Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Sarah Small’s Provocative Secondary Dominance: Highlight of This Year’s Prototype Festival

Sarah Small’s work draws you in and then makes you think. It says, “Get comfortable, but not too comfortable.” It questions, constantly. Throughout her fascinating, understatedly provocative multimedia work Secondary Dominance last night at Here – part of this year’s Prototype Festival – there was so much happening onstage that the leader of the Q&A afterward confessed to having a page worth of notes and no idea where to start.

Executive produced by Rachelle Cohen, the roughly hourlong performance began immediately as the audience settled into their seats, a warm, lustrous voice singing a gorgeous love song in Arabic wafting over the PA. Who was responsible for this gentle and reassuring introduction? It turned out to be Small’s Black Sea Hotel bandmate Shelley Thomas, seated stage right with an assortment of drums and percussion implements.

About midway through, the composer herself emerged from behind her two keyboards and mixing desk – mounted on a podium colorfully decorated like a curbside shrine out of the George Lucas universe – and stooped over, to the side as a trio of dancers – Jennifer Keane, Eliza S. Tollett and Carmella Lauer, imaginatively choreographed by Vanessa Walters – floated on their toes. Meanwhile, Small’s chalked-up collaborator Wade McCollum lurked tenuously behind her as her calmly uneasy vocalese mingled with the atmospherics looming from Marta Bagratuni’s cello, Peter Hess’ flute and Thomas’ voice and drums. A simultaneous projection of the action onstage played on a screen overhead, capturing Small’s lithely muscular, spring-loaded presence in shadowy three-quarter profile.

McCollum’s wordless narrative behind Small’s music explores power dynamics, memory and family tension. Gloria Jung and Henry Packer exuded regal integrity and a stolidity that cut both ways:  there was a moment where someone tried to pry something out of someone’s hand that was as cruelly funny as it was quietly vaudevillian. Ballet school, its rigors and demands was another metaphorically-loaded, recurrent motif, and the dancers held up under duress while barely breaking a sweat. McCollum’s ghostly character didn’t emerge from a fetal position until the spectacle had been underway for awhile, which ended up transcending any ordinary, otherworldly association.

What was otherworldly was the music, which, characteristically, spans the worlds of indie classical, art-rock and the Balkan folk traditions that Small has explored so vividly, as a singer, arranger and composer since her teens. What’s most notable about this surreal, nonlinear suite is that while it encompasses Balkan music – with brief, acerbic, closer harmonies sung by Small, Thomas, Bagratuni and McCollum, in addition to a projection of a lustrously lit seaside Black Sea Hotel music video directed by Josephine Decker  – the majority of it draws on western influences. Inspired by a series of dreams and an enigmatic, recurrent character named Jessica Brainstorm – who may be an alter ego – the sequence has the same cinematic sweep as Small’s work for the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, grounded by Bagratuni’s austere, sometimes grim low register, Hess sailing warily overhead, sometimes mingling with the voices and electronic ambience. As the show went on, the music grew more detailed, with interludes ranging from gently pulsing, midtempo 80s darkwave, to rippling nocturnal themes evocative of Tuatara’s gamelanesque mid-90s psychedelia.

The work as a whole is a stunning example of how Small so often becomes the focal point of a collaboration that brings out the best in everyone involved.  Over the years, these efforts cross a vast swath of art forms: from her playfully ambitious body of photography in the early zeros, to Black Sea Hotel, to her surrealistically sinister starring role in Decker’s cult classic suspense/slasher film Butter on the Latch, and her lavish “tableaux vivants” staged earlier in this decade, equal parts living sculpture, slo-mo dance flashmob, dada theatre and fearless exploration of intimacy in an era of atomization, data mining and relentless surveillance. Small and McCollum have plans for both a more small-scale, “chamber version” of this piece as well as an epic 1200-person version for the Park Avenue Armory, still in the early stages of development. For now, you can be provoked and thoroughly entertained at the remaining three performances at 9 PM, tonight, Jan 12 through 14 in the downstairs theatre at Here, 145 6th Ave south of Spring (enter on Dominick Street). Cover is $30.

January 12, 2017 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, dance, drama, experimental music, gypsy music, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Sardonically Sinister Evening with Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society

It was a grim, grey day, sticky with global warming-era humidity. No sinister force could have conjured a more appropriate atmosphere for a concert inspired by conspiracy theories. As the eighteen-piece Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society assembled onstage this evening at National Sawdust for the album release show for their new one, Real Enemies, the trumpeters clustered around the piano, back to the audience. What on earth were they conspiring about?

The opened the show by playing into the piano: in other words, blowing into an echo chamber. The hint of natural reverb enhanced the squirrelly exchange of brass phrases, and the visual matched the music. This wasn’t the chattering groupthink that would recur several times, to mighty effect, throughout the concert, a performance of the new album in its entirety. Rather, this seemed to be a portrait of a paranoid personality, or personalities, all lost in their own universes and echoing only themselves. On album, the effect is unsettling; live, it was nothing short of comedic. But nobody in the crowd laughed.

The group’s previous album, Brooklyn Babylon, blended rat-a-tat Balkan brass, sardonically loopy prog-rock riffage, even more savage faux-pageantry and a blustery unease. This new album is closer to Stravinsky or Shostakovich in its darkest moments, which predominate what’s essentially a contiguous thirteen-part suite best experienced as a whole. The project, drawing on Kathryn Olmsted’s 2009 book Real Enemies, first took shape as a multimedia collaboration between composer/conductor Argue, writer/director Isaac Butler and filmmaker Peter Nigrini at BAM’s Next Wave Festival in the fall of 2015. This performance also featured voiceovers and samples – triggered by Argue from the podium – including some pretty killer quotes from George W. Bush (“We can’t wait any longer!” twice, from the days leading up to the invasion of Iraq), JFK and others. The suite wound up with the band swaying along to a long narration examining the paranoid mindset, actor James Urbaniak’s steady cadences echoing from the speakers overhead. Hardly an easy task for the group to stay locked in, but they .swung along with it

This is an amazing band. Brooklyn Babylon is punctuated by a series of miniatures which pair unusual combinations of instruments; Argue also pairs off instruments in this series of compositions, but more traditionally. The most spine-tingling one was early on, trombonist Ryan Keberle’s frenetic, deep-blues spirals up against Nadje Noordhuis’ resonant, angst-tinged flugelhorn. At the end, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen spun and dipped while tenor saxophonist Dave Pietro channeled his own sputtering galaxy, one of many caustically illustrative moments. And a deep-space duet between Adam Birnbaum – switching from grand piano to an echoey electric model – alongside guitarist Sebastian Noelle’s spare, austere lines was only slightly less cold and cynical.

Argue is an amazing composer. Withering humor was everywhere: in the constant, flittingly conversational motives, in subtle shifts from balminess to icy, Morricone-esque menace, and in the choice of samples, a couple of them seemingly tweaked from the album for extra irony. Lights and darks, highs and lows hung and swung in the balance as the composer – rocking a sharp suit and a sharp, short new haircut, maybe for extra sarcasm – calmly directed the ensemble through them. Maria Schneider may be the consensus choice as the standard of the world for big band composition, and she’s earned it (and has a political sensibility no less perceptive than Argue’s), but Argue’s work is just as strong. And this concert reaffirmed that he’s got a world-class crew to play it. This edition of the band included but wasn’t limited to most of the players on the album: multi-reedmen Lucas Pino, Peter Hess, Rob Wilkerson and Carl Maraghi; trumpeters Seneca Black, Jonathan Powell and Jason Palmer; trombonists Mike Fahie and Jennifer Wharton; multi-bassist Matt Clohesy and dynamic drummer Jon Wikan.

Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society plays the album in its entirety at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts at 465 Huntington Ave. on Oct 7 at 7:30 PM; general admission is $25.

October 2, 2016 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 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

CD Review: Redhooker – Vespers

In terms of lush nocturnal beauty, this album tops the charts for 2010, end of story. Beguiling instrumental ensemble Redhooker defy categorization, incorporating elements of chamber music, ambient soundscapes, psychedelic rock and avant genres like minimalism and horizontal music, but whichever label you slap them with the result is the same, hypnotic and dreamlike. Where Brian Eno did ambient music for airports, this is ambient music for empty rooms in abandoned buildings, intimate yet impenetrably mysterious. There’s an almost magical symmetry to the compositions here, yet constantly an element of surprise. Essentially, this is a theme and variations interrupted by two long jams – which perhaps not ironically are the most captivating parts of the album. Guitarist/composer Stephen Griesgraber alternates between atmospheric washes of sound, simple but effective lead lines and gently insistent fingerpicking while the violins of Andie Springer and Maxim Moston trade harmonies and textures, with Peter Hess’ bass clarinet often carrying the lead counterintuitively in the lowest registers.

The opening track, Standing Still establishes a circular theme that weaves among the instruments like a lazy dragonfly in the bulrushes. The line goes straight back to Haydn if you follow it through the clouds. The aptly titled Bedside is a swaying minimalist lullaby with distant baroque echoes, a study in textural contrasts, guitar or bass clarinet playing stately melody versus the sweep of the violins. The first improvisation, Presence and Reflection begins ghostly, gently ominous with whispering waves of guitar noise, a draft-through-the-door atmosphere with distant echoes of (but not by) Pink Floyd. And then it’s a lullaby again, going out on a gentle, late afternoon tide.

Things get as lively as they’re going to here on the next cut, Friction, interwoven with subtly colliding textures and building to a tricky dance that wouldn’t be out of place in the Turtle Island String Quartet oeuvre. And then night falls again with the second jam, like Pink Floyd’s On the Run but quarterspeed – you could call it On the Crawl. In over fifteen minutes, starkly glimmering, Gilmouresque guitar rings out in the distance over dense waves of noise, the violins and then the bass clarinet eventually making a welcome, deftly terse return to paint in pieces of melody that slowly make shape out of shadow . The album ends with a rondo, each instrument working a judiciously studied piece of the original theme, ending with bass clarinet looming in from behind the strings like a sleepy caretaker who’s gotten to know the ghosts in this place by now. It takes a special kind of album to be this quiet and still keep the listener captivated, not to mention awake. This is that album.

February 24, 2010 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment