Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Bang on a Can Marathon 2018 – A Marathon Report

“I know so many of you have followed our nomadic trail to so many locations,” composer Julia Wolfe demurred, introducing today’s 31st anniversary of the Bang on a Can Marathon at NYU’s Skirball Auditorium. 

“Great to be in a space where we can all listen,” mused her fellow composer and husband Michael Gordon, possibly alluding to less sonically welcoming venues the annual New York avant garde music summit has occupied.

This year’s program was the most compact and New York-centric in a long time, and considering the venue, it’s no surprise that NYU alums mentored by the Bang on a Can composers featured prominently on the bill. Terry Riley’s influence circulated vastly throughout much of the early part of the show; the ageless lion of indie classical took a turn on vocals as the concert wound up.

“We have a duty to go up to the people who come in afterward and brag,” grinned Bang on a Can’s David Lang, referring to the afternoon’s first piece, Galina Ustvolskaya’s relatively brief Symphony No. 2. The NYU Contemporary Ensemble – with woodwinds, brass and percussion – negotiated it calmly but forcefully. David Friend’s steady hamfisted piano thumps ushered in and then peppered steadily rhythmic, massed close harmonies from the rest of the group, Vocalist Robert Osborne implored a grand total of three Russian words – God, truth and eternity – over and over in between pulses as the music veered between the macabre and the simply uneasy. The ensemble really nailed the surprise ending – gently.

Michael Gordon’s Sonatra, the composer explained, is the only solo piano piece in his repertoire, quite a surprise considering that he’s a strong pianist and the best musician among the Bang on a Can hydra. “Somehow Vicky Chow has learned how to play it,” he deadpanned. She made Gordon’s vast, subtly contrasting, rigorously crosshanded Terry Riley-like expanses of steady eighth notes seem easy, engaging every single one of the piano’s eighty-eight keys.

Murky faux-boogie woogie lefthand paired against relentlessly twinkling righthand riffage; that Chow could incorporate Gordon’s relentlessly tongue-in-cheek glissandos with as much aplomb as she did reaffirms her mighty chops as one of the world’s foremost avant garde musicians.

Chamber orchestra Contemporaneous tackled a carbonated, caffeinated, endlessly circling fifteen-minute slice of cellist Dylan Mattingly’s similarly daunting, epically ecstatic six-hour opera Stranger Love. The Bang on a Can All-Stars – as amazingly mutable as ever – made the first of their many appearances with Gabriella Smith’s Panitao, evoking the swoops and high swipes of whale song amid increasingly animated, rippling, sirening ambience. Then they pounced their way through the staggered math steps of Brendon Randall-Myers’ Changes, Stops, and Swells (For B).

A sextet subset of Contemporaneous returned for Fjóla Evans’s turbulent tone poem Eroding, an Icelandic river tableau. With its sharp contrasts – bass clarinet, cello and piano gnashing and swirling amid the flickers from violin, flute and vibraphone – and disarming trick ending, it was the first real stunner among the new material on the bill.

Purple Ensemble – a string trio augmented with vibes, viola and vocals – played three Yiddish songs from Alex Weiser’s cycle And All the Days Were Purple. Singer Eliza Bagg channeled joy shadowed by angst and longing, Lee Dionne’s piano beginning low and enigmatic and then slithering in a far more Lynchian direction over the strings.    

The All-Stars’ were bolstered by Contemporaneous’ strings and percussion for a trio of  commissions. Jeffrey Brooks was first represented by After the Treewatcher,  based on a trancey earlier work which was the composer recalled being vociferously booed when Gordon premiered it back in the early 80s. Guitarist Taylor Levine’s warily oscillating lines undulated amongst emphatic strings and rustling, peek-a-boo suspense-film percussion riffs, building a Riley-esque web of sound that was as gorgeously hypnotic as it was hard-hitting.

A second new work, Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother, featured additional reeds and brass along with pointillistic twin electric pianos. A bustlingly circular, Bollywood-inflected theme gave way to austere, lingering ambience and then a wryly gritty Beatles guitar knockoff.

The Flux Quartet played their first violinist Tom Chiu’s Retrocon, a meteorologically-inspired, spiraling, Philip Glass-ine series of rising and falling microtonal cell figures. Violinist Mazz Swift and keyboardist Therese Workman juxtaposed electroacoustic string metal, new wave pop, a classic spiritual and faux-EDM in their mini-suite Revolution:House.

The big hybrid ensemble reconfigured for a final Brooks work, The Passion – the triptych “Reflects the kind of suffering that goes on every day, not the biblical kind,” the composer emphasized. Lavishly kinetic pageantry with wry Black Sabbath allusions shifted to dissociative, Laurie Anderson-ish atmospherics, Bagg narrating sobering advice from the composer’s terminally ill sister to her children. The leaping, trebly counterpoint of the final segment brought to mind My Brightest Diamond.

Sō Percussion took the stage for Nicole Lizée’s increasingly dissociative, gamelanesque electroacoustic instrumental White Label Experiment, echoed with considerably louder hi-tech energy later on by neosoul singer/keyboardist/dancer Xenia Rubinos and drummer Marco Buccelli.

Veteran new-music string quartet Ethel’s percussively insistent, clenched-teeth performance of Aleksandra Vrebalov’s Balkan-infected Logbook, Part II took the intensity to redline in seconds flat: it was the highlight of the night. Fueled by cellist Dorothy Lawson’s darkly bluesy glissandos, their take of Jessie Montgomery’s rousing dance theme Voodoo Dolls was a close second. They wound up their trio of pieces, joining voices,instruments and eventually their feet throughout the bracing, allusively Appalachian close harmonies of Wolfe’s enveloping, driving Blue Dress for String Quartet.

The Bang on a Can All-Stars took back the stage alongside narrator Eric Berryman in a cinematic, suspensefully rocking arrangement of Frederic Rzewski’s Attica-themed Coming Together, cellist Ashley Bathgate and bassist Robert Black’s heroically furtive pedalpoint anchoring the story’s grim foreshadowing.

Cellist Maya Beiser and narrator Kate Valk teamed up for Lang’s pensively minimalist, gently amusing loopmusic piece The Day, its lyrics mostly a litany of tongue-in-cheek mundanities sourced off the web via a search on “I remember the day.” He explained that he’d deleted the product references and lewdness – a lot, he admitted. 

The night’s coda was Riley’s Autodreamographical Tales & Science Fiction, the composer joining the All-Stars on vocals. Chow’s bluesy Rhodes piano made a smooth segue out of the Lang work in tandem with Riley’s wry beat-poetry reminiscence. Levine’s Pink Floyd echoes added bulk and bombast; Bathgate’s powerhouse soul vocals were an unexpected treat. As was Riley’s turn solo at the piano, part Satie, part Tom Waits.

What’s the takeaway from all this? This year was less a sounding of what’s happening on a global level, as past years’ and decades’ marathons have been, than a simple celebration of the Bang on a Can inner circle, with a few tentative ventures outside. But that’s ok. They earned that a long time ago.

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May 13, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Terry Riley at Federal Hall: Avant Garde Icon at the Top of His Game

Staging Friday night’s Terry Riley concert in the round at Federal Hall on Wall Street was a brilliant idea, making full use of the space’s majestically enveloping natural reverb. An eclectic program featuring choral, guitar, chamber and piano works drew equally on the minimalism that Riley is best known for along with elements of the baroque, jazz, blues and plenty of lively improvisation. As a portrait of where the composer is right now and where he’s been, it made a strong case for the argument that Riley might be the most influential composer associated with the avant garde, ever.

A string quartet including violinists Cornelius Dufallo and Jenny Choi, cellist Jeffrey Zeigler and the peripatetic Ljova Zhurbin on viola joined with the Young People’s Chorus of New York City for the lush swells and ebbs of Riley’s new work Another Secret eQuation, making their way methodically from jaunty, lighthearted swoops to a close harmony-fueled lushness that was considerably more pensive. Riley’s son Gyan followed with a solo classical guitar piece, shifting from fragmented baroque motives to a bit of a fugue, then teaming with electric violinist Tracy Silverman for a canon of sorts that cleverly cached microtones in the violin melody.

Riley’s own work at the piano, predictably, drew the most applause of the night. Riding the pedal, he slowly and measuredly built elegant permutations on simple, three or four-note phrases that morphed, sometimes completely unexpectedly, from Philip Glass-like circularity to passages steeped in the blues, gospel, a couple of graceful swing jazz interludes and some glimmering neoromantic balladry. His son and then Silverman joined him, trading bars and riffs with a steely grin. Riley’s music is so exacting and so economical that it’s a tight fit: only a similar precision will do, but the junior players onstage were up to the old lion’s challenge.

John Zorn joined the festivities for the evening’s most adrenalizing and thematically varied number, adding his signature noir resonance on alto sax before pushing the music toward hard bop as Riley anchored it with a stately lefthand. The pianist wound up the night with what appeared to be a mostly improvised piece, imbuing it with an apt wee hours feel, moving nonchalantly from a contemplative bluesiness to something of a jazz ballad where for the second time he threw in a brief quote from In C, his legendary 1964 composition that inspired seemingly every keyboard-driven European art-rock band from the 70s. Stylistic puddlejumping has seldom seemed so effortless or natural; then again, Riley has been doing this for a long time.

June 21, 2014 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Album of the Day 9/13/10

Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Monday’s album is #869:

Can – Monster Movie

The cult favorite is the German band’s 1971 Tago Mago album, with its hypnotic grooves and assaultive avant freakouts. This is Can’s rock record, a memorably twisted piece of post-Beatles psychedelia from 1969. As with the rest of the band’s output, drummer Jaki Liebezeit absolutely owns this. With his inimitable, hypnotic rattle and pulse, it’s already obvious where he’s going to take this band’s music for most of the next decade. Side one begins with Father Cannot Yell, its weird lyrics, melodic bass, proto-Robert Fripp guitar and motorik rhythm evoking a bizarre cross between the Velvets and Terry Riley (who was a big influence, along with Karlheinz Stockhausen, who served as teacher to both bassist Holger Czukay and organist Irmin Schmidt). Mary, Mary So Contrary is a fractured folk-rock dirge, followed by Outside My Door, an Astronomy Domine ripoff but a good one. The second side is a twenty-minute stoner jam (streaming in three parts, here, here and here), sort of a teutonic In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida edited down from what was reputedly a marathon six-hour studio session. With minimal reverb guitar, trebly bass, creepy Farfisa and Liebezeit’s epic funeral drums, they establish their signature trancey sound after it gets going, particularly when they bring it down to just the bass and the drums and leave it there for what seems forever (you can practically smell the pot smoke drifting in from the other room). Joy Division’s Dead Souls owes its drum riff to this one. Here’s a random torrent.

September 12, 2010 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Gyan Riley and Chicha Libre at the New York Guitar Festival 2/4/10

Last night’s theme was film scores. The New York Guitar Festival is more avant garde than rock (WNYC’s John Schaefer emceed) – this particular Merkin Hall bill started out intensely and virtuosically with a rare artist who’s every bit as good as his famous father (Gyan Riley is the son of avant titan Terry Riley), then got more mainstream with an emotionally rich, frequently very amusing pair of Chaplin soundtracks just completed by Chicha Libre.

Composers have been doing new scores for old silent films for decades (some of the most intriguing recent ones include Phillip Johnston’s improvisations for Page of Madness, and the Trakwerx soundtracks for Tarzan and a delicious DVD of Melies shorts). Riley chose to add sound to a series of brief paint-on-celluloid creations by Harry Smith (yup, the anthology guy), which came across as primitive if technically innovative stoner psychedelia. Ostensibly Smith’s soundtrack of choice had been Dizzie Gillespie; later, his wife suggested the Beatles. Playing solo, Riley opened with his best piece of the night, an unabashedly anguished, reverb-drenched tableau built on vivid Steve Ulrich-esque chromatics. From there, Riley impressed with a diverse mix of ambient Frippertronic-style sonics along with some searing bluesy rock crescendos evoking both Jeff Beck aggression and towering David Gilmour angst. Most of the time, Riley would be looping his licks with split-second precision so they’d echo somewhere in the background while he’d be adding yet another texture or harmony, often bending notes Jim Campilongo style with his fretboard rather than with his fingers or a whammy bar.

With their psychedelic Peruvian cumbias, Chicha Libre might seem the least likely fit for a Chaplin film. But like its closest relative, surf music, chicha (the intoxicating early 70s Peruvian blend of latin, surf and 60s American psychedelia) can be silly one moment, poignant and even haunting the next. Olivier Conan, the band’s frontman and cuatro player remarked pointedly before the show how much Chaplin’s populism echoed in their music, a point that resonated powerfully throughout the two fascinating suites they’d written for Payday (1922) and The Idle Class (1921). The Payday score was the more diverse of the two, a series of reverberating, infectiously catchy miniatures in the same vein as Manfred Hubler’s Vampyros Lesbos soundtrack as well as the woozily careening Electric Prunes classic Mass in F Minor. While Chicha Libre’s lead instrument is Josh Camp’s eerie, vintage Hohner Electrovox organ, as befits a guitar festival, Telecaster player Vincent Douglas got several extended solo passages to show off his command of just about every twangy noir guitar style ever invented, from spaghetti western to New York soundtrack noir to southwestern gothic. When the time came, Camp was there with his typical swirling attack, often using a wah pedal for even more of a psychedelic effect. The band followed the film to a split-second with the occasional crash from the percussionists, right through the triumphant conclusion where Chaplin manages to sidestep his suspicious wife with her ever-present rolling pin and escape with at least a little of what he’d earned on a hilariously slapstick construction site.

The Idle Class, a similarly redemptive film, was given two alternating themes, the first being the most traditionally cinematic of the night, the second eerily bouncing from minor to major and back again with echoes of the Simpsons theme (which the show’s producers just hired Chicha Libre to record last month for the cartoon’s 25th anniversary episode). Chaplin plays the roles of both the rich guy (happy movie theme) and the tramp (spooky minor) in the film, and since there’s less bouncing from set to set in this one the band got the chance to vamp out and judiciously add or subtract an idea or texture or two for a few minutes at a clip and the result was mesmerizing. It was also very funny when it had to be. Bits and pieces of vaguely familiar tunes flashed across the screen: a schlocky pop song from the 80s; a classical theme (Ravel?); finally, an earlier Chicha Libre original (a reworking of a Vivaldi theme, actually), Primavera en la Selva. They built it up triumphantly at the end to wind up in a blaze of shimmering, clanging psychedelic glory where Chaplin’s tramp finally gets to give the rich guy’s sinisterly hulking father a swift kick in the pants. The crowd of what seemed older, jaded new-music types roared their approval: the buzz was still in the air as they exited. Chicha may be dance music (and stoner music), but Chicha Libre definitely have a future in film scores if they want it.

February 5, 2010 Posted by | concert, Film, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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