New York Music Daily

Music for Transcending Dark Times

Category: electronic music

Saluting a Century of the Wacky, Versatile First Electronic Instrument

Now that live music – and movies, and sports, and museums, and galleries – in New York have been shut down by the coronavirus scare, what can a person do for entertainment? Spring is here: you could go for a good, long run…or listen to a creepy fifty-one track album of theremin music. Or do both at once – it’s on Bandcamp.

To be fair, the NY Theremin Society’s compilation album Theremin 100 isn’t always creepy. While Russian scientist Leon Theremin’s 1920 invention may be most readily recognized for its uncanny evocations of creaky doors in a million horror movies, there are thousands of artists from around the world who have mastered the granddaddy of all sci-fi instruments’ magical force field for both good and evil. A lot of them are on this record. And one of the best, Pamelia Stickney – who’s surprisingly not on it – had a scheduled gig on March 20 at the Owl, but like pretty much everything going on around town, it’s been cancelled.

The album’s first track, Christopher Payne’s Somnambulist is a loopy, swoopy, chromatic nocturne that wouldn’t be out of place in a horror movie: are those strings and bass real, or an expert theremin imitation? Other tracks in the same vein include Herb Deutsch’s Longing – one of many with just theremin and darkly neoromantic piano, and Ei and Kuli Schreiber’s surreal tunnel narrative Train Jumper, at the top of a substantial list.

Often the theremin will evoke a violin, as in Peg Ming’s Therexotica, a gentle, brisk bolero with retro 50s twinkle; About Aphrodite’s lustrous Membran Music; or where Gregoire Blanc adds just a hint of shudder over eerily glimmering piano in Waves – with a bridge that’s too gleefully grisly to give away.

Therminal C’s Sputnik Crash powerfully demonstrates the instrument’s vast range and little-used percussive potential, as does Thorwald Jorgenson’s epic seaside tableau Distant Shores. The theremin gets backward masked in Hekla’s Twin Peaks pop tune Indenderro, used for squiggles and ominous banks of sound in Aetherghul’s Fire in the Sky, and an imploring vocal analogue in Jeff Pagano’s The Ancient Sea.

Some of the acts here employ a theremin for laughs. The Radio Science Orchestra contribute Atom Age Girl, a wry space-surf theme; Everling throws in his droll, bloopy Playing Theremin Is My Madness. The joke is simpler yet subtler in Hyperbubble’s I’m Your Satellite, while Robert Meyer’s deadpan teutonic boudoir groove Taxi is pretty ridiculous. Matt Dallow’s circus rock theme Tailor Made Destination isn’t far behind.

A handful of these pieces are massively orchestrated, like the Nightterrors’ macabre, Alan Parsons Project-ish Megafauna. Others, including Dorit Chrysler’s atmospherically circling Murderballad and Elizabeth Brown’s desolate March 21, are more spare. Twenty-nine tracks in, an electric guitar finally appears in Veronik’s Anomala, which is sort of House of the Rising Sun with a theremin. Song number 38, by the Keystone, is a strangely drifting duet for lapsteel and theremin. The most atmospheric track here, Gabriel and Rachel Guma’s Balloons Tied Up in the Sky, evokes whalesong. The weirdest one, Aileen Adler’s Piezoelectric Dreaming, is a mashup of Balkan reggae and spaghetti western themes.

Much of the rest of this material is classically-tinged: Japan Theremin Oldschool’s take of Ave Maria; Tears of Sirens’ Under the Milky Way (an original, not the Church classic), and Lydia Kavina’s In Green, a pretty piano-and-theremin ballad that wouldn’t be out of place in the ELO catalog if that band had a theremin. Maurizio Mansueti does a great job getting his contraption to emulate bel canto singing in the moody Blindfolded, while there’s a real aria in Robert Schillinger’s Bury Me, Bury Me Wind. The compilers who put this thing together deserve enormous credit for the consistently high quality, vast scope and imagination of most everything here.

Dusky, Enveloping Ambience and a West Village Album Release Show by Cellist Clarice Jensen

Clarice Jensen has been one of the prime movers of the New York scene in new classical music for over a decade, both as a cellist and as artistic director of the American Contemporary Music Ensemble. But she’s also a composer. Her long awaited, atmospheric solo debut album, For This From That Will Be Filled is streaming at Bandcamp. She’s playing the release show with a typically stellar cast this Friday night, March 13 at 8 PM at the Tenri Institute; cover is $25.

The album’s ten-minute opening epic, BC, is a co-write with the late film composer Jóhann Jóhannsson. Its slowly shifting, hypnotic series of tectonic sheets and simple chords drifts through the sonic picture, sometimes with subtle doppler, backward-masked or pitch-shifting effects. The encroaching unease of Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s work comes to mind.

Awash in low, sitar-like drones, keening harmonics, pulsing echo effects and circling oscillations, Cello Constellations, by Michael Harrison comes across as a more stately take on Brian Jones-style loopmusic – or Brian Eno in darkly enigmatic mode. The unexpected coda packs such a punch that it’s too good to give away.

The opening echoes and textures of Jensen’s title diptych – a Dag Hammarskjold reference – are much more icily otherworldly. Here she begins to sound more like a one-woman orchestra. In the second part, Jensen blends Eno-esque layers amid a gathering storm that recalls Gebhard Ullmann‘s rumbling multi-bass adventures in ambient music as much as it does Bach cello suites. Those who gravitate toward both the calmer and more psychedelic fringes of the new music world have a lot to savor here.

Darkly Noisy, Unhinged Sonics and a Union Pool Show From the Resolutely Uncategorizable Parlor Walls

Since spinning off from the noisily anthemic Eula, enigmatically intense duo Parlor Walls have developed a careening, slashing style all their own. Frontwoman/guitarist Alyse Lamb winkingly calls it “trash jazz.” But it’s more rock than jazz, and it isn’t really trashy, either. While their songs often sound like they’re thisclose to going completely off the rails, they’re actually very meticulously choreographed. And as intense a stage presence as Lamb is, Chris Mulligan is a force of nature, playing drums and an assortment of keyboards at the same time.

Other bands – Mr. Airplane Man, most famously – have done it, and then there was Ray Manzarek, who played a keyboard bass with his lefthand and organ with his right. But this band’s really something to see. They’re playing the album release party for their latest one, Heavy Tongue – streaming at Bandcamp – on Feb 27 at around 10:30 PM at Union Pool. Cover is $10; Lutkie’s pulsing, noisy electronic weedscapes open the night at around 9:30. You will need to take the G train home unless you’re looking forward to hours waiting on the L platform, or you get very lucky.

In a lot of ways, the new album is a return to the sometimes sideways, sometimes in-your-face assault of the band’s debut ep, although the songs (or soundscapes) are longer. The lurching first track, Birds of Paradise is a mashup of jagged late 70s no wave, more enveloping, techy ambience (and early New Order too). They segue into Game, its blippy/buzzy contrasts filtering in and out of an uneasy swirl over Mulligan’s piledriver pulse.

Lunchbox is a loopy, unexpectedly amusing detour into industrial trip-hop, if such a thing exists, Lamb’s voice calm amid the mechanical maelstrom. In Violets, hip-hop becomes a ghost in the relentless machine, followed by the grinding 80s Foetus sonics of Pinafore.

Lamb pulls back the effects on her voice and then really cuts loose in the brooding, pummeling Spinning Gold, which could be Algiers with a woman out front. The two close the record with Rails,its spacy machine-shop sonics and wry  Supremes allusions.

Catchy Space-Pop From Violinist Alicia Enstrom

The instrumentals on violinist Alicia Enstrom’s lushly atmospheric new loopmusic album Monsters – streaming at youtube – are also part of a larger concerto. There are vocal numbers on the record as well: it’s just Enstrom (whose name is an anagram of “monster”), her voice, fiddle and loop pedal.

She opens the record with the slowly swaying title track, a catchy, vampy trip-hop tune with coy cartoon-monster flourishes. Half Moon starts out with spiky, echoey pizzicato, balanced by sweeping ambience: it could be Bjork at her most symphonic. Goodnight Nebraska – a shout-out to Enstrom’s home state – is the album’s most Lynchian track, a flamenco-tinged melody awash in reverb and slowly shifting tectonics.

