Otherworldly Cutting-Edge Balkan Beauty from Black Sea Hotel
Yesterday evening’s program at the Bang on a Can Marathon was enticing, but it couldn’t have been any more cutting-edge than Brooklyn Balkan a-cappella trio Black Sea Hotel’s performance at a reverb-rich synagogue in Ditmas Park. Willa Roberts, Corinna Snyder and Sarah Small sometimes take largescale arrangements of Bulgarian folk music and strip them down to just three voices; other times they do their own inventive arrangements of traditional melodies. They sing microtonally, in close harmony, an effect which can be hypnotic, utterly chilling, or both. When they’re in the western scale, it’s invariably in a moody minor key. Rhythmically, they weave an intricate counterpoint between the three voices, sometimes with a dizzying series of handoffs, exchanging low, sustained lines with soaring, high ornamentation and the occasional guttural wail, trill or unleashed whoop. But they don’t overuse those devices: most of their songs tend to be plaintive and haunting.
This time out, they sang unexpectedly upbeat, brisk versions of material from their brilliant 2007 debut album (in those days, they were a quartet) along with some brand-new repertoire which turned out to be even more adventurous. They even left the Bulgarian behind and sang a couple of verses in English in one characteristically irony-drenched number, about a bride whose popularity turns out to be a mixed blessing: the wedding party is successful to the point where she has to go hungry in order for all the guests to get fed. Back when the now-unknown parade of songwriters came up with these old folk tunes, life was hard, and both the lyrical and musical content reflect that. The most haunting song of the night described a nightmare where the girl turns into a bird and eventually flies head on into a tree, killing her along with her bird boyfriend: that one ran up and down with a brooding chromatic Middle Eastern feel. But a particularly slow, resonant, poignant-sounding number was actually about the joy of getting a new pair of shoes (centuries go by but some things never change). Snyder joked that back in the day this was probably written, it was a big deal to have something other than a bundle of straw to wrap around your feet and there was more than a grain of truth in that. Other topics included having to ward off a deadly mythical bird-man and all sorts of drama having to do with weddings (again, some things just don’t change).
The trio’s voices are very similar. They all have spectacular range and seemingly just as much power in the low registers as when they go way, way up. There’s an inevitable element of surprise in the tricky tempos of what they sing, but they didn’t miss a beat (although they did have to start one over because it was too high – sometimes singers have to deal with the same kind of issues guitarists have when they capo up). Their newest song was a brand-new arrangement with a more modernist, hypnotic indie classical ambience, its resonance enhanced by the venue’s richly echoey acoustics. Their most energetic one boisterously and menacingly illustrated a couple of younger women giving their thirtysomething unmarried friend a hard time about it, “na na na NA na” raised to a power. The simplest was a catchy, sad waltz; the most ornate had all three taking turns switching off in a split second between low ambience and then embellishing the melody. The most stunning leap of the night belonged to Snyder; Roberts got to relish her way through the most intricately nuanced, stylized series of melismas while Small’s unearthly wail hovered intensely overhead. There’s both a matter-of-factness and a casualness in how they deliver these songs, as if they take their magic for granted. Watch this space for upcoming shows and check out their songs at the Free Music Archive.