this group is to be believed, does not portend well for how we will react when the waters rise again. And they will.
Last week’s triumphant reprise of the initial show at Littlefield staged by composer/violinist/impresario Christopher Tignor, a.k.a. @tignortronics was magical. Sometimes lush and dreamy, other times stark and apprehensive or majestically enveloping, often within the span of a few minutes, Tignor and the two other acts on the bill, cellist Julia Kent and guitarist Sarah Lipstate a.k.a. Noveller put their own distinctly individualistic marks on minimalism and atmospheric postrock. There was some stadium rock, too, the best kind – the kind without lyrics. And much as the three composer-performers were coming from the same place, none of them were the least constrained by any kind of genre.
Kent and Lipstate built their sweeping vistas out of loops, artfully orchestrating them with split-second choreography and elegant riffage, both sometimes employing a drum loop or something rhythmic stashed away in a pedal or on a laptop (Lipstate had two of those, and seemed to be mixing the whole thing on her phone). Tignor didn’t rely on loops, instead fleshing out his almost imperceptibly shapeshifting variations with an octave pedal that added both cello-like orchestration and washes of low-register ambience that anchored his terse, unselfconsciously plaintive motives.
Kent opened her all-too-brief set with apprehensive, steady washes that built to an aching march before fading out quickly. Between songs, the crowd was rapt: although there were pauses in between, the music came across as a suite. An anxious upward slash gave way to a hypnotic downward march and lush, misty ambience; a little later, she worked a moody, arpeggiated hook that would have made a good horror movie theme into more anthemic territory that approached Led Zep or Rasputina, no surprise since she was a founding member of that band (no, not Led Zep). Slithery harmonics slashed through a fog and then grew more stormy, then Kent took a sad fragment and built it into a staggered, wounded melody. She could have played for twice as long and no one would have said as much as a whisper.
Tignor flavored his judicious, sometimes cell-like themes with deft washes of white noise and his own slightly syncopated beat, which he played on kick drum for emphatic contrast with his occasionally morose, poignant violin phrases. A long triptych moved slowly upward into hypnotic, anthemic cinematics, then back and forth and finally brightened, with a surprisingly believable, unexpectedly sunny trajectory that of course Tignor had to end enigmatically. A slow, spacious canon of sorts echoed the baroque, more melodically than tempo-wise, its wary pastoral shades following a similarly slow, stately upward tangent. He played a dreamy nocturne with a tuning fork rather than a bow for extra shimmer and echoey lustre and wound up his set with another restless if judiciously paced partita.
Where Kent and Tignor kept the crowd on edge, Lipstate rocked the house. She began with a robust Scottish-tinged theme that she took unexpectedly from anthemic terrain into looming atmospherics. A rather macabre loop hinting at grand guignol became the centerpiece of the big, anthemic second number, long ambient tones shifting overhead.
She followed a broodingly circling, more minimalist piece with an increasingly ominous anthem that more than hinted at David Gilmour at his most lushly concise, then a postrock number that could have been Australian psych-rock legends the Church covering Mogwai, but with even more lustre and sheen. She lept to a peak and stayed there with a resounding, triumphant unease as the show wound out, through an ominous, cumulo-nimbus vortex and then a long, dramatically echoing drone-based vamp that brought the concert full circle. Tignor promises to stage another concert every bit as good as this one this coming spring; watch this space.
Thursday night at the Miller Theatre, chamber ensemble Either/Or delivered a rapt, riveting performance of recent works by hauntingly individualistic Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir as part of Miller director Melissa Smey’s eclectically fascinating Composer Portrait series. To characterize Thorvaldsdottir’s work as stillness punctuated by agitation is overly reductionistic, but that’s part of the picture. Her austere, earth-toned vistas often evoke the work of both Gerard Grisey and Henryk Gorecki, but with an even more stripped-down focus. The ensemble opened the concert with a site-specific work, the American premiere of the new 2013 piece Into – Second Self with kettledrums to the right and rear of the audience as well as onstage with twin trombones, a smaller drum kit perched on the left balcony, horns in back. It was tremendous fun, in the best way a surround-sound piece can be, but grounded in Thorvaldsdottir’s signature juxtaposition of quiet and disquiet. Close harmonies from the trombones hovered and lingered, the drums’ simple rhythmic motives leaping from one unexpected corner to the next, sometimes abruptly, sometimes with a droll touch, sometimes menacingly.
One, from 2008, a duo piece for piano and percussionist, worked an Art of Noise spy movie minimalism, pianist David Shively alternating feverishly between the keyboard and the inside of the piano, long resonant tones giving way to a walk or two, harplike versus sustained timbres steady and then reaching a calmer plateau. In this story, the spy slips away.
Ro (“serenity” in both Icelandic and Chinese) seemed sarcastic early on as the strings and low winds bustled apprehensively before it reached a similarly calm plateau and remained there, lush and enveloping. Tactillity, for percussionist and harp, featured Zeena Parkins snapping menacing, spaciously placed low notes that anchored ambient washes from bowed crotales, developing to a pointillistic series of what seemed to be loops, stately and steadily rippling from Parkins’ custom-made electric harp. The concert concluded with the full twenty-piece chamber orchestra playing Hrim (Icelandic for the transformation of ice crystals, or, in British English, hoarfrost), from Thorvaldsdottir’s debut US collection, Rhizoma, from last year. It was the most animated piece on the program, swirls of glissandos from the reeds and gusts from the brass interchanging with an insistent, occasionally menacingly percussive drive that alternated jarringly with the calm atmospherics.
Following the intermission, conductor Richard Carrick led an enlightening Q&A with the composer. Trained as a cellist, she embraced composition fulltime when she realized that she “could not live without writing music.” As cellists tend to, she finds comfort in the lower registers, a trait that resonates throughout her work. Her compositions do not specifically depict nature but are influenced by it and its patterns. The process of composing for her involves a lot of pre-composition, “dreaming on the music,” as she put it. While she notates her scores, she only does so when a piece is ready to go. She doesn’t compose on an instrument: the music is all in her head until it hits the staves. There’s also an aleatoric component to her work, no surprise considering how much extended technique is required to play it. The Composer Portrait series at the Miller continues next February 22 at 8 PM with Ensemble Signal spotlighting the works of Roger Reynolds.
The intriguing, crisply performed new album, Airy: John McDonald Music for Violin and Piano is just out from Bridge Records with the composer at the keys along with Joanna Kurkowicz on violin. It’s a series of mainly short, wary, acerbic, sometimes atmospheric, sometimes incisive works written between 1985 and 2008. A handful of them are etudes. Minimalism is the usual but not always defining idiom here. Moments of virtual silence are pierced by anxiously leaping motives; subtle humor occasionally breaks the surface.
The duo open with a graceful, austere waltz interrupted by a fleeting. macabre piano cadenza. The second piece has calm violin contrasting with menacingly Schoenbergian piano, meant to evoke the nocturnal alienation of a Samuel Beckett poem. A Brief Pastiche of a Theme by Schoenberg is aggresively lively and rhythmic, punctuated by moments of stillness lit only by pianissimo overtones from the violin.
Four Single-Minded Miniatures range from tensely dancing, to bell-like and funereal, to a pillowy/jagged dichotomy and a bit of a fugal interlude between the two instruments. After a blip of a Mad Dance, there’s Lily Events – a Suite of Seven Little Studies, a wryly furtive, cinematic suite: they go slowly out into the water, pick the plants vigorously, wash the mud off and then retreat to a dry place. What anyone actually does with the lilies is unknown.
Kurkowicz negotiates the tricky tempos, understatedly edgy riffs and hypnotic ambience of McDonald’s Sonata for Solo Violin with a steady focus and deftly subtle variations in tone and dynamics. A Suite of Six Curt Pieces parses a Satie-esque creepiness more methodically than jarringly. which segues well into Lines After Keats. The album’s title track reverts to the occasionally turbulent juxtapositions of the opening piece.
Bridge Records, who put this one out, also has two very enjoyable, relatively new releases featuring the clarinet. The first is one of the label’s many archival rediscoveries, a reissue of the Stuyvesant Quartet‘s 1947 recording of the Brahms Clarinet Quintet with the crystalline-toned Alfred Gallodoro as soloist, in addition to two lively 1951 recordings of Mozart D major string quartets, K. 499 and 575, respectively. Active on and off from 1938 until 1965, the Stuyvesant Quartet was notable for being one of the first all-American string quartets (the old-world name is both completely honest and a bit disingenuous at the same time). The remastering – from pristine original vinyl – doesn’t lose the wonderful natural reverb of the church on the Westchester/Bronx border where the Mozart was recorded. It makes you wonder how many people might have seen a copy of the original Philharmonia record at a yard or library sale and passed up what’s probably now worth hundreds of dollars. And a somewhat more modern new release, the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra‘s recording of Carl Maria von Weber’s Clarinet Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 plus his Concerto for Clarinet conducted by Martin West, with Alexander Fiterstein as soloist, merges a velvety lushness with an agile, aptly dancing quality.
Composer Bill Ryan’s Billband first made waves with their 2004 debut, Blurred, which added art-rock touches to vividly melodic, minimalistic indie chamber music. The ensemble’s new album, Towards Daybreak (due out on the 29th from Innova) is a suite, and it’s considerably darker. Which comes as no surprise, considering that it’s bookended by two elegies, the first for Ryan’s father and the second for his mother. Terse, elegant motifs shift shape and move between constantly changing combinations of woodwinds and strings, usually pensive, often somber and occasionally building to moments of sheer horror. The group assembled for this project is sensational: cellists Ashley Bathgate, Pablo Mahave-Veglia and Paul de Jong, pianist Vicky Chow, violinist Todd Reynolds, bass clarinetist Michael Lowenstern, saxophonist Jonathan Nichol, and Bang on a Can All-Stars percussionist David Cossin.
Interestingly, the opening elegy exhibits more of an Indian summer nocturnal ambience, its simple but resonant Philip Glass-tinged three-note riffs growing more lush as it progresses. The title track works more spacious permutations on the theme, insistent piano or vibraphone pedalpoint anchoring a long series of harmonic exchanges between strings and woodwinds, the countermelodies of early dawn busying themselves and then reconverging with an aptly added brightness. The upward trajectory continues with syncopation and even a bit of a funky edge on Rapid Assembly, which hints at a Balkan dance as it rises and falls: it has a vivid austerity in the same vein as recent work by New York ensemble Build.
Counterintuitively dancing phrases alternate with airy sustained sheets over a gently insistent pulse in A Simple Place, followed by Solitude in Transit, the most gripping and darkest work here, much of it essentially a two-chord jam fueled by Reynolds’ gleaming, hauntingly hypnotic phrasing. Frantic gives the vamp a driving agression that, while far from frantic, builds tension with apprehensive close harmonies. By contrast, Sparkle is everything its title implies, a twinkling lullaby. The suite closes with a reprise of the opening theme, which then darkens immediately with an imploring, Julia Wolfe-esque relentlessness, rising to a big crescendo that only hints at the kind of anguish that comes from losing a family member unexpectedly. That Ryan never lets the music become mawkish or sentimental is its strongest suit: subtlety and grace triumph despite all odds. Billband play le Poisson Rouge on Feb 10.
Last night at the first of the Miller Theatre’s relatively impromptu “pop-up concerts” on this season’s calendar, a program titled Minimalism’s Evolution, Ensemble Signal violinist Courtney Orlando and cellist Lauren Radnofsky played what was essentially karaoke. Much as it’s always more entertaining when all the music at a concert is live, considering how fantastic this particular bill was, the substitution of a laptop for a full ensemble was easy to overlook. Playing to any kind of backing track, whether a fullscale recording or just a simple click, can be maddeningly difficult to do with any degree of soul if the pulse of the music is as mechanically hypnotic as it was throughout much of this set. But both musicians were seamless to the point where it was occasionally difficult to figure out what was actually being played and what was already in the can.
The show opened on an auspiciously apprehensive note with Michael Gordon’s Light is Calling, from 2001, with its uneasy push-pull of creepy bell-like electronics and pensive cello melody. Radnofsky carried it with an airy sostenuto ornamented with judicious applications of vibrato, holding steady and terse as the reverbtoned keyb loop gained presence, the cello finally breaking free in a gently triumphant crescendo.
The duo then joined forces for a series of vignettes from Philip Glass’ In the Summer House, the disarmingly simple, haunting suite that launched a thousand suspense movie soundtracks. What is in this summer house, anyway? A guy with an axe lurking just around the corner, it would seem: through trancey loops of minor arpeggios, neoromantic angst hitched to Bach rhythm and circularity, it was a stalker movie for the ears, the two string players alternating an austere contrast with snakily intertwining harmonies and subtle polyrhythms.
Much of the crowd had come out to hear the US premiere of Donnacha Dennehy’s Overstrung, an enveloping, echoey 2010 work for violin and electronics that looped Orlando’s phrases and spun them back into the mix for extra hypnotic effect. She then played a series from Louis Andriessen’s Xenia, a 2005 work for solo violin, whose bracing tonalities grew grittier as the piece went along, the sound engineer slowly adding distortion to the mix until it was almost as if Orlando was wailing on an electric guitar. Radnofsky closed the show on much the same note as she started with Gordon’s only slightly less distantly menacing 1992 tone poem Industry.
The concept of having the audience right up there onstage with the musicians is terrifically successful: the intimacy level was high without being uncomfortable. One question persists, though: was the Columbia community aware that there was free beer and wine at this concert? Is Columbia one of the schools that still has fraternities? Ordinarily, on a college campus, wherever there’s free alcohol, there are usually hundreds and hundreds of people! Next time around, four simple words will be more than enough: free beer, Miller Theatre.
Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s debut collection, Rhizoma, came out late last year on Innova. This minimalistic yet lush, desolate yet forcefully immediate, dark masterpiece hasn’t yet reached the audience it should. Interpolated between its three orchestral works is a murky five-part suite, Hidden, for solo percussed piano, played with judiciously brooding intensity by Justin DeHart. A series of low rumbles punctuated by the occasional sepulchral brush of the piano strings, with deftly placed single notes or simple phrases, the motifs are spaced apart with considerable distance, to the point of creating a Plutonian pace. The piece compares favorably with Eli Keszler’s recent, stygian work – and is best enjoyed as a cohesive whole, resequenced so its segments play consecutively.
The big orchestral works are showstoppers, to put it mildly. The first, Hrim (the Icelandic term for the growth of ice crystals) is performed by the seventeen-piece chamber orchestra Caput Ensemble conducted by Snorri Sifgus Birgisson. A tense, wary tone poem spiced with sudden, jarring cadenzas from the brass, strings, percussion or piano, it begins with a muffled rumble eventually balanced by a high, keening string drone, building to long, shifting tones, a brief, horror-stricken interlude with the piano grappling against fluttering agitation from the violins and then follows a long trajectory downward to eventual silence. Far more dramatic is the potently cinematic Streaming Arhythmia. Once again, mutedly minimal motifs from a long series of voices over a droning rumble build to a scurrying crescendo where everyone seems to have frantically thrown their windows wide to see what horrific event is about to take place. From there the orchestra builds a big black-sky theme (like a wide-open, expansive blue-sky theme but vastly more menacing), low strings in tandem with the timpani and brass at the bottom of their registers. Autumnal hues eventually ebb and fall over the drones; it ends on an unexpectedly playful note, the horror having gone up in smoke, or back into ocean.
The centerpiece, performed by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Daniel Bjarnason is sardonically titled Dreaming – but it’s a fullscale nightmare. Fading up with suspenseful Art of Noise-style footfalls over an amber glimmer, microtonal sheets of sound rise with a stately swirl and a distant menace. Waves of muted, rumbling percussion introduce an ominous cumulo-nimbus ambience and allusively tense minor-key phrases (from a compositional standpoint, this is a clinic in implied melody), fading elegantly to ghostly knocks, flutters and flurries.
To say that this album engages the listener is quite the understatement: obviously, these works were made first and foremost for live performance. On cd, the vast dynamic range Thorvaldsdottir employs requires constant attention to the volume level. This does not facilitate casual listening: it’s inaudible if you turn it down too low, and it can become extremely jarring if you turn it up. But maybe that’s the point of all this. Minimalism has seldom been so in-your-face. Who is the audience for this? Fans of dark sounds in general, dark cinematic composers like Bernard Herrmann, and also those who gravitate toward the horizontal work of Gerard Grisey or Henryk Gorecki but wish it had more rhythm and dynamics.
