New York Music Daily

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Category: avant garde music

Enigmatically Ominous Michael Hersch Works for Soprano, Orchestra and Small Ensemble

[Editor’s note: it has become something of an annual ritual to feature an album of this particular composer’s works here during the October-long Halloween celebration, which continues through the end of the month]

Michael Hersch might be the most macabre of all contemporary classical composers. While the macabre is one of many themes in his music, it’s hard to think of anyone who goes as deeply into it as he has, from his chilling musical portraits of the inmates of a closed ward in a mental hospital, to the torments of terminal cancer patients. His latest album The Script of Storms – streaming at New Focus Recordings – comprises two suites.

The first is Cortext and Ankle, a setting of texts by the doomed writer Christopher Middleton, sung by soprano Ah Young Hong and backed by innovative chamber group Ensemble Klang. In the second, she sings the words of Fawzi Karim with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Tito Muñoz.

There’s horror, and fingertips being torn off, “the dead tangled in a heap,” and an ineluctable end to all things in the initial eleven-part sequence. It’s prime material for prime Hersch, although the music itself is generally more airily portentous than sinister.

The brief overture is the closest thing to traditional film noir music that Hersch has written: an anxious, acidic bustle with furtive percussion flickers. Hong enters with a poignant, wistful resonance, until the group explodes with brassy growl and dramatic intensity behind her, a recurrent and judiciously utilized device. Austere, slowly shifting segments follow in turn. Hersch is known for employing a lot of space, and he does that here.

Anton van Houten’s determined trombone crescendos along with sudden bursts of activity from saxophonists Michiel van Dijk and Erik-Jan de With contrast with Hong’s resolute calm, but she leaps without warning to a full-throttle arioso power. Pianist Saskia Lankhoorn is often required to do the same. Percussionist Joey Marijs gets to contribute occasional surreal, clanking industrial textures, while guitarist Pete Harden’s contributions are even more skeletal.

The nine-part title suite, a grim reflection on the 1958 coup d’etat in Iraq and summary execution of Prime Minister Nuri Al-Said, is closer to Hersch’s earlier work, even as it follows much of the same template as the album’s first piece.

Ominous trombone also features heavily here. Anxious clusters of strings and reeds burst in, only to disappear. Familiar and juicily spine-tingling Bernard Herrmann tropes appear everywhere: shrieking high winds, ghostly slithers, and doppler crescendos. The drifting close harmonies and microtonal mist toward the end of the suite are particularly delicious, if disquiet is your thing. The persistent rhythmic overlays are just as clever as they are effective. As fits the subject matter, this is a horror film for the ears and a mighty effective one. Not for the faint of heart, but Hersch is the rare composer who seems committed to never backing away from any subject matter, no matter how disturbing.

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Fearless Solo Electroacoustic Vocal Explorations with Stephanie Lamprea at Roulette

Nothing takes more bravery in concert than singing a-cappella. Last night at Roulette, soprano Stephanie Lamprea threw caution to the wind, pushing her voice to the far fringes of her formidable technique throughout an eclectic program of relatively short, minimalistic works which were often bracing, sometimes downright scary, other times immersively atmospheric or very funny. And switching to a wireless headset mic to open the night’s second set, she also treated the crowd to an elegantly gliding dance performance.

The night’s first song turned out to be a slow, resonant walk up the scale, with portentous glissandos and diversions into guttural extended vocalese which in places seemed to echo Asian intonations.

Lamprea followed with Lucy Corin‘s Bathing, a semi-spoken word piece about plandemic-era paranoia, with a deliciously snarky ending: sometimes the funniest things are left unsaid. Next up was an Erin Thompson graphic score based on land map images: Lamprea interpreted it with echoey exhalations, goofily processed pointillisms and gentle resonance that she built to sudden swells, enhanced by generous amounts of digital reverb from Alex Van Gils’ mixer

She laughingly telegraphed how closely composer George Gianopoulos had aligned his music to match a florid Edith Wharton text in his diptych An Autumn Sunset. As amusingly over-the-top as it was, it also gave Lamprea a long launching pad for pyrotechnics in her uppermost registers.

She returned to subtler dynamics in James May‘s Flowers for Eurydice, spaciously pacing the ballad’s portrait of its heroine’s post-Orpheus life. The Birds They Stare At Me From the Window, by Melissa Rankin, was one of the more evocatively drifty works, awash in gentle doppler-like effects punctuated by unexpected, increasingly Hitchcockian drama. It was a real workout for Lamprea. Much as you could see the ending coming a mile away, that fleeting moment of horror was worth waiting for.

She moved matter-of-factly and dexterously through baroque solemnity and hazy horizontality to operatic fervor in Mid-Day, a circularly-driven work by Hannah Selin.

Selections from Kurt Rohde‘s nine-song series Water Lilies ranged from distantly spacious and mysterious, to steady and agitated or looming and mystical, floating on a cloud of reverb. Feeding the loop machine while maintaining a smooth continuity (and then competing with fusillades of recorded birdsong) was no easy task, but Lamprea was undeterred. The backdrop of projections on the screen above her was a bonus: some of the imagery, in the context of the world since March of 2020, was crushingly spot-on.

The duo onstage wound up the night with an audiovisual improvisation, Lamprea sirening and inventing new consonants, channeling both outright joy and outrage as Van Gils sent gentle washes and a few pulsing quasars through the ether.

The next concert at Roulette is tomorrow night, Sept 8 at 8 PM with a trio of first-class jazz improvisers: pianist Marilyn Crispell, bassist Joe Fonda and drummer Harvey Sorgen. Cover is $25.

Irrepressibly Entertaining Vocal Acrobatics on Pamela Z’s Latest Album

One of the funniest songs of the last year or so is Unknown Persons, by singer Pamela Z. It’s the deadpan musical equivalent of that famous Key & Peele skit about Al Qaeda and their dilemma with the TSA “What is the purpose of your travel?” in this case takes on Jerry Garcia-like levels of meaning. The packing list at the end is priceless.

It’s on her latest album A Secret Code, streaming at Bandcamp. Pamela Z played a foundational role in the downtown New York avant garde scene and after all these years remains a prime mover in electroacoustic music. And her sense of humor is undiminished.

The opening number, Quatre Couches/Flare Stains is a diptych. As it begins, a lattice of vocal overdubs flickering off into what sounds like birdsong, then a spacious calm/agitated dichotomy develops. The second part, a loopy, distantly operatic tableau, juxtaposes allusively grim imagery with more playful reference points.

Other Rooms incorporates droll, loopy samples spoken by of playwright Paul David Young, then expands into a kaleidoscope of elegantly interwoven, phantom-of-the-opera fragments. Somebody had to write a song called A Piece of π, and it’s a good thing Pamela Z did: let’s just say that there’s more to this slice than you might imagine. If this one doesn’t make you laugh, you’re hopeless.

There are two pieces from dance scores here. Site Four is calm and atmospheric but then suddenly becomes a disquieting Art of Noise-style tableau. By contrast, He Says Yes is an enigmatically bouncy little tune with some ridiculously amusing flourishes.

Typewriter features an ultrasound controller, which triggers samples of typewriter keystrokes: fans of analog technology will find this deliciously redemptive. The album ends with the Timepiece Triptych: Part one, Declaratives in the First Person is a trippy, cuisinarted minimalist piece; part two, Syrinx is a birdsong pastiche. The eerily drifting, Pauline Oliveros-like conclusion, De-Spangled was written to accompany a Kelly Heaton installation where both the stars and stripes are removed from the American flag.

If anything, Pamela Z’s range and expression have grown even more dynamic over the years. She isn’t playing any New York shows in the near future, but puckish avant-garde surrealists thingNY are including some of her work on the bill at their first live show since December of 2019, on Sept 4 at 7:30 PM at Coffey Street Studio, 153 Coffey St, Red Hook, a block from the end of the Valentino pier. It’s about a 20-minute hike from the F train at Carroll St. The composer-performer collective are also playing pieces by group members Gelsey Bell, Andrew Livingston, Paul Pinto and Isabel Castellvi; similarly dadaesque multimedia from Nick Brooke/The Cabinet is also on the bill.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Allusive, Intriguingly Lyrical Songs and a Long Island City Gig From Singer Sofia Rei

Singer Sofia Rei has carved out an individualistic niche somewhere between the folk music and nueva cancion of her native Argentina, jazz, and the techier side of the avant garde. She has a thing for pastiches, loops and surrealism, although there’s often a very serious undercurrent beneath the lively vocal acrobatics. Her latest album, Umbral – streaming at her music page – hit the web just before the fleeting few weeks of freedom here in New York in June of last year. She sings in Spanish with her usual blend of disarming directness and constant dynamic shifts.

The opening number, Un Mismo Cielo is loopmusic as Bjork might have done it in Spanish, with Martin Vejarano’s gaita flute throwing off rustic overtones before Leo Genovese’s swirly psychedelic synth and steady, spare piano enter the mix behind the cheery, enticing vocals. It’s a “when will I see you again” scenario – symbolism much?

The loops grow swirlier and more hypnotic as the second track, La Otra coalesces, then Rei shifts into a trickier, more emphatic rhythm with her charango. It’s quite a contrast with the creepy, mythologically symbolist lyrics.

Escarabajo Digital (Digital Beetle) is a blippy, soaring, metaphorically loaded mashup of 80s electropop and Argentine plains folk:

Herencia de otros tiempos
Difícil cambiar la ecuación
La sílaba equivocada del poema
[Inheritance from another time
Hard to change the equation
Wrong stanza of the poem]

The backdrop is much the same in Helvetica 12, a playful, stream-of-consciousness salute to the fine points of language. Rei’s charango mingles with JC Maillard’s spare ukulele in La Caida (The Fall), her anguished, elegaic vocals again contrasting with an alternately atmospheric and blithely rhythmic background.

La Quinta Pata (Fifth Leg) is a snide dis, Rei’s collage of multitracks flitting over Jorge Roeder’s dancing bass and Tupac Mantilla’s bounding but restrained drums. As upbeat as the album is, the final cut, Negro Sobre Blanco (Black on White) is downright chilling, with its spare, stark layers of charango, guitars and cuatro from guest Jorge Glem. Is this a portrait of a lockdown suicide, or a death from the lethal Covid shot?

Comenzó en la mañana de hoy
Sin saber
Percibió que el aire le era hostil
Algo rondaba su corazón
Algo decía que iba a explotar por dentro
[It started this morning
Not knowing
He felt the hostile air around him
Something haunted his heart
Something said it was going to explode inside him]

Sofia Rei’s next gig is outdoors at 7 PM on August 16 at Gantry Plaza State Park in Long Island City. Take the to 7 to Vernon-Jackson or the G to 21st/Van Alst and walk to the river.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ayumi Ishito Brings an Adventurous, Outside-the-Box Trio to Chinatown

Even in communities that support the arts, jazz musicians often get pushed to the fringes. The last two years’ insanity in New York has exponentially increased that marginalization for artists in general. Tenor saxophonist Ayumi Ishito has been one of the more resourceful players in town: she was one of the first to resume performing during the brief window of opportunity in the summer of 2021, and she’s maintained a steady schedule in recent months playing a lot of out-of-the-way venues as restrictions have been dropped. Her next gig dovetails with both her adventurous improvisational sensibility and her most recent album as a leader. She’s opening a twinbill on April 26 at 6:30 PM at Downtown Music Gallery with soundscaper Damien Olson and Nebula and the Velvet Queen on theremin. They’re followed by a second trio with Aaron Edgcomb on percussion, Priya Carlberg on vocals and David Leon on sax. It’s a pass-the-bucket situation.

Ayumi Ishito & the Spacemen Vol. 1 is streaming at Bandcamp. It’s her most experimentally ambitious release to date, a mix of trippy electroacoustic pieces featuring Theo Woodward on keys and vocals, Nebula and the Velvet Queen on theremin. Jake Strauss doubling on guitar and bass and Steven Bartashev on drums.

Squiggles quickly give way to a collective shimmer and fragmentary acoustic and electric guitar riffs as the first number, Looking Through Ice drifts along, Woodward adding Indian inflections with his vocalese. Beyond the guitar and vocals, it’s hard to distinguish the rest of the instruments – Ishito using her pedalboard here – until Strauss introduces a gently swaying, Grateful Dead-like theme and Bartashev picks up the clave with his echoey tumbles.

Shifting sheets, dopplers and warpy textures drift through the mix in the second track, Hum Infinite. Strauss finds a center and builds around it, on bass; Ishito’s wry, dry bursts evoke a EWI. The group slowly reach toward an organ soul tune, then back away as Ishito emerges acerbically from behind the liquid crystal sheen.

Track three, Misspoke is irresistibly funny, Ishito and Woodward chewing the scenery, impersonating instruments real and imagined. Strauss’ blippy bass and Bartashev’s tightly staggered drumming propel Folly to the Fullest to tongue-in-cheek hints of a boudoir soul tune, Ishito floating overhead,

Night Chant is an entertaining contrast in starry, woozy electronic textures and goofy wah-wah phrasing from Ishito: stoner electro-jazz as fully concretized as it gets. The final cut, Constellation Ceiling, is a launching pad for Ishito’s most amusing indulgences with the wah,, eventually coalescing into a bit of a triumphant strut, We need more unserious improvisational music like this.

Darkness and Drama on Soprano Misha Penton’s New Release

First thought, best thought? Sketchy tags aren’t usually a good way of describing music, but in this case, the note on the folder here containing singer Misha Penton‘s new short album Radiant Poison holds up. “Weird witchy avant goth” was a first observation: “Operatic industrial soundscapes” would be just as accurate. As a bonus, the ep comes in two versions. The audio is streaming at Bandcamp, with matching video at Vimeo.

The first track, Visible Darkness has layers of operatic vocals over similarly echoey, icy ambient accents and textures. The template is much the same in Shore Pines & Spider Silk, George Heathco’s uneasily portentous guitar lingering amidst the shifting sheets of sound and Penton’s arioso leaps. The final number is the title cut, which “rises from the desert” to a redemptive narrative spiced with Heathco’s flaring leads, backward masking, and ominous drumbeats from Chris Becker. Penton is based in Houston: adventurous Texas listeners can keep an eye on her gig page for upcoming performances.

Immersively Rippling Magic From Satoko Fujii and Taiko Saito’s Futari

As marimba player Taiko Saito tells it, pianist Satoko Fujii is the Shohei Ohtani of jazz: a fearsome hitter who is just as formidable on the pitching mound. As the duo Futari, the two musicians put out a magically spacious album, Beyond, last year. Because neither has been able to visit the other due to totalitarian restrictions, they decided to pitch files to each other over the web and then bat them back. They had so much fun doing it that they decided to release these pieces as a follow-up album, Underground, streaming at Bandcamp.

Fujii has always had an otherworldly, mystical side, and she’s gone into that more deeply than ever in the past few years, notably on her rapturous Piano Music album from last year. The title track here continues in that vein, with glissandos, puffy nebulous phrases and ominous drifts beneath a keening drone, Is that bowed marimba, or Fujii under the piano lid? It’s hard to tell. Another layer of mystery, when it comes to who’s playing what, is Fujii’s cut-and-paste vocalese (she also mixed the record).

The album’s second track, Break in the Clouds has puckish accents – Fujii’s prepared piano? – sprinkled throughout Saito’s slow, tremoloing washes of bowed vibraphone. Piano and vibes are distinct in Meerenspiegel, Saito creating a rapt pebbles-in-a-lake atmosphere over Fujii’s stern, emphatic chords and stately cadences. That carefree/serious dichotomy persists throughout most of the record.

Some people will hear the intro to Air and expect to hear Keith Richards’ modal bass riff introducing the Stones’ 2000 Light Years From Home. Instead, what sounds like backward masking gives way to spare, playful pings and bits of melody interspersed with more disquieting textures, then a slow, brightly unfolding melody.

In Frost Stirring, Fujii is grumpy Old Man Winter to Saito’s spring sprite – or Messiaen to Saito’s Joe Locke on the Twin Peaks movie soundtrack. The duo follow the most atmospheric track here, Memory or Illusion with Finite or Infinite, eight minutes of pinging, rhythmically shifting Terry Riley-ish loopmusic.

In Ayasake, after an amusing nightly news theme of sorts, Fujii builds an ominous undercurrent beneath Saito’s resolute blitheness. Saito responds to Fujii’s somber bell-like accents and surreal inside-the-piano swipes with a sepulchral sustain throughout the closing number, Street Ramp, the most striking piece on the album. There’s also a redemptively amusing bonus track, One Note Techno Punks