New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Category: electronic music

Revisiting a Relentlessly Bleak, Minimalist Film Score

The annual monthlong Halloween celebration here may be past the midpoint, but there’s still plenty of dark music left in the pipeline through the end of the month here. Today we celebrate with the immersive score to the 2019 Rashid Johnson film Native Son, by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein (of S U R V I V E), streaming at Spotify.

This is a very atmospheric, minimalist series of electronic soundscapes. A brief series of doppler-like phrases sets the stage. There’s more ominous texture and contrasts – rumbling lows, hypnotically shifting sheets of grey noise – than there is discernible melody. Which isn’t to say that there isn’t drama: those moments of agitation spring up in a split second, only to fade down into the murk.

Much of this evokes echoey industrial drainpipes, waves of heat over asphalt, and cold mechanical drones which build to turmoil. In contrast, there are interludes with simple, slowly rising and falling synthesized strings, and vintage 80s synth patches. Somewhere a Terminator is running low on batteries.

The film itself is based on the iconic Richard Wright novel: if the score is any indication, the cinematic version of the story of Bigger Thomas is even more relentlessly bleak than the book.

A Rising Star Film Composer Salutes a Horror Icon

What could possibly be more Halloweenish than H.P. Lovecraft? Cthulhu’s tentacles slithering above the moonlit surface of the Miskatonic! The Old Ones in the caverns deep beneath the Mountains of Madness at the bottom of the world! Often imitated, never duplicated, the master of all things eldritch has been referenced by a gazillion metal bands and sourced for a movie, The Color Out of Space. The promo looks pretty cheesy, more Arkham House than genuine Arkham, but Colin Stetson‘s soundtrack – streaming at Spotify – is not.

All the requisite elements are in place. Moody, spare minor-key piano, check. Portentously hovering, still strings, check. Distant gurgles, ghostly washes, sudden white-knuckle swells, deep-space echoes, crashing electronic carnage, it’s all there, not necessarily in that order.

The question is where Stetson’s signature bass sax is and the answer is that it’s probably not, other than maybe that digeridoo-like drone after the “alpacalypse.” After getting a start at the crazed fringes of jazz, taking a detour into live techno and then finding a home in new classical and film music, he seems to be comfortable being more of a composer with a darkly ambient streak these days. And that’s fine. His big band arrangement of Henryk Gorecki’s iconic Third Symphony was as hypnotically poignant as anyone could want. Now if we could only go to a real theatre to enjoy all these movies he’s scoring!

Irresistibly Colorful Improvisations from Korean Trio Saaamkiiim

More today from fascinating new Korean label Mung Music, dedicated to taking some of that country’s strangest and most beguiling improvisational sounds to a global audience. One of their initial slate of releases is Ma-Chal (Korean for “friction”), the debut album by electroacoustic trio Saaamkiiim, streaming at Bandcamp.

There are four tracks: Pointy, Moist, Creepy, and the title cut. Pointy begins as an eerily keening series of electronic loops joined by jagged incisions from Yeji Kim’s haegum fiddle. Sun Ki Kim’s drums and small gongs range from suspenseful, to shamanic, to irrepressibly amusing. The improvisation builds to a series of very funny triangulated interludes – maybe that’s why it’s pointy.

Moist has Dey Kim’s stalactite drips and minimalist piano licks paired with an icy mist of cymbals and shifting sheets of sound from the haegum. The rhythm grows boomier and more insistent along with the fiddle: is this iceberg going to rip apart into a million pieces? Just the opposite, as it turns out.

How creepy is Creepy? Increasingly so, as monster-breath sonics push coy evocations of birdsong from the haegum out of the picture and the funereal gong grows more frantic. Gritty, straining tension and looming atmospherics pervade early part of the title soundscape, then it gets amusing. No spoilers.

Soundwalk Collective and Patti Smith Salute an Influential, Psychedelic French Author

Over a triptych of albums, Soundwalk Collective and Patti Smith have explored the work of three defiantly individualistic French writers: Antonin Artaud, Arthur Rimbaud, and now, René Daumal. The primary inspiration for the collaboration’s latest and concluding chapter, Peradam – streaming at Bandcamp – is Daumal’s final, unfinished 1944 surrealist work Mount Analogue: a Novel of Symbolically Authentic Non-Euclidean Adventures in Mountain Climbing. The album title references the philosopher’s stone in Daumal’s narrative, which is visible only to the truly enlightened.

In keeping with the rest of the records, this one features both found sounds and musical performances. Septuagenarian Sherpa Dhan Singh Rana sings the opening number, Nanda Devi a-cappella in his native vernacular over sounds of wind off the Himalayan mountain. Smith narrates the title track over Tenzin Choegyal‘s singing bowls and spare, hypnotically loopy percussion. “The gateway to the invisible must be visible; the gateway to the visible must be invisible,” she observes.

Knowledge of the Self features Anoushka Shankar’s lingering sitar: she has a distant connection to Daumal, as he went on American tour with her uncle, dancer Uday Shankar. “Your fondest theories vanish before the wall of appearances, that veil of colored shapes, sounds…this is where you started, but you chose the wrong door, instead you fell asleep at the threshold and dreamed your beliefs about the world ” Smith intones in Spiritual Death, a gnomic, Gurdjieff-like challenge to seek enlightenment.

Charlotte Gainsbourg half-whispers The Four Cardinal Times in Daumal’s original French over jungly nocturnal sounds and atmospheric keys from either the group’s Stephan Crasneanscki or Simone Merli. Smith offers an English translation of this shaman in action, which continues with greater detail over temple bells in Hymn to the Liquid.

Anoushka Shankar returns for Vera, a strangely murky tableau. Smith’s poem The Rat, an eco-disaster parable, closes the album over ambient samples and a bassy thud. This album doesn’t have the chilling intensity of the ensemble’s previous Rimbaud tribute; then again, it wasn’t meant to.

Revisiting One of the Zeros’ Defining Bedroom Albums

Today is all about zeros nostalgia. Since nostalgia is the enemy of history, let’s put this in historical context. Goldfrapp’s third album Supernature came out in 2005. There wasn’t much to celebrate that year, globally speaking. The Bush regime was dropping thousands of tons of depleted uranium on Iraq, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians and dooming generations to a plague of birth defects. Harvard sophomore Mark Zuckerberg was scheming up ways to turn his campus photoblogging service into the world’s most dangerous surveillance system. But at least Napster was still going strong, opening up a world of music that millions around the world never would have discovered otherwise.

To commemorate the fifteenth anniversary of the album’s initial release, it’s been remastered and reissued on green gatefold vinyl, and you can hear it at Spotify. Throughout the record, singer Alison Goldfrapp’s breathy vocals have been left as sultry as they were on the original release, although Will Gregory’s many layers of simple, catchy, playfully psychedelic keys seem more balanced, less dancefloor-oriented than on the cd.

Revisiting the album, the influence of early 80s new wave acts like Missing Persons, Yaz and early Madonna is more vivid than ever. And the songs are a trip, from Ride a White Horse, the duo’s thinly veiled ecstasy anthem, to Number 1, the motorik New Order ripoff that closes the record. In between, the duo’s frontwoman shows off her upper registers in You Never Know (a song that would be autotuned if it was released by a corporate label in 2020), descends to a seductive whisper in the loopy Let It Take You and purrs over the catchy synth bass in Fly Me Away.

Who can forget the cheery, completely deadpan Slide In? If you were around back then, maybe you slid in or smoked up to the woozy, P-Funkesque textures of Coco, the pogo-sticking Satin Chic or the drifty, oscillating Time Out From the World. In the time since, the two have stayed together – and why wouldn’t they? Their New York shows over the past several years have gotten more and more stratospherically expensive.

The album gets extra points for its effectiveness as a weapon to get noisy neighbors to shut up. Played on a sufficiently powerful system, those icy, bassy electronic beats really cut through the the walls and ceiling.

Surreal, Entertaining, Strangely Cinematic Themes on Curtis Hasselbring’s New Album

Curtis Hasselbring may be best known as one of the mostly highly sought-after trombonists in the New York jazz scene, but he also plays a lot of other instruments. As a guitarist, he has a very distinctive, jagged style and impeccable taste in late 70s/early 80s postpunk and new wave. He’s been involved with innumerable projects over the years, but his most psychedelic one is Curha, his mostly one-man band. Hasselbring’s music has always been defined by his sense of humor, but this is where you’ll find some of his funniest songs. The brand-new Curha II album is streaming at Bandcamp.

The opening track, Casa Grande is a tongue-in-cheek surf tune with neatly intertwining guitars and keening funeral organ, Dan Reiser supplying a low-key beach-party beat. He sticks around for the second track, Togar, an outer-space Motown theme, guest guitarist Brandon Seabrook mimicking the squiggle of the keys.

Hasselbring keeps the sci-fi sonics going in Sick of Ants!: listen closely to the watery guitar and you’ll catch his appreciation for the late, great John McGeoch of Siouxsie & the Banshees and PiL. How airy is Blimp Enthusiast, a rare vocal number? Not particularly, but this quasi trip-hop song is very funny.

The blippy Blaster comes across as a motorik tv theme on whippits. With its loopy low-register piano and clip-clop beats, Soap makes even less sense until Peter Hess’ bass clarinet ushers in a somber mood for a second. Hasselbring’s trombone appears distinctly for the first time in Murgatroid, a clever mashup of 70s disco, outer-space theme and early new wave.

With its intricately dancing web of guitar multitracks, the rather disquieting MMS has echoes of early 80s Robert Fripp; then Hasselbring takes it further toward acid jazz. He goes back to lo-fi motorik minimalism with Totally Hired, then shifts toward spare, 90s electro-lounge with History of Vistas.

He closes the album with the coyly tiptoeing Her Pebble Fusion and then Blown Bubble Blues, which is kind of obvious but irresistibly fun. Hip-hop artists in need of far-out samples need look no further. You don’t have to be high to enjoy this, but it couldn’t hurt.

A Rare, Turbulent Pauline Oliveros Online Concert Rescued From the Archives

The great Pauline Oliveros played her last New York concert in the spring of 2015, trading soulful accordion riffs and subtly sly musical banter with members of International Contemporary Ensemble at a since-relocated radical theatre space in Fort Greene. The inventor of the concept of deep listening had been such a force in the world of improvisation and the avant garde for so long that it seemed she’d be around forever.

She left behind an enormous body of work. Decades before locked-down musicians desperately turned to Zoom to serenade their fans or make records, Oliveros coined the term “telematic” and participated in innumerable online collaborations. One welcome rediscovery is the new vinyl album Telematic Concert, a duo performance with Argentine electronic musician Alan Courtis, originally webcast in the fall of 2009. It hasn’t hit the web yet, but as Oliveros would be quick to tell you, her work sounds best on vinyl.

This joint improvisation is divided into just two tracks, their long upward drives, swells and sustain mingling to the point where it’s impossible to tell who’s playing what. Much of this brings to mind early industrial acts like Suicide. The treble is really gaining in the mix early on: you may want to bring down the highs, especially if you’re listening on earbuds.

Courtis introduces flitting poltergeist accents, sudden, menacingly responsive drones, sounds of water and wind. A hammering interlude subsumes the accordion, but Oliveros returns resolutely to the mix. The music takes on a decidedly assaultive, disquieting edge from this point, Oliveros choosing her spots amid the looming, toxic whirlpool. The second part of the improvisation begins with its most grim interlude, rising and falling more spaciously and basically falling apart at the end: with a single coy flourish, Oliveros lets it be known she’s done.

It would be nice to hear more of her here in general, although it’s also extremely instructive to see how spaciously and methodically she approaches music this overtly dystopic. With her puckish sense of humor and finely honed improvisational reflexes matched by an unassailable calm, her own music was often dead serious, and the very definition of immersive, but seldom so macabre.

Literally Otherworldly, Entertaining Sounds From Sarah Weaver

OK – you open your new album with an almost nineteen-minute drum solo. Career suicide attempt?

Actually, Gerry Hemingway’s performance of Sarah Weaver’s gamelanesque hailstorm of a composition is vastly more interesting than most drum solos, and in a way it sets the stage for the entertainment to come on her latest, deep-space inspired album Synchrony Series. It hasn’t made it to the usual spots on the web, although there are bits and pieces at Weaver’s youtube channel..

Bombast is happily absent; what we get is a a very subtle upward drive from a steady drizzle on the cymbals and some neat accents on what seem to be extremely detuned tom-toms. People with short attention spans will not be able to handle much of this music, but for those dedicated to what Pauline Oliveros called deep listening, it’s a treat. It’s very psychedelic, by the way.

Long before the lockdown forced musicians to use the web to collaborate, Weaver was patching in people around the world to create ensembles that otherwise never could have existed. There’s some of that here on the record. The second number, Symmetry of Presence features bass trombone legend David Taylor playing a ridiculously funny series of ideas through an increasingly surreal series of Weaver’s effects – although his vaunted extended technique really gets a workout before the electronics kick in. So much of this kind of music is mannered and fearful: this is 180 degrees from that.

An allstar eleven-piece ensemble play the darkly sprawling, practically forty-minute suite Interhere, a soundscape in the AACM tradition. Min Xiao-Fen’s spiky pipa first takes centerstage over Mark Dresser’s keening bass overtones and the massed horns of Taylor, trumpeter James Zollar, soprano saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom, reedman Ned Rothenberg, bassoonist Sara Schoenbeck and oboeist Julie Ferrara. Denman Maroney’s piano introduces icy menace; it’s not clear what or who pansori-influenced singer Yoon Sun Choi is addressing, if at all. More than a hint of franticness; squirrelly dissociation; Tower of Babel chatter from all points; quasi-baroque lockstep; ominous swells on the low end; cold spring desolation fried into 5G microwave shriek: does this feel vaguely familiar?

