New York Music Daily

Love's the Only Engine of Survival

Category: ambient music

The Ragas Live Festival 2022, Part 1: The Magic Is Back

It was great to see the Ragas Live festival of diverse Indian and Indian-adjacent sounds return after a two-year absence. The Brooklyn massive at Pioneer Works last night wasn’t overwhelming, but by the time the concert was over this past evening, a raucous crowd had packed the house. That so many people would come out to the fringes of Red Hook on a raw, unwelcoming afternoon to see what by any standard would be considered niche speaks volumes about what audiences in this city have been missing since March of 2020. Whether that need will be filled in 2023 is a loaded question.

Since the all-night concert was such a feast, this first part concerns the past evening, with part two here. It’s been ten years since the all-night marathon first began in a radio station studio and quickly spread to a series of venues around town. Previous incarnations have been more jazz-oriented: this was a mix of frequently rapturous traditional sounds juxtaposed with more modern ones. Some of the segues were jarring, and the location was suboptimal: if you thought trying to score a cup of coffee at five in the morning in Manhattan was tough these days, try Red Hook, never mind Carroll Gardens. But the performances made the trip worthwhile.

Veena player Saraswathi Ranganathan, backed by Sriram Raman on mridangam and Shiva Ghoshal on tabla, was a fantastic choice of opener (she got a rave review here awhile back for her show at a venue which has since been weaponized in the ongoing mass murder campaign). She dedicated her bouncy, cheery first raga to the men in the house, alluding to how it’s time for the dudes to speak up, stand up and be counted. After the trio built to an immutable, imperturbable drive, there was a wry high/low exchange: the girls schooling the guys on what time it is, maybe?

She followed with raga Mohanam, which she described as an antidepressant: as she put it, releasing the gunk all the way up as the notes rise to the heart chakra. And her attempt at a singalong with the crowd actually worked! Parsing the theme from shivery, steady melismas to a fleeting, thorny complexity and a distant, starry sense of longing, the trio channeled a bustling, determined cheer into an equally imperturbable stroll: it was impossible not to get swept up in Ranganathan’s momentum. There was a wry sotto-voce duel with the mridangam; her interpolation of a call-and-response into the final charge out was masterfully subtle within the volleys of notes and bracing, hold-onto-your-seat ornamentation.

Kora player Kane Mathis and tabla player Roshni Samlal followed with an often celestial set. Samlal grew up in Queens listening to the Ragas Live broadcasts as a kid, and was psyched to be playing now as an adult (actually, she shows up pretty much every year). Mathis delivered feathery, harpsichord-ish waves with an effortless, weightless precision while Samlal drove the occasional unexpected crescendo up to the rafters.

A liltingly dreamy, syncopated number built around a circular kora riff featured the occasional striking polyrhythm by Samlal, who incorporates grooves from her Trinidadian heritage into the mix. Then they picked up the pace with the Mathis tune Rue du Jardin, set to a scampering. cumbia-esque beat.

A little after one in the morning, sarod player Manik Khan and tabla player Sudhakar Vaidyanathan played a tribute to the former’s father, the iconic Ali Akbar Khan to celebrate the centenary of his birth. Their first tune was a serioso evening raga which began with a searching alap built from the simplest ingredients. Khan dipped to a pensive interlude where he parsed the low strings, then subtly rose to an allusive stroll. This was raw magic.

From there he hung allusively as the pace picked up, landing on a chugging, moody theme. Hints of a heroic ballad punctuated by a few downward slashes and then a somber, low tremolo-picking interlude followed in turn He ended it it cold and sudden.

Next was Raga Kirwani, another evening piece, this one a theme imported from the south of the Hindustani subcontinent. Khan let this biting pavane of sorts resolve a lot more than the first number. Again, he hung in the lows for the most part, saving his upward stabs and a fleeting bluegrass flatpicking motif for dramatic effect. The two finally picked up – those slashes were real foreshadowing, but ultimately this was more about brooding intensity than pyrotechnics, even when Khan went pirouetting through an understatedly undulating groove. It made for a great segue.

Dawn of Midi’s Qasim Naqvi was up next with about an hour of Eno-esque electronic ambience. It didn’t have the slightest thing to do with Indian music, but it was pleasant and cocoony.

Sarangi player Suhail Yusuf Khan and tabla player Pranav Ghatraju went back to the fifteenth century for a couple of timeless pieces, the first beginning with an acerbically resonant, swoopingly ornamented alap. While it underscored the eternal appeal of the endlessly otherworldly microtones in Indian fretless string music, the set was also very riff-driven. The two made their way up to a rather stern, stark stroll, methodically building to a triumphant, heroic coda. They launched into a rather solemn processional with the second number, which they could have continued for twice as long, and nobody would have complained.

It was five in the morning when sax-and-synth loopmusic act Kroba built echoey, dystopically warbling soundscapes that went on for almost two hours. A little after expressive singer Samarth Nagarkar took the stage with Khan and tabla player Shank Lahiri, it became clear that despite the quality of his set, it would be impossible to get through the rest of the marathon without more coffee. More on that and the rest of the show in part two here.

Advertisement

Apparitions Waft In With Gritty, Dystopic, Drifting Sonics

One of the best album titles of the year is Eyes Like Predatory Wealth, by Apparitions. Is the record – streaming at Bandcamp – an expose of BlackRock, or Vanguard, or central bank digital coupons? That’s open to interpretation. The trio of guitarist Andrew Dugas, keyboardist Igor Imbu and drummer Grant Martin play the kind of genre-resistant instrumentals this blog loves so much. Is this postrock? Horizontal music? Industrial soundscapes? A dystopic film score? Maybe a little of all that, available on limited edition cassette!

The album consists of three long tracks. Martin takes centerstage with his judiciously tumbling drums over slowly shifting, gritty, droning tectonic sheets of sound as the band make their way through the first soundscape, Ecstasy Through Self-Destruction. Differentiating where the individual guitar and keyboard voices are doesn’t seem to be the point of this music. At high volume, the rattling distortion is abrasive; at low volume, it’s actually quite soothing, until the very end when somebody seems to blow a fuse.

The second track, River of Fundament, is twice as long, with roaring, crunchy low-register guitar textures emerging to contrast with wafting keyboard ambience. Guitar drops out, drums take over, then the calm/agitated dynamic returns.

The closing cut is a full half-hour that starts so imperceptibly you have to turn up. It’s the most calmly lingering, ambient interlude here, at least until the band turn it into a more animated synopsis of everything that’s come before. Stick with it for the payoff.

Minibeast Open a Dark, Gritty Twinbill in Bushwick This Sunday Night

As this blog celebrates Halloween month, there aren’t a whole lot of particularly dark shows around town coming up. But there is one on Oct 9 at 9 PM at Our Wicked Lady, where Minibeast – the latest project from Peter Prescott, of Mission of Burma and Volcano Suns – opens for the explosively theatrical A Deer A Horse, who have gone in a more grittily postrock/industrial direction lately. Like a lot of trendier venues, the club seems oblivious to #cashalways and has embraced the nickel-and-dime electronic ticketing fad. That presumably means that cash customers will have fork over $14 even at the door.

Prescott got his start behind the drumkit in Mission of Burma, so it’s no surprise how percussive Minibeast’s new album, On Ice is. Their pounding, minimalist, icily noisy posrtock brings to mind Can, Savage Republic, Mogwai and Saucerful of Secrets-era Pink Floyd. There’s surreal spoken word in places behind the steady, hard-hitting, often hypnotic forward drive of bassist Niels LaWhite and drummer Keith Seidel. The album also features sax cameos by Either/Orchestra’s Russ Gershon on a surreal, uneasily drifting, loopy organ piece and Morphine’s Dana Colley on a funkier mid-70s Can-style jam. The best song on the record is a long, undulating noiserock raga.

But more apropos to this month here is Prescott’s solo album Horror & Suspense Themes For the Hole Family, which he put out last year and is also up at Bandcamp. It has a similarly loopy quality, but there are more darkly lingering, drifty cinematic tableaux as well. Shards of reverb guitar flit into the mix or mingle with simple, forebodingly circular synth or fuzz bass riffs. One interlude sounds like an early New Order instrumental; others are more dystopically ambient. They’d make good between-song segues at the Bushwick show.

Getting Lost in Cassie Wieland’s Warmly Enveloping Minimalist Sonics

Cassie Wieland‘s music is purposeful to a fault: if there’s any composer working today who doesn’t waste notes, it’s her. Last night at Roulette, she and a shapeshifting cast of ensembles played a series of recent instrumental and vocal pieces that came across as Radiohead at one-tenth speed – or Sigur Ros playing Anna Thorvaldsdottir, maybe. Either way, it was frequently a night to get lost in.

Space is a crucial component of Wieland’s work: she will often leave a whole bar or more in between calm, minimalist motives. The effect is less suspenseful than simply calming and hypnotic, each a persistent quality in her music as well.

Playing brooding organ loops on a mini-synth, she led a string quartet subset of chamber ensemble Desdemona through the night’s central suite, Birthday. Weiland explained to the crowd that this was not a bday celebration since she’s a January baby: this was the rescheduled date for the performance originally planned for last winter. That month was reflected in the hazy, broodingly drifting second segment, where she sang through a vocoder while the strings built a slow crescendo assembled from the sparest of raw materials to either simple, emphatic chords or close harmonies. There were striking textural contrasts in the opening segment, stark harmonics against the sleekness of the organ. Subtle counterpoint developed as the piece wore on, concluding with a warm lullaby atmosphere awash in comforting, accordion-like timbres. That cocooning ambience persisted throughout the matter-of-fact tectonic shifts of the night’s final number, Home.

Pianist Isabelle O’Connell and vibraphonist Adam Holmes teamed up for equally mesmerizing textures in the concluding pieces in the first half of the program: the former with her steady, glacially paced accents, the latter bowing a glistening, humming, harmonium-like backdrop which he artfully ornamented with the occasional percussive flicker. The two brought the music full circle, to Plutonian Radiohead, at the end.

There were a few moments of surprising animation in that work, as well as in the night’s opening performance by the trio Bearthoven. Pianist Karl Larson let Wieland’s judicious, minimalist chords linger while percussionist Matt Evans alternated between atmospherics and the occasional sudden crescendo, bassist Pat Swoboda bringing crackling harmonics up out of a spare, wintry atmosphere.

The next concert at Roulette is on Sept 22 at 8 PM with electronic sound artists Victoria Keddie and Rose Kallal; advance tix are $25. The memorial concert for the late, great trumpeter Tomasz Stanko on the 18th is sold out.

Uneasily Enveloping Sonics in a Midtown Park With Rafiq Bhatia and His Trio

“I want to give you permission to just lie down if you want,” guitarist Rafiq Bhatia said to the crowd who’d gathered on the lawn at Bryant Park for his show yesterday evening with trumpeter Riley Mulherkar and drummer Ian Chang. The latter had just opened with a mildly diverting set of solo loopmusic utilizing a variety of electronic patches.

Bhatia has been a prime mover in electroacoustic music in New York for several years. He, too, had plenty of ghosts in his machines, although it was generally easy to tell what he was actually playing and what was just microcircuitry.

His opening number evoked whalesong and birdsong, spiced with gentle volume-knob washes and harmonic plucks, in a Bill Frisell Jr. mode. Chang, having emerged from the metaverse, iced the sonic sculpture with his cymbals as Mulherkar peeked his way in. Bhatia continued to build a brooding, lingering pastorale as the loops behind him flitted further into white noise.

As the night went on, each player left plenty of room for the other, from acidic clouds of overtones, to echoes of noirish Bob Belden-style post-Miles improvisation when Mulherkar would run variations on his own judiciously circling phrases. Bhatia hit his octave pedal (or octave patch, more likely) for minimalistic bass punches as Chang flitted around gracefully: the chemistry between the two was clear, considering their time together in Son Lux.

Swooshy electronic clouds unleashed a gentle quasi-shower from which Mulherkar goodnaturedly emerged into a gently comedic interlude while Bhatia remained attentive, bent over his mixer. But it wasn’t long before the sci-fi noir ambience returned and the trio built to a cold industrial stomp. As the music rose and then Bhatia brought the show full circle, it was all too easy to imagine that this was just another muggy August evening in Manhattan circa 2019, when dystopia was just a theoretical construct that musicians and writers could have fun with since there was a comforting reality to return to when the show was over.

The next free concert at Bryant Park, on August 26 at 7 PM, could be one of this year’s best. Billed as a “habibi festival,” it features three artists and their groups exploring cutting-edge Middle Eastern sounds: North African dancer Esraa Warda & the Châab Lab, eclectic kanun virtuoso Firas Zreik, and haunting French-Tunisian saxophonist Yacine Boulares’ Ajoyo trio.

Rafiq Bhatia Brings His Surreal Soundscapes to a Summer Series in Midtown

It’s hard to think of a guitarist who personifies the state of the art in ambient jazz more individualistically or interestingly than Rafiq Bhatia. He’s just as much at home reinventing Mary Lou Williams tunes with his longtime collaborator Chris Pattishall as he is creating an immersive electronic swirl. Bhatia’s next gig is outdoors at Bryant Park at 7 PM on August 19.

Bhatia had the good fortune to release his most recent album, Standards Vol. 1 – streaming at Bandcamp – in January of 2020. It’s a characteristically outside-the-box series of interpretations of iconic jazz tunes. He opens it by transforming In A Sentimental Mood into a disquieting series of sheets of sound, running Riley Mulherkar’s trumpet and Stephen Riley’s tenor sax through several patches including an icy choir effect.

Cécile McLorin Salvant sings The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face with alternatingly coy charm and outright menace, enhanced electronically by Bhatia’s minimalist textural washes. The only track that Bhatia plays guitar on here is Ornette Coleman’s Lonely Woman, which he reinvents as an utterly desolate, surrealistically looped, raga-tinged nightscape, Craig Weinrib a fugitive on the run with his palms on the drum heads. The two horns take it out with a dusky wee-hours conversation.

The album’s final number is The Single Petal of a Rose, Pattishall’s spare, raindrop piano licks subtly processed (and maybe cut and pasted) to flit into and out of the sonic picture. It’s a prime example of how Bhatia builds a space to get lost in.

Trumpeter Nate Wooley Tackles the Deceptively Simple Challenges of a Michael Pisaro-Liu Solo Piece

It’s rare that an album of music for a solo wind instrument is of much interest to anyone beyond those who play it. There are notable exceptions. Wadada Leo Smith has put out several breathtakingly beautiful solo trumpet albums. Peter Evans’ solo trumpet work is more spectacularly breathtaking (and electronically enhanced). And Natsuki Tamura’s solo trumpet albums are a lot of fun for those who appreciate his renegade extended technique and irrepressible sense of humor.

Nate Wooley is probably not the first trumpeter you’d think of doing a solo record, especially considering his dense and bracing recent output with his Columbia Icefield project. But he has a solo album (for trumpet and sinewave), a recording of Michael Pisaro-Liu’s longform, minimalist composition Stem-Flower-Root. It hasn’t hit the web yet, although there’s a live version from 2017 up at Soundcloud. The calm and unhurried development of the work might be reflected in Wooley’s upcoming gig on July 5 at 6:30 PM at Downtown Music Gallery, where he’s playing with Cuban saxophonist Hery Paz and drummer Tom Rainey. Jazz bassist Henry Fraser and Americana violinist Cleek Schrey make an intriguing duo afterward at 7:30; it’s a pass-the-bucket situation.

Pisaro-Liu’s work requires Wooley to sustain a series of simple tones using subtly different timbral approaches, and a changing series of mutes. If a reveille or fanfare could exist on Pluto, this triptych would be both. But it’s not all warmly immersive reflection: there are a few moments where the harmonies edge into unexpectedly acerbic territory, and there’s a joke about two thirds of the way in which, intentional or not, is too good to spoil.

The album also comes with a chapbook designed by Jessica Slaven, where in similarly uncluttered prose, Pisaro-Liu raises many provocative philosophical questions. Some are eternal, some more specific to the piece. To what extent does the architecture of musical composition mirror the symmetry of nature? Can a composition, or for that matter, a whole genre, have a genuine personality? What improbable practical lessons can be gleaned from music as rigorously structured and focused, yet as comfortably atmospheric as this?

The composer and performer also share an interesting dialogue concerning both the nuts and bolts of playing it, along with some of the philosophical ramifications.

A Gorgeously Drifting, Lynchian Album With a Tragic Backstory

New York instrumentalists SussNight Suite album, released earlier this year, was a gorgeously evocative, drifting travelogue akin to the recent Freedom Convoy, tracing a highway trip from New Mexico to the California desert. The equally picturesque sequel, Heat Haze – streaming at Bandcamp – continues the journey in a similarly southwestern yet less gothic vein. Tragically, one of the band members only appears on this road trip in a metaphorical sense. Keyboardist Gary Lieb died suddenly in March of last year shortly after wrapping up recording, just as so many musicians have in the wake of the lethal Covid injections. It’s not known what role, if any, that may have played in his untimely death.

In a cruel stroke of irony, Lieb’s floating synth plays a major role throughout the record, mingling with the guitars of Pat Irwin and Bob Holmes and the pedal steel of Jonathan Gregg. It’s often impossible to figure out who’s playing what, beginning with the slowly shifting, tectonic ambience of the title track, at least until Gregg’s steel and a few low, ominous reverb-guitar notes come into focus over the horizon.

Lieb’s keyboards pulse hypnotically behind spare, loopy acoustic and electric riffs in the second track, aptly titled Shimmer. Gregg’s steel takes centerstage over gentle acoustic strums and the occasional low clang in Grace: the group seem to be emerging into more populated territory by now.

Lieb layers calmly circling layers beneath reverb riffs that pan the speakers on track four, Train: this is the real midnight in the switching yard, with a sonic joke or two which are too good to spoil. The most immersively ambient track here is the final one, Pine. If this is all that’s left of the band’s recorded output, it’s a memorable departure.

A Relentlessly Suspenseful, Immersive Soundtrack From Ronit Kirchman

Ronit Kirchman’s soundtrack to seasons two through four of the detective series The Sinner – streaming at Spotify – is tantalizingly allusive. Her chilly digital analogues to sweeping orchestration are assembled in and around a series of suites, a welcome change from the minutely fragmented playlist sequences that plague so many other recent soundtrack albums. Much of this could be considered ambient music.

Rhythms, such as they exist, tend to be on the unforgiving, mechanical side. Moments of reflective melancholy filter into Kirchman’s slowly and methodically spiraling kaleidoscope of sound. The opening diptych, Two Deaths Suite rises to a shivery, wildfire thicket of strings. Horizontal tone poems have never been so interesting. The second part is more techy, a study in contrasts and echo phrases.

Gently twinkling keys morph into a mechanical loop and give way to wafting down-the-drainpipe sonics and then a distantly wistful quasi-orchestral theme. Drifts, oscillations and motorik rhythms recede for unexpectedly droll, bubbly fishtank-scapes. There’s an airy simulation of what could be Asian temple ambience and instances of simple plucked violin accents warped into play-dough shapes. Throughout the score, chances that’s Kirchman overdubbing herself into a one-woman string section.

Just when it seems that the Lonely Traveler Suite is going to coalesce into a sweeping symphonic crescendo, the subway to dystopia approaches from far down the tunnel. Whirlybird is not a helicopter portrait but a subtly shifting, circular string piece in a Caroline Shaw vein. When an actual helicopter seems to enter the picture, it comes as a complete surprise.

Here, Midnight in Greenpoint seems far closer to desolate post-2020 nightmare than its previous bar-crawl bustle. As the album reaches the end, the immersiveness and tension rise considerably: it’s hard to think of a better advertisement for the show.

A Friendly Pitchblende Night Drive With Suss

New York instrumentalists Suss have carved out a unique niche playing big-sky nocturnes more evocative of the wide open spaces of the west than, say, Long Island City. That’s where the band are pictured on the cover of their very accurately titled latest album, Night Suite, streaming at Bandcamp. This time, they’ve switched out the locales of the mind conjured up in their previous work, and switched in an overnight trip on Highway 66 from Gallup, New Mexico to the desert town of Needles, California, just across the Colorado River.

As the convoy drift out of Gallup, casual flickers from reverb guitar, pedal steel and starry guitar pedalboard textures begin to creep through the shadowy calm. Flagstaff, Arizona turns out to be a patchwork of stillness punctuated by the occasional passing big rig, fluorescent-lit all-night diner or distant train whistle, or so it would seem.

Further into Arizona, there’s Ash Fork, the most expansive tableau here with its organlike high-lonesome washes of sound. If Pink Floyd were a Tucson band, they would have sounded like this. Guessing that’s Pat Irwin’s guitar flaring gently over Jonathan Gregg’s pedal steel and Gary Lieb’s gently keening synth.

Hints of southwestern gothic – that’s either Bob Holmes or Irwin on guitar – reverberate on the low end. static misting the mix when the convoy reaches Kingman. The distant ghost of a Lynchian ballad wafts in as the group pull gently into their final destination