New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Month: October, 2015

Rasputina’s Iconic Cello Rock Hits a Devastatingly Intense Peak

This Halloween week’s first entry might be the best of them all. Consider for a minute that the original Rasputina lineup comprised Melora Creager, Serena Jost and Julia Kent: in cello rock circles, that’s the equivalent of Jagger, Richard, Wyman and Watts. Seriously. In the years or centuries – depending on which myth you subscribe to – since Rasputina basically invented the style, Creager has more or less become synonymous with the name. And her dark vision is a hell of a lot more consistent than the Rolling Stones.

For an artist who’s famously old-fashioned, Victorian corsets and all, the topic of the chilling and disarmingly brilliant new Rasputina album, Unknown, is strangely and disconcertingly digital. The songs deal with being hacked, maliciously and anonymously. For that reason, the album is not available online: it’s ten bucks at Rasputina‘s webpage (and at gigs) and worth every penny. The opening track, Curse Tablet sets the stage: this may be a solo album, but Creager multitracks her cello and her vocals, a one-woman chamber ensemble. It’s shocking to hear someone who’s made a career out of channeling a million different characters sounding as vulnerable and wounded as she does here. And yet, she can’t resist bringing in some of her usual sardonic humor on the bridge, a spoof of spammer keyword-ese.

The cello-metal anthem Pastoral Noir blackly and amusingly imagines a showdown between Vesta (Greek goddess of the hearth) and Pan (god of mischief), with a little keyboard torture and a punchline that screams for the repeat button…several times, because the vocals are so heavily processed. Sparrow-Hawk Proud raises the menace factor, a creepy minor-key vamp punctuated by jarring, distorted cadenzas: “I will forever keep you quiet,” intones the mysterious voice at the end of the connection, wherever that might be. After building a harrowing, pulsing backdrop, Unicorn Horn Mounted draws a savagely cartoonish portrait of snobbish Jeb Bush types contemplating a rare kill.

Once again, when least expected, Creager lets down her guard on the gently dancing Bridge Manners: “Reflecting ignorance of sophistication, and ignorant of courtly machination,” the ingenue at the center of the story takes centerstage despite herself: subtext anyone? The savagely waltzing anthem Indian Weed contemplates “What happens when virtue is turned around and preyed upon, made to hurt you,” as any secrets you might have entrusted to the cloud come raining down.

The instrumental title track whispers and wafts along with a ghostly ominousness. The unease continues throughout the surreal, Gorey-esque Emily Dickinson’s Trophy Envelope, which posits a competition between the poet and the Wizard of Oz: Dickinson wins on many fronts, not the least because she never changes her clothes. The creepy, circling Psychopathic Logic, which makes the connection between serial rape, murder and cyberterrorism, is bookended by two instrumentals: the apprehensively crescendoing Catstkill gothic Steady Rain and a graveyard-scape called Untitled I.

Sensed, a moody acoustic guitar-and-strings ballad, ponders a last-day-on-earth scenario between “ghost lovers” – it’s Hannah vs. the Many’s heartbreaking Jordan Baker, but a thousand times creepier. “When you’re traumatized, you take everything as scary, you don’t talk anymore, you just keep it buried,” Creager intones on the murder ballad Taken Scary. For anyone who’s ever been screwed by a cybernerd, or stalked online, it’s delicious vengeance: Creager’s distorted slasher solo is pure bliss. The album ends on a somber note with the instrumental Hymn of the Wormwood Women.

Rasputina’s most essential album is still probably Oh Perilous World, Creager’s scathing 2007 indictment of Bush/Cheney surveillance state duplicity and mass murder, but this is a masterpiece in its own right – and a strong contender for best release of 2015. Watch for it on the Best Albums of 2015 page here at the end of the year. Rasputina are currently on fall tour; their next gig is at the Grey Eagle, 185 Clingman Avenue in Asheville, North Carolina at 9 PM on October 24.

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A Charmingly Dark Show by Fizz and an Upcoming Upper West Gig by Liz Tormes

You’ve got to watch this video by Fizz – Americana tunesmiths Liz Tormes and Olabelle‘s Fiona McBain – at Pete’s Candy Store back on the third of the month. Musicians tend to be physically agile people, but the way those two take Don Gibson’s Sea of Heartbreak and make a jump-rope rhyme out of it is as challenging as it is surreal….and also just plain sweet. And they pull it off effortlessly, like they were eight-year-olds on the playground together. Never mind the fact that Tormes would have been in Nashville at the time and McBain on the other side of the world.

The two used to do this duo act more than they do now. Watching the two swap songs and harmonize, poignantly and seamlessly, brought back some good memories on the Lower East Side back in the late zeros. When the two play together, they usually do murder ballads, and there were a few of those in this set. Of the two performers, McBain is the more versatile songwriter, informed both by oldschool soul music (that’s the Ollabelle connection) as well as front-porch folk and bluegrass. Tormes has a devious sense of humor, and her live show can be great fun, notwithstanding that her Nashville gothic songs are pretty relentlessly dark, intense and devastating. Nobody’s breakup ballads deliver more of a punch to the gut than hers do. Tormes’ voice has more plushness and restraint; McBain’s soars higher and has more of a bite. They make a great team.

They opened with a Tormes number, full of woundedly elegant Everlys harmonies against a steady backbeat. Their version of Brenda Lee’s Comin’ on Strong was much the same. followed by a spare, muted cover of the Everlys’ murder ballad Down in the Willow Garden, pushed along by McBain’s stark fingerpicking. McBain then led the two through a broodingly hypnotic, open-tuned waltz that brought to mind Mazzy Star.

They gave an enigmatic indie touch to a gentle country gospel number, then went into moody Lynchian mode and stayed there with a lowlit cover of Blondie’s Call Me – considering how creepy they made that one, it would be even more fun to hear what they could do with Black Sabbath’s Children of the Grave! They closed the set with a warmly intuitive, wistful take of the Kinks’ Waterloo Sunset. Tormes is on the bill this Friday, Oct 23 at 5:30 PM at the American Folk Art Museum, Columbus Ave. at 66th St.on an excellent triplebill with fellow folk noir songsmith Linda Draper and minimialist gothic rock act Bright Brown.

In Memoriam – Paul Adam Triff: December 10, 1960 – October 5, 2015

Paul Triff, one of New York’s most distinctive and sought-after drummers, died this past October 5 of a heart attack. He was 54. He is survived by his father, Ralph Triff of West Palm Beach, Florida; sister Tina Sheetz, of Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania and Alexandria, Virginia; a niece, Samantha Sheetz of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and nephew, Adam Sheetz of State College, Pennsylvania; and his longtime partner, Jodi Miller, of Charlotte, North Carolina as well as many friends and bandmates.

Triff’s earliest inspirations were his grandfather, a vaudeville musician, as well as his jazz-loving father and his sister, who introduced him to the Beatles at age four. Trained at Berklee College of Music, Triff was the rare rock drummer who could swing, hard. His Charlie Watts-informed groove and flair for a wryly placed flurry or flourish took the four-on-the-floor rock that he was best known for to a higher level.

Triff chose his spots. He was more interested in adding color with a rattle or a roll, building a suspenseful intro, or throwing a tongue-in-cheek riff at one of his bandmates, than he was in taking centerstage. His attention to detail and sense for a song’s inner content earned him a long list of tours and club gigs. If there were musicians in the crowd when he played, they always wanted to know if he was available – and Triff ended up turning down many more gigs than he took. His touring and recording credits covered a wide range of styles, from the Shirelles, to high-voltage dark rockers Lorraine Leckie and Her Demons, popular festival band Mike Rocket & the Stars, parlor pop pianist Julian Velard, reggae-rock pioneers Pacific Orchestra, Americana bands Chris Berardo & the Desberardos and Ten Ton Man.

When not on the road or in the studio, Triff was a homebody who loved cats, a sharp-witted raconteur and a man whose businesslike public persona couldn’t hide a warmhearted and compassionate soul. A talented cook and devotee of classic American diner food, his photos of entrees from every spot on the menu were a constant source of amusement for his many friends. A proficient athlete and tennis player, he was a fan of Roger Federer, and followed hometown teams the Yankees, Giants and Rangers. As a longtime resident of City Island, he devoured the culture and history of his beloved New York City.

A private memorial service will be held on October 29. His family has created Paulie’s Pets, a charity in his honor to benefit animals at the New Rochelle Animal Shelter. Deepest condolences to everyone who was lucky enough to know this talented and soulful player.

Karla Rose & the Thorns: Centerpiece of a Fearsome Halloween Triplebill in Williamsburg

Amidst the usual parade of wannabes, there are always a handful of good original bands playing the CMJ festival. This year’s included Palehound a.k.a. guitarist Ellen Kempner doing her catchy postpunk at Cake Shop; the Union Pool triplebill of angst-fueled, lyrically-driven songsmiths Amy Bezunartea, Jennifer O’Connor and the creepy, psychedelic Tim Foljahn; and electric folk noir band Leland Sundries at Leftfield. But the highlight of the festival was the set by dark cinematic rockers Karla Rose & the Thorns in the big room at the Rockwood on Friday. The allusively torchy, Telecaster-wielding singer and her band are on the best Halloween bill of 2015 on the 31st at Warsaw at around 10 PM, following the Bogmen’s Vic Thrill, then followed by the original dark carnival band, World Inferno; general admission is $25. And she’s also at Berlin on October 26 at 8 PM, opening for the “king of powerpop,” Paul Collins for a ridiculously cheap $5. The entrance to the venue is inside the bar at 2A, 2nd St. and Ave. A; take the door on your right about ten feet past the entrance and go downstairs.

Karla Rose’s songs have Dorothy Parker wit, allusively lurid Twin Peaks ambience and the brooding noir intensity of Bernard Herrmann’s film scores – all packed into briskly-paced four-minute narratives. This was a very dynamic show, the music rising and falling as you would expect from a good thriller. While there’s a lot of retro influence, from femme fatale saloon blues, to crime jazz, to jaunty new wave, Karla Rose’s songwriting is unmistakably in the here and now. The band was fun to watch:, the frontwoman pondered the psychedelic qualities of lead guitarist Dylan Charles’ embroidered Grand Old Opry-style shirt. Long black hair swaying behind her, a lithe and spring-loaded presence in front of the band, she rocked a shimmery, vintage checkerboard opal-and-onyx pencil dress and black pumps. Bassist David Limzi had a similarly shiny, gold glam suit thing going on; drummer Kevin Garcia, obscured behind the kit, pushed the music with an expertly easy swing and hints of both rockabilly and vaudeville.

Karla Rose explained that she’d planned on making silver dollar pancakes and bringing them to the show…but then she overslept. Asked what those were, she described them as early 60s daydrunk food. Throughout the set, she stung the crowd with one-liners, admitting to a passion for reading about serial killlers and high-functionoing sociopaths, then bringing all that into deadly focus with a brand-new, ominously crescendoing new song, as yet untitled.

Her lingering chords and judicious fingerpicking anchored some spectacularly expert playing from the rest of the group, Limzi’s dancing octaves being a highlight of one of the new wave numbers. Charles, with his axe-murderer chord-chopping, blood-drenched chromatics and reverb turned up all the way, is a Marc Ribot/Steve Ulrich class player. And Karla Rose’s vocals, informed by jazz but uncluttered by it, were as woundedly and distantly haunting as usual, slinking up to a phrase or giving a line a kinfes-edge caresss.

When the best songs in a set are the slow ones, that speaks volumes. “Carry me up the stairs/I’ll make believe someone cares,” she intoned with just the faintest glimmer of sarcasm early in Mexico, a chillingly surreal tableau set in a seedy seaside tourist town, its doomed narrator (and possible murderess) waiting blithely for her Mr. Elvis to reappear. And in Time Well Spent, the singer traced a couple of accomplices whose plans have gone horribly wrong:

There are clouds ahead
And there are clouds behind
What’s the use
Of trying to rewind
A blue, blue heart’s superstition
A fiction I have read
I’ll find you out on the highway
Til then
My end
I like my time well spent

Miss out on the Halloween show at Warsaw and miss out on one of New York’s most magnetic bands.

Powerful, Provocative and Playful Performances at the Opening of the New St. Ann’s Warehouse

If you could perform a Yoko Ono world premiere with the Kronos Quartet and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, wouldn’t you jump at the opportunity? That’s what the audience at the grand opening of the new St. Ann’s Warehouse in Dumbo did Saturday night…literally. It was a playful Pauline Oliveros-style improv: everybody got to be rain, and snow, and a momentary thunderstorm. It wasn’t on the bill: from the looks of it, those of us who knew about it beforehand kept that information to ourselves.

The rest of the program embraced the cutting-edge, the profound and the warmly familliar. Choir leader Dianne Berkun-Menaker guided a beefed-up take of Americana band the Wailin’ Jennys‘ One Voice, plus an easygoing audience singalong of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Our House. Accompanied by vibraphonist David Cossin, the chorus opened the show with Aleksandra Vrebalov‘s Bubbles, a deliciously entertaining suite juxtaposing droll water noises with achingly lush, neoromantic atmospherics. The composer smartly chose to end on a humorous note: even the most serious-minded performer would have had a hard time getting through this one without collapsing in laughter. Caroline Shaw’s Its Motion Keeps, reprised from the chorus’ earlier performance this month at National Sawdust, maintained the kinetic pulse with its dynamic shifts, quirky accents and challenging polyrhythms, all seamlessly performed.

The most cutting-edge moment of the program was when the groups were joined by pioneering Balkan a-cappella trio Black Sea Hotel, who reinvent Bulgaian and Macedonian folk themes, sometimes cutting largescale choral works to their stark roots, sometimes creating 21st century arrangements of ancient folk tunes. The chorus seemed turbocharged for this one, poised to provide waves of dark earthtone color, elegantly slow glissandos and plainchant-like precision behind the microtonally-spiced, eerie close harmonies of Willa Roberts, Shelley Thomas and Sarah Small. The piece itself, titled Around the Forest, A Youth Roams; The Forest Is Shaking and Swaying, was composed by Small – whose repertoire extends to art-song, largescale ensemble works and tableaux vivants – in collaboration with Brooklyn Balkan icon and theatrical composer Rima Fand.

The most relevant pieces on the bill were both world premieres, Sahba Aminikia‘s Sound, Only Sound Remains, and Mary Kouyoumdjian‘s Become Who I Am. The former gave the quartet a stern and austerely waltzing arrangement, delivered with precision against multitracks of women singers in Iran along with a digitized copy of a hundred-year-old 78 RPM folk recording. In Iran, it’s illegal for a woman to sing unaccompanied by men; this expression of global solidarity spoke volumes. Likewise, the latter of the premieres incorporated a litany of increasingly cutting, sardonic spoken-word snippets from members of the chorus into its carefully crescendoing, plaintive sweep, contemplating ongoing challenges facing women inside and outside of music. Bottom line: the glass ceiling might have a few cracks, but it’s still there. And if you thought the pressure to conform – especially for girls – was bad when you were a kid, it’s brutal now.

About the new space: it’s gorgeous. Tiered seating offers clear sightlines, and the sonics are pristine. While you can hear a pin drop when it’s quiet, it’s not a completely dry space like Avery Fisher Hall. And the hot chocolate at the food stand out front was getting the thumbs-up from the chocoholics in the crowd.

Object Collection Stages a Deliciously Noisy, Messy. Provocative Piece at LaMaMa

Longtime LaMaMa impresario Nicky Paraiso reminded last night’s sold-out crowd at Object Collection’s latest experimental opera, Cheap & Easy October, that the experience would be what used to be called “total theatre” back in the 80s – a description that really nailed it. With a tight, often scorchingly intense four-piece band playing behind a ratty knitted curtain of sorts and cast members scampering, leaping and chasing each other around the stage, it’s more of a concert with a cast acting out a dadaesque video of sorts than it is anything else. And what a show it is. As immersive and pummeling as composer Travis Just’s score is, it’s far less abrasive than it is enveloping: you are drawn into the heart of the cyclotron, violently thrust out or, surprisingly, cast gently into a starlit reverie. Earplugs will be handed out, hut you don’t really need them. The run at LaMaMa is coming to a close, with final performances tonight, October 17 and then tomorrow at 10 PM; tix are $18/$13 stud/srs.

The band shifts abruptly but strangely elegantly through dreampop, post-hardcore and Mogwai-esque nightmarescapes, with acidic mid-80s Sonic Youth close harmonies, furious percussive interludes that recall taiko drumming, moments of what seem to be free improvisation, and echoes of the cumulo-nimbus swirl of guitarist Taylor Levine’s quartet Dither. Violinist Andie Springer uses a lot of extended technique and nails-down-the-blackboard harmonics; she also plays bass. Explosive drummer Owen Weaver doubles on Telecaster, while keyboardist Aaron Meicht also adds the occasional trumpet flourish or joins the stomp on a couple of floor toms.

The text – drawn from Soviet revolutionary histories by Leon Trotsky and John Reed as well as conversations between writer/director Kara Feely and cast member Fulya Peker (whose butoh background informs the simmering menace she channels throughout the show) veers from lickety-split spoken word to a bizarre, falsettoey singsong. Sardonic symbolism is everywhere: there’s a zombie apocalypse subplot, a telephone gets abused, and swordplay abounds. The rest of the cast – Deborah Wallace, Daniel Allen Nelson, Tavish Miller and Avi Glickstein – take on multiple roles, some of them living, some of them presumably dead.

There’s some toying with poststructuralist japes, springboarding off the premise that if you control the conversation, you control the situation. “Do you think a revolution of words can be as profound as an actual revolution?” one of the cast poses in one of the performance’s less chaotic moments. Much of the iconography in the set is sarcastic and ultimately portends a lot of very gloomy endings: as Feely and Just see it, revolutions tend to disappoint.

No less august a personality than Robert Ashley gave this group’s work the thumbs-up. For those who need their ideas packaged neatly and cohesively, this isn’t going to work. And it raises fewer questions than it intimates – which by itself is reason to see this provocative piece, one more nuanced than its sonic cauldron might initially suggest.

Ember Schrag Brings Her Ever More Psychedelic Tunesmithing to Union Pool

Isn’t it strange that there aren’t more women in psychedelic rock? Sure, there was Grace Slick; lately, Marissa Nadler has gone deep into Pink Floyd style art-rock, and Marianne Dissard – who has a characteristically brilliant ep out this year – also has a psychedelic side. Here in New York we have Ember Schrag, who got her start as a self-styled Great Plains Gothic tunesmith. These days she’s been fleshing out her stark, spare earlier material with lush orchestration and plenty of room for purposeful improvisation. Her band, with Bob Bannister on lead guitar, Debby Schwartz on bass and Gary Foster on drums, is one of this city’s most visually interesting outfits. Fresh off her tour of European festivals in Alec K Redfearn & the Eyesores – with whom she plays organ – Schrag is doing a rare duo show with Bannister on October 18 at 4 PM outdoors at Union Pool for free.

Her show with her band at Hifi Bar this past July was typical. Foster, who draws on a jazz background, played the role of sonic architect. One minute he’d be playing with bundles, the next minute brushes, then mallets, finally switching to sticks as the show picked up with a straight-ahead garage rock stomp for a few minutes. Sometimes he’d be rocking a bundle and a mallet, pinging the bells of the cymbals or building up to a big whoooooosh. Schwartz is the Secretary of Entertainment in this project, slipsliding up and down the frets of her Musicmaster bass with a joyously slinky attack: she plays with a pick and is a real hard hitter, essesntially the second lead guitarist in this band. She also handles the high vocal harmonies, with an unselfconsciously fiery, penetrating delivery.

Bannister is the magician in the group: watching his fingers, thinking on his feet, is a clinic in subtlety and craft. Much as Schrag’s new arrangements for her older songs – and her new material – have specific parts, neither Bannister nor the band as a whole ever play any one song exactly the same. There are references to specific styles, or time periods, sprinkled throughout them, but when Bannister takes them to Memphis, say, he doesn’t steal wholesale from Steve Cropper. And when he goes in a an Americana jamband direction, you can tell that he’s internalized David Gilmour and Jerry Garcia, but he doesn’t rip those guy off either. And he uses a whole lot less notes.

Much as Schrag can be a devilishly funny presence onstage, she was in enigmatic mode at this show. She didn’t talk to the audience much, running through the songs matter-of-factly, eyes closed, completely immersed in her hypnotically circling, fingerpicked riffs. Yet she’s never sung with so much intensity and power as she did here: maybe having an electric band behind her makes her air out the wounded twang or the deep Bible Belt noir. For one reason or another, the high point of the show might have been an older song, Iowa, dating from the Iraq War era. On Schrag’s absolutely brilliant latest album, a Folkadelphis Sessions ep, it’s Nashville gothic as Pink Floyd might have done it, lowlit with resonant pedal steel from Susan Alcorn. At this show, it was a lot louder, more driving, and Schrag sang the hell out of it. The lyrics are a very artful series of three roadside images woven together to build a grim, apocalyptic ambience: heavy rains a-coming over Iowa, yikes!

Another number that Schrag had an uproariously good time with had a Ray Davies-esque, vaudevillian strut, imagining Jesus and Nicodemus as gay lovers while Bannister added wry colors with his slide. There were innumerable other did-you-catch-that moments throughout the rest of the set: Bannister’s slow, sunsplashed Gilmouresque slide leads on the opening song; his mysterious, muted wah lines in the austerely Beatlesque The Real Penelope; Foster’s single, menacing grand-guignol flurry on a witchy, shapeshifting mini-epic; and the intricately jangly interplay between the two guitars on the Macbeth-inspired Lady M. Find out what else is in store at Union Pool on Sunday afternoon.

Deep African Blues Roots in Cutting-Edge Jazz in the West Village This Week

“When I first heard gnawa music, I heard the blues, and jazz, and the Black church,” Randy Weston explained to the sold-out crowd at the New School Tuesday night. The ageless piano sage has made a career of taking jazz back to its ancient African roots and then reinventing them, first inspired by his father and later while living in Morocco, where he immersed himself in innumerable North African folk and classical music styles. Currently artist-in-residence at the university, he brought along his pal Abdellah El Gourd along with a trio of energetic, impressively athletic dancer-percussionists from his group Dar Gnawa of Tanger for an insightful, sometimes trance-inducing, sometimes raptly transcendent performance of both traditional material and some of Weston’s best-loved compositions.

The percussionists supplied a hypnotically polyrhythmic clickety-clack backdrop with their pairs of cast-metal qraqab castanets while El Gourd grounded the music in low, circling, propulsive phrases on his three-string gimbri lute – one of the earliest ancestors of the funk bass. While Weston didn’t mention that particular lineage, he took care to explain that the qraqabs are a descendant of something considerably more disturbing: handcuffs. Centuries ago, in the Berber lands, prisoners in chains would use them to communicate in code.

