New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: 21st century music

Playful, Entertaining Solo Cello Improvisation and an Album Release Show in Queens by Daniel Levin

There are plenty of cellists who can jam, but Daniel Levin is as fearless and sometimes devastatingly intense as an improviser can get. He has an irresistibly fun new  album of solo improvisation, Living, streaming at Bandcamp and an album release show coming up this Saturday night, Oct 28 on a killer twinbill with guitarmeister Brandon Seabrook‘s pummeling two-drum Die Trommel Fatale at Holo, 1090 Wyckoff Ave. in Ridgewood. The show starts at 8, the club’s web page is dead and nobody is saying publicly who’s playing when, but it doesn’t really matter. Seabrook and Levin cap it off with what could be a seriously volcanic duo set. Cover is $10; take the L to Halsey St.

The album’ first track, Assemblage, is a lot of fun.  Shivers, pops, a monkey barking, a motorcycle revving, a tree being felled with a saw and a wolf whistle or two finally lead to steps to a door.

Generator is full of squiggles, furtive squirreliness. a few microtonal variations that bounce off a low pedal note and a droll interlude that could be breakfast in a coffee shop.

Baksy-buku goes from whispers to screams, then back, with an animated one-sided conversation. Levin can mimic pretty much everything on his four strings without any electronic effects.

The Dragon, an eleven-minute, amusingly detailed epic, focuses on what could be the prep work for fire-breathing devastation. These tracks are all close-miked with plenty of reverb, so every flick of the bow or tap of the fingers on the body of the cello is picked up. Levin uses this trope everywhere, especially in Symbiotic, which rises toward the kind of frenetic sawing he’s capable of generating before the piece fades to spacious warps and blips.

The album winds up with the whispery, rustling Mountain of Butterflies. Levin’s relentless dedication to evincing unexpected sounds out of his axe ought to be heard beyond the audience of cellists and bass players trying to figure out how he does it. And it makes a good soundtrack for a haunted house.

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Pensively Entertaining Cinematic Soundscapes From the Mexican Avant Garde

This year’s Celebrate Mexico Now festival wound up yesterday at the Queens Museum with the multimedia performance of Paisajes Sonoros, a deliciously textural, boisterously entertaining, relentlessly catchy electroacoustic score to powerfully metaphorical projections by Vanessa Garcia Lembo, performed by violinist/keyboardist Carlo Nicolau and percussionist Vicente Rojo Cama.

The projections pondered humankind’s dubious impact on nature, and its many ramifications. One recurrent, provocative image was fingerprints or zoning diagrams superimposed on imposingly out-of-focus images of a massive, grey Mayan temple. Another persistent image was a twisted, bright crimson heart. The funniest sequence of all  was when the percussionist crinkled a couple of empty plastic water bottles together, running them through heavy-duty reverb while an old, faded black-and-white turn-of-the-century German postcard of bathers at Coney Island faded into and then out of the picture: look what I found in the waves, ma!

Another amusing interlude involved an old 1950s beatnik avant garde trope: rubbing two balloons together. Put enough reverb on them, and suddenly the squeak and squonk take on an unanticipated menace. Symbolism anyone?

The rest of the program’s twelve pieces, segueing into each other, were more pensive and often downright troubled. A handful turned out to be intimate arrangements of orchestral pieces from Nicolau’s recent album Music For the Moving Imagination. One of the more animated themes was a Romany-flavored violin melody and variations, which could have been Schubert. When Nicolau wasn’t playing that on the violin, he was layering shadowy ambience and white noise, bubbling through an uneasy microtonal patch on the keyboard. In more concretely melodic moments, he built lingering, austerely moody piano themes. Meanwhile, the percussion echoed and whooshed in and out, other times evoking steel pans or a gamelan via an array of singing bowls and small gongs spun through a vortex of effects.

The video aspect was often similarly grim. Something that could have been a mossy rock but also some kind of dead cetacean washed up on a beach; gritty industrial decay contrasting with serene, ornate doorways and architectural ornaments from bygone centuries. Yet ultimately both the music and visuals reflected a resolute optimism, hope residing in the handmade and the artistic rather than the machine. At the end, the musicians dedicated the suite to the survivors of the Mexico City earthquake, and also to the hope that cross-cultural collaboration will trump conflict. It made a vivid reminder that long before the days of Frida Kahlo or Luis Buñuel, Mexican artists have been a force in the avant garde.

Starkly Beautiful, Weird Americana and New Classical Sounds in Williamsburg Last Night

Last night at the beautifully renovated San Damiano Mission in Williamsburg, Anna & Elizabeth joined their distinctive voices in a very colorful patchwork quilt of songs from across the centuries. Cleek Schrey, a connoisseur of little-known vintage fiddle tunes, played lilting solo pieces in odd tempos when he wasn’t sitting at the organ or the piano. Timo Andres unveiled a hypnotic new solo piano diptych awash in both Glassine echo effects and mystical Messiaenic close harmonies. And at the end, Anna Roberts-Gevalt led a packed house in a haunting, rapturously rising and falling singalong of the blues-infused African-American Virginia spiritual, Oh Lord Don’t Let Me Die in the Storm.

It was a night of envelopingly beautiful, weird Americana. On the surface, pairing oldtime folk tunes and some pre-Americana with indie classical could have opened a Pandora’s box of ridiculous segues. That this bill actually worked testifies to how much outside-the-box creativity went into it. Part of the explanation is simply how some things eventually get so old that they become new again. There’s a lot of centuries-old music that sounds absolutely avant garde, and there was some of that on this bill. For example, while there was no obvious cross-pollination between the subtly shifting cells of Andres’ piano piece and the cleverly rhythmic permutations of Schrey’s solo numbers, it was a reminder how musicians from every time period use a lot of the same devices.

There were also a handful of country gospel and Appalachian folik tunes on the bill. You could have heard a pin drop when Elizabeth LaPrelle reached for the rafters with her signature plaintive, rustic, high-midrange-lonesome wail in a solo a-cappella number. Standing in between the front pews, Roberts-Gevalt clog-danced a swinging beat and sang in perfect time, accompanied by Schrey and viola da gamba player Liam Byrne, who anchored much of the night’s material with a low, ambered, lushly bowed resonance.

Joined by a guest baritone singer, Anna & Elizabeth sang a fetchingly waltzing take of the hymn I Hear a Voice Calling. The night began with a hypnotic take of what sounded like an old Virginia reel played solo on bagpipe, a gentle reminder for the faithful to take their seats. And Anna & Elizabeth brought crankies! Each singer slowly cranked a big wooden box to unscroll a colorfully detailed portrait of the events in the other’s song. LaPrelle delivered a long, extremely detailed, ultimately pretty grim 18th century account of a shipwreck, and Roberts-Gevalt intoned a hazy nocturnal Nova Scotia lament that morphed into droning spectral string music. Anna & Elizabeth are off on European tour momentarily: lucky Lithuanians can catch them at the Keistuoliy Theatre in Vilnius on Oct 21 at 7:30 PM.

Revisiting One of the Most Haunting String Quartets of Recent Years

One of the most sepulchral and chilling albums of recent years is the Blair String Quartet’s 2014 recording of Michael Hersch’s Images From a Closed Ward. Hersch takes his inspiration from Michael Mazur’s 1960s series of etchings of grimacing, contorted, sometimes catatonic patients in a Rhode Island mental institution, lost in perpetuity in their own worlds. In a particularly tragic footnote, just when Hersch had finished his own sketches for this work and reached out to his old artist pal, Mazur died. So there’s a doubly elegaic quality to this music.

It’s very slow and ghostly in the purest sense of the word. Stark sheets shift and then evoke sudden and persistent horror, grounded by Felix Wang’s cello – Shostakovich’s macabre String Quartet No. 7 is a persistent reference point. A gentle, graceful dance brings a moment of nostalgia, only to fade mournfully toward black, awash in eerie close harmonies.

Moments where individual voices – Christian Teal and Cornelia Heard’s violins and John Kochanowski’s viola – enter or pair off outnumber passages where the whole quartet is in slow, ineluctably grim motion. Microtonal fragments flicker and then disappear just as suddenly. But when the quartet are going full steam, particularly through a surreal, phantasmagorical, cruelly ironic march before the final clouds descend, the effect is hair-raising.  That sense is amplified by Mazur’s drawings, several of them included in the cd booklet.

Innova Records still has this available, and it’s up at Spotify.

A Brooding, Resonant Subterranean Soundscape for Halloween Month

Today’s installment for Halloween month is Philip Blackburn’s album Music of Shadows – streaming at Spotify – which was written to be played in the St. Paul, Minnesota sewer system. Innova Records put out this bleak, tectonically and ineluctably shifting triptych in 2014, and it may be the high point of the composer’s career so far.

Blackburn is sort of the shadow image of Brian Eno – his enveloping, often darkly majestic electroacoustic soundscapes tend to whoosh and resonate in the lows, sometimes with provocative samples. His recent works have addressed the struggles of Vietnamese refugees and have lampooned right-wing bigotry. This one is more of a relentless mood piece. Even the mathrock-y bubbles as the second movement opens give way to a coldly echoing, oscillating resonance.

About five minutes into the icy lead-pipe ambience of the opening movement, there are doors slamming and children playing, but the effect evokes a prison vastly more than it does a playground. And the disembodied choir fading in and out eventually blend with the rest of the ghosts.

And for anyone living in an urban area, the album has value to match its gloomy, entrancing artistic merits. Your neighbors might bang on the ceiling if you crank a loud rock record in the middle of the night to drown out the crackhead or the creeps down the hall, but if you blast this, nobody can really complain – and if you’re tired enough, it will eventually lull you back to sleep.  After all, nobody can tell you that you can’t vacuum your floor at four in the morning, can they? That movie you were just blasting? What movie, wink wink! Any nightmares you might have are incidental. Or are they?

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.

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.

This Year’s Momenta Festival, Installment Three: Fun Night!

Even by the rigorous standards of the string quartet world, the Momenta Quartet have to assimilate an enormous amount of material for their annual Manhattan festival. Never mind the kind of stylistic leaps and bounds that would drive most other groups to distraction. This year’s festivities conclude tonight with a free concert at 7 at West Park Church at 86th and Amsterdam put together by violinist Alex Shiozaki. The centerpiece is Per Norgard’s mesmerizingly dark String Quartet No. 8, and reportedly there will be free beer. But the music will be better than the beer. What’s better than free beer? Now you know.

Each member of this irrepressible quartet programs a single festival evening. Violinist Emilie-Anne Gendron was in charge of night one, which was reputedly challenging and entertaining – this blog wasn’t there. Night two, assembled by violist Stephanie Griffin, was harrowingly intense and had enormous political relevance. Last night’s bill at Columbia’s Italian Academy auditorium, devised by celist Michael Haas, was the fun night – although the fun promises to continue tonight as well.

Last night’s theme was a tourists-eye view of Italy. Haas took that idea from the evening’s one world premiere, Claude Baker’s absolutely delightful Years of Pilgrimage: Italy. Baker found his inspiration in Italian-themed works by Liszt, Berlioz and Tschaikovsky, and there were jarring episodes interpolating snippets of some of those themes throughout an otherwise distinctively 21st century work. It wasn’t the easiest, segue-wise, but it was riotously funny. Otherwise, the piece didn’t seem to have much to do with Italy, from austere, minimalist insistence, to all sorts of allusive, enigmatic ripples and rises, a daunting and uneasily captivating microtonal interlude, and plenty of tongue-in-cheek glissandos and other only slightly less ostentatious uses of extended technique. The group had a great time with it: every string quartet ought to play it.

The party ended on a high note with Tschaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence, the quartet bolstered by their former teachers Samuel Rhodes and Marcy Rosen on second viola and cello, respectively. It was an unabashedly joyous, conversational performance: to the extent that this music can swing, the group swung it, through beery, punchy Beethovenesque riffage bookended by familiar Russian gloom.

It was as if Tschaikovsky was reassuring himself that it was ok to cut loose and have some fun. And did he ever. That buffoonish brass fanfare midway through, transposed for strings – whose doublestops and rat-a-tat phrasing are brutally tough to play, by the way? Check. That ridiculous faux-tarantella at the end? Doublecheck. Otherwise, the group reveled in nifty exchanges of voices as the mood shifted back and forth.

They’d opened with Britten’s String Quartet No. 3, which was more of a vehicle for individual members’ technical skill than anything else. Gendron spun silky filigrees while Haas and Shiozaki  provided elegant, precisely pulsing pizzicato alongside Griffin’s plaintive resonance. But ultimately, the piece – a late work based on Britten’s 1973 opera Death in Venice – didn’t really go anywhere. Obviously, the group can’t be faulted for the composer electing for a “this is what I look like when I’m sad” pose over genuine empathy. That the opera is based on the Thomas Mann novel explains a lot.

A Stunning, Harrowing, Relevant Night at This Year’s Momenta Festival

Who says music for string quartet isn’t as relevant in the here and now as, say, hip-hop? Who says classically trained professional musicians can’t improvise with the best of them? Could there be a better concert for Halloween month than a program of works written in opposition to tyrants?

Yesterday evening’s second installment of this year’s Momenta Festival at the Americas Society answered those questions decisively.

The Momenta Quartet stages this annual festival at venues across New York. Over the past three years it’s come to be one of the most amazingly eclectic, never mind herculean feats attempted by any chamber ensemble in this city. Each group member comes up with an individual program. Night one, assembled by violinist Emilie-Anne Gendron, featured a theremin and playful projections to go along with the music – this blog was absent. Last night’s program, put together by violist Stephanie Griffin, was a harrowing, fearlessly political mix of works by Schoenberg, Alvin Singleton, Agustin Fernandez, and one made up on the spot. Tonight’s installment, with works by  Britten, Tschaikovsky and Claude Baker, follows an Italian theme which dovetails with the venue: the Italian Academy at Columbia, at Amsterdam and 116th. Celist Michael Haas came up with that one; violinist Alex Shiozaki takes responsibility for the final night, tomorrow at 7 at West Park Church at the corner of 86th and Amsterdam. Its centerpiece is Per Norgard’s harrowing String Quartet No. 8. Oh yeah – all these shows are free, although an rsvp would be a good idea.

Griffin’s program explored themes including the struggle against tyranny, hope for a more auspicious future, and also the failures and pitfalls of revolution. The quartet opened with Singleton’s Marian Anderson-inspired Somehow We Can, juxtaposing tightly synched, clenched-teeth staccato pedal notes with austere, wounded washes that eventually took on a similar if more muted insistence. With its relentless intensity, it foreshadowed the direction Julia Wolfe would be going about ten years later.

That Fernandez’s String Quartet No. 2 would not be anticlimactic attests to its relentless power, and the group’s forceful focus. Pulsing with deceptively catchy, allusive minor modes, the triptych is a portrait of the 1970 uprising in Teoponte, Bolivia, and also references an ancient Incan curse against the conquistadors. With some otherworldly, challenging extended-technique passages midway through – including a twistedly oscillating interlude for high harmonics – it was the highlight of the evening, if perhaps only because it was the longest piece.

Guest bassist Hilliard Greene provided a deep-river anchor for a lingering duo improvisation with Griffin on the theme of Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child, viola leading the way toward a resolution that the two eventually sidestepped. Joined by pianist Christopher Oldfather and Cuban rapper Telmary Diaz, the quartet closed with Schoenberg’s Ode to Napoleon Bonaparte. Over a tireless, viciously sarcastic bustle, Diaz delivered a witheringly unrelenting, knowing critique of a revolutionary who got too big for his britches, via conductor Sebastian Zubieta’s dynamite new Spanish translation of the Byronic lament. As one concertgoer remarked, it was a performance that resonated all the way to the White House – although the chance that Donald Trump speaks a language other than English is awfully unlikely.

What’s the takeaway from all this? That other ensembles should aspire to be as relevant; that the rest of the festival is just as promising, and that this city needs an Agustin Fernandez festival. Maybe the Momenta Quartet can arrange that.

A Mesmerizing, Lushly Enveloping, Rare Maryanne Amacher Work Rescued From the Archives

Last night at the Kitchen nonprofit music advocates Blank Forms staged the first performance of Maryanne Amacher’s Adjacencies since a Carnegie Hall concert in 1966. A mesmerized, sold-out audience was there to witness a major moment in New York music history, performed by Yarn/Wire percussionists Ian Antonio and Russell Greenberg.

The music shifted slowly and tectonically, from sepulchral flickers, to vast washes of sound punctuated by playful rhythmic accents, occasionally rising to an epically enveloping intensity that bordered on sheer horror and then fell away. The premise of the suite – the only surviving graphic score from Adjoins, a series the composer wrote while still in her twenties – is to subtly shift the sonic focus via quadrophonic speakers, mixed live with a meticulous, artful subtlety by Daniel Neumann and Woody Sullender.

The influence of Stockhausen – an early advocate for Amacher – and Edgar Varese (in a less wilfully assaultive moment, maybe) were apparent, but ultimately this piece is its own animal. Amacher’s score separates the passages into five specific tonal ranges, leaving the rest up to the performers. Greenberg was more or less in charge of bowing, Antonio with hitting, although they switched roles, at one point with considerable wry humor.

Both players stood amid a practically identical set of instruments: cymbals, twin snare drums, marimbas, gongs, circular bell tubes, propane canisters (presumably empty) and a big oil drum on its side. Coy oscillations contrasted with slowly rising, ominous low-register ambience. A pair of autoharps (the original score calls for concert models) were bowed, plucked and hammered in varying degrees for resonance rather than distinct melodies.

Familiar images – intentional or not – which came to mind included busy city traffic, distant conversations amid a bustling crowd, jet and electric engines, and a hailstorm or two. The most striking, creepiest moment came when Greenberg bowed the lowest tube on his marimba, channeling a murky discontent from the great beyond. A refrain eventually appeared, but from a different vantage point, at about the two o’clock mark if you consider centerstage to be high noon.

On one hand, it was tempting to the extreme to just sit back, eyes closed, and get lost in the music. On the other, the constantly shifting action onstage was also a lot of fun to watch – the suspense never let up, finally coming full circle with a whispery unease. The performance repeats tonight, Sept 30 at 8; cover is $20. In a stroke of fate, this two-night stand equals the total number of times the piece was previously performed.

The next event at the Kitchen after this is on Oct 3 at 7 PM with rare footage of golden-age CBGB bands the Talking Heads, Heartbreakers, Tuff Darts and others filmed there by the Metropolis Video collective over forty years ago. Admission is free: get there early and expect a long line.