New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Category: avant garde music

A Chilly Album of Solo Atmospherics For Our Time From Violinist Sarah Bernstein

Violinist Sarah Bernstein has written everything from microtonal jazz to string quartets to jazz poetry. As many artists have done this year, she’s released a solo album, Exolinger, streaming at Bandcamp. As you would expect, it’s her most minimalist yet, a chilly series of reverb-drenched instrumental and vocal soundscapes that directly and more opaquely reflect the alienation and inhumanity we’ve all suffered under the lockdown – outside of Sweden, or Nicaragua, or South Dakota, anyway.

The album’s first track, Carry This is a series of loopy car horn-like phrases that get pushed out of the picture by noisy fragments pulsing through the sonic picture, the reverb on Bernstein’s violin up so high that it isn’t immediately obvious she’s plucking the strings. It could be a song by Siouxsie & the Banshees spinoff the Creatures.

The second track, Ratiocinations is an increasingly assaultive series of variations on echo effects using a variety of chilly reverb timbres. The third piece, Tree, is definitely one for our time:

Crisis of mixed proportions
Manageable in ways
Mitigated, maximized, handled, contained
Sitting outside the birds have sirens
Fresh city air
The tree has been here awhile,
Has always been here
Before 1984, before 2020

Does Ghosts Become Crowds refer to a return toward normalcy…or a parade of the dead? The mechanical strobe of the grey noise behind Bernstein’s spare vocalese seems to indicate the latter.

The Plot works on multiple levels. On the surface, it’s a lengthy, shivery, blustery commentary – and demonstration – of the music inherent in language, and vice versa. In this case, apocalyptic industrial chaos trumps pretty much everything.

Through Havoc is a series of echoey, crunchy, noisy loops. “How strong is your will? Do you last a few hours?” Bernstein asks in We Coast, a moody study in resonance versus rhythm. She closes the album with its one moment of levity, Whirling Statue, which opens with what sounds like a talkbox.

Given Unlimited Time, Catherine Christer Hennix and Hans Isgren Wrapped It Up in Under an Hour

What if the time available to musicians was unlimited? Not only in terms of how long a venue might be open, or willing to put up with musical self-indulgence, but in terms of eternity? What would music sound like if a beat didn’t have to land, or a there was no limit to how long a tone could resonate…or if the guy behind the sound board was never going to pass out no matter how long the show went on?  That’s what Karlheinz Stockhausen sought to explore with Unbegrenzt, his 1968 score that relies on poetic cues rather than notation.

Fifty years after he proposed it, the idea is just as radical, realized even more radically by percussion duo Catherine Christer Hennix and Hans Isgren in 1974. What’s just as extraordinary as their performance – a cleverly terse, generally calm, metallic experience – is that they had the presence of mind to record it. And that there would be an organization as far-reaching as Blank Forms to track down the original analog recording, and digitize it, and release it this year. That kind of dedication transcends accolades. You can hear the whole sometimes ghostly, fitfully turbulent 52-minute concert as a single track at Bandcamp.

Ironically, Hennix came out of a jazz background: a teenage phenom in her native Stockholm, she’d drummed with some pretty big names before she turned twenty. By contrast to the animated rhythms of postbop jazz, this is vast, magically immersive music.

Computer-generated bubbles filter in and out of the mix as Isgren weaves reverberating quilts of sound while Hennix colors the space with steady, sharply echoey temple block riffs that echo through the electronics, sometimes seemingly despite them. The recitations from a Buddhist text are mercifully spare, leaving plenty of room – that was the point, right? – for Hennix’s electric stalactite drips and allusions to craggy drama mingled within Isgren’s creepy metallic ambience.

Listen closely and you’ll hear points where a seemingly organic thicket of mutedly echoing hits recedes for more mechanical atmosphere, then the humans quietly and defiantly regain control, and gently push into deep space. Much as machines can be useful, ultimately it’s up to us to claim our territory, not the other way around. A delightfully enveloping yet equally chilling sonic metaphor for these times.

Deathprod’s Latest Album: Dark Anti-Fascist Ambience

As Deathprod, keyboardist and electronic musician Helge Sten has built an eclectic, often haunting and provocative body of work over the past quarter century or or so. His latest album, Occulting Disk – streaming at Bandcamp – came out late last year and is his first release since the mid-zeros. It’s described as an “anti-fascist ritual.”

Considering how many we’ve had in the streets this year, we could always use another one. This is a long album: several of the tracks are in the eight minute range or more. How ritualistic is this music? Much of it is a series of loops and variations. Is there discernible anti-fascist content? It’s icy, dystopic and mechanical, which could be construed as a cautionary tale.

This is the kind of album that’s best appreciated as a cohesive whole, rather than a series of distinct parts. It begins with a series of fuzzy loops of bass synth with a little space in between. Sten follows with the eight-part suite Occultation, which begins with shifting, atonal, eerily overtone-laden cloudbanks matched by a series of slow sirening effects. Sound familiar?

Buzzsaw oscillations subtly and glacially drift from the center. Sirens return at higher frequencies along with what sounds like the hum of a blown speaker that can’t be shut off. Dopplers and echoes mingle on a highway, though a very foggy window. Gritty, sustained bits and pieces of chords begin to emerge. An electric lawn mower struggles against something in the grass. Whale song in deep space, echo echo echo echo.

The suite is interrupted by the much louder, relentlessly bleak, practically thirteen-minute soundscape Black Transit of Jupiter’s Third Satellite. The conclusion is where the ritual starts to make sense: imagine Bill Gates, Tony Fauci and Andrew Cuomo adrift in a little boat, bound and gagged, on the Hudson river on a freezing cold January night. There’s historical precedent for that.

Haunting New Sounds From an American Transcendentalist and a Mumbai-Born Jazz Chanteuse

You probably wouldn’t think that one of the world’s most unpredictable pianists would be the first choice for a lot of singers. Au contraire – Ran Blake loves playing with singers and has made many albums with them. Blake personifies the film noir esthetic. His most noir-centric album in this century with a vocalist remains the 2012 cult classic Camera Obscura record with Sara Serpa. He’s also done spine-tingling work with Dominique Eade. And he’s worked with Christine Correa before: their new duo album, When Soft Rains Fall – streaming at Spotify – really brings out the best in both artists , a high point in their long-running collaboration.

It’s amazing how they completely reinvent a bunch of old standards: the two improvise at such a high level that everything on the record might as well be called an original. Correa’s bittersweet, weathered approach to I’m a Fool to Want You, the album’s opening track, is a perfect foil for Blake’s sudden yet sagacious shifts from minimalist blues, to furtive Messiaenesque ice, to his own saturnine gleam.

The two open For Heaven’s Sake as anything but a love song, but they warm it up quickly, even if Blake remains more gremlin than imp. Correa narrates The Day Lady Died as Blake takes this grimly imagistic 1959 Manhattan tableau into a cold, revealing Weegee light with shadows just outside.

The two reverse roles in You’ve Changed, Blake’s steadiness in contrast to Correa’s stricken vulnerability. She matches the shift between Blake’s insistent chimes and muted murk im You Don’t Know What Love Is, then the duo bring an apt phantasmagoria to The End of a Love Affair: breakups are the creepiest thing in the world!

They remake For All We Know with circling, Saties-esque menace: tomorrow truly may never come for all we know. Blake is unsurpassed at lowlit, close-harmonied miniatures, Big Stuff being the latest in a long series.

The bitter quasi-Rachmaninoff chords that open Get Along Without You Very Well – the key to the album – speak volumes, as does Correa’s cynical delivery. Blake plays a clinic in implied melody in Violets For Your Furs – he really makes you think you’re hearing a bluesy ballad – then goes under the lid, literally, behind Correa’s haggard angst in Lady Sings the Blues.

Blake’s insistence contrasts with Correa’s guarded hope against hope in But Beautiful, a dynamic they revisit to an extent in Glad to Be Unhappy, although she’s more vividly cynical in the latter.

Their take of I’ll Be Around – not the Howlin’ Wolf classic – is the album’s most spaciously brief number. They close it with It’s Easy to Remember, where Correa takes centerstage with an a-cappella intro. After all these years, Blake remains best known for his shattering, classic collaboration with the late, great Jeanne Lee, The Newest Sound Around, but he hasn’t stopped finding newer ones. And there’s more where this came from, including a collaboration with another darkly cinematic pianist, Frank Carlberg.

A Chilling Live Recording of a Poignantly Resonant Michael Hersch Suite

With recording studios officially off limits to large ensembles, and musicians for all intents and purposes unable to earn a living playing concerts with large groups, many classical artists have been sifting through the archives for live recordings made before the lockdown. One harrowing gem among them is composer Michael Hersch’s I Hope We Get the Chance to Visit Soon, streaming at Bandcamp. The centerpiece is a fifteen-part suite recorded live at the Aldeburgh Music Festival in 2018.

The concert begins with a new version of an earlier piece for voice, violin, and cello, …das Rückgrat berstend (German for “bent back”), a setting of a Christopher Middleton poem. The concert’s two sopranos, Ah Young Hong and Kiera Duffy alternate German and English phrases over keening overtones from strings and winds which slowly rise to sudden, sharp peaks and then subside, or burst and then vanish. it’s a vivid portrait of madness.

The album’s central suite interchanges texts from correspondence written by Hersh’s friend Mary Harris O’Reilly alongside poetry by Rebecca Elson, each author a woman who died young from cancer. Hersch, a cancer survivor himself, has explored this theme before, notably in his macabre End Stages suite. In a sense, this is a sequel, although the texts add poignancy as the narrative traces O’Reilly’s inevitable decline.

A troubled, microtonal haze punctuated by gloomy piano sets the stage for a quick diagnosis and a good prognosis which soon evaporates. High harmonics linger ominously while bustle and turbulence emerges below, only to disappear. Arioso hope against hope breaks down into calm, but only fleetingly, and then sheer horror ensues with the singers at the top of their range. The sweep of the orchestration grows to a pained, often wistful grandeur as the suite nears the end. As a portrait of uncertainty and terror – not to mention a chronicle of ineffective new drugs failing to help the critically ill – it matches anything the lockdowners have thrown at us this year.

A brave and important work for the inspired ensemble of clarinetist Raphael Schenkel, bassoonist Cody Dean, alto saxophonist Gary Louie, pianist Amy Yang, violinists Meesun Hong Coleman and Anna Matz, violist Joel Hunter, cellist Benjamin Santora and bassist Piotr Zimnik, conducted by Tito Munoz.

Irresistibly Colorful Improvisations from Korean Trio Saaamkiiim

More today from fascinating new Korean label Mung Music, dedicated to taking some of that country’s strangest and most beguiling improvisational sounds to a global audience. One of their initial slate of releases is Ma-Chal (Korean for “friction”), the debut album by electroacoustic trio Saaamkiiim, streaming at Bandcamp.

There are four tracks: Pointy, Moist, Creepy, and the title cut. Pointy begins as an eerily keening series of electronic loops joined by jagged incisions from Yeji Kim’s haegum fiddle. Sun Ki Kim’s drums and small gongs range from suspenseful, to shamanic, to irrepressibly amusing. The improvisation builds to a series of very funny triangulated interludes – maybe that’s why it’s pointy.

Moist has Dey Kim’s stalactite drips and minimalist piano licks paired with an icy mist of cymbals and shifting sheets of sound from the haegum. The rhythm grows boomier and more insistent along with the fiddle: is this iceberg going to rip apart into a million pieces? Just the opposite, as it turns out.

How creepy is Creepy? Increasingly so, as monster-breath sonics push coy evocations of birdsong from the haegum out of the picture and the funereal gong grows more frantic. Gritty, straining tension and looming atmospherics pervade the early part of the title soundscape, then it gets amusing. No spoilers.

Improvisational Sorcery From XNN

“Can we remain curious and open to new perspectives while standing firm in the principles that make us who we are? To what extent can we sincerely consider an idea that challenges everything we think we believe?

What better training to play improvised music than to deal with these questions!”

That’s drummer Dan Kurfirst, on the new recording by free jazz collective XNN, whose new album Dance Chaos Magic is streaming at Bandcamp. The bandname is a variant on CNN, referring to how the group would reinterpret the news, real or fake, after convening in the rehearsal room. Ben Cohen plays sax, as does Daniel Carter, who quadruples (is “quadruples” a word? It is with this guy) on flute, clarinet and trumpet. Eli Wallace gets seemingly every texture and timbre that can be struck from a piano: it is a percussion instrument, after all.

The album is a single, roughly 39-minute improvisation that hits a genuinely spellbinding point at about the 25-minute mark. Ghosts flit playfully amid Cohen’s overtone-laced sustain as Carter begins the jam on flute. Wallace has muted, strangely zither-like fun under the piano lid (or else he’s prepared it). Kurfirst moves from his hardware and climbs steadily from a muted thud.

Carter’s shift to distant, regally muted trumpet is matched by a seemingly qawwali-influenced, subtly circling groove from Kurfirst. A move to sax by Carter – the elder statesman here – signals a bubbling interweave that brings the group together with what comes across as a deviously implied, floating swing.

Wallace playing popcorn on the muted upper strings, inside the lid, is a hoot, and eventually lures Cohen down the rabbit hole as Carter’s trumpet hovers pensively. Kurfirst lowers the anchor and then raises it, drawing spare, somber modalities from Wallace and similarly uneasy, microtonal tectonic shifts from Cohen. The transformation to balmy lyricism and then a triumphantly clustering bustle seems easier than it probably was to play, testament to the depth of the group’s repartee. May this be an omen for what the world has to face the rest of this year and beyond.     

Pianist Liza Stepanova’s New Album Champions Brooding New Music by Immigrant Composers

As we’ve been seeing more and more over the last couple of years, many artists most closely associated with traditional classical repertoire have a not-so-secret passion for new music. Pianist Liza Stepanova lays claim to that cred with her new solo album E Pluribus Unum – streaming at Spotify – a collection reflecting her background as as an American immigrant. It’s mix of strikingly purposeful, accessible and rather dark works by her fellow immigrants, including several world premieres. Musically the takeaway is that if you think she’s good at, say, Tschaikovsky, wait til you hear this. And in a year where the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement has been committing crimes against humanity by forcibly performing hysterectomies on refugee women,, the album takes on even greater relevance.

She opens with An Old Photograph from the Grandparents’ Childhood, a brooding, steadily Chopinesque, chromatically biting miniature by Lera Auerbach. Kamran Ince’s partita Symphony in Blue is a study in stabbing acerbity versus calm, spacious, often mysterious resonance, with a little inside-the-piano flitting. Stepanova’s carnivalesque music-box upper register work is enabled by what sounds like tacks on the hammers.

Chaya Czernowin‘s Fardance Close has the same dichotomy, flickering highs in contrast with low rumbles and even more suspense. Stepanova next tackles two selections from Reinaldo Moya’s South American refugee suite The Way North. The first, La Bestia, follows scrambling upward tangents which grow more allusively ominous. The second, Rain Outside the Church has artful contrast between high pointillisms and more enveloping, low-midrange variations: Debussy is the obvious reference.

The point of Anna Clyne‘s On Track, a surreally produced, propulsively chiming electroacoustic theme and subtle variations, is that change is constant, like it or not: the ending is completely unexpected. Mool, a Lake Michigan tableau by Eun Young Lee, has strikingly understated, spaciously nocturnal phrasing and a distant, austere glitter: it’s one of the album’s most memorable moments.

Badie Khaleghian‘s triptych Táhirih the Pure, dedicated to the tragic 19th century feminist mystic, begins with The Day of Alert, a dynamically-charged, allusively Middle Eastern-tinged prelude built around an uneasily circling lefthand riff. Part two, Unchained is assembled around the album’s most persistent trope, high/low contrasts, in this case magnified by dissociative rhythms. The conclusion, Badasht is a sort of mirror image of the introduction, Stepanova nimbly tackling the daunting, insistent pointillisms ringing out over moody resonance.

Piglia, by Pablo Ortiz is part pensive prelude, part a more subtle take on what Kachaturian did with his Sabre Dance. Stepanova closes the record with Gabriela Lena Frank‘s rather wryly phantasmagorical Karnavalito No. 1. All of this is as thoughtfully and intuitively played as it is programmed. Let’s look forward to the day we get the chance to see Stepanova continue in this very auspicious direction, onstage, in front of an audience!

Christine Ott Releases the First Ever Solo Album Performed on the Rarest of Instruments

Christine Ott’s album Chimères (pour ondes Martenot) – streaming at Bandcamp – is the first record in history ever written for and performed solo on that rare machine. French inventor Maurice Martenot patented what was arguably the first-ever analog synthesizer in the early 1920s. Long since eclipsed in popular memory by the theremin, the ondes Martenot is easier to control, and as a result can generate more resonant, pitch-perfect, and less quavery sounds because a player’s fingers move across a ribbon on an electronic keyboard, rather than being activated by motion against a force field. Yet the ondes Martenot – also known as the ondea – can also replicate the sound of a theremin to the point where the two instruments are indistinguishable.

Ott is one of very few musicians alive to have mastered the ondes Martenot, and has been sought out by acts ranging from Tindersticks to Yann Tiersen. Her new album transcends the exotic, or any possible kitschy associations: this is catchy, enveloping, fascinatingly ambient music.

Co-producers Paul Régimbeau and Frédéric D. Oberland mix Ott’s live-in-the-studio performance through a series of effects for extra orchestral grandeur. In the opening track, Comma, tremoloing waves beneath keening, quavering highs give way to a calmly enveloping balance from the lower registers. The second track, Darkstar, rises to a catchy, motorik theme anchored by buzzing lows, Ott finally hitting a theremin-like crescendo way up the scale.

She builds a hauntingly nuanced theme, sliding upward into the melancholy riffs of Todeslied and then adding piercing accents. Much of this uneasy, undulating, increasingly turbulent piece is a sort of electronic analogue to Michael Hersch’s macabre work for strings.

Echo effects flutter and dance throughout Mariposas, then slowly shift to echoey drainpipe sonics and deep-space dopplers in Sirius. Then Ott completely flips the script with Pulsar and its droll, woozy lows.

Eclipse is the most ominously ambient and lowest-register track here: it seems patched through a choir effect and then oceans of loops for extra terror, up to a surprise ending. Ott closes the album with Burning, a broodingly catchy Twin Peaks theme that decays to fragmented shots from every corner of the sonic picture. Let’s hope this album reaches enough of an audience to draw other fearless artists to Martenot’s strange invention.

A Diverse, Playfully Eclectic Solo Violin Album From Michi Wiancko

Until the lockdown, violinist Michi Wiancko enjoyed a busy career in the New York new music scene. Like many arists have done in the last few months, she’s releasing a solo album, Planetary Candidate – streaming at Bandcamp – an eclectic collection of both organic and electroacoustic works by several of her favorite contemporary composers, along with one of her own. The sounds here are adventurous and often psychedelic, but not harsh or assaultive.

The album’s title track, by the artist herself, is a deceptively catchy, increasingly dense jungle of insistent, minimalist pizzicato chords bookending a still, sustained interlude. Wiancko’s vocals are multitracked as well. The theme is breathing, which could be a loaded metaphor: hard to do that with a muzzle over your face!

Wiancko’s similarly insistent eight-note phrases dirift further and further into dissonace as Christopher Adler’s Jolie Sphinx moves along, a trope that repeats in more pensive, subtly baroque-influenced cadences a little later on in Mark Dancigers‘ Skyline. Paula Matthusen’s Songs of Fuel and Insomnia has dissociatively drifting overlays, trippy electronic textures that extend into stygian depths, and some unexpectedly shreddy metal.

Wiancko shifts from briskly leaping arpeggios to hazy, steady close harmonies and then halfway back in Jessie Montgomery’s Rhapsody No. 2. Bizarrely processed echo effects pervade William Brittelle‘s alternately ambient and acerbic So Long Art Decade – a reference to the Bowie song?

A waterside tableau complete with found sounds, Matthusen’s Lullaby for Dead Horse Bay manages to be both the album’s most atmospheric and captivating piece. Wiancko winds up the record with a second Brittelle composition, Disintegration, a swooping, imaginatively overdubbed, increasingly kinetic series of echoey exchanges with coy, distant echoes of 80s new wave music.