New York Music Daily

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Category: avant garde music

Troubled Music For Troubled Times From Mary Ocher

One of the more darkly intriguing albums to come over the transom here in the past couple of years is German singer Mary Ocher’s The West Against the People, which is still streaming at Bandcamp. It’s hard to think of a better way to describe what the world’s been through since the lockdown began, isn’t it? And the music itself tends to be grim, grey and unrelenting, with a skeletal late 70s/early 80s no wave influence.

The album begins with Firstling II, a shifting, echoey vocal soundscape, drifting further toward desolation. There are two versions of To the Light here: the first with Ocher’s watery, quavery vocals over oscillating organ and a shuffle beat, the second with elegant piano and echoey electronic washes, more evocative of the song’s understated desperation.

Zah Zah, a simple, catchy dub-influenced bass-and-drums loop is also reprised later as a brief electronic interlude. My Executioner is a coldly marching, minimalist no wave march: “We come face to face, my butcher,” Ocher snarls, “How do you deconstruct fear?”

Pounding drums and carnivalesque synth underscore Ocher’s cynical defiance in Authority’s Hold: it could be an early Creatures song. Gritty wordless vocals contrast with blippy synth in The Irrevocable Temple of Knowledge, while Arms is unexpectedly calmer and seems more improvised.

With its pulsing, echoey synth, The Endlessness (Song For Young Xenophobes) could be Carol Lipnik in especially minimalist mode, Ocher’s voice jumping to spectacular heights. Washed Upon Your Shores is even more rustically simple, just vocals over a persistent high bass note and rattly percussion.

Ocher revisits a dub milieu with the spoken-word piece The Becoming, featuring Die Todliche Doris. “It is not uncommon to think of acts of unnecessary violence,” Ocher demurs in this sardonically detailed tale of revenge. Ocher closes the album with the eeriliy loopy Wulkania, a collaboration with Felix Cubin.

Smart, Broodingly Evocative Spoken Word and Electronics From Blue Lick

Today’s Halloween installment – streaming at Bandcamp – is Hold On, Hold Fast, Chicago duo Blue Lick‘s disquieting album of spoken word and electronics. There’s nothing traditionally Halloweenish about this, although frontwoman Havadine Stone’s worldview is relentlessly unflinching. Ben Baker Billington gives her provocative, poetic imagery a typically chilly, squiggly synth backdrop.

The album is best appreciated as a contiguous whole: the individual segments vary from very brief to around the three minute range. “If I’m not brave enough to drop it I’ll turn it upside down,” Stone muses in the first track

“If something is flat and wide open, you can’t hide in it, can you?” Stone asks at one point during the second. She’s talking about the Midwest, but there’s obvious subtext. Not a pivotal moment, but it’s characteristic of how Stone works

“Every human you see was pushed and pulled out of a wet dark place, of course there is no question we grope, eyes shut in the dark…I am my own endless void, I am my own iron weight, I am my own tapeworm.”

But hardly everything here is grim and cynical. Stone’s sardonically detailed portrait of relationship angst in the fourth track is irresistibly funny. She revisits that theme, in a more allusively sinister way, in track seven. Then later there’s “An otherwise shadow-boxed conversation. There’s that pull again. Do you drop the rope, hang the line on the branch and walk away whistling a tune, thinking, “Dang, sure glad I got outta that one…”

One of the album’s more playfully loopy synth-scapes gives Stone a canvas for a reflection on autosuggestive self-empowerment…for starters, anyway. And the narrative about the kids on the beach in the tenth segment can’t conceal a dark undercurrent. Snarkiest line here: “She’s a dead ringer from the back, isn’t she.” As strong a lyricist as Stone is, what we really need from her is a book – or a Substack feed.

Prophetic, Hauntingly Gorgeous, Insightful New Music and Spoken Word From Tessa Lena

For the past several years, investigative journalist Tessa Lena has been one of the most prophetic and poetic observers of how digital technology has empowered creeping fascism on a global scale. With last year’s lockdown here in New York, her work gained traction exponentially. Her Substack feed quickly became a must-read for anyone trying to make sense of what’s happened since.

But she’s also a breathtakingly powerful singer and instrumentalist. Last summer, she took one of her most succinct and portentously accurate pieces, The Physical World Is the Only World We Have (a longer version of the lyrics appears here) and turned it into a gorgeous mosaic of spoken word and haunting, Armenian-tinged soundscape. Her wordless vocals as she reaches for the sky will give you chills. A good digital approximation of an electric mandolin, or a balalaika, maybe, adds spare bittersweetness. The whole piece is streaming at her podcast, Make Language Great Again. Tessa Lena’s commentary is as grimly funny as it is insightful and poignant:

Data’s rotten,
Tests are toast.
News is sullen,
Coast to coast.
Feudal darkness
Here and now!
To the masters
Peasants bow.
Facts are fiction,
Love is screen.
Gossip’s trending,
Trends are mean.
Hear, hear,
Where’s the joy
Ask Alexa.
She’ll annoy.

We are all losing our minds….I know that long-term stress is very effective in turning off human ability to think straight. Once we’ve been battered for a long enough time, our sensory patterns will be damaged sufficiently, and we’ll be so exhausted and hungry for any semblance of joy that we’ll accept anything to be allowed to do basic things in the world. To breathe. To laugh. To be a little bit alive, to be a little bit free, no matter how short the digital leash. We are like frogs in a pot of water that is warming up. We are getting used to it…we are at a major crossroads, and I am positive that the time to be fully human—not cyborg—is now….

Something terrible is happening to us, and it is not a drill. It is very complex and very trivial. It is imminent and cumulative. Every small fragment of the disaster can be explained in a respectable way, but the big picture is terrifying. We’ve given up our senses and our ancient instincts, but our leaders have no heads. We are not in good hands. We are shackled to a broken algorithm. We are on our own, and the sooner we realize it, the better our chance of surviving.

A Rare Outdoor Show by an East Village Avant Garde Legend

Elliott Sharp began his career as the most formidable guitar shredder on the Lower East Side and eventually became a major composer of modern opera, among other things. What he’s going to play – guitar or sax, on which he also shreds – and who he’s going to have with him at his show at 4 PM on Sept 26 on his old stomping ground, at La Plaza Cultural at Ave C and 9th St., remains to be seen. Whatever it is, this perennially adventurous sage is always worth seeing.

Sharp’s latest opera Filiseti Mekidesi – streaming at Spotify – is characteristically relevant, an aptly dissociative reflection on the terror of the refugee crisis that began before the lockdown. Being driven from one’s native land to a foreign culture is alienating to the extreme, and the music reflects that. Acidic circular themes figure heavily. While the two words in the title are Amharic – meaning “shelter” and “migration” – there are few moments where any distinctive Ethiopian influence surfaces. The fact that none of the vocalists are native English speakers adds to the persistent, troubled sense of unfamiliarity. Palestinian singer Kamilya Jubran takes centerstage in texts by the composer, Tracie Morris and Edwin Torres. Choral ensemble Voxnova Italia also take turns in the spotlight, with chamber orchestra Musikfabrik providing the backdrop.

Massed, disquieted smoke-off-the-battlefield atmospherics rise toward Chinatown New Year chaos, recede and then oscillate as the opera gets underway, setting the stage for much of what’s to come. By contrast, Sharp’s vocal melodies are simple and emphatic, often echoed by soloists from throughout the orchestra. It’s not likely that he’s going to draw on this material, or his other equally provocative operatic work, for the show in the garden, but you never know.

Satoko Fujii Finds Strange Magic in Ambient Music

Jazz pianist Satoko Fujii has always had an otherworldly side, but she’s really gone deep into some incredibly mystical sounds in the last few years. The title of her new album, Piano Music – streaming at Bandcamp – is funny because most of it doesn’t sound like piano music at all.

Although Fujii has recorded electroacoustic albums and has used effects and mixers live – laptop percussion pioneer Ikue Mori is a frequent collaborator – this is Fujii’s first venture into ambient music. And it’s a characteristically captivating new chapter in a wildly prolific, individualistic career that shows no sign of slowing down.

Fujii likes playing inside the piano, so on one hand she’s no stranger to evincing echoing, gently droning atmospherics via acoustic techniques like rubbing the strings or bowing them with wire and other materials. Here, she runs a kaleidoscopic series of phrases through a mixer instead.

Her autoharp-like strums and plucks under the lid make for a magically textured contrast with echoing, loopy drones and what could be whale song on the A-side, Shiroku (Japanese for “white”). When she lets the music recede to a series of spare, koto-like microtonal phrases, the effect is just as striking, especially considering where she takes it.

She begins the B-side, Fuwarito (“Softly”) as a soundscape, but hardly a quiet one – those whales are a lively bunch, and Fujii gets a snowstorm out of rubbing those strings. With a phantasmic bell choir, persistently echoey, rhythmic woodblock-like timbres, grinding industrial chords, ghostly pizzicato-like phrases and eventually quite a storm, it becomes her Revolution 9. This isn’t easy listening but it is psychedelic to the extreme, and the fun that Fujii obviously had making it is visceral. She’s gone on record as saying that her raison d’etre is to make music that the world has never heard before, and this definitely qualifies.

A Rich, Multi-Layered, Epic New Middle Eastern-Flavored Album From Amir Elsaffar

Amir Elsaffar’s Rivers Of Sound Orchestra play oceanic, tidally shifting soundscapes that blend otherworldly, microtonal Middle Eastern modes, lushly immersive big band jazz improvisation and what could be called symphonic ambient music. Elsaffar has made a name for himself as an extraordinary multi-instrumentalist and composer who has done as much to create a new style of music based on the magical maqams from across the Middle East as anyone alive. His latest epically ambitious, absolutely gorgeous new album The Other Shore is streaming at Bandcamp. Thematically, this is more majestically improvisational than his other large-ensemble work, although he weaves several themes and variations into it. Subtle, occasionally cynical humor typically takes the place of the politically-fueled anger that would often surface on albums like his 2015 Crisis record.

The album’s opening number, Dhuha is a diptych. The seventeen-piece ensemble begin with dense, nebulous, rising and falling tones, with pianist John Escreet, drummer Nasheet Waits, percussionist Tim Moore and mridamgam player Rajna Swaminathan adding stately accents behind Elsaffar’s broodingly chromatic, resonant trumpet. Cellist Naseem Alatrash takes a stark microtonal solo, handing off to Elsaffar’s sister Dena’s bracingly textured joza fiddle as the group rise from a brisk stroll to a churning groove. Echo effects and dramatic vocalese from Elsaffar give way to a thicket of pointillisms from vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, oudists George Ziadeh and Zafer Tawil, and buzuq player Tareq Abboushi. Then the eagle rises again. That’s just the first thirteen minutes of the record, and it sets the stage for what’s in store.

Elsaffar’s soaring, wordless vocals fuel the upward drive in Transformations from a circling, steady stroll. Mohamed Saleh’s oboe shadows a restrained but ebullient trumpet solo, then comes to the forefront as a seemingly tongue-in-cheek Kashmiri groove develops. Saxophonists Ole Mathisen and Fabrizio Cassol work a triumphant triangulation before an elegant descent to the ouds and Miles Okazaki’s spare guitar.

The album’s most orchestral track, Reaching Upward begins with a stately, moody string theme that Elsaffar brightens with a deviously martial trumpet theme which suddenly goes 180 degrees from there. Knowing how Elsaffar works, is he going to take the hypnotic, spiky, circling theme that Okazaki and the percussionists develop and send it spinning into the maelstrom? Not quite. We get a web of concentric circles and an elusive, bracing maqam theme, Elsaffar accompanying himself with rippling santoor. A blazing sax solo backs off for a good facsimile of the Grateful Dead, which morphs into a shivery trumpet theme and eventually falls away for a calm series of waves and a gamelanesque outro. Who else is creating music this wildly and fearlessly diverse?

Ashaa is only slightly less of an epic, and the point where it becomes clear that Escreet is playing a piano in a Middle Eastern tuning. Bassist Carlo DeRosa holds the suspense until the bandleader enters into a regal trumpet passage….and then the band hit a steady, anthemic, tantalizingly chromatic clave theme that goes in a dusky Ethiopian direction. It’s arguably the album’s most wickedly catchy interlude. Syncopated quasi Isaac Hayes psychedelic soul and variations recede for a percolating DeRosa solo, then it’s back to the long road to Addis Ababa.

A bright stairstepping theme introduces the bandleader’s edgy, machinegunning santoor in the next number, Concentric. After that, Lightning Flash has a bit of a cloudburst, a calm, then a spare, biting Abboushi buzuq solo finally replaced by a steady, mechanically pulsing theme that could be Darcy James Argue.

March is all about victory, an Andalucian-tinged update on a famous Ravel tune, with a tantalizingly sizzling violin solo, a sober oud duel mingling with the vibes, the horns ushering in a rapidfire, stabbing Saleh oboe break. Elsaffar wafts uneasily through his most poignantly resonant solo of the night in the final number, Medmi. As usual with Elsaffar, this is a lock for one of the best albums of the year.

Murky, Dissociative Cinematics From the EFG Trio

Trumpeter Frank London has one of the most immense discographies of any New York musician. He’s on over five hundred records, which date back before his band the Klezmatics springboarded the carnivalesque sound that morphed into circus rock and Romany punk in the 90s. Some of London’s latest adventures have been especially adventurous: jazz poetry, Indian/klezmer mashups, and now a darkly cinematic trio album as part of the EFG Trio with guitarist Eyal Maoz and composer/keyboardist Guy Barash. Their new album Transluminal Rites is streaming at Bandcamp.

Often it’s impossible to figure out who’s doing what here – even the trumpet could be processed beyond the point of recognition, such is the grey disquiet of this morass. Many of the tracke here re brooding miniatures that suddenly rise with industrial abrasiveness, squirrel around, stroll briskly like a spy or offer moments of comic relief, One has a calmly circling, Indian-inspired trumpet melody that gets slowly decentered; its sequel is pure industrial noise

Spectralogy, one of the more epic numbers here, begins as an eerily warping guitarscape with traces of Maoz’s signature, incisively Middle Eastern-tinged sound, then Barash’s electric piano shifts to a much more noirish interlude before everything’s spun through a fuzzy patch. London’s circling, snorting lines rescue everyone from dystopia, more or less.

Winds of ill omen circle around London’s animated curlicues in Polysemia Deluxe, another largescale piece that leaps and bounds, out of focus, towards an abyss, London finally sounding an elephantine warning..

The big idystopic diptych here is titled Eau de Pataphysique: strange rumblings inside the drainpipe, short circuits and wheels going off the axle in the projection room. The concluding largescale piece, Sweet Thanatos is platform for some of London’s most plaintive, chromatically bristling resonance of recent years.

Dark and oppressive sounds for dark and oppressive times: those brave enough to plunge in, especially at the end, will be rewarded.

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

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

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

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

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

Matthew Goodheart & Broken Ghost Consort Build Playful, Entertaining Machine-Shop Ambience

Matthew Goodheart & Broken Ghost Consort’s new album Presences: Mixed Suite For Five Performers and Nine Instruments – streaming at Spotify- is weird but playful music that owes a lot to the AACM as well as Anthony Braxton’s tectonic graphic-score themes. Moments of ambient calm contrast with abrasive industrial sounds, all of them organic. Although the music follows a slowly drifting tangent, it’s also unexpectedly energetic and amusing in places. Nobody plays his instrument as it was intended, and the group – the bandleader on piano, with Georg Wissel on clarinet, Matthias Muche on trombone, Melvyn Poore on tuba and George Cremaschi on bass – indulge in flurries of percussion as much as they employ their usual axes.

The album’s opening number is awash in scrapes, fragments of simulated birdsong and gonglike, metallic washes – the bells of horns and piano strings polished to a ringing, keening harmonic shimmer, maybe?

Clarinet is featured but doesn’t exactly take centerstage until late in the second movement, with a steady, enigmatic, Messiaenic resonance. Trombone, tuba and eventually cheery clarinet engage in a tongue-in-cheek exchange with squirrelly percussive flickers – and a mini-gamelan – from the rest of the ensemble in the thirteen-minute third movement, Impulse Response Variations.

Jawharp-like oscillations, distant buzzsaw sonics, looming trombone and a wryly warbly faux-pansori interlude filter down to the spiraling gears of the vortex in the practically eighteen-minute final movement. This is not for people who need catchy hooks or have short attentions spans but it’s entertaining if you let it pull you under (although the joke in the opening spoken-word sequence is a little much).

The Overlook Champion Exhilarating, Riveting Works by Black Composers

Tuesday evening at the Hispanic Society of America, violinist Ravenna Lipchik of the Overlook flashed a knowing grin to her violist bandmate Angela Pickett, seconds before the string quartet launched into the third movement of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Fantasie-Stücke. With a passionate, syncopated pulse, a breathtaking melody burst out from the strings of the four women gathered in the front of the basement-level gallery space. This wasn’t exactly a witchy tarantella, or a slashing Balkan dance, but it had elements of both, blended into a breathtaking High Romantic triumph that quickly became the most exhilarating interlude anyone in New York has played for an audience this year.

Wow.

Admittedly, by normal standards, the number of concerts in this city this year has been the lowest on record since probably the 1700s. Still, this was a reminder of everything that was stolen from us during the lockdown – and what we need to get back, and this new string quartet are at the front of the pack leading the way.

The Overlook dedicate themselves to resurrecting material by undeservedly obscure black composers, and championing this era’s crop. Coleridge-Taylor’s five-part suite – recently recorded by another paradigm-shifting group, the Catalyst Quartet – was the legacy piece. Until recently, this once famous composer, conductor and contemporary of Dvorak and Brahms was largely forgotten outside of the organ demimonde. Judging from the rest of his work that’s recently been revived, he’s long overdue.

Coleridge-Taylor’s chamber music is more Slavic than Dvorak and has the same kind of playfulness and intricacy as Razumovsky Quartet-era Beethoven, combined with sometimes stark, sometimes stirring elements of African-American blues and gospel music. This piece had all of that, a gorgeously bittersweet theme and variations along with a devious return to that blazing dance before a somewhat more mutedly heroic coda.

The ensemble – which also includes cellist Laura Metcalf and violinist Monica Davis – bookended the piece with two more recent but equally fascinating works. Guest Tanya Birl-Torres introduced Leila Adu‘s If the Stars Align with a brief meditation suggesting we connect to a comfortable space in between the earth that grounds us, and the world above which gives us life.

Adu is better known as a singer of ornate, soaring art-rock, in a Kate Bush vein, so this was a revelation The music was deceptively simple, built around a series of subtly, increasingly complex gestures that grew into a more complex web, following a steady counterpoint, a series of handoffs and catch-and-follow. There was also a bustling, vividly urban interlude complete with sirens and busy crowds, as well as a flurrying intensity with echoes of Kurdish folk music.

Birl-Torres also served as narrator during the hazy, enigmatic introduction to the concluding work, Shelley Washington’s Middleground. The quartet dug into the piece’s insistent minimalism, akin to a similarly rhythmic but somewhat gentler Julia Wolfe, expanding a steady interweave, its close harmonies and short, emphatic gestures echoing the night’s first piece.

The Overlook’s next scheduled performance is Sept 12 at 4 PM with music by Eleanor Alberga, Florence Price, and Chevalier de Saint-Georges at the Morris-Jumel Mansion, 65 Jumel Terrace about a block south of 162nd St. in Washington Heights, The concert is free; take the A/C to 163rd St.