Bearthoven’s piano/bass/percussion lineup would be as orthodox as orthodox gets if they were a jazz trio, In the world of indie classical and chamber music, that’s a much less likely configuration. The eclectic, disarmingly tuneful debut album by pianist Karl Larson, Gutbucket bassist Pat Swoboda and Tigue percussionist Matt Evans, aptly titled Trios, features the work of seven cutting-edge composers and is due to be streaming this May 5 at the Cantaloupe Music Bandcamp page. They’re playing the album release show at 7:15 sharp on April 18 at the Poisson Rouge; advance tix are $15.
A lot of this music follows a rapid, steady staccato rhythm that is maddeningly difficult to play, but the trio make it sound easy. Brooks Frederickson’s catchy, anvilling, minimalist Understood opens the album, a steady but intricate and subtly polyrhythmic web of melody. A little later on, Ken Thomson’s Grizzly follows a similar tangent with bells, both struck and bowed, dancing through the mix as it brightens, then descends into the murk briefly only to emerge re-energized. By contrast, Anthony Vine’s From a Forest of Standing Mirrors moves glacially and raptly through an Arvo Part-like haze to slightly more kinetic, distantly Japanese-flavored belltones.
Fjóla Evans’ tone poem Shoaling explores individual voicings within a group arrangement, rising out of almost imperceptible, shifting fogbanks of sound to a series of grimly catchy low-register piano melodies within the smoky vortex. Larson’s subtly dynamic yet forceful attack pierces the surface above his bandmates’ bowed bass and other instruments. Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s atmospheric/arrestive dichotomies come to mind: it’s album’s the most intense and captivating track.
Simple Machines, by Brendon Randall-Myers is a a cleverly and dauntingly arranged series of polyrhythmic melodies, its motorik cadence interrupted by the closest thing to free jazz here on its way to a triumphant, cinematic sweep. The album’s final piece is Adrian Knight’s uneasily serene The Ringing World, which appropriates its title from the journal of the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers. Swoboda’s wispy harmonics flit like ghosts in a churchyard amidst Mompou-like belltones played in unison by Larson and Evans on piano and bells.
As accessible as it is cutting-edge, this album could go a long way toward changing plenty of misconceptions. As if we need more proof that this century’s serious concert music isn’t all necessarily awkward and spastic, this is it.
This year’s Bang on a Can Marathon continued a trend back toward the hallowed annual all-day avant garde/indie classical music celebration’s early years. Yesterday’s 2014 edition was shorter than any in recent memory – for awhile these things would start before noon and continue into the wee hours of the following day. This year’s roughly ten-hour extravaganza also drew more heavily on the Bang on a Can triumvirate – composers Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe, David Lang and their circle – than on the global cast who numbered heavily and often spectacularly among the composers and performers featured throughout the previous decade. The reason? Construction at the World Financial Center atrium, where the marathon returned after being squeezed into an auditorium at Pace University last year.
The seven-piece Great Noise Ensemble, conducted by Armando Bayolo, opened auspiciously with a new chamber arrangement of Bayolo’s own Caprichos. Inspired by Goya’s series of the same name, it was a dynamic and colorful series of miniatures: apprehensive airiness, a fleeting carnivalesque passage, darkly rhythmic, looped variations, and dreamy drones juxtaposed with a lively outro. The following work, Carlos Carrillo‘s De La Brevidad De La Vida drew on the Seneca treatise, a rivetingly austere, resigned, spaciously cinematic tone poem of sorts punctuated by muted anguish, notably from Andrea Vercoe’s violin.
Violinist Adrianna Mateo became a one-woman string orchestra with Molly Joyce‘s biting, matter-of-factly crescendoing loopmusic piece Lean Back and Release. The trio Bearthoven – pianist Karl Larson, bass guitarist Pat Swoboda and drummer Matt Evans – followed a bit later with a similarly upward-sloping stoner postrock piece, Undertoad, by Brooks Frederickson. It recalled the relentless dancefloor minimalism that Cabaret Contemporain performed at the 2013 marathon.
Acclaimed vocal quartet Anonymous Four – who are sadly hanging it up after this year – shifted direction plaintively with The Wood and the Vine, from Lang’s demanding, richly echo-laden, hypnotically intertwining partita, Love Fail. Atmospheric postrock minimalists Dawn of Midi made a thematically clever segue with excerpts from their cult favorite suite, Dysnomia, replete with subtle polyrhythmic shifts that rose rather than fell at the end. How pianist Amino Belyamani, bassist Aakaash Israni and drummer Qasim Naqvi managed to keep their place as the trance pounded onward was hard to figure. Or maybe they were just jamming.
Choral octet Roomful of Teeth sang the first two movements from Caroline Shaw‘s Pulitzer-winning Partita for 8 Voices, incorporating squaredance calls and “a little bit of pansori,” as Shaw put it. That, and an indomitable, fresh-faced ebullience that rose and fell through ambitious rhythmic and harmonic shifts, the composer’s powerful soprano front and center. Nineteen-piece chamber orchestra Contemporaneous gave voice to Andrew Norman’s Try, a frantically bustling work replete with sardonic humor: every hint of calm gets dashed by agitated cadenzas from throughout the ensemble in a split second. There was a contrasting, calm second half, mostly for vibraphone and piano, which got lost in the real bustle of the crowd making their way up the escalator to the new mallfood court to the left of the stage.
Meredith Monk is fun! She and fellow singer Theo Bleckmann revisited four segments of her witty, Canadian wilderness-inspired Facing North song cycle, which the duo had premiered on the stage here two decades ago. Indians gamely trying to keep warm, long winter shadows and droll conversations eventually gave way to playful, wordless jousting, Bleckmann keeping a straight face as Monk needled him mercilessly. It was the big audience hit up to this point. The two returned a little later for some more monkeyshines with members of the Bang on a Can All-Stars.
Contemporaneous also returned, this time with a handful of Jherek Bischoff pieces. A brief, lushly neoromantic overture of sorts and a subdued, unexpectedly somber pavane were the highlights.
Pianists Emily Manzo and David Friend performed the day’s first genuinely herculean numbers, a pair of long, hammering, menacingly Lynchian compositions from the 80s by the late Monk collaborator and composer Julius Eastman. Jace Clayton‘s echoey sound mix subsumed the music in places – as a musician would say, he didn’t have a feel for the room – but all the same he deserves props as an advocate for Eastman’s frequently harrowing, undeservedly obscure work, further underscored by a brief, pretty hilarious skit that imagined a busy Julius Eastman section at a theme park.
These marathons typically pick up at the end and this one was no exception. Well-loved art-rock house band the Bang on a Can All-Stars stomped through the Trans-Siberian Orchestra style bombast of JG Thirlwell‘s Anabiosis, then vividly echoed the otherworldly, watery ambience inside the old Croton Aqueduct via Paula Matthusen‘s Ontology of an Echo. Wolfe introduced the night’s big showstopper, Big Beautiful Dark & Scary as a contemplation on the possibility of personal happiness amidst disaster, its ineluctable, anguished, frenetic waves just as viscerally thrilling as they were chilling for the New Yorkers in the crowd who’d lived through 9/11 and the aftermath that the piece portrays.
After a long lull, the ensemble returned in a slightly augmented version for Louis Andriessen’s Hoketus. It’s a diptych of sorts: two maddening, claustrophobically minimalist melodies varied only by constantly changing rhythms, a study in authoritarianism and the human impulse to resist it. When clarinetist Ken Thomson led the ensemble with a leap into the animated second movement, it seemed that the people would win this fight. Or do they?
Gordon supplied the marathon’s coda, Timber, which turned out to be the shadow image of the Andriessen work, a wry, bone-shaking exploration of the kind of fun that can be had within a set of parameters. Where Andriessen set rules, Gordon offered guidelines. Played by sextet Mantra Percussion on a series of amplified sawhorses, it worked every trope in the avant garde stoner repertoire. Trancey motorik rhythms? Deep-space pulsar drones? Overtones at the very top and also the very bottom of the sonic spectrum? Innumerable false endings, good-natured exchanges between the players (who’d memorized the entire, practically hourlong score) and a light show triggered by just about every crescendo? Check, check, check and doublecheck. Gordon may be best known for his gravitas and otherworldly intensity, but his music can be great fun and this was exactly that. With its rolling drones echoing throughout the atrium like a distant storm on the Great Plains, it sent the crowd out into the night on a note that was both adrenalizing and soothing. It’s hard to imagine anything more fun to wind up a Sunday night in June in New York.
Student works by emerging composers get a bad rap because they’re so often like term papers, written to display a command of what’s been taught rather than any kind of individual vision. Last night at the Firehouse Space in Greenpoint, two young composers, Fjola Evans and Alex Weiser challenged that stereotype in an eclectic composer portrait concert of chamber works performed with verve by an inspired, talented cast of similarly up-and-coming talent.
The two have an enviable pedigree, mentored by two Bang on a Can luminaries: Evans with Julia Wolfe and Weiser with Michael Gordon. Evans proved to be influenced in a very good way by Wolfe’s relentless purposefulness and and often grim terseness, refusing to waste a single note. Gordon’s translucence, his gift for melody and also his wit were echoed throughout Weiser’s compositions.
The concert opened on an auspicious note with the trio Bearthoven – a band name so good that it hardly seems possible that it went unclaimed til now – slowly and meticulously swaying their way through the stygian whispers and then horror-stricken swells of Evans’ Shoaling, an illustration of long wave motion. Pianist Karl Larson, percussionist Matt Evans and bassist Pat Swoboda established a murky, minimalist ambience that grew and grew until those waves were about to dash the theme on a jagged, rocky shore. It couldn’t have ended more perfectly, as the wail of an ambulance echoed down Kingsland Avenue outside. Starkly ambitious and genuinely profound, it instantly put Evans on the map as someone to keep an eye on.
