Over a year ago, adventurous percussion group Ensemble Et Al sent a package of files over the transom here. Where they sat, and sat, waiting patiently for their turn on the front page. At last, that time has come: their ep When the Tape Runs Out is a lot of fun. Most of it is streaming at the group’s Bandcamp page, along with their ep of group leader Ron Tucker’s arrangements of works by Arvo Part and Goldmund (Keith Kenniff) which is available for free download.
The opening track, A Beautiful Walk Through Industrial Wasteland builds to a groove that closely resembles Bill Withers’ Use Me. If that’s intentional, it’s clever; either way, the intricate, gamelanesque assemblage of lingering vibraphone, marimba and glockenspiel tones along with less resonant metal and wood objects played by Tucker, J. Ross Marshall and Charles Kessenich manages to be both hypnotic and catchy. In a Crowded Room with Nothing to Think About works a playfully direct, Steve Reich-ish circular theme into a series of charmingly chiming layers. A disarmingly attractive, rather Lynchian lullaby, Confessions of an Honest Man balances atmospheric lows against tersely ringing highs.
Finding Simple Wonders As the Day Turns the Night develops a wickedly memorable minimalist melody into an eerie music box-like theme over an implied trip-hop groove. The ep closes with a warily spacious take on Arvo Part’s Fur Elina, a secret bonus track. Fans of downtempo and chillout music as well as indie classical types should check this out. Ensemble Et Al are on an intriguing triplebill of percussion ensembles with Concert Black and Iktus Percussion on March 26 at 8 PM at Galapagos, $15 advance tickets are recommended.
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.
Who would be interested in an album of solo percussion, other than a fellow percussionist or composer? Justin DeHart’s new album Strange Paths addresses that question with a playful and virtuosic mix of contemporary and 20th century works, just out on Innova. Steadily and ambidextrously, DeHart builds a sonic spectrum ranging from hypnotically soothing, to suspenseful, with many shades in between: it rises to the challenge of entertaining a jaded listener who might not ordinarily gravitate to music made on things meant to be hit with a stick of some kind, over and over..
The opening number, Michael Gordon‘s XY is insistent and has a hard-hitting, subtly polyrhythmic, mechanical aspect, yet the way it’s done here, it’s more of a peaceful drummers-in-the-park tableau than annoy-your-neighbors assault. It sounds easy but in reality is cruelly difficult, requiring a Bach-like precision and an attention to minute detail that overcomes the work’s hypnotically echoing aspect. DeHart is up to the task.
Iannis Xenakis’ Psappha, the best-known of the pieces here, empowers DeHart to become a one-man orchestra via tuned drums in all sorts of timbres, up and down the register, precisely marching yet lively, playing intricate variations on and off a series of polyrhythms, some bracing, some very subtle, particularly on the more emphatic, lower notes. The space between increased to the point of suspense and then comedy, a musical Waiting for Godot. Breathy cymbals add a syncopation that, when written in 1975, foreshadowed the loping groove of hip-hop.
Brian Ferneyhough’s Bone Alphabet, perhaps predictably, has a more skeletal feel and a thicket of constantly changing sonics, some woody and hollow, some metallic and booming, a restless prowl through a junkyard of the mind. The final track here, Stuart Saunders Smith’s four-part vibraphone suite They Looked Like Strangers draws on a memory of childhood humiliation, a small boy realizing how far estranged he’s become from his family as they ridicule him for a slip and a fall into the lake: he vows not to let this disrespect slide. A slow, gingerly hazy summery ambience builds to eerie music-box ambience; wiith its lingering, otherworldly resonances, it draws a straight line back to Bernard Herrmann’s Hitchcock film scores. Then, casually and methodically, DeHart takes it into full-blown, resonant Lynchian menace. It’s a creepy piece of music in every sense of the word.
So Percussion has a couple of enjoyable, extremely diverse new albums out on Cantaloupe (the Bang on a Can peeps). Their first is a performance of Steve Mackey’s 2010 composition It Is Time, an entertaining, often absolutely hypnotic, somewhat minimalist but imaginatively orchestrated 36-minute suite which begins simply with a triplet rhythm commonly used in Malian desert blues. On one hand, this is a playful exercise in counting; on the other, the hypnotic quality of the music makes it tempting to simply leave the timing to the musicians and get lost in it. The concept is to feature each member of the group in turn: Eric Beach is first on metronome, pump organ, bells and china cymbal. From there it branches out cleverly with a series of steel drum interludes played by Josh Quillen, followed by Adam Sliwinski on marimba, both players using bowed and sustain techniques to achieve ambient textures typically not found in music for percussion sometimes atmospherically, sometimes adding a jarring, atonal and eventually microtonal edge laced with overtones. The final segment, played by Jason Treuting on drums, introduces an anthemic element: a rudimentary march, a descending riff on the steel pans which is the most distinctive melody here, gradually winding down to airy, sustained notes. Meant to alter the perception of time, it’s a subtly shifting journey from one rhythm to the next, sometimes utilizing polyrhythms.
The second, with reliably intense, incisive pianist Lisa Moore, is a recording of Martin Bresnick’s Caprichos Enfanticos: Los Desastres de la Guerra. An eight-movement suite meant to illustrate Goya’s satirical antiwar etchings, it follows a similarly caricaturish, sometimes cruelly mocking trajectory. A hypnotic marimba riff runs over and over to introduce it, followed by a twisted formal introduction, a “look who’s here” motif into a distantly flamenco-tinged piano-and-drums march, reaching for but never achieving resolution either melodically or rhythmically. Onward from there: a sarcastic tug-of-war between drums and piano (guess who wins); a bully and his sycophant; what might be a coldhearted bombing mission; an eerie, starlit, strolling piano/vibraphone duet and eventually a children’s dance under fire – or amidst a firefight. As evocative antiwar music, it doesn’t waste notes, literally or figuratively.
The It Is Time album comes with a DVD, which is of interest to anyone sufficiently intrigued in the mechanics of the music, and the considerable demands it makes on the musicians.
Composer Keeril Makan’s intriguing and diverse collection of works, titled Target, has been out for awhile on Starkland. Minimalist yet often absolutely massive, the pieces follow dramatically divergent trajectories. The instrumentals rise and fall, sometimes almost imperceptibly but occasionally explosively, the percussion of the Either/Or ensemble and David Shively featuring most prominently in the arrangements. There’s also a potent and politically spot-on suite of vocal pieces utilizing text which poet Jena Osman created from propaganda leaflets dropped into Afghanistan during the Bush Regime’s invasion. It’s a good bet that listeners with the sense of adventure necessary to fully enjoy this album will scatter these tracks throughout several different playlists, considering the differences between them: with its whirring overtones, the half-hour concluding piece, Resonance Alloy makes a great choice for a chillout mix, while the abrasive, keening, sometimes howling solo cello piece Zones d’Accord has the opposite effect.
The opening track, simply titled 2, is the only one of the instrumentals where the melody moves around to any great degree, and that’s only when the marimba comes in bubbling against Shively’s cymbals and Jennifer Choi’s violin atmospherics. On the other hand, the title suite of five skeletal yet sharply rhythmic songs has singer Laurie Rubin leaping in and out unpredictably, the perfectly unwavering, staccato outrage in her voice channeling the mystified shock the Afghanis must have felt as they read how Bush’s bombs falling out of the sky were just one more example of how the U.S. was there to help them. Makan and Rubin, and the ensemble California E.A.R. Unit deserve props for bringing these important works to life so evocatively.
Perhaps because it’s a scrapy, raspy piece, Zones d’Accord is recorded very quietly – so when it suddenly grows loud, it’s jarring. If that’s the effect the composer wanted to create, cellist Alex Waterman delivers that extremely successfully; however, those with headphones should be on alert. It’s definitely a wakeup call! The first track follows an elegant, mathematical architecture with the occasional allusion to jazz before finally collapsing on itself at the end in a splendid display of violence; the last is viscerally mesmerizing. How Shively managed to stay on track and maintain its perfect, pointillistic pulse without being hypnotized by the swoosh, and hum, and eerie whine of the overtones flying from his cymbals and gong is a genuine feat. Did he record this in segments? Are there overdubs? It’s impossible to tell. While the brushstrokes fall fast and precise, the swells from atmospheric to oceanic are almost unnoticeable until suddenly it’s apparent that the waves have risen and then come crashing in with a stately intensity.
You know the “ping” moment in a horror or suspense movie where suddenly everything that had been going smoothly suddenly hits a bump…and then it’s obvious that at some point, terror will set in? This is a whole album of those moments. The American Modern Ensemble’s new album Star Crossing: Music of Robert Paterson is a noir film for the ears: for fans of dark, suspenseful music, this is heaven. Paterson is a percussionist, so it’s no surprise that bells, crotales and other brightly ringing instruments are featured here along with flutes and clarinets, piano and cello working contrasts in the lower registers.
The opening mini-suite, Sextet, traces the trail of a criminal on the run – even in his dreams. As expected, it doesn’t end well. Through volleys of furtive footsteps, hallucinatory nightmare sequences, frozen moments of sheer terror and endlessly echoing, apprehensive flute cadenzas, the poor guy doesn’t have a prayer. The Thin Ice of Your Fragile Mind is hypnotic, warm and starlit, tantalizing bits of Romantic melody – and even a jaunty dance – interwoven with eerie bell tones. It’s something akin to the familiar comfort of a radio fading in and out in the midst of a wasteland. The title track is an offhandedly dazzling display of creepy, chilly Hitchcockian ambience, sepulchral woodwind flourishes and simple, seemingly random piano motifs against disembodied ringing tonalities. Although it’s meant to evoke an otherworldly, outer-space milieu, the tension is relentless. Embracing the Wind, an attempt to evoke various sonics created by air currents, has an uneasy, allusive Romanticism in the same vein as the second track here, but considerably creepier.
It’s only fitting that this album should include a requiem. Elegy for Two Bassoons and Piano is a homage to bassoonist Charles McCracken’s cellist father, drawing liberally from one of his favorite pieces, Bach’s Fifth Cello Suite. Like its ancestor, it has a murky poignancy, but it’s also unexpectedly lively. Skylights, an attempt to make airy music with dark-toned instruments, magnificently evokes noir dread througout its nine-plus minutes: somebody kill that light before somebody gets killed! Paterson plays marimba (using both mallet heads and handles simultaneously) on the final work, Quintus, a bubbly, polyrhythmic maze that eventually takes on a grim boogie-woogie tinge. The album as a whole features lively and acerbic playing by Sato Moughalian on flutes; Meighan Stoops on clarinets; Robin Zeh on violin; Robert Burkhart on cello; Matthew Ward on percussion; Blair McMillen, Elizabeth DiFelice and Stephen Gosling on piano; Danielle Farina on viola; Jacqueline Kerrod on harp, and Gilbert Dejean and Charles McCracken on bassoons. Count this among the half-dozen best releases of 2011 so far, in any style of music.
Adventurous Canadian trio Toca Loca’s cryptically titled new album Shed is a strangely captivating, grippingly energetic, strikingly rhythmic collection of new and older avant garde music. Pianist/conductor Gregory Oh, pianist Simon Docking and percussionist Aiyun Huang muscle up on a demanding quartet of numbers made for headphones: you can get lost in this stuff. It’s a wonder they don’t too.
The first piece, Half-Remembered City by Dai Fujikura, is a samurai piano duo for four hands. Oh and Docking have injured each other while playing it. Much of it involves passages where one holds down the keys silently while the other hammers away so as to evince overtones out of the dampened strings. There are a lot of pregnant pauses, along with a little leapfrogging and some furtive scurrying and flying cascades amid the slambang staccato. The album liner notes make no mention of whether the pianists injured themselves this time around, or how (or whether) they avoid making mistakes, or if improvisation is part of the process. Either way, it’s impossible to tell.
Huang premiered Heinz Holliger’s Ma’Mounia in 2002 in Geneva. If anything she does here was overdubbed during recording, that’s understandable: she has her hands full, with seemingly an entire orchestra’s percussion instruments to run the gauntlet with in seconds flat. With vibraphone, gong, timpani and what sounds like bowed bells, she scurries uneasily with accompaniment from guests Max Christie on clarinet, Mary-Katherine Finch on cello, Gabriel Radford on French horn and Stephen Tam on flute. A section with what appears to be simulated applause, a series of long, bustling passages and then a lot of Messienesque birdsong against that bustle eventually winds down and bows out with a squeak. The group’s first commission, Andrew Staniland’s Adventuremusic: Love Her Madly is not a Doors cover but rather a hypnotic, low overtone-driven soundscape colored with rapidfire piano cascades, an Asian theme played on bells and a trancey woodblock solo. The album concludes with Frederic Rzewski’s Bring Them Home, one of his protest songs from the early 70s, this one based on a minor-key Irish folk song. In typical Rzewski fashion, the variations go pretty far afield of the original, with a boogie about a quarter of the way in and a hint of a military march about two-thirds through it. It’s unusually imagistic: Huang gets the motif de resistance, a woodblock solo that snidely mimics an earlier, martial snare drum passage. With wars still going on in Afghanistan and Iraq, it’s nice to see this piece getting aired out as vigorously as Toca Loca do it here. It’s out now on Henceforth.
How to advertise an evening of new music? Invite the public to hear part of it and be part of the performance itself. Earlier this evening in the high-ceilinged cafe/anteroom leading to Alice Tully Hall, International Contemporary Ensemble premiered group leader Nathan Davis’ gently mesmering electroacoustic composition simply and aptly titled Bells: they were scheduled to play later as part of Lincoln Center’s ongoing avant-garde Tully Scope festival. Perched in the balcony high overhead, Davis judiciously alternated between a series of bells and gongs, sometimes using mallets, other times bowing them for a flute or clarinet-like tone, at times smacking a huge Javanese gong behind him to add contrasting low, practically subsonic sustained tonalities. Below him, the rest of the group – Joshua Rubin on clarinet, Claire Chase on flute, Eric Lamb on both piccolo and gong – interjected occasional terse, sustained notes or simple motives while a dozen other players on “spatialized crotales and triangles” wandering casually, almost imperceptibly through the crowd. When they weren’t adding the occasional, spare accent, they moved among the audience holding up their phones. Taking a page out of the Phil Kline fakebook, Davis wrote the piece for audience participation: an engineer ran the mix through what seemed an endless series of echo and loop effects, then sent it out on four separate phone lines available to audience members to call and then play back on their phones as the group continued to play. Given the limited amplification of the phones in use, the addition of a potentially unlimited number of unique textures never really materialized since the musicians were amped so loudly, but in a larger space the effect would have been more significant.
With the addition of quadrophonic sound – speakers in every corner of the room, each with a different mix – the overall effect was as psychedelic as it was comforting. The piece unwound slowly, a spaciously pinging, ringing, and occasionally booming tone poem of sorts, with breaks where it seemed that it was playing back on itself, other times picking up the pace with all the musicians contributing. Although it spanned what seemed to be the entire audible sonic spectrum, the melody didn’t move around much from a central tone, octaves and overtones playing a large role in the overall picture. There was a brief moment of what seemed to be feedback, which was as bracing as expected; otherwise, a kaleidoscope of tonalities and textures moved through the frame, and out, and then sometimes back again. After roughly twenty-five minutes, nonstop, except for a brief pause about two-thirds of the way through, it wound itself out gracefully if a little unexpectedly. The only thing missing was the interior of a planetarium: imagine what could be done with this at the American Museum of Natural History!
This year’s Vital Vox Festival, artfully assembled by the perennially eclectic and innovative Sabrina Lastman, wound up Saturday Night at Issue Project Room with some impressively captivating and entertaining performances. First on the bill was the Takadimi Duo, a.k.a. singer Lori Cotler and percussionist Glen Velez. In this project, their shtick is creating music out of the staccato, rhythmic konokol drum language frequently utilized by Indian percussionists – say “samosapapadum, canihavesomemorewaterplease” five times fast and you’ll get the picture. They got everyone, including themselves, laughing at a tongue-in-cheek “conversation,” Velez gamely trying to hold up his end against Cotler’s rapidfire syllabication. Her most captivating moment in a set full of many was a torchy, mysterioso number, like a jazzier Alessandra Belloni, slinking modally among the blue notes and occasionally punctuating Velez’ nocturnal ambience with a little dinner bell. Velez took a couple of frame drum solos and wowed the crowd with his ability to effectively replicate a John Bonham-style workup with just the fingers of one hand. At the end of the set, Cotler tried to get the audience to rap along with her – from the first few beats, it was obvious that this was a rhythmically challenged crew. Still, it was a lot of fun trying to keep up with her – and with Velez, who succeeded in getting at least a portion of the audience to join him in a shimmery display of overtone-tinged Tuvan throat-singing.
Audrey Chen was next, performing a solo set on vocals and cello, augmented by a homemade loop machine that would send showers of audio sparks oscillating throughout the mix as she roared, purred, growled, rasped and assaulted the crowd: as much as Cotler and Velez had tried to pull them in, it seemed that she was trying to clear the room. It didn’t work. And by the time she was finished, it was impossible not to want more. Chen doesn’t mess around with words: she goes straight to the emotion, usually the most intense one. She’s not merely in touch with her inner four-year-old – she also channeled her inner four-day-old, a voracious and easily disturbed presence whose violently perplexed, contrarian vocalese – if you could call it that – was impossible to turn away from. She scraped on her cello, looped the noise and ran it through a series of echo effects, sometimes mimicking them with her voice, sometimes adding the same effects to her vocals. If she hadn’t been such a forceful presence onstage, it would have been hard to tell which was which, woman or machine. Self-indulgent? Maybe. A riveting portrait of madness? Possibly. Compelling? Beyond words. Between her two, long pieces, she explained with a casual and considerably contrasting warmth that they were both improvisations. The lone linguistic phrase that made its way into her performance was a sinister, breathy whisper, “I’m hungry…for a bite of you.” After scraping yet more varnish off the edge of her cello between the bridge and the fingerboard, evoking a thousand horror-movie doors closing in unison, then getting its murky insides to rumble even lower, she ended with a couple of lush, still, stunningly lyrical Messiaenesque chords. Where the devil’s choir ended, she’d found genuine, otherworldly beauty.
Chen’s doing a duo show with Jim Pugliese at Issue Project Room on January 21.