Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Bang on a Can Marathon 2014: A Short Version (Sort Of)

This year’s Bang on a Can Marathon continued a trend back toward the hallowed annual all-day avant garde/indie classical music celebration’s early years. Yesterday’s 2014 edition was shorter than any in recent memory – for awhile these things would start before noon and continue into the wee hours of the following day. This year’s roughly ten-hour extravaganza also drew more heavily on the Bang on a Can triumvirate – composers Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe, David Lang and their circle – than on the global cast who numbered heavily and often spectacularly among the composers and performers featured throughout the previous decade. The reason? Construction at the World Financial Center atrium, where the marathon returned after being squeezed into an auditorium at Pace University last year.

The seven-piece Great Noise Ensemble, conducted by Armando Bayolo, opened auspiciously with a new chamber arrangement of Bayolo’s own Caprichos. Inspired by Goya’s series of the same name, it was a dynamic and colorful series of miniatures: apprehensive airiness, a fleeting carnivalesque passage, darkly rhythmic, looped variations, and dreamy drones juxtaposed with a lively outro. The following work, Carlos Carrillo‘s De La Brevidad De La Vida drew on the Seneca treatise, a rivetingly austere, resigned, spaciously cinematic tone poem of sorts punctuated by muted anguish, notably from Andrea Vercoe’s violin.

Violinist Adrianna Mateo became a one-woman string orchestra with Molly Joyce‘s biting, matter-of-factly crescendoing loopmusic piece Lean Back and Release. The trio Bearthoven – pianist Karl Larson, bass guitarist Pat Swoboda and drummer Matt Evans – followed a bit later with a similarly upward-sloping stoner postrock piece, Undertoad, by Brooks Frederickson. It recalled the relentless dancefloor minimalism that Cabaret Contemporain performed at the 2013 marathon.

Acclaimed vocal quartet Anonymous Four – who are sadly hanging it up after this year – shifted direction plaintively with The Wood and the Vine, from Lang’s demanding, richly echo-laden, hypnotically intertwining partita, Love Fail. Atmospheric postrock minimalists Dawn of Midi made a thematically clever segue with excerpts from their cult favorite suite, Dysnomia, replete with subtle polyrhythmic shifts that  rose rather than fell at the end. How pianist Amino Belyamani, bassist Aakaash Israni and drummer Qasim Naqvi managed to keep their place as the trance pounded onward was hard to figure. Or maybe they were just jamming.

Choral octet Roomful of Teeth sang the first two movements from Caroline Shaw‘s Pulitzer-winning Partita for 8 Voices,  incorporating squaredance calls and “a little bit of pansori,” as Shaw put it. That, and an indomitable, fresh-faced ebullience that rose and fell through ambitious rhythmic and harmonic shifts, the composer’s powerful soprano front and center. Nineteen-piece chamber orchestra Contemporaneous gave voice to Andrew Norman’s Try, a frantically bustling work replete with sardonic humor: every hint of calm gets dashed by agitated cadenzas from throughout the ensemble in a split second. There was a contrasting, calm second half, mostly for vibraphone and piano, which got lost in the real bustle of the crowd making their way up the escalator to the new mallfood court to the left of the stage.

Meredith Monk is fun! She and fellow singer Theo Bleckmann revisited four segments of her witty, Canadian wilderness-inspired Facing North song cycle, which the duo had premiered on the stage here two decades ago. Indians gamely trying to keep warm, long winter shadows and droll conversations eventually gave way to playful, wordless jousting, Bleckmann keeping a straight face as Monk needled him mercilessly. It was the big audience hit up to this point. The two returned a little later for some more monkeyshines with members of the Bang on a Can All-Stars.

Contemporaneous also returned, this time with a handful of Jherek Bischoff pieces. A brief, lushly neoromantic overture of sorts and a subdued, unexpectedly somber pavane were the highlights.

Pianists Emily Manzo and David Friend performed the day’s first genuinely herculean numbers, a pair of long, hammering, menacingly Lynchian compositions from the 80s by the late Monk collaborator and composer Julius Eastman. Jace Clayton‘s echoey sound mix subsumed the music in places – as a musician would say, he didn’t have a feel for the room – but all the same he deserves props as an advocate for Eastman’s frequently harrowing, undeservedly obscure work, further underscored by a brief, pretty hilarious skit that imagined a busy Julius Eastman section at a theme park.

These marathons typically pick up at the end and this one was no exception. Well-loved art-rock house band the Bang on a Can All-Stars stomped through the Trans-Siberian Orchestra style bombast of JG Thirlwell‘s Anabiosis, then vividly echoed the otherworldly, watery ambience inside the old Croton Aqueduct via Paula Matthusen‘s Ontology of an Echo. Wolfe introduced the night’s big showstopper, Big Beautiful Dark & Scary as a contemplation on the possibility of personal happiness amidst disaster, its ineluctable, anguished, frenetic waves just as viscerally thrilling as they were chilling for the New Yorkers in the crowd who’d lived through 9/11 and the aftermath that the piece portrays.

After a long lull, the ensemble returned in a slightly augmented version for Louis Andriessen’s Hoketus. It’s a diptych of sorts: two maddening, claustrophobically minimalist melodies varied only by constantly changing rhythms, a study in authoritarianism and the human impulse to resist it. When clarinetist Ken Thomson led the ensemble with a leap into the animated second movement, it seemed that the people would win this fight. Or do they?

Gordon supplied the marathon’s coda, Timber, which turned out to be the shadow image of the Andriessen work, a wry, bone-shaking exploration of the kind of fun that can be had within a set of parameters. Where Andriessen set rules, Gordon offered guidelines. Played by sextet Mantra Percussion on a series of amplified sawhorses, it worked every trope in the avant garde stoner repertoire. Trancey motorik rhythms? Deep-space pulsar drones? Overtones at the very top and also the very bottom of the sonic spectrum? Innumerable false endings, good-natured exchanges between the players (who’d memorized the entire, practically hourlong score) and a light show triggered by just about every crescendo? Check, check, check and doublecheck. Gordon may be best known for his gravitas and otherworldly intensity, but his music can be great fun and this was exactly that. With its rolling drones echoing throughout the atrium like a distant storm on the Great Plains, it sent the crowd out into the night on a note that was both adrenalizing and soothing. It’s hard to imagine anything more fun to wind up a Sunday night in June in New York.

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June 23, 2014 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Roomful of Teeth Take Choral Music to the Next Level

It’s hard to imagine a more exciting vocal group than Roomful of Teeth. Friday night at Lincoln Center, at the release show for their new album – just out from New Amsterdam – it became clear that to be a part of this band, it’s not only necessary to have powerful pipes and spectacular range, and soul, but also an aptitude for Tuvan throat singing, yodeling, microtones and Balkan music. The nine-piece ensemble, directed with casual assurance by Brad Wells, wowed the crowd with their command of techniques from around the globe, but also with their passion and acuity for a series of almost cruelly difficult, often absolutely gorgeous works by contemporary composers that bring out every octave worth of these singers’ talent.

They opened with a Judd Greenstein piece titled Montmartre. Greenstein is a showy composer and this piece was characteristic, but it had melody to match the theatrics: the women punching in contrapuntally against the mens’ low, oscillating, pulsing throat-singing. The group switched nimbly to lushly shifting ambient harmonies with intertwined call-and-response, soprano Virginia Warnken bringing its central crescendo to a vivid peak. The men ended it with a triumphantly flangey swirl of throat-singing – it’s one thing to do that individually, it’s another to do it in harmony and with the kind of precision they showed off here.

There were two Missy Mazzoli compositions on the bill. The first, Vesper Sparrow, was written just a couple of weeks ago. The women swooped with distant echoes of birdsong which gave way to Mazzoli’s signature swirls of attractively consonant melody with just the hint of apprehension. The women in the group displayed unexpeced power in their low registers, soprano Caroline Shaw lighting the way as the piece took on a considerably somber, plainchant aspect, pulsing richly with every available harmony. The second number, The Shield of the Heart Is the Heart playfully switched from a half-yodeled round to another intricate thicket of shifting polyphony and counterrythms thinly disguising a jaunty doo-wop theme.

The most striking composition on the bill might have been Sarah Kirkland Snider’s The Orchard, sung with vivid uneasse by bass Cameron Beauchamp over rhythmic insistence from the women and warily shifting textures from the rest of the crew. In its dark heart, it turned out to be a pensive, folk-tinged art-rock anthem for choir. After a descent into moody ambience, the ensemble let it linger austerely at the end. In its own understated way, it was a showstopper.

The night’s wildest momehts came during William Brittelle’s dramatically shapeshifting Amid the Minotaurs. Brittelle has great musical wit, and this triptych was loaded with it. Inspired by famed Alabama coach Bear Bryant, who died barely a month after retiring from football, it juxtaposed a deadpan, sarcastic hymn with faux-operatic cheerleading and finally a power ballad of sorts that had Warnken namechecking Louis Farrakhan at the top of her register at full gale force: as Brittelle’s lyrics made clear beyond any doubt, death is not the least bit subtle.

Other works on the bill included a Shaw composition, Courante, its rustic, hymnal melody featuring vivid high/low contrasts speckled with unexpectedly jarring accents and bookended by whispery, breathy rhythmic interludes. Rinde Eckert’s Cesca’s View also explored rustic Americana, setting leaping, yodeling motifs against a warmly nocturnal backdrop punctuated by clever echo effects.

A piece by mErRiLl gArBuS, tHe oNcE aNd fUtUrE tUnEyArDs, wAs A sIgNaL tHaT iT wAs tImE tO lEaVe [sorry, couldn’t resist]. With groups like these, the obvious stars are found at the extremes: high soprano Esteli Gomez, with her effortless, spun-silk timbre; Shaw with her powerful, crystalline delivery; Beauchamp, who’s not afraid to go down low for laughs as well as power; and baritone Dashon Burton, who not only matched Beauchamp for lowdown impact, but also showed off a dazzling falsetto. Tenor Eric Dudley, soprano Martha Cluver and baritone Avery Griffin also had dazzling moments of their own, particularly when it came to throat-singing. For sheer thrill factor, on a good night for music, Roomful of Teeth were impossible to surpass.

October 7, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment