Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Dancing Late with the Cypress String Quartet’s Elena Ruehr Album

In the spirit of spreading the word about releases that slipped under our radar when they initially appeared, here’s one from last year. The Cypress String Quartet discovered composer Elena Ruehr’s work by listening to an unlabeled recording. Eight years later, they finally consummated their affinity for her compositions, and have captured that passion in an album. The Quartet’s next-to-most-recent cd How She Danced: String Quartets of Elena Ruehr could not be more aptly titled. Throughout her First, Third and Fourth String Quartets, rhythm is everywhere: sometimes jaunty, often incredibly tricky, occasionally outright aggressive. The three quartets here, (Nos. 1, 3 and 4), performed in reverse chronological order here, are extraordinarily melodic, with tinges of Afrobeat, and Irish dances alternating with modernist astringencies and enticing consonance.

Quartet No. 4 is Ruehr’s response to the Cypress Quartet’s request for her to compare Beethoven’s Ninth Quartet with Mozart’s “Dissonance” String Quartet (which isn’t all that dissonant – that one has a longish intro that takes longer than usual until the anticipated call-and-response kicks in). But it sounds nothing like either. It’s essentially variations on a circular, West African-flavored theme, beginning terse and pizzicato and ending with a flurry of stormclouds. In the meantime, there’s an absolutely riveting, pensive interlude featuring a long, windswept cello solo and alternating variations on the initial theme and its shadow. The same process repeats in Quartet No. 3: the two back-to-back make a marvelous suite. More rhythmically-oriented and somewhat more lighthearted – although not completely – it closely resembles some of maverick violist Ljova Zhurbin’s more playful work. Beginnings and endings are more aggressive here; the album title, based on a broken triad that first appears in what’s basically a minuet in disguise, derives from a Celtic-tinged theme. Its two themes intertwine and become friends on the way out.

Quartet #1, from 1991, won the ASCAP award that year. It’s the most cinematic of the three, introducing the African rhythms as shifting segments rather than a full-on drumbeat with pizzicato or staccato bowing. When it’s not establishing a dreamy, cantabile mood, there’s a hypnotic, tricky rondo anchored by the cello and hints of a levantine dance introducing the unexpectedly tense, unresolved finale. Spirited performances by violinists Cecily Ward and Tom Stone, violist Ethan Filner and cellist Jennifer Kloetzel shine throughout the album. The Cypress String Quartet’s next New York appearance is on April 28 at 8 PM, playing works by Benjamin Lees at Christ & St. Stephen’s Church, 120 W. 69th St.

January 21, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Uncategorizably Fun Triplebill at Littlefield

Sunday night concerts are a bitch. The trains are still messed up from the weekend and most everybody who’s not unemployed yet is dreading the work week ahead. But clubs still book shows, antipating a handful of the brave souls who aren’t daunted the prospect of Monday’s exhaustion along with a probably larger crowd who don’t have that problem because their parents’ or their parents’ parents’ money has assured that they never will. From the looks of it, this triplebill drew the braver contingent.

With trombone, trumpet, bass clarinet and vocals, quartet Loadbang loosened up the crowd with a series of jokey little Nick Didkovsky pieces with a skronky free jazz flavor, a couple of improvisations and then a genuinely disconcerting, strung-out version of David Lang’s arrangment of I’m Waiting for My Man, their singer’s anxious vocals channeling the dread of a dope jones far more vividly than Lou Reed ever did.

Loud third-stream rock unit Kayo Dot followed, intelligently aggressive. With violin, alto and tenor sax, keys, bass or guitar (or with the enhancement of a pedal or two and a few tuning modifications, sometimes both) and drums, they shifted tempos and dynamics incessantly. Bandleader Toby Driver’s compositions changed shape dramatically from pounding, inexorably crescendoing passages, to still violin atmospherics. Textures shifted just as much as the dynamics, intricately woven lines passed from one instrument to another. One tricky, fusionesque groove coalesced and morphed into a festive if astringent dance with an Ethiopian feel. Until a plaintively swaying, rather majestic art-rock guitar song with an obvious Radiohead influence emerged, they’d avoided any kind of rock-oriented sense of resolution or hint of where a central tonality might be lurking. So when that moment arrived, it was on the heels of over a half hour of tension and it was a welcome respite. Their last piece seemed at first to be a series of dramatic endings, which went on past the point of overkill to where it started to make sense as a Groundhog Day of sorts, an endless series of calamities ending in some kind of blunt trauma. The crowd wanted more, but after that, there wasn’t anywhere higher the band could have gone.

