New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Category: electronic music

A Shimmering, Potently Relevant New Album From Fearless Composer Susie Ibarra

Percussionist and composer Susie Ibarra‘s rapturous, starkly orchestrated new album Walking on Water touches on the two most deadly ecological crises of our time: the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and global warming. Inspired by a breathtaking series of paintings by Mako Fujimura dedicated to the victims of the March 11, 2011 tsunami and subsequent nuclear explosions, Ibarra also addresses a familiar theme in her work, the perils of climate change. With the Japanese government threatening to dump millions of gallons of lethal radioactive water from the still-unstable Fukushima site into the Pacific, Ibarra could not have picked a more appropriate time to release this record of what she terms as “spirituals” at Bandcamp.

Ibarra’s DreamTime Ensemble here includes Jennifer Choi on violin, Yves Dharambaj on cello, Claudia Acuna on vocals, Jake Landau on guitar and keys, with Yuka C. Honda adding electronic elements. The music is much more dynamic than you would expect from such troubling central themes and includes many field recordings of water, from melting ice in the Himalayas to water tanks in Washington State.

The first track is Elegy in Azurite, a shimmery, circling theme, part terse, lush classical atmosphere aloft with Acuna’s vocalese, and part pointillistic Filipino kulintang music. Landau’s spiky acoustic guitar pierces the mist in the bouncy Light East of Sendai. His organ falls away, leaving Ibarra’s cymbals and gongs to mingle with melting ice sonics in Waterfalling.

Assertive, flamenco-tinged guitar chords anchor resonant, shivering phrases from violin and cello over Ibarra’s rustles in Coastal Birds The next track is High Wave, a mashup of found sounds of water amid nebulous acoustic and electronic ambience. Acuna sails soulfully above a syncopated organ groove and Ibarra’s slinky drums in the aptly titled Natural Lightness.

Night Rain sounds like exactly that, a field recording with birds chattering away as they take cover. Violin and cello rise warily over Landau’s lush arpeggios in Divine Forgiveness, followed by a fluttery tone poem, Celestial Migration. Floating Azurite makes a good segue, somber atmosphere contrasting with the mandolin-like delicacy of Landau’s guitars.

The bossa-tinged swing of New York With Grace comes as a real surprise, Landau’s spiny textures and the strings adding a surreal, disquieted edge. The album’s big epic is aptly titled Listening at Himalayan Waterfalls, a found-sound pastiche which Ibarra captured with underwater microphones. The group close with Floating Along Banares, a summery field recording of a boat trip mashed up with distantly Indian-flavored melodies. The implication seems to be that this kind of natural camaraderie is just the tip of the iceberg (pun intended) of what we stand to lose if we don’t stop burning things to power the world. The apocalypse never sounded so dreamy. Count this as one of the best and most captivating albums of 2021.

Passepartout Duo Put Out an Invitingly Hypnotic New Album Made on Handcrafted Textile Instruments

Custom-built instruments are typically designed with more attention to exterior detail than their mass-produced counterparts. Once in awhile there’s an exception: too bad the Vox Teardrop, or the Kay guitars of the 1950s, didn’t have electronics to match the beauty of what’s on the outside. Keyboardist Nicoletta Favari and percussionist Christopher Salvito, who perform as Passepartout Duo, design and build their own instruments, and have created a fascinating pair of synthesizers which they call Oto.

They’re made from e-textiles and wool from Brogna sheep native to their home turf in Italy’s Lessinia region. The duo hand-felted the wool themselves. The point of the project was to create fully functional instruments that doubled as works of fabric art.

The two musicians put the new instruments through their paces on their new cassette Daylighting – streaming at Bandcamp – which also comes with hand-designed, soy-inked inserts. The duo call what they play here “slow music,” inspired by a trip to the Meili Snow Mountains in China and recorded in diverse locations throughout the world.

For what it’s worth, the seven tracks don’t have any distinctively Chinese characteristics, although there are passages which could definitely be called snowy. This music is psychedelic and often gamelanesque. Waves of bubbles and cheery, echoey bleeps percolate through the mix in the album’s first track, Plainness. There’s a delightfully keening, bagpipe-like patch in the second number, Indentations, intertwined amid dancing bell timbres and hand-held percussion.

There are playful percussion and squiggly accents over a warmly inviting calm in the third track, Matter. The album’s title cut is its most minimalist and hypnotic piece. Spare, mobile-like chimes mingle within woozily stacked electronic counterpoint in track five, Hue.

Speciation – a really, REALLY scary concept for 2021, huh? – is the most bell-like tableau here. The duo bring the cassette full circle with the final track, Quiescence. It’s often blissfully enjoyable chillout music.

Plunge Into the Depths With Lucie Vítková and James Ilgenfritz

Lucie Vítková and James Ilgenfritz’s new album Aging – streaming at Bandcamp – is a series of dronescapes. As relentlessly bleak music, it could just as easily be a portrait of the past fourteen months as much as an exploration of what a drag it is to watch the years pile up. Just remember that getting old is a state of mind no matter how many trips you make around the sun.

This is microtonal music. With one exception close to the end of the record, none of these seven long interludes move very far from a sonic center, and it’s frequently impossible to distinguish Ilgenfritz’s bowed bass, abrasively keening harmonics and extended-technique slashes from Vítková’s electronics.

Slowly rising and falling pitchblende resonance is flecked with crumbling fragments of grey noise, clunking loops and ghostly flickers – a deep-space icebreaker clearing the junk from what’s left of the Death Star, maybe. Oscillating scrapes, buzz and boom, achingly unresolved close harmonies, sirening bends and dopplers all filter through the mix. The funereal, tolling chords and darkly contrasting textures of the almost fifteen-minute fifth track are the high point of the album, such that it is. The one after that, a study in high harmonics, more or less, is the most animated.

On one hand, someone with no experience on stringed instruments could probably play this whole thing, or an approximation thereof, after a few tips on bowing. On the other, it really maintains a mood. If you like the lows and the low midrange, this is very enjoyably immersive.

Gorgeously Haunting, Surreal Cinematics From Dictaphone

Dictaphone’s distinctive, unique sound falls somewhere between film noir soundtrack music, jazz and the Middle East. Which makes sense, considering that bandleader Oliver Doerell does a lot of movie scores. The group’s often sweepingly crepuscular instrumentals are much more lush than one would expect from just three musicians, yet it’s also very minimalist: no note goes to waste here. Their new album Goats & Distortions 5 – streaming at Bandcamp – expands on their exploration of what they call “morbid instruments.”

The album’s opening track, simply titled O, has a loopy trip-hop beat beneath drifting ambience over that could be muted pizzicato violin, or a processed guitar riff, or a sintir at a distance: it’s often hard to isolate who’s playing what here. Clarinetist Roger Döring looms sparely and moodily as the atmospherics pulse in and out.

The second track, Island 92 quickly coalesces into a hypnotic Middle Eastern groove, Döring’s bass clarinet chromatics weaving broodingly, then suddenly dropping out for Alex Stolze’s hazy violin. From there, Doerell builds a terse, resonant web of guitar clang and atmospherics.

Döring’s sax and Stolze’s violin waft uneasily over Doerrell’s sintir loop and a lo-fi electronic click track in track three, titled 808.14.4. The album’s title track is in two parts: the first a brief, swoopy, minimalist loop pastiche and the second a trickily rhythmic, darkly surreal dub interlude, pings and blips contrasting with spare bass and morose bass clarinet.

Likewise, washes of grey noise, bass clarinet and amplified loops from an old, broken tape recorder mingle mournfully in Tempete et Stress. Il Grande Silenzio is anything but, a lament with funeral parlor organ and more of that bass clarinet, plus some creepy robotic textures.

M – which doesn’t seem to be a salute to the iconic Peter Lorre horror film – is the driftiest interlude here. Helga Raimondi takes an enigmatic cameo on the mic in Your Reign Is Over, a rainy-day Balkan reggae dub theme. They close with Griot Dub, which is not a reggae tune but a grey-sky tableau.

Fun fact: the band take their name from a lo-fi tape recorder with a variable-speed motor, invented in the late 40s and commonly used in offices as late as the 1990s. It was meant to free up secretarial staff from the slow process of taking dictation. A typist could transcribe the tape and slow the machine down if the person doing the dictating was speaking rapidly. There was also Dictaphone etiquette: to avoid mistakes in transcription, it was considered de rigeur to enunciate slowly and clearly, to spell out proper names and difficult words, and to thank the typist – almost invariably a woman working for near-minimum wage – at the end of the tape.

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!

Surrealistically Captivating Electroacoustic Solo Clarinet Sounds From Esther Lamneck

On one hand, clarinetist Esther Lamneck’s new album Sky Rings – streaming at Spotify – is primarily for fans of her axe, her silken sostenuto, her effortless legato and command of extended technique. On the other, devotees of adventurous new classical music ought to check it out. It’s a collection of six solo electroacoustic pieces, testifying to the fact that we’ve probably barely scratched the surface of how many solo records have been made in the fateful days since March 16 of last year. Often it’s hard to tell what’s an overdub and what’s getting reprocessed and spun back through the mix, enhancing the psychedelic factor.

The opening piece is Lars Graugaard‘s Quiet Voice. It begins as a wafting reverbtoned soundscape that picks up slowly: the distantly chimey multitracks sound suspiciously like the mixer picking up the clicking of the keys. A loopy, uneasy, chromatic phrase hints at the development of more anthemic melody, then Lamneck fires off a sudden cadenza akin to a stone hitting a pond. The sonic thicket grows thicker and more flutelike, even as it’s balanced by fliting low notes against the trills and leaps. Playfully bubbly phrasing alternates with austere atmospherics as she winds up this colorful showpiece.

The album’s title track, by Michael Matthews, has a bracing,, heavy-gamelanesque electronic introduction that gives way to lively allusions to Messiaen’s Quartet For the End of Time and dynamically shifting variations which come full circle almost imperceptibly.

Kyong Mee Choi‘s Ceaseless Cease gives Lamneck alternately drifting and playfully percussive backdrops for leaps and bounds as well as more pensive phrasing that eventually weaves into a sort of catch-and-follow. She airs out her blues phrasing in the intro of Ihbtby, by Paul Wilson, a minimalist take on a Gershwinesque stroll; from there,surreal ambience alternates with hectic flutters.

Although it’s awash in gritty harmonics and keening duotones, Michal Rataj‘s Small Imprints is the most straightforward and subtly playful number here. Lamneck winds up the record with David Durant’s rather brooding Faji, sailing tersely and then glissandoing frenetically over an ominous series of noirish electronic textures and accents.

A Creepy New Abnormal Single From Tessa Lena

For the past year, author and poet Tessa Lena has written some of the most lucid, insightful commentary on the lockdown and the sinister motivations of the oligarchs and tech Nazis behind it. As a first-generation American immigrant who spent her early childhood in the Soviet Union, she knows totalitarianism when she sees it and somehow manages to keep her withering sense of humor intact.

She also records as Tessa Makes Love. One of her particularly creepy, techy singles is I Want to Know You As a Computer. Rather than just scrolling to the bottom of the page where you can find the song, check out her latest critique of the New Abnormal on your way there.

Composer Jen Kutler’s Fascinating New Album Transcends Evocations of Trauma

As if the early days of the lockdown in New York weren’t terroristic enough, composer Jen Kutler spent them further terrorizing herself by watching a long sequence of violent movie scenes. Murder, rape, torture, verbal abuse, the works. Before exposing herself to this barrage of disturbing stimuli, she hooked herself up to electrodes to record the magnetic response time from her skin. Then she ran the data set through MIDI and orchestrated it electronically. The result is an alternately soothing and menacing new album, Sonified Physiological Indicators of Empathy, streaming at Bandcamp. It’s transcendent in the purest sense: a work of art drawn from what must have been a viscerally painful experience.

Kutler was intrigued by the prospect that human response to sounds of trauma might be an indicator of a capacity for empathy – or lack thereof. We speak of people as being warm or cold. Is there scientific evidence to back up such an observation? Kutler discovered research which suggests there is. A psychopath can feign compassion, but skin response to stimuli is a reflex action which can’t be controlled.

Research in this area is still in its infancy, especially as far as sound is concerned, and it has become clear that the wider the set of stimuli used in an experiment, the more unique an individual’s responses will be. However, there does seem to be a correlation between desensitization to traumatic sounds and self-identification with psychopathic behavior on one scale or another. Kutler is quick to point out that we need more research in this area, and is involved with a new project examining human response to various environmental and linguistic cues. And as our body of knowledge in this field grows, we need to be careful to consider individual experiences that may have desensitized us – from childhood trauma, to the environment around us. How many times does an urban dweller hear a scream and assume it’s just a crazy crackhead? What does that say about us?

