Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Art and Craft – A Deviously Entertaining Documentary with a Killer Soundtrack

The tagline for the film Art and Craft is “What’s it like to catch a fake?” The front page of the film’s promo site shows notorious art forger Mark Landis walking, dejectedly hunched, away from the camera, away from his late mother’s red Cadillac, a vehicle that’s part and parcel of the cover for his dubious activities. Sam Cullman and Jennifer Grausman’s delightfully devious, provocative documentary opens by following Landis as he dupes yet another one of the literally dozens of museum curators he’s been fooling for decades.

Landis operates in a grey area. The FBI elects not to prosecute, since he doesn’t sell his forgeries. Instead, he gives them away. His copies – mostly of more-or-less obscure works by regional American artists – are stashed away in the collections of dozens of museums across the country. Landis describes his work as “philanthropy,” although the gift of a fake Picasso is a gift horse at best – and puts the forger on the hot seat if the piece might be sold, or used as collateral. As becomes apparent early on, Landis is crazy – like a fox. Diagnosed as a schizophrenic and required to regularly check into his local mental health clinic – who, rather hilariously, don’t seem to have the foggiest idea of who he is – he seems content with being, as they say, “on the spectrum.”

The film is a clinic in “show, don’t tell” cinematography. Cullman and Grausman give the main participants plenty of screen time to explain themselves. Landis has a pity party going on, and it’s possible that he’s roped the filmmakers into his scheme (no spoilers here). As he explains, haltingly, he’s just a poor downtrodden weirdo whose only joy in life is the rush he gets when museum curators gush over him. To fortify himself on his expeditions, he carries jug wine in a milk of magnesia bottle: “I’m not going to drink this when I’m driving,” he sheepishly tells the camera. What everyone involved acknowledges, often grudgingly, is that Landis is a genuinely talented artist and illustrator. What’s hard to reconcile- and what everybody ends up asking him – is why he doesn’t simply do his own work. Landis weasels his way out of coming clean on that score.

His antagonist is Cincinnati curator Matthew Leininger, a tireless and rather tragic figure who ends up losing his job over his quest to put an end to Landis’ tricks – the art world seems to be united in their desire to avoid acknowledging that Landis, and others like him, could ever puncture their airtight milieu. That might explain why the forger gets more time in the spotlight here than they do. Meanwhile, Leininger is relentless. In a stroke of incredible irony, the tug-of-war reaches an electrifying peak when Leininger becomes involved with curating the first-ever Mark Landis retrospective, probably the biggest single exhibition of fakes the art world has ever seen. Embattled but unbowed, Leininger makes for a very solitary hero. Meanwhile, the filmmakers give everybody else plenty of rope, sit back and watch the fun.

Stephen Ulrich‘s score is another reason to see the film: as purist noir theme and variations, it ranks with the best work of Bernard Herrmann, John Barry or Angelo Badalamenti’s David Lynch scores. It deserves a release as a stand-alone recording. It’s Lynchian in the purest sense of the word, a series of very simple, very poignant themes and variations that perfectly match the cat-and-mouse game as it unwinds. Ulrich – who leads cult favorite noir instrumental trio Big Lazy – plays guitar, backed by an ensemble of A-list downtown New York types including Mick Rossi on keys, Andrew Hall on bass, Dean Sharenow on drums, plus strings and brass.Peter Hess’ moody bass clarinet gets some of the juiciest, most noir moments as the group moves with a brooding meticulousness through jaunty if uneasy swing jazz, bittersweet pastorales, furtive highway tableaux and the occasional detour into the raw, reverbtoned horror that Ulrich has mined so effectively throughout a career as one of the most distinctive composers in film music. Ulrich never allows a sense of resolution, leaving listeners to draw their own conclusions, just as the filmmakers do with their narrative.

The film is currently held over in New York and Los Angeles and is screening nationally: the complete list of theatres is here.

October 3, 2014 Posted by | Film, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ljova and Fireworks Ensemble Revisit and Reinvent the Rite of Spring

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.

August 11, 2013 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Barbez Brings Paul Celan to Life in Midtown

Stark, often haunting, eclectic Brooklyn band Barbez have explored several different styles: Tom Waits-ish cabaret, Big Lazy-style noir soundtracks and most recently gypsy rock. The incarnation that played the Austrian Cultural Forum in midtown Thursday night is the most interesting yet. Along with the encores, the show brought to life the band’s the most recent Tzadik album Force of Light, a musical companion to a series of poems by Holocaust survivor Paul Celan. Celan wrote in German – his original language – and met with considerable criticism for it. His earlier work is graceful, meticulously constructed and haunted; his later poems are considerably gnomic. He asserted that language was a sanctuary of sorts for him, the only way to make sense of the horrors he’d witnessed, including the murder of his parents in a death camp. Celan committed suicide in 1970. This version of the band – leader Dan Kaufman on guitar and lapsteel, Peter Hess on clarinet and bass clarinet, Danny Tunick on vibraphone and marimba, Peter Lettre on bass, John Bollinger on drums, the Quavers‘ Catherine McRae on violin – played in mostly minor keys alongside Cassie Tunick’s matter-of-fact narration.

The first song, Shibboleth set the stage for what was to follow, a succinct, distantly klezmer-tinged, fingerpicked acoustic guitar theme that expanded with subtle variations: it made an apt soundtrack for the accompanying poem, an imagistic cautionary tale. Kaufman switched to Strat for the album’s title track – the accompanying poem is cynical, Sysyphian and death-obsessed, the instrumental slow, swaying and austere with a violin lead track in place of Pamelia Kurstin’s theremin on the studio version, Tunick’s vibes signaling a desperate stampede down to a troubled, repetitive outro. Aspen Trees, based on Celan’s dedication to his mother, was an understated dirge driven by clarinet and another strikingly terse, melodic central hook by Kaufman. Based on two late poems, Corner of Time maintained the plaintive atmosphere with a stately sway, everyone in the band adding off-kilter accents in turn.

Count the Almonds, an allusion to a popular ghetto snack, was the most overtly klezmer-inflected composition of the night, utilizing intricately tremoloing vibraphone passages to build crescendos to one final swell with the drums going full tilt, then down and out with surprising gentleness. Their take on The Black Forest was funky and enlivened with all kinds of dynamic shifts; Conversation in the Mountains – based on Celan’s only known prose piece, was a long, doomed cruise to nowhere. The last of the Celan pieces, Sky Beetle gave Hess a long runway to launch a gliding, hypnotic bass clarinet passage evocative of hypnotic avant-chamber ensemble Redhooker. They encored with a brightly apprehensive chase scene of sorts based on an ancient Roman Jewish melody, and a surfy, creepily phantasmagorical take on an Alfred Schnittke piece. The polyglot crowd in the auditorium wanted more despite the fact that after about an hour and a half onstage, the band had literally heated up the room.

May 18, 2011 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Raptly Watching Redhooker at Littlefield

“Usually our music is described as brooding, and dark, and melancholic,” Redhooker frontman/guitarist Stephen Griesgraber told the hushed crowd at Littlefield late in their show Saturday night. “This one’s not,” he grinned, and led the atmospheric avant-chamber group into a long, carefree, bucolic, absolutely gorgeous instrumental that he said was about fish. Fluid ripples flying from his fingers as he picked, he eventually ceded the distantly bluegrass-tinged melody to new keyboardist Derek Muro and his Fender Rhodes, the violins of Andie Springer and Maxim Moston managing to be simultaneously animated and hypnotic. It perfectly capsulized the mood they’d set early on and maintained throughout their set. Their latest album Vespers is aptly titled, a still, ambient series of nocturnes. Onstage this time around they took them to a land of midnight sun, imbuing them with a quiet joy.

What’s even better is that the band has started improvising live, with tremendously captivating results. Everyone was using his or her effects pedals, Griesgraber experimenting with drones, loops and sheets of feedback which he’d use to ease the compositions in to the point where a violin or two, or Muro’s organ, would add a texture or a single complementary note or phrase, pedaling or sustaining it depending on what the rest of the band was doing. Bedside, a trance-inducing rondo, got a stretched-out treatment which emphasized both its baroque roots and cinematic sweep. The sheer volume of the songs was one transformative aspect, the band digging in a little for a wider dynamic spectrum than on the album, Griesgraber reaching for a little extra oomph as the strings would swell, Peter Hess’ bass clarinet weaving in and out of the melody when he wasn’t anchoring it with a low drone or a contrapuntal bassline of sorts. At one point, the whole group had their pedals going, Hess tapping on the body of his instrument, adding yet another level of reverberating, pointillistic rhythm while Springer tossed off some sparks with some judicious pizzicato phrasing. Much of what they play could be characterized as horizontal or minimalist, but horizontality doesn’t often offer the opportunity for this kind of interplay or just plain fun. The crowd was rapt all the way through. It would have been interesting to stick around for headliner Kelli Rudick, who was schedule to hit at around eleven, but the threat of a midnight domino effect on the trains (you never know with the MTA – trains on the way there, ostensibly completely FUBAR, were fine) was reason to err on the side of caution instead of further adventure. And Redhooker would have been a hard act to follow in any case.

September 27, 2010 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment