New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: 21st century music

Brooding, Cinematic Piano Minimalism From Elias Haddad

Pianist Elias Haddad writes dark, pensive, frequently poignant songs without words that draw equally on minimalism and film music, with flickers of the Middle East. You could call him the Lebanese Ludovico Einaudi. Philip Glass is also a major influence. For fun, check out Haddad’s performance in the Jeida Grotto at Mount Lebanon – much as the humidity is doing a number on the piano’s tuning, you can tell how magical the sonics must have been in there that night. His new album Visions is streaming at Spotify. Lucky concertgoers in Ghazir, Lebanon can see him there with Noemi Boroka on cello at the town church on Jan 20 at 7:30 PM; the show is free.

The new album is mostly solo piano, Jana Semaan adding moody, lingering cello to several cuts. The opening track, Falling Leaves blends bell-like, calmly insitent phrases over stygian cello washes: it’s akin to Yann Tiersen playing Federico Mompou.

Alone, a rather menacing solo piano anthem, reminds vividly of Glass’ film work, notably the Dracula soundtrack. It makes a diptych with the similar but more emphatic Chasing Dreams. In Deep Blue, Haddad builds hypnotically circling variations over the cello wafting in from below.

Dream 6676 would make a great new wave pop song – or the title theme for a dark arthouse film. Eternal Tranquility juxtaposes spacious, distantly elegaic piano against distantly fluttering cello that sounds like it’s being run through a sustain pedal. Haddad makes a return to Glassine territory with Free, a somber waltz, and then Illusions and its tricky, Indian-inflected syncopation.

The cello lines over Haddad’s slowly expanding, twinkling broken chords in Last Heartbeats aren’t quite imploring, but they’re pretty close. The wryly titled Teenagers in Love comes straight out of the Angelo Badalamenti school of 50s kitsch recast as noir – it sounds suspiciously satirical. The album’s title track blends Satie angst and Ray Manzarek flourishes. Haddad closes with the sweeping, Lynchian theme Welcome Home.

A casual listener might catch a bar or two of this and confuse it with new age music, or the innumerable gothboy synthesizer dudes who are all over youtube, but it’s infinitely catchier and darker. Somewhere there’s a suspense film or a refugee documentary waiting for this guy to score.

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James Ilgenfritz’s Richly Textural Album Pushes the Limits of What Solo Bass Can Do

James Ilgenfritz’s second solo album, Origami Universe – streaming at Bandcamp – transcends the concept of solo bass, both in terms of performance and composition. He’s a ferocious improviser with daunting extended technique. Yet the album comprises four new compositions by major New York composers who date from an era when the downtown scene meant black-box former shooting gallery spaces instead of tourist bars.

The espionage-inspired Annie Gosfield’s mini-suite Rolling Sevens and Dreaming Elevens opens the album, juxtaposing stygian bowing, elephantine snorts, oud-like reverberations, allusively jaunty, overtone-spiced harmonic riffs, gently bowed cello motives, swoops and dives galore. It’s catchy despite itself.

Miya Misaoka, classical Japanese koto virtuoso who’s taking the instrument to new places, contributes Four Moons Of Pluto. also a multi-part piece. Dark lows give way to uneasily hovering, insectile close harmonies and then slowly shifting, oscillating ocean liner diesel chords.Then Ilgenfritz ends it with a stately series of climbing variations.

He approaches the epic Xigliox, by master of the macabre JG Thirlwell, with a similarly ominous, matter-of-fact pacing. With its slowly crescendoing horror-film stroll and brooding bowed themes as it winds out, it’s both the most predictable and funniest piece here. When Ilgenfritz finally hits his first foreshadowing tritone early on, the effect packs a quiet wallop.

Guitar shredmeister Elliott Sharp’s Aletheia serves as a richly obsidian-toned coda that gets more mysterious as it goes along. Harmonics glisten and flicker against a cumulo-nimbus drone that fades to almost white noise and eventually a series of droll percussive oscillations. Thirlwell isn’t the only guy here with a sense of humor. In this piece and elsewhere, it’s amazing what a spectacular variety of timbres and textures Ilgenfritz creates without the use of any effects other than what appears to be a healthy amount of natural reverb.

Ilgenfritz gets around. He’s playing as part of guitarist Eyal Maoz’s fearsome Hypercolor trio with percussionist Lukas Ligeti at Spectrum on Dec 14 at 8. The Admiral Launch Duo – Jennifer Ellis on harp and Jonathan Hulting-Cohen on sax – headline at 9. Cover is $15.

The Momenta Quartet Stage a New Classic of Classical Music for Children

How can you tell if a chamber music performance is appropriate for children? By how the kids react, for one. Yesterday morning, the Momenta Quartet’s boisterously amusing multimedia show, The Lost String Quartet – by their violist Stephanie Griffin – kept two busloads of five-year-olds engaged and for the most part equally well-behaved for over an hour. It’s one thing to keep a preschooler close to you, with the occasional reminder to sit still. Two whole posses of them, all surrounded by their fellow crazymakers, completely change the game.

The plot, based on N. M. Bodecker’s now out-of-print 1983 children’s book, concerns not a missing piece of music but a missing ensemble. The Momentas  cast themselves as the musicians, abetted by actor Fernando Villa Proal, who chewed the scenery with relish in multiple roles as emcee, truck driver, prison warden and several other personalities. The plot follows the misadventures of a quartet who have to deal with all sorts of vehicular drama on their way to a gig – late. And much as the humor is G-rated, it’s far more Carnival of the Animals than Peter and the Wolf. The group have to go down into the sewer at one point – ewwww! The kids loved that.

And like the Simpsons, the jokes have multiple levels of meaning, the musical ones especially. Adults, as well as older gradeschool children who have some familiarity with standard classical repertoire, will no doubt get a big kick out of them. In a mostly wordless performance, the group acquit themselves impressively as actors, in expressively vaudevillian roles. Are violinists Emilie-Anne Gendron and Alex Shiozaki really the merry prankster and space-case introvert in the group? Is cellist Michael Haas as dangerously stubborn as his role, or Griffin the quartet’s deus ex machina? That could be an inside joke.

Griffin’s score, some of it improvisational, is sublime, and the group sink their fangs into it, no small achievement considering the physical demands of the acting. Just the slithery, menacing, distantly Indian-tinged viola solo that opens the show, and appears later in disguise, is worth the price of admission. The deliberately educational moments, i.e. how a string quartet’s instruments differentiate from each other, are understated and flow seamlessly within the narrative.

As you would expect, a lot of the music – usually performed in configurations other than the full foursome – is pretty broad too, if hardly easy to play. Doppler effects, sirens, sad-face wah-wah riffs and the like pop up all over the place. But the rest is more carnivalesque than cartoonish There’s vastly more of a Bartok influence, or for that matter echoes of Luciano Berio or Jessica Pavone, than there is buffoonery.

What’s most impressive is that the quartet do double duty as what might, in tightlipped chamber music lingo, be called a hybrid ensemble. Who knew that Haas was such a capable percussionist, playing discernible melodies on found objects including a car door panel and oil pan? Or that Griffin could spiral around on melodica as if she was Augustus Pablo?

This is where the show’s subversive undercurrent takes centerstage What the Momenta Quartet are proposing is tthat if we expose kids to the avant garde when they’re young enough, they’ll be smart enough to laugh at any older, know-it-all Grinch who might sneer, “Oh, contemporary classical music, it’s so harsh and boring and pretentious.”

This piece has a huge upside. The quartet could tour it if they could find the time – it’s hard to imagine a cultural center in this country who wouldn’t stage it. It’s probably an overstatement to suggest that it could be a Broadway hit. Then again, kids are certainly ready for it. Be the first family on your block to see it when the Momenta Quartet’s perform it tomorrow, Dec 10, with sets at 10 and 11 AM at the Time In Children’s Arts Initiative, 227 W. 29th St, Studio 4R just north of FIT. Admission is free, and reservations are highly recommended.

A Captivating World Premiere and Two Playful, Relevant Works in Progress Wrap Up This Year’s Sounds of Arts Festival

This year’s Sounds of Arts Festival in Long Island City, staged by arts organization Multicultural Sonic Evolution, featured a variety of performances from jazz to dance to indie classical music. The final program was an auspicious trio of works in progress by Chinese-American Alicia Lieu and Japanese composer Yui Kitamura along with a world premiere commission from Mayalsian-born JunYi Chow.

The highlight of the first night was Chow’s colorful, dynamic partita The House of Smells and Noise. Inspired by a story about a boy’s experiences with Nyonya (Chinese Malaysian) culture in Lee Su Kim’s book Sarong Secrets, it was replete with tensions and dichotomies: tradition versus modernity, calm versus bustle, humor versus solemnity. Percussionist Maiko Hosoda really got a workout, beginning with a stroll around the back of the theatre, clanging her cymbals. From there she took charge of the rhythm on a variety of instruments, including the dreamy microtone-laced plink of a Malaysian kalimba.

Austere call-and response gave way to somewhat more expansive passages that bordered on carefree but never quite went there, played with care and restraint by an impressively unorthodox ensemble of violinist Michael Mandrin, cellist Jay Tilton, oboeist Kevin Chavez, flutist Chrissy Fong and harpist Margery Fitts.  The electroacoustic ending packed a subtle emotional wallop and is too good to give away.

Kitamura’s brief suite, from a forthcoming opera, was sung with expressive power in Japanese by soprano Hirona Amamiya. The text explores the struggles of the daughter of famous 19th century Japanese artist Hokusai Katsushika, widely credited with much of her father’s work since art in Japan at the time was a career essentially closed to women. Asian melodies were alluded to rather than stated outright; themes ranged from a poignant waltz that recalled Belgian musette, to more sweeping, distantly angst-fueled, cinematic passages.

To close the night, a quartet of singers delivered the first part of Lieu’s comic opera Unwrapping Fortune, exploring cultural and parent-child tensions in a Chinese-Jewish New York family. Not to spoil a good and relevant plot, but a chow mein sandwich is involved. A quartet of singers – sopranos Caroline Miller and Estabaliz Martinez, baritone Brian J. Alvarado and tenor Stephen Velasquez – brought drama and sardonic humor to the narrative over pleasant, baroque-tinged melodies.

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.

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.