Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Uneasy Unsilent Night NYC, 2012

Unsilent Night grew from a New York phenomenon to a global one. Tonight’s annual New York pilgrimage from Washington Square Park to Tompkins Square Park was magically timed down to within seconds of the duration of the 45-minute Phil Kline work played during the processional on the participants’ devices of choice. When the first processional took place (1993, if memory serves right), it was a parade of boomboxes playing cassettes of the richly swirling, pointillistic, sometimes gamelanesque, sometimes ethereal electronic work. This year the device of choice seemed to be people’s phones – there’s  an Unsilent Night app for pretty much everything now. In addition, Q2 was simulcasting the full score, so there was the option of streaming it online. And Kline himself brought several boomboxes, along with battered cassettes and plenty of cds for those determined to be oldschool.

Volume-wise, oldschool won out handily: from a relatively veteran perspective (having participated in a few of these over the years), neither a phone nor a deck nor a tablet can beat a ghetto blaster. This year’s crowd was smaller than last year’s, and considerably younger, although that may simply be a function of the weather knocking out the older contingent. The undulating volume generated by the parade, as it wound from the Arch, around the fountain, crossing Broadway, down East Seventh to Tompkins Square, was also quieter, probably due to the predominance of phones over heavy appliances. What hasn’t changed is that like the original four separate cassette (and later, cd) tracks handed out at random, downloads are also randomly assigned: you never know which of the meticulously orchestrated parts you’ll be running on your machine, intermingling with the other three.

Unsilent Night has many lively moments – not to mention random moments of typical New York sidewalk unease, including but not limited to the taxi that almost drove head-on into a gaggle of people crossing Second Avenue – but overall it’s a soothing, hypnotic, enveloping piece of music, and experience. Like all parades, this procession is best enjoyed as a social event or a family outing (many took advantage of that opportunity – kids seem to love it). Doing this alone for the first time, it was hard to resist the Pavlovian impulse to bolt from the crowd, moving as leisurely as it did. A peaceful mood settled over the participants – no jostling for volume or position in line, most everyone lost in the music or in their thoughts, a few people taking pictures along the way.

Unfortunately, this coincided with Night of the Drunken Santas. Not being in touch with anyone in a fraternity or a sorority, it’s impossible to know exactly why half the teenage population of Connecticut – or New Jersey, or Long Island, or, sad to say, Ludlow Street – was wandering around the East Village wasted, dressed in Santa suits. They were too fancily costumed to be a flashmob and too disoriented to have any political agenda: protesting against Hanukah, maybe? As you can imagine, those spoiled brats wouldn’t make room for the procession, jostling people, jeering and blocking the street. A big pool of fresh vomit covered the sidewalk on East Seventh just past First Avenue, no great surprise. This element obviously existed many, many years before Unsilent Night, but they never invaded New York, let alone Alphabet City. On one hand, it’s heartwarming to see such a strangely beautiful musical phenomenon being embraced by a new generation; on the other hand, it’s sad to see that so much of that generation feels entitled to act as retarded here they as do back home in the suburbs, whose bridge-and-tunnel crudeness they will always embody no matter how many trendy bars they manage to hit before it’s time to get back on the LIRR.

From this particular perspective, the crowning irony is that as calming as Unsilent Night is, this year it took a couple of martinis afterward to take the edge off. We can hope that for the other Unsilent Night processions – still happening, around the world – that won’t be an issue.

December 15, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, New York City | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Music with a View at the Flea Theatre, NYC 5/2/10

Pianist Kathleen Supové puts these bills together, an imprimatur that instantly signals both innovation and fun. Sunday afternoon’s show at the Flea Theatre incorporated elements of prose and drama along with all kinds of characteristically out-of-the-box musical ideas, sort of a mini-Bang on a Can marathon. The concert began arrestingly with Portable by Paula Matthusen, performed by eight people, each toting a specially designed radio receiver or transmitter encased in a vintage suitcase, filing around a la Phil Kline’s Unsilent Night in what would have been total darkness except for the players’ flashlights. At its most innocuous, it sounded like a chorus of hair dryers or an industrial-size vaccuum cleaner, but those moments came early and disappeared quickly. The rest was an increasingly disquieting blend of white noise with the occasional doppler-like effect, something akin to being blindsided by a heavy truck blasting down Canal Street at four in the morning, or just the hint of a radio broadcast, distant echoes of station promos or commercials. It made a pointedly effective commentary on how surrounded we are by a rather sinister, labyrinthine mosaic of data exchanges.

Rocco Di Pietro’s Rajas for John Cage, a new piece, featured Mike Brown on upright bass, Bill Cook on ragini (a harmonium of sorts), Robert Dick on flutes, Ryan Jewell getting a luminous resonance out of his cymbals by running a long dowel against their edges, Larry Marotta plucking a violin in the style of a Japanese biwa, and Di Pietro providing recitations interspersed with rhythmic bursts on sheng or harmonica. The stories frequently took on a parable vibe – sometimes they hit the mark, sometimes they didn’t but a lot of them had an irresistible, puckish humor. A drag queen freaking out in a San Francisco Chinatown restaurant, a crafty driver finding an innovative and somewhat cruel way to quiet a noisy busload of school kids, and a small handful wartime references that would have been as relevant in the Vietnam era as today were some of the highlights. Meanwhile, the ensemble improvised against a nebulous, quasi-Asian drone, only the violin or bass occasionally providing ornamentation, sometimes introducing a new rhythm for the rest of the group to ponder or subtly alter. Otherwise, it was a frequently hypnotic exercise in horizontality, careful listening and collaboration.

A performance piece by instrument inventor Ranjit Bhatnagar and Asami Tamura was titled Five Leaves…hmmm, now which plant could that possibly be? That leaf, or, more aptly, bud, was featured as the basis for one of “five variations on mechanical and organic improvisation, for toy, handmade and robotic instruments.” The other leafy stuff included fern, seaweed, catnip and gingko (“Ancient lullabies that stink in the fall”), but it was the most obvious one that seemed to drive this particular piece. Beginning at the piano, Tamura took a stab at a pretty, Scarlatti-esque melody against a similar laptop loop and the two quickly separated, never to return. But maybe that was the point. After that, she and Bhatnagar meowed at each other (that was the catnip talking), carried on an animated conversation via primitive, battery-powered toys that made a silly, theremin-like sound, treated the audience to a simulated drum solo played on a hunk of paper, a demonstration of how cool it is when you add reverb to the sound of pouring water, and an endless succession of similarly unexpected, random devices. It was impossible not to laugh, and the crowd loved it, especially the kids. The only thing missing was a toilet. The gingko piece was last, an overlay of music boxes straight out of the scariest part of an early talkie film – or a Siouxsie and the Banshees record.

Gold Ocean, by Tan Dun and Ken Ueno, seemingly a reworking of a Hawaiian fable, was intriguing musically: it would have been rewarding to find out how they created their tortuously oscillating atmospherics. But practically everything was on a laptop – which poses the obvious question, why bother to stage it at all? An interminable, stilted “libretto,” as joyless as it was pointless, only detracted from what could have been a successful mood change after the hilarity of the previous piece – but in this case Bhatnagar and Tamura proved an impossible act to follow. There was another act scheduled afterward, but the poor guy’s laptop wasn’t working and by then it was well past five and time to exit regretfully into the heat. The Music with a View series wraps up on June 6 at 3 PM at the Flea with music and dance by Michael Evans and Susan Hefner as well as works by Nick Didkovsky and Elan Vytal.

May 3, 2010 Posted by | concert, experimental music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

DVD Review: Phil Kline – Around the World in a Daze

One of this era’s most fearlessly relevant composers, Phil Kline’s oeuvre ranges from the iconic moving “boombox symphony” Unsilent Night (a response to Bush I’s gulf war) to the Zippo Songs suite inspired by the words and phrases American GI’s in Vietnam inscribed on their lighters. Sonically, Kline’s work tends to be gamelanesque, upper-register textures meticulously manipulated and processed into a rippling, reverberating pool of sound. This new two-DVD set – recorded in surround sound and best experienced on a good-quality home system or, ideally, in a club with encircling banks of speakers – is more diverse, a mix of compositions which run the gamut from challenging to confrontational to playfully fun. In addition to the first DVD with its individual videos, the second includes a considerably informative interview conducted by WNYC’s longtime New Sounds host John Schaefer as well as a bonus video, Meditation (Run As Fast As You Can), a lighthearted, characteristically pointillistic soundscape illustrating a brisk early Sunday morning jaunt from the base of the Brooklyn Bridge to the epicenter of New York’s financial district and then back again.

Here, Kline alternates between his usual collection of boomboxes, keyboards, loops and strings to comment acerbically on a range of issues both abstract and concrete, from confronting disaster to the death of New York via gentrification. The first track here, The Housatonic at Henry Street served as impetus for the entire project. Like his main influence Charles Ives, Kline  places himself in the tradition of the American Transcendentalists, the stream here cast in the role of river of life for a whole movement. The piece is a swirl of bell-like overtones (boomboxes slightly out of phase with each other) plus ambient street noise – happily, Kline must have edited out the car alarms and the shriek of the buses moving along Monroe Street a block away!

Svarga Yatra – Sanskrit for Stairway to Heaven – has pioneering string quartet Ethel playing live against themselves on a boombox. It’s a pretty, circular processional with an edge of disquiet enhanced by all the overtones. A madrigal manipulated, The Maryland Sample begins with ambient samples and grows eerie with a chorus of what sounds like a hall full of harpshichords. The DVD’s centerpiece, Pennies from Heaven follows a downward trajectory rather than Kline’s typical crescendo. It’s a sarcastic commentary on the trickle-down theory of economics, illustrating the effect it has on the people at the receiving end. With overlays of carrilonesque melody and variations on a tinkly descending progression, it grows more echoey and chaotic – something that began completely innocuous has gone horribly wrong.

Of the other tracks, Grand Etude for the Elevation (earlier playfully titled the Grand Etude Symphonique) layers  Todd Reynolds’ violin with trebly keyboards and insistent percussion, echoes of the Kronos Quartet’s recent work. Melodically, it’s the strongest composition here with haunting, Balkan-inflected tinges in places. The elegaic Prelude mixes an old recording of a piece from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, reprocessed with a field recording of foot traffic in the Zurich train station. The concluding cut on the first DVD, The Housatonic at Dzanga overlays samples from an oasis in the Central African Republic where hundreds of elephants and grey parrots congregate, resembling a tower of Babel far more than any sort of bucolic Discovery Channel soundtrack. There are also a couple of sillier works here including one “Dude, look what the DVD player just did with my cd!” number that actually succeeds in being a snide swipe at Wagner. New music fans will salivate over this; for more casual listeners, the hypnotic aspect of much of the material here creates a comfortably ambient late-evening soundtrack.

July 1, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments