New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Month: January, 2017

Philip Glass’ Agenda Remains the Same

“The years catch up with you, but my agenda remains the same,” Philip Glass said, five years ago. This past evening at Carnegie Hall, to celebrate Glass’ eightieth birthday, Dennis Russell Davies led the Bruckner Orchestra Linz through two New York premieres of Glass works as well as the world premiere of his Symphony No. 11. By and large, the concert was as much of a present to what appeared to be a sold-out audience as it was to the composer.

It was a shock to discover that Glass’ 1997 Days and Nights in Rocinha – an equally kinetic and hypnotic tone poem of sorts – had never been performed here. It’s sort of the Ravel Bolero as the bastard child of Julia Wolfe and Angelo Badalamenti might have written it. The orchestra gave it a meticulously dynamic performance. Davies, a longtime Glass champion, looked nervous as its first unexpected, muted burst of low brass appeared, but by the end the music had reached his hips and he was swaying along triumphantly. Meanwhile, Glass sat in the front row of his balcony box, leaning on his elbow, chin in hand, inscrutable. The piece made a good choice of opener: the few moments of percussive sprinkling, wryly humorous stops-and-starts and hints of Egberto Gismonti tropical elegance foreshadowed a good proportion of the music to come.

Angelique Kidjo sang the New York premiere of a Yoruban creation triptych that she’d written with Glass. He’d done his homework, a rigorous analysis of the language’s phonetics and syllables so as to enable a smooth correspondence between lyrics and music. The first part was something akin to Jeff Lynne gone latin. The second, with its steady volleys of arpeggios over uneasy chromatics, was a striking and familiarly haunting look back to Glass’ iconic and perhaps career-defining Dracula soundtrack. The third was the closest to an orchestrated African folk song. Kidjo matched raw emotion to blues-inflected sophistication, notwithstanding some sonic issues early on – she was amplified, the orchestra wasn’t.

The show concluded with the new symphony, which could be viewed as a career retrospsective. It had every one of Glass’ signature tropes: dry humor matched by a similar flair for the unexpected; artfully subtle rhythmic reshaping; those broken major triads that the composer loves as much as wary chromatic vamps and moodily shifting accidentals; and unabashedly resonant beauty. Much of it was like one of his string quartets fleshed out with dense washes of extra strings.

Until the third movement, there weren’t many individual voices flickering through the enigmatic cycles of notes, but when they appeared, those motives – a droll oboe, a ghost of a tuba, a woodsy clarinet – were perfectly precise. The ensemble negotiated the second movement’s sudden but very cleverly disguised change of beats with similar aplomb. The third began with a rather vaudevillian percussion intro and for awhile was a real scherzo, until the orchestra turned a corner abruptly and…that’s where Glass’ joke became too good to give away. Glass’ music is so easy to get lost in that there are some things that are hard to see coming despite what can be innumerable deadpan hints of it.

What you should really do is not spoil the ending for yourself: just go see it the next time it’s performed here. Which it will be, probably sooner than later. Lucky concertgoers in Chapel Hill, North Carolina can see the orchestra play the first and last pieces plus Glass’ Violin Concerto No. 1 with soloist Robert McDuffie tomorrow, Feb 1 at 7:30 PM at UNC Memorial Hall at 114 E. Cameron Ave; $30 tix are available.

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Haunting Singer Carol Lipnik’s East Village Residency Takes On New Relevance

This past Sunday evening at Pangea, Carol Lipnik reached for the rafters, with her voice and with her hand, as if trying to pull stars from the sky. It wasn’t as if she was imploring some unseen force, but there was a quiet desperation as her four-octave voice rose to the stratosphere. Behind her, Matt Kanelos built a twilit mist of electronics and then played steady, lustrous neoromantic piano chords to anchor his longtime collaborator’s uneasy flights upward.

“We’ve fallen backward into a strange abyss of imperfection,” Lipnik mused, in between songs. Iridescent in a shimmery midnight blue dress, she addressed the ugly events of the past week with grim understatement. “Our pleasure ship has hit an iceberg. My life raft is made of paper, and my oar, a pen…my song is a torn sail, my voice the ripping wind.” Much as Lipnik’s performances, and especially her lyrics, can be both hilarious and heartwrenching, this was out of character.

Then again, we’ve all been wrenched from our comfort zones. Calmly and matter-of-factly, Lipnik built a dynamic intensity that rose and fell, laced with dark punk rock humor and ominous nature imagery. The fun stuff included a leap to the rafters with a boisterous cover of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ I Put a Spell on You that its author would no doubt have been proud of. Lipnik channeled Klaus Nomi in a phantasmagorical version of The Twist. She drew the most feverish applause when she introduced a famous 60s cabaret-rock hit. “The Barnum and Bailey circus is going out of business, Lipnik explained. “Now there’s a new circus in town. Let’s all drink to the death of a clown!” Without further elaboration, the duo onstage brought out every ounce of creepiness in Dave Davies’ metaphorically-loaded circus narrative. Later, the two brought out far more angst than hope in a relentlessly steady take of Leonard Cohen’s Anthem.

The most bittersweet number of the night was a brand-new, rather elegaic collaboration with David Cale titled A History of Kisses. The most apt for the moment was an insistent minor-key art-rock anthem titled Beast Bird, a familiar bestiary facing an even more familiar peril. An elegantly surreal “torch song to a wild goose,” a disquietingly airy take of Goddess of Imperfection – Lipnik’s theme song for her ongoing Pangea residency – and the allusive eco-disaster parable My Piano (which was a tree in a past life) completed the picture. Lipnik’s weekly Sunday shows in the sonically exquisite back room at this comfortable East Village boite are almost as legendary as her vocal range; the show continues this Sunday, Feb 5 at around 7 PM.

Midway through the show, Lipnik brought up Witchfinder Witch, the brand-new duo collaboration between Dennis Davison, frontman of LA psychedelic rock legends the Jigsaw Seen and folk noir songstress Lorraine Leckie, who were making their Manhattan debut. She delivered a cute singalong about legendary Lower East Side dive Mars Bar; he held the crowd rapt with The Unhappiest Man Under the Sun with Leckie on piano, a song that no doubt spoke for a lot of people in the crowd.

The Indie Classical Crowd Celebrates an Iconic Venue

It wouldn’t be fair to let the month go by without a mention of the Times Arrow festival of 20th and 21st century music, a roughly ten-day celebration of the 250th anniversary of St. Paul’s Chapel downtown at Broadway just south of Vesey Street featuring a diverse cast of the classical and indie classical talent associated with its sister venue Trinity Church. It’s not clear if George Washington ever slept at the chapel. But he was a parishioner there, and if the sermons were boring, that could have happened at some point during his days as President.

The festival’s music was very forward-looking: new settings of Edgar Allen Poe phantasmagoria, the premiere of Laura Schwedinger’s opera Artemisia, about Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi…and the Bach Christmas Oratorio performed in two parts.

While catching every one of the concerts would have been a real marathon, the most enticing and rewarding show featured Sandbox Percussion and pianist Erika Dohi, backing soprano Elspeth Davis in a mesmerizingly psychedelic, often utterly chilling performance of George Crumb’s American Songbook. Crumb’s reinvention of old Appalachian folk tunes began with one of the percussionists furiously cranking what looked like a giant music box cylinder to create a whistling wind effect early in the sepulchrally spacious interpretation of Poor Wayfaring Stranger. Dohi’s similarly ghostly, starlit restraint in Crumb’s creepy recasting of the lullaby All the Pretty Little Horses was just as impactful. As the suite went on, gongs were employed and a dusky, doomed ambience prevailed. Dohi is tackling a much more physically taxing piece, a Luciano Berio Sequenza this afternoon, Jan 29 at 3 PM at Spectrum on an eclectic solo piano triplebill. Joseph Liccardo plays Bach; Lisa Moore plays Martin Bresnick; cover is $15

It was fun to kick off the new year at one of the festival’s first installments, watching Chris Reynolds circle around a thornily and vividly, perplexingly repetitive Caroline Shaw solo piano number. Finally, finally, there came a point where there was a big, almost chaotic breakthrough, all the more potent for the meticulousness he had brought to the piece up to that point. And it was just as rewarding, midway through the festival, to witness soprano Sarah Brailey and pianist Lynn Baker negotiate the stylistic shifts and emotional dynamics of art-songs by Schoenberg, Kurt Weill and Charles Ives, a lustrously uneasy version of the iconic The Housatonic At Stockbridge as a centerpiece.

A Latin Music Legend Up Close and Personal at Lincoln Center

Back at the atrium just south of 63rd Tuesday night to hear Ruben Blades think on his feet and entertain an adoring, sold-out crowd with philosophical insights and some hilarious yarns from a career full of surprises. In a one-on-one discussion with NYU professor Carlos Chirinos, the iconic Panamanian-born salsero was in a characteristically expansive mood. Which makes sense, considering that Blades is one of the greatest lyricists and musical storytellers to emerge in the 20th century.

Blades has a sense of irony as sharp as his name (his grandfather was British; it’s pronounced that way). One of the night’s funniest moments was when Blades recalled how, as a teenage law student in Panama City, he got called in to the dean’s office after being spotted crooning at an after-hours spot. Forced to choose between music and school, he chose…drum roll…school! But after the 1968 coup d’etat there, Blades’ mom – a fine singer in her own right and a major musical influence – sent him packing to New York, to help him “stay out of trouble,” as he put it.

There he reconnected with Fania Records honcho Jerry Masucci, who’d heard Blades jamming one night at Panama City’s lone professsional studio and invited him to record at an unspecified future date. The date almost didn’t happen; when it did, Blades revealed with the hint of a sardonic grin, he didn’t consider it a success – neither the album cover nor the tracks on it have stood the test of time, he averred. Then the opening number played over the atrium’s PA, Blades intoning a disclaimer right from the first few bars: “Any resemblance to any persons living or dead is purely coincidental.” As usual, Blades was looking to the future, in this case, to explaining away this gangster tale as a work of fiction so as to sidestep the attentions of the authoritarian regime in power at home.

Blades relished recounting how many influential DJs thought that his monster hit Pedro Navaja was destined for commercial failure. But more than taking pride in how the over-seven-minute song paved the way for longer songs on latin radio – just as Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone had helped transform the AM rock format – Blades recounted how it was arguably the first salsa hit to feature a heroine who kills in self-defense rather than being cast as villain or victim. Blades also couldn’t resist getting a dig or two in at the critics who assailed arranger Luis Ortiz – “who’d only written charts for about two thousand songs,” Blades recalled – for taking Blades’ advice to break the clave and bring down the rhythm in a crucial moment of suspense.

And in the context of 2017, it was something of a shock to hear how relatively freely Blades was given the green light to record his pioneering song cycle Buscando America, which is esssentially an album-length short story. That a large record conglomerate would allow one of their top-selling artists to have any creative control at all, let alone put out a defiantly populist avant garde suite without a hit single was almost as much of a pipe dream in 1984 as it would be now. Again, Blades had the last word over the critics and the naysayers.

Otherwise, Blades momentarily touched on but didn’t go into much detail about his acting – a side gig he fell into, more or less, which snowballed from there. He also didn’t expand on his political work, including his  Panamanian Presidential campaign or his job as Minister of Tourism there, which put his music on ice for six years. What is the future for latin music? Chirinos wanted to know. Bright, and cross-pollinated, was Blades’ answer. He’s got a grand total of six separate albums currently in the works, as well as a theatre piece and another possible run at politics on his home turf. Now well into his sixties, Blades hardly looks the part of an eminence grise: there’s plenty of fight left in him.

This evening was part of a new collaboration between Lincoln Center and the NYU Music and Social Change Lab, launched last year.

Ola Fresca Party For Our Right to Fight

There was a wild party at Lincoln Center this past Friday. It wasn’t a celebration of the events of the day – far from it. This was a defiant salute to immigrants and their vast contributions to American culture, instigated by a second-generation Cuban-American.

Ola Fresca frontman/crooner Jose Conde told the sold-out crowd of dancers who packed the floor at the atrium space that he was going to steer clear of politics this particular night, but by halfway through his band’s electrifying set of oldschool salsa dura, mambos and rumbas, he couldn’t resist sending out a dis in the direction of the Trump property a few blocks to the south. Resounding cheers from the twirling couples who packed the dance floor reaffirmed Hillary Clinton’s landslide margin of victory in this city in last year’s election.

The show started with a slinky, seductive, syncopated conga pulse behind Conde’s come-hither baritone. He explained that he was especially psyched to have a four-man brass section – three trombones and a trumpet – along with piano, bass and a three-man percussion section channeling decades of classic Afro-Cuban beats.

A “tale of temptation,” as he put it, was next. Conde took care to explain the blend of metaphors behind La Mano del Rumbero: the drum head being the drummer’s hand, and vice versa. Looking back toward the golden age Cuban salsa of Tito Puente, it was a launching pad for a long series of sometimes subtle, sometimes triumphantly emphatic cadenzas and turnarounds from the timbalero.

Where the night’s first set was for the lovers – winding up with a bouncy anthem chock full of steamy steam-table metaphors – the second was for the fighters. Conde kicked it off with the soul-infused Bandera, a stark and crushingly relevant immigrants’ cross-border narrative. Likewise, the dynamically shifting Conviviencia spoke to the need for burying the hatchet and building unity, a message that was hardly lost on this multicultural audience. Conde is a master at working the crowd: as the show built toward fever pitch at the end, the vamps got more expansive, the percussion breaks longer and by the end, it was easy to imagine a young Conde doing yoga on the beach in his old Miami hometown (true story), hearing classic Fania-era sounds blasting from a boombox across the sand and thinking to himself, “I can do this too.”

This concert was part of Lincoln Center’s Vaya 63 series (the atrium space is just south of 63rd Street). As impresario Jordana Phokompe reminded, her goal is simple: serving the needs of the community. Without any elaboration, she reminded everyone that New York is about thirty percent latino.

These free dance parties feature both big names from as far back as the 70s as well as more current talent; the next one is Feb 24 at 7:30 PM with the intoxicatingly fun Pedrito Martinez Group. In order to beat the line of hopefuls waiting patiently outside to get in, your best bet is to get to the space at least a half an hour before showtime.

Another Dark Chapter in Morricone Youth’s Marathon Series of Film Scores

Avi Fox-Rosen‘s record of releasing a dozen albums in a dozen months may be safe, but Morricone Youth aren’t far behind. The latest album from New York’s most prolifically cinematic band – in a planned series of fifteen soundtracks to films they’ve played live to over the past five years – is guitarist/bandleader Devon E. Levins’ original score for George Miller’s pioneering, dystopic 1979 post peak oil monster truck epic Mad Max. Like the rest of the series, the record is available on limited edition vinyl, in translucent Coke bottle greeen, and streaming at soundcloud.

The initial release in the series, a mix of the original score and new material composed for George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, explores the darkest corners of 60s psychedelia. The second, for the 1926 silent film The Adventures of Prince Ahmed, is more Morricone-esque, with Middle Eastern and Italian influenes. This new one is a mix of 70s art-rock and early new wave. Which makes sense: when the movie was in production, new wave rock was in its embryonic stages (and Mel Gibson, if he was a rightwing Christian supremacist nutjob then, hadn’t yet become famous for it).

As with much of Morricone Youth’s work, the album is a series of themes and variations. In general, the music is more overtly dark than the film’s exuberantly cynical narrative about vigilantes who can’t quite figure out how to get the max out of their prized but rapidly evaporating stash of petrochemicals. Dan Kessler’s washes of keyboards fuel the brief title theme: its motorik foreshadowing takes centerstage in the second piece, Mad Goose, over the furtive new wave pulse of bassist John Castro and drummer Brian Kantor.

Noir singer Karla Rose – whose forthcoming album of hauntingly lyrical songs is reputedly amazing – contributes distantly ghostly vocals to Clunes Town, a mashup of Del Shannon and Morricone spaghetti western. From there the band segues into Revenge of the MFP, which sounds like the Ex taking on a Richard Strauss theme famously repurposed for outer space.

Fraser Campbell’s balmy sax floats over a starry backdrop throughtout Jessie, a surrealistic love theme. Then Levins puts the rubber to the road with his grittily circling riffage in Nightrider, a careening chase scene. The band channel their main inspiration in the creepy, woozily psychedelic bolero Anarchie Road, followed by Johnny the Boy. a sardonic mashup of early Squeeze and Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, Kantor propelling it with a tumbling leadfoot drive. Castro’s Geezer Butler-like, growling bass pushes Toecutter as it rises from Pink Floyd ominousness toward krautrock. The closing credits roll to the surprisingly upbeat, starlit spacerock of Bad Max. That there are another dozen albums like this in the works is really something to look forward to in what’s been a horror movie of a year so far.

Aurelio and His Brilliant Band Bring a Tropical Dance Party to Lincoln Center

Midway through his full-throttle set Thursday night at Lincoln Center, Aurelio decided to get philosophical.  Addressing a packed house in Spanish, the Garifuna guitarist/singer/bandleader explained that while he was writing the songs on his excellent new album Darandi, he found it imperative to stay in the moment and for the songs to reflect that. At that very second, his phone went off.

The audience howled. It was his brother. Considering the relatively early hour – around half past eight – and that Garifuna parties in his native Honduras start late and go way later, he can be excused for interrupting the show.

Much as what Aurelio plays is fun, upbeat dance music, it’s incredibly sophisticated. What an amazing band this guy has. The most spine-tingling point might have been where midway through a scampering, vampy, vallenato-ish number, he launched into a fiery, frenetic solo, his right hand a blur on his acoustic guitar. Then he raised his headstock in the direction of lead guitarist Tony Penalva and a duel began, the two weaving and bobbing back and forth, both of them completely switching up the rhythm. The second that happened, drummer Angel Suazo hit a big splash on one of his cymbals. But as the exchange went on, it was clear that he didn’t do it for the sake of his bandmates: they didn’t miss a beat. He did that for the dancers.

Who, at the end of the show, took turns leaping onstage and doing their Soul Train thing, moms and kids and pretty much every other age group showing off their moves, some of which were pretty impressive. Otherwise, packed on the floor, they sang along: the Garifuna diaspora seems like a big family. Which is how Aurelio explained the circumstances of having two bass players onstage. Benigno “Junior” Guerrero gave the first couple of numbers a fat low end and then handed his bass over to Alex Ciego, whose spring-loaded swoops and dives and gritty runs up the scale were a clinic in how to spice a song on the low end without wasting notes.

Meanwhile, Penalva twanged and jangled and spiraled through lowlit, reverbtoned psychedelic cumbia lines, starkly electrified Brazilian rainforest folk, some elegant bossa riffage and lots of jaunty licks that echoed both Veracruz son jarocho as well as vintage American C&W. Suazo and conguero Kelvin Martinez switched chairs a couple of times while Guerrero and Andy Ordonez built a bustling tropical atmosphere with their shakers. And Aurelio himself took a turn on the congas, reminding that before he picked up the guitar, he was a standout teenage percussionist.

All that served as a backdrop for Aurelio’s sometimes defiantly relevant, sometimes wistfully nostalgic songs, touching on topics as diverse as global unity, pride in African ancestry and the daily struggles of rugged coastal village life. Considering the events of the day, it made more sense than ever to celebrate the resilience of these people of latino and African descent.

These more-or-less weekly free dance parties at the Lincoln Center atrium space are addictively fun. The next one is tomorrow night, Jan 26 at 7:30 PM with the dusky, jazz-tinged Brazilian jungle sounds of Forro in the Dark.

 

A Soaring Blend of Psychedelic and Powerpop Rarities from the Jigsaw Seen

Since the late 80s, Los Angeles band the Jigsaw Seen have maintained a devoted following as one of the world’s most lyrically clever, playful retro psychedelic and powerpop acts. Frontman Dennis Davison’s songcraft draws on a half-century worth of catchy hooks, singalong choruses, devious and often ferociously literate wordplay and every glistening, sparkly texture ever used in 1960s British rock. Their latest album, streaming at Spotify, is titled For the Discriminating Completist. It’s a B-sides and rarities collection, akin to those great Oasis eps from the 90s. The difference is that the Jigsaw Seen’s full-length albums are as consistently excellent as their obscurities.

This album is also unusual in that it contains not one but four covers. The opening track, The Best Is Yet to Come is reinvented as Cheap Trick stripping It’s All Over Baby Blue to its inner powerpop gem. Like most of the tracks here, the snide 1999 single Celebrity Interview features the current edition of the band, founding member Jonathan Lea’s big, Badfinger-esque guitars on the chorus over the taut rhythm section of bassist Tom Currier and drummer Teddy Freese.

One of the best tracks here is We Women, a a punk anthem in Bollywood disguise that might not be quite as feminist as it seems:

We are your mothers and if you behave
We’ll give you every little thing you crave…
We’ll bend your gender left and right…
We wallow in your misery….
We’re very much like you
Although we can show all that you feel

The BeeGees’ priceless Melody Fair comes across as a Dukes of Stratosphear-style parody, maybe the only song written about stealing riffs – in this case an endless sequence from the Beatles. The version of Baby Elephant Walk is also pretty hilarious, recast as a mashup of Badfinger and Booker T. The version of Arthur Lee’s Luci Baines is a 60s soul ballad via Lou Reed in the same vein as Karla Rose‘s The Living End. Then there’s the wry faux Merseybeat of Jim Is the Devil – a broadside directed at 80s televangelist Jim Bakker – lit up with a tongue-in-cheek neo-baroque exchange of Rickenbacker licks.

The lone new track here, Have a Wonderful Day – an aphoristic apocalypse anthem –  might be the best of the bunch, with a coy piano/mellotron interlude  and a big guitar break straight out of the Tobin Sprout playbook.

When You’re Pretty is the album’s most opaque and subtly biting number, followed by the big, Beatlesque backbeat anthem Whore Kiss. With its pummeling volleys of drums, incendiary chromatics, Indian influences and dynamic shifts, My Name Is Tom is the album’s most psychedelic track. The final cut is the majestically swaying powerpop tune Another Predictable Song,  full of subtle playful guitar and bass japes.

The Jigsaw Seen will be coming back to New York in March; in the meantime, Davison is currently on tour with his brand-new duo project Witchfinder Witch with folk noir songwriter Lorraine Leckie. The final stop is tomorrow night, Jan 25 at 9 PM at Maxwell’s in Hoboken on a killer triplebill. Former Aquanettas frontwoman Debby Schwartz, with her soaring, rapturous voice, blends enigmatic dreampop and psychedelic Britfolk sounds and opens the show at 8. Twisted Blondie cover band the Pretty Babies, fronted by the fearless, funniest woman in rock, Tammy Faye Starlite, headline at 10. Cover is $10.

Art-Rock Bandleader Hilary Downes Releases a Searingly Metaphorical New Solo Album

From the late zeros to the early part of this decade, pianist Hilary Downes was frontwoman for the Snow, who rank with Changing Modes and Botanica as one of the greatest art-rock bands to call this city their home. Since then, Downes has hardly been idle, and she’s finally releasing her similarly brilliant debut as a solo bandleader, Secrets of Birds – streaming at Bandcamp – at Barbes this Saturday night, Jan 28 at 8 PM. Folk noir standout Jessie Kilguss guests on vocals; eclectic A-list accordionist Will Holshouser leads one of his many projects to open the night at 6. After the Barbes show, most of the crowd are heading over to Freddy’s for Robin Aigner‘s Leonard Cohen tribute night.

Downes has a distinctive voice – a crystalline, often swoony yet precise delivery – a laser-like sense for a mot juste and a penchant for grim metaphors and multiple meanings. Meaning, she doesn’t stop at double entendres. The band behind her rises to the occasion to create a lush backdrop for her sometimes elusive, sometimes crushingly direct narrratives.

The opening track is Caldera, an elegant but venomously interconnected series of mythological scenes: “One could predict that the love they felt was equal to the harm they could inflict,” Downes intones, hushed and deadpan. Jeffrey Schaeffer’s waves of cymbals and sardonic swoops from the string section – violinist Karl Meyer and cellist Sara Stalnaker – drive the point home at the end with piercing accuracy.

Downes brings her torchiest nuance to the swing shuffle Deep Well, awash in chilly water metaphors and nocturnal unease:

Would that she could hold the night
Cold and without wind
To hold all of it oh so tight
Until it let her in

Her vocals bring calm and tenderness alongside Mike Cohen’s lingering guitars in contrast with Meyer’s stark violin throughout the optimistic Americana-tinged ballad Hearts Plateau. Then the band picks up the pace with the steamy, bossa-tinged Masters of the Table, a feast of imagery that gives the bandleader a slam-dunk opportunity to flip the script. She’s a master of turning the tables on what you might expect.

Dylan Nowik’s growling, stately lead guitar rises over darkly baroque strings and Cohen’s noir-tinged jangle on The Owl, a majestic and subtly sardonic portrait of a predator. Downes pulls out all the stops in Canon of Proportions, a purposeful, backbeat-driven anthem that’s the key to the album’s bitter central narrative:

Left long shadows in the sand
His arms, wings of a plane
He was Davinci’s man
His soul dwarfed by his frame

Matt Brandau’s boomy bass kicks off the album’s best and most cruelly vivid song, The Gist. It wouldn’t be out of place on Portishead’s Live at Roseland album:

Lady luck, she found her wealth
Took it from her former self
Queen of the sky, queen of the plain
She made herself a nest where birds could lay

The band take their deepest plunge into noir on album’s title track: “Save me from these thoughts, divebomb every part,” Downes laments, yet she’s just as defiant: “I’m not afraid of the darkness in my way.” She ends the album with the death-fixated psychedelic soul ballad The Word and then the waltzing, surprisingly optimistic Rainbow. It’s only January, but we have a real contender for best original album of 2017 here.

A Magical Pauline Oliveros Chorale That Every Musician Should Sing At Least Once

If you think that group improvisation is challenging for an instrumentalist, try doing that as a vocalist – along with about hundred and twenty other singers. Friday afternoon at the Cloisters, WQXR’s Nadia Sirota led a determined ensemble of college kids, tourists and at least one proprietor of a music blog through two performances of Pauline Oliveros’ 1971 improvisational chorale Tuning Meditation, the shorter of which will be broadcast on Sirota’s Meet the Composer.

The intimate sonics and medieval polished marble ambience of the Fuentidueña Chapel there made for a choice of venue that did justice to the composer who fine-tuned the concept of deep listening. Beyond a few gaggles of college-age friends, it didn’t appear that any of the singers knew each other. While it also wasn’t clear what percentage of the participants were trained or had performing experience, many of them, especially the women, turned out to have strong and expressive vocal range. Having been in the audience at what might have been Oliveros’ final New York performance – a lustrously crafted, largely improvisational set in Fort Greene in 2015 where she played accordion alongside members of International Contemporary Ensemble – there’s no question that she would have found this experience validating.

The instructions for the piece – an etude, essentially, designed to build listening and collaborative skills – were very simple, Sirota explained. You take a deep breath – in both senses of the word – then you hit a pitch of your choice (and hopefully maintain it). Your second note matches one sung by one of your choirmates; your third is a pitch that has not been used before. Barely a minute elapsed before the slowly but methodically shifting blend of voices had combined to produce just about every note that a human voice can reach.

The music itself was enveloping, and otherworldly, and often absolutely magical, in both an unselfconscious and very self-conscious way. The latter became a central issue because the singers started out rather tentatively, no one ever reaching for the rafters throughout about twenty-five minutes worth of music. But in the context of this performance, cutting loose and belting wouldn’t have worked.

Which was a challenge, as anyone who’s ever fronted a band, or sung in a choir, or harmonized around a guitar or a piano would realize. It’s one thing to stay on key while you’re projecting; it’s another thing to hold a long tone quietly. But everyone was game, and stayed focused to the point that a rhythmic cycle developed, the echoey mist of notes contracting toward a center and then expanding outward.

What was it like to be part of the choir? It was hard work, not only singing alongside some terrific voices, but matching their pitches and resonances. Ironically, it was more daunting to find a rhythm within the music’s elegant sway than if there had been a steady beat to follow. It was also easy to get hopelessly lost: was that last note supposed to be a new one, or a match for somebody else’s? After awhile, it became hard to keep track. As the improvisation went on, higher pitches began to stand out, as women in the crowd became more expressive – or had run out of lower notes. This resulted in extra sparkle and lustre – and also created the need for balance on the low end.

Which is a biased argument. If you buy the premise that low registers should be utilized whenever feasible – a stereotypical bass player-like point of view – that development opened up plenty of space for extra anchorage in the bass clef. Which is where the opportunity to cheat and go off script proved irresistible. If you manage to catch Sirota’s broadcast and hear a long series of simple, long-tone variations on the E below middle C during the last five minutes or so, let’s hope they’re on key. If not, you know who to blame.

As a participant, what was the takeaway? Oliveros’ etude is everything she meant it to be, a great exercise in listening, and vocal control, and being a good bandmate in general. It’s worth repeating, especially if your own creative music is limited to playing an instrument. Any group of people can do this, anywhere: the glorious natural reverb of an old stone chapel is a luxury option.

While this performance certainly qualified as microtonal, trying to sing microtonally turned out to be anything but easy. An internal autotune kicked in, along with a tendency to resolve to a nearby pitch. Clearly, to paraphrase Wadada Leo Smith, the tyranny of the key of C runs deep. So here’s a variation on Oliveros for the microtonally-challenged:

1. Take a deep breath and exhale the note of your choice.

2. Choose a pitch just a hair lower or higher than your neighbor’s, but not a sharp or a flat in the western scale. It could be a halftone, or a quartertone, or something more shady. And hold it!

3. Take that note you just sang and sharp it. 

4. Repeat steps 1-3!