The terse, Bach-like arpeggios in Big Idea make it the album’s most classically-influenced moment. Enstrom winds it up with Lies, a trip-hop song with more than a hint of circus rock, which comes as no surprise since Enstrom’s big gig so far has been with a famous acrobatic troupe. Fans of dark catchy pop with orchestral flourishes – think Amanda Palmer – ought to check her out.

Lush, Low-Register Rainy-Day Sonics from One-Woman Orchestra Maya Beiser

What does the famous Adagio from Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata sound like on a cello? Lush, and trippy, and as gothic as gothic gets. That’s how cellist Maya Beiser plays it, overdubbing herself into a broodingly lustrous one-woman string orchestra, with some magical overtones trailing toward the end. And that’s not even the most memorable track on her allusively apocalyptic latest album delugEON, streaming at Spotify.

Beiser’s choice of material is as diversely interesting as usual, with more of a loopmusic influence than ever. The light electronic touches are unobtrusive, mostly limited to sustain effects and subtle rhythmic loops. The album’s centerpiece is Slow Seasons, a stunningly saturnine, somewhat abridged reinvention of the iconic Vivaldi suite, completely transformed by transpositions to the lower registers and tempos at halfspeed or less. She opens with the slow, expressive Autumn, followed by the shivery, rather chilly Summer. By contrast, Spring can’t seem to extricate itself from winter’s icy grip. Winter itself, a delicate canon pulsing along with echoey pizzicato, seems balmy by comparison.

Lkewise, Water is a stripped-down, moodily atmospheric take on a glacially paced, famously apocalyptic Messiaen theme, Beiser’s overdubs imbued with such a cantabile quality that it’s practically a chorale. Then she raises the energy somewhat with a windswept, tectonically shifting take of Monteverdi’s Ah Dolente Partita

Beiser’s Stabat Mater has a dirgey, minimalist rusticity consistent with its medieval origins. The album ends with its most epic yet minimalistically baroque track, Purcell’s When I Am Laid in Earth, its aching rises and falls grounded in Beiser’s most somber textures here. Rainy-day music at the end of the decade doesn’t get much better than this.

Sarah Pagé Plays Hypnotically Catchy, Shimmery Psychedelia on the Concert Harp

From the droning oscillations of the title track of Sarah Pagé’s new album Dose Curves, growing increasingly metallic, shedding overtones like a circular saw cutting sheet metal, it’s hard to imagine how she could create such a vortex with a harp. Electronics are obviously a big part of the picture; still, this collection of instrumental nocturnes – streaming at Bandcamp – is one of the most imaginative psychedelic records in recent memory.

From the opening drone, Pagé segues into the hypnotically loopy, austerely folky Stasis:, reverb way up in the mix, her spacious plucking sometimes resembling a steel guitar, sometimes an Indian veena.

Simple, organ-like pitch-shifting harmonies permeate Lithium Taper, all the way through to a teenage wasteland of the harp (old people who listen to “classic rock” radio will get that joke). Rippling without a pause into Ephemeris, she loops a galloping phrase and builds constellations of bright, tersely attractive riffage around it. Ever wonder if a harp could echo like a Fender Rhodes piano? Here’s your answer.

The album closes with Pagé’s most epic cut, Pleaides, a softly pulsing deep-space raga, akin to a sitar drifting gently further and further from earth to the point where the vastness becomes terrifying. This isn’t just great atmospheric music: it’s great Indian music. What a strange and beautiful record.

Airy, Low-Key Ambience and Choral Themes From Carolina Eyck

Carolina Eyck‘s new album Elegies for Theremin & Voice – streaming at Spotify – blends multitracked, wordless vocals with theremin. which she uses for for both steady sustain as well as the instrument’s signature quaver. In places, it’s impossible to tell which is human and which is machine. It also tends to be minimalistic: from time to time, the music recalls John Zorn’s work for small vocal ensemble, as well as Sophia Rei in a rare pensive moment, or Emilie Wiebel. There’s a general sense of calm in these pieces: as elegies go, this is not a dark album.

The album’s opening track is Duet 1, a simple, gentle miniature, fuzzy lows from the theremim almost buried in the mix. The second number, Remembrance is a happy one, an increasingly complex web of harmonies based on a blithely dancing ba-ba vocal riff,  with a choir of voices massing in the background, the theremin occasionally diverging into tremoloing microtones.

Eyck’s vocals seem taken by surprise during the first part of Absence, a diptych. As the theremin grows more present, they grow more wistful. She builds Uncle from a simple descending progression into a steady, sober choral piece: it’s the album’s most recognizably elegaic theme. She follows that with a fleeting solo theremin miniature and then the slowly shifting tectonic sheets of Duet II

The hazily looped Commemoration brings to mind Caroline Shaw’s choral work, reduced to simplest terms. The playfully rhythmic Presence is Eyck’s take on Indian takadimi vocal exercises, while Friend, a synopsis of sorts, wouldn’t be out of place in the early Meredith Monk catalog. Eyck winds up the album with the baroque-tinged Solo II. She’s playing the album release show tomorrow night, Oct 16 at 8:30 PM at Constellation, 3111 N. Western Ave in Chicago; cover is $10.

Elegantly Riveting Intensity in Brooklyn with Luisa Muhr and C. Lavender

Last night at Spectrum dancer Luisa Muhr and sound sculptor C. Lavender improvised a literally mesmerizing, often haunting multimedia sonata of sorts, complete with variations on a series of recurrent tropes and gestures. It had all the intensity of butoh, but none of the brutality.

Muhr, dressed in a stark, loosely fitting black cotton top and pants, her hair back, typically moved in sync with Lavender’s electroacoustically-enhanced drumming –  even if that rhythm was often implied. Her timing was striking to witness. For much of the performance, Muhr swayed, turned, rose and fell at halfspeed, as if underwater. Much of her time onstage was spent contending with an invisible tether:, which seemed to encircle her, encumber her feet, hung in front of her face where she could analyze it, then became a sudden threat. But just when it seemed that it had finally sent her into a fetal position, and then a crumpled form at the very edge of the stage, she rose from the depths, slowly but ineluctably, in an understatedly steely display of athletic command.

Muhr’s green eyes are profoundly expressive: like a young Liv Ullmann, she excels at channeling very subtle or conflicted emotions. At times, Muhr’s features were undeterred yet shadowed with unease, especially toward the end of the show where she dealt with what could have been an unseen mirror, a hostile presence lurking beyond the stage, or both. Likewise, during the tether sequence, she fixed her gaze with an unwavering composure but also a profound sadness. This may have been a job she had to finish, but it was ripping her up inside. What exactly was responsible for that, we never found out, although any woman in the current political climate faces an uphill struggle with no comfortable conclusion in sight.

Lavender played a set of syndrums and also a dulcimer, which she hit gently with mallets. She ran the sometimes murky, sometimes much more pointillistic torrents of beats through a mixer for effects that diminished from turbulence to a trickle; then the river rose again. Meanwhile, even while the sound looped back through the mix, she doubled the rhythm, adding a layer of arid, blippy textures above the thump and throb. There were also moments when the sound subsided where she’d get the dulcimer quietly humming, or would build austere blocks of close harmonies and spin then them back through the vortex. Seated centerstage, there was as much elegance as restlessness in her performance, something drummers rarely get to channel: often, she was just as fascinating to watch as Muhr.

Get Lost in Susie Ibarra’s Chiming, Hypnotic Philippine Sounds on Governors Island

Percussionist Susie Ibarra, a mainstay of the downtown scene since the 90s, draws on her Filipina heritage to create an often mesmerizing blend of traditional bell ensemble sounds and jazz. She’s leading her aptly named DreamTime Ensemble this Saturday afternoon, July 13 at 3 PM, playing a free show outdoors in front of Building 10A in the park in the middle of Governors Island. Ferries leave from the old Staten Island Ferry terminal, and from the landing where Bergen Street meets the Brooklyn waterfront, on the half hour during the afternoon; a roundtrip ticket is $3. Ibarra is also at Issue Project Room on July 27 at 8 for $20/$15 stud/srs.

Ibarra’s five-part Song of the Bird King suite, with her slightly smaller Electric Kulintang quartet – streaming at Spotify – capsulizes the kind of dream state and flickering magic which have become her signature sound. From the first slides of Oz Noy’s acoustic guitar and Lefteris Bournias’ otherworldly, microtonal Balkan tenor sax over the bandleader’s ripples and pings, the effect is psychedelic to the extreme.

Her fellow percussionist Roberto Rodriguez drives the music forward – as well as round and round – with his drums and electronic loops. The suite’s epic first part, Of the Invisible rises and recedes, sometimes with majestic echoes of Pink Floyd, other times a mashup of ancient, fluttering and trilling Balkan sounds mingling with Ibarra’s steady pointillisms.

Part two, 21 Million Hectares (a reference to the Philippines’ forest acreage prior to global warming) comes across as a gamelanesque take on psychedelic cumbia, a shuffling, loopy thicket of beats underpinning Ibarra’s catchy riffage and Bournias’ achingly gorgeous, bagpipe-like phrasing. The third section, simply titled The Dream is more spare, echoey and evocative of loungey 90s trip-hop.

Spare bottleneck guitar and Bournias’ long, desolate birdcall sax echo over a martial, practically industrial beat in Indigo Banded Kingfisher. The concluding segment, Migratory has more of a swaying, strolling groove: until Bournias’ meticulously modulated microtones kick in, it sounds like a traditional Filipino ensemble taking a stab at Midnight Starr-style early 80s electro. To quote Jeff Lynne – another guy who knew something about early 80s electro – it’s strange magic.

Oliver Beer Repurposes Ancient Artifacts For His Brand New Sound Installation at the Met Breuer

Oliver Beer placed microphones inside a large assortment of bowls and vessels in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collections to find out what musical pitches they resonated to.

Then he assembled an organ out of them.

If those artifacts were to be auctioned off, it would be the world’s most expensive electric organ. Beer calls it the Vessel Orchestra, and the installation is on display at the Met Breuer starting today, July 2 through August 11. The way it works is that the mic inside each artifact is patched into an individual channel on a simple analog mixing board, and activated by a specific key on an electronic keyboard. Each object was chosen for its ability to resonate a single, perfect pitch in the western scale. Every day, the “orchestra” will play a simple, peaceful, preprogrammed melody by Beer. But the result will be different each time.

For one, there’s going to be bleed and quite possibly feedback from the mics, which will vary according to the level of crowd noise in the somewhat boomy, sonically uninsulated fifth-floor space. And as singer Helga Davis demonstrated yesterday (and encouraged the crowd to join her), singers who project loudly enough will hear their own voices joining the misty hum…or the looming swells of sound.

In addition, many musicians have been invited to play their own works on Beer’s creation, and experiment with it on Friday evenings. Only a portion of the schedule has been announced; it should fill up soon, and impromptu performances – beyond patrons of the museum raising their voices to be heard – seem likely. Some extraordinary and adventurous talent is already on the bill. Indian singer Roopa Mahadevan with her Women’s Raga Massive bandmates Trina Basu on violin, Amali Premawardhana on cello and Roshni Samlal on tabla will be there on July 26 at 6:30. On August 9 at 6:15, John Zorn will be joined by singer Sara Serpa – whose softly enveloping, crystalline voice is ideal for this configuration – along with percussionists Sae Hashimoto, Kenny Wollesen and Ikue Mori.

The objets d’art are a mixed bag, to say the least. At one end, there’s a 19th century German cast metal vessel in the shape of a bull, who at first glance seems to be decapitated. A closer look reveals that his head is the lid. At the other, there’s a goofy, pink, hollow phallic object: Italian artist Ettore Sottsass’ 1973 Shiva Vase, modeled after classical Indian iconography. In between them are containers in metal, wood, clay and ceramic from across the centuries and around the world. In a stroke of considerable irony, some of the most ancient and also most resonant objects are from Iran, whose musical tradition doesn’t utilize the western scale.

Beer’s creation is cross-cultural and cross-generational in the purest sense of the word – and by repurposing these objects, casts them in a completely new light. In addition, one of the museum staff quipped that his installation has brought a new sense of harmony to the Met’s famously territorial curators, many of whose collections Beer sampled and eventually plundered while piecing together this unlikely, magical instrument.