Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Evocative Rainy-Day Music from Tin Hat

Tin Hat’s new album The Rain Is a Handsome Animal isn’t what you might expect: it goes in much more of a jazz direction than their earlier material, most famously their haunting contributions to the Everything Is Illuminated soundtrack. This one’s similar to the Hot Club of Detroit’s work with Cyrille Aimee but with a wider sonic palette – if that’s possible. Some of the tracks – a mix of instrumentals and vocal numbers sung by violinist Carla Kihlstedt – are airy and bouncy. Some of them have considerably more weight and gravitas. Minor key melodies dance and leap to a mix of beats, some of them tropical, with upper-register ambience from Kihlstedt, animatedly swirling interplay between accordionist Rob Reich and clarinetist Ben Goldberg providing a shimmery backdrop for guitarist Mark Orton’s spiky melody lines and gypsy-tinged pulse. It’s lively but bittersweet, measured but energetic.

A word about the lyrics: these are all settings of e.e. cummings poems (resisting the temptation to capitalize that name here is not easy). Those aren’t as whimsical as you might expect, but they’re still pretty obvious – although the genuineness and occasional unselfconscious urgency of Kihlstedt’s vocals gives them an unexpected dignity. One can only wonder what she could do with more substantial lyrical material. A couple of tracks wouldn’t be out of place in the more carefree section of the Rachelle Garniez songbook. The first, If Up’s the Word, works its way down from intertwining, reedy harmonies to a suspenseful interlude that underscores the lyrics’ urgent carpe-diem message. The second, Yes Is a Pleasant Country takes what’s essentially a blithely bluesy torch song and almost imperceptibly moves it into more pensive terrain on the wings of Kihlstedt’s increasingly biting lines.

The album’s opening track begins as a samba of sorts and builds from there, Kihlstedt’s vocals mining a coy breathiness. The instrumental title track blends gleefully brisk, swooping violin, gypsy guitar picking and a neat solo from Goldberg that rises from low and soulful to a joyous spin capped by Kihlstedt’s stratospherics. Sweet Spring, a love song, begins suspensefully and hushed before moving into uneasily dreamy territory fueled by contrasting piano-versus-violin textures.

Open His Head and the aptly citrusy Grapefruit both develop tango melodies out of acidic atmospherics, as does Unchanging, shifting from a fugue of sorts, to a rich mix of upper-register tonalities over the twin pulse of the bass clarinet and guitar bassline. A western gothic song that reminds of John Cale, Buffalo Bill shifts from a vivid brass to a drony atmospheric outro. The tour de force here is The Enormous Room, an epic that moves from quietly mysterious atonalities to pulsing wariness driven by the bass clarinet, a rather slashing Kihlstedt solo and then a warmer, anthemic guitar melody.

The most overtly jazzy track here is the brief So Shy Shy Shy; the most easygoing is the cheery, bucolic 2 Little Who’s. Human Rind has an uncharacteristically dark lyric matched by a bracing, intense interlude that circles out with a troubled insistence, while Anyone Lived in a Pretty How Town reaches for a big rock anthem feel, with mixed results.

There are three more tracks here – the folks over at New Amsterdam don’t shortchange you! Diminutive works a sad rainy day tableau with fluttery violin front and center; the album wraps up with Little I, a hypnotic yet incisive tone poem, and Now (More Near Ourselves Than We), a torchy ballad that quickly goes in a more uneasy direction. Seventeen songs, many shades of grey, many shades of understated brilliance. Whoever would have thought that an e.e. cummings album would turn out like this?

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August 28, 2012 Posted by | gypsy music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

More Happy Crab Than Sluggish Snail: William Brittelle’s Joyous Homage to the Chambered Nautilus

The chambered nautilus is a snail-like marine creature native to the Pacific, prized for centuries for its intricate, spiral shell. With their debut recording, a collection of new William Brittelle compositions out recently from New Amsterdam, ACME (American Contemporary Music Ensemble) pays homage to this strange creature. The whole album, Loving the Chambered Nautilus, is streaming at Brittelle’s Bandcamp page (something that more composers should be doing!). Brittelle considers the nautilus to be part organic and part inorganic, and therefore a metaphor for the electroacoustic nature of these works – although that could be said about just about any creature with a shell. Come to think of it, this could just as easily be called Loving the Hermit Crab. Like the crab as it lurches across the sand, the music here has the same kind of jaunty, carefree pulse, albeit a vastly more elegant and precise one. Do Brittelle’s arrangements reflect an obvious organic/inorganic dichotomy? Not so much. The machine-made timbres here tend to be wry, playful and tongue-in-cheek: they ping, oscillate and swoosh, mingling with the more nuanced, emotionally resonant tones of Caleb Burhans’ violin and banjo, Nadia Sirota’s viola, Clarice Jensen’s cello, Eric Lamb’s flute and Megan Levin’s harp. And the playing is lively and animated, about as far from mechanical as you can get, enhanced by the use of electronic effects on the harp and violin and possibly other instruments. Some of the arrangements are so intricate that the consideration of who’s playing what takes a backseat to the overall effect of the work.

Which is more or less a party. The instruments swoop and dive, frequently in unison, when they’re not interchanging voices, sometimes tense and staccato, sometimes more casually and fluidly, with the feel of a round. Sometimes, especially when the synth is going full tilt, this reaches toward a sardonic Rick Wakeman-esque bombast. More frequently, it recalls Jean-Luc Ponty’s early 80s work, Jensen putting a considerably more soulful spin on Ralphe Armstrong’s busy basslines. The first work is Brittelle’s Future Shock (For String Quartet), in three parts. An irrepressibly joyous, dancing, cinematic piece of music, it intertwines a kaleidoscope of synth textures with the ensemble. They move from rhythmic and balletesque to a flurrying intro to the second movement that sounds like it was nicked from ELO’s Last Train to London (a defining piece of electroacoustic music if there ever was one). Sweeping ambience trades off with staccato flurries, big snowbanks of low lushness spiced with glimmering harp, stark cello, frenetic high string cadenzas and shimmering, sustained upper-register lines.

The ensemble follows that with the swirling midrange ambience of Acid Rain on the Mirrordome, a miniature tone poem, and then Future Shock (For Cello), a spirited, jauntily pulsing song without words that swoops up to a crescendo as the chorus kicks in, Jensen’s biting intensity paired off against woozy Dr. Dre-style portamento synth and similarly sardonic voicings. The darkest and most emotionally vivid piece here is Loons Lay in Crystal Mesh, both direct-miked and electronically processed individual voices exchanging pensive motifs over slowly shifting, sustained long-tone sheets. Unfortunately, the title track is just a mess: reaching for a more ornate take on a plinky Tears for Fears 80s-pop vibe, it doesn’t have the hooks to be a good pop song or the depth to be anything else. Poor nautilus: he deserves something as good as the irrepressibly entertaining material that comprises the rest of this album.

August 15, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Gregory Spears’ Requiem: Beautiful Simplicity

It’s been a good year for requiems. The latest, by Gregory Spears, works permutations on a theme of the utmost simplicity, a series of spacious, allusively creepy intervals against a central note, creating a more surprisingly varied emotional palette than is usually found in somber works of this type. Yet overall, it is a serious, brooding, often considerably intense suite. The composer conducts a choir here which includes Ruth Cunningham and Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek of Anonymous 4, Ryland Angel, John Olund and Lawrence Lipnik, accompanied by Jacqueline Kerrod on pedal harp, tenor Christopher Williams on troubadour harp, bass Kurt-Owen Richards on chimes, Daniel Thomas Davis on electric organ and Elizabeth Weinfield on viola. The themes are actually quite surreal and divided into two parts, Swans and Witches. Perhaps most unexpectedly, the music here was originally commissioned for a dance project: while the tempos are slow, with frequent counterrythms, there’s an understated grace to this music.

The opening prelude sets the tone for the rest of the work. Recorded at New York’s Corpus Christi Church in August of last year, the sonics are marvelously suited to the music: the natural reverb on the two harps gives them the incisive presence of a piano, but muted just enough to enhance the murky ambience. The voices enter in counterpoint, with an unexpectedly agitated, clustering, seemingly argumentative crescendo, the last thing one would expect to hear in a “Requiem Aeternam:” it’s jarring, to say the least, and it packs a wallop. The music begins to take on the feel of a baroque-era European folk song, followed by the contrasting modernism of the hypnotic Agnus Dei passage, a stately harp processional eventually giving way to the womens’ ethereal, otherworldly voices against a high viola drone.

That’s the dead swan. As with the bird, the dead witches get a simple, jewel-like broken chord for the choir to expand on, which then moves in the other direction, lower, then speeds up and takes on a distantly imploring tone: other than the big dispute earlier, this is as harrowing as it gets here. Like many works of this type, it ends on a more hopeful, more warmly consonant note (the final movement is available as a free download). It’s out now on New Amsterdam Records.

November 12, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

yMusic’s New Album: Beautiful and Not Particularly Mechanical

YMusic’s new album Beautiful Mechanical transcends the “indie classical” label. It definitely rocks, but it’s not exactly rock music. The instrumentation is typical of a classical chamber ensemble, but they have a guitar, some of the music here follows a steady, often rigorously precise rock beat, and frequently features imaginatively unorthodox arrangements. Whatever you want to call it, it’s a lot of fun. The group is a formidable mix of relatively young, familiar faces on the new music and classical scene, a couple of whom make money playing with trendy indie bands: Nadia Sirota (of Q2 fame) on viola; ACME leader Clarice Jensen on cello; Hideaki Aomori on clarinet and bass clarinet; CJ Camerieri on trumpet and horn; Rob Moose on violin and guitars, and Alex Sopp on violin and piccolo. On face value, the album title is an oxymoron: is it sarcastic, or purposefully paradoxical? The answer is not as readily accessible as the tunes themselves.

They get off to a false start with a dazzling display of technique (including what is most likely a live loop that the group plays with micro-perfect precision for over a minute) that’s more impressive than this coldly whimsical math-music vignette, something that might fit into a larger piece as a portrayal of shallowness and wasted energy, but doesn’t stand on its own. Track two is where the group strikes gold and you’ll probably want to start uploading. Proven Badlands, by Annie Clark (better known to indie rock fans as St. Vincent) starts pensively, but the guitar quickly signals a swing shuffle that works its way up to a bright Philly soul riff and then a gently swaying chorus pulsing along on the bass clarinet’s nimbly circling bassline as the woodwinds chirp energetically. And then the instruments start to trade themes.

Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond contributes the two most imaginative compositions here. A Whistle, a Tune, a Macaroon is a cinematic mini-suite, opening like a vintage Gil Evans arrangement (think Sketches of Spain), slowly shifting to a mysterious minimalist ambience punctuated by distant staccato accents, building almost imperceptibly until a catchy 60s pop theme emerges, hints at menace and then rides off on a big rock riff! Her other one, A Paper, a Pen, a Note to a Friend – now that’s oldschool – is bright and lively, with deliberate, fluttery strings and catchy bass clarinet that contrasts with all the highs.

Sarah Kirkland Snider contributes Daughter of the Waves, which makes a great segue. Even more so than the previous piece, it’s simultaneously anthemic and hypnotic, and also ebbs and goes out gracefully, almost like a ghost. Clearing, Dawn, Dance by Judd Greenstein is a triptych centered around a bubbly riff: fans of 60s rock will be reminded of Viv Stanshall’s orchestral breaks on the Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed. Sopp’s animated piccolo over matter-of-factly paced strings leads to a more anthemic turn, followed by quiet atmospherics (that must be the dawn) and then a tug-of-war, bubbles vs. leaps and bounds. The album ends auspiciously with a brief, allusively chromatic trumpet tune by Gabriel Kahane simply titled Song, hinting at noir but never quite going all the way there. It could be a great new direction for a guy who first made a name for himself writing songs about internet dating. The album’s out now on New Amsterdam Records.

September 18, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Build’s New Album Defies Categorization

Genre-defying instrumental quintet Build’s new album, simply titled Place, is an entertaining, meticulously conceived series of thematically connected instrumentals. Throughout the album, there’s a sense that violinist/bandleader Matt McBane has taken pizzicato violin melodies and fleshed them out for piano, bass, drums and string section. Much of this is brisk and cheery, with tricky rhythms and playful, quirky tunes that veer from insistent minimalism to hints of jazz. The cd case photos – Central Park on a late autumn afternoon – make a good match with the music. Yet despite the spring-loaded bounce of most of the pieces, there’s an undercurrent of unease which, when it comes front and center, provides some genuinely chilling moments which are by far the most memorable here. Along with McBane on violin, the group includes Andrea Lee on cello, Ben Campbell on bass, Michael Cassedy on piano and Adam D. Gold (also of lush, anthemic art-rockers the Universal Thump) on drums and percussion.

The opening cut, Behavior Patterns, sets the tone, piano hammering out a hypnotic pedal figure with pizzicato strings over it. Essentially, it’s a circular African theme broken up into its individual components, bass nimbly weaving through the understatedly percussive attack. The striking rhythms continue through the second cut, Dissolve, a minimalistic string arrangement delivering a motoric beat that winds up with a long, hypnotic, repetitive outro. The closest thing to a pop song here is Ride, bass playing artfully off a simple piano figure, strings kicking in with its catchy, crescendoing chorus, eventually building to a sweeping crescendo that winds out gracefully at the end.

The big epic here is Swelter. Divided as a triptych on the album, it’s more elaborate than that, despite the minimalism of the melodies. Part one features arrhythmic piano against suspenseful staccato strings, a terse cello solo and then piano leading it up and out animatedly; part two is vividly brooding and cinematic, a slow piano dirge broken up intermittently by almost off-key violin and ominous cello passages. The concluding segment introduces the jazziest interlude here and then reintroduces the theme of the album’s opening track, but more bustling and animatedly. They follow that with the sirening horror-movie sonics of Cleave, the eerie oscillation of the strings rising until they push the other instruments completely out of the picture.

The following track, Anchor matches the playful to the pensive, an interchange of glockenspiel, cello, bass and violin voices morphing into a blippy, blithe call-and-response that quickly takes a downturn as the string textures shift and the piano lands everywhere but on the beat. The album closes with Maintain, an catchy overture driven by emphatic staccato strings that hint at a big crescendo but in fact do just the opposite. For that matter, very little turns out as anticipated here: that’s only one of the joys of this somewhat quietly, matter-of-factly fascinating, uncategorizable gem of an album.

May 3, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Janus Gets You Coming and Going

Like the mythical character, indie classical trio Janus looks in two directions, forward and backward. Backward, with a genuinely lovely, often baroque-tinged sense of melody; forward, with a compellingly hypnotic edge occasionally embellished by light electronic touches. This is an album of circular music, motifs that repeat again and again as they slowly and subtly shift shape, textures sometimes floating mysteriously through the mix, occasionally leaping in for a sudden change of atmosphere. Many of the melodies are loops, some obviously played live, others possibly running over and over again through an electronic effect. Either way, it’s not easy to follow flutist Amanda Baker, violist/banjoist Beth Meyers and harpist Nuiko Wadden as they negotiate the twists and turns of several relatively brief compositions by an all-New York cast of emerging composers. A series of minimalist miniatures by Jason Treuting of So Percussion – some pensive, some Asian-tinged – begin, end and punctuate the album, concluding on a tersely gamelanesque note.

Keymaster, by Caleb Burhans (of Janus’ stunningly intense labelmates Newspeak) is a wistful cinematic theme that shifts to stark midway through, then lets Baker add balmy contrast against the viola’s brooding staccato. Drawings for Mayoko by Angelica Negron adds disembodied vocalese, quietly crunching percussion and a drone that separates a warmly shapeshifting, circular lullaby methodically making its way around the instruments. Cameron Britt’s Gossamer Albatross weaves a clever call-and-response element into its absolutely hypnotic theme, a series of brief movements that begin fluttery and grow to include a jazz flavor courtesy of some sultry low flute work by Baker. There’s also the similarly trancelike Beward Of, by Anna Clyne, with its gently warped series of backward masked accents and scurrying flurry of a crescendo, and Ryan Brown’s Under the Rug, which builds matter-of-factly from sparse harp and banjo to a series of crystalline crescendos with the viola. Gently psychedelic, warmly atmospheric and captivating, it’s a great ipod album. It’s out now on New Amsterdam Records.

November 28, 2010 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Newspeak’s Fearless New Album Out 11/16; CD Release Show at Littlefield on the 14th

Much as there are innumerable great things happening in what’s become known as “indie classical,” there’s also an annoyingly precious substratum in the scene that rears its self-absorbed little head from time to time. Newspeak’s new album Sweet Light Crude is the antidote to that: you could call this punk classical. Fearlessly aware, insightfully political, resolutely defiant, it’s a somewhat subtler counterpart to the work of Joe Strummer, Bob Marley and Marcel Khalife even if it doesn’t sound like any of them. Sometimes raw and starkly intense, other times lushly atmospheric, this new music supergroup of sorts includes bandleader David T. Little on drums, Caleb Burhans on violin, Mellissa Hughes on vocals, James Johnston on keys, Taylor Levine (of hypnotic guitar quartet Dither) on electric guitar, Eileen Mack on clarinets, Brian Snow on cello and Yuri Yamashita on percussion.

The first track is Oscar Bettison’s B&E (with Aggravated Assault), a swinging, percussive Mingus-esque theme set to a blustery trip-hop rhythm with a noir organ break, and pummeling drums as it reaches an out-of-breath crescendo at the end. Stefan Wiseman’s I Would Prefer Not To – inspired by Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, master of tactful disobedience – builds from austerity to another trip-hop vamp, Mack’s plaintive melody and Hughes’ deadpan, operatically-tinged vocals overhead. From there they segue into Little’s title track – essentially, this one’s about Stockholm Syndrome, a love song to a repressive addiction. As before, this one starts out plaintively, builds to a swirl and then a disco beat over which Hughes soars passionately. It’s as funny and over-the-top as it is disconcerting, and the big, booming rock crescendo with its cello chords, distorted guitar, strings and winds fluttering overhead leaves no doubt what the price of this addiction is.

Missy Mazzoli’s In Spite of All This holds to the hypnotic, richly interwoven style of her work with her mesmerizingly atmospheric band Victoire. Violin swoops and dives gently introduce wounded guitar-and-piano latticework, which extrapolates with a characteristically crystalline, unselfconsciously epic sweep as one texture after another enters the picture, only to leave gracefully to make room for another. Brenschluss (the German term for the tip of a ballistic missile), by Pat Muchmore alternates apprehensive, spoken-word passages evoking early Patti Smith or recent Sarah Mucho with tense atmospherics, overtone-spewing metal guitar and a tricky art-rock string arrangement that builds to a conclusion that is…pretty much what you’d expect it to be. The album closes with Burhans’ Requiem for a General Motors in Janesville, WI, a long, cinematically evocative, extremely Lynchian composition that seems to be modeled on Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks theme. As it picks up with slide guitar, vocalese, and dramatic drum crashes, it could be Pink Floyd’s Any Colour You Like for the 21st Century – although that would be Requiem for a Ford Plant in…probably somewhere in Mexico. The album’s out on New Amsterdam Records on Nov 16; Newspeak play the cd release show for this one this Sunday, Nov 14 at Littlefield at around 9. If the album is any indication, it could be amazing.

November 12, 2010 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Some Auspicious Debuts at le Poisson Rouge

“1982 never sounded so good,” says the tagline at the top of yMusic’s site – a reference to Pierre Boulez and IRCAM, maybe? The adventurous chamber unit – Q2/WQXR star Nadia Sirota on viola, Rob Moose on violin and occasionally guitar, CJ Camerieri on trumpet, Hideaki Aomori on clarinet and bass clarinet, Alex Sopp on flute, plus Clarice Jensen on cello this time around – held up impressively through a physically taxing, two-set performance at le Poisson Rouge Monday night, including the cd release show for Sarah Kirkland Snider’s Penelope.

Beautiful Mechanical, by Ryan Lott a.k.a. Son Lux was first on the bill, a series of playfully constructed, lockstep variations moving from a blippy, percussive introduction, to a brisk tongue-in-cheek fanfare and ending on a cheerily bubbly note. It wasn’t particularly deep, but then it obviously wasn’t meant to be. A possibly as-yet-untitled piece by Gabriel Kahane hinted suspensefully at Romanticism but never went there. The New York premiere of Proven Badlands was an eye-opener, revealing its composer Annie Clark as far more diverse than her pensive indie-pop songwriter alter ego St. Vincent. The ensemble clearly reveled in its intricate, interwoven textures as it built from thoughtful bucolicism to intriguing permutations on what was essentially an orchestrated soul riff, Isaac Hayes updated for a new century, martial flute eventually handing off to some big horn cadenzas. Sirota told the audience that the final piece before the intermission, Judd Greenstein’s Clearing, Dawn, Dance (another New York premiere) was going to be substantial, and she wasn’t kidding. A breakneck sprint through a series of interlocking circular, staccato phrases that spun off each other like a tightly packed fleet of carnival bumper cars gone berserk, it was a maze of echo effects all the way through to a lush, sostenuto string interlude that must have been a welcome break for the musicians before the race began again.

Kirkland Snider, along with Greenstein and William Brittelle, is part of new music avatars New Amsterdam Records’ brain trust. Her new suite, Penelope, began as an Odyssey-inspired theatre piece, a view of the Trojan War from the perspective on the home front. More anxious than overtly angst-laden, a disheartened, abandoned Penelope longs for her missing husband, wonders out loud if he’s still alive and vacillates between hope and hopelessness. As an antiwar statement, it’s subtly explosive. The forthcoming album is performed by SIGNAL, conducted by Brad Lubman. Here, Shara Worden, of My Brightest Diamond, joined the ensemble to sing Ellen McLaughlin’s lyrics and was a terrific choice, her finely honed, clear, round intonation matching the nuance of the group behind her. Musically, the suite is all about tension. Very little resolves, and the melodic terrain is limited and claustrophobic, to the point where it becomes clear that Penelope has an odyssey of her own to endure, if a somewhat more interior one, the question being whether or not she can keep herself together until her husband gets back. With the occasional light electronic drone or loop filtering into the mix from time to time, the group made their way matter-of-factly from circular insistence, to understatedly bitter martial passages, to a brief 6/8 art-rock ballad and then swirling atmospherics. A repetitive foghorn motif signals Odysseus’ final return home, but when he shows up, shellshocked and damaged (a Guantanamo parable, maybe?), Penelope has nothing left to look forward to but to tend to the needs of a cripple, reading him passages of his own story that go “forward and backward like the tide.” Much of this was very intense, and tensely performed: it seemed that it would never let up, and it really didn’t. And as a portrayal of one of the often overlooked consequences of war, it was spot-on. After over an hour of this, the roar of the applause at the end seemed as cathartic as it was genuine.

October 21, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments