Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Profoundly Entertaining, Interactive Night of Operatic Fun at the Edge of Chinatown

At his sold-out show last night to close a weekend of performances at the Abrons Arts Center, countertenor Ju-eh hit high notes that were as disconcerting as they were spectacular. It was a profound and often profoundly funny display of awe-inspiring technique matched with witty banter and deep insight into the relationship between audience and performer. In an era where more and more, the act onstage becomes a mere backdrop for social media posturing by wannabes in the crowd, Ju-eh’s generous interaction with the audience had unusual resonance.

He made his entrance from the side of the stage with a soaring aria by Handel over a solo organ recording. Seated centerstage, his verbal sparring partner Hwarg worked a series of mixers and laptop. Although Ju-eh was wearing a skirt, he revealed in a lengthy Q&A after the show that he didn’t choose that to be genderqueer: rather, it was a historical reference to an era when pretty much everyone wore the same robe, or the same daishiki. The rest of the outfit – plain white shirt and blue thermal socks, his hair knotted with a stick – mirrored his background as a Chinese-born New York avant garde artist who’s built a career singing western opera.

He and his collaborator call this piece Living Dying Opera: he lives to sing it, but it’s also killing him sometimes. Self-doubt quickly became a persistent theme, most poignantly portrayed via a plaintive John Dowland version of an old English air. Ju-eh’s voice reached for the rafters with an imploring wail as he crouched in the corner in the darkness, holding a simple lamp, Diogenes-style. On one hand, it’s reassuring to know that someone with such prodigious talent can also be self-critical; on the other, if this guy isn’t satisfied with his achievements, how about us mere mortals?

After the show, he explained that he always wants audiences at his performances to feel loved. That assessment in many respects makes a lot of sense, in that a lot of people go to a performance to transcend, to see themselves in the music or the narrative and come out on the other side to a better place. What he didn’t address is that audiences all too often have other, similarly self-involved reasons for going out. Whether watching something on Facebook Live and texting all your ‘friends” about it confers the same status as taking a selfie at the actual show, with the performer somewhere in the background, is open to debate.

But even with all that talent and that resume, Ju-eh remains a fish out of water, even in the rarefied world of countertenors. He explained that most operatic roles written for men singing in a soprano’s range are antagonists: they’re supposed to sound evil. Ju-eh’s voice, and his style, don’t fit that mold: they’re especially robust, an endless, thick rope ladder reaching into the clouds, with a muscular vibrato to match. Although he’s working in a range usually limited to women, he doesn’t hear his own voice as female, and he shouldn’t: it’s uniquely his.

There were a lot of very amusing, sometimes coy, sometimes disarmingly down-to-earth extemporaneous moments where he and Hwarg discussed how well, or not so well, the show was progressing. There were also points where he took crowd members and put them centerstage, then continued singing from their seats. The most haunting of those moments was when he delivered a stark, aching verse and chorus of Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child from the front row.

The after-show Q&A kept the audience as engaged as the performance itself did. The funniest revelation was that Ju-eh had come up with a brief interlude where he lay on the floor in order to give himself a breather rather than to add any kind of meaning. The man he’d pulled from the crowd to stand onstage – as “Mr. Mango” – confided that he’d encouraged Ju-eh to pick him because he wanted to find out if the other audience members had also been chosen randomly, or if they were shills. Over and over again, Ju-eh’s most existential questions of identity resonated more profoundly than anything else in this provocative encounter sponsored by the New York Chinese Culture Salon.

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February 24, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, experimental music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, opera, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Laurie Anderson at the Town Hall: Perennially Relevant and Hilarious

Mohammed el Gharani was a teenager when he was captured by Pakistani bandits and then sold to Bush-era army troops for five thousand dollars. His case mirrors many if not all of the prisoners in the American Guantanamo gulag. In 2013, Laurie Anderson beamed his image onto a mammoth, Lincoln Memorial-esque setting at the Park Avenue Armory.

Beyond the complications of a live projection from Chad, where el Gharani returned after Reprieve.org worked to secure his release from prison, what Anderson remembered most vividly from the installation was how audiences reacted. She recounts the story in her new book All the Things I Lost in the Flood, whose release she celebrated with a solo show at the Town Hall last night. In a surveillance state, “Crowds have become very much aware of where the camera is,” she reminded.

Those who moved to the front, where their images would be transmitted back to Chad, were mouthing the words “I’m sorry.” It was the one moment in the performance where Anderson appeared to be close to tears. Considering that the book title references the devastating effects of Hurricane Sandy flooding on her basement archive, and also addresses the loss of her husband, Lou Reed, her usual deadpan stoicism in this case carried even more weight than usual.

Anderson’s work has always been intrinsically political, if not in a doctrinaire or sectarian  way. Over and over again, this mostly spoken-word performance reaffirmed that fearless populist sensibility. Her work is also usually outrageously funny, and this greatest hits show of sorts reflected that as well. An archival clip staged in the back of a diner, Anderson musing about the merits of the Star Spangled Banner versus alternative, less stressfully arpeggiated national anthems was as funny as it was back in 1980. More soberingly, she contemplated how Aristophanes’ The Birds might serve as a metaphor for the current administration.

Otherwise, Anderson shared a lot of remarkably candid insight into the nuts and bolts of staging provocative multimedia installations around the world. Homeland Security didn’t waste any time putting a stop to the idea of beaming in images of US prisoners serving life sentences – although the Italian government had given its stamp of approval to that same concept, which eventually springboarded Habeas Corpus, the installation el Gharani appeared in. That’s another typical Anderson trope: more often than not with her, plan B works just as well as plan A.

And she has a way of staying relevant: she allowed herself just a single moment to bask in that, recalling how she’d played her one big radio hit, O Superman, at the Town Hall right after 9/11 and found crowds resonating to it as much as they had during the Iranian hostage crisis twenty years before.

Her musical interludes, played solo on violin with plenty of pitch-shifting effects and layers stashed away digitally, only amounted to about ten uneasily wafting minutes. The stories, one after another, were very revealing, especially for an artist who ultimately doesn’t give much away about herself. As a “burnt-out multimedia artist” in Greece around the turn of the century, she recalled getting up the nerve to ask her Athens guide – a curator at the Parthenon – what happened to the country that invented western civilization. His response? That the Parthenon became so filled with tchotchkes that Athenians took their praying and philosophy private. “You can’t pray in an an art museum,” he explained.

Anderson pondered that and found it shocking. It was just as provocative to be reminded how she’s equated prisons and galleries over the years – both are heavily guarded and meant to keep what’s inside from leaving. On the lighter side, she recalled a late 90s project whose laser-fixated curator staged what could have been “group eye surgery” for extra shock appeal along with the pyrotechnics he’d mastered in the Israeli army.

At the end of the show, she sent out a salute to her husband with a brief tai chi demonstration, reminding how much she missed the banter of 21 years of marriage to a similarly legendary raconteur. One can only hope that if they ever recorded any of that, it survived the flood and future generations might be able to hear it someday.

February 16, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, experimental music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Revealing, Lavishly Illustrated New Book and a Midtown Release Show by Laurie Anderson

Laurie Anderson is the world’s best-loved avant garde artist. Yet as much as her forty-plus year career has encompassed music, art, sculpture, film, video, literature and cutting edge technology, ultimately her work boils down to narratives. Ask anyone what they love about Anderson, and inevitably the first thing they’ll mention is her storytelling. And it’s that keen sense of purpose, that inimitable, dry sense of humor, and that unpretentious, matter-of-fact midwestern sensibility that draws an audience in, that succeed in getting us to think outside the box along with her.

You wouldn’t expect a coffee-table book to be much of a revelation, but that’s exactly what Anderson’s new book All the Things I Lost in the Flood is. A lavishly illustrated, self-curated career retrospective, it’s a rare opportunity to explore the nuts and bolts of how Anderson conceives and then brings a work to life. And it’s hardly self-congratulatory, While out of necessity, she devotes a large proportion of the book to her best-known works – Homeland, United States in its many parts, and Habeas Corpus – she spends just as much time on early projects, some of which weren’t fully realized, others which ran into roadblocks. Either way, it’s a feast of ideas for any artist in any discipline.

Anderson’s impetus for the book – and her new album, Landfall, with the Kronos Quartet – was Hurricane Sandy. In salvaging what was left of her basement full of instruments and memorabilia after the storm, she was thrown into revisitation mode. Obviously, if there’s any living artist who deserves a retrospective at, say, the Met or MOMA, it’s Anderson; in the meantime, this will suffice – and you can take it home with you. Anderson is celebrating the release of the book – just out from Skira Rizzoli – on Feb 15 at 8 PM with a performance including many special guests at the Town Hall. Presumably there will an opportunity to get books signed afterward.

Although Anderson’s work is the antithesis of TMI, she’s surprisingly revealing. As a child, she almost drowned her twin younger brothers in a frozen pond whose ice gave way – and then miraculously saved them. Much as she loves “lossy” media – where the limits of technology interfere with the delivery of an image or an idea – she’s always been fascinated by the state of the art. She was using a lo-fi, landline-based prototype for Skype in 1979…and much as she initially resisted virtual reality and computer language, she has recently delved into both, if with a little prodding from fans who were experts in those fields.

What might be most astonishing here is that Anderson had already pretty much concretized her subtly provocative vision by the early 1970s. A violin filled with water; talking statues with loaded messages (who may well be alter egos); convicted murderers beamed into installations, and her interactive piece featuring a survivor of Guantanamo torture hell during the Bush years, are all chronicled here.

The visuals are just as fascinating. The black-and-white photos from 1972 forward say a lot. The young Anderson, it turns out was just as calmly determined as the famous one Americans know much better. There are also all sorts of sketches, diagrams, stage directions and plenty of tour photos. The latter, many of them outlandishly large onstage, don’t translate to the format of the book as well, but the rest are a literal how-to guide for inspired multimedia artists.

And she’s hilarious. Both the anecdotes and the offhand sociological commentary are choice. Having memorized a Japanese translation of one of her spoken-word pieces, she discovers during a Japanese tour that the guy who gave her the cassette to memorize had a bad stutter – which she dutifully copied. Although she’s hardly convinced that her fulfillment of an early 70s grant – playing solo violin, unamplified on the Upper East Side of Manhattan – was any kind of success, there’s a charming photo of some chivalrous gentleman passing the hat for her. Many of the jokes are too good, and still valid after many years, to give away here.

And relevance has always been front and center in her work – from the coy, sardonic questions of her early 70s work, to her hit single O Superman – a cynical look at Jimmy Carter’s failed attempt at a rescue during the Iranian hostage crisis – to the sinister implications of global warming in Landfall.

Much as this is a very funny book, a sobering undercurrent lingers. It’s one thing to lose the record stores that used to sell Anderson’s albums; it’s another to lose the bookstores she had in every city, that she relished visiting between gigs while on tour. She quotes Karl Rove, referencing how fake news has been part of the totalitarian agenda long before the current Presidential administration. And much as she has come to employ new technology, she’s dismayed by social media’s atomizing and alienating effects. Anderson herself is not on Facebook.

February 13, 2018 Posted by | Art, avant garde music, experimental music, Literature, Music, music, concert, photography, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Playfully Rapturous Duo Performance by Bora Yoon and Florent Ghys

While enigmatic, surrealistic multi-instrumentalist and singer Bora Yoon is known for her eclectic improvisations, it’s obvious that she puts a great deal of thought into how she stages them. It could be said that she personifies Stravinsky’s old comment about composition simply being improvisation written down. So the funniest moment at her duo performance last week at Greenwich House Music School in the West Village with bassist Florent Ghys might well have been scripted. But maybe it wasn’t. Midway through an atmospheric, magically otherworldly number, Ghys – who had been supplying wispy atmospherics – playfully took a couple of steps over to Yoon’s mixing board and fiddled with it. If this was a joke, she took it in stride. If it wasn’t, she deserves an Oscar for her split-second “Don’t. You. Dare. Do. That. Again.” glance in Ghys’ direction. It’s the kind of moment you can expect at the venue’s currently weekly Uncharted festival of avant garde sounds. The installment this Thursday, May 5 at 7:30 PM features deviously fun cabaret/chamber pop chanteuse Grace McLean singing selections from her forthcoming Hildegard Von Bingen opera In the Green. $15 cover includes open bar – which last week amounted to a couple of beers before the show, although McLean draws a boisterous young crowd who might indulge more than they did at the raptly ethereal performance by Yoon and Ghys.

The bassist had the good sense to leave centerstage to his counterpart. His signature trope is loopmusic, a very difficult act to pull off live. Ghys displayed great timing and a perfect memory, deftly layering his usual blend of atmospheric washes and balletesque pulse, employing lots of effects and extended technique. Yoon debuted a lot of new material, spicing it with a couple of ethereal, celestial Hildegard choral works from her magical 2015 album Sunken Cathedral. Methodically and mysteriously, she moved from violin, to Stroh violin, piano, and eventually her eerily keening collection of singing bowls, which she used to recreate the haunting microtonal ambience of an earlier work from about fifteen years ago.

What was most striking was how much fun Yoon was having. While much of her material has a puckish sense of humor, her larger-scale, site-specific performances tend to be heavy on the gravitas. Empowerment, and an uneasy relationship with the more traditional aspects of her roots as a Korean-American woman artist, are recurrent themes in her work. Left to her instruments and mixer in a relatively unfamiliar space, without working its nooks and crannies to max out the reverb and resonance and decay, she concentrated on tunes, tersely and somewhat minimalistically, rising to a final cathedral-like coda She’d finally brought the mighty edifice above the surface.

May 3, 2016 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Characteristically Vivid, Potently Relevant Performance by Ensemble Pi

For the past ten years, adventurous indie classical chamber group Ensemble Pi have played an annual “peace concert,” featuring socially relevant compositions from across the years as well as most of the classical music spectrum. This year’s sold-out multimedia performance Saturday night in the comfortable downstairs auditorium at the Sheen Center on Bleecker Street explored music and writing on themes of captivity and imprisonment. In an era when the Guantanamo Bay gulag is still open, and in a city where atrocities on Rikers Island have recently come to light, it was especially relevant, played with equal amounts vividness and attention to the underlying content.

Which was harrowing. Group impresario/pianist Idith Meshulam led a sextet comprising cellist Alexis Gerlach, clarinetist Moran Katz, violinist Airi Yoshioka, trumpeter Sycil Mathai and vibraphonist Bill Trigg through the thorny, endlessly looping Coming Together, Frederic Rzewski’s portrait of the 1971 Attica prison uprising. An illustration of the crushing tedium and repetition of prison life, it’s cruelly difficult difficult to play. But Meshulam and her steely right hand were undaunted by the challenge of its endlessly metronomic pulse and dizzying permutations. Meanwhile, actor Joseph Assadourian narrated the text, a similarly looping quote from a letter by inmate Sam Melville, killed when troops and police stormed the prison. Later in the program, Assadourian provided his own blackly amusing chronicle of arbitrary judicial conduct in New York criminal court.

Eleanor Cory‘s poignant, carefully voiced short work Riker’s Island, for piano, clarinet, cello and violin, was preceded by a similarly troubling account of women’s prison, read by poet Ashley Mote. The program wound up auspiciously with an unexpectedly and very strongly dynamic rendition of Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, in fact so dynamic that it seemed as if the group was playing it at a much faster tempo than it was written for. As it turned out, they didn’t, but the effect was visceral. Messiaen famously composed it in the men’s latrine in a Nazi prison camp in 1941, not knowing that he’d survive or be released. its instrumentation derives from the fact that clarinet, violin, cello and piano just happened to be the instruments played by the prisoners who debuted it.

Considering how unorthodox this lineup is, the piece is relatively rarely staged. It’s even harder for a musician to wrap his or her hands around since the group playing it is usually a pickup band, more or less. But Meshulam and the rest of her quartet left no doubt that they’d internalized Messiaen’s angst, and muted terror, and also his defiance. On the surface, like pretty much everything else the composer wrote, it traces a liturgical theme, but it’s also the story of a successful prison break. Katz animatedly voiced the birdsong beyond Messiaen’s cell window, not to mention his anguish at not being able to see his feathered friends…and all the subtext that image carries. Likewise, Meshulam scampered animatedly through the tiptoeing, furtive theme that recurs just before the rapt, awestruck conclusion – which seemed to pass by in a heartbeat rather than lingering as other groups tend to do with it. It’s hard to think of a more apt way to close such an impactful, meaningful program.

October 14, 2015 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bora Yoon Holds the Crowd Spellbound at La MaMa

Bora Yoon is a connoisseur of high, ringing sounds, and the things that make them. Wednesday night at La MaMa, in the first of a four-day run of her new program Sunken Cathedral, she employed her signature instrument, singing bowls, in addition to rattles, chimes, a music box, pizzicato violin and several items typically found on the stove or in the cupboard. She also played piano, tersely and evocatively, in a thoroughly opiated Erik Satie-meets-Cab Calloway vein, acting out a surrealistic, shadowy, existential one-woman play of sorts against a shapeshifting prerecorded backdrop incorporating both electronic atmospherics and snatches of material from her enveloping, enigmatic new album from which the production takes its name.

Onstage, the exit and re-entry point was the grandfather clock in the corner, giving Yoon the chance to change costumes – and also allow for flitting appearances by a male dancer dressed in traditional Korean garb, complete with twirling tassel atop his colorful cap. Yoon bookended the performance with pre-renaissance vocal works augmented by atmospherics: she has a crystalline chorister’s voice and held the sold-out crowd rapt along with her. In between, she took brief detours into brooding art-rock, lengthy, nebulous vocalese sculptures and a couple of horror-film interludes complete with scary shadow puppetry and projections. Early on, she got an almost imperceptible doppler effect going with what looked like a crystal on a spinning turntable, a more subtle take on an old Andrew Bird shtick.

The theme of the album – recently reviewed here – and the show are something along the lines of “if you don’t make your life happen, it’ll happen to you.” Despite the pretty relentlessly moody ambience, what was most striking was how absolutely hilarious Yoon can be. A couple of momentary appearances by Yoon’s mom speaking animated Koreanglish into her voicemail drew predictable chuckles. But the funniest sequence involved a countertop, an oven and the things around it. The sight gags were priceless, and it wouldn’t be fair to spoil them – suffice it to say that Yoon is hardly the first person to peel and then munch on a carrot while singing, but she didn’t let it throw her off, pitchwise or otherwise, no small achievement. The rest of the La MaMa run, continuing through tomorrow night as part of this year’s Prototype Festival, is sold out, but there is a wait list and several people on that list made it into Wednesday’s show.

January 16, 2015 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, drama, experimental music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Classic Small Beast Reunion of Sorts

Is it possible to be nostalgic for something that happened just four years ago? Is nostalgia a healthy emotion to begin with? Probably not. But with this week being the four-year anniversary of Small Beast, seeing that date memorialized Monday night upstairs at the Delancey brought back fond memories of the weekly series’ glory days here in New York. Botanica frontman Paul Wallfisch – this era’s finest rock keyboardist – founded the night in 2008 as a solo residency, followed by an endless cavalcade of some of New York’s, and the world’s, finest and darkest rock acts. This evening was a fond reminder of what an amazing run Small Beast had up to the summer of 2010, when Wallfisch took his show on the road to Germany. He now runs the State Theatre in Dortmund, which also serves as the European base for the Beast.

The night opened explosively with Valerie Kuehne. She’s part punk classical cellist, part performance artist, but her performance art isn’t the foofy, mannered kind – it’s oldschool 80s style and it has fangs. And it’s hilarious. Whether or not Kraft pasteurized processed American cheese qualifies as food, or how yoga has been transformed from oasis of relaxation to yuppie clusterfuck, might seem obvious. But Kuehne’s rapidfire rants about both were irresistibly funny all the way through to the punchlines…and then she played a roaring solo cello piece that became surprisingly lyrical, as violinist Jeffrey Young strolled in through the audience, and then she and accomplice Esther Neff  donned masks and handed out instructions to the audience. Which turned out to be a cruel kind of dada – watching the crowd make fools of themselves, looking up at them from the floor of the club (music bloggers aren’t immune to being spoofed) was almost as funny. Then she and Neff ran off to Cake Shop, where they were doing another show.

Martin Bisi cautioned before his duo improvisation with fellow guitarist Ernest Anderson that it might be “sleepy.” Nightmarish, maybe, but definitely not sleepy: fifteen seconds into it, and Bisi hit a ringing tritone and then sent it spiraling devilishly through the mix as Anderson anchored the ambience with keening layers of sustain from his ebow. Meanwhile, Bisi slammed out chords when he wasn’t building a murky, echoey cauldron of implied melody. And then in a raised middle finger to the sound system, he stuck his guitar in his amp and mixed the noise through a labyrinth of bleeding, pulsing effects. Although he’s not known as a jam guy – epic dark songcraft is his thing – he’s actually a tremendously entertaining improviser who never plays the same thing the same way twice. Jamming out soundscapes is probably the last thing he or anybody who knows his music would expect him to be doing, but this was good trippy fun.

Roman Wallfisch was the star of this show. The guitarist son of the night’s impresario has been playing banjo for a couple of weeks now, and he’s already figured out all sorts of cool voicings mixing old folk tropes with new rock ones. He casually made his way through a couple of shambling narratives, Monsoon Season and Parts of Speech, both songs showing off a wryly surreal lyrical sensibility and a wicked sense of melody: the apple obviously didn’t fall far from the tree. Oh yeah – in case you’re wondering, Roman Wallfisch is fourteen years old.

And the Wiremen – in a duo performance with guitarist/bandleader Lynn Wright and violinist Jon Petrow – could have been anticlimactic, but they weren’t.  Wright’s plaintive English/Spanish vocals over broodingly jangly, reverb-toned southwestern gothic melodies were as surrealistically dusky as ever. Wright held the crowd rapt with a quiet new song and ended the set with Sleep, which seems to be a cautionary tale, Petrow’s even more reverb-drenched lines raising the sepulchral ambience as high as anything sepulchral can go.

Guitarist Alexander Hacke and electric autoharpist Danielle Depicciotto treated the crowd to an equally brooding southwestern gothic ballad and then Cuckoo, the old Austrian folk song, complete with yodeling. Noir cabaret personality Little Annie was supposed to be next, but she was under the weather, so pianist Wallfisch was  joined by another brilliant dark chanteuse, Sally Norvell, whose takes of three haunting tracks from her duo album with him a few years back were lustrous and riveting, running the gamut from joyously torchy and seductive to funereal.

Wallfisch wrapped up the night with the kind of intuitively eclectic mix that defined the Beast for a couple of years, capturing the raw innocence of the Kinks’ Waterloo Sunset and the apprehension of Dylan’s Blind Willie McTell before a wry Little Annie Christmas song, the furtive gypsy punk of the Botanica song Money (from their latest, towering, intense album What Do You Believe In) and then the scorching gypsy punk of How, a crowd-pleaser from the old days. Petrow made another ghostly cameo or two. By now, it was after one in the morning, so Wallfisch wrapped up the evening with the nocturne Past One O’Clock (an audience request), the towering anthem Judgment (centerpiece of the new album) and a gorgeously brooding new number inspired by – among other things – the college kid in New Jersey who lept to his death from a bridge after being outed as gay. If there’s any lesson to take away from this show, it’s carpe diem: if there’s a scene this vital that you hang out in, don’t hide yourself at home, even if it’s Monday night. It could be gone sooner than you think.

January 9, 2013 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music, small beast | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

John Kelly’s Escape Artist Cheats Death

John Kelly’s latest performance piece The Escape Artist, currently playing at PS 122 through April 30, is one of his most memorable, a depiction of an artist escaping into a dream world of Caravaggio imagery as he lies immobilized on a hospital gurney in the wake of a possibly catastrophic trapeze accident. As with Kelly’s recent portrayal of Egon Schiele, it’s imbued with Kelly’s signature blend of wit and darkness. Kelly’s initial inspiration for the piece was an encounter with a Caravaggio painting, and how the painter’s modus operandi was to find beauty in the most grotesque and macabre. Years later, Kelly’s own narrow escape from a potentially lethal trapeze accident provided the impetus to bring the work to completion. As Kelly took care to explain, this piece is more inspired by Caravaggio than any attempt to depict him, considering how little we know today about his life, plus the fact that Kelly alluded to not feeling particularly close to him, at least biographically.

What might be most impressive about Kelly’s performance here is that except for a single song, he sings the entire piece lying flat on his back (if you think that’s easy, try it and see how much luck you have hitting all the notes in the wide, three-octave range that Kelly explores, top to bottom, and nails every time). A lithe, well-muscled, youthful presence, his ability to transcend the terror of possible paralysis and maybe even death via an irrepressible joie de vivre and gallows humor as he stares at the ceiling is genuinely inspiring. Behind Kelly, Jeff Morey’s video design puts Kelly’s own face front and center, looking up, between two screens featuring a revolving cast of actors depicting gently playful homoerotic tableaux based on Caravaggio themes.

The narrative could be a lot of things – mawkish, terrified, tormented or even pathetic – but Kelly refuses to give in. As the torment grows, so does the surreal humor in his perceptions. Unable to see anything more than what’s above him, he grows to rely on his other senses to pick up on his grim surroundings: the drunks bleeding from the car crash, the nurse flatly trying to calm the demented senile patient as she may have done dozens of times before, the junkie in the adjacent bed who perhaps predictably has managed to draw everyone’s attention. Kelly intersperses a series of vividly plaintive songs, all but two of the originals with melodies by the queen of Coney Island phantasmagoria, Carol Lipnik, whose vocals also appear behind Kelly along with John DiPinto on piano, accordion and flute, Nioka Workman on cello and Justin Smith on violin.

The songs alone are reason to see this show. The Dazzling Darkness, with its eerie Pink Floyd piano gives Kelly a launching pad for his soaring upper register as a choir of voices echoes behind him hypnotically when it reaches its closing crescendo. The amusing yet disconcerting noir 60s pop of Cupid Song comes along just as Kelly looks up to see a strange figure – or hallucination – who’s just stopped in to say that he cares. Cara Vaggio brings back a hypnotic cello-driven ambience that leaps to an anthemic chorus; DiPinto’s austere arrangement of Oblivion Soave – music by Claudio Monteverdi, words by Giovanni Francesco Busenello – puts Kelly’s crystalline choirboy delivery front and center. The funniest of these is Kelly’s own Profit Blues, musing on what jobs – ones that pay, and ones that don’t – might be lost as a result of paralysis or convalescence. Eventually, a clever out-of-body experience materializes, captured as psychedelic piano pop: “I am the watcher,” Kelly muses.

The best of the Lipnik/Kelly collaborations is the unselfconsciously haunting All That’s Left, a September song set overlooking the Hudson (New York is a constant if frequently elusive presence here). The best of all of them is Kelly’s solo piece, a title track of sorts, which he plays solo on Stratocaster, an austere 1960s psychedelic folk melody filtered through a thick cloud of reverb and sustain. “When I hear all the shallow talk, should I aim or just should I just shoot the breeze…Could I leave this city island, penetrate its water wall?” he asks. By now it’s clear how this will end. There’s also a gloriously terse, noir version of John Barry’s You Only Live Twice that appears as something of a surprise. Directed starkly by Dudley Saunders, less Renaissance Italy than 80s afterdark New York, Saint Vincent’s style, it’s a must-see for anyone who gets that reference.

April 22, 2011 Posted by | concert, drama, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music, theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Bowls Project Summons the Spirits

It’s hard to resist a group who feature a bass clarinet as prominently as Charming Hostess do. Their album The Bowls Project is the brainchild of frontwoman Jewlia Eisenberg. Stagy, intense and eclectic, it’s part performance art and part what you might call Middle Eastern gothic, with noir cabaret, punk and metal edges. It’s best appreciated as a whole and may be a lot more interesting with a visual element (these related videos offer evidence that it is). In the meantime, the album is out on Tzadik. Eisenberg is not a natural singer, but she rises to the challenge of these unpredictable, narrative songs with a relentless brassiness and punk energy. The themes explore the ceremonial and ritual use of household bowls in ancient Jewish culture in the Holy Land, for fertility, protection from evil spirits, health and good luck. The band is sensational: Jenny Scheinman and Megan Weeder on violins; Jessica Troy on viola; Marika Hughes on cello; Shahzad Ismaily on guitar, Jason Ditzian on that bass clarinet in place of a bass and Ches Smith on drums.

The first couple of numbers are dramatic, exploding into grand guignol, much in the vein of Vera Beren’s recent work; with its screechy strings, the second seems to be an exorcism of some sorts. Ismaily interpolates skronk with rockabilly on the third cut; Malakha, which follows, begins as an uneasy lullaby before the fireworks begin. They take a cue from Led Zep on their version of the old English folksong Gallows Pole, move after that to a proggy dance, a slowly crescendoing funeral march that evokes Persian-American art-rocker Haale, and then the gothic partita O Barren One: “For once the angel of death must flee,” Eisenberg announces at the end. The rest of the album includes a really gorgeous, 1960s soul song, Ismaily doing a sweet Steve Cropper imitation; a couple of minimalist, Siouxsie-esque numbers with a lot of chanting; a darkly Bollywood-flavored anthem and a noirish Tom Waitsy blues with surfy baritone guitar. You want something that covers the stylistic map? It’s hard to imagine anyone doing that more than this group does here.

September 15, 2010 Posted by | avant garde music, experimental music, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Music with a View at the Flea Theatre, NYC 5/2/10

Pianist Kathleen Supové puts these bills together, an imprimatur that instantly signals both innovation and fun. Sunday afternoon’s show at the Flea Theatre incorporated elements of prose and drama along with all kinds of characteristically out-of-the-box musical ideas, sort of a mini-Bang on a Can marathon. The concert began arrestingly with Portable by Paula Matthusen, performed by eight people, each toting a specially designed radio receiver or transmitter encased in a vintage suitcase, filing around a la Phil Kline’s Unsilent Night in what would have been total darkness except for the players’ flashlights. At its most innocuous, it sounded like a chorus of hair dryers or an industrial-size vaccuum cleaner, but those moments came early and disappeared quickly. The rest was an increasingly disquieting blend of white noise with the occasional doppler-like effect, something akin to being blindsided by a heavy truck blasting down Canal Street at four in the morning, or just the hint of a radio broadcast, distant echoes of station promos or commercials. It made a pointedly effective commentary on how surrounded we are by a rather sinister, labyrinthine mosaic of data exchanges.

Rocco Di Pietro’s Rajas for John Cage, a new piece, featured Mike Brown on upright bass, Bill Cook on ragini (a harmonium of sorts), Robert Dick on flutes, Ryan Jewell getting a luminous resonance out of his cymbals by running a long dowel against their edges, Larry Marotta plucking a violin in the style of a Japanese biwa, and Di Pietro providing recitations interspersed with rhythmic bursts on sheng or harmonica. The stories frequently took on a parable vibe – sometimes they hit the mark, sometimes they didn’t but a lot of them had an irresistible, puckish humor. A drag queen freaking out in a San Francisco Chinatown restaurant, a crafty driver finding an innovative and somewhat cruel way to quiet a noisy busload of school kids, and a small handful wartime references that would have been as relevant in the Vietnam era as today were some of the highlights. Meanwhile, the ensemble improvised against a nebulous, quasi-Asian drone, only the violin or bass occasionally providing ornamentation, sometimes introducing a new rhythm for the rest of the group to ponder or subtly alter. Otherwise, it was a frequently hypnotic exercise in horizontality, careful listening and collaboration.

A performance piece by instrument inventor Ranjit Bhatnagar and Asami Tamura was titled Five Leaves…hmmm, now which plant could that possibly be? That leaf, or, more aptly, bud, was featured as the basis for one of “five variations on mechanical and organic improvisation, for toy, handmade and robotic instruments.” The other leafy stuff included fern, seaweed, catnip and gingko (“Ancient lullabies that stink in the fall”), but it was the most obvious one that seemed to drive this particular piece. Beginning at the piano, Tamura took a stab at a pretty, Scarlatti-esque melody against a similar laptop loop and the two quickly separated, never to return. But maybe that was the point. After that, she and Bhatnagar meowed at each other (that was the catnip talking), carried on an animated conversation via primitive, battery-powered toys that made a silly, theremin-like sound, treated the audience to a simulated drum solo played on a hunk of paper, a demonstration of how cool it is when you add reverb to the sound of pouring water, and an endless succession of similarly unexpected, random devices. It was impossible not to laugh, and the crowd loved it, especially the kids. The only thing missing was a toilet. The gingko piece was last, an overlay of music boxes straight out of the scariest part of an early talkie film – or a Siouxsie and the Banshees record.

Gold Ocean, by Tan Dun and Ken Ueno, seemingly a reworking of a Hawaiian fable, was intriguing musically: it would have been rewarding to find out how they created their tortuously oscillating atmospherics. But practically everything was on a laptop – which poses the obvious question, why bother to stage it at all? An interminable, stilted “libretto,” as joyless as it was pointless, only detracted from what could have been a successful mood change after the hilarity of the previous piece – but in this case Bhatnagar and Tamura proved an impossible act to follow. There was another act scheduled afterward, but the poor guy’s laptop wasn’t working and by then it was well past five and time to exit regretfully into the heat. The Music with a View series wraps up on June 6 at 3 PM at the Flea with music and dance by Michael Evans and Susan Hefner as well as works by Nick Didkovsky and Elan Vytal.

May 3, 2010 Posted by | concert, experimental music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment