Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Uneasy Unsilent Night NYC, 2012

Unsilent Night grew from a New York phenomenon to a global one. Tonight’s annual New York pilgrimage from Washington Square Park to Tompkins Square Park was magically timed down to within seconds of the duration of the 45-minute Phil Kline work played during the processional on the participants’ devices of choice. When the first processional took place (1993, if memory serves right), it was a parade of boomboxes playing cassettes of the richly swirling, pointillistic, sometimes gamelanesque, sometimes ethereal electronic work. This year the device of choice seemed to be people’s phones – there’s  an Unsilent Night app for pretty much everything now. In addition, Q2 was simulcasting the full score, so there was the option of streaming it online. And Kline himself brought several boomboxes, along with battered cassettes and plenty of cds for those determined to be oldschool.

Volume-wise, oldschool won out handily: from a relatively veteran perspective (having participated in a few of these over the years), neither a phone nor a deck nor a tablet can beat a ghetto blaster. This year’s crowd was smaller than last year’s, and considerably younger, although that may simply be a function of the weather knocking out the older contingent. The undulating volume generated by the parade, as it wound from the Arch, around the fountain, crossing Broadway, down East Seventh to Tompkins Square, was also quieter, probably due to the predominance of phones over heavy appliances. What hasn’t changed is that like the original four separate cassette (and later, cd) tracks handed out at random, downloads are also randomly assigned: you never know which of the meticulously orchestrated parts you’ll be running on your machine, intermingling with the other three.

Unsilent Night has many lively moments – not to mention random moments of typical New York sidewalk unease, including but not limited to the taxi that almost drove head-on into a gaggle of people crossing Second Avenue – but overall it’s a soothing, hypnotic, enveloping piece of music, and experience. Like all parades, this procession is best enjoyed as a social event or a family outing (many took advantage of that opportunity – kids seem to love it). Doing this alone for the first time, it was hard to resist the Pavlovian impulse to bolt from the crowd, moving as leisurely as it did. A peaceful mood settled over the participants – no jostling for volume or position in line, most everyone lost in the music or in their thoughts, a few people taking pictures along the way.

Unfortunately, this coincided with Night of the Drunken Santas. Not being in touch with anyone in a fraternity or a sorority, it’s impossible to know exactly why half the teenage population of Connecticut – or New Jersey, or Long Island, or, sad to say, Ludlow Street – was wandering around the East Village wasted, dressed in Santa suits. They were too fancily costumed to be a flashmob and too disoriented to have any political agenda: protesting against Hanukah, maybe? As you can imagine, those spoiled brats wouldn’t make room for the procession, jostling people, jeering and blocking the street. A big pool of fresh vomit covered the sidewalk on East Seventh just past First Avenue, no great surprise. This element obviously existed many, many years before Unsilent Night, but they never invaded New York, let alone Alphabet City. On one hand, it’s heartwarming to see such a strangely beautiful musical phenomenon being embraced by a new generation; on the other hand, it’s sad to see that so much of that generation feels entitled to act as retarded here they as do back home in the suburbs, whose bridge-and-tunnel crudeness they will always embody no matter how many trendy bars they manage to hit before it’s time to get back on the LIRR.

From this particular perspective, the crowning irony is that as calming as Unsilent Night is, this year it took a couple of martinis afterward to take the edge off. We can hope that for the other Unsilent Night processions – still happening, around the world – that won’t be an issue.

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December 15, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, New York City | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Three Transcendent Song Cycles by Phil Kline at BAM

Thursday night at BAM’s Next Wave Festival was one of those magical evenings that sends you spilling out into the street afterward, every synapse invigorated, glad to be alive. It was the world premiere of Phil Kline’s lush new arrangement of his iconic Zippo Songs, plus an intoxicatingly enveloping new cycle, Out Cold, played and sung luminously by ACME with crooner Theo Bleckmann at the absolute top of his evocative game. The new Fisher Space black-box theatre was either sold out or close to it. The final performance is tonight, and it isn’t sold out as of this writing (early affernoon). If transcendence is what you’re looking for, get over to BAM by 7 or so. The show starts at 7:30; the space is not on Lafayette Avenue but on that short street that runs perpendicular to it up to the Atlantic Avenue mall.

The program began with three Rumsfeld Songs, three quotes from “the comic evil spirit, if there ever was one,” to quote Kline’s program notes. The dark levity started with the famous pseudo-ontological one about “known knowns” and “known unknowns,” set to a deadpan, mechanically circular tune that gave Bleckmann a platform for just a tinge of Teutonic grandiosity, making for cruelly delicious satire. The second song was a march, the third more restrained, leaving the Iraq war villain’s long-winded, disingenuous disavowal of mass murder to linger. They made a good setup for the Zippo Songs, Kline’s musical setting of aphorisms and poems inscribed on cigarette lighters by American combatants during the Vietnam War.

These songs hadn’t been staged in New York in eight years. The sparseness of the originals played up the cruel irony, bitterness and sheer horror of the soldiers’ words; the new arrangements turned out to be far more rich and sweeping than expected, yet without subsuming any of the lyrical content. The genius of Kline’s craft is simplicity: like his great influence Charles Ives, he pushes the envelope, but he knows a catchy motif when he hears it. Hide a hook in a haystack, turn Kline loose, and he will find it. Which is why the new charts worked as well as they did; ironically, the richer the orchestration, the more memorable the melodies became. Pianist Timothy Andres and vibraphonist Chris Thompson got the choicest intervals, as Kline’s tensely straightforward, gleaming phrases reached the top of their arcs, over pillowy, sustained, shifting sheets held aloft by violinists Caleb Burhans, Ben Russell and Keats Dieffenbach, yMusic violist Nadia Sirota, cellist Clarice Jensen, oboeist Michelle Farah, bassist Logan Coale and flutist Alex Sopp. As with the original versions, the music does not disavow the darkness of the lyrics, instead providing a distantly apprehensive backdrop.

The airiest of these, appropriately enough, was the first one, voicing the soldiers whose goal it was to stay high all the time. The most haunting was the warily pulsing fourth in the series: “If I had a farm in Vietnam and a home in hell, I’d sell my farm and go home,” Bleckmann intoned. The most pensive, atmospheric segment was the most disillusioned: “We are the unwilling, led by the unqualified, doing the unnecessary for the ungrateful.” Emma Griffin’s stage direction had Bleckmann nonchalantly changing costumes and assuming roles to go with them: somehow he was able to hold a perfectly unmodulated, resonant legato through a quick series of pushups and situps that would have had most people panting.

The trippy bossa beat of that song foreshadowed what was to come with Out Cold. Taking his cue from Schubert’s Kafka-esque Winterreise suite as well as the ethereal 1950s “suicide song” collaboration between Frank Sinatra and Nelson Riddle, Kline brought the broodingly hypnotic lushness up several notches and so did the ensemble and singer. Beginning with a low, raspy wash of strings and throat-singing and ending on a wistful, aptly elegaic note, these were torch songs for a new generation, blending the best of several previous decades’ worth. The bossa nova pulse returned memorably a couple of times, fueled by suspenseful woodblock, vibes and piano; the suite reached a high-point, volumewise with its most rocking number, Million Dollar Bill, noir Orbison chamber pop taken to understated heights of angst, tinkly David Lynch piano contrasting with the blue velvet wash underneath.

Bleckmann shuffled between tables in a darkened bar – One for My Baby in 3D – drinking from random half-empty glassses in A Final Toast, its insistent low strings reminding of Julia Wolfe in a particular intense mood. Where’s the Rest of Me, a creepily dreamy waltz, was followed by the slightly vaudevillian The Season Is Over, which grew dark fast and made a potent segue with To the Night, its noir lustre punctuated by uneasy close harmonies from the ensemble. In its own elegant way, the suite is as evocative a portrayal of loneliness and alienation as Joy Division. Kline has been writing eclectic, relevant music since the 80s; once again, he’s embraced a new genre and made it indelibly his own.

October 27, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ten Questions for Phil Kline

Phil Kline has been at the forefront of cutting-edge composition since the 80s. His eclectic work ranges from the shimmering, kaleidoscopic sound paintings for which he’s best known, to art-song, to orchestral pieces and edgy rock (he played with Jim Jarmusch in the early 80s, and toured the world as a guitarist in Glenn Branca’s mighty ensemble). And his 1992 processional “boombox symphony” Unsilent Night  – which took shape against the backdrop of the Bush I Gulf War – grew from an underground New York attraction to a global phenomenon. At this year’s BAM Next Wave Festival, there’ll be an important moment in New York music history when adventurous ensemble ACME and crooner Theo Bleckmann premiere Kline’s new arrangement of his powerful Vietnam-themed Zippo Songs – which haven’t been staged in this city in eight years -, along with the composer’s Rumsfeld Songs, and selections from his new cycle Out Cold, inspired by the Frank Sinatra/Nelson Riddle collaborations of the 1950s.

One consistent trait that runs throughout Kline’s music is his wry wit, which comes through in the man himself. Kline generously took some time out of the usual pre-concert havoc to share some insights on his career and what he’s up to lately:

Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: You’ve made a career out of writing important, socially relevant music. Yet – as I ask myself all the time – to what degree do you find yourself preaching to the converted? Isn’t BAM Next Wave a progressive crowd anyway? Is there an aisle, or some other kind of border we have to reach across to really make a difference?

Phil Kline: I’m not convinced that music can convert one to another political viewpoint, at least not directly. But it has the ability to arouse strange, untranslatable impulses within us, and that might possibly lead one to states where the mind is open to change.

If everyone who likes my music is already converted, that’s OK. The people in the choir need a little comfort, too.

LCC: If there’s any work that humanizes the life of a soldier, it’s the Zippo Songs. With the ongoing war in Afghanistan – and wars in Syria and Mali, ad infinitum – do you think that the suite has greater relevance today than when you wrote it?

PK: I think it remains constant because the focus is not on the war but the individual.

LCC: You’re quoted on the BAM event page as saying that you often have doubts about yourself as a composer but not as an arranger. Which made me laugh: to my ears, your music is extremely meticulous, the exact quality you’d want in a good arranger. Don’t the two skills go hand in hand? Ellington and Strayhorn, for example?

PK: It’s a little joke I tell myself to avoid getting psyched out when I begin a piece. There is some truth in it, though. I am a good editor and arranger, and I use that skill to straighten out whatever mess I might start out with.

LCC: A lot of people are less aware of you as a lyricist than a composer, although lyrics have continued to play an increasingly important role in your work. Your new song cycle, Out Cold, explores songcraft in a 1950s Frank Sinatra-Nelson Riddle vein. As someone who’s made a career in far less constricting, less stylized music, how do you approach the constraints of verse/chorus and rhyme schemes…or are these songs an attempt to push the envelope with the genre?

PK: Actually, I like to embrace different styles as I go along, like the allusions to Renaissance music or barbershop or the Beach Boys in John the Revelator. To me it’s a bit like falling into the voice of a character as you tell a story. But Out Cold really does engage one genre, which is the so-called standard song, especially torch songs and ballads. The whole idea was to emulate the craft of that genre, the elegant tunes and lyrics of the great 30s-40s-50s songwriters. I suppose in a way I felt I could reveal myself best by wearing a costume.

LCC: How about the new arrangements of Zippo Songs and Rumsfeld Songs for ACME? Was that a challenge for the arranger/transcriptionist in you?

PK: Actually, I was surprised by how easily they translated to strings, percussion and piano. The originals are very spare and the main challenge is not to add too much. It’s easy to feel a bit apologetic when you ask ace players to do whole notes for a half hour, but that’s what is required sometimes. Bruckner sometimes holds notes for pages!

LCC: Ha, so does Messiaen for that matter. Now this is a reunion of sorts with you and Theo Bleckmann – if I’m correct, this is the first time the Zippo Songs have been performed in New York in eight years. What specifically aboutt him made you say, yup, he’s the one to put these across?

PK: It’s his inner Sinatra, the beautiful flow of legato and smart timing. I’d been thinking about writing him a group of orchestral love songs for several years.

LCC Do you still actually participate in Unsilent Night every year? And back in, I think 1993, when you led the first parade of boomboxes through the Village, did it ever occur to you in your wildest dreams that this would become a worldwide phenomenon?

PK: A – yes, B – no! I sort of dread it when I realize the season is coming, like “oh boy, another sleet-filled night,” but when it’s over I’m always glad we did it. At least one of the Unsilent Nights every year has something amazing happen in it.

LCC: You’ve gone on record as saying that you’re simply following a tradition of American transcendentalists: Charles Ives, et al. Yet your music, as abstract-sounding as some of it is, especially your earlier work, is very specific. To what degree has your career been simply doing what you love, and connecting the tradition of the composers who’ve obviously inspired you with a new level of social commitment and awareness?

PK: I would say that’s exactly what my career has been.

LCC: Jim Jarmusch is an old college friend and bandmate of yours. Tell us about your latest, forthcoming collaboration with him.

PK: We actually met in the 6th grade! Tesla in New York is an operatic fantasy of the inventor Nikola Tesla’s exploits over the 50 years he lived and died in New York City. Most of his glory days were spent in the general vicinity of SoHo.

LCC: Around the World in a Daze, your DVD from 2009 is a favorite – and I think one of amazon’s bestselling releases on DVD if I remember correctly. The Housatonic at Henry Street, one of your “boombox symphonies” which opens the DVD, depicts an evening scene. Yet the corner of Henry and Madison Street where it was shot has a bus stop, and the projects, and a McDonalds since a few years back. I’ve always wondered how you managed to get such tranquility at that location…

PK: You’re one block away. I made the field recording on my corner, Henry and Rutgers. Not as quiet as it used to be, but not quite as bustling as Madison Street. I’m on the 5th floor and I was responding to that moan the city has when you listen from above. It’s a soft roar comprised of a thousand little things going by and echoing in the concrete pond below. I guess I thought of the parade as a river of life, just as the Housatonic was Ives’ river of life, flowing by inexorably. Come to think of it, the Ganges isn’t exactly clean and quiet, either.

ACME (American Contemporary Music Ensemble), Theo Bleckmann and Phil Kline present the Zippo Songs, Rumsfeld Songs and Out Cold -produced by American Opera Projects – at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival at 7:30 PM, Oct 25-27. Tickets are $20; the October 26 show includes a post-performance chat with the composer and ensemble.

October 12, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Deep Listening, Courtesy of Starkland

It’s hard to imagine why anyone would go to some random club just to hear a ten-year-old album playing over the PA when they could do the same thing at home without any of the stress. Last night at the delightfully laid-back new Ludlow Street new-music venue New Spectrum (lots of “news” there), Starkland Records’ Thomas Steenland and his dedicated engineering crew staged a special kind of listening party for the label’s well-loved Immersion DVD compilation – a release from 2000 that’s one of the avant garde’s alltime greatest hits – along with Phil Kline’s fascinating, landmark 2009 DVD Around the World in a Daze. The drawing card? Both recordings were played in surround sound, revealing the complete, trippy mix that most stereo systems, let alone DVD players, can’t come close to replicating. Steenland explained beforehand how he’d been intrigued by the idea of recording a high-definition surround-sound DVD, and marveled at how many composers had responded to his offer of commissions considering that when he began reaching out to them for the project, the technology to make it didn’t yet exist. Given how few times these recordings have been publicly staged – Kline’s was screened once at the old Tonic a few blocks east about ten years ago, Immersion maybe never – this was a rare opportunity to witness some deliciously clever early 21st century works exactly as their composers intended them to be heard. It was like seeing a series of black-and-white images in color for the first and maybe only time.

Hearing Pamela Z mess with the fundamental premise of the recording – via her composition Work/Live, which she said she hadn’t heard in so long that she could barely remember it – was surreal and amusing to the extreme, her tongue-in-cheek operatics not just panning between right and left but from behind, then right-center, then straight ahead. Bruce Odland’s Tank, a swaying, thinly veiled trip-hop percussion piece with washes of microtonal Ron Miles trumpet, also took on playfully unpredictable new dimensions. The effect repeated itself ad infinitum, with varying degrees of surprise, humor and intensity. Another composer in attendance, Lukas Ligeti, explained how his contribution, Propeller Island, took its title from the Jules Verne cautionary tale and its source tonalities from samples of homemade Caribbean-style steel pans. Ligeti’s signature stylistic trait is polyrhythms, which in their original context here turned out to multiply from all angles to the point where the center completely disappears, adding a welcome undercurrent of unease to this bright and attractive work. Paul Dresher’s Steel, a similarly pointillistic work, was transformed much in the same way into a bustling, cheery factory floor.

2000 White Turbulence, by Maggi Payne, was the most ominously enveloping of the bunch with its echoing cumulonimbus sonics. The most downright comedic piece, Twilight’s Dance by Paul Dolden has a punchline whose straightforwardness was made even more amusing by how un-quadrophonic it was, while Ingram Marshall’s Signs and Murmurs: A SeaSong offered more subtle revelations: that moody neoromantic piano isn’t at the seashore at all, it’s on the opposite side! The final track from the DVD was Meredith Monk’s Eclipse Variations: hearing this in its original form was something akin to being in the 21st century church where Thomas Tallis suddenly found himself teleported from his medieval sanctuary and was inspired to come up with a work to celebrate it. A Carl Stone composition was the only one that grew tiresome: its 33-RPM-at-78 conceit was fun for thirty seconds but got old quickly.

Having a primitive homemade stereo recording from the listening party for reference later on turned out to be useful, to a point, but there’s no substitute for the real thing. It would undoubtedly have been just as much fun to stick around for the entirety of the Kline DVD. Where should these works be staged next? At the Hayden Planetarium. Move over, Pink Floyd.

June 19, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, experimental music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Ethel Violinist Todd Reynolds’ Flavorful Solo Double Album Just Out on Innova

Violinist Todd Reynolds is a founding member of Ethel, possibly the world’s most unpredictable string quartet. His expansive new solo album Outerborough, a double-disc set released on Innova, is virtually all solo violin, produced to the nth degree with dizzying layers of effects. A lot of this is psychedelic. There are occasional dark or even harrowing passages, but most of this is fun – disabuse yourself of any preconception that the avant garde is necessarily stuffy or pretentious. The first of the two discs here, the “inside,” comprises Reynolds originals performed via the Lemur GuitarBot, an effects processor that ably facilitates Reynolds’ one-man orchestra. Its high point, in fact the high point of the album, is the hauntingly otherworldly, cinematic title track with its series of tritone motifs, eventually warming up over a hi-tech bounce which the violin eventually hangs out to dry all by itself as the piece concludes. The sad, brooding, aptly titled End of Day is also absolutely gorgeous.

The rest of the originals are more lively. The opening cut, essentially a trip-hop tune, is an adventure theme with David Gilmour-esque angst balanced against a playful dance. The Indian-flavored second cut sets a jaunty pizzicato melody against a drone, shifting to a Dexys Midnight Runners type tune that builds to an interestingly exploratory crescendo, and then shifts back again. There are also a handful of hypnotic, loop-based compositions, a couple with austere sostenuto lines overhead, another featuring some woozy Dr. Dre tonalities.

The “outside” disc represents an A-list of avant-garde composers. Phil Kline’s A Needle Pulling Fred, another trip-hop number, contrasts majestically sailing melody with motorik rhythms. Michael Gordon’s Tree-Oh sets an echoey fugue to a staggered dance beat; Paul de Jong’s Inward Bound (with the composer on cello) is sort of Kraftwerk-meets-the-avant. A mash-up with an uncredited recording of the blues classic Crossroads, Michael Lowenstern’s composition serves as a launching pad for Reynolds’ gritty blues playing, evocative of Karen Waltuch’s work with the Roulette Sisters. …And the Sky Was Still There, by David T. Little illustrates Army veteran Amber Ferenz’s chilling narrative of her would-be transformation into a killing machine – until she had an epiphany, which is where the music picks up. The strongest of the compositions on the second disc is Ken Thomson’s Storm Drain, with its plaintive Middle Eastern allusions and ominous bass clarinet courtesy of the composer himself. There’s also a blippily hypnotic piece by Nick Zammuto and a cinematically crescendoing one from Paula Matthusen. Many flavors and a characteristically eclectic, genre-busting blend of styles, which is just what you’d expect from a member of Ethel (Reynolds has since left the group).

April 2, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 11/19/10

Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Today’s album is #802:

Phil Kline – Unsilent Night

You’re on this album. That’s right. You’re part of it. Arguably the first interactive album ever made, avant garde composer Kline’s eerie, gamelanesque 1992 electronic “boombox symphony” began as a protest of the first Gulf War and grew into an annual event that millions have participated in over the years. If you haven’t, now’s your chance. Go to http://www.unsilentnight.com. There you can find out where and where the event is happening in your part of the world. Every year during the holiday season, there are processions of people carring boomboxes, laptops, ipod decks and amplified walkmans, all blasting Unsilent Night in semi-unison to show their support for world peace. The longer the procession, the greater the doppler effect, and the cooler it sounds. For maximum eeriness, if you have the technology, record this onto a cassette instead of burning a cd: if your boombox has a cassette player, it’s probably pretty old, and if the motor flutters, so much the better. You may only hear this album once, but you’ll always have happy memories of it. This year’s New York area Unsilent Night procession takes place on December 18, leaving at 7 PM from the arch at Washington Square Park and marching to Tompkins Square Park. Arrival by about 6:40 PM is advised. Here’s a random torrent.

November 19, 2010 Posted by | avant garde music, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 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

DVD Review: Phil Kline – Around the World in a Daze

One of this era’s most fearlessly relevant composers, Phil Kline’s oeuvre ranges from the iconic moving “boombox symphony” Unsilent Night (a response to Bush I’s gulf war) to the Zippo Songs suite inspired by the words and phrases American GI’s in Vietnam inscribed on their lighters. Sonically, Kline’s work tends to be gamelanesque, upper-register textures meticulously manipulated and processed into a rippling, reverberating pool of sound. This new two-DVD set – recorded in surround sound and best experienced on a good-quality home system or, ideally, in a club with encircling banks of speakers – is more diverse, a mix of compositions which run the gamut from challenging to confrontational to playfully fun. In addition to the first DVD with its individual videos, the second includes a considerably informative interview conducted by WNYC’s longtime New Sounds host John Schaefer as well as a bonus video, Meditation (Run As Fast As You Can), a lighthearted, characteristically pointillistic soundscape illustrating a brisk early Sunday morning jaunt from the base of the Brooklyn Bridge to the epicenter of New York’s financial district and then back again.

Here, Kline alternates between his usual collection of boomboxes, keyboards, loops and strings to comment acerbically on a range of issues both abstract and concrete, from confronting disaster to the death of New York via gentrification. The first track here, The Housatonic at Henry Street served as impetus for the entire project. Like his main influence Charles Ives, Kline  places himself in the tradition of the American Transcendentalists, the stream here cast in the role of river of life for a whole movement. The piece is a swirl of bell-like overtones (boomboxes slightly out of phase with each other) plus ambient street noise – happily, Kline must have edited out the car alarms and the shriek of the buses moving along Monroe Street a block away!

Svarga Yatra – Sanskrit for Stairway to Heaven – has pioneering string quartet Ethel playing live against themselves on a boombox. It’s a pretty, circular processional with an edge of disquiet enhanced by all the overtones. A madrigal manipulated, The Maryland Sample begins with ambient samples and grows eerie with a chorus of what sounds like a hall full of harpshichords. The DVD’s centerpiece, Pennies from Heaven follows a downward trajectory rather than Kline’s typical crescendo. It’s a sarcastic commentary on the trickle-down theory of economics, illustrating the effect it has on the people at the receiving end. With overlays of carrilonesque melody and variations on a tinkly descending progression, it grows more echoey and chaotic – something that began completely innocuous has gone horribly wrong.

Of the other tracks, Grand Etude for the Elevation (earlier playfully titled the Grand Etude Symphonique) layers  Todd Reynolds’ violin with trebly keyboards and insistent percussion, echoes of the Kronos Quartet’s recent work. Melodically, it’s the strongest composition here with haunting, Balkan-inflected tinges in places. The elegaic Prelude mixes an old recording of a piece from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, reprocessed with a field recording of foot traffic in the Zurich train station. The concluding cut on the first DVD, The Housatonic at Dzanga overlays samples from an oasis in the Central African Republic where hundreds of elephants and grey parrots congregate, resembling a tower of Babel far more than any sort of bucolic Discovery Channel soundtrack. There are also a couple of sillier works here including one “Dude, look what the DVD player just did with my cd!” number that actually succeeds in being a snide swipe at Wagner. New music fans will salivate over this; for more casual listeners, the hypnotic aspect of much of the material here creates a comfortably ambient late-evening soundtrack.

July 1, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Concert Review: Sarah Cahill Premieres Antiwar and Peace Music by Rzewski, Kline, Terry Riley and Others at Merkin Concert Hall, NYC 3/12/09

As WNYC host John Schaefer noted, this concert had been given many names by many people: Composers Against the War, Notes on the War, and, eventually, pianist Sarah Cahill’s choice, A Sweeter Music (a MLK quote referring to the sonics of peace). Cahill has become the go-to pianist for adventurous composers of new music; in this case, these were works that she had commissioned during the waning phases of the Bush regime. Virtually all of these were either world premieres or at least being played in this city for the first time, some of them absolutely transcendent, others less so.

 

The most rewarding composition was Phil Kline’s new piano sonata The Long Winter. While far from the only antiwar piece he’s written, it ranks with his best. Originally begun as a collection of fragments, it coalesced right after 9/11, an extremely personal event for Kline, having been jolted from sleep by as the first plane hit Tower Two. The first part set a horrified, repetitive, upper-register staccato motif against crashing, chaotic bass chords, a viscerally intense evocation of the attack, working its way down into a quiet, insistent anguish. In the program notes, Kline explained that in the weeks afterward, he’d realized that he was now living in a city under siege, illustrated by the sonata’s second part, paring the central theme to its most morbid, dread-filled essence. For anyone who breathed the air here during those hellacious first few months, this is essential listening (you’ll be able to hear it on Schaefer’s next New Sounds Live program on March 26).

 

Frederic Rzewski filled Cahill’s request with a series of eight Peace Dances, a marvelously diverse mix of alternately minimalist and melodically rich vignettes. Through the icy call-and-response of the first, the playful yet reflective tone of the third, the Asian-inflected cascades of the seventh and the bouncy, glissando-spiced final piece, Cahill was given the opportunity to use the entirety of her dynamic range and met the challenge with a seeming effortlessness.

 

Another powerfully satisfying work was Kyle Gann’s War Is Just a Racket (whose first working title was George Bush Is an Asshole), Cahill narrating text by 1920s Congressional Medal of Honor recipient and corporate coup whistleblower hero General Smedley Butler against a jarringly percussive, frequently rubato piece with a deliciously sly humor in places, folksy ragtime or deceptive blues coming out nowhere to underscore the text’s most ironic moments. We’ve reprinted the full text below, something of an early version of what John Perkins would confirm in his bestselling Confessions of an Economic Hit Man in 2004.

 

The rest of the bill included pieces by young composer Preben Antonsen, the Residents, a particularly sadistic work by Jerome Kitzke and a fascinating, rather biting ragtime suite by Terry Riley replete with all kinds of strikingly counterintuitive accents and dissonances making unexpected appearances within its comfortable architecture.

 

And now over to Gen. Butler:

 

“War is just a racket. A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of people. Only a small inside group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few at the expense of the masses. I believe in adequate defense of the coastline and nothing else. If a nation comes over here to fight, then we’ll fight. The trouble with America is that when the dollar only earns 6 percent over here, then it gets restless and goes overseas to get 100 percent. Then the flag follows the dollar and the soldiers follow the flag. I wouldn’t go to war again as I have done to protect some lousy investment of the bankers. There are only two things we should fight for. One is the defense of our homes and the other is the Bill of Rights. War for any other reason is simply a racket.

 

There isn’t a trick in the racketeering bag that the military gang is blind to. It has its “finger men” to point out enemies, its “muscle men” to destroy enemies, its “brain men” to plan war preparations, and a “Big Boss” Super-Nationalist-Capitalism. It may seem odd for me, a military man to adopt such a comparison. Truthfulnesss compels me to. I spent thirty-three years and four months in active military service as a member of this country’s most agile miltary force, the Marine Corps. I served in all comissioned ranks from Second Lieutanant to Major-General. And during that period, I spent most of my time being a high class muscle-man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the Bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a ganster for capitalism.

 

I suspected I was just part of a racket at the time. Now I am sure of it. Like all the members of the military profession, I never had a thought of my own until I left the service. My mental faculties remained in suspended animation while I obeyed the orders of higher-ups. This is typical with everyone in the military service. I helped make Mexico, expecially Tampico, safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefits of Wall Street. The record of racketeeing is long. I heped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers [later Brown Brothers Harriman, where Prescott Bush, George Bush Senior’s father, would become Adolf Hitler’s #1 fundraiser in the United States prior to World War II] in 1909-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. In China I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested.

 

During those years, I had, as the boys in the back room would say, a swell racket. Looking back on it, I feel that I could have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.”

March 14, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments