Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A String-Driven Treat and a Park Slope Gig by Irrepressible, Fearlessly Eclectic Violinist Tom Swafford

Violinist Tom Swafford’s String Power were one of the most lavishly entertaining, surrealistically psychedelic bands to emerge in New York in this decade. Blending classical focus, swirling mass improvisation, latin and Middle Eastern grooves and jazz flair, they played both originals as well as playful new arrangements of songs from across the years and around the world. With a semi-rotating cast of characters, this large ensemble usually included all of the brilliant Trio Tritticali – violinist Helen Yee, violist Leann Darling and cellist Loren Dempster – another of this city’s most energetically original string bands of recent years. Swafford put out one fantastic album, streaming at Bandcamp, with the full band in 2015 and has kept going full steam since with his own material, notably his Songs from the Inn, inspired by his time playing in Yellowstone State Park. 

Over the last couple of years, String Power have been more or less dormant, although Swafford has a characteristically eclectic show of his own coming up on Feb 2 at 7 PM the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, where he’s a faculty member. To start the show, he’ll be playing Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Piano with pianist Emile Blondel. After that, he’ll be leading a trio with guitarist/banjoist Benjamin “Baby Copperhead” Lee and bassist Zach Swanson for a set of oldtime country blues and then some bluesy originals of his own. Cover is $15/$10 stud/srs.

The String Power album has a formidable lineup of adventurous New York classical and indie classical talent. On violins, alongside Swafford and Yee, there’s a slightly shifting cast of Mark Chung, Patti Kilroy, Frederika Krier, Suzanne Davenport and Tonya Benham; Darling and Joanna Mattrey play viola; Dempster and Brian Sanders play cello, with Dan Loomis on bass. The album opens with Tango Izquierda, Swafford’s shout-out to the Democrats regaining control of Congress in the 2006 midterm elections. Maybe we’ll get lucky again, right? This elegantly lilting number rises and falls with intricate counterpoint and a handful of frenetic Mik Kaminski-ish cadenzas.

The group reinvents new wave band the Stranglers’ synth-pop Dave Brubeck ripoff Golden Brown – an ode to the joys of heroin – with a stately neo-baroque arrangement. The Velvets’ Venus in Furs is every bit as menacing, maybe more so than the original, with a big tip of the hat to John Cale, and a Swafford solo that’s just this side of savage.

Swafford’s version of Wildwood Flower draws more on its origins in 19th century shape-note singing than the song’s eventual transformation into a bluegrass standard, with a folksy bounce fueled by spiky  massed pizzicato. Darling’s arrangement of the Mohammed Abdel Wahab classic Azizah opens with her plaintive taqsim (improvisation) over a drone, pounces along with all sorts of delicious microtones up to a whiplash coda and an outro that’s way too funny to give away.

Likewise, the otherwise cloying theme from the gently satirical 70s soap opera parody Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman gets a trick ending. Charles Mingus’ anti-segregation jazz epic Fables of Faubus gets a fullscale nine-minute workout, heavy on the composer’s relentless sarcasm. In the age of Trump, this really hits the spot with its phony martial heroics and sardonially swiping swells, Chung, Krier, Swafford and finally Loomis getting a chance to chew the scenery.

The album winds up with Swafford’s own Violin Concerto. The triptych opens with Brutal Fanfare, a stark, dynamically rising and falling string metal stomp spiced with twisted Asian motive – it makes a good segue out of Mingus. The second part, High Lonesome explores the often fearsome blues roots of bluegrass, with some wickedly spiraling Swafford violin. The conclusion, simply titled Ballad, is the most atmospheric passage here: it sounds like an Anna Thorvaldsdottir vista raised an octave or two. 

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January 28, 2018 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rebecca Lazier and Newspeak Reinvent Rzewski’s Attica with a Bruising Intensity

Midway through the bruising, intense debut of choreographer Rebecca Lazier’s dance version of two iconic Frederic Rzewski avant garde works, Coming Together and Attica, the crowd at the Invisible Dog Art Center last night slowly moved from one side of the second-floor Cobble Hill loft space to the other. “Why are we doing this?” a gradeschool girl protested to her mother. “I don’t want to move.”

The child’s mother beckoned impatiently. “Come!” Lazier had taken pains to explain in the evening’s program that the performance wass meant not to be dogmatic or carry any specific political meaning, but rather to encourage individual interpretation and questioning. If one possible interpretation is that fascism begins not with a bang but with a whimper, in the case of this child, Lazier made a mighty impact. In prison, you move when you’re told to, whether you want to or not. The simple act of dislodging the audience from their comfortable seats watching Lazier’s six dancers perform some very uncomfortable, often harrowingly violent kinetics, reinforced that point simply but profoundly.

That this dance diptych wasn’t upstaged by the mighty punk-classical ensemble Newspeak, who played Rzweski’s score with a ferocity to match their nimble, Bach-like precision, speaks to the intensity of Lazier’s work. The dancers began by pairing off in a remarkable graceful, sometimes slo-mo, sometimes punishing simulation of hand-to-hand combat, a good guys versus bad guys – or prisoners versus guards – scenario. In this case, the good guys end up winning, the opposite of what happened at the 1971 Attica Prison riots – that is, if you take the view that the Attica inmates, many of whom where killed when troops swarmed the prison to crush the uprising, were the good guys. The menace was enhanced by several almost crushing encounters between the dancers and the audience seated around the perimeter of the action.

Newspeak gave Rzewski’s piece a mighty swing and turned it into a turbulent, irresistible current punctuated by simple, sometimes portentous accents from percussionist Peter Wise and clarinetist/bass clarinetist Eileen Mack. One misstep from the bassist or  pianist James Johnston, who were playing in tandem, would have sent the whole thing off the rails: together, they became a two-headed serpent hell-bent on destruction. Taylor Levine’s electric guitar, Patti Kilroy’s violin and cellist Robert Burkhart’s sometimes austere, sometimes atmospheric lines swept above drummer David T. Little’s groove, which grew more and more organic, shifting artfully further and further toward funk as the piece went on. Overhead, Mellissa Hughes added apprehensive drama, narrating the text of a letter written by Attica inmate Sam Melville, one of the materminds of the revolt, who was killed in the invasion.

Dancewise, the second part began still and silent, the dancers – Rashaun Mitchell, Christopher Ralph, Jennifer Lafferty, Pierre Gilbault, Silas Reiner and Asli Bulbul – seated on bleachers wiping their brows, slowly undoing parts of their prison jumpsuits before a costume change while the music resumed. Then it became more traditionally balletesque, Lazier nevertheless adding an element of surprise by constantly changing the combination of dancers  onstage, just as Rzewski shifts the cell-like clusters of his music. This time around, it was proto-Brian Eno, rising from stillness, overtones and distortion ringing from Levine’s guitar, the ensemble slowly joining in an early dawn ambience that offered a bit of a respite from the relentless aggression of the first half but never let go of its underlying unease, Hughes’ resonant, nebulous vocalese adding a sinister edge.

June 14, 2013 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, dance, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, NYC Live Music Calendar, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Composers of the Future Debut Exciting New Works at NYU

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.

March 14, 2013 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Scary Stuff from Sean Noonan

Menacingly surreal, often assaultive, drummer Sean Noonan’s latest album A Gambler’s Hand is a feast for fans of dark, challenging music. Part indie classical, part chamber metal and part art-rock, with the improvisational flair of free jazz at its best, it’s a category unto itself – and one of the best albums of 2012 in any style of music. Noonan is a contradiction in terms, an extrovert drummer who’s also extremely subtle and an expert colorist: think Jim White with a heavier right foot, which isn’t a completely accurate way to describe Noonan’s style, but it’ll get you on the right track. The album was recorded in a single day, Noonan playing and conducting a bristling, energetic string quartet comprising violinists Tom Swafford and Patti Kilroy (of the equally enterprising Cadillac Moon Ensemble), violist Leanne Darling (of the deliciously intense, eclectic Trio Tritticali) and cellist David West.

The album, based on a Noonan short story soon to become a film, is an instrumental suite about a chronic gambler who finds himself behind a wall which he eventually becomes part of. It’s a concept straight out of Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, a style which some of the music here resembles, but through a glass, darkly. Because much of it evokes a muted, sometimes out-of-focus horror or dread, Noonan plays with vastly more care and precision than the unleashed ferocity he’s capable of, utilizing every open space on his kit along with all kinds of furtively rustling percussion to enhance the disquiet.

There are three main themes here that the quintet carries through a deft series of variations; a sad, off-center, atonal canon; a ferocious, macabre march based on a tritone chord, and a dirge. The album opens with a dramatic, cinematic overture cached in the circling and fluttering of the strings, working a tense dichotomy between steady and jittery. The devils’ chords slam in with a towering ferocity: over the course of what’s essentially an eight-minute one-chord jam, the ensemble shifts between a murderously grandiose march and quietly rhythmic interludes. With only a couple of exceptions, one of them being a free improvisation that eventually descends into chaos, the rhythm is steady throughout the suite even when it’s implied rather than played: it’s a neat touch, especially coming from a drummer.

The first of the dirge variations follows the macabre march, Darling’s viola trilling and then sailing through a particularly electric passage as the ensemble holds the suspense with a muted pizzicato. Uneasy exchanges of atonalities between the strings and artfully understated cymbal washes over a potently simple low cello riff lead into a slightly quieter, shivery, utterly creepy variation on the tritone theme, then it falls apart with the improvisation, returning with a surprisingly warm, riff-driven version of the big march. That unexpected clarity and attractive melodicism, sad as it may be, makes for a vivid and powerful contrast with all the harshness that preceded it. As you might expect, it doesn’t last. The ensemble finally reach the pummeling crescendo they’ve been hinting at all along, sliding and screaming and scraping to keep from being imprisoned forever behind that wall. For the love of God, Montressor! It ends somberly, but more quietly than you would expect after such visceral horror.

Noonan leads a double string quartet (including the Momenta String Quartet) playing the album release show for this one on Sept 24 at 8 PM at Roulette, general admission is $15 ($10 students and seniors).

September 19, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Exciting, Cinematic New Sounds from Cadillac Moon Ensemble

Because of their unorthodox lineup, up-and-coming New York chamber quartet Cadillac Moon Ensemble basically have two choices when choosing their repertoire: they can either reinvent older works, or commission new ones. On their debut album, Atlas, violinist Patti Kilroy, flutist Roberta Michel, cellist Michael Midlarsky and percussionist Sean Statser have chosen to do the latter. The result: an auspicious collection of new compositions by contemporary composers that combines the fun and wit of rock and film music with the intensity and challenging sonics that have come to define the best of the New York indie classical scene.

André Brégégère’s Enroute is the first piece, cleverly caching what are essentially three variations- one each for violin, cello and flute – within an intricate architecture with deft exchanges of voices and wryly noirish percussion flourishes that make full use of pretty much every strikable target in Statser’s arsenal. The piece de resistance here is Shawn Allison’s Towards the Flame, a menacing, often macabre four-part suite on the theme of moths – creatures which throughout history have been associated with the supernatural. Michel’s trickily rhythmic, dancing lines snake between Kilroy and Midlarsky’s intricate harmonies on a bracingly acidic, opening miniature titled Tun’tawu, the Cherokee name for a pale yelllow moth said to originate from and then return to the fire. Part two, Death’s Head – a Silence of the Lambs reference, maybe? – is a creepy masterpiece worthy of Bernard Herrmann, driven on the wings of shivery, buzzing, murderously insectile strings, jagged incisions against ominous drones, sudden agitations, scurrying drums, and finally a coda where something seems to get killed. Whether it’s the bug or something else isn’t clear.

The album’s title track, Atlas – inspired by the world’s biggest moth – employs the instruments in vividly imagistic reconnaissance, looking for landing spots, with unexpected dynamic shifts on the part of all the voices, all of this anchored by a matter-of-fact series of percussion accents ranging from a steady prowl early on, to a big marching crescendo lush with sustain from the cymbals and jarring overtones ringing from both of the strings. The final segment is Crysalis, a brief tone poem punctuated by the occasional gentle swoop or dive from the violin or cello.

Erich Stem’s Revisited is a sonatina based on devices used in shakuhachi music (tone bending, dynamics and shifts in timbre or rhythm rather than rather than in pitch). It’s got a Prelude, livened by Michel’s alternately subtle and jarring tonal variations over creepy music-box accents from the percussion and similarly flitting notes from the rest of the ensemble. The second part, San’An packs a suspenseful drone, apprehensive Gil Evan/Bernard Herrmann bongos, conspiratorially spiraling exchanges of motifs and Michel’s sepulchral Asian temple melody into just two minutes. Zangetsu – based on a famous Japanese poem lamenting the brevity of human existence – is surprisingly lively and funky, driven mostly by the cello. It’s also a showcase for Statser, a clinic in how to max out the quietest tones available to a percussionist.

The closing cut is Edward RosenBerg III’s Galactic Mouthematics, a roughly ten-minute mini-suite influenced by 1960s sci-fi movie themes. Yes, there’s a Richard Strauss allusion, but there’s also a whole lot more: a whispered poem bookending terse noirish dialogues and three-way conversations, more film noir bongos, and an apprehensive chromatic cello riff that undergoes several costume changes but never loses its visceral unease. As dark as this piece is, it’s also genuinely funny: the faux Beethoven of the outro might seem a little obvious, but it’s spot-on.

There are two other brief pieces here, which are…um…an acquired taste. The shorter one seems to sample a local television news theme: if the melody isn’t a direct quote, it comes pretty close. That seems to be a signature trait of the composer. Some people find such irrepressibly cheery motifs, herky-jerky rhythms and wilful use of vocals to be playful and fun; to more sophisticated listeners, they’ll come across as cloying and whimsical, ad nauseum. Cadillac Moon Ensemble play the album release show at the DiMenna Center, 450 W 37th St. at 7:30 PM on Sept 30. Cover is $10; for a bargain of $20, you get the show plus a copy of the cd.

September 9, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment