New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Category: avant garde music

Blythe Gaissert Tackles the Concept of Home in an Era of Refugees and Homelessness

What’s become more and more apparent as the lockdowers’ schemes continue to unravel is that a significant portion of the global population managed to keep the lockdown at bay. Yes, entire segments of the economy, most tragically the performing arts, were largely destroyed. But freedom proved too strong to die. We found places to shop and eat where nobody was traced or tracked or expected to be muzzled. When our favorite bars and restaurants were padlocked, we started speakeasies and threw potlucks. A lot of us entertained audiences in our newfound clandestine spaces. And some of us even made albums. One particularly noteworthy and fiercely relevant new release is mezzo-soprano Blythe Gaissert‘s album Home, streaming at Bandcamp.

Its central theme relates powerfully to the global refugee crisis, although it’s taken on frightening new levels of meaning since the lockdown. Joined by a dynamic, impassioned chamber ensemble, Gaissert has engaged an eclectic cast of composers and lyricists who range beyond the indie classical demimonde with which she is most closely associated.

She opens the album with David T. Little and Royce Vavrek’s bracing Archaeology. Over a somber, steadily shifting backdrop from violinists Miho Saegusa and Katie Hyun, violist Jessica Meyer, cellist Andrew Yee and bassist Louis Levitt, Gaissert reaches for the rafters in this allusively ominous tableau: houses keep more secrets than anyone knows.

Gaissert sings in Chinese in Songs From Exile, a leaping yet pulsingly elegant diptych by Rene Orth utilizing an ancient Li Qing Zhao text, an expat’s view of absence and longing. The acidic glissandos from the strings in the second part are particularly disquieting.

Gaissert shifts to French for Nous Deux, Martin Hennessy‘s starkly string-fueled setting of a Paul Eluard text: “We ourselves are the evidence that love is at home with us,” is the crux of it. Laura Kaminsky and Kimberly Reed‘s Carne Barata (Chopped Meat) witheringly quotes immigrant Linda Morales’ cynical account of undocumented employees in the meatpacking industry. Colleen Bernstein’s vibraphone lingers beneath the opacity of the string section and Gaissert’s impassioned duet with baritone Michael Kelly.

She soars over Bradley Moore’s colorfully crescendoing piano in John Glover and Kelley Rourke‘s Home Is Where I Take My Shoes Off. a welcome moment of comic relief. The music calms with Kamala Sankaram‘s gorgeously ambered, wistfully imagistic Ramonanewyorkamsterdam.

The lush sway of Jerry Hammer, by Ricky Ian Gordon, belies the song’s creepy childhood reminiscence of the death of an outcast. Gaissert reaches to the depths of her register in the final composition, Bungalow, a diptych by Mikael Karlsson and Rob Stephenson. Its alternately blustery and seemingly Indian-influenced, nebulously swirling textures build levels of suspense that the lyrics never match. Otherwise, throughout this album, Gaissert has really nailed the angst of an era.

Twisted Things Come in Threes Today

Been a little while since there have been any singles on this page. But little by little, more and more artists are gearing up for a return to freedom. There’s optimism, apocalypse and fury in today’s trio of songs.

“I’m living in a ghost town, I’m doing things my way, I’m not dead yet, ” four-piece New York band Devora’s frontwoman asserts over skronky minimalist punk rock straight out of the late 80s in their latest single, Not Dead Yet.

Chicago guitar legend Dave Specter and blues harp player Billy Branch build a slow, venomously simmering groove in The Ballad of George Floyd: “Eight minutes of torture, begged for mercy, then he was killed.” Specter has been on a roll with good protest songs, ever since his venomous anti-Trump broadside, How Low Can One Man Go.

Marianne Dissard, who’s been putting out single after hauntingly eclectic single from a planned covers album, has just released the one of her disturbing picks so far, a ghastly remake of Adriano Celentano’s creepily dadaesque 1972 Prisencolinensinainciusol, with a pastiche of samples of lockdown posturing by Boris Johnson, two Trumps, Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel, Reccep Erdogan, and Xi Jinping. Together they give Dissard a long, long rope to hang them with.

Remembering a Rapturous Annual Brooklyn Festival of Cutting-Edge Vocal Music

The annual Resonant Bodies Festival of avant garde vocal music ran from 2013 to 2019 at Roulette, and had just begun to branch out to other major cities when the lockdown crushed the performing arts throughout most of the world. This blog was there for the initial festival, and subsequent editions matched that year’s outside-the-box sensibility. Roulette’s vast archive still exists, and presumably everything from those often riveting performances was recorded. Let’s hope that there’s been enough resistance to the lockdown, and enough talent left in New York this fall to resume the series; if not, there’s a fantastic live compilation album featuring some of the highlights from over the years streaming at Bandcamp.

The lineup here is a who’s who of some of the most formidable new-music vocal talent out there. As was often the case with the series itself, all of the singers here are women, most of them composer-performers playing and singing solo. All but two of the tracks are from the festival.

Charmaine Lee‘s Littorals makes an apt opener. Her shtick is that she uses all the sounds in the international phonetic alphabet, plus some that may not have symbols. Part human beatbox, part devious infant, part comic, her solo performance will leave you in stitches. It sounds as if the mic is inside her mouth for much of this. This might be the funniest track anyone’s released this year.

Julia Bullock brings a beefy, soul-inspired vibrato to John Cage’s She is Asleep, Milena Gligić supplying muted, percussive microtones under the piano lid. Pamela Z’s highly processed solo diptych Quatre Couches/Badagada spins an increasingly agitated pastiche through a funhouse mirror.

Backed by clarinetist Campbell MacDonald, Sarah Maria Sun delivers Thierry Tidrow‘s grisly murder ballad Die Flamme, Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire recast as arsonist. Tony Arnold nimbly negotiates the multiple voices and disjointedly demanding extended technique of Jason Eckardt’s Dithyramb.

Arooj Aftab joins forces with pianist Vijay Iyer and bassist Shahzad Ismaily for En Route to Unfriending, a slowly unwinding, ghazal-inspired, melancholy tour de force from the 2017 festival. Iyer’s gently insistent staccato, evoking the ringing of a santoor, is masterful.

The title of Kamala Sankaram‘s slowly crescendoing solo electroacoustic piece Ololyga reflects a shrieking mourning ritual practiced in ancient Greece, which men reputedly scared off all the guys. Needless to say, the Bombay Rickey frontwoman pulls out all the stops with her five-octave range.

Another solo electroacoustic performance, Caroline Shaw‘s diptych Rise/Other Song is considerably calmer, with a gently incantatory quality. Gelsey Bell‘s Feedback Belly is one of the more imaginative and intense pieces here, drawing on her battle with the waves of pain she experienced during a long battle with endometriosis. “If there’s anything you take away from this, please take women’s pain seriously. There is nothing like having a women’s disease to radicalize a feminist in this incredibly misogynistic health system,” she relates in the album’s extensive, colorful liner notes. Manipulating feedback from a Fender amp inside a metal canister hidden under her oversize dress, Bell builds a strangely rapt, dynamically shifting atmosphere punctuated by pulsing electronic grit.

Duo Cortona – vocalist Rachel Calloway and violinist/vocalist Ari Streisfeld – perform Amadeus Regucera‘s relationship drama If Only After You Then Me, beginning furtively and ripping through many moments of franticness and sheer terror. The iconic Lucy Shelton sings a dynamically impassioned take of Susan Botti‘s Listen, My Heart, a setting of a comforting Rabindrath Tagore poem, accompanying herself energetically on singing bowls and metal percussion.

Anaïs Maviel plays spiky, circling ngoni on In the Garden, a hypnotically moody, masterfully melismatic retelling of the Garden of Eden myth. The album’s closing epic is Sofia Jernberg’s One Pitch: Birds for Distortion and Mouth Synthesizers. Is she going to be able to hold up through seventeen minutes of nonstop, increasingly rigorous falsetto birdsong-like motives…let alone without a break for water? No spoilers!

A Revealing New Take on an Iconically Scary Suite From Patricia Kopatchinskaja

As a student, Patricia Kopatchinskaja fell in love with Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. But she didn’t stop with the music: “All my life I have felt that I was Pierrot,” she reveals.

Scary admission. Now we know why she would seize the opportunity to be the macabre Michael Hersch’s go-to violinist. For fans of Schoenberg’s iconic portrait of mad obsession (and staple of horror movie scores), Kopatchinskaja has recorded the suite on her new album, streaming at Spotify. It’s truly a dream (or nightmare) come true for her, since she doubles as both violinist and vocalist.

And she revels in it. The way her voice matches that fleeting glissando early in the opening miniature attests to how deeply she dives into the rest of it. Having seen the great Lucy Shelton gleefully tackle these pieces more than once, it’s fair to say that Kopatchinskaja’s approach just as fearlessly entertaining, and surprisingly nuanced. Shelton would really dig in and try to half-sing Albert Giraud’s texts. Kopatchinskaja is more of an otherworldly narrator sprite.

Pianist Joonas Ahonen and the rest of an inspired ensemble join her in giving a stately strut to Colombine, providing sotto-voce, cynical cheer in Der Dandy, flitting mystery in Ein blasse Wascherin, a moody stroll for Madonna, and a distant moroseness to Der kranke Mond. Beyond just those highlights, the attention to detail throughout the twenty-one short segments is spectacular, from film noir furtiveness to deep-space gloom, unexpectedly restrained phantasmagoria and flickers of sardonic humor.

There are a handful of other pieces on the record. Webern’s Four Pieces for Violin and Piano, op.7 drift sepulchrally and offer stygian mystery alongside puckish cheer. Kopatchinskaja and Ahonen bounce slyly through Fritz Kreisler’s Miniature Viennese and its ersatz Romany riffage.

To close the album, Ahonen parses Schoenberg’s Six Little Piano Pieces op.19 for moody acidity, lingering unease and peek-a-boo humor. The inclusion of Schoenberg’s pointless arrangement of Johann Strauss’s schlocky Emperor Waltz makes an awful segue out of Pierrot Lunaire: punk classical this is not. Going straight to Schoenberg’s Phantasy For Violin and Piano, op.47, which Kopatchinskaja and Ahonen play colorfully and acerbically afterward, would have been perfect.

Revisiting a Wild Moment in the Elegant Satoko Fujii’s Unbelievably Prolific Career

The idea of pairing the brilliant and meticulously focused pianist Satoko Fujii with the unhinged energy of Ruins drummer Tatsuya Yoshida might seem incongruous, but the two actually have a history. In 2004, they formed a short-lived duo, Toh-Kichi, which they occasionally resurrected over the years, culminating in a brief Japanese tour and a 2019 album, Baikamo – streaming at Bandcamp – with compositions by both members. It’s synergistic, it’s a lot of fun and it’s also pretty intense.

Essentially, it’s a theme and variations interrupted by miniatures which run the gamut from crazed, to simple and emphatic, to hypnotically circling and sometimes ridiculously funny. This is just about the loudest album Fujii has ever made, but it’s rich with her signature melodicism, and Yoshida turns out to be a strong tunesmith in his own right.

After a cacaphonous intro, Fujii gets down to business with the stern, emphatic, catchy Rolling Down, Yoshida locked in on her clustering and then insistent attack. Her punk rock Messiaen climb afterward is a hoot; then the duo bring the song full circle.

The two have wry lockstep fun with the tricky, staccato rhythms of the Radiohead-ish No Reflection, Yoshida indulging in some tongue-in-cheek stadium rock exuberance before Fujii brings the clouds to hover ominously.

Yoshida clusters and Fujii circles in the album’s title track, with some of the pianist’s most deliciously glittering phantasmagoria of recent years. The best of Yoshida’s pieces here is Aspherical Dance, another catchy number that follows a suspensefully climbing trajectory to an anti-coda that’s too good to give away.

The two lighten the stark, heroic intensity of the album’s first theme in Laughing Birds without losing any relentless drive. The unpronounceable number afrer that signals a return to circling, emphatic riffs, following an atmospheric intro; the heavy metal outro is a trip.

The two take the heroic theme further into disquiet, chaos and back in Front Line, with a creepy, marionettish Fujii solo. They keep the evil music-box sonics going in the miniature after that, then in Climber’s High they spin and stomp around with the main theme again. The next-to-last track is a mashup of circular grimness and stop-and-start rhythms. The two close with the menacingly vast, windswept soundscape Ice Age, a rare opportunity to hear Fujii on vocals.

Arooj Aftab’s Misty, Organic New Album Transcends Tragedy

Pakistani singer Arooj Aftab’s new album Vulture Prince – streaming at Bandcamp – takes its title from a Parsi funeral custom, where a body is left for the vultures in order to continue the natural cycle of life. The backstory is grim: the singer lost her younger brother Maher while making the record. Somehow she found the perseverance to transcend that tragedy. The central theme is revisiting places, and situations, and people, who may not exist anymore. With the lockdowners still exerting an iron grip on much of the world, the album couldn’t be more relevant.

As usual, Aftab defies categorization. Several of these songs could be called ghazals, but the instrumentation is more jazz and art-rock oriented. Baghon Main is a verdantly catchy remake of a track from her debut album, Maeve Gilchrist opening the song with a flourish on her harp, then Petros Klampanis’ stately bass and Juliette Jones’ distant violin enter the picture. Aftab’s meticulously modulated voice has taken on additional gravitas and maybe even more nuance – if that’s possible! – in the the years since.. And it’s the key to the album. Instrumental voicings that would have been spun through a mixer earlier in her career are organic now – the echo and doppler-like effects from the violin, for example.

Diya Hai has a similarly catchy, spiky backdrop, Badi Assad supplying  acoustic guitar with Jones’ shivery violin entering later, Aftab’s gently emotive voice just as haunting. She keeps her melismas low-key and lustrous in Inayaat, awash in violin, Aftab’s spare, hypnotic piano contrasting with the incisive pings and ripples of the harp. Percussionist Jamey Haddad’s shift from a drifting, ghazal-like feel to an implied qawwali groove is a striking touch.

Aftab multitracks her vocals in the starkly catchy minor-key dub reggae tune Last Night, a setting of a Rumi love poem with a handful of lines in English. Mohabbat comes across as a gently undulating mashup of Elizabethan British folk and Punjabi devotional music, Nadje Noordhuis’ resonant trumpet calm above Gyan Riley’s guitar, the harp and the tremoloing lines of the violin.

Aftab’s misty intonation of her late friend Annie Ali Khan’s lyrics in Saans Lo – an encouragement to move on and the closest thing here to Aftab’s swirly, immersive earlier work – is unselfconsciously wrenching. She closes the album with Suroor, her hazy vocals contrasting with the lively, lightly processed harp and a dancing rhythm: as imaginatively arranged as this is, it’s the closest thing to a traditional ghazal here.

Haunting, Intense, Politically Potent Pan-Asian Inspired New Sounds From Jen Shyu

Jen Shyu’s music is hypnotic, frequently nocturnal, incantatory and informed by ancient myths and traditions spanning across Asia. Inspired by those traditions, Shyu hardly limits herself to the kind of separation between artistic disciplines which so often dominates those practices in the west. Much of the music on her haunting, otherworldly new album Zero Grasses: Ritual for the Losses – streaming at Bandcamp – is a soundtrack for even more ambitious multimedia projects.

Throughout her work, Shyu has always focused on commonalities, drawing on artistic and cultural influences from Taiwan, East Timor, Indonesia, Japan and beyond. This album shares that universality yet is also her most personal one. It’s rooted in the here and now, a response to bereavement and tragedy, addressing the sudden loss of Shyu’s beloved father as well as the murder of Breonna Taylor and the lockdown. Here Shyu sings, narrates and plays Japanese biwa, Taiwanese moon lute and piano, joined by her Jade Tongue ensemble with Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet, Mat Maneri on viola, Thomas Morgan on bass and Dan Weiss on drums.

In the opening suite, Living’s a Gift, Shyu becomes a one-woman choir delivering a pastiche of lyrics written by choir students at MS51 in Brooklyn’s South Park Slope during the grim early days of the lockdown. The band waft and dance gently behind her as she mashes up classic soul balladry, punchy indie classical, acerbic theatricality and a little hip-hop. If there’s any music that’s been released since March 16 of last year that gives voice to the relentless psychological torture that children in New York have suffered at the hands of the lockdowners, this is it: “Hope for the best, expect the worst,” as one of the kids blithely puts it in the first segment. No wonder suicide among young people is up sixty percent over the past year.

Akinmusire plays a solemn farewell over Maneri and Morgan’s stark, microtonal washes, Shyu’s piano driving a seething undercurrent in Lament for Breonna Taylor: the lyrics are from Taylor’s mom Tamika Palmer’s remiscence about her daughter’s plans to become a nurse before she was gunned down in a home invasion by Louisville police.

The Human Color, an understately lustrous piano ballad originally released in 2009, reflects on the enslavement of Chinese alongside Africans under the conquistadors in 19th century Cuba. A Cure for the Heart’s Longing, a more intertwining ballad spiced with spiky moon lute, is a setting of Javanese poetry by legendary wayang artist Sri Joko Raharjo. Shyu reprises a similar mood later, with more of a nocturnal sweep, in Finally She Emerges.

Shyu’s voice reaches an imploring, chilling intensity in Body of Tears, an anguished account of the moment she was informed she’d lost her dad, rising from troubled grace to anguished insistence. The stark, shamanistic When I Have Power is arguably the most powerful track on the album, Shyu singing from her high school diary. At 15, while selling candy on the bus on the way home from school, she was confronted by a kid who harrassed her and used a racist slur. “When I’m famous, I’m going to set things straight,” she resolved.

Display Under the Moon, a traditional Japanese biwa song, has fiercely plucked, operatic drama, a soldier in the moonlight dreading the next day’s battle. Plus ça change

The album’s final three tracks are dedicated to Shyu’s dad. Father Slipped into the Eternal Dream, based on a parable by Zhuangzi, is a kinetically soaring exploration of how to carry on in the face of bereavement and despondency. The lyrics reaffirm that our capacity to feel such emotional intensity is what makes us human.

With Eyes Closed You See All, a towering, bustling piano-fueled tone poem of sorts, channels hope and feminist determination to shift the paradigm toward equality. Shyu closes the album with Live What You Envision, a carpe-diem theme that picks up from elegantly plucked multitracks to a fierce coda.

For a listener who doesn’t speak any of Shyu’s many Asian languages, it’s a treat to be able to understand the lyrics without a cheat sheet, and to hear her assert herself as a great song stylist in the Betty Carter tradition. The only thing better than listening to this often harrowing record would be to witness what she would do with it onstage if she could. Hmmm…Shyu’s a native Texan, and Texas is one of the free states…

Sad and Anxious Choral Music for a Sad and Anxious Time

David Lang wrote his chorale Love Fail in 2012, long before the lockdown was anything other than a handful of World Economic Forum memos and hysterical flu-apocalypse memes bouncing around the web. But it’s an apt piece of music for this time in history. Loosely based on the story of Tristan and Isolde, Lang interpolates texts from sources as diverse as Lydia Davis, Marie de France, Gottfried von Strassburg, Béroul and Thomas of Britain into the narrative. All-female choir Quince Ensemble  sing this rather subtle theme and variations very matter-of-factly, in the style of a Renaissance motet, adding spare percussion in places. Their world premiere recording is streaming at Bandcamp.

The opening segment, He Was and She Was is easily identiable as Lang: short syllables, subtle and almost imperceptible variations and harmonies that in this case draw on both early music and this era’s minimalism.The ensemble follow with Durreth, an allusive, stoic but melancholy miniature

A Different Man has glockenspiel and a distinctly Spanish tinge to the melody  By contrast, The Wood and the Wire is much more upbeat and soaring, and evocative of British counterpoint from the 17th century and before.

Right and Wrong is a web of simple deconstructed chromatic riffs. You Will Love Me has tantalizingly evanescent close harmonies, while Forbidden Subjects provides welcome feminist context and reminds how agillely Lang works space into his music.

The next variation, As Love Grows begins even more spacious but grows much more warily anthemic. Members of the group rise to the top of their voices in I Live in Pain – no wasted words there, huh? – over a rhythmic rondo of sorts.

The music grows much more sparse all of a sudden in Head, Heart and picks up only a little If I Have to Drown, a gruesome dilemma that Lang doesn’t foreshadow in the least until it arrives. There’s subtle irony in the otherworldly tones of the conclusion as well. Lang has been incredibly prolific lately and this is one of his more memorable work from the past decade.

Anna Heflin Blends Clever, Hilarious Spoken Word With Enigmatic New Music For Strings

Violist Anna Heflin calls her debut album The Redundancy of the Angelic “an interluding play.” Blending surrealistic, sometimes cut-and-pasted spoken word in between austere string themes, the record – which isn’t online yet – is alternately very serious and ridiculously amusing. Heflin is an acute observer and an imaginative composer; the push-pull of the album’s central dynamic ramps up the surreal factor. The album’s unifying and very best joke doesn’t reveal itself until the end, and it’s way too good to give away.

Tensely enunciating, Heflin opens the album with a disjointed poetic tableau, a beauty parlor recast as the center of a strangely benign universe. Then the music begins. A slowly sirening riff gives way to a close-harmonied string trio – Heflin with violinists Shannon Reilly and Emily Holden. Their alternately puckish, rhythmic and soberly spacious phrases and variations descend to a a hazy, hypnotic interlude, which they end up bringing full circle.

The second spoken word piece, Fell This Blonde, is devastatingly funny: let’s say it turns an ugly American beauty myth upside down. The strings return in As Above, So Below, first with an austere, stairstepping theme, then sandpapery harmonics and a hair-raising coda.

Heflin allusively ponders apocalyptic portents and escape therefrom in We Made It Out: ultimately, she’s optimistic. In Heflin’s closing pastiche poem, the joke is on the listener as she ties up all the loose ends, Hitchcock style: again, no spoilers. You can find the individual tracks at youtube but the way youtube works these days, you’ll probably have to search for them one by one. Start with the introduction.

Organist Yuri McCoy’s Symphonic Roar: Truth in Advertising

A cynic would say that the title of organist Yuri McCoy‘s new album Symphonic Roar: An Odyssey of Sound from the Paris Conservatoire – which hasn’t hit the web yet – is redundant. After all, epic grandeur and volume are what bring out the faithful in the organ demimonde and keep them coming back. On the other hand, as explosive and adrenalizing as this album is, it’s also remarkably subtle.

McCoy discovered that he had a couple of organs in his native Houston which were especially well suited to the wide expanse of characteristically French colors in this program, a mix of popular repertoire, a dazzling rarity and a brand-new arrangement of a strange relic from the Paris Surrealist movement.

He opens on the spectacular 1997 Fisk-Rosales organ at Rice University with Jean-Louis Florentz’s showstopper La Croix Du Sud. If you’ve ever wondered what Malian psychedelic rock would sound like on a pipe organ, this is it, rising from a hypnotically assertive Tuareg riff to an increasingly wild swirl of variations meant to evoke the dizzying ecstasy of Sufi dance. Florentz was a student of Messiaen, so that influence is apparent, especially in the piece’s starriest moments; Jehan Alain is another one, along with another piece that will follow later on the program here. The frenetic polyrhythms camouflaging an anthemic, Alainesque theme early on, the sudden flares over a brooding pedal note and the series of long climbs afterward will give you goosebumps. What a way to kick off an album.

McCoy follows with an increasingly blistering, breathtakingly dynamic take of the famous allegro vivace movement from Guilmant’s Sonata No. 2. He mines burbling phantasmagoria and finds a creepy anthem in Joseph Bonnet’s brief Will O’the Wisp. Then he concocts a bracing blend of icy, wafting and majestic registrations for Saint-Saens’ Fantaisie in D Flat, rising from an unexpectedly wistful introduction, to stately, airy angst, an anthemic hymn of sorts, and back.

McCoy moves to the 2017 Nichols & Simpson organ at his home base, Houston’s South Main Baptist Church to play a particularly expansive, deep-sky take of Louis Vierne’s iconic Clair de Lune. He winds up the record with his own brand-new arrangement of Edgar Varese’s sprawling 1926 symphonic work Ameriques. Varese had left France behind for the US by then: there’s a classic European wonder at American energy and vitality here, as well as a dissociatively shifting, one might say schizophrenic expanse of remarkably forward-looking ideas that sometimes edge over into the macabre. Percussion plays every bit as much a part as the organ: Brady Spitz and his “assistants,” Colin Boothby and Grant Wareham have just as much fun with their sirens and castanets and assorted implements as McCoy has in the console.