Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Magical, Deviously Dynamic, Cutting-Edge Debut Album From Violinist Sarah Bernstein’s Veer Quartet

Violinist Sarah Bernstein inhabits one of the most magically otherworldly and distinctive sound worlds around. She’s the rare composer who can write catchy, riff-based microtonal music, and she’s also a rapturous improviser. One of the most enjoyable concerts anyone at this blog has been at over the past few years was an afternoon with her intricate Veer Quartet in an East Village community garden in the fall of 2019.

Shortly thereafter, she recorded her debut album with the group: of all the releases which were derailed by the 2020 plandemic, this is arguably the best and is up at Bandcamp. It’s more chromatically focused than microtonal, and it’s the high point among Bernstein’s many and often somewhat more jazz-oriented albums. She and her bandmates – violinist Sana Nagano. violist Leonor Falcon and cellist Nick Jozwiak – are playing the album release show this Halloween at 8 PM at the Zurcher Gallery at 33 Bleecker St. off Lafayette. Cover is $20. And Nagano has a show with her louder but similarly otherworldly Atomic Pigeons band on Sept 28 at 8 PM at Mama Tried in Gowanus.

The quartet open the first number on the new record. Frames No.1 with an irresistibly goofy joke, then Jozwiak racewalks a bassline, Falcon climbs and descends with an uneasy calm. The group coalesce, first with stabbing unison motives that expand into spacious washes, gracefully dancing pizzicato and another couple of ridiculous jokes juxtaposed with bracing glissandos and rhythmic accents. All string quartets should be this diversely funny – and not just when they’re playing Beethoven.

There’s a sense of longing and loss in the second cut, News Cycle Progression, a diptych which begins lingering and resonant and shifts to a series of increasingly agitated, incisive flickers; Bernstein makes a palimpsest out of them at the end.

The group open the album’s big epic, Clay Myth as a ballad without words, Bernstein’s wistful melody over a hazy vamp from the rest of the ensemble. An enigmatic, blues-tinged solo from Jozwiak over circular pizzicato eventually cedes for a tantalizingly acerbic variation on the opening theme. The quartet take it out with a bouncy, tightly ornamented, increasingly biting folk-tinged violin theme and a couple of unexpected detours.

Bernstein interpolates stabbing riffage within an uneasy, steadily crescendoing theme in World Warrior, then the individual voices square off. With its paint-peeling, slithery breaks it’s the closest thing to violin metal here.

The ensemble open Nightmorning with a stern heroic theme, Bernstein quickly disassembling and scattering it to the wind across a vast, mostly vacant lot. A shivery, cello-fueled return, simmering fires bobbing up among slides and misty microtonal harmonies follow in turn, with striking hints of a cheery swing jazz tune. Ligeti’s most haunting work from the 1950s comes to mind: it’s the most adventurous and gripping piece here.

There’s a similarly somber, circling, Bartokian sensibility as well as a furtive Bernard Herrmann passage in the final cut, Hidden, a hauntingly insistent coda. Barring the unforeseen, you’ll see this on the best albums of 2022 page here at the end of the year.

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September 24, 2022 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Chilly Album of Solo Atmospherics For Our Time From Violinist Sarah Bernstein

Violinist Sarah Bernstein has written everything from microtonal jazz to string quartets to jazz poetry. As many artists have done this year, she’s released a solo album, Exolinger, streaming at Bandcamp. As you would expect, it’s her most minimalist yet, a chilly series of reverb-drenched instrumental and vocal soundscapes that directly and more opaquely reflect the alienation and inhumanity we’ve all suffered under the lockdown – outside of Sweden, or Nicaragua, or South Dakota, anyway.

The album’s first track, Carry This is a series of loopy car horn-like phrases that get pushed out of the picture by noisy fragments pulsing through the sonic picture, the reverb on Bernstein’s violin up so high that it isn’t immediately obvious she’s plucking the strings. It could be a song by Siouxsie & the Banshees spinoff the Creatures.

The second track, Ratiocinations is an increasingly assaultive series of variations on echo effects using a variety of chilly reverb timbres. The third piece, Tree, is definitely one for our time:

Crisis of mixed proportions
Manageable in ways
Mitigated, maximized, handled, contained
Sitting outside the birds have sirens
Fresh city air
The tree has been here awhile,
Has always been here
Before 1984, before 2020

Does Ghosts Become Crowds refer to a return toward normalcy…or a parade of the dead? The mechanical strobe of the grey noise behind Bernstein’s spare vocalese seems to indicate the latter.

The Plot works on multiple levels. On the surface, it’s a lengthy, shivery, blustery commentary – and demonstration – of the music inherent in language, and vice versa. In this case, apocalyptic industrial chaos trumps pretty much everything.

Through Havoc is a series of echoey, crunchy, noisy loops. “How strong is your will? Do you last a few hours?” Bernstein asks in We Coast, a moody study in resonance versus rhythm. She closes the album with its one moment of levity, Whirling Statue, which opens with what sounds like a talkbox.

November 19, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

String Jazz Magic at This Year’s Art in Gardens Series

This year’s free outdoor summer concert series are pretty much over at this point, but there’s another going on in three Lower East Side community gardens through the first weekend of October. The organizers call it Art in Gardens. What’s most exciting is that it’s dedicated to jazz improvisation: right now, it’s the only series of its kind anywhere in town. As you’ll see from the schedule, the lineup is a mix of veterans – some of them admittedly on the self-indulgent/Vision Fest side – but there’s plenty of new blood, and new reasons to chill with neighborhood greenery.

The centerpiece of Sunday’s lineup in the garden on 6th Street between Avenues A and B was Sarah Bernstein‘s mesmerizing Veer Quartet with violinist Sana Nagano, violist Leonor Falcón and cellist Nick Jozwiak. While Bernstein never allows herself to be fenced in by the western scale, it seemed that about eighty percent of her compositions on this particular bill were in those familiar tones.

The music was so fresh that it seemed largely improvised, although the group were all reading from scores. The first number featured a series of exchanges of short, punchy, leaping phrases between individual voices. As the show went on, there was considerable contrast between restless, slowly shifting sustained notes and what has become Bernstein’s signature catchy, rhythmic riffage. As evening drew closer, the tonalties drifted further outside: the most recognizable microtonal piece also managed to have the catchiest twelve-tone phrases bouncing around over achingly tense, often rapturously suspenseful washes of harmony.

There wasn’t much soloing until Jozwiak cut loose with a sizzling downward cadenza and then a fleeting rise afterward, an unexpected jolt of very high voltage. Toward the end of the set, there was finally a furious thicket of bowing and a slowly ascending firestorm in its wake. Otherwise, elegance and sheer tunefulness were the order of the day. There were many moments where only one or two individual instruments were playing, and when the whole group were engaged, Jozwiak would often be plucking out a bassline while one or more of the violins offered keening, sepulchral harmonics far overhead.

Pretty much everything seemed through-composed: verses and choruses didn’t come around a second time, except in later numbers: much of the material would have made sense as a suite. Bernstein’s next gig with this crew is Sept 15 at 7 PM at Spectrum; cover is $15. The next Art in Gardens show features poetry and dance in addition to music: the lineup starts at 1:30 this Saturday afternoon, Sept 14 with Rob Brown on alto sax and Juan Pablo Carletti on drums. At 3:30 Val Jeanty plays percussion, backing dancer Patricia Nicholson and at 4:30 drummer Michael Wimberly teams up with trumpeter Waldron Ricks and bassist Larry Roland at the Children’s Magical Garden, 129 Stanton St, just east of Essex. Can’t vouch for the insect factor at this spot, but on an overcast day the bugs were out in full effect on 6th St.; you might want to slather on some Deep Woods Off or the equivalent.

September 13, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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