New York Music Daily

Love's the Only Engine of Survival

The Momenta Quartet’s Marathon Week Just Won’t Stop

If you’re regretting that you missed the Momenta Quartet’s marathon four-day festival that wound up last night, wait – there’s more! The indomitable string quartet are playing an all-Ursula Mamlok program to accompany Miro Magloire’s New Chamber Ballet performing Stray Bird, a tribute to the pioneering 20th century composer, tonight, Oct 5 and tomorrow night, Oct 6 at 7 PM. It’s happening at the German Academy New York, 1014 5th Ave. (between 82nd & 83rd Sts), and it’s free; an rsvp would be a good idea.

This year’s third annual Momenta Festival started on Sunday night at a classy Lower East Side black-box theatre and wound up in a dingy old church on the Upper West. Consider: doesn’t that mirror the career trajectory of how many thousand acts to play this city? Seriously, though, last night’s program might have been the most electrifying of all four nights (this blog was AWOL for the first one).

If you’re new to this page, each member of the quartet programs a night of music for the festival. The finale fell to violinist Alex Shiozaki to sort out, and he packed it with three acerbic, often chilling microtonal works and a favorite from the early third-stream canon. The theme (these are all theme nights) was the creation of the world, but destruction also played a part, to the point of being the night’s riveting centerpiece and arguable high point of the entire festival. 

The quartet celebrated the work of Danish composer Per Norgard last year; this performance revisited that otherworldly intensity, with a dynamic, white-knuckle version of his World War I-themed String Quartet No. 8. Awash in microtones, halftones and pretty much anything but the western scale, it’s a showstopper, and the group negotiated its barbwire thicket of harmonics, glissandos, eerie oscillations and brooding, sometimes macabre tonalities with a matter-of-factness that made it look easy.

Cellist Michael Haas’ coolly precise pizzicato contrasted with starkness, violist Stephanie Griffin echoing that dynamic while first violinist Emilie-Anne Gendron sailed and dove alongside Shiozaki through the similarly edgy leaps and steady pulse of another microtonal work, Hiroya Miura’s Singularity. Then to open the second half, Shiozaki played Joao Pedro Oliviera’s similar Magma, interspersed with electronics (mostly echo and reverb effects) that didn’t get in the way but were ultimately pretty superfluous. In fact, leaving Shiozaki alone with its big cadenzas punctuated by plenty of space would have ramped up the suspense. It was akin to a Berio Sequenza distilled to its basic hooks.

Joined by Shiozaki’s wife, pianist Nana Shi, the group closed with a jaunty take of Darius Milhaud’s La Creation du Monde, a counterpart to Gershwin with its juxtaposition of late Romantic and ragtime tunesmithing. Milhaud mentored Dave Brubeck, so it was no wonder this brought to mind the jazz piano titan’s later, larger-ensemble works. There’s a sudden point about three quarters of the way through where the strings all of a sudden go off the rails together into a whirl of trouble, and the group didn’t miss a beat. In its own way, that strange and rather assaultive interlude was as radical and defiantly thrilling as anything else on the bill.

Artsy Afrobeat-Inflected Tunesmithing and a City Winery Show from Jenn Wasner

Jenn Wasner is an anomaly in the indie rock world: a fluent, imaginative guitarist who uses just about every sound available to her and writes smart, pensive, lyrical songs. She’s bringing her band Wye Oak to a rare Manhattan gig tomorrow night, Oct 6 at City Winery. If you can get to Manhattan, you can also get home afterward since the show is early – 8 PM – and you won’t have to worry about the train leaving you at some random outpost in the remote fringes of Bushwick. And you can get in for twenty bucks at the door.

Wasner also has an intriguing side project, Flock of Dimes, whose debut album is streaming at Bandcamp. The songs blend icy, crisply produced ABC-style 80s art-pop with a stainless-topped, airconditioned 90s lounge feel over Afrobeat-inflected rhythms. Wasner likes dancing vocal melodies and tricky tempos which percolate throughout pretty much every song here.

Wasner’s lingering guitar resonates over a soukous-ish triplet beat on the opening track, Birthplace; “My love is not an object,” she asserts, then dancing, synthesized strings kick in. The Joke is a powerpop gem as the Talking Heads might have played it, with blippy synth and surrealistically echoing faux-Leslie speaker guitars: the steel solo that the song fades out on is anunexpected treat and over too soon.

Everything Is Happening Today pairs atmospheric verse against kinetic, metrically tricky chorus.  Likewise, Semaphore shifts from uneasy resonance to subtly crescendoing dancefloor-beat angst on the chorus, “Too far gone for a sempahore.”

The danciest and techiest track is Ida Glow. which could be Missing Persons or Garbage without the sexpot pose. Wasner goes back toward Remain in Light-era Talking Heads with Flight, an allusive, lushly textured account of betrayal.

With its watery layers of chorus-box guitar and similarly disembodied vocals, Apparition could be late-period Siouxsie without the microtones…and then it goes in the direction of the Fixx or Tears for Fears. Spiraling, Spanish-tinged guitars punctuate the gorgeous Given/Electric Life, which could be Linda Draper with slicker production: “I’m not in the ways of counting days, distract myself,” Wasner insists.

“We seem to be awake, but we are dreaming,” shse intones enigmatically at the end of Minor Justice, a return to icy, blippy Afrobeat-pop. “I couldn’t free you, I couldn’t free myself,” she laments in You, the Vatican – #bestsongtitleever, huh? The album ends with,…To Have No Answer, which sounds like Bjork at her trippiest and most atmospheric. Throughout the album, Wasner plays all the guitars and keys as well: she obviously put a lot of time and effort into this. It’s like an artichoke, one layer after another to unfold. If the album had come out thirty years ago, every graying Gen-Xer would still have the cd somewhere – and that’s a compliment.

Joan Soriano Brings a Classic, Classy Dominican Bachata Party to Lincoln Center

This past evening was a slinky feast of chiming, shimmering guitar overtones and dance beats that ran the gamut of music from the Caribbean and beyond. Lincoln Center’s Jordana Leigh described her mission as bringing “The height of quality art”  to the series of free shows at the atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd, and she wasn’t kidding. Dominican bachata star Joan Soriano is such an interesting, incisive guitarist that it was hard to sit and chill with a beer instead of joining the twirling circles of dancers out on the floor.

Are Soriano’s fans all snappy dressers? From the looks of this crowd, guys done out in ties and white shirts, women in red or blue dresses, they could school pretty much any posse of dancers in this city, fashion-wise.

The star of the documentary El Duque De la Bachata fronts a first-rate band with rhythm guitar, guiro, punchy six-string bass and a nimble bongo player who also delivered a subtly boomy dancefloor thud (hard to imagine, but just try) on double-headed tambora. As they brought the guitar up in the mix to open the show, it sounded as if the rhythm player was using an accordion pedal, his playing was that crisp and resonant. Soriano was even faster on his big acoustic-electric, opening with a cheery two-chord vamp. Finally we got some of the deliciously sliding bass that got so popular in bachata twenty years ago

Soriano’s songs tackle the battle of the sexes: there were come-ons, and boudoir vamps, and lots of laments. They did a four-chord doo-wop vamp with a big sputtering crescendo early on, then a slinky, jazzily pensive bolero-tinged ballad that built to an impassioned peak where Soriano kept it going with his spiky broken chords as the rhythm shifted toward classic Afro-Cuban salsa.

They opened the next one with a Bollywood riff and this is where the night really started to cook: some sweet rat-a-tat from the bongos on the turnaround, bittersweet minor-key changes to mirror the angst of the lyrics.

He took a familiar oldschool soul riff and tremolo-picked furiously like Dick Dale. The songs weren’t all just two-chord vamps, either, unexpected minor changes leaping in all over the place. The rhythm player took over lead vocals on the night’s most angst-fueled, biting number, the crowd singing the chorus back at the stage. Later Soriano gave his moodiest, most subtly compelling vocal to a catchy but downcast number that was basically classic Jamaican rocksteady with a bachata beat. 

When so much of bachata has been polluted by cheesy, formulaic Disney autotune radio pop, Soriano is a breath of fresh air straight off the Caribbean. Or, as the show built steam, more like a friendly hurricane. The next show at the atrium is this Oct 19 at 7:30 PM with hypnotic, kinetic female-fronted Mexican downtempo-trip-hop/folk-pop band Ampersan as part of Celebrate Mexico Now month. If there ever was a time to celebrate Spanish-language music, or Mexico, or the Dominican Republic, that time is now.

Clint Mansell’s Loving Vincent Soundtrack: A Darkly Familiar Masterpiece

Is the soundtrack to a film which deals with madness Halloweenish enough for you? If so, check out Clint Mansell’s score for Loving Vincent, streaming at Spotify. Mansell has a long resume writing eclectic and frequently brooding music for all sorts of films, but it’s horror that he really excels at. This isn’t a horror film per se, but it is relentlessly dark, and Mansell runs with that all the way to an ending  we can all see coming a mile away. Or can we?

The opening theme has a bell-like pulse, played on the piano: does this relate to the epilepsy that plagued Vincent Van Gogh his whole life? Possibly. Mansell is unsurpassed at building variations on simple, uneasy riffs, and this is a classic example: where guitar comes in the first time around, the second time the whole orchestra delivers that insistent melody, then goes all dark and lush.

The opaquely atmospheric Eternity’s Gate more than hints at a very familiar, doomed narrative. The strings pick up, alluding to what sounds like a windswept British folk melody, then we get to hear Marguerite Gachet At the Piano, stately and austere. The wonderfully titled Still Life with Absinthe sounds like that for maybe half a minute before that persistent central theme returns and by now, it’s obvious it’s never going away.

A somber, slow piano-and-strings mood piece continues the foreshadowing. Five Flowers in a Vase. Like several of the segments here, this mirrors a famous Van Gogh tableau and allows the gloom to rise a bit amidst a haze of strings, but the clouds never quite clear. Next we get Wheatfield With Crows, with its shivery violins, lustrous long tones and darkly ambient washes that finally, nine tracks into the score, break through into a scream.

Thatched Roof in Chaponval is more calmly atmospheric but equally dark. Mansell artfully takes the title theme halfspeed in Blossoming Chestnut Trees and turns it inside out for a bit…until the grim low-midrange piano melody returns. Likewise, strings sweep through The Sower with Setting Sun, but again, the echoey gloom never lets up.

Mansell sidesteps the challenge of evoking Starry Night Over the Rhone with a brief, majestic orchestral crescendo; the album ends with Lianne La Havas singing a tenderly evocative, low-key chamber-pop cover of the famous Don McLean hit that far surpasses the well-intentioned but weepy original, until she tries to get all faux-gospel at the end. There are better ways to get inspired than watching American Idol before you go into the studio for a vocal take.