New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Organ Adventurer Gail Archer Rescues Rare Ukrainian Works From Obscurity

Organist Gail Archer is the first American woman to perform the complete Messiaen cycle. Witnessing her play some of the best of it on the mighty Kilgen organ at St. Patrick’s Cathedral back in 2008 was a visceral thrill. But Archer’s passion seems to be rescuing the work of obscure composers. In the ensuing years, she turned her attention to American composers, then to little-known Russian works. Her latest album, Chernivtsi, A Recording of Contemporary Ukrainian Organ Music – streaming at Spotify – celebrates an even lesser-known part of the repertoire.

While just about every Western European city is filled with pipe organs, the instrument is much harder to find in Russia and even more so in Ukraine. But Archer went to the well and came up with a fascinating playlist of mostly short works, the majority by contemporary composers. Interestingly, she had to go outside the Russian Orthodox tradition for the organ she performs on here, a Riegger-Kloss model in the Armenian Catholic Church in Chernivtsi with particularly strong, French midrange colors.

The first piece is Bohdan Kotyuk’s Fanfare: Archer plays this decidedly ambiguous piece with steadiness but also restraint, rather than trying to make it a fullscale celebration, which it definitely is not. The second Kotyuk work here is Benedictus: Song of Zachariah. It’s an interesting piece of music, beginning as a similarly enigmatic fanfare and warming to a chuffing rondo requiring precision as pointillistic as it can possibly get on this instrument: Archer rises to the challenge.

Tadeusz Machl’s Piece in Five Movements begins with a rhythmically dissociative introduction with prominent pedal work, grows steadier with a more airy, meditative midrange passage and then morphs into a pavane. Archer follows the brief, robust processional third part with more of a defiantly unresolved fugue, with some lusciously austere tremolo. She wraps it up with a brief, emphatic chorale and some well thought-out echo effects: this obviouly isn’t just a piano piece shifted to the organ, as one might expect coming from this part of the world.

The Fantasia, by Viktor Goncharenko echoes the off-kilter rhythms of the album’s opening piece, but with many more stops out, at least until a rather desolate passage and then a coolly insistent conclusion. Mykola Kolessa, who died in 2006 at age 103, is represented by an allusively chromatic, waltzing, artfully crescendoing and often outright suspenseful Passacaglia: what a discovery!

Svitlana Ostrova’s Chacona makes a good segue, a blend of swirling old-world grace and modern austerity. Archer closes with Iwan Kryschanowskij’s hauntingly symphonic Fantasie, its variations on stairstepping riffage and a long build to macabre resonance. Although the music calms, the theme continues to circle around a foreboding center until an anthemic variation on the introduction. At last, Archer takes those steps all the way down into the abyss, only to rise to a guarded triumph.

Until the lockdown, Archer maintained a busy schedule not only as a performer but also as an impresario. And she’s taking the brave step of scheduling an album release concert for this record at St. John Nepomucene Church, 411 E 66th St. at 1st Ave. on Sept 19 at 3 PM; admission is free.

Trippy, Free Neosoul on the Northern Plains Next Weekend

There’s another intriguing free outdoor concert next weekend at 4 PM on Sept 20 at Terrace Park, 1100 W 4th St in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where neosoul singer and hip-hop artist Arlinda Peacock plays a duo set with keyboardist Gus Martins. Her most recent album is the Peacock Cassette, which came out in 2016 and is still available at Bandcamp as a name-your-price download. It’s sort of Janelle Monae before Janelle Monae got really popular, with simple, swoopy layers of keys and a beatbox. Peacock has an expressive voice and doesn’t waste notes: you won’t hear any over-the-top American Idol bullshit in her songs.

Peacock opens the record (or the cassette, if you want to to call it that) with a loopy, twinkly, mostly instrumental trip-hop intro. The first song is Eff Annie, a Little Orphan Annie parable. Rapper Bob Rawss takes the bridge, with insights into how people who haven’t had positive influences growing up figure out how to make sense of the world.

”There was once a beginning, that we all decided to destroy,” Peacock announces as  Chosen Unchosen gets underway  It’s a simple, telling commentary on equality and how to create it. “We call them people these days,” she explains dryly.

Pony Boi is a trippy, spare number with a catchy piano hook and jazzy synthesized brass. “Don’t ever let me catch you looking down again,” Peacock sings in Bravery, a chiming, upbeat trip-hop anthem.

The album’s swooshiest and most psychedelic track is Attitude Rewind: it could be a Missy Elliiott tune from the late 90s. Peacock keeps the surreal, cinematic ambience going with the most ominous cut here, Justice.

Konstantly is even scarier, when you consider that Peacock’s character is talking to her dead mom. The last of the songs is the epically mysterious Timmy on the Run, set to a dark, classically-influenced, vintage RZA suspense/action film style backdrop. Peacock brings the album full circle at the end.

If you’re wondering why a New York music blog would be paying this much attention to such a faraway state as South Dakota, be aware that it’s one of the few places in the nation where it’s still legal for crowds to gather to see live music. Here in New York, the State Liquor Authority recently ordered restaurants and bars not to charge a cover or sell tickets to performances, and to keep musicians twelve feet or more from the customers. Presumably this bureaucratic overrreach extends to places that do not serve alcohol as well. Whoever thought we’d live to see the day when South Dakota would be kicking New York’s ass 24/7 as far as support for the arts is concerned.