The New York composer/performer collective Counter)Induction has an intriguing collection of new and relatively new chamber works, Group Theory, just out. The quintet of Steven Beck on piano, Miranda Cuckson on violin, Benjamin Fingland on clarinet, Sumire Kudo on cello and Jessica Meyer on viola tackle an ambitious and challenging series of works and pull them off with flair and conscientious attention to emotional content. The most unabashedly atonal of the lot is a piece by Salvatorre Sciarrino which is more of a study in textures and waves of shifting dynamics than melody. The real knockout here is Kyle Bartlett’s Bas Relief, a grimly resolute diptych unexpectedly juxtaposing twisted boogie woogie piano bass, icy upper register piano glimmers, apprehensively fluttering strings and a chilling crescendo anchored by an ominous bass clarinet drone. It’s avant noir in the best possible sense of those two words; as with many of the works here, the quintet’s somewhat unorthodox instrumentation enhances its plaintive edge.
Right up there with it is Douglas Boyce’s triptych Deixo Sonata. Spacious fugal tradeoffs between voices lead to a creepy dance of sorts that quickly descends to a furtive sway, rises to a crescendo with hints of ragtime and old-world Romanticism and then a neat false ending. Ryan Streber’s Partita, for solo cello utilizes a similar architecture, sostenuto forebearance versus insistent staccato, steady arpeggiated cadences punctuated by the occasional dramatic flourish or chordally-charged crescendo. Lee Hyla’s rather minimalist Ciao Manhattan is considerably less sad than the title might imply: pensive hints of the baroque and graceful, sustained layers of strings shift to a simple but affecting piano/violin duet that ends on a surprise note.
Eric Moe’s Dead Cat Bounce (Wall Street slang for a stock on the way down that’s recovered for just a second) follows a jauntily bittersweet trajectory, from a rondo to a sort-of-tango to a fullscale dance, the entire ensemble in and out of the melee, winding out on a puckishly ironic note. The longest work here, Erich Stem’s four-part suite Fleeting Thoughts juxtaposes a terse, balletesque pulse with icily moody piano-and-string interludes that eventually leads to a richly satisfying noir bustle on the way out. Frequently dark, challenging, compelling music utilizing an imaginative mix of devices and genres from across the decades to the present: watch this space for upcoming NYC concerts.
Critical Models: Chamber Works of Mohammed Fairouz, the composer’s debut collection, came out on Sono Luminus last year. WQXR did a little piece on it: they didn’t really get it. The album title is something of a misnomer: while there is considerable rigor in Fairouz’s work, he also happens to be one of the great wits in contemporary composition. But his wit is biting and edgy, sometimes caustic, qualities that elevate even the most obvious pieces here (and there are a couple) above the frivolity that defines so much of what’s considered “indie classical.” The rest of the album, a remarkably diverse collection of works for wind quartet and bass, violin-and-sax duo, solo piano, guitar and string quartet, imaginatively and utterly unpredictably blends postminimalism, neoromanticism, bracing atonalities and occasional satire. In places, it’s harrowing; elsewhere, it can be hilarious.
The opening composition, Litany, performed by bassist James Orleans and a wind quartet of Claire Cutting on oboe, Jonathan Engle on flute, Vasko Dukovski on clarinet and Thomas Fleming on bassoon could easily be titled “Pensively Apprehensively.” A sense of longing pervades as the ensemble strolls plaintively with chilly, fanfare-ish counterpoint and a rondo of sorts; it ends unresolved. The title’s Critical Models are violin/sax duos, two questions,each followed by a response. The first, Catchword: A Modernist’s ‘Dilemma,’ employs a bustling, anxious semi-conversation between Michael Couper’s alto sax and Rayoung Ahn’s violin to illustrate a Milton Babbitt quote about the struggle for serious music’s survival. If this is to be taken at face value, it will. Its rejoinder employs tersely quavery microtonal intricacies and a stillness-vs-animation tension, inspired by something Theodore Adorno once opined. A satirical faux-bellydance theme with actually quite lovely violin, Catchword: An Oriental Model illustrates a hideous anti-Arab screed by British Victorian playboy imperialist Evelyn, Lord Cromer; its vividly optimistic response, inspired by Edward Said, has Couper playing the voice of reason via mystical, airy microtones, and when Ahn gets the picture, she grabs it with both hands.
Pianist Katie Reimer plays six delicious miniatures with a potently precise understatement: she clearly also gets this material. The first is an uneasy, distantly Ravel-esque etude of sorts; the second, a creepy phantasmagorical march; a bustling, ragtimish variation on that theme; an exercise in creepy faux operatics; an obvious but irresistible exercise in descending progressions; and a minimalist, spacious nocturne.
The Lydian String Quartet play a diptych, Lamentation and Satire. The first part builds from mingling, dissociative funereal voices to a rather macabre crescendo, followed by austere, brooding solo viola and foreboding cello passages. The second seems to be a cruel parody of funereal music, with sarcastic rustles, a snide martial passage and a predictable if still quite moving solo cello passage to end it. Reimer and Couper than team up for Three Novelettes: the first, Cadenzas, cleverly interpolates satirical motifs within a moody architecture; the second, Serenade, has to be the saddest serenade ever written and is the most haunting work on the album; and a simply hilarious Dance Montage that has to be heard to be appreciated.
The album concludes with four works for solo classical guitar, played with deadpan clarity by Maarten Stragier. Baroque rhythms and tropes get twisted up in modern tonalities, tongue-in-cheek staccato stomps alternate with skeletal Italianate melody; the suite ends with a slowly spacious work that Fairouz calls a toccata, with seemingly snide, offhand references to both Bach and Elizabethan guitar music. Eclectic to the extreme and very successfully so, it’s an accurate portrait of where Fairouz is right now. Unsurprisingly, his latest project has him branching out into opera: last week, his first, Sumeida’s Song, based on a classic Tawfiq El Hakim play, debuted at Carnegie Hall. It’s something of an understatement to say that he’s a composer to keep your eye on.
In most cases, music that’s billed as relaxing is better described as soporific. Which isn’t always a bad thing: sometimes it’s hard to fall asleep! The true test of sleepy music is how well it holds up during waking hours. Winter Garden, a collaboration between poet/pianist Harold Budd, Cocteau Twins guitarist Robin Guthrie and producer Eraldo Bernocchi is a rare example of an album that successfully works both sides of the line between dreams and reality. Although there are a couple of tracks that Guthrie propels with a steady bassline, there isn’t much rhythm here: as with Budd’s previous work with Brian Eno, textures fade in and fade out of the mix, with gentle tectonic shifts, cloudy banks of atmospherics and a minimalist melodic sensibility that orchestrates gently echoing piano and guitar motifs with a watery iciness. It’s tempting to say that this is simply music to get lost in, to escape into after a hard day without trying to make sense of what the musicians are doing. And while it’s often hard to tell who’s playing what, or whether it might be the guitar or the piano that just hit a particular, endlessly echoing note, it’s also a lot of fun to listen to closely (although if you are fatigued, it might send you straight to dreamland).
Guthrie’s signature moody, sostenuto guitar is instantly identifiable, although it’s not obvious what else he does here. Nor is Bernocchi’s role clear – but maybe that’s the point of all this. Budd’s simple, elegant piano lines occasionally offer a nod to Erik Satie or even Bernard Albrecht. The opening track, Don’t Go Where I Can’t Find You is hypnotic to the extreme, simple piano processed to add the effect of a succession of cloudy waves. Losing My Breath features Guthrie’s trademark major sixth chords and simple, thoughtful motifs processed with chilly, cloudy ambience alongside minimal processed piano. As many of these tracks do, it segues into the title cut, which alludes to an anthemic theme.
With its steady bass pulse, Entangled offers pensive echoes of The Eternal by Joy Division, which come to the forefront on the next track, Harmony and the Play of Light, so much that you may find yourself expecting Ian Curtis’ doomed voice to appear over the starkly echoing, trebly-toned midrange electric piano licks. Heavy Heart Some More completes the trilogy, intermingling spacious, minimalist bass chords and piano with Guthrie’s atmospheric guitar for what sounds like a halfspeed (or quarterspeed or even slower) variation on the theme. They follow that with White Ceramic, a miniature juxtaposing echoey piano waves with drony textures underneath.
The rest of the album manages to be eclectic without breaking the spell. Stay with Me builds from low drones to a Lynchian (and unexpectedly funky) suspense theme, while the most epic track here, South of Heaven contrasts rapt, shimmery ambience with gently incisive piano and more of Guthrie’s trademark pensive swooshes. The final cut, Dream On is not an Aerosmith cover but a minimalist piano lullaby. Youarefallingasleepyouarefallingasleepyouarefallingasleep…just kidding. Turn on, tune in, you know the rest. It’s out now on Rare Noise Records.