New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Category: ambient music

An Otherworldly, Drifting Diptych by Joe O’Connor, Theo Carbo and Tim Green

An eclogue is a pastoral poem. How bucolic is Eclogue, the new album by Joe O’Connor, Theo Carbo and Tim Green? It’s streaming at Bandcamp – you decide. The trio create a warmly drifting sunrise ambience with subtle textures and minimalist accents, plus the occasional creak or quaver as tectonic sheets of sound make their way slowly through the frame. Overtones and harmonics rule in this comfortably enveloping universe.

Without knowing the instrumentation, you might think that the slow oscillations and echoey blips could be electronic, but they’re actually from O’Connor’s prepared piano, Green’s brushed drumheads and Carbo’s guitar.

There are two tracks here. The first is about fourteen minutes and rises to watery rivulets over a steady calm, echoing a familiar Pink Floyd dynamic originally manufactured using a vintage analog chorus pedal. Rustles from the drums and a single somber, recurrent piano note hint that the forest or faraway galaxy here is about to awaken, and it seems more of a galaxy than a bright, green naturescape as it does.

Keening highs and squirrelly, muted percussive activity contrast as the twenty-minute second half gets underway. Playful figures that could be whale song, or beavers gnawing out the raw materials for a new home, appear amid the stillness. Gentle cymbal washes and that persistent low piano note add a second dichotomy, then the two reverse roles, Erik Satie at quarterspeed. A warped quasi-gamelan ensues, then it’s back to Satie territory to close on an absolutely otherworldly note.

Cellist Mia Pixley Puts Out a Thoughtful, Playful, Deceptively Deep Album of Soul Songs and Chamber Pop

Before she went solo, Mia Pixley was the cellist in the Debutante Hour, an all-female trio who charmed and needled New York audiences with their quirky, deceptively biting chamber pop throughout the late zeros and early teens. Since then, the individual members have done plenty of work on their own – Maria Sonevytsky in the worlds of Balkan and Ukrainian music, and Susan Hwang with the noir-tinged , cinematic Lusterlit and the erratically brilliant lit-pop collective the Bushwick Book Club.

On her new album Margaret in the Wild – streaming at Bandcamp – Pixley glides elegantly through undulating soul grooves and the occasional minimalist classical theme or chamber pop interlude. She plays bass and guitar voicings on the cello along with classical and blues phrasing, and her vocals have more depth and expressiveness than ever. Her supporting cast is first-rate: Ruth Davies and Kevin Goldberg sharing bass duties, Javier Santiago and Bryan Simmons each on piano, Luis Salcedo on guitar, Nahuel Bronzini contributing slide guitar and Wurlitzer, Barbara Higbie on mandolin, Aaron Kruziki on organ, Michaelle Goerlitz and Amelie Hinman on percussion, Isaac Schwartz on drums and Maryam Qudus on keyboards. This is one of those rare albums that sounds like nothing else that’s been released this year. Whatever you call this music – soul, cello rock, something that hasn’t been categorized yet – Pixley owns it.

She opens the record with Core, a terse but lushly orchestrated, nocturnally sweeping overture, the cello balanced by gentle, twinkly piano. In the Daylight, a lustrous, summery tableau, has Pixley’s lithe cello multitracks rising over a vamping lullaby. She follows with Good Taste, a slinky, catchy, soul and hip-hop-infused individualist’s anthem: “Don’t their education, don’t need their ok,” Pixley asserts. If songs like this got played on commercial radio, this would be the monster hit.

Mama’s Got Snacks is funkier, with a New Orleans groove and an amusingly aphoristic, defiantly feminist lyric. In Voices – a setting of a Christopher Shaw poem – Pixley reaches from hazy chamber pop to an assertively bouncy cello-rock theme.

The album’s centerpiece is Everything Is Slow Motion, which begins as a moody, mystical, gorgeously drifting tone poem awash in layers of cello and rippling piano before Pixley hits a trip-hop groove. It reminds of Nina Simone at her most avant-garde.

