New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Thrills and Chills From Major Contemporary Composers at the Miller Theatre

If you could see the world premiere of a major new John Zorn suite for free, would you make the shlep up to 116th St.? A whole lot of people did that last week to watch pianist Steven Gosling navigate the thorny harmonies, Messiaenic poignancy and vast dynamic expanse of the composer’s 18 Studies from the Later Sketchbooks of JMW Turner.

For obvious reasons, Turner’s sketches aren’t exhibited frequently since they rarely if ever hint at the epic proportions of his oil paintings. Zorn’s suite matched the raw, translucent essence of those works while occasionally reaching for epic grandeur as well. There were innumerable moments where it gave Gosling a real workout, yet its central themes were strikingly straightforward:.

An enigmatically clustering lefthand motif and variations, plaintive belltones that strongly evoked Messiaen and Mompou, and grittily intricate caterpillar-tractor interweave contrasted with moments of pure freakout. It wasn’t clear whether that was simply Gosling blooping and blipping on his own, or whether Zorn had actually bothered to write all that down.

Considering how rigorous and sometimes abrasive Zorn’s work is, he doesn’t get enough credit for his sense of humor, and this piece had some devastatingly funny moments. The first was a simple, repetitive chord with a descending and then rising bass, a cliche that’s been used ad nauseum over the years by singer-songwriters and emos. Zorn employed it as a stepping-off point for some increasingly sardonic riffage. The second was a surreal, hammering, chattering series of close harmonies, a crowd of twistoids who wouldn’t shut up and grew increasingly sinister.

Those moments weren’t even the most difficult ones. Gosling faced the greatest challenges of the evening with Zorn’s long sequence of righthand suspended chords where the inner notes shifted around like a three-card monte dealer on meth, and managed to pull them off with stunningly clear articulation. The incessant stylistic shifts, between quasi Second Viennese School acidity, moodily opaque minimalism and crazed, hyperactive kitten-on-the-keys moments weren’t easy to shift between either, but Gosling made it all seem contiguous, no easy feat.

The Miller Theatre has long been one of Manhattan’s focal points for some of the most interesting and invigorating developments in new music. Director Melissa Smey, who described herself this particular night as the “president of the John Zorn fan club,” was hip to both Missy Mazzoli and Anna Thorvaldsdottir before they were all the rage, but she also brings in plenty of longstanding pillars of the avant garde for her ongoing “composer portrait” series. The next one, on Sept 25 at 8 PM features Anthony Braxton music played by the Jack Quartet and indie classical chamber group Either/Or. You can get in for $20, at least as of today.

Mystical, Dynamic Rainy-Day Korean Sonic Exploration with Kim So Ra at Lincoln Center

Last night Lincoln Center partnered with the Korean Cultural Center to bring janggu drummer and innovator Kim So Ra and her band to make their debut here. She’s one of the great innovators in Korean sounds, having founded the country’s first all-female traditional percussion ensemble, Norikkot, as well as cinematic art-rock instrumentalists nuMori. She was clearly psyched to be at “One of the finest musical theatres in the world,” as she put it. “Cool! I brought some rain from Korea for this perfect day,” she grinned, alluding to the stormy, watery themes on her latest album A Sign of Rain. The result was as psychedelic a storm as you can possibly imagine.

There’s a tradition in janggu drumming that’s feral and shamanic, but the duo of Kim and fellow percussionist Hyun Seung Hun,opened the night with otherworldly, mysical ambience, blending delicate gongs and a singing bowl punctuated by spare, resonant beats and rainlike washes. Then the bandleader kicked into a brisk, syncopated 10/8 beat that was no less hypnotic for being a lot louder.

The two made disorientingly clipped variations out of a distantly majestic processional before really picking up with a staggered gallop. Piri player Lee Hye Joong blew white noise and then increasingly animated, quavering calls through her little wooden oboe over a steady janggu riff; gayageum player Lim Ji Hye joining quietly underneath.

The irresistibly warptoned gayageum (a fretless zither that sounds like a low-register hybrid of the Egyptian oud and the Indian surbahar, minus the reverberating strings) took centerstage, ripping and leaping over percussive flurries, long, surprisingly low, sax-like sutained lines from the piri and an eventual return to a stately, swaying rhythm. Meanwhile, deep-space photography drifted across the screen behind the stage. Somebody give this band a residency at the Hayden Planetarium: they’d pack the place!

A janggu solo meant to depict a heartbeat came across as a pretty strenuous expedition, drama giving way to a hypnotic groove and back, with some serious sprinting involved as well. Then the two percussionists brought the thunder and eventually some dancefloor thud, entreating the crowd for some boisterous call-and-response. The full quartet closed with a mighty, swaying theme punctuated by wailing piri and spiky, rippling volleys of upper-register gayageum, and encored with an even more turbulent piece.

The next concert at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St is tomorrow night at 7:30 PM with latin jazz drummer and bandleader Bobby Sanabria leading a mighty 21-piece unit paying tribute to the great Palladium-era salsa bands. Get there early if you’re going: it’s going to be a dance party.