Newspeak were celebrating the release of their potent new album Sweet Light Crude, an equally diverse mix of politically-charged music by an A-list of rising composers. Early on, they followed the album sequence. On the cd, the opening cut, B&E (with Aggravated Assault), by Oscar Bettison takes on a blustery, Mingus-esque tone; here, it swung mightily, stampeding percussively to the end in a cloud of dust. Stefan Wiseman’s I Would Prefer Not To contrasted plaintively, a subtle tribute to civil disobedience, cello and violin mingling with singer Mellissa Hughes’ vocalese. The title track, a cautionary tale about the perils of addiction (in this case to oil), emphasized volume and texture rather than the tongue-in-cheek disco pulse of the recorded version, amped to the point of crunchy rockness. Likewise, they took Missy Mazzoli’s In Spite of All This to a swirl of intricately inseparable counterthemes that grew from wounded and damaged to a dizzying series of crazed crescendos. The angst went up another level on Caleb Burhans’ requiem for the padlocked GM plant in his depressed hometown of Janesville, Wisconsin, a sort of harder-rocking Twin Peaks theme driven by guitarist Taylor Levine’s twangy, ominous, reverb-toned southwestern gothic lines. Then they threw all caution aside, with a savagely punked-out cover of Taking Back Sunday’s If You See Something Say Something – a raised middle finger at gentrifier paranoia – and then a full-length, pretty much note-for-note cover of Black Sabbath’s War Pigs, Burhans’ violin delivering all Tony Iommi’s showiest fills with lightning precision as Hughes alternated between a sneer and a smirk. It was better than the original and probably more in touch with its molten-metal antiwar core.

November 19, 2010 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, experimental music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

In Memoriam – Billy Cohen

One of New York’s most talented emerging musicians, guitarist and composer Billy Cohen died this past June 29 after a long battle with cancer. He was 23. A founding member of the charismatic rock band the Brooklyn What, Cohen was an integral part of their original three-guitar sonic cauldron, and also served as one of the group’s main songwriters. Both his guitar work and his compositions on the band’s landmark first album, The Brooklyn What for Borough President, offer a cruelly tantalizing glimpse of an already formidable talent that would have only grown, had he lived.

As a guitarist in the band, Cohen played with an edgy, brash intensity that both meshed and contrasted with John-Severin Napolillo’s purposeful powerpop sensibility and Evan O’Donnell’s slashing lead lines. Cohen was extremely adept at abrasive noise, yet was gifted with an uncanny sense of melody that he’d often employ when least expected, as demonstrated by his purist lead work on The In-Crowd and We Are the Only Ones. The shapeshifting, focus-warping song Soviet Guns illustrates another, more abstract side of his compositional skill. Cohen was also responsible for the delectably unhinged scream on the song Sunbeam Sunscream.

A musician’s musician, Cohen listened adventurously and widely throughout his life, immersing himself in styles ranging from garage rock to contemporary classical music, cinematic soundscapes and tongue-in-cheek mashups. At Brooklyn’s Edward R. Murrow High School, Cohen played guitar in the jazz band as well as in the Brooklyn rock band Ellipsis; afterward, he attended the State University of New York at New Paltz, where he majored in Music Therapy and Music Composition. A song from his Ellipsis days as well as two atmospheric keyboard pieces, and a couple of clever, satirical mashup videos – including a direct and very funny one featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger – are all up on his myspace page.

Cohen’s uncompromising originality, creativity, absurdist humor, fondness for the Kinks (he picked out the band’s signature cover song, I’m Not Like Everybody Else) and devotion to his beloved New York Mets lifted the spirits of his bandmates and friends and left an indelible mark. The surviving members of the Brooklyn What are playing a memorial show for Cohen at Bowery Poetry Club on August 13.

July 21, 2010 Posted by | music, concert, New York City, obituary, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Concert Review: The Loki Ensemble at Music Mondays, NYC 4/26/10

It could have been billed as Schoenberg and His Descendents, a beautifully uneasy, otherworldly upper westside evening of art-songs and some austerely compelling instrumentals that more than did justice to the composer’s legacy. The Loki Ensemble’s mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer has developed not only a great affinity but also a strikingly resonant aptitude for Schoenberg’s paradigm-shifting Book of Hanging Gardens, Op. 18, an otherworldly suite based on a series of heartbroken, imagistic poems by Stefan George. The group played four of those songs: on number two and eleven , pianists Jacob Greenberg and then Wes Matthews wrenched every brooding, moody atonality from the score as Fischer brought a remarkably visceral unease, longing and intensity to the vocals. In the stylized world of classical legit voice, individuality is not an easy quality to channel, but Fischer put her own steely, forcefully indelible stamp on everything she touched. To liven things up further, the group added their own instrumental improvisations, notably tenor saxophonist Noah Kaplan (of marvelously creepy art-song practitioners Dollshot), whose precise yet breathy, baritone-like timbres matched the murk perfectly. Greenberg hinted at an McCoy Tyner bluesiness in his solo on song fourteen, number fifteen dramatically juxtaposing Fischer’s pyrotechnics against Matthews’ plaintive minimalism.

A very recent work for piano trio and vocals (based on an Octavio Paz text), Reinaldo Moya’s La Rima, with the JACK Quartet’s Christopher Otto on violin and Kevin McFarland on cello made a solid segue, strings swooping over a pensive piano rumble, building to a contrast between terse, incisive piano methodically punching against sostenuto atmospherics. A world premiere, William Cooper’s An Den Wassern Zu Babel was an intense and poignant interpretation of Psalm 137 (you may know it from Bach or the Melodians’ By the Rivers of Babylon). Cooper explained how affecting he found the end of the passage, which concludes with “Blessed are those who bash the bones of their children against the rocks,” and while the music, with considerable echoes of Bartok, never reached that level of violence, there was considerable anger and even more frustration. Over the course of seven movements, pianist Liza Stepanova worked the variations of a simple ascending progression lyrically and dynamically, through a sad, angry march, a hypnotically chilling, late Rachmaninovian-style passage and then the methodical, wounded sway of the final movement which ended sudden and cold.

The final piece, Nathan Shields’ Out of the Cradle, Endlessly Rocking set text by Hart Crane and Walt Whitman to severe, sometimes acidic, evocatively wavelike piano played by Ed Neeman, Fischer speaking the final stanzas with a dramatic flair. The counterpoint between vocals and piano was both striking and hypnotic, the unease of the strings adding to the menace (the theme ponders the role of the ocean as both nurturer and destroyer), but as assured and engaged as the performers were, ultimately this was Horse Latitudes: awkward instant, and the first horse of many was jettisoned. What a treat it would be to hear this without the poetry – or with vocalese instead!

The popular, reliably adventurous Music Mondays at Advent Lutheran Church at 93rd and Broadway continues on May 31 with the Brentano Quartet.

April 28, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The New York Philharmonic’s Contact! At Symphony Space, NYC 4/16/10

We’ve just wrapped up liveblogging this, explaining why everything here is in the present tense. The program has been a trio of world premieres, Alan Gilbert conducting ensembles of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra doing their frequent Contact! program of avant-garde pieces from acclaimed contemporary composers, WNYC’s John Schaefer (this guy gets around, huh?)  introducing each piece briefly in a discussion with its composer. Pre-concert sounds fluttering around the stage sounded menacingly enticing…

Sean Shepherd – These Particular Circumstances in seven uninterrupted episodes:

It’s a small ensemble – about fifteen performers. A fugue between fluttery strings and bells gives way to a couple of little horror movie crescendos (does this guy have a film music background? It would seem so). Suspenseful tradeoffs between individual voices, less for the sake of texture than to maintain suspense, it would seem. A series of animated, creepy crescendos – now this is fun! Straight out of Bernard Herrmann… Now a twisted little march – reminds of the one in Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony but less savage….lots of ensemble interplay, strings handing off to brass etc., ominous and full of tritones, it’s a Sam Fuller movie….the sections of the suite segue into each other seamlessly. Now it’s variations on a twisted little fanfare, down to moody strings with those bells delivering the dread – this crew is quietly and methodically having a blast with this! A bit of boogie-woogie piano opening a chase scene picked up by the strings…

Time to build the suspense some more, pensive, gentle little codas growing in intensity. Where’s Bogey when we need him? A matter-of-factly clanging, metallic bell-driven conclusion gets a standing ovation from what looks to be a sold out house (missed all of the John Schaefer/Sean Shepherd onstage interview while unplugging and making room for unexpected seatholders – supposedly the balcony was going to be the bloggers’ peanut gallery).

Magnus Lindberg (the Phil’s Composer-in-Residence) supposedly is responsible for this bill – he lets his taste be his guide (good taste!). He reminds that recent writing for smaller ensembles really took off in the 60s (he didn’t say this, but it’s harder to sell something new and strange to a full orchestra than it is to simply cobble together an ensemble half the size).   

Nico Muhly – Detailed Instructions, for orchestra:

Muhly is a ham, gets a lot of laughs out of the crowd talking beforehand – but he doesn’t give anything away. For this piece, violas substitute for violins in this particular ensemble. Interesting interlocking rhythm between strings and brass, into a circular, looping staccato passage for the winds over gentle string/brass swells…the winds work their way into the swells, every section stepping on the last beat of the previous note. Muhly said there wouldn’t be any detail in this and he wasn’t lying. It’s clever and well thought-out and holds the listener with its rhythmic devices rather than any particularly compelling melodic ideas….now they’ve got a nice atmospheric passage going on with flute accents (wait, this wasn’t supposed to be ornamented at all, ha!).

Second movement starts out pensive and sostenuto…Gilbert really has his hands full with the tricky rhythm but he’s got them legatissimo here…makes it look easy. It’s not. In the movie, if this was a movie, this would be the scene before the funeral, lulling but with the flute keeping everybody awake….sans flute it goes warmly lower, a tone poem, harp and low horn voices at the top/bottom of the spectrum.

Third movement is a gypsy dance, basically, keyboard bouncing around, flute carrying the melody…a suspenseful trombone/cello dialogue….Muhly likes to run a riff over and over again against a tonal wash….flute and harp now running the loop – and a cold ending. The crowd likes it but isn’t blown away – but then the piece wasn’t written to blow anybody away.

The machine says 58 minutes worth of juice left, so we should be able to stay live for the whole thing…

Matthias Pintscher – Songs from Solomon’s Garden featuring baritone and NY Phil Artist-in-Residence Thomas Hampson:

Larger ensemble than for the previous two (more strings). This seems as if it might be intended as a Song of Solomon type thing, Hampson singing in Hebrew, not one of his usual languages (it’s tempting to say “ca m’est hebreu”)…voice out in front of sparse percussive accents and little fluttery runs up the scale from the high strings….stark astringent washes with the occasional burbling accent and the first of probably several big crescendos…the vocal part seems forced, it doesn’t move around much or ask the singer to add much of anything in the way of character or individuality. The instrumental passages, by contrast are getting creepier and creepier, little jumps against the ambience…oooh a morbid swell, the temperature just dipped thirty degrees in here…and the occasional little macabre piano accent. With the addition of the vocal part, is this supposed to be some sort of study in contrasts?

A lull, a burst of drums, Santa has fallen all the way down into the fireplace. Now he’s up and dusted himself and creeping around again…and now he’s singing….and not singing…pianissimo upper-register atmospherics swirling and whooshing…no disrespect to Hampson, he’s doing what he does well but the vocals in this one were superfluous – first adventurous ensemble to do this as the eerie soundtrack piece that it is gets a prize!

 Q2 will broadcast the performance on April 22 at 7 PM and also on April 22 at 4 PM – the care they’ve taken to make sure they get a good recording (virtually all of the instruments have been close-miked) is pretty extraordinary.

April 16, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The New York Philharmonic’s Contact! Demystified

The New York Philharmonic’s debut performance of Contact!, their new series dedicated to cutting-edge music by contemporary composers got off to an auspicious start at Symphony Space last December. They’re doing another program at Symphony Space featuring pieces by Nico Muhly, Matthias Pintscher and Sean Shepherd this Friday, April 16 at 8, which we’ll be liveblogging (wave to us up in the balcony but please don’t disturb your neighbor). The program repeats at the Metropolitan Museum of Art at 7 PM on the 17th. John Mangum, the orchestra’s Artistic Administrator, didn’t let a computer crash stop him from helping us shed some light on what promises to be an equally auspicious performance:

Q: The first question is the most crucial one: are tickets still available for the April 16 show at Symphony Space and the one on the 17th at the Metropolitan Museum of Art?

A: Yes.

Q: The New York Philharmonic are not strangers to championing contemporary composers. Other than the fact that Contact! so far has featured pieces for smaller ensembles, what differentiates this series from other programs featuring the avant-garde?

A: The Contact! series for the current season, 2009/10, features exclusively commissioned works – each program is comprised entirely of world premieres. In future seasons, we’re looking at expanding the series’ mandate to make room for some of the classics from the last two decades. For example, in November 2010, we’ll have a program pairing a world premiere by Magnus Lindberg with the “Quatre chants pour franchir le seiul” (“Four Songs for Crossing the Threshhold”), the last work of Magnus’ teacher, the pivotal French composer Gerard Grisey, which he completed in 1994.

Q: Is there a common link between the composers that led to their selection for this program? Or a common thread, musical or thematic, that links the compositions?

A: They’re all crucial voices from among the younger generations of composers living and working in the New York area – both Matthias Pintscher and Nico Muhly are here in the City, and Sean Shepherd, who recently graduated from Juilliard, is working at Cornell with Steven Stucky and Roberto Sierra. The striking thing is how different each composer’s approach is, and that really comes to the fore when their works are placed on the same program. It makes a strong statement about the variety and vitality of music today.

Q: What criteria and whose decisions determine who gets a commission from the NY Phil as Muhly, Shepherd and Pintscher have here? Is there a line around the block, or is is the secret star chamber that decides immune to persuasion?

A: We try to be really aware of who is out there. Members of the Orchestra, Magnus Lindberg (our Composer-in-Residence), Alan Gilbert (our Music Director), and I all play a part. We meet, talk, look at scores – both those we’ve requested and those that have just come in unsolicited – and make the decision based on what turns us on. It’s exciting to be part of creating new art, and we want to share that excitement with our audiences.

Q: The debut of Contact! had minimalism, an intricate rondo, horizontal music, orchestrated Mongolian throat-singing chants and a jungly thicket of Brazilian percussion. What do audiences have to look forward to in this program?

A: Matthias’ piece is a wonderfully refined, tremendously thoughtful setting of sacred Hebrew texts for our Artist-in-Residence Thomas Hampson. There are strikingly beautiful sonorities, and really sophisticated use of the instrumental ensemble. Sean’s work is very energetic, full of all sorts of references to itself and other pieces. It’s a piece in seven sections, with a real arc, a real shape to it, and the use of the ensemble is, like Matthias’ work, again very sophisticated, though the result is different. Nico’s piece also has that same sense of energy and structure – there seems to be something about New York that brings this energy, this life out in composers.

Q: The ensemble was divided into unusual permutations last time around – for example, one of the pieces featured four string quartets with a bass at each end of the stage. Can the audience expect any such thing like on this bill?

A: The ensembles for these three pieces are similar, so there won’t be that kind of contrast like we had last time, with Lei Liang’s piece for four string quartets and two double basses. The contrast in this program comes from the different styles of the three composers, and it is striking.

Q: This is the first time Contact! has featured vocal music – will there be vocal music at upcoming performances?

A:Yes. On the November program next season, the Grisey work is for high soprano and ensemble.

Q: Why do this at Symphony Space and the Met? Why not just stay home at Avery Fisher Hall?

A: We really wanted to take this project out into the city, and after considering several different venues, these two proved ideal for a variety of practical and artistic reasons. At Symphony Space, the programming is a good fit with the work Laura Kaminsky, their artistic director, is doing there. It’s also right in the heart of the Upper West Side, close to Columbia as well. At the Met Museum, I like the statement it makes – we’re putting contemporary music on stage there, streaming new art into the flow and tradition of millennia of artistic achievement. That you literally go from ancient Egypt to New York, 2010 – I think that’s pretty cool.

April 14, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, interview, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Redhooker – Vespers

In terms of lush nocturnal beauty, this album tops the charts for 2010, end of story. Beguiling instrumental ensemble Redhooker defy categorization, incorporating elements of chamber music, ambient soundscapes, psychedelic rock and avant genres like minimalism and horizontal music, but whichever label you slap them with the result is the same, hypnotic and dreamlike. Where Brian Eno did ambient music for airports, this is ambient music for empty rooms in abandoned buildings, intimate yet impenetrably mysterious. There’s an almost magical symmetry to the compositions here, yet constantly an element of surprise. Essentially, this is a theme and variations interrupted by two long jams – which perhaps not ironically are the most captivating parts of the album. Guitarist/composer Stephen Griesgraber alternates between atmospheric washes of sound, simple but effective lead lines and gently insistent fingerpicking while the violins of Andie Springer and Maxim Moston trade harmonies and textures, with Peter Hess’ bass clarinet often carrying the lead counterintuitively in the lowest registers.

The opening track, Standing Still establishes a circular theme that weaves among the instruments like a lazy dragonfly in the bulrushes. The line goes straight back to Haydn if you follow it through the clouds. The aptly titled Bedside is a swaying minimalist lullaby with distant baroque echoes, a study in textural contrasts, guitar or bass clarinet playing stately melody versus the sweep of the violins. The first improvisation, Presence and Reflection begins ghostly, gently ominous with whispering waves of guitar noise, a draft-through-the-door atmosphere with distant echoes of (but not by) Pink Floyd. And then it’s a lullaby again, going out on a gentle, late afternoon tide.

Things get as lively as they’re going to here on the next cut, Friction, interwoven with subtly colliding textures and building to a tricky dance that wouldn’t be out of place in the Turtle Island String Quartet oeuvre. And then night falls again with the second jam, like Pink Floyd’s On the Run but quarterspeed – you could call it On the Crawl. In over fifteen minutes, starkly glimmering, Gilmouresque guitar rings out in the distance over dense waves of noise, the violins and then the bass clarinet eventually making a welcome, deftly terse return to paint in pieces of melody that slowly make shape out of shadow . The album ends with a rondo, each instrument working a judiciously studied piece of the original theme, ending with bass clarinet looming in from behind the strings like a sleepy caretaker who’s gotten to know the ghosts in this place by now. It takes a special kind of album to be this quiet and still keep the listener captivated, not to mention awake. This is that album.

February 24, 2010 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: The Real Vocal String Quartet

A cynic might call the Real Vocal String Quartet the happy Rasputina. But that doesn’t give the all-female new music ensemble enough credit – considering the global diversity of styles they play here, a better comparison would be genre-smashing jazz/Americana violinist/composer Jenny Scheinman. Founded by former Turtle Island String Quartet violinist Irene Sazer, the Real Vocal String Quartet blend classical, avant garde, bluegrass, Balkan and African influences; the ultimate result is completely unique. While Sazer writes most of the material, violinist Alisa Rose, violist Dina Maccabee and cellist Jessica Ivry also contribute. Everybody sings.

The album opens with a circular arrangement of Kenyan composer and nyatiti lute player Ayub Ogada’s Kothbiro, alternating rhythmic pizzicato with lush washes of ambience in a striking call-and-response. They follow that with a traditional Appalachian dance done as hypnotic Tinariwen-style desert blues, string quartet style. The single best number on the album is the darkly crescendoing, cinematic instrumental Night Game, which nonetheless finds a way to end on a cleverly playful, upbeat note. A diptych here sounds like traditional Italian folk music,  but it’s actually a couple of covers from the catalog of early Brazilian jazz pioneer Pixinguinha. Green Bean Stand harmonizes high vocalese with the strings, morphing into a hypnotically swaying one-chord dance vamp evocative of the ensemble’s Turtle Island cousins. There’s also a hauntingly rustic country song, the violins playing a guitar chart; a hypnotic, ambient tone poem with strings and vocalese; a tricky art-rock song with rousing harmonies, and a wistful vocal tune that gives way to a stately baroque theme. There’s so much here that it ought to appeal to a lot of fanbases: neoclassical types, world music and chamber music fans, and just your average pop/rock person looking for something good for the ipod.

February 10, 2010 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 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