New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: ambient music

Relive a Lost, Rarely Documented Era in New York Music History…and Discover a New One at the Roulette Archive

If you ran a club, would you record everything ever played there? Among venues around the world, never mind New York, Roulette probably holds the record for owning the most exhaustive archive of concert performances. Smalls has been documenting their own scene since the zeros, but Roulette goes back over two decades before then. What’s most astonishing is the wealth of material in the Roulette archive. Sure – virtually everyone who ever played a gig anywhere in the world where there’s an internet connection has been documented on youtube. But Roulette’s archive goes back to 1980, long before most people even had video cameras. It got a gala, mid-February relaunch, with a characteristically celestial, rippling performance by inventor, composer and one-man electric gamelan Pat Spadine a.k.a. Ashcan Orchestra.

Although Roulette has deep roots as a spot for free jazz, practically since the beginning they’ve been programming music and multidisciplinary work that few other venues would touch. The archive validates founder and trombonist Jim Staley’s vision of how crucial that stubborn commitment to music at the furthest, most adventurous fringes would become. Staley originated the Roulette brand in the late 70s. As a New York venue, it opened as a jazz loft on West Broadway in 1980, eventually migrated to Wooster Street and now sits across from the site of another storied New York music hotspot that was forced to move, Hank’s, on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn.

Looking back, it’s astonishing to see how many artists who would become iconic, not only in the free jazz or avant garde demimondes, were part of the 80s Roulette scene. Shows from early in the decade featured a characteristically diverse cast: John Zorn, big band revivalist Jim McNeely and doomed polymath/indie classical pioneer Julius Eastman each played solo piano here. A young Ned Rothenberg led several ensembles, as did Butch Morris, refining his signature conduction in front of a relatively small (for him) improvisational ensemble.

Pauline Oliveros made her Roulette debut in 1984, Elliott Sharp and Bill Frisell the following year. The earliest performance currently available online dates from 1985: the late Jerry Hunt building a swirl of insistent, astringent analog loops behind what must have been a spectacularly physical, outlandish performance. As the archive describes it, he was “Wearing his ubiquitous jacket and tie, with his equipment suitcase that doubled as a performance seat and percussion instrument, button controllers made from Bakelite dishes, optical sensors triggering video disks, fetish objects including shakers, sticks, and rattles made by David McManaway, and convincing all in attendance that they were watching a ceremonial magician.”

The next one is from October, 1986: Tenko and Kamura singing over skronky guitar and snapping, distorted bass, with Zeena Parkins on both her usual harp and also piano. Later that month the venue booked a night of all women improvisers: once again, Roulette was way ahead of its time.

From later in the decade, you can hear Tom Johnson’s 1978 composition Chord Catalogue, comprising the 8,178 chords that can be made using the notes in a single octave. ”The audio recording is interrupted briefly at the 74 minute point as the original recording media capacity was reached and the tape was changed.” Another rare treat is Frisell playing solo on March 13, 1989: “Solo guitar: electric, acoustic and banjo covering Thelonious Monk, Nino Rota, Disney soundtrack tunes, plus originals.”

The past twenty years are also represented: here’s a random, envelopingly ambient clip of sound sculptor and singer Lesley Flanigan from 2015. The venue also has the Roulette TV series up online, including both live performances and studio footage of artists they’ve championed recently.

These days Roulette keeps programming weird and often rapturously good stuff. Multimedia is big, but they still have regular free jazz, ambient and new orchestral and chamber music. In the past few years, they’ve also become a Brooklyn home for Robert Browning Associates’ annual slate of amazing performers playing traditional music from around the world. One such is this Friday, March 12 at 8 PM, a rare NYC concert of Indian veena music by virtuoso Jayanthi Kumaresh. You can get in for thirty bucks in advance.

Rumbling in Brooklyn with Josh Sinton

Friday night at Issue Project Room, Josh Sinton sat with his back to the audience in the middle of the stage, breathing into his contrabass clarinet. It’s a secondary instrument for him: his usual axe is the baritone sax, which he plays with some of New York’s most interesting big bands, notably Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society and Amir ElSaffar‘s Rivers of Sound.

The sound of the horn rumbled through a pedalboard and then a bass amp. In his black suit and matching fedora, he made a somber presence. It was clear from his silhouette, larger than life on the northern wall above the marble arch to the side of the stage, that he was breathing pretty hard. It takes a lot of air to fill those tubes. Sinton did that via circular breathing, in an almost nonstop, practically forty-minute improvisation. Is there an Olympic swimmer who can match that for endurance?

Likewise, the music conjured vast, oceanic vistas – when it wasn’t evoking an old diesel tractor. Several other machines came to mind: an encroaching lawnmower; a bandsaw; the hypnotically comforting thrum from the engine room of an ocean liner, through a heavy bulkhead. Overtones echoed, and pulsed, and sometimes hissed or howled, Sinton pulling back on the volume when that happened until the final ten minutes or so.

There was a point about halfway through when it felt utterly shameful to sit back, eyes closed, and get lost in the rumbling ambience, considering how hard Sinton was working to create such a calming effect. Finally, he opted not to pull away from the rising wall of feedback, letting it shriek as the throb of the amp became more like a jackhammer. Suddenly, what had been incredibly soothing was absolutely assaultive: a couple of people exited the front row. Finally, slowly and methodically, Sinton brought the atmosphere full circle to a barely audible wisp. And then silence.

Sinton calls this project Krasa – it’s a deliberate attempt to push himself out of his comfort zone to spur new creative tangents. Another completely different gig which Sinton has excelled at lately has been as the leader of Phantasos, a Morphine cover band. He had a residency with that trio last month at Barbes, putting a somewhat more slinky edge on Mark Sandman’s noir bounces and dirges. He had Dana Colley’s alternately gruff and plaintive sound down cold, and a rotating cast of bassists and drummers – notably Sam Ospovat- rose to the challenge of doing justice to such an iconic band. Much as Issue Project Room was close to sold out for Krasa, Phantasos could be a money gig to be proud of if Sinton could find the time. 

Soundscapes to Get Lost in and a Crown Heights Show by the Mesmerizing Arooj Aftab

Pakistani singer Arooj Aftab’s latest solo album Siren Islands – streaming at Bandcamp – is one of the most mesmerizingly enveloping releases of recent months. New Yorkers who really want to get lost this weekend can catch her with a guy who also knows a thing or two about swirling ambience, guitarist Gyan Riley, at Happy Lucky No. 1  Gallery in Crown Heights tomorrow night, March 16 at around 8. It’s likely to be an evening of improvisation, something the two excel at: cover is $20.

Aftab sings and plays all the guitars and synthesizers on the album, each recorded live with liberal use of loop pedals, and mixed to a single mono input. There are four tracks: the first three are “islands,” the fourth is a fifteen-minute meditation on Ovid’s Metamorphoses. It’s best appreciated as a single, immersive work.

You need details? As the first Island eases into view, there’s an icy, echoey, lo-fi swirl balanced by Aftab’s soulful, resonant voice. Which soon only comes through in waves, yet it’s vastly more comfortable than numb. The sweep grows more epic with Island No. 2, jangles and bubbles  spicing the slowly shifting sonic panorama.

Island No. 3 is almost eighteen minutes of a spare, gently galloping loop over tectonic washes of sound, Aftab’s vocalese lower and more poignantly insistent. Ovid’s Metamorphoses is the closest thing to Brian Eno here, a considerably sunnier, more tightly spiraling soundscape. For anybody who thinks Aftab’s talents are limited to vocals, guess again.

Mesmerizing Contrabass Clarinet Atmospherics From John McCowen

One of the most subtly magical atmospheric albums released in recent months is John McCowen’s Solo Contra album, streaming at Bandcamp. It’s a trio of solo compositions for contrabass clarinet. McCowen is a protege of Roscoe Mitchell and has a background in punk jazz; this album brings to mind the former if not the latter. Lesley Flanigan’s experiments with speakers and audio feedback are another strong point of comparison. McCowen’s formula seems simple but is actually very technically daunting: to employ this relatively rare, low-pitched instrument to produce surrealistically oscillating, keening high textures via tireless circular breathing.

Gritty, simmering ambience rises out of a mist as the first track, Fur Korv gets underway. Valves pop delicately in the room’s tantalizing natural reverb; high harmonics build slowly and disappear in a second.

It’s amazing how many of those harmonics McCowen is able to simultaneously tease out of the horn in the second number, Chopper HD, a study in burred high frequencies. Much as the sonics often evoke a circular saw, or a loose fanwheel that could use some grease, it doesn’t appear that McCowen uses any electronic effects to make his job easier.

McCowen’s magnum opus here is the practically seventeen-minute suite Berths 1-3. Digeridoo-like spirals contrast with barely audible, breathy white noise; as the pitches grow higher and more acidically scratchy, it’s a clinic in rattle and hum, a treble counterpart to the diesel-beyond-the-bulkhead ambience of Gebhard Ullmann’s BassX3 project. This isn’t music that will hit you over the head, but you can get completely lost in it.

Leila Bordreuil Cooks Up Murk and Mysticism at the Kitchen

That Leila Bordreuil could sell out the Kitchen on Thanksgiving eve testifies to the impact the French-born cellist has had on the New York experimental music scene. After a long residency at Issue Project Room, she keeps raising the bar for herself and everybody else. This past evening she led a six-bass septet through her latest and arguably greatest creation, the Piece for Cello and Double Bass Ensemble II. To call it a feast of low tonalities would be only half the story.

At the concert’s stygian, rumbling, enveloping peak, it was impossible to tell who was playing what because the lights had been turned out. In the flicker of phones, backlit by the soundboard’s glow and the deep blue shade from the skylight, six bassists – Zach Rowdens, Sean Ali, Britton Powell, Greg Chudzik, Nick Dunston and Vinicius Ciccone Cajado – churned out a relentless low E drone. As they bowed steadily, keening flickers of overtones began to waft over a rumble that grew grittier and grittier, eventually shaking the woofers of the amps. Yet only Bordreuil seemed to be using a pedalboard, first for crackling cello-metal distortion, then grey noise, then flitting accents akin to a swarm of wasps circling a potential prey. Still, the overall ambience was comforting to the extreme, a womblike berth deep in a truly unsinkable Titanic, diesels at full power behind a bulkhead.

The rest of the show was more dynamic,and counterintuitive. Bordreuil didn’t begin to play until the bassists had gradually worked their way up from a stark drone, Ali and Dunston introducing fleeting high harmonics for contrast. Beyond that, the six guys didn’t move around much individually. The second movement began with the composer leading a pitch-and-follow sequence of slow midrange glissandos, then she deviated to enigmatic microtonal phrases over the somber washes behind her. The final movements were surprisingly rapt and quiet – and much further up the scale, a whispery, ghostly series of variations on high harmonic pitches.

Methodically working a series of mixers and a small keyboard, opening act Dylan Scheer turned in an entertaining, texturally diverse, industrially icy set of kinetic stoner soundscapes. Flying without a net is hard work, and Scheer made it look easy, dexterously shifting from an echoey, metallic drainpipe vortex, to gamelanesque rings and pings, starrily oscillating comet trails and hints of distant fireworks followed by allusions to a thumping dancefloor anthem that never materialized. That the set went on as long as it did – seemingly twice as long as the headliners – could have been intentional. It was also too loud. The Kitchen is a sonically superior space: sounds that get lost in the mix elsewhere remain in the picture here. So there was no need to blast the audience with almost supersonic highs which gained painfully, to the point that the earplugs the ushers were handing out became necessary.

Bordreuil’s next show is at Jack in Fort Greene on Nov 29 at 8 PM with her trio with Ali and violist Joanna Mattrey.

Macabre Piano Epics and Deep-Space Ambience From Elizabeth A. Baker

Pianist/multi-instrumentalist Elizabeth A. Baker’s new album Quadrivium – streaming at Bandcamp – is extremely long and often extremely dark. Her music can be hypnotic and atmospheric one moment and absolutely bloodcurdling the next. Erik Satie seems to be a strong influence; at other times, it sounds like George Winston on acid, or Brian Eno. It was tempting to save it for Halloween month – when all hell breaks loose here – but Baker’s playing the release show tonight, Sept 22 at Arete Gallery in Greenpoint at 7 PM. Cover is $15 – be aware that there is no G train between Nassau Ave. and Queens this weekend, so your options are either taking the L to Bedford and about a 20-minute walk, or the G to Nassau if you’re coming from Brooklyn and then hoofing it from there.

Baker’s striking high/low piano contrasts follow a hypnotically circling, glacial pace in the thirteen-plus minutes of the album’s opening track, Sashay. Subtly and slowly, her icicle accents grow more spacious, with the occasional unexpectedly playful accent. The second track, Command Voices – 251A is a lot more sinister, laced with Baker’s emphatic menace amid sepulchral rustles. Its eleven-minute second part is a pitch-black haunted house soundtrack complete with creaky inside-the-piano sonics and ghostly bells that finally come full circle with a long parade of macabre close harmonies.

Four Explosions Expanding From the Center is an awfully sardonic title for a deep-space Satie-esque tone poem echoing the album’s opening track as it grows more energetic. Quarks is a study in coy, fleeting accents followed by the brief spoken-word piece Identity Definitions, which contemplates how primitive attempts to rationalize existence still have resonance today.

The far more epic Lateral Phases & Beat Frequencies addresses interpersonal quandaries over drones and spacy squiggles. Headspace is as ambient and drifty as you would think. What Is Done in Silence builds a spot-on, sarcastically robotic cautionary scenario about getting caught in a digital snare. Baker works trippily oscillating loops in An Outcast; the album’s final cut is a coldly glimmering, practically 24-minute portrait of a dangerous powder drug, or so it would seem. It brings to mind the early loop collages of Phil Kline. Lots of flavors and lots of troubling relevance in an album which has a remarkably persistent awareness even as Baker messes with the listener’s imagination.

A Strange, Innovative New Mixtape Album and a Williamsburg Show From Agnes Obel

Of the 21 tracks on Agnes Obel’s latest aptly titled album Late Night Tales – streaming at Bandcamp – only four of the songs are hers. But it’s not a covers album – it’s a cleverly assembled mixtape, often a very good one. Considering how many decades’ worth of material across about as wide a stylistic swath as you could imagine are represented here, segues aren’t the point. Obviously, the goth-tinged Danish multi-keyboardist/singer is going to be playing her own material at her gig tomorrow night, Sept 15 at Warsaw. Showtime is 8 PM; general admission is $20. If you’re going, be aware that there is no G train this weekend: the venue is about a five minute walk from the south exit (i.e. the one without the lines) at the Bedford Ave. L station.

To open the album, the shifting ominousness of Henry Mancini’s Evil Theme segues into the creepy arpeggios and vocalese of Moonbird, a 1971 instrumental by the Roger Webb Sound. Campy faux-tropicalia by Eden Ahbez quickly breaks the mood; the grim Lee Hazelwood western gothic track after that also hasn’t aged well.

Jamaican singer Nora Dean’s distantly menacing dub plate Ay Ay Ay Ay (Angle-Lala) is a welcome return to the darkness, echoed a bit later by Lena Platonos’ Bloody Shadows from a Distance. A loopily cinematic bass-and-narration miniature by Yello quickly gives way to the surreal 196os Brazilian renaissance choral psych-pop of Aleluia, by Quarteto Em Cy with the Tamba Trio

Ray Davies’ 2015 cover of his ex Chrissie Hynde’s I Go to Sleep is almost as surreal, awash in an echoey chamber pop arrangement. The lingering unease of the fifth movement from Alfred Schnittke’s Piano Quintet, (uncredited, but the piano sounds like Obel) connects to her first original here, Stretch Your Eyes and its rainy-day Dead Can Dance ambience. 

An otherworldly folk melody sung by the Bulgarian State Radio & Television Female Choir bridges to Obel’s second number, Glemmer Du and its twistedly twinkling music-box piano. Her third composition, Bee Dance is a ghostly waltzing instrumental for strings and piano.

The stark freak-folk of Sibylle Baier’s The End, from 2006, leads into Michelle Gurevich’s similarly spare, sarcastic Party Girl, from a year later. The mix shifts back to noir with Can’s wintry, swooshy instrumental Oscura Primavera, followed by indie classical composer David Lang’s minimalist choral fugue I Lie, performed by the Torino Vocalensemble (uncredited). Arguably the highlight of the whole mix is a live 1964 concert recording of Nina Simone singing an a-cappella version of her excoriating, ferociously relevant ode to black female beauty, Images. Obel’s emphatic, minimalist dreamscape setting of Inger Christensen’s Poem About Death concludes this strange and unsettling mix.

One minor issue with the album is that the times listed for every single track on the Bandcamp page are completely wrong. Don’t be surprised when what’s ostensibly six minutes worth of Obel suddenly cuts off at the 1:45 mark.

Dustlights Build a Catchy, Ethereal Sonic Cocoon

Dustlights’ enveloping debut album In a Stillness – streaming at Bandcamp – has a vastness you’d never expect from just a trio of sax, bass and drums. Part trip-hop, part stoner soundscape and part postrock, like Tortoise at their most concise, it’s music to get lost in. Yet bandleader/saxophonist Joe MF Wilson’s riffs have a purpose and directness that matches the material’s deep-space proportions, beefed up with layers of echo, reverb and other effects. The trio are playing the album release show tomorrow night, Aug 6 at around 10 PM at Wonders of Nature. Gritty, guitar-fueled postrockers Star Rover play beforehand at 9; cover is $10.

The album’s opening cut, Stolen Treasures and the Sea sets the stage for the rest of the album, bassist Ran Livneh (of amazing Ethio-jazz jamband Anbessa Orchestra) and drummer David Christian maintaining a litheness under Wilson’s catchy, subtly wafting hooks. Livneh’s hypnotic looping melody underpins the plaintive rainy-day melody, lingering ambience and hints of Ethiopiques in the second cut, Lifeworld

Throught Awoke, ghe rhythm section build a subtly echoing trip-hop groove beneath Wilson’s washes overhead. Blades That Bend has tastily astringent hints of Afrobeat contrasting with its balmy, low-key, minimalist pulse, while Tea Wars, with its flickering drum hardware and contrasting bass multitracks, is hardly bellicose.

The aptly titled, spare yet spacious Empty Porch Chairs floats along slowly; it’s arguably the album’s most nocturnal piece. Then the group pick up the pace – at least as much as they do here – with Night Tide, an echoey, rather wistful theme grounded by the rhythm section’s tight persistence, rising to a very unexpected peak.

Heart Counts begins as a ballad in disguise, featuring Wilson’s warmest phrasing here, then becomes a battle in disguise – more or less. With its dub reggae echoes, the album’s most animated, catchiest track is Shaken. The group wind it up with the epic Inner Stillness, practically ten minutes of spare, misty tectonic shifts over mystical, spacious djembe and bass pulses. Put this on and drift off to a better place.

An Uneasy, Mind-Altering, Atmospheric Layer Cake From Spirit Radio

Spirit Radio is the hypnotic, frequently otherworldly, often chilling duo project of Tamalyn Miller and Stephen Spera. Their new album A LIght Is Running Along the Ropes is streaming at Bandcamp. Miller contributes vocals and plays her signature, handmade single-string horsehair fiddle, which she also wields as the lead instrument in phantasmagorical New York art-rock band Goddess.

In its natural state, it induces all sorts of goosebumps, throwing off layers of sepulchral microtones. Here, it’s typically somewhat muted. Multi-instrumentalist Spera is a loopmusic pioneer whose career in minimalist atmospherics goes back to the 80s. Themes of transformation, death and rebirth permeate this relentlessly restless suite of trance pieces.

In the opening first segment of the album’s title triptych, a low, slowly shifting distorted guitar drone anchors tinkly piano, echoing loops and eventually Miller’s magnetic, uneasy wordless vocals. The track decays into a dusty wash at the end. It’s reprised midway through the album, balancing distantly quavery fiddle, poltergeist vocal angst and simple, unadorned guitar, eventually brightening somewhat. Both Miller’s voice and the guitar drone rise in the epic, almost fourteen-minute conclusion, Miller’s macabre fiddle shivers edging to the center and then falling away as starry keys and a tabla move in.

“This is a changing course, have you fallen off?” Miller’s disembodied, increasingly staggered vocal overdubs ask as the backdrop becomes more chaotic in the album’s second track, Earthbound. Then the menace really kicks in with Something About Fire, Miller’s recollection of childhood obsession with an unnamed song about a little girl who burns down her house.

Time and Dust, awash in both envelopingly resonant and flitting textures, brings to mind Laurie Anderson. “There is no time, but there is dust,” Miller intones, allusively sultry and sinister. From there, a circling, minimalist miniature leads into Sea Monk, an uneasy tableau blending echoey footfalls and a ghostly choir on loop. Always, with its gentle bells and “Forever is a long time” mantra, brings to mind Bora Yoon at her most comforting. After that, The Poisoned Knight juxtaposes cold coppery echoes against peaceful deep-forest samples. I Took a Long Walk, with its calm spoken-word multitracks, is both the trippiest and most relaxed track here. Fire this up, lean back and enter these not-quite-parallel universes if you dare.

Sprit Radio don’t have any shows coning up, but Goddess are making a rare Queens appearance at the Queens Museum in Corona Park on June 9 at around 3 PM, preceded by readings by Miller, Jen Bevin, Nick Flynn and Rachel Zucker in conjunction with Mel Chin’s installation The Funk & Wag from A to Z. Admission is free.

Laurie Anderson at the Town Hall: Perennially Relevant and Hilarious

Mohammed el Gharani was a teenager when he was captured by Pakistani bandits and then sold to Bush-era army troops for five thousand dollars. His case mirrors many if not all of the prisoners in the American Guantanamo gulag. In 2013, Laurie Anderson beamed his image onto a mammoth, Lincoln Memorial-esque setting at the Park Avenue Armory.

Beyond the complications of a live projection from Chad, where el Gharani returned after Reprieve.org worked to secure his release from prison, what Anderson remembered most vividly from the installation was how audiences reacted. She recounts the story in her new book All the Things I Lost in the Flood, whose release she celebrated with a solo show at the Town Hall last night. In a surveillance state, “Crowds have become very much aware of where the camera is,” she reminded.

Those who moved to the front, where their images would be transmitted back to Chad, were mouthing the words “I’m sorry.” It was the one moment in the performance where Anderson appeared to be close to tears. Considering that the book title references the devastating effects of Hurricane Sandy flooding on her basement archive, and also addresses the loss of her husband, Lou Reed, her usual deadpan stoicism in this case carried even more weight than usual.

Anderson’s work has always been intrinsically political, if not in a doctrinaire or sectarian  way. Over and over again, this mostly spoken-word performance reaffirmed that fearless populist sensibility. Her work is also usually outrageously funny, and this greatest hits show of sorts reflected that as well. An archival clip staged in the back of a diner, Anderson musing about the merits of the Star Spangled Banner versus alternative, less stressfully arpeggiated national anthems was as funny as it was back in 1980. More soberingly, she contemplated how Aristophanes’ The Birds might serve as a metaphor for the current administration.

Otherwise, Anderson shared a lot of remarkably candid insight into the nuts and bolts of staging provocative multimedia installations around the world. Homeland Security didn’t waste any time putting a stop to the idea of beaming in images of US prisoners serving life sentences – although the Italian government had given its stamp of approval to that same concept, which eventually springboarded Habeas Corpus, the installation el Gharani appeared in. That’s another typical Anderson trope: more often than not with her, plan B works just as well as plan A.

And she has a way of staying relevant: she allowed herself just a single moment to bask in that, recalling how she’d played her one big radio hit, O Superman, at the Town Hall right after 9/11 and found crowds resonating to it as much as they had during the Iranian hostage crisis twenty years before.

Her musical interludes, played solo on violin with plenty of pitch-shifting effects and layers stashed away digitally, only amounted to about ten uneasily wafting minutes. The stories, one after another, were very revealing, especially for an artist who ultimately doesn’t give much away about herself. As a “burnt-out multimedia artist” in Greece around the turn of the century, she recalled getting up the nerve to ask her Athens guide – a curator at the Parthenon – what happened to the country that invented western civilization. His response? That the Parthenon became so filled with tchotchkes that Athenians took their praying and philosophy private. “You can’t pray in an an art museum,” he explained.

Anderson pondered that and found it shocking. It was just as provocative to be reminded how she’s equated prisons and galleries over the years – both are heavily guarded and meant to keep what’s inside from leaving. On the lighter side, she recalled a late 90s project whose laser-fixated curator staged what could have been “group eye surgery” for extra shock appeal along with the pyrotechnics he’d mastered in the Israeli army.

At the end of the show, she sent out a salute to her husband with a brief tai chi demonstration, reminding how much she missed the banter of 21 years of marriage to a similarly legendary raconteur. One can only hope that if they ever recorded any of that, it survived the flood and future generations might be able to hear it someday.