New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Matt Keating and Band Put On a Clinic in Purposeful Janglerock

Last night Matt Keating put on a fiery, jangly, two-guitar full-band show. Beyond the catchiness of the tunes and the cleverness – and frequent ferocity – of the lyrics, it was a consummate display of musicianship. Keating is a perfectly good lead guitarist in his own right, but he’d chosen this time to give that job to Steve Mayone, who put on a clinic in good taste and judicious use of as few notes as possible. Rare in a guitarist, rarer still in a lead player. Mayone’s first solo was a blue-flame scorcher that ended in a flurry of tremolo-picking, so it seemed that he’d take it even higher after that. Nope. As it turned out, he stayed on the counterintuitive tip, first choosing his spots through a series of short, bluesy, single-note leads, often using a vintage analog chorus pedal for a deliciously watery, ominous tone. As the show went on, he switched on and off between that and more of a biting, distorted timbre, finally cutting loose and blazing his way to the top of the fretboard on one of the closing numbers.

Meanwhile, bassist Jason Mercer filled the role of second lead guitarist with his lithe slides, slithery upward runs and stairstepping moves toward the looming, foggy bottom of his hollowbody Danelectro SG copy. Like Mayone, drummer and longtime Jenifer Jackson collaborator Greg Wieczorek was all about counterintuitivity, throwing elbows and unexpected accents when a space would open up. To max out the textures, he cushioned his snare with a cloth on one of the early numbers and varied his attack from song to song: sometimes he’d be hitting the snare with a stick and the rest of the kit with a bundle, or with brushes, or he’d switch from mallets to sticks as a song would rise from misterioso to anthemic. Keating began on acoustic and then switched to Strat for couple of the harder-rocking, more Stonesy songs, although he saved his most intense wailing for the acoustic on the loudest number of the night, an unhinged, practically brutal version of They’ve Thrown You Away. It’s classic Keating, a searingly imagistic Flyover America narrative that ponders a lot of things, not the least whether or not the guy with designs on the damaged woman at the center of the narrative can drive her home from her job at the roadside corporate chain since he might have gotten his license revoked for giving a cop the finger.

And where did the band decide to show off all this artistry? The Beacon? City Winery? Nope. Hifi Bar in the East Village, in the old Brownies space where Keating had played, probably more than once, twenty years ago. If that isn’t keeping it real, you figure out what is. The songs ran the gamut from some of the catchiest material on Keating’s characteristically dark new album, This Perfect Crime, to a pair of jangly powerpop set pieces – Saint Cloud and Louisiana – from his brilliant 2008 double cd, Quixotic – to the ghostly Coney Island 1910, to a slowly crescendoing take of the old crowd-pleaser Lonely Blue, on which Wieczorek started out by transforming it into trip-hop before picking up with a stadium-rock drive as the band reached for the rafters. Watch this space for upcoming hometown shows from this killer group.

The Bright Smoke Haunt Mercury Lounge

Friday night at the Mercury the Bright Smoke played a magical, enigmatic, haunting show. Since she fronted the equally haunting, even more angst-fueled French Exit back in the late zeros, frontwoman/guitarist Mia Wilson’s enigmatic alto voice has gone deeper into the lows. As unassailable, outraged witness, she’s sort of a teens counterpart to Siouxsie Sioux at her mid-80s peak. Guitarwise, Wilson has found her muse in the most otherworldly corners of old delta blues. She surrounds those ancient, rustic riffs with a swirling yet rhythmic, psychedelic ambience. Drummer Karl Thomas was given the difficult task of matching beats with Kevin the laptop (manipulated with split-second precision by Yuki Maekawa Ledbetter) and didn’t miss a beat, coloring the music with terse, emphatic cymbal shades and defly chosen rimshots. Lead guitarist Quincy Ledbetter was a sorcerer in his lab, shifting seamlessly from wary circular riffs to biting clusters of Chicago blues riffage, minimalist 80s jangle and clang, and watery dreampop atmospherics.

