New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

A Riveting, Poignant Collection of Alicia Terzian Microtonal Symphonic Works

One of the most spellbindingly edgy orchestral releases of the past several months is violinist Rafael Gintoli and the Siberian State Symphony Orchestra’s recording of Argentine composer Alicia Terzian’s Violin Concerto and Three Pieces for Strings, streaming at Spotify. Each is a prime early example of the paradigm-shifting microtonal work she would immerse herself in throughout the decades after she’d completed the former in 1955. Beyond the sheer catchiness yet persistently otherworldly quality of this music, both works are also rich with the slashing chromatics common to Terzian’s Armenian heritage.

The first movement of the Violin Concerto begins with a gorgeously ominous chromatic riff but quickly dips to pensive, sustained violin lines over misty stillness. Orchestra and soloist match Terzian’s determination to cover all the emotional bases here: a dancing heroic theme; vibrato-infused longing; and striking contrasts with the bassoon, oboe and full ensemble of winds against the soloist. After a deliciously blustery crescendo and some deviously orchestrated fugal moments, the music calms and the harmonies grow starrier, microtones coming into closer, uneasier focus. Gintoli’s matter-of-factness in the surrealistic yet ironclad tunefulness of his cadenza toward the end is one of many of his high points here.

The hauntingly windwept second movement is based on a plaintive song from the collection of the great Armenian composer and musicologist Komitas Vardapet, a father telling his daughter that her mother has died. Slowly, conductor Vladimir Lande develops an anthemic drive; again, Gintoli nimbly negotiates between resolve and persistent tension over a dancing pulse, which comes broodingly full circle.

The concluding movement begins with a gusty, astringently enveloping, rather bellicose theme, taking on more of a puckish quasi-Tschaikovskian bounce fueled by percussion, harp and high winds. Gintoli takes centerstage in the bucolic waltz that follows; the ensemble take it out with a defiantly marionettish strut. 

The Three Pieces for Strings date from a year earlier: it is astonishing how Terzian had already concretized her visionary style by then. Few western composers have written such memorable melodies utilizing harmonies more sophisticated than the traditional scale. The first part of the triptych, Sunset Song comes across as a stark Armenian melody in heavy microtonal disguise, calming to hazily echoing atmospherics.

The Pastorale with Variations begins by following a circling trajectory, but more rhythmically, before a lullaby of sorts drifts in. The distantly wary conclusion is one of the album’s most stunningly catchy moments. Momentary stillness and suspense alternate with a jaunty edge in the finale, a country dance.

While Terzian is revered in the microtonal demimonde, and her music has been widely performed, it deserves to be ubiquitous. Almost seventy years after she wrote these pieces, the world is still catching up with her.

Elori Saxl Releases a Super Spaceout Album

This observation could be completely off base, but it doesn’t seem that Elori Saxl’s new album of trippy electroacoustic soundscapes, The Blue of Distance – streaming at Bandcamp – was meant to be listened to while sober. Saxl has a good sense of humor and messes with your ears constantly, via tempos and textures and echo effects and just about every other trope in the psychedelic playbook. Whether you call this ambient music, film music, minimalism or indie classical, it’s hard not to get lost in.

Saxl processes both a chamber orchestra and field recordings of wind and water for the tracks here. The opening miniature, Before Blue is all bubble, bubble, no toil, no trouble. A couple of coy, blippy riffs at the end, and it’s over in a minuite 32. The ten-minute Blue begins more turbulently bubbly and ultimately a lot funnier, from a long bong hit to a whippit, sonically speaking. Just when you start wondering what’s wrong with your music player, the distantly ominous synth patches loom in. And then you’re back in the hall of mirrors.

Squiggles and blips and a catchy, playful clarinet hook intertwine in Wave, then a pseudo-ocean, the clarinet and strings gently rock your ears in Wave II. A Terry Riley-ish clarinet riff circles and subtly shifts against a staggered, diversely processed pizzicato violin loop in Memory of Blue, the album’s most epic track: the unexpected piano track pulls you back to earth just when it seems gravity has been left behind for good.

Soft gusts move methodically through Wave III; Saxl winds up the album with the title cut, the driftiest interlude here and an unexpectedly somber way to close an otherwise high-spirited record. Seems like the whole crew here – Finnegan Shanahan on violin, Helen Newby on cello,Erin Lensing on oboe, David Nagy on bassoon and a wind section of Kristina Teuschler and Alec Spiegelman on clarinets, with Sarah Carrier on flute – had plenty of fun with this. 

The South Florida Jazz Orchestra Smolder and Blaze Through Latin-Tinged Rick Margitza Tunes

Several years back, bassist Chuck Bergeron and his South Florida Jazz Orchestra put out an absolutely incendiary album featuring a six-trumpet frontline. Their latest release, Cheap Thrills – streaming at Spotify – is more subtle, joining forces with Paris-based saxophonist Rick Margitza for a diverse and cleverly orchestrated album of his compositions. There are plenty of thrills here, but the title is sarcastic: this is sophisticated fun. Margitza likes latin rhythms, which the group excel at, so the material here is a particularly good fit.

They open with the title track, a clustering clave tune that hits an uneasy chromatic drive, then the orchestra back away for spare guitar and piano solos from John Hart and Martin Bejerano, respectively. Margitza follows with uneasy modal sax over Bejerano’s spare incisions. From there they dip to a more suspenseful pulse and some neat polyrhythmic development

The opening coyness of The Place to Be is a red herring, as this jaunty little stroll gets more complex with lustrous reeds and horns. It’s a study in how radically different moods, from blithe to noir, can be created from exactly the same materials. Brace Yourself, an ebullient cha-cha, also has a funny intro, Hart and Margitza parsing its vampy changes up to where the brass takes it deeper toward salsa and then a series of amusing false endings.

Widow’s Walk – like many of these tracks, a new arrangement of an older small-group number – follows a brooding tangent from a pensive six-note piano figure up to a brass-fueled blaze, a gently wan Margitza solo over a bossa-tinged groove, a moody Chris Jentsch-ish guitar solo and a coda that seems completely out of place for a lament. Obviously, there could be more to this story: otherwise, it could be a Frank Foster tune from the 50s.

Gritty low brass gives a clenched-teeth intensity to 45 Pound Hound, then the group swing it with a jubilant Brian Lynch trumpet solo, Margitza taking it further into the blues before the full orchestra build slowly toward a fiery conclusion. It’s the most enigmatic, most subtly powerful number here.

Premonition is one of those one-take wonders that left the band and its leader pretty breathless when they realized they’d nailed its puffing, distantly ominous syncopation: bass and low brass figure heavily, Margitza’s solo guiding the band into cheerier terrain. Walls, originally a genially shuffling small-group number, gets fleshed out with flourishes from brass, piano and a scrambling Bejerano solo. It’s the album’s most trad composition.

The group bring back the clave in Sometimes I Have Rhythm,with its tongue-in-cheek references to a famous tune and an unexpectedly chill, soulful Greg Gisbert trumpet solo. Margitza’s swirls lead the group up to a jovial peak: once again, they show off the song’s salsa roots at the end. The lone cover here is a plush, increasingly slinky latinized and sometimes completely unrecognizable take of Embraceable You.

Interesting charts and strong performances from a group that also includes reedmen Gary Keller, Gary Lindsay, Ed Calle, Jason Kush, David Leon, Phil Doyle and Mike Brignola; trumpeters John Daversa, Jason Carder, Alex Norris, Pete Francis, Augie Haas, Jesus Mato and Jared Hal; trombonists Dante Luciani, John Kricker, Andrew Peal, Derek Pyle, Haden Mapel and Major Bailey; percussionist Xavier Desandre Navarre and drummer John Yarling.

Potent Relevance and Inspiration From Stephanie Chou

Saxophonist/singer Stephanie Chou has a strong track record as an activist and composer. Her current suite-in-progress, Comfort Girl, celebrates the resilience of the women who were kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military during their WWII-era adventures in imperialism. Her latest song, Millennial Woman is a real change of pace, an optimistic, bouncy rock song inspired by “those who write big questions.” This one’s got gospel-infused piano and organ, and more than a hint of hip-hop playfulness in the lyrics. Chou has a strong background in jazz; a lot of musicians have a hard time shifting gears into more straightforward, simple harmonies, but she doesn’t let it phase her.

Big Band Jazz Has Never Been So Much Fun As It Is on Satoko Fujii’s Ninety-Nine Years Album

Satoko Fujii did a second album with her Orchestra Berlin because, she says, “These guys are total goofballs. I don’t think I’ve ever had so much ridiculous fun in the studio as I had with these clowns.”

That’s not really what she said. The official quote from the press release for the album, Ninety-Nine Years (streaming at Bandcamp) is “I think they bring out some part of me that the other bands don’t.” Like crazed, insane fun. Over the epic course of about ninety albums with umpteen ensembles since the mid-90s, Fujii’s own sense of humor tends to be much more subtle, and her music is almost always on the serious side. This is her cartoon soundtrack, an album for jazz fans with long attention spans who need a good laugh. And yet, there’s plenty of signature Fujii gravitas here as well.

Everything here but the closing number – which begins like Lunar New Year on East Broadway in Chinatown – clocks in at well over ten minutes, sometimes closer to fifteen. The first number, which seems extremely satirical, is Unexpected Incident, as the Japanese government euphemistically termed the Fukushima nuclear disaster (Fujii did a whole Fukushima-inspired album with her Orchestra New York, which this blog chose as best album of 2017).

Fujii’s main axe is the piano, which she plays here; she’s also an excellent accordionist.Tenor saxophonist Gebhard Ullmann shrieks and squalls over the group early on, bassist Jan Roder tirelessly running a loop. There’s a din of a trombone/tenor duel between Matthias Schubert and Matthias Müller, the orchestra picking up a loop of their own. Roder returns more syncopatedly behind an increasingly agitated Natsuki Tamura trumpet solo; the way Fujii sneaks a secondary theme in before Ullmann’s shrill solo coda is artful, and typical of her.

Roder opens the title track, a dedication to Fujii’s late mother-in-law, with an increasingly scrambling solo, eventually joined in wisps and flickers by drummers Peter Orins and Michael Griener and baritone saxophonist Paulina Owczarek, who works her way to a fond, lyrical upper-register solo. They bring it down to just the drums and Ullmann, who chews the scenery until Fujii signals a steady, bittersweet, chordally brassy theme while Ullmann keeps doing his bad cop in contrast with Owczarek. They end together, warmly.

The funniest number here is On the Way, from its suspenseful, shamanistic twin-drum intro, to brassy hints of reggae, a bit of the rudiments from the drummers, and a grumpily cartoonish solo from Tamura which somebody in the band tries to lure away – the joke is too good to spoil. The faux New Orleans outro will also make you smile.

Oops is a showcase for both vaudevillian absurdity and some very sobering interludes. A triickily rhythmic, circular massed theme gives way to Schubert’s unbridled exuberance, but that’s when Fujii signals for a dirge behind his revelry: there’s no escaping this dark undercurrent. Tamura goes to the Middle East, the bass bubbles tensely, until finally the band erupt in a Keystone Kops charge. A dirge and another charge return along with spacious, bright pulses in between.

They close with Follow the Idea, from crazed New Years festivities, to goofy conversational blips, droll low spitballs and all-stops-out squalling over a thump and a LMAO false ending, Fujii has never made another album like this before – it was one of a dozen she put out in 2018 to celebrate her sixtieth birthday year – and she probably never will again. Enjoy. Big up to the rest of the cast, which includes trumpeters Richard Koch and Lina Allemano; trombonist Matthias Müller; and guitarist Kazuhisa Uchihashi.

Magical, Otherworldly Guitar Music Inspired by the Art of Sol Lewitt

The number of musicians whose albums were either sidelined, or more or less disappeared without a trace after the lockdown, is staggering. Guitarist Gabriel Birnbaum’s otherworldly, mysterious, often haunting solo record, Wall Music For Sol Lewitt – streaming at Bandcamp – was one of them. And that’s tragic. If you like magical, spacious, stark sounds, you’ll love this album: fans of the bell-like piano works of Federico Mompou are especially encouraged to check it out. It’s best appreciated as a cohesive whole rather than track by track. It was tempting to save the album for the annual October-long Halloween celebration here, but that’s way too long to deprive you, considering that Birnbaum released it six months ago.

Each piece takes its title from a number of the pieces in Lewitt’s Wall Drawings. In  keeping with Lewitt’s architectural approach, Birnbaum created graphic scores for his elegantly looping, very subtly microtonal compositions. #11 is the first, with understated polyrhythms woven into the eerily chiming, stately, circling theme.

#16 is a skeletal, somber march. His precisely plucked belltones are more delicate and intricate, akin to a carillon, in #17. He expands the sonic frame, adding harmonics on the high end in the enigmatic #19. Then he introduces lushly strummed chords for a much warmer sound in #38 – imagine Glenn Branca at low volume, without the distortion.

Birnbaum shifts gears again with the slow, sirening swoops of #46. Resonant major-key ambience alternates back and forth between creepy tritones and minimalist clock-chime phrases in #47, then he basically works that dynamic in reverse in #85

He winds up the album, taking inspiration from four works beginning with #154 over the course of thirty-eight minutes. This suite has the album’s airiest, most atmospheric moments: tritones linger briefly before an utterly hypnotic web of saxophone drones sets in. The way Birnbaum works more disquieting tonalities into it, at a glacial pace, is artful to the extreme. It makes you want to visit find the museum where Birnbaum’s inspirations are housed to see what springboarded this strange and beguiling record. Oh wait, you can’t, museums are locked and dead now in most parts of the world. Music isn’t the only art form the would-be engineers of the New Abnormal are trying to destroy.

James Ilgenfritz Makes a Troubling, Acidically Relevant Operatic Suite Out of a William Burroughs-Classic

In keeping with this month’s epic theme, today’s album is bassist James Ilgenfritz’s musical interpretation of William Burroughs’ cult classic novel The Ticket That Exploded, an “ongoing opera” streaming at Bandcamp. A collaboration with video artist Jason Ponce – who also contributes to the sound mix – it features Anagram Ensemble playing a mashup of surreal, often dadaistic free jazz and indie classical sounds. The text is delivered both as spoken word and by a rotating cast of singers including Nick Hallett, Ted Hearne, Ryan Opperman, Anne Rhodes and Megan Schubert. Burroughs’novel can be maddeningly dissociative, although in its more accessible moments it’s witheringly aphoristic, and often uproariously funny. That sense of humor does not often translate to the music here: it’s usually serious as death and relentlessly acidic. Most of it seems improvised, although that could be Ilgenfritz, a fixture of the New York creative jazz scene prior to the lockdown, toying with the audience.

With his weathered New York accent, Steve Dalachinsky – who knew Burroughs – was a good choice of narrator. In its best moments, this is classic jazz poetry. “It’s the old army thing: get dicked firstest with the brownest nose,” Nick Hallett muses about midway through. Sound familiar?

“If I had a talking picture of you, would I still read you?” Dalachinsky ponders a little later. Again, Burroughs is being prophetic: remember, this was written in the 1960s. An astringent guitar duel – Ty Citerman and Taylor Levine – pushes him out of the picture, only to be eclipsed by an almost shockingly calm moment from the string section at the end. That’s characteristic of how this unfolds.

After a rather skeletal opening number, the two women’s voices reach crushingly screaming and tumbling peaks, contrasting with a persistently offkilter minimalism. Many of the most ominous moments here pair the strings – Julianne Carney on violin and Nathan Bontrager on cello – with Denman Maroney’s eerie piano tinkles.

Ted Hearne gets the plum assignment of introducing the cast of characters in the Nova Mob which several generations of writers and punk rockers would reference in the decades that followed. The brass and strings drift and rustle uneasily, occasionally coalescing for unexpected pockets of clarity or a rare vaudevillian interlude. Percussionists Andrew Drury, John O’Brien and Vinnie Sperazza squirrel around, sparely, on anything that can be wacked.

Dichotomies – man versus machine, the sacred versus the very sacreligious, reason versus unbridled lust, reality versus hallucination – abound, both lyrically and musically. As challenging a listen as this is, in an age where surveillance is becoming a more and more omnipresent threat, it’s also timely:

Why don’t we shut this machine off?
I had all the answers a thousand years ago…
All we had to do is shut the thing off
Soundtrack calls the image police?
Shut off the soundtrack!

Revisiting a Couple of Familiar Beethoven Favorites

How tragic that more than 75% of last year’s planned Beethoven 250 celebrations were all cancelled by the lockdowners. In anticipation of the festivities, innumerable artists and orchestras had recorded an immense amount of Beethoven. One predictably confident, majestic concert recording that inadvertently foreshadowed the glut of live albums that would be dumped on the web less than a year after it was released is the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s versions of two of the composer’s greatest hits, the Eroica Symphony and Symphony No. 5, streaming at Spotify. Kurt Masur leads the ensemble in these lustrous performances. This is a view from the back of the hall, individual voices distinct over a backdrop that’s often rather muted and wafts in, with production values approximating the comfortable integral quality of a vinyl record.

Even if you know these works by heart, it’s always fun to revisit them to see what surprises a particular conductor or orchestra can throw at you. This recording is particularly romantic, and Romantic as well. The first movement of the Eroica is as sleek as it is gusty, with pillowy exchanges between woodwinds over hushed ambience, but also precise, almost pointillistically leaping strings.

Eager, budding suspense and a graceful courtship ensue in movement two: this is a particularly suave interpretation. Movement three seems a little fast, yet it’s also remarkably plush. And those horns are announcing a fox hunt, aren’t they!

Masur brings the lush/stormy dichotomy into even clearer focus in the concluding movement, although he doesn’t let the conversations between winds and strings go to waste. As far as gearshifting for The Fifth Symphony, there isn’t much, even though emotionally it’s often 180 degrees the opposite. Masur obviously decided to opt for elegance this time out as well, in lieu of rampaging intensity or fullscale goth gloom in the opening movement.

This blog’s favorite version is a field recording made at the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park in June of 2011, where the Knights played the symphony with uninhibited passion against a background of tree frogs and passing airplanes while bats divebombed the crowd. Still, Masur’s attention to detail in this one is welcome – the presence of the bass section in the first movement is especially rewarding.

Masur works top-to-bottom dynamics here even more than in the Eroica, particularly in the starry moments of the second movement and ominous portents of the third. The matter-of-fact bittersweetness in both really shines through as well. The finale brings the whole album full circle, the brightness and delicacy of the high strings just enough to bob up over the waves before a remarkably methodical, even restrained coda.

Magical New Music For Bass and Harp Duo

The River Town Duo‘s lineup – bass and concert harp – may be extremely rare, but they’re not the only such ensemble in the world. In fact, more than twenty composers have written for this unorthodox and magical pairing, which was somewhat more prevalent during the baroque era. The new album by the duo of bassist Philip Alejo and harpist Claire Happel Ashe – which hasn’t hit the web yet – comprises six fascinating, mostly rather quiet pieces by contemporary composers, covering all the bases throughout pretty much the entirety of the sonic spectrum. Alejo is called on to use his bow more than his fingers here, although he does both, while Ashe is occasionally engaged for extended technique as well.

They open with Caroline Shaw‘s dedication to them, For Claire & Philip. It’s pensive, driven by suspenseful pedalpoint from both instruments, and although the two get to build to some of the jaunty polyrhythms often found in Shaw’s work, it’s absolutely unique in her catalog.

Whitney Ashe‘s spaghetti western-influenced The Circuitous Six is even more starrily mysterious, Alejo’s stark bowing beneath its rhythmically shifting variations on a circling phrase. Derick Evans‘ surreallistically shapeshifting tableau On Lotusland draws inspiration from overlooking the Tucson cityscape at night, its cluster of lights surrounded by desolation. Alejo shifts from gritty overtones to keening, harmonically-tinged glissandos, Ashe bending her notes, the two rising to a slinky pulse tapped out on the body of the bass and eventually a plaintive neoromantic theme.

Hannah Lash‘s diptych Leaves, Space calmly and broodingly explores terse contrapuntal riffs and echo effects as well as the ways the harp can amplify phrases from the bass, Alejo fingerpicking emphatically before he picks up his bow again. The sepulchral second half is arguably the high point of the album.

Evan Premo contributes Two Meditations on Poems of Mary Oliver. The first, Early Morning, New Hampshire is a wistful, bucolic portrait of an old stone wall in the woods, Alejo backing away to provide atmospherics behind Ashe’s more enigmatic plucking. Although the second, Linen of Words explores the workmanlike, repetitive side of creating art, its folksy theme and variations make it one of the album’s catchiest tunes.

The duo conclude with Stephen Andrew Taylor‘s brief, lively five-part suite Oxygen. They follow a dancing, enigmatically circling theme with depictions of blood components, DNA and breathing. Alejo strains, bounces, slides and squirrels around while Ashe frequently mutes her strings for timbral unease. The moments of clarity are especially striking, especially the somber/twinkling dichotomies of the coda. It’s like the notorious PCR test come to life: you never know what kind of gunk might be floating through your veins until after many orders of magnification.

Saluting Lavishly Orchestral European Metal Cult Favorites Royal Hunt

Not to flog a dead horse, but more bands should make live albums. Swedish band Royal Hunt made a massive double live one, sarcastically titled Wasted Time, for their 25th anniversary back in 2016 and validated their reputation as road warriors. If epic drama, gothic imagery, and melodic metal with classical flourishes are your thing, crank this beast. It’s one long album – every song seems to be about eight minutes – and it’s streaming at Spotify.

What’s most impressive is how ornate and orchestral this music is: they don’t really strip much of anything down from their lavish studio productions. A rattle from Andreas Passmark’s bass, a few bursts from Andre Andersen’s string synth, a couple of Jonas Larsen minor-key guitar chords, a few baroque spirals…and the band launch into their classical-metal instrumental Martial Arts. Before you know it, they segue into the galloping River of Pain with its flangey twin guitars, surreallistically icy keyboard flourishes and tantalizingly sunbaked blues.

This take of One Minute Left to Live is part grand guignol Mozart, a little Viking chant and a lot of Iron Maiden. Take the distortion off the guitar but leave the wah-wah, get Habo Johansson’s drums to chill and suddenly Army of Slaves becomes a Donna Summer disco-pop hit with a dude (that’s DC Cooper) on the mic.

So far the band haven’t taken a break as they segue into Lies, a surreal mashup of AC/DC, speedmetal and the baroque. They finally do before the album’s title track, a new wave pop song on steroids.

Likewise, there’s an oldschool soul ballad bleeding through the crunch and roar of Heart on a Platter.

The doublebass drum really gets a workout in Flight; but first they kick this Trans-Siberian Orchestra-ish sprint off with a rockabilly shuffle. And just when May You Never Walk Alone seems like it’s going to be a power ballad, the guitars and string synth kick in and take it doublespeed.

The album’s best song, Until the Day, appears toward the end of the show: with its funereal piano, it’s the closest thing to Pink Floyd here. By now, the concert has hit a peak and the band keep it going with the phantasmagorical Half Past Loneliness. The accusatory anthem Message to God makes a good segue from there.

They encore with a comfortable take of the catchy early 80s-style Stranded and close the show in a similar vein with A Life to Die For. Some people will hear this and roll their eyes at this relic from the days when there were big record labels who spared no detail in recording stuff like this…but that’s their loss.