Guitarist Xander Naylor made an impact with his completely unhinged, ferocious work on Ben Syversen’s Cracked Vessel album last year. He’s also a tremendously interesting writer, in an individual style that spans jazz, rock, funk and plain old brutal noise. On the expansive ep by his trio PinkBrown, he’s joined by saxophonist Johan Andersson and drummer Max Jaffe for an intuitively conversational, fascinating mix of composition and improvisation. Which is which? Trying to figure that out is a lot of fun. There’s so much going on here, yet so little in places: shifting from full-bore assault to wispy minimalism, the band deliver the kind of performance that you can play along to as you listen. It’s all about interplay rather than simply trajectory: they’re playing as a unit, rather than everybody shooting from the three-point line.
The first track here, Octagon begins with washes of feedback over a stiff martial beat, joined by sireening sax, skronky pinging Daniel Ash reverb droplets and then some guitar torture as the drums loosen and slide into funk. The sax joins the melee and suddenly the melee is over, replaced by an austere, minimalist section kicked off by Naylor, sax and drums joining in gingerly. The sparse atmospherics expand, a spacious mysteriousness pervades until Naylor makes his way back with big, sunburnt, sustained chords and the most memorably tuneful passage here. They wind it down gracefully and quietly. That’s the first eleven minutes of the album.
Track two, According to Taste is all about conversations and loud/soft contrasts. They begin wry and chirpy until Naylor’s frets catch fire and then extinguish by themselves. A single, simple noir riff appears; austerely chiming minimalism grows almost imperceptibly to a brief skronk interlude, then back down again, skeletal and whispery. A stomping anthem in disguise grows out of it, drums being the secret weapon here. They go out with a quick machine-gun volley. The third cut, Undisembowled, is a blistering instrumental that wouldn’t be out of place in the King Crimson catalog circa 1976. Beginning as staggered, metal-toned riff-rock, Andersson jostles Naylor tentatively and then a brief battle ensues, spacy feedback reverb guitar against sostenuto sax. Then Naylor trades 21st century schizoid riffs with the drums, sax and guitar go off into separate corners and bludgeon something and then return in unison to go out with a triumphant funk/metal chorus. Count this as one of the more enjoyably captivating albums so far this year. PinkBrown play an in-store show at Downtown Music Gallery at 7 on May 15.
How to advertise an evening of new music? Invite the public to hear part of it and be part of the performance itself. Earlier this evening in the high-ceilinged cafe/anteroom leading to Alice Tully Hall, International Contemporary Ensemble premiered group leader Nathan Davis’ gently mesmering electroacoustic composition simply and aptly titled Bells: they were scheduled to play later as part of Lincoln Center’s ongoing avant-garde Tully Scope festival. Perched in the balcony high overhead, Davis judiciously alternated between a series of bells and gongs, sometimes using mallets, other times bowing them for a flute or clarinet-like tone, at times smacking a huge Javanese gong behind him to add contrasting low, practically subsonic sustained tonalities. Below him, the rest of the group – Joshua Rubin on clarinet, Claire Chase on flute, Eric Lamb on both piccolo and gong – interjected occasional terse, sustained notes or simple motives while a dozen other players on “spatialized crotales and triangles” wandering casually, almost imperceptibly through the crowd. When they weren’t adding the occasional, spare accent, they moved among the audience holding up their phones. Taking a page out of the Phil Kline fakebook, Davis wrote the piece for audience participation: an engineer ran the mix through what seemed an endless series of echo and loop effects, then sent it out on four separate phone lines available to audience members to call and then play back on their phones as the group continued to play. Given the limited amplification of the phones in use, the addition of a potentially unlimited number of unique textures never really materialized since the musicians were amped so loudly, but in a larger space the effect would have been more significant.
With the addition of quadrophonic sound – speakers in every corner of the room, each with a different mix – the overall effect was as psychedelic as it was comforting. The piece unwound slowly, a spaciously pinging, ringing, and occasionally booming tone poem of sorts, with breaks where it seemed that it was playing back on itself, other times picking up the pace with all the musicians contributing. Although it spanned what seemed to be the entire audible sonic spectrum, the melody didn’t move around much from a central tone, octaves and overtones playing a large role in the overall picture. There was a brief moment of what seemed to be feedback, which was as bracing as expected; otherwise, a kaleidoscope of tonalities and textures moved through the frame, and out, and then sometimes back again. After roughly twenty-five minutes, nonstop, except for a brief pause about two-thirds of the way through, it wound itself out gracefully if a little unexpectedly. The only thing missing was the interior of a planetarium: imagine what could be done with this at the American Museum of Natural History!
Serbian-American violinist/composer Ana Milosavljevic’s new album Reflections is a fascinating, austerely gripping collection of recent works by women composers, most of them of Eastern European origin. The strongest piece here is her own Reflections, a brooding, Satie-esque prelude of sorts featuring the matter-of-fact piano of Terezija Cukrov. It’s meant to be bittersweet, which it unquestionably is: as the melody shifts ever so subtly, it’s an unaffectedly wrenching chronicle of struggle that leaves some possibility for redemption at the end, on the horizon: hope doesn’t get any closer than that. The Spell III, by Aleksandra Vrebalov illustrates a folk tale about a fairy losing her powers after falling in love with a human. It’s a still, mostly horizontal piece, a handful of swooping violin accents eventually taking centerstage against the ebb and flow of the atmospherics with just a hint of disquiet. A tone poem, White City by Katarina Miljkovic portrays Belgrade as it wakes and starts to bustle with activity, briefly echoing phrases moving through the frame against a hypnotic, somewhat astringently droning ambience.
Meant to evoke a threatening, possibly apocalyptic milieu, Undertow, by Margaret Fairlie-Kennedy has the feel of a horror film score, rumbling low-register piano alternating with eerily sailing violin up to an ominously sustained interlude, the violin emerging wounded and limping. Milosavljevic’s own Untitled is a Balkan-tinged dance performance piece, austerely graceful motifs amid stillness or silence. Eve Beglarian’s Wolf Chaser, a heavily processed electroacoustic number, oscillates interminably until finally a catchy violin loop emerges about nine minutes into it. The album concludes with Svjetlana Bukvich-Nichols’ Before and After the Tekke, a memorably gypsyish mini-suite that evokes the hypnotic swirl of trip-hop string band Copal as well as Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks score. It’s a valuable and compelling look at several composers who deserve to be better known than they are – one can only imagine how many others there are out there who deserve the kind of inspired performance that Milosavljevic offers here.
Last night at Lincoln Center, Serbian-American violinist Ana Milosavljevic treated what looked like a sold-out room to a performance that was as intense as it was subtle. Playing both solo and duet pieces, she showed off a meticulously expert command of the instrument’s intricacies, which made the drama of her occasional cadenzas or rapidfire solo flights all the more effective. She’d chosen a terrific program of recent works by composers from home or close to it, opening with Katarina Miljkovic’s 2008 piece White City, a portrait of a rather horizontal Belgrade. Playing along to a soundtrack of found sounds from the streets there along with loops of motifs she’d just played, she made it an early morning tableau. A playful, kaleidoscopic video played behind her: facades of buildings and public spaces were warped into a wraparound shape to appear as faces, one amusingly crossing its eyes again and again (was that city hall, maybe?). Milosavljevic’s astringent overtones mingled deftly with the atmospherics as the still, ambient tone poem unwound, a display of subtle dynamics and timbre shifts punctuated by terse phrases that moved hypnotically and dubwise through the sonic frame.
Like the first piece, it became hard to tell what was live or looped on the next one, Aleksandra Vrebalov’s The Spell II, and maybe that was the point. Based on an Eastern Serbian melody made famous by the female vocal group Moba, it was music to get lost in, playful swoops and acerbic staccato phrases in a sort of call-and-response with the playback of motifs that had appeared earlier, a seemingly endless series of minimalist permutations that managed to be both incisive and hypnotic. The showstopper was Milosavljevic’s own song without words, the title track to her new Innova cd Reflections, a duet with pianist Kathleen Supové. Milosavljevic explained beforehand that it’s an evocation of “sadness and hope all at once.” Together, the violinist and pianist gave its stunningly memorable, brooding Satie-esque changes an understatedly raw lyricism, depicting an incessant cycle of pain and disappointment while trying not to lose sight of something slightly brighter. It was absolutely devastating, finally rising to an approximation of a crescendo the third time through the verse but ending enigmatically. If there’s any justice in the world, someday it will be as well known as the Chopin preludes, whose intensity and emotional wallop it matches.
Milosavljevic returned to electroacoustic mode with the program’s final work, Svjetlana Bukvich-Nichols’ Before and After the Tekke, a slightly more vigorous piece that once again paired fluidly airy, steely motifs against a backing track including pulsing bass, breathing, running water and eventually a compellingly anthemic crescendo played by a small ensemble or approximation thereof. Watching Milosavljevic pair off against all of this was interesting; watching her alongside all of this live would have been vastly more so. Although it can be a disaster onstage, running water can also be great fun to work with!
A sonic suspense film, UK ambient music artist Cousin Silas’ twelfth album Canaveral Dreams (on the innovative and intriguing Acustronica label) is tremendously captivating and often absolutely creepy. It works best on good headphones, yet it’s equally good as a late-night passout album. The record label calls this stuff “dark Ballardian soundscapes,” a terrific way to describe these minimalist, nebulously cinematic pieces. Lynchian would be another way to characterize the way these soundscapes build and maintain suspense, vividly finding the menace in the mundane. Some of them center around piano melodies, like the viscerally haunting, apprehensive Concrete Towers, the wistful Through Glittering Trees or the reverberating, noirish A Passing, with the occasionally chilly gust in the background. Arriving Home works off a hypnotic two-chord theme with similarly chilly breezes, comfort beckoning just out of reach.
A couple of others utilize synthesizer tones, like the casually comfortable Crane at Train Station – a rare deviation from the general bleakness here – and the blithe Whitefield Pits, Moog melody set against a swirling backdrop. What Cousin Silas is most adept here is ambient, allusive tone poems loaded with suspense and dread, melody hinted at but never delivered. The mini-suite From a Lighthouse offers the whisper of a distant ragtime band over the waves, familiarity and companionship again well out of reach. The Decay of Concrete and Sawney Hill are marvelously subtle tone poems, every grim shade of grey you could possibly imagine. Sudden, insectoid spectral shifts add a dizzying touch to the viscerally disturbing Black Mold, similar to the junglescape that appears midway through the Art of Noise-style Last Night. A choir (or a clever electronic approximation) plays call-and-response with the shifting shades on To the Other Side; a muffled series of doppler effects, truck horns and sirens allude to an unseen tragedy on Time Lapse Crash, Scene 7, a trick that works even more disturbingly well on the title cut, seemingly a reference to the space shuttle disaster. The album ends with what could be an underwater scene complete with doors crashing above it: Pink Floyd’s Rick Wright would devour this.
Cousin Silas works fast: in the brief two months since this album’s come out, he’s released another, Adrift off the Islets of Langerhans available for free download at his bandcamp site.
Cathedral City, the debut album by all-female chamber-rock group Victoire is a sometimes lush, sometimes austere, otherworldly beautiful suite of nocturnes. Hypnotic, psychedelic, often casually seductive, keyboardist/composer Missy Mazzoli’s songs blend simple, memorable rock melodies with elements of minimalism, horizontal music and classical music from the baroque to the Romantic to the avant garde. Despite the complexity of some of the arrangements here, she doesn’t waste a note: the casual solidity of her melodies gives the jungle of textures swaying overhead a solid foundation. As heavily processed and produced as this music obviously is, it retains a totally organic feel: there’s none of the rote mechanical coldness that you find in, say, Radiohead. The electronic keyboards of Mazzoli and Lorna Krier blend with Olivia De Prato’s violin, Eileen Mack’s clarinet and Eleonore Oppenheim’s upright bass to the point where the playing, and the arrangements, are perfectly seamless: the individual parts often become one.
The album opens with the aptly titled, darkly alluring Door into the Dark, solo Wurlitzer giving way to violin, casually noir menace shifting to warmer, soul-inflected ambience. It segues into the second track, I Am Coming for My Things, which like many of the cuts here has a disconcerting ambiguity: is it supposed to be funny? Plaintive? Menacing? All of the above? Over slowly unwinding atmospherics, a voicemail sample gradually reveals that someone’s coming for her things and she doesn’t have any money: electric piano and strings rise and fall, first with a jazzy riff, then stately with distant echoes of ELO. The title track evokes Stereolab at their most minimal, with some marvelously emphatic, brooding bass work by Oppenheim and a distantly towering vocalese antiphon.
The suspenseful, cinematic Like a Diver masterfully builds a series of slow crescendos, swirly Wurly pitted eventually against the violin, a playful dance emerging amidst the drama before it subsides again. A Song for Mick Kelly is anthemically elegaic, guest guitarist Bryce Dessner (of the National) providing menacing, reverb-drenched guitar that eventually grows to a fullscale roar, natural overtones shrieking from his amp. The album closes with the catchy trip-hop of A Song for Arthur Russell, referencing the late cellist and disco-era cult figure, and then India Whiskey, shifting suddenly and dramatically from out-of-focus, late-night wooziness to a joyous dance and a majestic, triumphant swell with the whole band going full-tilt – as full-tilt as a slow song can go, anyway. When the deadpan male voice reciting a series of numbers (a Philip Glass quote, maybe?) reaches zero, it’s over. There is so much more on this album that it’s impossible to mention all of it: in its own ethereal, methodical way, it’s a blast to listen to with the lights out. Victoire play the cd release show for Cathedral City at Joe’s Pub on October 2 at 7 PM; Mazzoli is also at Galapagos on October 5 for the world premiere of her string quartet Death Valley Junction.
Every day, we count down the 1000 best albums of all time all the way to #1. Tuesday’s album is #882:
Henryk Gorecki – Symphony #3: London Sinfonietta/David Zinman, Dawn Upshaw, Soprano
Today we go to a whisper from a scream. Also known as the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, this tryptich is one of the most effective and brilliantly understated examples of minimalism. Its still, spacious lento movements explore grief and bereavement: as an antiwar statement, they make a quietly explosive impact. Its first movement strips down a medieval Polish canon to the bare essentials; its second movement, the most famous, illustrates an inscription scrawled on a Gestapo cell by a young Polish girl snared in the Holocaust (literal translation: “Mother, don’t worry; God help me”). The third develops a Polish folksong theme as a memorial for those killed in the Silesian uprising against the Nazis. While many people have claimed to have been brought to tears by this music, it’s not the least bit maudlin: its slowly shifting ambience is more pensive and weary than anything else. Dawn Upshaw sings its fragmentary lyrics with what sounds, to Anglophone ears at least, like a creditable Polish accent, chamber orchestra and piano maintaining a striking amount of suspense. It premiered in 1977 in Poland but only came to popularity about twenty years later after pieces of it from this album were used in the soundtrack to the film Basquiat. It would eventually go platinum, a rare and now almost unthinkable achievement for a classical recording.
File this under psychedelia. If you’re a fan of the dirtier, more ominous textures an electric guitar can create, an entire ocean of them, the Dither guitar quartet’s new album is for you. This is one of those albums that sounds like it was an awful lot of fun to make, in places moreso than it is to listen to. Incorporating elements of noise-rock, dreampop, guitar jazz, classical and the avant-garde, Dither’s dense, hypnotic, overtone-laden instrumentals are imaginative, clever, sometimes subtly funny, other times flat-out assaultive. The influence of Elliott Sharp (who wrote the album liner notes) is everywhere, as is that of Steve Reich. But this isn’t mere layers of drones: with five different composers (including Dither’s own Joshua Lopes) represented, there’s a wide diversity among the tracks here. From the first few seconds, it’s clear that trying to figure out which of the group’s members – Lopes, Taylor Levine, David Linaburg and James Moore – is playing what is a lost cause, but there’s a consistent dedication to thinking out of the box and just simply having fun.
The opening track, Lainie Fefferman’s Tongue of Torns, is a pretty standard Steve Reich-ish “let’s all play the same A chord for an hour and a half” except that this one has a surprise, a shock to the system about three quarters of the way through. And they do it again, and again. Pantagruel, written by Lopes, is the most overtly jazz-oriented work here, serpentine ascending progresssions intertwined through off-key, tone-warping patches that eventually crash, burn and then fade out a la A Day in the Life. Lisa R. Coons’ suite Cross-Sections is a showcase for the group’s exuberant command of every guitar texture ever invented, weaving hypnotically through skronk, atmospherics, muted plucking, a long siren passage, raptly still atmospherics and good old-fashioned noise. The showstopper here (they played this at Bang on a Can last year) is Eric KM Clark’s ExPAT, written for “as many guitarists as possible.” It’s a hearing-deprivation piece, each guitarist sonically isolated from the rest of the group, wearing headphones blasting white noise so as to throw their timing off. Yet the group is not so easily distracted! Ominous and intense, it’s a pulsing, echoing choir of hell’s bells, very evocative of Louis Andriessen at his most insistently abrasive. And yet, its shifts are extremely subtle, drifting apart but then coming together before another slight divergence.
Dither plays the cd release show on June 12 at the Invisible Dog Art Center, 51 Bergen St. in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn on a ridiculously inviting bill, a mini-Bang on a Can marathon of sorts with Redhooker, Kathleen Supové and Nick Didkovsky, Elliott Sharp, Matthew Welch, the Deprivation Orchestra of NY, Loud Objects, Mantra Percussion and Florent Ghys, which for a $6 cover turns out to be less than a dollar a band.
Haunting and hypnotic, Thomas Simon’s new album is a suite of eerie, mostly instrumental soundscapes evoking both Syd Barrett and David Gilmour-era Pink Floyd as well as Bauhaus and, when the ghostly melody begins to take a recognizable shape, Australian psychedelic legends the Church. Incorporating elements of minimalism, sci-fi and horror film scores as well as goth music and oldschool art-rock, it’s an ominous treat for the ears. Over a murky wash of drones, Thomas’ guitar rings, clangs and occasionally roars, moving in and through and then out of a swirling sonic whirlpool, frequently churning with both live and looped percussion. The reliably brilliant Dave Eggar adds layers of cello in the same vein: a flourish here and there and tantalizing snatches of melody that inevitably give way to dark atmospherics.
The title track is much like what Pink Floyd was going for on One of These Days – a staggered, swaying drumbeat, a series of low drones swooping and out of the mix and a forest of minimalist reverb guitar accents. Simon will pull off a hammer-on quickly, or add a silvery flash of vibrato a la David Gilmour – and then send the lick whirling over and over again into the abyss. The second movement, In the Middle of Nowhere, sets a distantly nightmarish scene – a tritone echoes in the background, fading up and back down as the guitar moves ominously and modally around the tonic – and then the cello leads the drums in, and the headless horsemen are off with a gallop. They bring it down to that macabre tritone hook, then bring it up, then back down again for over fifteen minutes.
The third movement works a simple descending hook over a trip-hop loop, sparse piano over washes of guitar noise. Up Against the Wall is a maze of backward masking and disembodied textures, sort of a synthesis of tracks one and three. They take it down and then out with stately yet raw guitar. The closest thing to a coherent song here, Altered Planet evokes the Church with its washes of cello and guitar: “Where we going, we need somewhere to hide” becomes “Where are you going, there’s nowhere to hide,” sirens appearing and then fading out before the guitar finally takes it up in a blaze of distortion. Somewhere there is an epic, dystopic film that needs this for its score. Maybe it hasn’t been made yet. Simon’s sonic palette is actually far more diverse than this album might indicate – his live shows can be very lively. Thomas Simon plays Small Beast upstairs at the Delancey on June 14 at around 9.
Pianist Kathleen Supové puts these bills together, an imprimatur that instantly signals both innovation and fun. Sunday afternoon’s show at the Flea Theatre incorporated elements of prose and drama along with all kinds of characteristically out-of-the-box musical ideas, sort of a mini-Bang on a Can marathon. The concert began arrestingly with Portable by Paula Matthusen, performed by eight people, each toting a specially designed radio receiver or transmitter encased in a vintage suitcase, filing around a la Phil Kline’s Unsilent Night in what would have been total darkness except for the players’ flashlights. At its most innocuous, it sounded like a chorus of hair dryers or an industrial-size vaccuum cleaner, but those moments came early and disappeared quickly. The rest was an increasingly disquieting blend of white noise with the occasional doppler-like effect, something akin to being blindsided by a heavy truck blasting down Canal Street at four in the morning, or just the hint of a radio broadcast, distant echoes of station promos or commercials. It made a pointedly effective commentary on how surrounded we are by a rather sinister, labyrinthine mosaic of data exchanges.
Rocco Di Pietro’s Rajas for John Cage, a new piece, featured Mike Brown on upright bass, Bill Cook on ragini (a harmonium of sorts), Robert Dick on flutes, Ryan Jewell getting a luminous resonance out of his cymbals by running a long dowel against their edges, Larry Marotta plucking a violin in the style of a Japanese biwa, and Di Pietro providing recitations interspersed with rhythmic bursts on sheng or harmonica. The stories frequently took on a parable vibe – sometimes they hit the mark, sometimes they didn’t but a lot of them had an irresistible, puckish humor. A drag queen freaking out in a San Francisco Chinatown restaurant, a crafty driver finding an innovative and somewhat cruel way to quiet a noisy busload of school kids, and a small handful wartime references that would have been as relevant in the Vietnam era as today were some of the highlights. Meanwhile, the ensemble improvised against a nebulous, quasi-Asian drone, only the violin or bass occasionally providing ornamentation, sometimes introducing a new rhythm for the rest of the group to ponder or subtly alter. Otherwise, it was a frequently hypnotic exercise in horizontality, careful listening and collaboration.
A performance piece by instrument inventor Ranjit Bhatnagar and Asami Tamura was titled Five Leaves…hmmm, now which plant could that possibly be? That leaf, or, more aptly, bud, was featured as the basis for one of “five variations on mechanical and organic improvisation, for toy, handmade and robotic instruments.” The other leafy stuff included fern, seaweed, catnip and gingko (“Ancient lullabies that stink in the fall”), but it was the most obvious one that seemed to drive this particular piece. Beginning at the piano, Tamura took a stab at a pretty, Scarlatti-esque melody against a similar laptop loop and the two quickly separated, never to return. But maybe that was the point. After that, she and Bhatnagar meowed at each other (that was the catnip talking), carried on an animated conversation via primitive, battery-powered toys that made a silly, theremin-like sound, treated the audience to a simulated drum solo played on a hunk of paper, a demonstration of how cool it is when you add reverb to the sound of pouring water, and an endless succession of similarly unexpected, random devices. It was impossible not to laugh, and the crowd loved it, especially the kids. The only thing missing was a toilet. The gingko piece was last, an overlay of music boxes straight out of the scariest part of an early talkie film – or a Siouxsie and the Banshees record.
Gold Ocean, by Tan Dun and Ken Ueno, seemingly a reworking of a Hawaiian fable, was intriguing musically: it would have been rewarding to find out how they created their tortuously oscillating atmospherics. But practically everything was on a laptop – which poses the obvious question, why bother to stage it at all? An interminable, stilted “libretto,” as joyless as it was pointless, only detracted from what could have been a successful mood change after the hilarity of the previous piece – but in this case Bhatnagar and Tamura proved an impossible act to follow. There was another act scheduled afterward, but the poor guy’s laptop wasn’t working and by then it was well past five and time to exit regretfully into the heat. The Music with a View series wraps up on June 6 at 3 PM at the Flea with music and dance by Michael Evans and Susan Hefner as well as works by Nick Didkovsky and Elan Vytal.