A Magical, Deviously Dynamic, Cutting-Edge Debut Album From Violinist Sarah Bernstein’s Veer Quartet
Violinist Sarah Bernstein inhabits one of the most magically otherworldly and distinctive sound worlds around. She’s the rare composer who can write catchy, riff-based microtonal music, and she’s also a rapturous improviser. One of the most enjoyable concerts anyone at this blog has been at over the past few years was an afternoon with her intricate Veer Quartet in an East Village community garden in the fall of 2019.
Shortly thereafter, she recorded her debut album with the group: of all the releases which were derailed by the 2020 plandemic, this is arguably the best and is up at Bandcamp. It’s more chromatically focused than microtonal, and it’s the high point among Bernstein’s many and often somewhat more jazz-oriented albums. She and her bandmates – violinist Sana Nagano. violist Leonor Falcon and cellist Nick Jozwiak – are playing the album release show this Halloween at 8 PM at the Zurcher Gallery at 33 Bleecker St. off Lafayette. Cover is $20. And Nagano has a show with her louder but similarly otherworldly Atomic Pigeons band on Sept 28 at 8 PM at Mama Tried in Gowanus.
The quartet open the first number on the new record. Frames No.1 with an irresistibly goofy joke, then Jozwiak racewalks a bassline, Falcon climbs and descends with an uneasy calm. The group coalesce, first with stabbing unison motives that expand into spacious washes, gracefully dancing pizzicato and another couple of ridiculous jokes juxtaposed with bracing glissandos and rhythmic accents. All string quartets should be this diversely funny – and not just when they’re playing Beethoven.
There’s a sense of longing and loss in the second cut, News Cycle Progression, a diptych which begins lingering and resonant and shifts to a series of increasingly agitated, incisive flickers; Bernstein makes a palimpsest out of them at the end.
The group open the album’s big epic, Clay Myth as a ballad without words, Bernstein’s wistful melody over a hazy vamp from the rest of the ensemble. An enigmatic, blues-tinged solo from Jozwiak over circular pizzicato eventually cedes for a tantalizingly acerbic variation on the opening theme. The quartet take it out with a bouncy, tightly ornamented, increasingly biting folk-tinged violin theme and a couple of unexpected detours.
Bernstein interpolates stabbing riffage within an uneasy, steadily crescendoing theme in World Warrior, then the individual voices square off. With its paint-peeling, slithery breaks it’s the closest thing to violin metal here.
The ensemble open Nightmorning with a stern heroic theme, Bernstein quickly disassembling and scattering it to the wind across a vast, mostly vacant lot. A shivery, cello-fueled return, simmering fires bobbing up among slides and misty microtonal harmonies follow in turn, with striking hints of a cheery swing jazz tune. Ligeti’s most haunting work from the 1950s comes to mind: it’s the most adventurous and gripping piece here.
There’s a similarly somber, circling, Bartokian sensibility as well as a furtive Bernard Herrmann passage in the final cut, Hidden, a hauntingly insistent coda. Barring the unforeseen, you’ll see this on the best albums of 2022 page here at the end of the year.