The album’s disorienting fourth number is just the composer on vocals and Joe McPhee’s trumpet, running through a maze of effects, challenging both themselves and the listener to find a calm center. The final, practically hourlong epic was recorded by most of the large ensemble here, bolstered by an online cast utilizing samples from the Kepler space telescope.

These melodies, created by the orbits of stars and planets millions of miles away, have a stately, gamelanesque quality that validates Johannes Kepler’s theories about celestial harmonies, but almost droll oscillations as well. Is humor implicit in the physics of planetary and solar mass? It would seem so. The musicians respond to those motives with a playful aplomb, bringing to mind Gil Evans as his most celestial as well as Anthony Braxton in galactically tectonic mode – as well as the most primitive video games.

The long liftoff sequence midway through is a lot of fun; the outer-space drift elsewhere is just as entertaining, while the increasingly pensive exchange afterward is a sobering reflection on our ultimate place amidst the dust of stars. This magnum opus has a lot to get lost in.

Defying Category With Svjetlana Bukvich’s Rich, Dramatic Compositions

As a composer, Svjetlana Bukvich has made a career out of jumping off cliffs and landing on her feet. Few other artists are able to bridge such a seemingly ridiculous number of styles without seeming the least bit out of place. Most, but not all, of her vibrant, dramatic, often darkly bristling compositions are electroacoustic, imbued with an irrepressible joie de vivre as wel as both a striking clarity and embrace of the absurd. It seems that she just writes what she wants to and lets everybody else figure out how to categorize it..or just leave it alone and enjoy its vitality. Her new album Extension – streaming at Spotify – is by turns surreal, futuristic, troubling and triumphant.

She plays zither harp through a maze of effects, joined by Susan Aquila on electric violin and David Rozenblatt on percussion, on the album’s opening track, The Beginning, flitting space junk and dancing, pingponging phrases over stygian washes. Bukvich builds the hypnotically circling prelude Utopia around a simple, insistent, wordless vocal riff spiced with her own bright electric piano, flickers from Jacqueline Kerrod’s electric harp over terse syncopation from bassist Patrick Derivaz and drummer Wylie Wirth. Is this art-rock? Indie classical? Does it matter?

Singers Kamala Sankaram and Samille Ganges harmonize uneasily over Bukvich’s dancing synth lines in the album’s title track: imagine an Ethiopian contingent passing through Jabba the Hut’s space lounge. Once You Are Not a Stranger is featured in three different versions throughout the album. Derivaz dips low to open the first one, string quartet Ethel building a pensive series of echo riffs overhead.

Janis Brenner sings a much more minimalist take of the second over the composer’s spacious piano chords. The lush final version, which concludes the album, switches out the string quartet for the Shattered Glass String Orchestra,

Graves, with Bukvich joined by Kerrod, Wirth, Nikola Radan on alto flute and Richard Viard on acoustic guitar comes across as a moody, distantly Middle Eastern-tinged art-rock dirge. Sankaram brings both gentle poignancy and operatic flair to Tattoo, backed by Bukvich’s brooding piano and orchestration.

The bandleader switches to synth, teaming up with cellist Raphael Saphra and bassist Joseph Brock for Stairs, a similarly uneasy miniature. Then Jane Manning trades off with Sankaram over Bojan Gorišek’s piano and Bukvich’s wry electronics in the Balkan-inflected Nema Te (You Aren’t Here, You Aren’t There). Fans of acts as diverse as Radiohead, Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, exploding pianist Kathleen Supove and postminimalist composers like David Lang will love this stuff.

Relentlessly Uneasy, Dystopic Soundscapes From Austin Rockman

Today’s pick for music here is cold, mechanical, dystopic…and trippy as hell. There’s a lot going on in electronic composer Austin Rockman‘s new maxi-single Sonde Aim/Seek No End – streaming at Bandcamp – so it’s more persistently uneasy than it is desolate. If you need about thirteen minutes to get lost in, this will work.

The rhythmic center of the first track is a loop of what sounds like the needle on a turntable bouncing off the face of a weatherbeaten record. Fleeting doppler smears pass through the sonic picture in a split second, echoed by low rumbles; eventually, keening, minimal highs and fragmentary backward masked effects begin to take centerstage.

The second is a more grimly hazy, echoey tableau, with slowly shifting sheets of sound in place of dopplers: as with the A-side, Rockman eventually brings the highs up in the mix. Neither piece offers any kind of resolution: life is like that.