Pixley orchestrates a carefree, Malian-tinged tune in African Prayer – and is that a balafon, or just Pixley’s cello running through a pitch pedal? In Between Sound comes across as a sunny reverse image of Everything Is Slow Motion, with distant hints of Indian music and Bob Marley. She wraps up the album with Watering, an attractively rippling folk-pop tune with piano and guitar, the closest thing to the Debutante Hour here. There’s a lot of depth on this record: if we get to the point where there’s still enough of a reason to pull together a best-of-2021list, this should be on it.

A Characteristically Soulful Alice Coltrane Rarity Resurfaces

While Alice Coltrane did not live in the shadow of her iconic husband, her work is too often overlooked. During her life, she was revered as a creator of longscale, spiritually-inspired jazz compositions. She was a talented improviser on the concert harp, organ and piano. There’s a reissue of an obscure, limited-edition 1981 Alice Coltrane album, Kirtan: Turiya Sings, just out and streaming at Spotify. If her better-known music resonates with you, this a special treat because it’s a rare opportunity to hear Coltrane on both vocals and Wurlitzer organ.

Coltrane shared her husband’s love of Indian music and spirituality – her son Ravi, named after Ravi Shankar, produced this album. Here, she takes her time with a series of ancient Indian kirtan themes, singing in Sanskrit in a modulated, often stark alto voice over slowly shifting organ chords. The music draws more on the blues and 19th century African-American spirituals than it does the Indian carnatic tradition, often very anthemically. Listen closely and you’ll discover variations calmly unfolding. And the hypnotic sixth track could be a Doors song. Essentially, these are hymns, easy to sing along to as part of a yoga practice, for meditation or as just plain good chillout music.

A Shimmering, Potently Relevant New Album From Fearless Composer Susie Ibarra

Percussionist and composer Susie Ibarra‘s rapturous, starkly orchestrated new album Walking on Water touches on the two most deadly ecological crises of our time: the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and global warming. Inspired by a breathtaking series of paintings by Mako Fujimura dedicated to the victims of the March 11, 2011 tsunami and subsequent nuclear explosions, Ibarra also addresses a familiar theme in her work, the perils of climate change. With the Japanese government threatening to dump millions of gallons of lethal radioactive water from the still-unstable Fukushima site into the Pacific, Ibarra could not have picked a more appropriate time to release this record of what she terms as “spirituals” at Bandcamp.

Ibarra’s DreamTime Ensemble here includes Jennifer Choi on violin, Yves Dharambaj on cello, Claudia Acuna on vocals, Jake Landau on guitar and keys, with Yuka C. Honda adding electronic elements. The music is much more dynamic than you would expect from such troubling central themes and includes many field recordings of water, from melting ice in the Himalayas to water tanks in Washington State.

The first track is Elegy in Azurite, a shimmery, circling theme, part terse, lush classical atmosphere aloft with Acuna’s vocalese, and part pointillistic Filipino kulintang music. Landau’s spiky acoustic guitar pierces the mist in the bouncy Light East of Sendai. His organ falls away, leaving Ibarra’s cymbals and gongs to mingle with melting ice sonics in Waterfalling.

Assertive, flamenco-tinged guitar chords anchor resonant, shivering phrases from violin and cello over Ibarra’s rustles in Coastal Birds The next track is High Wave, a mashup of found sounds of water amid nebulous acoustic and electronic ambience. Acuna sails soulfully above a syncopated organ groove and Ibarra’s slinky drums in the aptly titled Natural Lightness.

Night Rain sounds like exactly that, a field recording with birds chattering away as they take cover. Violin and cello rise warily over Landau’s lush arpeggios in Divine Forgiveness, followed by a fluttery tone poem, Celestial Migration. Floating Azurite makes a good segue, somber atmosphere contrasting with the mandolin-like delicacy of Landau’s guitars.

The bossa-tinged swing of New York With Grace comes as a real surprise, Landau’s spiny textures and the strings adding a surreal, disquieted edge. The album’s big epic is aptly titled Listening at Himalayan Waterfalls, a found-sound pastiche which Ibarra captured with underwater microphones. The group close with Floating Along Banares, a summery field recording of a boat trip mashed up with distantly Indian-flavored melodies. The implication seems to be that this kind of natural camaraderie is just the tip of the iceberg (pun intended) of what we stand to lose if we don’t stop burning things to power the world. The apocalypse never sounded so dreamy. Count this as one of the best and most captivating albums of 2021.

A Triumphant Action Movie For the Ears by Laura Masotto

Violinist Laura Masotto transforms into a one-woman orchestra on her new suite WE, streaming at Bandcamp. Much of this bright, riff-driven theme and variaitons is an action movie for the ears. A lot of this could be called loopmusic, although Masotto fleshes out her anthemic, stadium-worthy hooks with lush but terse harmonies and melodic shifts that transcend the usual vamping, circling limitations of playing against a backing track.

The album’s overture, Atoms, is a shimmery, shivery, minimalist tune seemingly based on a very famous raga (or maybe the first song on side two of Sergeant Pepper). Refugees, with Roger Goula on atmospheric keys, rises to a brisk motorik pulse: this sequence triumphantly reaches the shore rather than capsizing in the Mediterranean.

Blue Marble is awash in big sweeping broken chords, followed by Ithaki,. a muted, suspenseful variation on the refugee theme with Hior Chronik on twinkly keys. After that, 2020 starts out ambient but the energy returns: this is quite an optimistic record.

The title theme turns out to be an understatedly joyous, pulsing love ballad without words. Masotto returns to lavish variations on the central, arpeggiated melody. There’s a long descent through swirly, calming ambience as the music grows loopier and more baroque on the way out.

Drift Through the Galaxy With Luke Schneider

Pedal steel player Luke Schneider’s ornately multitracked solo album Altar of Harmony – streaming at Bandcamp – draws equally on ambient music, dense Pink Floyd sonics and slowly drifting, cinematic guitar soundscapes in the same vein as Kaia Fischer’s epics, or Noveller in a more reflective moment.

There are eight tracks, each with a Latin or quasi-Latin title, a series of majestically minimalist variations on an A major drone. The live version of Brian Eno’s Apollo album, featuring another stellar pedal steel player, BJ Cole, is the obvious reference point.

Starry pulses and elegantly echoing tones mingle with muted plucks. Schneider gets his strings to hum and hover like a synth or an organ, in addition to the instrument’s signature keening, tremoloing sound. As tectonic sheets of chords oscillate, pan the sonic picture and the frequency of the pulse increases, Eluvium‘s more enveloping themes come to mind. Schneider typically plays a lot faster and more virtuosically than this: his focus on creating a mood and sticking with it is impressive. This is a great wind-down record.

Passepartout Duo Put Out an Invitingly Hypnotic New Album Made on Handcrafted Textile Instruments

Custom-built instruments are typically designed with more attention to exterior detail than their mass-produced counterparts. Once in awhile there’s an exception: too bad the Vox Teardrop, or the Kay guitars of the 1950s, didn’t have electronics to match the beauty of what’s on the outside. Keyboardist Nicoletta Favari and percussionist Christopher Salvito, who perform as Passepartout Duo, design and build their own instruments, and have created a fascinating pair of synthesizers which they call Oto.

They’re made from e-textiles and wool from Brogna sheep native to their home turf in Italy’s Lessinia region. The duo hand-felted the wool themselves. The point of the project was to create fully functional instruments that doubled as works of fabric art.

The two musicians put the new instruments through their paces on their new cassette Daylighting – streaming at Bandcamp – which also comes with hand-designed, soy-inked inserts. The duo call what they play here “slow music,” inspired by a trip to the Meili Snow Mountains in China and recorded in diverse locations throughout the world.

For what it’s worth, the seven tracks don’t have any distinctively Chinese characteristics, although there are passages which could definitely be called snowy. This music is psychedelic and often gamelanesque. Waves of bubbles and cheery, echoey bleeps percolate through the mix in the album’s first track, Plainness. There’s a delightfully keening, bagpipe-like patch in the second number, Indentations, intertwined amid dancing bell timbres and hand-held percussion.

There are playful percussion and squiggly accents over a warmly inviting calm in the third track, Matter. The album’s title cut is its most minimalist and hypnotic piece. Spare, mobile-like chimes mingle within woozily stacked electronic counterpoint in track five, Hue.

Speciation – a really, REALLY scary concept for 2021, huh? – is the most bell-like tableau here. The duo bring the cassette full circle with the final track, Quiescence. It’s often blissfully enjoyable chillout music.

Fighting Future Lockdowns with a Summer Solstice Celebration on Roosevelt Island

“There should be a thousand people here,” one spectator observed yesterday afternoon, trailing along the edge of a crowd of maybe a couple dozen folks making their way to the southern edge of Roosevelt Island. They’d come out for a walking tour led by healer and journalist Cat McGuire, who in a half hour under the trees in the park traced how Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “four freedoms” principle has been eroded in the recent past and over the years – beginning with the guy who created that shortlist.

No doubt, there should have been more people gathered here. But this is how paradigm shifts start, with a small group of people thinking outside the box. To paraphrase McGuire’s witheringly colorful observation, one person armed with the truth has more impact than sixty thousand who don’t. And this is happening all over the world.

McGuire has assembled a very sobering and enlightening presentation about the upcoming Cyber Polygon tabletop exercise scheduled for July 9, which you can watch here and download here. Considering what we know about false flag incidents coinciding with real-time military or police exercises – notably 9/11 and 7/7 – not to mention all the noise the World Economic Forum has been making about the threat of a global takedown of the power grid, this is a situation we need to keep our eye on.

Investigative journalist and singer Tessa Lena, whose poetically insightful news feed as well as her equally entertaining podcast Make Language Great Again have become two of the most reliable information sources over the past year, gave a short talk about the transhumanist component of the New Abnormal (a.k.a. Klaus Schwab’s Great Reset). Online avatars which supposedly keep all our memories alive in perpetuity? Internet-enabled nanobots injected under our skin to track our every movement and torture us to death if we say something critical about Facebook or Amazon? She doesn’t actually believe those nightmares will ever come true – as long as we make sure they don’t. According to the planned 2030 timetable, Ray Kurzweil’s bizarro “singularity” – where everyone except the world’s billionaires becomes a cyborg slave – is unfolding right on schedule.

Out behind the collapsing shell of the island’s long-vacant smallpox quarantine facility, psychologist Karin Burkhard reminded that over the years, an estimated fourteen thousand people were essentially abandoned and died inside the building. According to legend, the bodies were burned and the ashes scattered on the island: lost souls with lots unfinished business, right where everybody was standing, as Burkhard put it. She explained how even after mass vaccination campaigns had finally eradicated smallpox, those same vaccines continued to be available to members of the military for decades afterward…and that laboratory cultures of the virus were not destroyed until much more recently. One  hopes they were, anyway.

There was also music. Michael Jay used two huge gongs to build magical, immersive sheets of boomy lows and sepulchral high harmonics. He calls it a sound bath: this was more of a power shower of mystical calm. After more than half an hour of spine-tingling sonic refreshment, percussion trio Africa Forestdance picked up the pace  Led by Formoro Diabate, heir to a multi-generational Guinean balafon legacy, the group built rippling but similarly hypnotic volleys of sound.

And a pretty woman in a tan print dress, armed with a formidable walking stick, shared her entire container of watermelon with a thirsty (and very grateful) music reporter. What a sweet thing to do for someone on a sweltering day.

Plunge Into the Depths With Lucie Vítková and James Ilgenfritz

Lucie Vítková and James Ilgenfritz’s new album Aging – streaming at Bandcamp – is a series of dronescapes. As relentlessly bleak music, it could just as easily be a portrait of the past fourteen months as much as an exploration of what a drag it is to watch the years pile up. Just remember that getting old is a state of mind no matter how many trips you make around the sun.

This is microtonal music. With one exception close to the end of the record, none of these seven long interludes move very far from a sonic center, and it’s frequently impossible to distinguish Ilgenfritz’s bowed bass, abrasively keening harmonics and extended-technique slashes from Vítková’s electronics.

Slowly rising and falling pitchblende resonance is flecked with crumbling fragments of grey noise, clunking loops and ghostly flickers – a deep-space icebreaker clearing the junk from what’s left of the Death Star, maybe. Oscillating scrapes, buzz and boom, achingly unresolved close harmonies, sirening bends and dopplers all filter through the mix. The funereal, tolling chords and darkly contrasting textures of the almost fifteen-minute fifth track are the high point of the album, such that it is. The one after that, a study in high harmonics, more or less, is the most animated.

On one hand, someone with no experience on stringed instruments could probably play this whole thing, or an approximation thereof, after a few tips on bowing. On the other, it really maintains a mood. If you like the lows and the low midrange, this is very enjoyably immersive.

Gorgeously Haunting, Surreal Cinematics From Dictaphone

Dictaphone’s distinctive, unique sound falls somewhere between film noir soundtrack music, jazz and the Middle East. Which makes sense, considering that bandleader Oliver Doerell does a lot of movie scores. The group’s often sweepingly crepuscular instrumentals are much more lush than one would expect from just three musicians, yet it’s also very minimalist: no note goes to waste here. Their new album Goats & Distortions 5 – streaming at Bandcamp – expands on their exploration of what they call “morbid instruments.”

The album’s opening track, simply titled O, has a loopy trip-hop beat beneath drifting ambience over that could be muted pizzicato violin, or a processed guitar riff, or a sintir at a distance: it’s often hard to isolate who’s playing what here. Clarinetist Roger Döring looms sparely and moodily as the atmospherics pulse in and out.

The second track, Island 92 quickly coalesces into a hypnotic Middle Eastern groove, Döring’s bass clarinet chromatics weaving broodingly, then suddenly dropping out for Alex Stolze’s hazy violin. From there, Doerell builds a terse, resonant web of guitar clang and atmospherics.

Döring’s sax and Stolze’s violin waft uneasily over Doerrell’s sintir loop and a lo-fi electronic click track in track three, titled 808.14.4. The album’s title track is in two parts: the first a brief, swoopy, minimalist loop pastiche and the second a trickily rhythmic, darkly surreal dub interlude, pings and blips contrasting with spare bass and morose bass clarinet.

Likewise, washes of grey noise, bass clarinet and amplified loops from an old, broken tape recorder mingle mournfully in Tempete et Stress. Il Grande Silenzio is anything but, a lament with funeral parlor organ and more of that bass clarinet, plus some creepy robotic textures.

M – which doesn’t seem to be a salute to the iconic Peter Lorre horror film – is the driftiest interlude here. Helga Raimondi takes an enigmatic cameo on the mic in Your Reign Is Over, a rainy-day Balkan reggae dub theme. They close with Griot Dub, which is not a reggae tune but a grey-sky tableau.

Fun fact: the band take their name from a lo-fi tape recorder with a variable-speed motor, invented in the late 40s and commonly used in offices as late as the 1990s. It was meant to free up secretarial staff from the slow process of taking dictation. A typist could transcribe the tape and slow the machine down if the person doing the dictating was speaking rapidly. There was also Dictaphone etiquette: to avoid mistakes in transcription, it was considered de rigeur to enunciate slowly and clearly, to spell out proper names and difficult words, and to thank the typist – almost invariably a woman working for near-minimum wage – at the end of the tape.