Lucid Culture


Sarah Bernstein Headlines the Vital Vox Festival

Violinist/singer/composer Sarah Bernstein headlined the first night of this year’s Vital Vox Festival at Roulette with a rich understatement that overshadowed the campy ostentation and halfhearted electronic gimmickry that took centerstage earlier in the evening. That her Unearthish duo project with percussionist Satoshi Takeishi  was the bill’s lone highlight speaks to the unfortunate absence of Sabrina Lastman, who was back in Uruguay dealing with a family emergency. While those two artists have considerably different vocal styles, they would have made a good segue. Bernstein doesn’t rely on vocal pyrotechnics because she doesn’t need them: her compositions work subtle contrasts and motivic intrigue rather than theatrics. She describes her work as “minimalist motifs meet avant-jazz formations, integrating sung and spoken poetry with acoustic and electric sound sculpture.” Aptly and modestly put: she is far more interesting than that might seem at face value, a breath of fresh air in a field overpopulated by wannabes and tourists.

In a set that could have gone on for twice as long as it did without losing interest, Bernstein began with calm, nonchalant narration, then sang in a down-to-earth, uncluttered alto, maintaining an often alluring calm even at times when the music grew agitated. Much as she has sizzling violin chops, she doesn’t waste notes: this time out, she limited the occasional blaze of atonalities or frenzied riffage to match her stream of lyrics. Likewise, Takeishi made his beats count, emphatically and minimalistically, lightly enhanced by the occasional echo, reverb or sustain effect via a laptop balanced precariously on his small kit.

Though disquiet and unease were everywhere, Bernstein remained composed. The duo opened with a pensively spacious piece justaposing fragmentary images against atmospherics that grew to a steady, apprehensively swooping interlude. As with the drums, Bernstein limited her use of effects to when they enhanced the music, as with a flange out of ghostly overtones on her second piece, and a looped phrase or two later in the set. Takeishi built to a stately insistence as the trajectory of the set followed an upward arc in contrast to Bernstein’s matter-of-factness. Eerie bell-like tones underscored the brooding crescendos of the third piece; beats that marched and then followed something of a trip-hop groove were introduced as the show went on. A moodily suspenseful, chordally-fueled number reminded of Carla Kihlstedt‘s solo work. A bit later, a couple of other pieces (none of them longer than about four minutes) took a resolutely individualist stance against war and conflict; another followed a theme of escape to a pounding crescendo.

“So much sedation…I don’t know what will happen, I don’t concern myself with the politicians at this point, they don’t have the power…I do desire to make change,” Bernstein asserted quietly over spiky pizzicato and only slightly restrained, tumbling percussion. As resignation gave way to angst, she tackled some tough, register-shifting melismas and made it all look easy: she was working a lot harder than it seemed. The evening’s two most anthemic numbers were bookended around a hypnotic African-flavored vamp that utilized what sounded like mbira (thumb piano) voicings. Throughout it all, Bernstein stayed within herself and drew the listener in. She’s back at Roulette on April 2 at 8 with her jazz quartet which includes pianist Kris Davis, bassist Stuart Popejoy and drummer Ches Smith.

March 26, 2013 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, experimental music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

This Year’s Vital Vox Festival Takes Vocals to New Levels

This year’s Vital Vox Festival, artfully assembled by the perennially eclectic and innovative Sabrina Lastman, wound up Saturday Night at Issue Project Room with some impressively captivating and entertaining performances. First on the bill was the Takadimi Duo, a.k.a. singer Lori Cotler and percussionist Glen Velez. In this project, their shtick is creating music out of the staccato, rhythmic konokol drum language frequently utilized by Indian percussionists – say “samosapapadum, canihavesomemorewaterplease” five times fast and you’ll get the picture. They got everyone, including themselves, laughing at a tongue-in-cheek “conversation,” Velez gamely trying to hold up his end against Cotler’s rapidfire syllabication. Her most captivating moment in a set full of many was a torchy, mysterioso number, like a jazzier Alessandra Belloni, slinking modally among the blue notes and occasionally punctuating Velez’ nocturnal ambience with a little dinner bell. Velez took a couple of frame drum solos and wowed the crowd with his ability to effectively replicate a John Bonham-style workup with just the fingers of one hand. At the end of the set, Cotler tried to get the audience to rap along with her – from the first few beats, it was obvious that this was a rhythmically challenged crew. Still, it was a lot of fun trying to keep up with her – and with Velez, who succeeded in getting at least a portion of the audience to join him in a shimmery display of overtone-tinged Tuvan throat-singing.

Audrey Chen was next, performing a solo set on vocals and cello, augmented by a homemade loop machine that would send showers of audio sparks oscillating throughout the mix as she roared, purred, growled, rasped and assaulted the crowd: as much as Cotler and Velez had tried to pull them in, it seemed that she was trying to clear the room. It didn’t work. And by the time she was finished, it was impossible not to want more. Chen doesn’t mess around with words: she goes straight to the emotion, usually the most intense one. She’s not merely in touch with her inner four-year-old – she also channeled her inner four-day-old, a voracious and easily disturbed presence whose violently perplexed, contrarian vocalese – if you could call it that – was impossible to turn away from. She scraped on her cello, looped the noise and ran it through a series of echo effects, sometimes mimicking them with her voice, sometimes adding the same effects to her vocals. If she hadn’t been such a forceful presence onstage, it would have been hard to tell which was which, woman or machine. Self-indulgent? Maybe. A riveting portrait of madness? Possibly. Compelling? Beyond words. Between her two, long pieces, she explained with a casual and considerably contrasting warmth that they were both improvisations. The lone linguistic phrase that made its way into her performance was a sinister, breathy whisper, “I’m hungry…for a bite of you.” After scraping yet more varnish off the edge of her cello between the bridge and the fingerboard, evoking a thousand horror-movie doors closing in unison, then getting its murky insides to rumble even lower, she ended with a couple of lush, still, stunningly lyrical Messiaenesque chords. Where the devil’s choir ended, she’d found genuine, otherworldly beauty.

Chen’s doing a duo show with Jim Pugliese at Issue Project Room on January 21.

November 16, 2010 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, experimental music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment