Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Lavish, Ambitiously Orchestrated Twinbill at Symphony Space Last Night

“How many of you have been to a classical concert before?” Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner asked the packed house at Symphony Space last night. From the response, it didn’t appear that many had. Which makes sense if you consider that the average age at the big Manhattan classical halls is 65. But what Wasner’s band were playing, bolstered by the Metropolis Ensemble and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, wasn’t the kind of classical you’d typically hear at those venues. It was a brand new kind of music: epic post-minimalist sweep matched to rock edge and attack.

Wasner spoke of being humbled in the presence of eighty other musicians of such a high caliber, but she has fearsome chops herself. She began the show on bass and proved herself more than competent, then moved to guitar and gave a clinic in shiny, emphatic, shimmery phrasing. Drummer Andy Stack pushed this mighty beast with a supple drive, shifting constantly between tricky meters. At one point, Wasner suddenly realized that her bass had gone out of tune, then didn’t miss a beat or a note, hitting her tuner pedal and then fixing everything even as the tempo and syncopation changed in a split second behind her. Tuning while playing is a rare art; it’s a whole other thing to tune and sing at the same time!

Throughout the show, whether singing her own material or William Brittelle’s restless new song cycle Spiritual America, there was considerable contrast between Wasner’s cool, concise, understated vocals and the orchestra’s leaps and bubbles. Guitarist Ben Cassorla added flaring cadenzas and carefully modulated sheets of sustain. frequently playing with an ebow. When Wasner was on bass, Metropolis Ensemble bassist Evan Runyon frequently teamed with her for a pulse that wasn’t thunderous, but close to it. Keyboardist Erika Dohi added warpy, new wave-flavored synth, wafting synthesized strings and on a couple of occasions during Brittelle’s suite, wryly blippy, EDM-tinged flutters.

In a context as orchestrated as this was, Wasner’s songs came across as very similar to Brittelle’s, Both songwriters’ lyrics are pensive, direct and don’t follow either a metric or rhyme scheme. Likewise, they both gravitate to simple, frequently circling phrases that went spiraling or bounding from one section of the ensemble to the next. Brittelle’s big crescendos tended to be more flamboyant, and more evocative of 70s art-rock like Genesis or Gentle Giant, with the occasional reference to coldly bacchanalian dancefloor electronics. Wasner’s tended to be more enigmitically reflective if no less kinetic, and more influenced by 80s new wave pop. Are both fans of Carl Nielsen’s playfully leapfrogging symphonic arrangements? It would seem so. 

The night’s coda, Wasner’s cynical I Know the Law, was a study in the utility of self-deception as well as its pitfalls. As with the rest of the material in the night’s second set, the chorus punctuated the music’s many splashes of color with steady, emphatic, massed polyrhythms and occasional moody ambience. Wasner joked that one of Brittelle’s more nostalgic numbers would be something that these kids would understand in about ten years, which could prove true. What they will remember is being on this stage with a hundred other musicians, and getting a huge standing ovation from an audience of their peers.

Metropolis Ensemble don’t have any upcoming New York concerts for awhile, but their violinist – and Mivos Quartet co-founder – Olivia DePrato is playing the album release show for her auspicious solo debut album, Streya, at 1 Rivington Street on March 13 at 7:30 PM. Tix are $20/$15 stud.

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February 17, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A String-Driven Treat and a Park Slope Gig by Irrepressible, Fearlessly Eclectic Violinist Tom Swafford

Violinist Tom Swafford’s String Power were one of the most lavishly entertaining, surrealistically psychedelic bands to emerge in New York in this decade. Blending classical focus, swirling mass improvisation, latin and Middle Eastern grooves and jazz flair, they played both originals as well as playful new arrangements of songs from across the years and around the world. With a semi-rotating cast of characters, this large ensemble usually included all of the brilliant Trio Tritticali – violinist Helen Yee, violist Leann Darling and cellist Loren Dempster – another of this city’s most energetically original string bands of recent years. Swafford put out one fantastic album, streaming at Bandcamp, with the full band in 2015 and has kept going full steam since with his own material, notably his Songs from the Inn, inspired by his time playing in Yellowstone State Park. 

Over the last couple of years, String Power have been more or less dormant, although Swafford has a characteristically eclectic show of his own coming up on Feb 2 at 7 PM the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, where he’s a faculty member. To start the show, he’ll be playing Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Piano with pianist Emile Blondel. After that, he’ll be leading a trio with guitarist/banjoist Benjamin “Baby Copperhead” Lee and bassist Zach Swanson for a set of oldtime country blues and then some bluesy originals of his own. Cover is $15/$10 stud/srs.

The String Power album has a formidable lineup of adventurous New York classical and indie classical talent. On violins, alongside Swafford and Yee, there’s a slightly shifting cast of Mark Chung, Patti Kilroy, Frederika Krier, Suzanne Davenport and Tonya Benham; Darling and Joanna Mattrey play viola; Dempster and Brian Sanders play cello, with Dan Loomis on bass. The album opens with Tango Izquierda, Swafford’s shout-out to the Democrats regaining control of Congress in the 2006 midterm elections. Maybe we’ll get lucky again, right? This elegantly lilting number rises and falls with intricate counterpoint and a handful of frenetic Mik Kaminski-ish cadenzas.

The group reinvents new wave band the Stranglers’ synth-pop Dave Brubeck ripoff Golden Brown – an ode to the joys of heroin – with a stately neo-baroque arrangement. The Velvets’ Venus in Furs is every bit as menacing, maybe more so than the original, with a big tip of the hat to John Cale, and a Swafford solo that’s just this side of savage.

Swafford’s version of Wildwood Flower draws more on its origins in 19th century shape-note singing than the song’s eventual transformation into a bluegrass standard, with a folksy bounce fueled by spiky  massed pizzicato. Darling’s arrangement of the Mohammed Abdel Wahab classic Azizah opens with her plaintive taqsim (improvisation) over a drone, pounces along with all sorts of delicious microtones up to a whiplash coda and an outro that’s way too funny to give away.

Likewise, the otherwise cloying theme from the gently satirical 70s soap opera parody Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman gets a trick ending. Charles Mingus’ anti-segregation jazz epic Fables of Faubus gets a fullscale nine-minute workout, heavy on the composer’s relentless sarcasm. In the age of Trump, this really hits the spot with its phony martial heroics and sardonially swiping swells, Chung, Krier, Swafford and finally Loomis getting a chance to chew the scenery.

The album winds up with Swafford’s own Violin Concerto. The triptych opens with Brutal Fanfare, a stark, dynamically rising and falling string metal stomp spiced with twisted Asian motive – it makes a good segue out of Mingus. The second part, High Lonesome explores the often fearsome blues roots of bluegrass, with some wickedly spiraling Swafford violin. The conclusion, simply titled Ballad, is the most atmospheric passage here: it sounds like an Anna Thorvaldsdottir vista raised an octave or two. 

January 28, 2018 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Celebrating a Tragic, Iconoclastic Hungarian Hero at the National Arts Club

Wouldn’t you wash your hands after you touched a corpse? Hospital physicians at Vienna’s Algelemine Krankenhaus didn’t. From a 21st century perspective, the results were predictably catastrophic.

Ray Lustig’s grim, powerfully resonant song cycle Semmelweis,  which premiered on September 11 at the National Arts Club, begins in 1848, One of Europe’s deadliest outbreaks of puerperal fever is killing one in ten new mothers at the hospital. Hungarian-born obstetrician Ignac Semmelweis is at a loss to explain it.

Semmelweis was a tragic hero in the purest sense of the word. Decades before Louis Pasteur, Semmelweis discovered the bacterial connection for disease transmission. But rather than being celebrated for his discovery and for saving countless of his own patients, he was derided as a medical heretic,  ended up losing his mind and died alone in a mental asylum seventeen years later. If not for the reactionary Viennese medical establishment, terrified of being blamed for the epidemic, today we would say “semmelweissed” instead of “pasteurized.” In an age where leakers are murdered, whistleblowers are jailed as terrorists and 9/11 historians are derided as conspiracy theorists, this story has enormous relevance.

And the music turned out to be as gripping as the narrative. Out in front of an impressively eclectic twelve-piece ensemble for the marjority of the performance, soprano Charlotte Mundy dexterously showed off a vast grasp of all sorts of styles, singing Matthew Doherty’s allusively foreboding lyrics to Lustig’s shapeshifting melodies. Pianist Katelan Terrell. accordionist Peter Flint and violinist Sam Katz wove an alternately austere and lustrous backdrop for the rest of the singers: Lustig himself in the role of Semmelweis, alongside Marcy Richardson, Catherine Hancock, Brett Umlauf, Charlotte Dobbs, Jennifer Panara and Guadalupe Peraza.

The suite began with a wash of close harmonies and ended on a similarly otherworldly note with a Hungarian lullaby sung in eerily kaleidoscopic counterpoint by the choir. The story unwound mostly in flashbacks – by women in peril, ghosts or Semmelweis himself, tormented to the grave by all the dead women he wasn’t able to save.

Many of the songs had a plaintive neoromanticism: the most sepulchral moments were where the most demanding extended technique came into play, glissandoing and whispering and vertiginously shifting rhythms. That’s where the group dazzled the most. Recurrent motives packed a wallop as well, voicing both the dread of the pregnant women and Semmelweis’ self-castigation for not having been able to forestall more of the epidemic’s toll than he did. The Hungarian government will celebrate the bicentennial of Semmelweis’ birth next year, a genuine national hero.

September 21, 2017 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Mighty, Intense Awakening Orchestra Sound the Alarm in Gowanus

Composer/conductor Kyle Saulnier’s twenty-piece Awakening Orchestra blend art-rock and classical music into their mighty big band jazz sound. They sound like no other group around: as the name implies, while they have the standard brass, reeds and rhythm section that you’d find in just about any other large jazz ensemble, Saulnier’s hefty arrangements drift toward the classical side. As a plus, a strong political awareness factors into his music. Economies of scale being what they are – they’re supported by the Midwest Composers Forum and its recording arm, Innova Records, one of the very few labels that still matter – the group rarely plays live. That’s why their upcoming show on July 14 at 7:30 PM at Shapeshifter Lab – where they’ll be continuing Saulnier’s ongoing 2016 election year-themed suite, a work in progress – is the place to be if powerful, enveloping sounds are your thing. As a bonus, eclectically tuneful pianist Fabian Almazan – who has a thing for Shostakovich – plays with his Rhizome ensemble afterward. Cover is $10.

The Awakening Orchestra’s most recent, 2014 debut release, Volume 1: This Is Not the Answer (streaming at Spotify) opens with Saulnier’s vampy, pulsing prelude and muted fanfare of sorts. From there they remind how aptly suited Radiohead songs are to mammoth orchestral interpretaiion, with a mighty version of Myxomatosis that uses the entire sonic spectrum, from towering heights to whispery lows; with a wispily mosterioso tenor sax solo from Samuel Ryder in the middle.

The epic The Words, They Fail to Come builds around the theme from the Samuel Barber Violin Concerto, an even mightier, dynamically shifting epic featuring a vividly uneasy, epic solo from baritone saxophonist Michael Gutauskas, handing off to trombonist Michael Buscarino, who finally slam-dunks it. Then the band thunders through an Olympic stadium-sized reinvention of the old jazz standard Alone Together, lit up by Michael McAllister’s searing guitar and Felipe Salles’ surrealistic tenor sax.

Saulnier’s original, Protest rises from horror atmospherics, through an insistent, powerful pulse, to a glittering Mulholland Drive noctural interlude and then a frantic coda where all hell breaks loose. The first cd ends with a bulky chamber-jazz arrangement of You Still Believe in Me, by Wilson and Asher, whoever they are.

The second disc opens with the Brahms Intermezzo Op. 118 No. 2, which Saulnier has arranged very cleverly to seem as if it’s a prototype for Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks theme. It’s not, but Saulner gets props for having the ears and ambiiton to connect the dots as far as they go, and them some. The orchestra follows with Saulnier’s four-part suite, This Is Not The Answer, opening as a suspenseful tone poem and then rising to a circular exchange of sheets of sound over the rhythm section, Rob Mosher’s warily bubbling and then hazy soprano sax at the center as the backdrop descends into the murky, creepy depths. A sardonically swinging march beat and Middle Eastern allusions from David DeJesus’ alto sax offer equal parts relevance and menace.

Then the group completely flips the script with a balmy nocturnal theme lit up by Nadje Noordhuis’ deep-sky flugelhorn. From there the band shifts into the final section, The Hypocrite and the Hope (an assessment of the Obama administration?), an enervatedly bustling neo-70s Morricone-ish crime jazz theme and variations, with funhouse-mirror James Shipp vibraphone and some psychedelically unhinged McAllister shredding, As cinematic, electric crime themes go, it ranks with Bob Belden as well as with the aforementioned Italian guys.

Saulnier has the orchestra follow with a lush take of Murderer, by Low, the dancing twin trumpets of Noordhuis and Philip Dizack  contrasting with its looming atmospherics. Kevin Fruiterman sings the album’s final cut, Hi-Lili, Hi Lo, reinventing a cheesy early 50s Dinah Shore hit as Alan Parsons Project orchestral pop. Considering how much new material the band will be unveiling, it’s uncertain if they’ll be playing any of this live, but if so, that will be a plus.

July 6, 2016 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

String Ensemble Sybarite5 Sell Out Subculture

Sybarite5 are a game-changer in the chamber music world. A cynic might say that the chamber music world needs a change: what appeared to be a sold-out, mostly twentysomething crowd Sunday night at Subculture might have agreed. Maybe it’s Sybarite5’s imaginative, genre-defying programming that pulls a younger demographic. Or maybe it’s their obsession with Radiohead: their 2013 album of new arrangements of songs by that band is a landmark in art-rock, a genre they also embrace. Whatever the case, they drew raucous applause and screams for an encore that might not have been out of place in another century when string quintets were more common, but aren’t exactly what you come to expect in the more sedate confines of, say, Carnegie Hall.

The group – violinists Sami Merdinian and Sarah Whitney, violist Angela Pickett, cellist Laura Metcalf and bassist Louis Levitt – opened with the first of the Radiohead covers, 15 Step, reinventing it as a kinetic, almost funky piece with hints of a canon but also a lively country dance, some of the members beating out a rhythm on the bodies of their instruments. They followed with a contemporary piece, Dan Visconti’s Black Bend, which slowly came together as a blues and then drifted from the center again.

Merdinian’s Armenian-Argentinian heritage came to the forefront with a couple of Armenian folk songs, a plaintive lament and then a bracing dance from the Komitas catalog. They offered a rapturously tender take of Astor Piazzolla’s Milonga del Angel, but then reveled in another Piazzolla piece, Esqualo, bringing its shark-fishing narrative to life with a sinewy intensity. It was here especially that Levitt’s role made itself clear, driving the music with the power of a rock bassist.

There was also more Radiohead (a surrealistically pulsing take of Weird Fishes and a broodingly anthemic remake of No Surprises); Shawn Conley’s Yann’s Flight, a cinematic depiction of Hawaiian hang gliding; a tensely circular, cinematically crescendoing Jessica Meyer premiere, and a romp through a Taraf de Haidoucks Romany number that was as feral as it was majestic. They encored with an irresistibly droll mashup of the old 80s cheese-pop hit Take on Me with Flight of the Bumblebee. Anyone who thinks that chamber music is strictly for greybeards wasn’t at this show. Roll over Beethoven, tell Tschaikovsky the news.

January 20, 2015 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Halloween Makes an Early Appearance at Merkin Concert Hall

Last night at Merkin Concert Hall was a gleefully fun and surprisingly nuanced concert of Halloweenish orchestral works that transcended being pigeonholed as such. Sure, it was impossible not be drawn into the fun as conductor/composer Charles Coleman scrunched his face into a triumphant, “yessssss!” expression as he signaled a series of macabre, pulsing tritones from the violins as the world premiere of his symphonic poem Carmilla for String Orchestra got underway. But there was plenty of subtlety and sophistication that tends to get trampled in this kind of music: while there was an abundance of menace on the program, it never really went over the edge into grand guignol.

Anchored by heavy washes of bass and cello, the piece quickly shifted into more plaintively neoromantic territory before hitting a hypnotic, rhythmically minimalist coda that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Julia Wolfe catalog. The full orchestra followed with William Maselli‘s deliciously fun Visions of Sabbath, a mashup of classic Black Sabbath themes. How familiar the ensemble members were with the source material became obvious in an instant, from who was dealing with it like any other task, and who couldn’t resist a grin. One of the bassists and a violist in particular were having a ball with the artful interweave of motives: the signature chromatic theme that opens the band’s first album; riffs galore from Electric Funeral and War Pigs,and a playfully blustery arrangement of the verse from Iron Man, to name a few. And when they reached the point where one of the clarinets voiced a couple of Ozzy lines from The Wizard, pretty much everybody was cracking up. “This initial effort may well be expanded on in the future,” the program notes hinted. Bring it on!

The final work was Maselli’s two-act opera Draculette. It’s a highly thought out piece of music, and it was well executed. Bloodily surreal as the storyline is, there was less bombast than expected. Maselli’s main themes developed out of a cinematic progression of the utmost simplicity that rose and fell with a Moussorgsky-esque unease, punctuated by several more bittersweet interludes, a couple veering into lively, carefree Italianate operatic territory, others with a vividly anthemic art-song quality that reminded of Elvis Costello at his most ornate. Did Maselli immerse himself in a Prokofiev opera before tackling this? That wouldn’t be a surprise.

Coloratura soprano Olga Zhuravel sang the lead role, holding the center with a fang-baring luridness. High soprano Micaela Oeste got less time in the spotlight but made the most of it: one particular spine-tingling, stratospheric, chromatic phrase of hers was worth the price of admission alone. The guys – baritones Brad Cresswell and Kevin Glavin, and tenor John Bellemer – were given goofier roles and thus less opportunity to explore as much emotional terrain as the women. Which made sense considering the storyline: unsympathetic characters are easier to kill off. In the spaces between, brief solos made their way cleverly and purposefully throughout the orchestra: Tomina Parvanova’s harp, BJ Karpen’s oboe and Allyson Clare’s viola in particular were standouts. Meanwhile, a series of microphones hung overhead: if the engineers soundchecked this right, the orchestra and singers got a dandy live recording out of it.

October 5, 2014 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Intense Paradigm-Shifting Sounds from Salim Ghazi Saeedi

One important rising composer who’s doing genuinely visionary work in microtonal music, helping to integrate sounds from the Middle East into jazz and rock, is Tehran-based multi-instrumentalist Salim Ghazi Saeedi. His latest album namoWoman is an often otherworldly creation. It’s considerably more raw and roughhewn than, say, recent albums by David Fiuczynski and Hafez Modirzadeh, both artists to which he compares favorably. Aside from the fact that Saeedi plays all the instruments on the album – guitars, keys, basses and drums – what’s most amazing about it is how through-composed it is. Thematic variations recur frequently but always change shape, melodically and dynamically. It’s a dark, bracing, uneasy roller-coaster ride.

Saeedi’s main axe is the guitar, which he multitracks using two basic tones: a ringing, watery timbre that he typically uses to deliver plaintive, judiciously picked microtonal phrases and ringing sustained lines, along with a gritty, crunchy, distorted tone that often takes centerstage with a sneering, occasionally comedic flair. That tone, and its bombastic allusions and head-on assaults, poses the question of whether this is heavy metal, or jazz, or Persian art-rock. Ultimately, the answer is all of the above.

Saeedi’s unorthodox use of both piano and bass is also extremely clever. Saeedi leans heavily on the piano’s lowest keys, whether to anchor the music in a murky, overtone-spiced ambience, or for basslines. By contrast, Saeedi utilizes the bass’s entire sonic spectrum, frequently bowing eerily elegant viola melodies in the upper registers. A few of the tracks have trebly-toned, judiciously played electric bass along with the occasional electronic keyboard motif. All this contrasts with the savage, distorted guitar lines: whether or not that dichotomy is deliberate or not (two sides of the same coin, maybe, one profound and the other profane?), it’s inescapable.

Throughout the nine-part suite, Saeedi establishes individual voices within the arrangements, with all kinds of melodic interweaving and conversations: piano ripples respond to bass bubbles, cello-flavored lines hand off to the guitar, or to the drums. Without knowing it, you wouldn’t necessarily guess that guitar is Saeedi’s primary axe, considering how graceful, dexterous and propulsive his bass work is; his piano lines are terse, imaginative and serve an important part of the musical backbone. If there’s any criticism of this, it’s that Saeedi swings on the guitar and especially the bass but not the drums: a percussionist with a proficiency equal to Saeedi’s on those two instruments could have been useful here. Then again, percussionists capable of playing such eclectic compositions are hard to find anywhere, let alone in traditional Persian music.

Bluesy allusions give way to suspenseful not-quite-minor, not-exactly major Persian intervals; rhythms tend to be straight-up but not always, one interlude bouncing along on a tricky groove that would be perfectly at home in Macedonia or Greece. Pensive, moody guitar echoes until it’s bludgeoned out of the picture as the distorted roar takes over, and then recedes, a constant game of good cop vs. bad cop with an occasional exchange of roles. There’s simple, insistent staccato guitar riffage straight out of the Pantera playbook, and also spacious, distantly anguished David Gilmour-inflected phrasing. The High Romantic, the gothic, the gypsy and the jazz – think Cecil Taylor in extreme deep space mode – mingle and echo and at their most cohesive, haunt the hell out of you. Little flourishes like a jaunty melodica vamp, hints of surf rock and Mediterranean psychedelia lighten the darkness while enhancing the surrealism of it all. Who is the audience for this? Middle Eastern metalheads; fans of Persian music who need a jolt of energy, and any fan of loud, dark sounds laced with fearless humor. There is no one in the world who sounds anything like Salim Ghazi Saeedi: where he takes these ideas in the future promises to be a pretty wild place.

January 10, 2013 Posted by | jazz, middle eastern music, Music, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Classic Small Beast Reunion of Sorts

Is it possible to be nostalgic for something that happened just four years ago? Is nostalgia a healthy emotion to begin with? Probably not. But with this week being the four-year anniversary of Small Beast, seeing that date memorialized Monday night upstairs at the Delancey brought back fond memories of the weekly series’ glory days here in New York. Botanica frontman Paul Wallfisch – this era’s finest rock keyboardist – founded the night in 2008 as a solo residency, followed by an endless cavalcade of some of New York’s, and the world’s, finest and darkest rock acts. This evening was a fond reminder of what an amazing run Small Beast had up to the summer of 2010, when Wallfisch took his show on the road to Germany. He now runs the State Theatre in Dortmund, which also serves as the European base for the Beast.

The night opened explosively with Valerie Kuehne. She’s part punk classical cellist, part performance artist, but her performance art isn’t the foofy, mannered kind – it’s oldschool 80s style and it has fangs. And it’s hilarious. Whether or not Kraft pasteurized processed American cheese qualifies as food, or how yoga has been transformed from oasis of relaxation to yuppie clusterfuck, might seem obvious. But Kuehne’s rapidfire rants about both were irresistibly funny all the way through to the punchlines…and then she played a roaring solo cello piece that became surprisingly lyrical, as violinist Jeffrey Young strolled in through the audience, and then she and accomplice Esther Neff  donned masks and handed out instructions to the audience. Which turned out to be a cruel kind of dada – watching the crowd make fools of themselves, looking up at them from the floor of the club (music bloggers aren’t immune to being spoofed) was almost as funny. Then she and Neff ran off to Cake Shop, where they were doing another show.

Martin Bisi cautioned before his duo improvisation with fellow guitarist Ernest Anderson that it might be “sleepy.” Nightmarish, maybe, but definitely not sleepy: fifteen seconds into it, and Bisi hit a ringing tritone and then sent it spiraling devilishly through the mix as Anderson anchored the ambience with keening layers of sustain from his ebow. Meanwhile, Bisi slammed out chords when he wasn’t building a murky, echoey cauldron of implied melody. And then in a raised middle finger to the sound system, he stuck his guitar in his amp and mixed the noise through a labyrinth of bleeding, pulsing effects. Although he’s not known as a jam guy – epic dark songcraft is his thing – he’s actually a tremendously entertaining improviser who never plays the same thing the same way twice. Jamming out soundscapes is probably the last thing he or anybody who knows his music would expect him to be doing, but this was good trippy fun.

Roman Wallfisch was the star of this show. The guitarist son of the night’s impresario has been playing banjo for a couple of weeks now, and he’s already figured out all sorts of cool voicings mixing old folk tropes with new rock ones. He casually made his way through a couple of shambling narratives, Monsoon Season and Parts of Speech, both songs showing off a wryly surreal lyrical sensibility and a wicked sense of melody: the apple obviously didn’t fall far from the tree. Oh yeah – in case you’re wondering, Roman Wallfisch is fourteen years old.

And the Wiremen – in a duo performance with guitarist/bandleader Lynn Wright and violinist Jon Petrow – could have been anticlimactic, but they weren’t.  Wright’s plaintive English/Spanish vocals over broodingly jangly, reverb-toned southwestern gothic melodies were as surrealistically dusky as ever. Wright held the crowd rapt with a quiet new song and ended the set with Sleep, which seems to be a cautionary tale, Petrow’s even more reverb-drenched lines raising the sepulchral ambience as high as anything sepulchral can go.

Guitarist Alexander Hacke and electric autoharpist Danielle Depicciotto treated the crowd to an equally brooding southwestern gothic ballad and then Cuckoo, the old Austrian folk song, complete with yodeling. Noir cabaret personality Little Annie was supposed to be next, but she was under the weather, so pianist Wallfisch was  joined by another brilliant dark chanteuse, Sally Norvell, whose takes of three haunting tracks from her duo album with him a few years back were lustrous and riveting, running the gamut from joyously torchy and seductive to funereal.

Wallfisch wrapped up the night with the kind of intuitively eclectic mix that defined the Beast for a couple of years, capturing the raw innocence of the Kinks’ Waterloo Sunset and the apprehension of Dylan’s Blind Willie McTell before a wry Little Annie Christmas song, the furtive gypsy punk of the Botanica song Money (from their latest, towering, intense album What Do You Believe In) and then the scorching gypsy punk of How, a crowd-pleaser from the old days. Petrow made another ghostly cameo or two. By now, it was after one in the morning, so Wallfisch wrapped up the evening with the nocturne Past One O’Clock (an audience request), the towering anthem Judgment (centerpiece of the new album) and a gorgeously brooding new number inspired by – among other things – the college kid in New Jersey who lept to his death from a bridge after being outed as gay. If there’s any lesson to take away from this show, it’s carpe diem: if there’s a scene this vital that you hang out in, don’t hide yourself at home, even if it’s Monday night. It could be gone sooner than you think.

January 9, 2013 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music, small beast | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Scary Stuff from Sean Noonan

Menacingly surreal, often assaultive, drummer Sean Noonan’s latest album A Gambler’s Hand is a feast for fans of dark, challenging music. Part indie classical, part chamber metal and part art-rock, with the improvisational flair of free jazz at its best, it’s a category unto itself – and one of the best albums of 2012 in any style of music. Noonan is a contradiction in terms, an extrovert drummer who’s also extremely subtle and an expert colorist: think Jim White with a heavier right foot, which isn’t a completely accurate way to describe Noonan’s style, but it’ll get you on the right track. The album was recorded in a single day, Noonan playing and conducting a bristling, energetic string quartet comprising violinists Tom Swafford and Patti Kilroy (of the equally enterprising Cadillac Moon Ensemble), violist Leanne Darling (of the deliciously intense, eclectic Trio Tritticali) and cellist David West.

The album, based on a Noonan short story soon to become a film, is an instrumental suite about a chronic gambler who finds himself behind a wall which he eventually becomes part of. It’s a concept straight out of Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, a style which some of the music here resembles, but through a glass, darkly. Because much of it evokes a muted, sometimes out-of-focus horror or dread, Noonan plays with vastly more care and precision than the unleashed ferocity he’s capable of, utilizing every open space on his kit along with all kinds of furtively rustling percussion to enhance the disquiet.

There are three main themes here that the quintet carries through a deft series of variations; a sad, off-center, atonal canon; a ferocious, macabre march based on a tritone chord, and a dirge. The album opens with a dramatic, cinematic overture cached in the circling and fluttering of the strings, working a tense dichotomy between steady and jittery. The devils’ chords slam in with a towering ferocity: over the course of what’s essentially an eight-minute one-chord jam, the ensemble shifts between a murderously grandiose march and quietly rhythmic interludes. With only a couple of exceptions, one of them being a free improvisation that eventually descends into chaos, the rhythm is steady throughout the suite even when it’s implied rather than played: it’s a neat touch, especially coming from a drummer.

The first of the dirge variations follows the macabre march, Darling’s viola trilling and then sailing through a particularly electric passage as the ensemble holds the suspense with a muted pizzicato. Uneasy exchanges of atonalities between the strings and artfully understated cymbal washes over a potently simple low cello riff lead into a slightly quieter, shivery, utterly creepy variation on the tritone theme, then it falls apart with the improvisation, returning with a surprisingly warm, riff-driven version of the big march. That unexpected clarity and attractive melodicism, sad as it may be, makes for a vivid and powerful contrast with all the harshness that preceded it. As you might expect, it doesn’t last. The ensemble finally reach the pummeling crescendo they’ve been hinting at all along, sliding and screaming and scraping to keep from being imprisoned forever behind that wall. For the love of God, Montressor! It ends somberly, but more quietly than you would expect after such visceral horror.

Noonan leads a double string quartet (including the Momenta String Quartet) playing the album release show for this one on Sept 24 at 8 PM at Roulette, general admission is $15 ($10 students and seniors).

September 19, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Bang on a Can All-Stars Strike Again

Putting a boy from a well-known indie rock band front and center on the Bang on a Can All-Stars’ new album Big Beautiful Dark and Scary is a marketing move gone awry. The audience for this genre-defying indie classical/art-rock band is probably somewhere in the gypsy rock, or Balkan brass, or jazz or maybe even what’s left of the punk rock camp, as the album cover alludes. Like the idiom he comes from, the pieces by the indie guy are carefree and shallow, and the rest of this album is anything but: even the Evan Ziporyn rearrangements of works by weirdo player piano composer Conlon Nancarrow reach toward communicating an agoraphobe’s angst, even if they don’t quite succeed. Indie rock has been suspect from the git-go and hasn’t been relevant for a long, long time: as it stands in 2012, it’s a ghetto for one-percenters and one-percenter wannabes, the kind of posers who are just as annoying an addition to the indie classical scene (e.g. this year’s Ecstatic Music Festival) as they are in the neighborhoods they’ve suburbanized with their simpering gentrifier sensibility.

But that’s the bad news. The album’s title track is a classic Julia Wolfe showstopper, a series of ascending progressions that grows from agitated, staccato suspense to terrified and anguished, then somber and quickly up again, Ziporyn’s elegaic clarinet rising over the increasingly swirling, insistent intensity of Ashley Bathgate’s cello and Robert Black’s bass. It’s not quite as shattering as Wolfe’s Cruel Sister suite, released last year, but it’s awfully close: as an evocation of the horrors of 9/11, it ranks as one of the most intense, right up there with Robert Sirota’s equally anguished, morbidly picturesque Triptych.

David Lang’s Sunray maintains a brooding mood, with minimalistic, trickily rhythmic piano-and-bass accents over an austerely staccato circular guitar riff that gradually fills out to a rather martial grandeur that wouldn’t be out of place in Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. Michael Gordon’s For Madeline, with its slowly sirening strings over echoey, horror-film piano-and-guitar ambience, packs a wallop. Ziporyn’s Music from Shadowbang is a three-part suite. Its opening segment sets his own nimbly scurrying clarinet accents over elegantly dancing bass – with its warmly inviting Brazilian inflections, it’s the most overtly jazz-oriented piece here. That’s followed by Ocean, a terse, pensive art-rock anthem without words, pianist Vicky Chow layering creepily precise water-droplet piano over a hypnotic central hook. The concluding segment grows from absolutely creepy to triumphant in the same manner of the Lang work, bringing this triptych full circle.

Louis Andriessen’s Life (with short films by Marijke van Warmerdam on the enhanced cd) is a moody and extraordinarily vivid work, one of his most straightforwardly melodic, and it too packs a punch, from the pensive, opening string-and-piano tone poem, through hypnotic, nocturnally strolling, elegaic ambience and then expectant, suspensefully minimalist cinematics. The album ends with Kate Moore’s Ridgeway, which builds from menacingly minimalism to a swooping, sweeping, Gilmouresque intensity driven by Mark Stewart’s biting slide guitar and Chow’s fiery, percussive piano in tandem with the bass. For those who don’t already have this (it’s already had a monthlong life as a free download for those with the broadband to haul in the whole thing), this double-disc set is worth owning for the Wolfe piece alone, let alone the substantial works  by her old BOAC pals Lang and Gordon and the other first-rate composers here.

February 24, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment