Saturday afternoon on Governors Island offered a wide variety of sounds: the incessant, ominous rumble of helicopters, indignant seagulls, squealing children all around, cicadas in stereo, and the occasional gunshot. There was also music, which was excellent. On the lawn along the island’s middle promenade, pianists Blair McMillen and Pam Goldberg pulled together a deliciously intriguing program to celebrate the centenary of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring that began with reimagiing its origins in ancient traditional themes and ended by taking it into the here and now.
Leading an eclectic nonet with fadolin, vocals, clarinet, trumpet, guitar, hammered dulcimer, acccordion, bass and percussion, violist/composer Ljova explained that it had long been theorized that the Rite of Spring was based on folk themes, which turned out to be correct. Invoking the old composer’s adage that if a motif is too good, its source must be folk music, he explained how he’d reviewed the scholarship, and from there and his own research was able to locate several tunes from northwest Lithuania which, if Stravinsky didn’t nick them outright, closely resemble themes and tonalities in the Rites. Except that those folk tunes’ jarringly modern dissonances are actually hundreds if not thousands of years old.
The concert began with about half the ensemble gathered in a circle in front of the stage, unamplified. A slowly sirening theme with eerie close harmonies almost impreceptibly morphed into a hypnotic march followed by a handful of slowly dizzying rondos, a couple featuring Ben Holmes’ lively trumpet, another Shoko Nagai’s stately, unwavering accordion. Things got more jaunty as they went along.
When the band took the stage, a big shot from Satoshi Takeishi’s drums signaled a return to where they’d started earlier, that apprehensively oscillating, sirening motif given more heft and rhythm. It was Ljova at the top of his characteristically cinematic game – a group creation, actually, deftly pulled together in rehearsal over the previous couple of days. They turned their ur-Stravinsky into a jazzy romp punctated by a Zappa-esque fanfare, an atmospheric crescendo, screaming stadium-rock riffage from guitarist Jay Vilnai and then a segue down to singer Inna Barmash’s otherworldly vocalese which she delivered with a brittle, minutely jeweled, microtonal vibrato. Finally coming full circle with the ominously nebulous opening theme, they gave the outro to Barmash, who sang it in the original Russian, stately and emphatic but with a chilling sense of longing: it made an austere but inescapably powerful conclusion. They encored with a lively Romany dance with hints of Bollywod, which seemed pretty much improvised on the spot, but the band was game.
The equally eclectic indie classical octet Fireworks Ensemble followed, first playing a couple of brief works by bandleader/bassist Brian Coughlin: a lively, bouncy number originally written for trio and beatboxer, with a lively blend of latin and hip-hop influences and then a pair of more moody, brief Wallace Stevens-inspired works, the second setting pensive flute over a broodingly Reichian, circular piano motif, They wound up the afternoon with an impeccably crafted performance of their own chamber-rock version of the Rite of Spring. It’s remarkable how close to the original this version was, yet how revealing it also was, more of a moody pas de deux than a fullscale ballet. Stripping it to its chassis, they offered a look at where Gil Evans got his lustre and where Bernard Herrmann got his creepy cadenzas – and maybe where Juan Tizol got Caravan.
Coughlin’s arrangement also underscored the incessant foreshadowing that gives this piece its lingering menace. Jessica Schmitz’ flute and Alex Hamlin’s alto sax lept and dove with a graceful apprehension; Coughlin’s bass, Pauline Kim Harris’ violin and Leigh Stuart’s cello dug into the bracing close harmonies of those sirening motives, Red Wierenga’s piano carrying much of the melody. They saved the big cadenzas in the next-to-last movement for Kevin Gallagher’s gritty guitar and David Mancuso’s drums, ending with a puckish flourish. It was surprising not to see more of a crowd turn out for the whole thing; Governors Island is a free five-minute ferry ride from the Battery and on this particular afternoon, the cool canopy of trees made it easy to lean up against one of the trunks and get lost in the music – with interruptions from the cicadas and the Civil War reenactment behind the hill. McMillen and Goldberg have another concert scheduled here for September 1 featuring music from Brahms to Kate Bush performed by the organizers, Classical Jam, Tigue Percusssion, Theo Bleckmann, Wendy Sutter and many others.
Last night at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, Laurie Anderson played a requiem for New York, possibly titled Delirium. The nocturnal atmosphere settled in from the first few notes of Rob Burger’s accordion, the highly processed quality of the music giving it an air-conditioned chill. Throughout the suite, which went on for over an hour, it was sometimes hard to tell who was playing, Anderson’s trio or a machine, but that was the point. All these machines we rely on so much distance us from a reality we can’t bring ourselves to face. This piece was all about denial – denial of reality, denial of impending doom, and in that doom, the death of a beloved city, by gentrification, by greed, and especially by denial. “This is the real New York,” was the mantra early on, spoken quietly, matter-of-factly, giving away nothing, Anderson letting her narrative’s fragmentary images speak for themselves against the lushly icy backdrop. She got it all – global warming (a recurrent allusion); mindless “if you see something, say something” paranoia; Fukushima; Wall Street swindlers getting rich on worthless paper (and then shredding it) while the rest of the world riots. Familiar city sights – fire escapes in midsummer; the San Gennaro Festival and its “onions marinara;” Madison Square Garden, a three-way oxymoron; crowds swiping their way into the subway on the way home from work – grounded the piece in an indelible New York milieu. Behind the narrative, sheets of strings, real and synthesized, rose and fell, sometimes with mechanical electronic percussion behind them, often with astringent, vividly wary lines by violinist Eyvind Kang and Anderson herself while Burger shifted from accordion, to simple piano lines, to more nebulous atmospherics. Creepy, occasionally sleepy, it reached with an elegant menace toward a fever dream, especially when a police siren wailed for close to a minute a block further west, slowly making its way uptown.
“‘Hard times,’ says the maid, as she begins her lawsuit against the next President of France, now known worldwide as a chimpanzee in rutting mode, his DNA in her spit on the carpet,” Anderson deadpanned. In this netherworld, technology nerds produce nothing more than speeches full of hot air and time-wasting gadgets; hotel rooms are indistinguishable from offices open 24/7; and, in one blackly funny vignette set to faux boudoir sonics, advertising makes us miss places we’ve never been. And while Anderson never said it directly, this is what our world has come to. How do we deal with it? Midway through, Anderson alluded to suicide, once. She didn’t go near it again.
But it wasn’t all gloom and doom. The funniest moment of many was when Anderson mocked the pseudo-sophistication of the usual Lincoln Center crowd driving down from Westchester, by reciting a litany of google map directions, straight to the parking garage on 62nd St. Clearly, Anderson is still downtown. She closed the suite by returning to a theme that had arisen earlier, that we tend to reinvent people we’ve lost by cutting them down to size, right or wrong, because once we’ve shed that emotional baggage, we can “travel lite.” By implication, this is how a generation of New Yorkers, maybe more than a generation, deal with the loss of the city where thirty years ago an opportunity existed for Anderson to springboard avant-garde ideas into a successful global career. An entire city park felt that, and was transfixed. The show ended with a coda where Anderson brought out her husband, Lou Reed to play fluidly atonal, biting yet graceful noiserock guitar as the overture swelled and then gently faded down.
Ex-Ethel violinist Todd Reynolds opened the show, first entertaining the crowd by building the animated title track to his new album Outerborough all by himself with a series of loops, from a simple beat to heated, virtuosic lead lines. He was joined a bit later by Luminescent Orchestrii frontman Sxip Shirey – playing percussion on innumerable found objects – and a string section including Caleb Burhans, Conrad Harris, Pauline Kim Harris, Yuki Numata, Courtney Orlando, and Ben Russell. Together they made their way gently and hypnotically through a warmly thoughtful, somewhat minimalist Philip Glass-inflected piece by a composer friend from Michigan, as well as a couple of rousing songs straight out of the Hazmat Modine catalog that were equal parts Balkan and blues. But where Anderson used the chill of technology to make a point, any point that Reynolds might have made with it was lost, especially when he brought out a “human beatboxer.” For decades, real hip-hop has pilfered rhythms from every other style of music ever invented, from jazz to funk to classical, so as to sidestep the mechanical monotony of a drum machine. The cold, unwavering beat managed only to sabotage the liveliness and goodnatured energy of Reynolds and his fellow musicians.