Since gnawa music continues to serve several roles in the community – as rhythmic backdrop for mass celebration, spiritual ritual and physical healing, among other things – it’s no surprise that the vocals, delivered robustly by El Gourd an the rest of the group, have a mantra-like quality. In conversation with El Gourd along with a younger countryman and New School student, Weston revealed that the music also has a synesthetic connection – different individuals, different songs and even riffs are associated with different colors. Weston took some obvious relish in being someone whose color, predictably, turned out to be blue.

And the blues, along with their ancient, more lingering and slowly unwinding roots, were everywhere in Weston’s solo pieces, which he played in between numbers by the Moroccans. Night in Medina, he told the crowd, was inspired by a trip to the bustling Tangiers marketplace he frequented during the day but hesitated to visit after dark: “You know, being from Bed-Stuy!” he joked. Awash in hushed, low-register, moonlit resonance, saturnine modes and allusive Middle Eastern phases, Weston slowly pulled good-natured postbop out of it. Likewise, he closed the performance with a regal, judiciously crescendoing take of Blue Moses, joined slowly and then joyously by the rest of the group as it unwound out of a gently rhythmic trance groove.

Speaking of the blues, tenor saxophonist Noah Preminger has a connection with them that goes deeper than most. His brand-new live album, Pivot, comprises two lengthy explorations of Bukka White classics. Last night at Smalls, he made another live recording with his quartet, Jason Palmer on trumpet, Kim Cass on bass and Ian Froman on drums. After Preminger and the group had stayed pretty much within themselves, playing their cards close to the vest, very puristically as they do on Pivot, it was a real rush to watch them finally jump and spiral out of control with a pretty wild free interlude late in the set. They went back to dusky and evocative and tersely melodic with their closing number, Mississippi John Hurt’s I Shall Not Be Moved, Palmer anchoring the sound as Froman built toward a steady hailstorm, Preminger finally cutting loose and wailing to the rafters, making the song’s title all the more ironic. Let’s hope this one makes it onto the record as a pure, unedited thrill.

A Characteristically Vivid, Potently Relevant Performance by Ensemble Pi

For the past ten years, adventurous indie classical chamber group Ensemble Pi have played an annual “peace concert,” featuring socially relevant compositions from across the years as well as most of the classical music spectrum. This year’s sold-out multimedia performance Saturday night in the comfortable downstairs auditorium at the Sheen Center on Bleecker Street explored music and writing on themes of captivity and imprisonment. In an era when the Guantanamo Bay gulag is still open, and in a city where atrocities on Rikers Island have recently come to light, it was especially relevant, played with equal amounts vividness and attention to the underlying content.

Which was harrowing. Group impresario/pianist Idith Meshulam led a sextet comprising cellist Alexis Gerlach, clarinetist Moran Katz, violinist Airi Yoshioka, trumpeter Sycil Mathai and vibraphonist Bill Trigg through the thorny, endlessly looping Coming Together, Frederic Rzewski’s portrait of the 1971 Attica prison uprising. An illustration of the crushing tedium and repetition of prison life, it’s cruelly difficult difficult to play. But Meshulam and her steely right hand were undaunted by the challenge of its endlessly metronomic pulse and dizzying permutations. Meanwhile, actor Joseph Assadourian narrated the text, a similarly looping quote from a letter by inmate Sam Melville, killed when troops and police stormed the prison. Later in the program, Assadourian provided his own blackly amusing chronicle of arbitrary judicial conduct in New York criminal court.

Eleanor Cory‘s poignant, carefully voiced short work Riker’s Island, for piano, clarinet, cello and violin, was preceded by a similarly troubling account of women’s prison, read by poet Ashley Mote. The program wound up auspiciously with an unexpectedly and very strongly dynamic rendition of Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, in fact so dynamic that it seemed as if the group was playing it at a much faster tempo than it was written for. As it turned out, they didn’t, but the effect was visceral. Messiaen famously composed it in the men’s latrine in a Nazi prison camp in 1941, not knowing that he’d survive or be released. its instrumentation derives from the fact that clarinet, violin, cello and piano just happened to be the instruments played by the prisoners who debuted it.

Considering how unorthodox this lineup is, the piece is relatively rarely staged. It’s even harder for a musician to wrap his or her hands around since the group playing it is usually a pickup band, more or less. But Meshulam and the rest of her quartet left no doubt that they’d internalized Messiaen’s angst, and muted terror, and also his defiance. On the surface, like pretty much everything else the composer wrote, it traces a liturgical theme, but it’s also the story of a successful prison break. Katz animatedly voiced the birdsong beyond Messiaen’s cell window, not to mention his anguish at not being able to see his feathered friends…and all the subtext that image carries. Likewise, Meshulam scampered animatedly through the tiptoeing, furtive theme that recurs just before the rapt, awestruck conclusion – which seemed to pass by in a heartbeat rather than lingering as other groups tend to do with it. It’s hard to think of a more apt way to close such an impactful, meaningful program.

Kalascima Bring Their Intoxicating, Psychedelic Italian Folk Dancefloor Grooves to Drom

Puglia, Italy’s psychedelically shapeshifting Kalascima make their New York debut on October 14 at 6:30 at Drom; cover is $15. Their latest album, Psychedelic Trance Tarantella is streaming at soundcloud. And it’s like nothing else you’ll hear coming out of the US, that’s for sure. Italy has been a hotbed of hot musical cross-pollination for literally millennia, and this group is no exception, part dancefloor trance band, part lively folk-rock outfit, part wild circus rock unit. The flurrying twin-percussion team of Riccardo Lagana and Federico Lagana propel the group in tandem with low-key bassist Riccardo Basile. Massimiliano De Marco plays an arsenal of acoustic stringed instruments, with Luca Buccarella on accordion and Aldo Iezza playing all sorts of reeds, from sax to the zampogna (sort of the Italian counterpart to the Irish uilleann pipes)

The album’s title track has uneasy vocal loops mingling with Celtic-tinged accordion and zampogna. With its droll, ever-present jawharp, This Way is a woozy, hypnotic, somewhat goofy mashup of qawwali and Italian folk. The catchy, slowly swaying Lu Sule adds wry hints of hip-hop and dub to a spiky, spiraling folk-rock anthem.

Moi! returns to a surreal mashup of tarantella catchiness and trancey qawwali dnacefloor groove, heavier on the former than the latter with some unexpectedly menacing vocal harmonies midway through. Mary Di Salem sends disembodied vocals and dubwise washes of keys floating through the mix over a muted dancefloor thud. Due Mari, featuring cinematic art-rocker Ludovico Einaudi on scampering, staccato piano, follows a slowly swaying, anthemic triplet rhythm spiced with De Marco’s rippling Irish bouzouki.

Kore, one of the deeper trance numbers here, anchors the brightly dancing accordion and Irish-flavored bouzouki in shifting, rhythmic grey-noise patches. The trippy grooves continue with Il Giardino, part qawwali, part spinning spider dance. Canto Degli Emigranti has a purposeful, briskly strolling bounce, dancing phrases from the zampogna, accordion and bouzouki echoing off each other as they spin through the mix.

La Rivolta Dell’Arneo is the techiest number here with its new wave synth loops and ever-present dancefloor thump anchoring briskly pulsing accordion and mandolin. The album winds up with the lush, windswept Musa – Musa Reprise, a sort of sea chantey without words, getting stranger and stranger as it goes along. English translations of the lyrics are hard to find, but the group seems to have a sense of humor, echoed in the interplay between the instruments. You can get seriously lost in this.