The sounds on Kutler’s album drift toward the more industrial side of ambient music: Philip Blackburn‘s work often comes to mind. The six tracks here draw the listener in as Kutler’s allusive, methodically shifting timbres and tones waft through the sonic picture. Fragments of stately organ melody give way to what could be monks throat-singing in unison through a garage wall. Echoey drainpipes, wheels shedding overtones at high velocity, elevators, rainstorms and gently wobbling pulleys all come to mind. Sunlight looms in on the most shadowy moments, and vice versa.

The calmest, most enveloping track here is perhaps ironically titled Long Term Memory Loss, an atmosphere that drifts over into the next one, Fairness, although that piece grows more enigmatic. The shifts arrive faster and more uneasily in Short Term Memory Loss. Flickers of minimalistic melody take centerstage in Borders, but even there the textures remain on the cold and plasticky side. Kutler likes synthesized choir patches, which oscillate and pulse in the album’s final cut, A Piece For Amplified Children. It has a funny ending.

Kutler is also an inventor. One recent creation of hers that’s genuinely heartwarming is part of her In Loving Memory of Being Touched project. During the early part of the lockdown last year, Kutler found herself alone and discovered how, like probably billions of people around the world at the time, she missed a simple human touch. So she built a touch simulator which people can use to send each other anything from a playful tap to more emotionally complex tactile messages. Beyond the fun you could have with this, it has immense potential as a means of transmitting secret codes.

Warmly Minimalist, Oceanically-Inspired Electroacoustic Piano Themes From Kumi Takahara

Go out to watch the ocean just as the sun is about to slip under the horizon and you’ll get a good idea of what keyboardist Kumi Takahara’s gently rippling new album See-Through – streaming at Bandcamp – is all about. Her pensive, elegant themes are minimalist to the core: she most definitely does not waste notes. Philip Glass seems to be an influence. This is a great album for winding down or meditation.

She opens the album with Artegio, a warmly minimalist, simple major-key piano piece with subtle ambient electronic touches. Roll, the second track, has variations on a catchy, ratchetingly circling piano riff and what sounds like a wistful melodica in places. Nostalgia is even simpler and just as loopy, Takahara moving methodically up and down the scale as echoey, hypnotically ambient phrases drift into the foreground.

Tide, with its intricate web of string orchestration, is even more hypnotic but also majestic as it swells and brightens. Chime, on the other hand, has more distinct disquiet (and a droll reference to a very famous clock). The strings return, rising with a stark resonance against the bell-like piano, in Kai-kou. 

Layers of wordless vocals permeate Chant along with the strings and sheer simplicity of the piano. Takahara runs subtle, increasingly wistful variations on a four-note riff over what sounds like a viola drone in Sea. She closes the album with Log, well over seven minutes of hazy horizontality and then what turns out to be the album’s most anthemic interlude, punctuated by gentle vocalizing, sparse piano and light electronics. There are also a couple of remixes here that don’t really add anything.

A Trippy, Twinkling Debut Album by Dreampop Duo Vákoum

Multi-instrumentalists Natalia Padilla and Kelli Rudick are Vákoum, whose envelopingly atmospheric, imaginative, sometimes quirky new album Linchpin is streaming at Bandcamp. Bjork and the dreampop bands of the 80s, particularly Lush and the Cocteau Twins, are the influences that jump out at you. If chilly, watery guitar surrounded by airy synth atmospherics is your thing, this is your jam.

It’s best appreciated as a cohesive whole, an immersive late-night wind-down record. For the play-by-play, here goes: the echoey synth and blippy sequencer that open the first track, simply titled intro, are a red herring. Instead of an ambient soundscape, it turns into a lushly (pun intended) wafting dreampop tune, awash in late 80s gloss and sheen. The two women’s close harmonies are a welcome bracing touch.

That sets the stage for the rest of the record. The second track, Beast has a similarly blippy/icily resonant dichotomy, set to tricky, techy, dancing syncopation. There’s a little jazz in the guitar in the loopy Spark, while Sync is a blend of twinkling 90s trip-hop with hints of the Balkans in the vocal harmonies.

For whatever reason, Love is more about textures and coy accents than melody, as is the dissociatively glimmering Freedom. The bass rises higher in Thought than any of the other tracks: this is a pretty trebly record.

Airotic is more skeletal and jangly; Trust concerns something “To help us heal after what he put us through.” What that was isn’t clear. The duo wind up the record with SOA, which is pissed-off and has more of an action-flick soundtrack feel. The autotune doesn’t seem to be on all the vocal multitracks, although by the end of the album it gets annoying. If you can get past that, kick back and chill with this.