They opened with Pure Light, Wilson and Ledbetter trading off and mingling notes as they would do throughout the set, nebulous clang versus ambient austerity, a girl-at-the-bottom-of-the-well milieu that grew more majestic, a la the Church circa Priest = Aura. They worked the same contrast on the broodingly strolling Late for War. Trade Up turned out to be the most exhilarating song of the night, Ledbetter slowly building a searing solo from enveloping, menacingly echoes to a skin-peeling, stygian slide down the fretboard as it wound out.

City on an Island, a slow, watery Joy Division-tinged anthem was the antithesis of the wet-behind-the-ears gentrifier tributes this city’s received so many of in the past few years: Wilson mused cynically about this “mess of a machine…take me to your parties, show me your scene.” She evoked Marissa Nadler with her steady, graceful fingerpicking throughout the achingly soul-infused trip-hop of On Ten, another number that grew to a majestic, Church-like crescendo

The band followed the same trajectory, with more white-knuckle Joy Division intensity on the simply titled Or, then made acid rock out of Sade with Hard Pander, the new album’s opening track: “You’re in over your head, so pander right and pander hard,” Wilson’s nameless narrator warned caustically. The band worked the swirly/jagged dynamic for all it was worth on Shakedown and closed with the understatedly ferocious, accusatory Exit Door, whose mantra is “I wanna know where the money comes from.” A logical question in real estate bubble era New York from a band who capture this particular age of anxiety better than pretty much anybody else. The Bright Smoke play at around 10 on May 9 at Nola Darling, 161 W 22nd St. east of 7th Ave. Cover is $10 on a bill to benefit homeless LGBT youth.

Richard Thompson Reinvents His Brooding Acoustic Classics in Newark

It’s often been argued that Richard Thompson is not only the greatest guitarist but also the greatest songwriter in the history of rock. Year after year, he continues to validate that claim. This past evening in the sonically magnificent confines of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in downtown Newark, Thompson revitalized a mix of darkly glimmering folk-rock favorites from the 60s through the present decade, along with a trio of new songs that reaffirmed the iconic songwriter’s presence in the pantheon. Heavy praise earned by a heavy guy, philosophically speaking, anyway.

Plenty of bandleaders will do an occasional solo acoustic tour for the sake of putting a fresh spin on old material…or for the sake of some perceived intimacy with the audience (which only works if the lyrics are strong)…or to max out the bottom line since there’s no band to pay. Thompson, on the other hand, has at least two fully arranged versions of probably most of the songs in his vast back catalog, one electric and one acoustic, and probably other alternates as well. Like most of his contemporaries from the 60s and 70s English folk revival, he’s always had a thing for unusual guitar tunings, but he’s taken that obsession to a new level, and the songs with it. The result is richly layered internal harmonies that are as sophisticated as Bach and if anything enhance the succinctness and catchiness of his tunes. At this solo acoustic show, one prime example was I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, an eager, cheery folk-pop number in its original 1974 incarnation with Thompson’s ex-wife Linda on harmonies. Live, in a new tuning and without the bvox, it took on an unexpected gravitas that meshed especially well with the other material.

Which can be pretty grim. Thompson opened with Stony Ground, a pretty savage dig at an old goat who can’t manage to keep his overexcited, um, imagination zipped. He followed with an aptly sepulchral take of The Ghost of You Walks and revisited that haunted atmosphere with I Misunderstood at the end of his roughly 75-minute set. Revenge took centerstage in the deliciously vicious, anthemic Good Things Happen to Bad People and later in Fergus Lang, an excoriatingly funny portrait of a robber baron developer (who very, very closely resembles Donald Trump) who buys off the local powers that be in order to desecrate the countryside with golf courses and the like. The tune became even funnier in context after Thompson played a few bars of the dirty old Scottish folk song that inspired it.

The new material was characteristically vivid and eclectic: Josephine, a brooding minor-key portrait of a woman who isn’t completely together to begin with and is slowly losing what she has left; One Door Opens, a stark, rustically rhythmic number that harks back to Thompson’s roots; and a resonantly bittersweet portrait of Amsterdam. Thompson also did rousing takes of obligatory fan favorites including the lickety-split robber ballad Vincent Black Lightning, and The Wall of Death, his defiantly classic anthem about living at full emotional throttle, no matter what the cost. That one had some highwire, raga-esque soloing, as did the opening number, along with Read About Love, a sarcastic look back at 50s British sexual mores and their ugly consequences.

Otherwise, this show was about going as deeply into the songs as possible and wringing out their intensity, through the Newcastle gothic of Black Leg Miner (a fiercely pro-union song), the sardonic sea chantey Johnny’s Faraway on the Rolling Sea and an unexpected treat, a newly arranged take of Sandy Denny’s Fairport Convention classic Who Knows Where the Time Goes. Throughout the set, Thompson subtly varied his tones and timbres, coloring them with watery tremolo and judicious use of reverb and delay. And he’s never sung better, especially strong in the low registers.

A word about the venue: nice place! It’s about half the size of the Town Hall, with pristine acoustics, comfortable seating, pleasantly laid-back and helpful staff, and it’s just a brief five-minute walk from the Path train. Door-to-door home from the train station, in this case, took under an hour (admittedly, jumping on the F just as it was leaving the station was a big help)

Anonymous 4 Sing a Potentially Historic Concert in a Historic Space

The acclaimed a-cappella quartet Anonymous 4 – Marsha Genensky, Susan Hellauer, Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek and Ruth Cunningham – have been on a rather poignant farewell tour over the past year. They’ve completed their trilogy of albums of classic American folk songs with their latest and final release 1865, a collaboration with Americana instrumental maven Bruce Molsky. The album is streaming at NPR. And the group are making what could be their final New York appearance at the great hall at Cooper Union on April 23 at 8 PM; the $10 tickets might well be gone by now, but there may be other seats available. It’s fitting that a group whose last recorded work opens with an antiwar ballad would be performing at the same venue where Abraham Lincoln addressed the city’s power brokers about the need to free the slaves one hundred and fifty-odd years ago.

Stylistically speaking, the new album looks back to a era where ambitious church groups would lend their sophisticated polyphony to the folk and pop songs of the day. The theme here is songs of the Civil War, whose grimness and elegiac qualities speak for themselves, but also have a vividly ominous contemporary resonance. The recording itself is gorgeous, Molsky’s banjo, fiddle and guitar benefiting from the same natural reverb as the voices in what is obviously a live recording.

There’s a lot of bittersweet music on this album. When This Cruel War Is Over, a Union Army wife or girlfriend’s lament, has a gently timeless power. The plaintiveness and longing in the elegaic Nellie Gray resonates as much as the lustrous sadness of the four-part harmonies on Sweet Evelina. Molsky sings Hard Times Come Again No More as a solo banjo tune, then switches to fiddle as the women return for an unexpectedly stark,  swaying take of Southern Soldier Boy, which he winds up as a lively dance. Molsky’s solo banjo-and-vocal take of Bright Sunny South underscores the bravado masking dread of the Confederate soldier leaving home and maybe not coming back. Likewise, Tenting on the Old Camp Ground hides its exhaustion with war horror in an ethereal arrangement. Elvis fans will hear a familiar melody in Aura Lee, its narrative a far cry from either a military hymn or a pop ballad.

They pick up the pace with the brisk banjo tune Listen to the Mocking Bird and keep the energy up with the  lively fiddle reel Camp Chase. Molsky takes over vocals on the dying soldier’s lament Brother Green. It’s telling that Faded Coat of Blue is also called The Nameless Grave; it might be the most grisly number here, notwithstanding the beautiful harmonies. Molsky plays guitar on that one as he does the sad, stately waltz Maiden in the Garden, a harshly accurate portrait of long-distance relationships in times of war. The True Lover’s Farewell has a more rustic, Appalachian feel than the rest of the vocal numbers here. The album follows a more hopeful trajectory as it winds out with themes of nostalgia and a couple of country gospel tunes. This is what life during wartime was like before Twitter and Skype – people entertained themselves and put their lives in context with songs like these.

No Ricolas for John Mellencamp

One of the fringe benefits of going to Carnegie Hall is the baskets of Ricolas they have outside the exits to the various spaces there. If you’re, say, a budget-conscious college kid, you can make enough of a haul of those things to get through a couple days’ worth of a nasty cold. For John Mellencamp‘s show there tonight, there were no Ricolas in sight. Although the gravelly-voiced arena rocker could have used a handful.

Busy ushers were quick to tell ticketholders that “John doesn’t like cellphones,” and that flash photography during the show would be verboten. Looking up from the orchestra level, it seemed that barely half the seats in the hall were taken. But all those people, or most of them anyway, were down on the floor, on their feet. And though it happened to be 4/20, the smell on everybody’s breath, it seemed, was booze rather than weed.

If the accents in the crowd were any indication, the former Johnny Cougar is more popular on Long Island than he is in New Jersey. It was a blue-collar demographic whose lives had gone on long after the thrill of living was gone. And a smart piece of booking for the venue, considering that few if any of those in attendance had ever been there. “There isn’t a bad seat in the house,” was a familiar refrain in between selfies against a backdrop from a previous era of robber barons in Manhattan.

Mellencamp played that song solo acoustic, reinventing it as he did many of the other radio hits, an unexpected and rather impressive move considering that he and the band could have phoned them in and probably no one would have complained.  Is that song actually sarcastic, a clever dig at the white trash Mellencamp grew up with? Probably not, but the snide Reagan recession anthem Little Pink Houses definitely is…and just like Springsteen’s Born in the USA, went over everybody’s head, at least as far as this crowd was concerned.

Much as Mellencamp has been tagged as a poor person’s Bruce, he’s actually been through several phases. It would have been cool to see him revisit his Ain’t Even Done with the Night days as a powerpop guy, but he didn’t go there. But he left no doubt that he’s a formidable bluesman, with an impassioned take of Robert Johnson’s Stones in My Passway, lead guitarist Andy York playing with his usual counterintuitive verve with a slide on a hybrid electric National steel model. Mellencamp also roared and wailed his way through some newer, similarly bluesy, gospel-tinged fire-and-brimstone Midwestern gothic anthems.

And much as this was a nostalgia trip for the crowd, Mellencamp’s still putting out new material, mostly competent if formulaic highway rock that rises to a vamping two-chord chorus with a singalong tagline. You gotta admire the guy for what he does: he’s a consummate pro. And there were moments that reminded that when he puts his mind to it, he can write a damn good song. The roar of the band’s three guitars subsumed the annoying violin-and-accordion hook on the late 80s hit Paper in Fire, an unanticipated breath of fresh air. The minor-key Human Wheels, with the night’s one interesting bassline slithering out of the chorus, was another. Too bad their version of Rain on the Scarecrow, on record one of the most excoriating Reagan-era populist broadsides, was so rote: York waited til the very end to fire off that searing, aching hook that made the single so powerful.

By the end of the show, Mellencamp had also run through some faux Waits, some secondhand Stones, a halfhearted detour into Land of a Thousand Dances and a boisterously bluesy cover that the Del-Lords did better back in the 80s. That being said, he probably could have retired a decade ago, and here he is, still out there doing what he’s always done, and finding ways to keep it from getting stale. May we all be that inspired when we hit sixty.

The Latvian National Choir Deliver Rapture and Transcendence

Saturday night in Hell’s Kitchen, in their first American performance since their 2010 Lincoln Center concert, the Latvian National Choir sang a spellbinding program of both iconic and new material from their native land. Conductor Māris Sirmais was a calmly triumphant presence in front of the ensemble, working the dynamics meticulously in a program packed with lustre and atmosphere but also percussive grooves, labyrinthine counterpoint and choreography. The ensemble was called on for a lot more than a choir is typically required to, and delivered it.

Latvian music is commonly perceived as otherworldly and often rapturously hypnotic, and while those qualities were front and center throughout the evening, the compositions on the bill transcended any association with a region or era. The most dramatic, at least as presented by the choir, was Vytautas Miskinis’ O Salutaris Hostia, jeweled with waves of shapeshifting, rhythmically challenging contrapuntal melodies that rippled throughout the ensemble as two groups slowly made their way down the stairs on both sides of the audience for extra surround-sound ambience.

With her bell-like clarity, soprano Inese Romancane was a particular standout, notably in the one American piece on the program. Eric Whitacre’s aptly titled, ambered Lux Aurumque. She also took centerstage along with fellow sopranos Darta Treja, Sanita Sinkevica and Irina Rebhuna in the American premiere of Raimonds Tiguls’ Moon Light Sound Design, a pointillistic, gamelanesque mini-suite featuring the composer himsef on hang, a drum the size of a large turtleshell that produces steel pan-like ripples and pings. Rebhuna’s dynamically-charged solo was the highlight of Jekabs Janchevskis’ misterioso, ethereal Odplyw, another US premiere.

Arvo Part was represented by the characteristically terse, rapt The Deer’s Cry and the less characteristic, plainchant-tinged Which Was the Son Of. Likewise, modernity and antiquity contrasted with Vaclovas Augustinas’ Cantata Domino and Ugis Praulins’ Veni Sancte Spiritus. Aivars Krastins and Eduards Fiskovics sang while adding an unexpectedly bouncy edge with small tam-tam drums in yet another US premiere, Gundega Smite’s Song of Stone, which came across as more of a lively quarrymens’ theme than any kind of monolithic presence. And Eriks Esenvalds’ Northern Lights, with an affectingly austere solo by tenor Janis Krumins, reverted to the polyrhythmic magic of the opening number. Veljo Tormis’ Ingrian Evenings wound up the bill on an enveloping note, giving Romancane a launching pad for the evening’s most pyrotechnic display of sheer vocal power. There were two encores, both new arrangements of iconic folk songs: Riga Dimd, arranged by Janis Cimze, and Put Vejini, the Latvian national song, in a boisterious arrangement by Imants Raimins. What a treat it was to be able to catch this magical group, especially considering how eclectic and downright rare the material was this time out. Keep your eyes out for an upcoming Lincoln Center appearance sometime in the future.

New York Music Daily Needs a Computer

On April 16, 2015 New York Music Daily experienced a total system meltdown, resulting in the loss of an entire mp3 library along with some other stuff including the ongoing editorial calendar (yes, this blog actually tries to follow a pretty rigorous schedule). What is clear is that even if everything is restored to something approaching normal, there’s no way this blog can function without a new computer.

Do you or someone you know have a used laptop that’s just gathering dust? Would you be willing to donate it or sell it for cheap to this blog? Send an email to lucidculture [at] gmail [dot] com and let’s talk about it. And please feel free to spread the word, text all your friends, let all your peeps know.

Will this blog keep on going, crash or no crash? You bet your bottom dollar. We’re going to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat…and maybe you, or someone you know, can help.

Why isn’t all this up on a kickstarter or gofundme page instead of here? Because everybody else does that, and this blog is different. What’s more, this blog doesn’t need thirty grand to rebuild a life after losing everything in the Second Avenue building explosion…or from Islamic State terror attacks in Syria…or from Russian neo-Nazi attacks in Ukraine. The only thing needed here right now to keep everything going smoothly is somebody’s old laptop with word processing capabilities, a music player and wifi port that still works.

Can you help?

New York Music Daily says THANK YOU SO MUCH!!!

Tom Warnick Brings His Ominous Noir Sounds and Wry Black Humor to Otto’s

One of the reasons why Tom Warnick shows are always worth checking out is that he’s constantly reinventing his songs. His most recent New York show, at Freddy’s last month, recast about half the setlist. Meaning that the singer-keyboardist can take the exact same material and completely flip the script. For example, Side Effects – as in, “I’m experiencing all your side effects, won’t you give ’em all to me” – used to be a boisterous newgrass song, as you might expect with a tune about a guy who won’t take no for an answer. But this time out, the band completely redid it, as a swing tune. Alto saxophonist Jason Reese, who’s been a charter member of this group for a long time, is getting more and more time in the spotlight and making the most of it. You probably wouldn’t expect a sax player to take the music in as noir a direction as Warnick has returned to lately, but it’s happened. Reese slunk and slowly smoked and built ominous ambience through I’m a Stranger Here, which used to be an upbeat, cynical new wave-flavored tune but is now a minor-key circus rock number. And he teamed with Warnick for some disturbing chromatics through Cop Car, a cruelly funny tale of a highway pot bust that used to be a pretty straight-up blues but has been taken deep into Tom Waits territory without seeming cliched and imitative.

Likewise, the band took Lost in Place, which used to be total new wave, straight out of 1981, and gave it more of a swaying janglerock feel. And all this reinvention works because this crew – Warnick on piano and organ, Reese on sax, John Sharples and Ross Bonadonna on guitars, Scott Anthony on bass and the guy who plays drums under the pseudonym of Jacques Strappe in hilarious faux-French rockers Les Sans Culottes – can turn on a dime and play pretty much anything. Deep Jamaican roots reggae? That’s what the slow, grimly funny Old Man Blues is now. The grimmest number of the night was actually set to its most lighthearted tune, an oldschool country-folk sway – but maybe that was meant to reinforce a sense of irony. Warnick got a lot of flash going with his righthand organ lines as Bonadonna mined a satirical, over-the-top arenarock floridness on the reggae tune, Sharples switching between lingering chords and ominous chromatics. They finally relented to the crowd, who’d been pleading for 40 People, Warnick’s early-zeros classic about the increasing difficulty of even a good band (or for that matter a really bad one) getting booked into a decent New York gig at a decent hour on a decent day. And they slowed down City of Women – which used to be a lickety-split horror surf number – and in the process maxed out its goosebump-inducing triumph. They’re at Otto’s this Saturday, April 18 at 8, as good a time and place as any to find out what  Warnick will be up to next. You can count on it being different than what he did at Freddy’s.

Amir ElSaffar Unleashes a River of Sound at Lincoln Center

Chicago-born, New York-based composer Amir ElSaffar books a comfortable, classy joint in the financial district, Alwan for the Arts, a hotbed for cutting-edge new music coming out of the Middle East and cross-pollinating with other styles from around the world. This evening at Lincoln Center, the trumpeter-santoorist-singer debuted his new suite, Not Two with a mighty seventeen-piece ensemble centered around the members of his regular quintet Rivers of Sounds: drummer Nasheet Waits, bassist Carlo DeRosa, buzuq player Tareq Abboushi, oudist/percussionist Zafer Tawil and tenor saxophonist Ole Mathisen. It was a magically epic performance, one which will momentarily be recorded and which is scheduled to be released on vinyl within the year. That’s major news.

As the group slowly rose with a pensively emphatic, mournful signal from the trumpet, were they going to continue in the direction of long-toned massed improvisation, a slightly Arabic-toned take on Karl Berger or Butch Morris? As it turned out, no. The opening segment grew to a sort of take on the distant, august majesty of a theme from another cross-pollinator, Hafez Modirzadeh, with whom ElSaffar has memorably collaborated. As the work went on, multiple themes rose and fell, slowly crescendoing long-toned melodies against an uneasily rippling, relentlessly rhythmic backdrop, Waits augmented by several percussionists including Tim Moore (of the transcendently good Middle Eastern jamband Salaam). ElSaffar’s sister Dena – leader of that group – supplied what was arguably the night’s most plaintive moment, playing achingly raw, sustained lines on her joza fiddle, also adding austere oud and atmosphere on viola and violin. DeRosa did the heaviest lifting of anybody in the ensemble, working up a sweat with endlessly vamping, incisively circular riffs, a couple of times racewalking his scales as he pushed the tunes into a couple of lickety-split hardbop swing interludes.

Abboushi, Tawil and fellow oudist George Ziadeh each got to take long, crescendoing solos against a hushed, anticipatory backdrop, ElSaffar adding more rippling, suspenseful flourishes on his santoor than he did on trumpet. ElSaffar built Gil Evans-like lustre, from the bottom of the sonic register – bass, cello and JD Parran’s bass saxophone – to the very top, with the santoor, violin, vibraphone and pianist Craig Taborn’s insistent, repetitive close harmonies. The rhythms would shift artfully from a stately dirge, to galloping triplets or a circling gait evocative of Ethiopian folk music. The themes embraced Mohammed Abdel Wahab-esque classical  Egyptian anthemicness as well as lingering, otherworldly, minimalist Iraqi melodies and a couple of romps through pretty straight-ahead American postbop tinged with Monk-like modalities. They took it up for an explosive outro and then slowly wound it down at the end. ElSaffar has enjoyed a long association with Lincoln Center, who co-commissioned this work, another impressive notch in the  belt for both.

This show is typical of the kind of coucerts in the atrium series at Lincoln Center: an abundance of styles from across the spectrum and around the world. One particularly enticing upcoming show is the JACK Quartet‘s appearance on April 23 at 7:30 PM where they’ll be playing works by John Zorn, Missy Mazzoli, Caroline Shaw and others.

Cutting Edge Sounds at This Year’s MATA Festival

Early in the second part of this evening’s portion of this year’s MATA Festival at the Kitchen, the audience looked on expectantly as a steadily oscillating timbre echoed through the auditorium. It was the motor rewinding the video screen above the stage. Was this part of the program, or just incidental noise? Moments like these are why the festival is worth checking out, year after year. They take more chances than pretty much anybody in the avant garde music world and cast a wider net than most, both in terms of finding global programming, and simply sonics. Could an electric motor be music? The answer, more often than not here, seems to be, “why not?”

The night got off to a hilarious start with a US premiere, Mirela Ivecevic‘s Orgy of References. Mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer made the most of its over-the-top satire of music-academy pretentiousness, delivering it with operatic high camp against a similarly sardonic mashup of florid dramatic themes, flurries of crowd noise and oration. The text was Ivecevic’s own resume, Fischer having a great time with every gushing, adulatory adjective – and then relished the chance to pronounce the word “oeuvre.” On one level, Ivecevic can personally relate to how misleading and utterly useless a composer or musician’s CV can be, since she books an ongoing series in her native Croatia. On the other hand, she got Abigail Fischer not only to namecheck her but to sing her resume. If that’s not “making it” in the avant world, you figure out what is.

Another highlight and US premiere was Jasna Velickovic‘s solo performance on an instrument of her own invention, the velikon, an amplified board on which she manipulates a series of magnets and coils producing oscillations which grow lower in timbre as they become more magnetized. What began as blips and beats slowly took on jawharp-like warp and then grew lower and lower until she was approaching stygian ocean liner diesel depths. Was she going to take it all the way to where there would be no sound, only subsonics? Not quite. Watching this unfold – with Velickovic’s perfect, practically metronomic timing, as she played a furious chess game of sorts with the objects on the board – was as thrilling as it was to hear. It was like a more smallscale take on Eli Keszler‘s similarly murky sonic explorations.

Even more intense to witness was dancer Melanie Aceto, her wrists and ankles attached to fishing line that manipulated strings inside a piano via a series of pulleys assembled overhead. Performing the New York premiere of Megan Grace Beugger‘s Liaison, Aceto began carefully and fluidly before evoking the relentless angst of a prisoner straining against her bonds. And the choreography actually produced genuine melodies, albeit simple ones, typically low drones and hammering motives (the low A and B flat were conjoined and attacked to one of the pulleys) against keening high overtones. Which would rise, raising the angst factor every time Aceto retreated back toward the piano after another seeming attempt to break free of her shackles. As the frame holding the pulleys over the piano trembled and swayed, the spectre of real horror – Aceto cutting a carpal vein or even her jugular, as she pulled and twisted – appeared within the realm of possibility. As far as sheer fireworks were concerned, it was impossible to top – and happily, there was no bloodshed.

There were also a couple of other works on the program, one a brief, mechanistically blippy audio-video montage  – ostensibly taken during the first Gulf War – sped up long past the point of unrecognizability. Maybe that was the point – although that point would have been lost if there hadn’t been program notes for it. There was also a droning piece by the Montreal trio of Adam Basanta, Julian Stein and Max Stein that paired long sustained electronic tones, simple chords and sudden electronic cadenzas with amplified lamps of assorted sizes and sounds. Given the three guys onstage with their laptops, there were umpteen opportunities for interplay and drollery that went by the board. Rather than any kind of conversation, amusing or otherwise, it evoked the experience of living in a building with bad wiring. Somebody comes home, turns on the AC…everybody on the hall loses power. Then somebody hits the breaker box and it’s back.

The MATA Festival continues through April 18; the remaining schedule is here.

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