The composer herself played Augun, more or less a tone poem, solo on cello. It was basically a duet with herself, in tandem with a backing track featuring austere percussive accents and low-register washes, her subtle variations – derived from an Icelandic love ballad – pulling tensely against a central tone. A brief string quartet, Five, played by violinists Megan Atchley and Yu-Wei Hsiao, violist Alex Tasopolous and cellist Alexandra Jones, depicted the angst of the tedium of life in captivity, a marching canon eventually giving way to eye-rolling, seemingly exasperated glissandos and then a series of deft variations. In the end, there seemed to be optimism. Andplay, the duo of violinist Maya Bennardo and violist Hannah Levinson, delivered a graceful take of Dogged, a series of variations on a four-note theme common in Neil Young-style rock that rose from austere building blocks to a warmly sustained conclusion.
Weiser and Evans share a fondness for emphatic, rhythmic motives for a foundation, but that’s where the similarity seems to end. Weiser likes to use a lot of space, especially while laying the groundwork for a piece. He’s drawn to the neoromantic and is a strong songwriter. The highlights among his works were a trio of songs done by Larson and soprano Charlotte Mundy. A distinctive, down-to-earth, disarmingly individualistic singer, she showed off a strong and conversationally direct low range throughout several a-cappella passages, no easy task. More than one person in the crowd remarked that the way she rose from a completely unadorned, intimate delivery to striking highs with just a tinge of gentle vibrato made it seem as if she was singing directly to everyone individually. The triptych’s opener, A Door, rose and fell on Larson’s glimmering waves; the second segment, Night Walk, developed artfully from spacious minimalism to a more lush, ominous nocturnal theme; the third, Marks, had a jauntily dancing flair.
The string quartet played Weiser’s Quake, meant to illustrate a tectonic system on the verge of completely coming apart, an insistently polyrhythmic, artfully dynamic exploration up to an agitatedly galloping coda. Bearthoven Roar, performed by that trio, turned out to be a droll pastiche of Beethoven-like motives interspersed among the instruments, flitting by in seconds. And the night’s concluding piece, Rumbling Waves, played by Larson and Matt Evans, was true to its title.
Monday night, the NYU Contemporary Music Ensemble played a program of world premieres that transcended the concept of “student works.” Concerts like this are a great way to stay in touch with what the near future of concert music will be. If this show is any indication, spectral and horizontal music is in no danger of disappearing, the presence of Steve Reich looms as close as it did twenty years ago, and there’s no shortage of good up-and-coming talent. NYU’s droll, enthusiastic ensemble director Jonathan Haas and guest conductor Sean Statser took turns on the podium.
Most of the works had no shortage of vivid emotional content, either. Youmee Baek’s Sketches for Yeon, arranged for the group’s mixed strings, winds and percussion, transposed the Romeo and Juliet narrative to feudal Japan. Over a loping, mechanical, rather tongue-in-cheek rhythm spiced with minimalist Asian motifs, a couple of agitated warlords squared off. The group followed with the third segment of Baek’s suite, where Juliet’s lumbering mom chases the disobedient lovers, a showcase for Crystal Chu’s nimble, dynamically-charged percussion as well as her sense of humor.
Laiyo Nakahashi’s Lucid Dream began as a dance from the violins of Patti Kilroy and Maya Bennardo, the viola of Elise Fawley and the cello of Fjola Evans but quickly took on a darkly carnivalesque feel that matched the accompanying animated film by Martina Milova, accented by Matthew Lau’s vibraphone and Tadeusz Domanowski’s piano. A lushly uneasy miniature followed; it was hard to concentrate on both the music and the movie at the same time, but both worked a populist discontent and awareness.
Florent Ghys‘ new tone poem, its title taken from his parents’ phone number, swelled upward, the strings hinting at a slow doppler effect against Manuel Laufer’s apprehensive piano glimmer. Brooks Frederickson’s Be Smart. Be Safe. Stand Back. gave alto saxophonist Bradley Mulholland a workout, moving from almost trombone-ish foghorn lows to a brisk, tiptoeing, baroque interlude, echo motives being passed artfully through the group, its cinematic trajectory rising to a big crescendo driven by Pat Swoboda‘s terse, incisive bass and Evans’ ominously swooping cello accents. The strings took it out with a sirening creepiness.
Leaha Maria Villareal’s spectral The Chasm & the Cliff worked a suspensefully whispery upward climb to a fork in the road where Evans suddenly introduced an agitation that rose to a pummeling, assaultive and intense vortex from the percussion and then faded down again, unresolved. It was the most viscerally exciting piece on the bill. Richard Vagnino’s Night Bus to Boston, a eerily suspensefully, cinematic work, was the most emotionally impactful. Lingering vibraphone drove its creepy crepuscular ambience, alternating voicings with the strings, rising with a neoromantic poignancy. A second part coalesced out of wispy, disjointed voices, fueled by the viola and Nick Mula’s clarinet. Percussion by Abby Fisher and Nick Handahl also factored, sometimes mightily, into the performance.