Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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.

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

Hypnotic Beauty from Maya Beiser and Michael Harrison

The shadow of Philip Glass towers over Michael Harrison and Maya Beiser’s collaboration Time Loops – out earlier this year from Cantaloupe -both in the unselfconscious beauty of the melodies and the hypnotically circling rhythms. Harrison, who plays piano, contributes most of the compositions. As the title implies, the central theme here is simple, looped phrases, whether from an elegant Bach invention, an Arvo Part diptych that finally shifts from a lullaby to more pensive tonalities, or the long three-part suite where cellist Beiser becomes an understatedly epic one-woman string section.

The more ornate loop music becomes, the simpler its motifs have to be in order to avoid dissonance, at least if that is the agenda as it is on Harrison’s opening triptych, Just Ancient Loops. Throughout the suite, Beiser gets to multitrack a rich array of timbres, textures and melodies: Indian classical music, blues, drones, Julia Wolfe-style staccato, cantabile nocturnal interludes and subtle shades of pizzicato all blend together into a seamless whole. There’s also a pretty straight-up indie rock tune, distant allusions to Pink Floyd’s Shine on You Crazy Diamond and less distant ones to Glass. Counterrythms rise to the point where Beiser’s parts swirl out of the mix, one by one, much in the manner of dub reggae. The overall effect is hypnotic and psychedelic to the extreme: Glass’ later string quartets come very much to mind.

The album’s title track artfully juxtaposes a warm, lyrical cello line with backward masking. Somehow Harrison gets the harmonies to work, and Beiser keeps perfect time with them. They follow that with the Bach, then the Part, then Harrison’s Raga Prelude, a nocturne that’s ultimately far more interesting than either of its predecessors as the duo carry it into rippling ballad territory, then work a stately baroque theme until Harrison’s piano brings in the clouds and Beiser backs away while the chill sets in. All things considered, it’s the most consistently gripping composition here.

The final track is Hijaz, which ought to be the best one here, but it’s not, and that’s because annoying things happen here and there. These days, south Indian takadimi drum language seems to be all the rage, at least in academic circles: sure enough, barely three minutes into Harrison’s subtly otherworldly piano arpeggios – defly employing the just intonation which he’s long championed – the diggity-doo begins and then won’t quit. Compounding the problem is that there’s a whole crowd, the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, doing the diggity-doo, at least when they’re not adding a quiet, sostenuto luminosity. The drum language actually has a purpose – in its original vernacular, it’s simply a way to count beats – but here it destroys the genuine hanuting quality of the rest of the work. Those with Protools should upload it and cut out the offending bits; a more oldschool option would be to copy the good parts to a cassette. Live at last year’s Bang on a Can Marathon, the effect was the same: it was like mixing beer and vermouth. A work so darkly majestic and memorable shouldn’t be marred by the vocalese tic-du-jour: it screams out for a new recording that does it justice.

December 13, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bang on a Can Marathon 2011: A Marathon Account

Bang on a Can is a good place to go for weird music that doesn’t fit into any category…that falls through the cracks,” explained co-founder/composer David Lang between a couple of acts late Sunday afternoon at the World Financial Center. This year’s annual Bang on a Can Marathon there was typical in that sense. The scope of the music and parade of performers was less global than in recent years, although Italy and Denmark represented themselves strongly. Consequence of the depression? Maybe. But what was most impressive about this year’s marathon was the extremely high ratio of good music versus bullshit, and the enduring strength of the founding composers themselves. Even as the genre-busting music that Bang on a Can has championed since 1987 has achieved broader recognition, the core crew – Lang, Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe – have never sold out. In fact, two of the trio’s works – Gordon’s Exalted and Wolfe’s Cruel Sister – were arguably the marathon’s biggest hits.

Gordon’s piece, performed by the Young Peoples’ Chorus of New York City with the Jack Quartet, came first. It was the first piece he wrote in the wake of his father’s death, and it was as intense as you can possibly imagine. The choir interpolated the first four words of the Kaddish, in Aramaic, sort of a clinic in minimalism with a max ensemble. A repetitive sliding cello note against a staccato pedal motif from the rest of the quartet was mimicked by the choir, a desperation move that made its way through the voices (if you’re sitting Shiva, everybody eventually shows up whether you like it or not). A wild violin metal solo against hypnotic insistence gave wings to an anguished, hopeful prayer. The crowd, stunned, exploded afterward.

The high point of the marathon was Wolfe’s Cruel Sister (available as a dynamite Cantaloupe recording by Ensemble Resonanz), performed here by the strings of Ensemble Signal conducted by Brad Lubman. It follows the arc of a surreal medieval murder ballad Wolfe discovered via a recording by 70s British folk-rockers Pentangle. A riveting series of suspenseful crescendos and ebbs, the opening tone poem grows frantic and then back down, a brutally tough job of maintaining the rhythm for cellist Kevin McFarland, but his iron right hand wouldn’t let up. Polyrhythms, a ghastly murder scene and a body floating on the water led to a forest of pizzicato, violin coming in plaintively and finally a chilling, possibly karmically fulfilling drone spotlighting the cruel sister who didn’t get to enjoy what her big sister did.

Lang’s contribution was more playful, Philip Glass-style, a subtly shifting mathrock theme for two guitars played with deadpan insouciance by Dither Quartet’s Taylor Levine and James Moore. The fun factor went up another notch later in the night with the Sun Ra Arkestra, 87-year-old bandleader Marshall Allen leading the massive surrealistic swing band through a diverse and tantalizingly short set that moved from hot post-Basie swing to in-your-face hot calypso to a long walk-off where Allen put down the hybrid theremin/melodica he’d been playing in exchange for his alto sax, stunning the crowd with a single mighty wail in front of the stage as the band paraded its way to the middle of the atrium and entertained the crowd there.

Another stunner that deserves special mention was the Prism Saxophone Quartet’s version of Roshanne Etezady’s Keen. A marvelously dark, cinematic horror/suspense film score of sorts, the composer explained that she wrote it on a theme of mourning or grief, “a bereft affect.” Wary explorations against a central tone, an apprehensively tense, Robert Paterson-esque fanfare and relentless unease made it hard to forget.

As much as the marathon is free and easy to get in and out of, there were strikingly few moments where anyone would want to do that, considering the quality of the music. A little before noon, early arrivals got to witness two segments from innovative bagpiper Matthew Welch’s The Self and Other Mirrors, played by the Queens College Percussion Ensemble with Amanda Accardi’s quietly composed intensity on piano and Michael Lipsey on the podium: a stately, pleasant, catchy and smartly textured first movement followed by blithe, hypnotic ripples. Flutist Alejandro Escuer followed, playing Gabriela Ortiz’ Codigos Secretos, not particularly secretive if warmly atmospheric and consonant.

Anthony Gatto’s Portrait of American painter Eva Hesse, done jointly by the Queens Percussion Ensemble in the middle of the space, trading off with the Itkus Ensemble onstage, rumbled eerily close to the World Trade Center site, raising the volume close to painfully loud. Hesse must have been a hell of a presence. The Jack Quartet followed with three US premieres of Richard Ayres’ 3 Small Pieces for String Quartet: small is not the word. They were magnificent. The first featured the cello in percussive, catchy, terse, seemingly Kayhan Kalhor-influenced mode; the second raised the menace, the third shifting to a vigorous dance. The Prism Saxophone Quartet took over the stage after that with Kati Ogocs’ Hymn, warm atmospherics building up with a shriek.

Former Ethel violin powerhouse Todd Reynolds did his hypnotic yet lively Transamerica, a memorably energetic theme whose power was sapped by useless electronics. The Prism Quartet then returned with a tight, energetic, overtone-packed, limit-pushing version of Iannis Xenakis’ Xas – from 1987, the first year of Bang on a Can – a blippy, warped canon juxtaposed with tensely free passages featuring shifting combinations of the ensemble.

Italian group Sentieri Selvaggi got a total of five pieces: a gleeful, circular excerpt from Michael Nyman’s opera Love Always Counts; Michael Daugherty’s coy Sinatra Shag, a ripoff of These Boots Were Made for Walking with some cool oscillating textures toward the end; Filippo Del Corno’s Risvegliatevi (Italian for Wake Up!), replete with Pink Floyd-esque mechanical/industrial sonics (literally Bang on a Can!); Mauro Montalbetti’s Brightness, Emily Dickinson-inspired, hypnotically bubbling color alternating with stillness; and finally their conductor Carlo Boccadoro’s Zingiber (Ginger in Italian), rusticity giving way memorably to an abrasive low-versus-high battle.

Bang on a Can’s latest gimmick, the Asphalt Orchestra marching band, energized the crowd with several numbers: Annie Clark and David Byrne’s Balkan/Afrobeat hybrid Two Ships, a swirling, imaginative arrangement of Bjork’s Hyper Ballad and a thunderous Goran Bregovic dancefloor hit done as a fiery overture, being the best of the bunch.

As the cruel sun moved slowly out of view, Danish composer Poul Ruders’ Song and Rhapsodies were performed by the Athelas Wind Quintet with Frode Andersen on accordion. It’s a tremendously captivating suite: an austere overtone-laden tone poem, a creepy twisted waltz, a baroque rondo, a weird, blithe accordion solo, swelling adventurous cinematic theme a la Gil Evans, ending with a weird, bubbly tone poem.

The big draw of the night – at least from this point of view – was Philip Glass, playing a deliciously precise, impromptu version of his hypnotic, neoromantic Impromptu #4 solo on piano to kick off his mini-set with the Bang on a Can All-Stars. Glass’ potency as a pianist gets overshadowed by the applause for his compositions: there’s no doubt that he can play even his most demanding, persistently rhythmic works easily, as he did in an almost shockingly straight-up rendition of Music in Circular Motion, a relatively early work that typically allows for a certain amount of DIY, at least rhythmically, on the part of the players. Their closing piece featured Glass and pianist Vicky Chow in eerily perfect sync with each other against the band’s dizzying yet perfectly cantabile ambience.

By nine in the evening, for those who had stuck around since the early hours and had been awoken from brain coma by the Sun Ra folks, a payoff was in order, and Evan Ziporyn delivered, playing bass clarinet alongside Michael Lowenstern, with Joshua Rubin and Carol McGonnell on clarinets, through his richly vivid, cleverly entertaining Hive. McGonnell got all the queen bee licks and made the most of them, whether sizzling glissandos or mournful lead lines. Fluttering, creating a droll stereo effect and moving through utterly psychedelic passages where it was impossible to figure out who was playing what, it was the perfect mind melt for the moment.

There were other performances not worth mentioning – bullshit factor being as low as it was, there were a few moments when a trip to the spicy Pakistani steam-table place on Church St. made more sense than watching what was onstage. A Yoko Ono piece opened; Glenn Branca headlined. Idolized by many, known by everyone who was around for the first Bangs on the Can, it made sense that he’d top this oldschool bill. But the prospect of bad trains (more on that later – getting to the Gowanus Saturday night was sheer hell) was enough to make the choice of an early exit outweight anything blasting from the Marshall stacks onstage. Does taking the field midway through the first inning and sticking around til the eighteenth quality as a complete game? The Bang on a Can people aren’t counting. It was nice to hear debate emerging in random conversations throughout the space: new jacks grousing about seeing the same old faces; the oldschool contingent bitching about the trendy shallowness of the newbies’ electroacoustic stuff. Whatever your preference, a word to the wise: show up early for BOAC 2012.

June 21, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment