New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: indie classical

What a Thrill: Tan Dun Conducts Tan Dun at Lincoln Center

That this past evening’s Lincoln Center performance of Tan Dun’s Cello Concerto wasn’t upstaged by the Orchestra Now‘s colorful, majestically dynamic, cinematic version of Respighi’s The Pines of Rome speaks equally to the quality of the composition and the musicians playing it. Having a composer on the podium isn’t necessarily a good idea, since many lack the ability to communicate exactly what they want in a split-second. But Tan Dun was confident and assured, building a vigorous repartee with the ensemble throughout a bill that reflected the diverse and often perverse challenges that even the most seasoned players can be forced to take in stride.

The Cello Concerto is one of four, each written for a specific soloist, utilizing the same orchestral backdrop. This one is a real showstopper, a frequently microtonal work (especially at the end) that required all sorts of daunting extended technique not only from cellist Jing Zhao but the entire orchestra. The Asian influence was most strongly evident throughout a long series of strangely cantabile glissandos, and swoops and dives, front and center in bright stereo from various sections and soloists, percussion included. From a vast, overcast, enveloping slow build, through thickets of agitation, thorny pizzicato and more than one interlude that was essentially cello metal, the group seemed to be having a blast with it. Even the two trick codas as the end were as seamless as trick codas can be.

The other Tan Dun piece on the bill, his Passaglia, is one in the most formal sense of the word: varations on a simple, catchy bass figure. It’s an etude, an opportunity for young musicians not only to take turns in brief, emphatic solos, but also to tackle the many unusual challenges (many would say indignities) that orchestral musicians these days are called on to pull off. In this case, that included singing n unison, chanting, stomping or clapping out a beat…and using their phones. This deep-jungle theme and permutations briefly employs a sample of birdsong which the audience were also encouraged to download and play on cue. As expected, that interlude was rather ragged and took twice as long as the composer had intended. Even so, Tan Dun’s relentless, puckish sense of humor and peek-a-boo motives won everyone over.

Respighi’s tour of Roman activity beneath and around the conifers was as vivid as it possibly could have been, enhanced by the composer’s original instructions to position brass above and to the side. Introducing the piece, violinist Diego Gabete-Rodriguez reminded that Respighi had studied with Rimsky-Korsakov, which came through mightily in the clarity of individual voices over fluttering and then lush strings, delicate accents popping up everywhere when least expected. The kids playing a frenetic game of hide-and-seek in the Villa Borghese; the somber catacomb milieu of the second movement; the glistening nocturne of the third; the concluding ominous buildup to what seems like inevitable war (remember, this was written under the Mussolini regime); and final triumphant scene were each in sharp focus.

The orchestra opened with Smetana’s The Moldau, which, paired alongside Tan Dun’s nonstop excitement seemed tired and dated. The musical equivalent of a first-class minor-league team, the Orchestra Now’s mission is to give up-and-coming players a chance to show off their stuff in the real-live situations that they will undoubtedly encounter as professional orchestral musicians. The Czech composer’s water music is a perennially popular curtain-riser, one unfortunately too often paired with a piece as jarringly different as the rest of this bill was. To be able to leap that stylistic chasm could mean a thumbs-up from a hiring committee; in this case, the group seemed to be holding their energy, and emotional commitment, in reserve for the fireworks afterward.

The Orchestra Now’s next Manhattan concert is Nov 18 at 2 PM at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with works by Chopin and Berlioz; you can get in for $30.

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A Dynamic, Relevant Grand Finale to This Year’s Momenta Festival

Over the past four years, the Momenta Festival has become one of New York’s most exciting annual events. Each member of the irrepressibly daring Momenta Quartet takes his or her turn programming a night. The festival usually ends on violinist Emilie-Anne Gendron’s birthday. This year’s grand finale, Friday night at the Tenri Institute, happened to be cellist Michael Haas’ birthday: he and the group celebrated by going starkly deep into a program centered around Bartok’s harrowing String Quartet No. 4.

. As he explained succinctly before the show, it’s a piece he’d been scheming to play ever since joining the ensemble five years ago.  As was the case last year, admission was free, and there was high-grade craft beer afterward, also courtesy of the hosts. What more could a concertgoer possibly want?

They opened with Eric Nathan’s diptych Four to One, from 2011. Interestingly, this was the only contemporary work on the bill. It set it the bar almost impossibly high for the rest of the evening, notwithstanding the iconic Bartok quartet immediately afterward. Right off the bat, it became a harried, relentless, microtonal rollercoaster ride, the group holding fast to the counterpoint amidst the storm. Violist Stephanie Griffin’s plaintive assertions were particularly striking, as was Gendron’s turn in the rather cruel spotlight over a menacing wash in the second part. Haas’ cello was also stark yet prominent: it’s not hard to see why he’d want to program this. It reminded a lot of Michael Hersch’s recent, troubling microtonal work.

The performance of the Bartok turned out to be one of the very best of many witnessed by this blog or its owner over the past couple of decades. The persistent sense of doom the quartet parsed with razorwire intensity had particular resonance in this post-2016 election era. Menacingly emphatic gestures leapt from the dark interweave of the first movement, danger drawing ever closer. The circle dance in the second was just as macabre, especially with the exchanges of voices between instruments. Haas’ plaintive cavatina, echoed incisively by violinist Alex Shiozaki, brought the longing and if-only atmosphere of the third to a peak: it was impossible not to think of Shostakovich being influenced by this when writing his String Quartet No. 7. Both the savagery and after-the-battle emotional depletion of the final movement were just as indelible a reminder of the perilous consequences of fascism. The more things change…

Augmented by the Argus Quartet – violinists Jason Issokson and Clara Kim, cellist Joann Whang and guest violist Rose Hashimoto – the Momentas wound up the program with a triumphantly anthemic take of Enescu’s Octet for Strings in C Major. The young composer wrote it at nineteen in a rather successful attempt to outdo Mendelssohn at teenage octetry. The main theme has a suspenseful Andalucian feel, which grew to echo the Ravel bolero in places: together, the group reveled in the dramatic foreshadowing, even if it grew facile in places. A more mature composer might have written it half as long, but even so, when the synopsis of the final movement finally circled back, there was no denying how much of a party this merry band had brought.

The Momenta Quartet are currently on tour: their next gig is tomorrow night, Oct 24 at 7:30 PM playing works by Agustin Fernandez, Roberto Sierra, Eric Nathan, and Philip Glass at Santa Teresa Church in Cochabamba, Bolivia. The Argus Quartet’s next New York show is on Nov 13 at 7:30 PM at Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, playing an excellent, diverse program including Janacek’s String Quartet No. 2, “Intimate Letters,” along with works by Haydn, Ted Hearne, Juri Seo and Christopher Theofanidis. Cover is $25/$15 stud.

A Perfectly Macabre Halloween Month Extravaganza at Green-Wood Cemetery

This past evening, in the the private catacombs buried away in the center of Green-Wood Cemetery, a woman’s high heels echoed over a murmur of sepulchral voices.

Those persistent footfalls belonged to an employee there. But the hushed swirl of voices weren’t coming from cemetery workers. While those sounds were on the quiet side, they were also very lively: the electricity of a sold-out crowd who’d gone deep into the realm of the dead to witness the first of three nights of the grand finale of the series called the Angel’s Share.

Drawing on classics by Mary Shelley and Edgar Allen Poe, pianist Gregg Kallor and cellist Joshua Roman built a relentlessly turbulent ambience, less classic horror film score than mashup of postbop jazz, the Second Viennese School and a little Olympian Rick Wakeman bombast. Yet this performance of pieces from Kallor’s current work in progress, a Frankenstein opera, as well as his epic oratorio The Tell-Tale Heart were ultimately less about instrumental pyrotechnics than vocal ones. And what voices these were!

The greatest achievement of Kallor’s scores turned out to be the contrast between the stubborn unresolve of the music and the sheer anthemic catchiness of the vocal melodies. Yet with all the tension and often outright suspense between the two, they were hardly easy to sing. Emerging from (and then eventually skulking back into) the Herrmann family’s private crypt, baritone Joshua Jeremiah gave the Frankenstein monster dignity and gravitas, along with a crushing solitude that rang starkly true to Shelley’s novella. Tenor Brian Cheney, as Dr. Frankenstein, channeled intransigent denial, but his angst grew more harrowing as the dialogue with his creation grew more emotionally charged. The takeaway from Kallor’s interpretation of the story seems to be that if you create monsters, be careful lest you become one. As the suite wound up, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano also offered resolute poignancy as the doctor’s fiancee and quasi-foil.

Kallor then delivered another world premiere, solo, playing The Answer Is Yes, a dedication to Leonard Bernstein (who according to the program notes is a permanent Green-Wood resident). The title is a typically exuberant Bernstein quote from a series of Harvard lectures, and rang true as Kallor methodically shifted gears between distantly Stravinskian, balletesque leaps and bounds, saturnine lustre and a little bittersweet blues. So many other composers  inspired by Bernstein end up aping him. Kallor did nothing of the sort.

Cano then pulled out all the stops in The Tell-Tale Heart. Kallor and Roman edged closer to straight-ahead, chromatically slashing grand guignol as she gave voice to what appeared to be the entire short story. It was a dynamic tour de force that ultimately demanded every bit of available firepower and range-stretching technique. In between those extremes, she delivered furtive puzzlement, and grisly determination, and finally a knockout portrait of sheer madness. Whether modulating her soul-infused vibrato or belting with a crypt-shaking power, she put on a clinic in just about every emotion that could be evinced from this creepy character.

Without spoiling anything else, the costuming and lighting are spot-on and add immensely to the performance’s tension and suspense. Sometimes less is really more: in staging this, the crew really had to become intimate with the space.

The program repeats tomorrow and Friday, Oct 11-12 and is sold out. However, there is a wait list. In their inaugural season, this series became a huge hit with neighborhood folks, so if you are one of them, and ghoulish sounds are your thing, head up the hill to the cemetery and you might just get in.

Maybe you’ll even be able to take a refreshingly shadowy ten-minute walk back from the crypt, through the tombstones, afterward…despite this past evening’s crushing humidity, that stroll was as magical as the concert.

Brilliant Grey-Sky Themes and Savage Irony From Andrew Rosciszewski

Bassist/composer Andrew Rosciszewski’s music vividly evokes his primary influence, Shostakovich, from a persistently grim, grey-sky sensibility to a devious, sometimes cruelly ironic sense of humor. Other obvious touchpoints are the terse minimalism of Gorecki and the phantasmagoria of Stravinsky. Rosciszewski’s richly dynamic new collection of chamber works, Sonic Real Estate, is streaming at Bandcamp. His deft use of false endings is unsurpassed: Beethoven would be jealous.

The album opens with his Piano Trio No. 1. The first movement comes across as a radical deconstruction of the first couple of bars of the famous Mars theme from the Planets, by Gustav Holst, flickers of what was once bellicose drama drifting endlessly through space with a funereal pulse. Cellist Timothy Leonard’s amazingly consistent, loopy phrases contrast with Wen Yi Lo’s stern, fragmentary piano, violinist Izabella Liss Cohen eventually making a similarly somber entrance.

The gleefully creepy Balkan dance of the second movement provides striking contrast. Deep-space belltone gloom introduces a series of hypnotically emphatic, circling phrases straight out of Gorecki’s Third Symphony in the third. The concluding Allegro is a feast of darkly carnivalesque tropes: devilish glissandos, a bit of Bartokian boogie, a Balkan danse macabre with some breathtaking lows from Leonard and a marionetttish strut for a coda.

Leonard and Lo team up for the Pieśń Wdowy for Cello & Piano, a diptych that opens with Rachmaninovian glimmer and angst and swings back into the Balkans – and is that a distortion pedal that Leonard’s playing through?

Music for Three Instruments is a three-part suite, opening with a particularly animated Andante, Tamara Keshecki’s twistedly dancing flute against a backdrop of Joseph d’Auguste’s clarinet and Lucy Corwin’s viola. The sheer desolation of the Russian folk theme afterward and then the animatedly sepulchral conclusion both strongly echo Shostakovich at his darkest and most cynical.

Meg Zervoulis plays the Impromptu for Piano solo, a sly neoromantic parody that drifts off into Philip Glass territory. The title piece is a cinematically suspenseful, occasionally buffoonish, chamber-rock number with the composer on electric bass and Moog pedals alongside percussionist Vincent Livolsi, Leonard, Keshecki and Lo, who switches to synth. In a best-case scenario, this album ought to raise Rosciszewski’s profile beyond cult-favorite status: somebody give this guy a grisly historical epic to score!

Missy Mazzoli’s Grim, Grisly Great Plains Gothic Tour de Force

As a sold-out crowd filtered into the Miller Theatre Wednesday night, a strange interweave of short melodic phrases rose from the newly reopened orchestra pit, played more or less in turn by a large subset of International Contemporary Ensemble’s rotating multi-city cast. They weren’t warming up for the New York premiere of Missy Mazzoli’s harrowing opera, Proving Up: the surreal, acidic exchange was foreshadowing in disguise. It only hinted at the ghastly narrative to come.

Royce Vavrek’s libretto, based on a Karen Russell short story, follows the misfortunes of a family of 19th century Nebraska homesteaders. The only possible hardship they don’t have to face is Indian raids: presumably the original occupants of the land to which the Zegner family hopes to claim the deed have already been murdered. A cast of seven, both the living and the dead, carry out a grim narrative, clinging to the illusion of a destiny they can manifest despite all odds against that ever happening. They’re forced to recycle things you never would. Such a sobering wake-up call, from an American dream that has historically eluded most of those who embraced it, could not be more relevant than it is now.

Mazzoli’s score mirrors the Zegners’ determination to prove to a Godot of a government inspector that they’ve fulfilled every surreal requirement to make the land their own. The melodies are elusive, often maddeningly so. Folksy themes gather momentary momentum, only to be twisted into cruel shadows of themselves. Mazzoli’s orchestration is sublimely strange and counterintuitive: a melodica and a big gong figure notably in the score alongside aching strings, spare brass, sepulchrally glittering piano and woodwinds.

The singers take similarly challenging melodies which seldom stayed in any one particular scale or mode and deliver a confidently chilling performance. John Moore gives poignancy to the family’s drunken, abusive yet fiercely populist patriarch. Soprano Talise Trevigne brings an immutably soaring strength to his wife, the family’s truest believer and possibly truest victim. As their son, riding across the lone prairie on a joke of a horse, Michael Slattery witnesses the mark of the beast on midwestern sentimentality  As a very differently imperiled brother, Sam Shapiro has to hold some contorted poses, and his ballet training doesn’t let him down. Bass Andrew Harris plays a grim reaper figure with relish. And Abgail Nims and Cree Carrico, as ghost Greek choir, channel diabolical schadenfraude. Director James Darrah’s decision to stage an exhumation in the midst of all the drama packs grand guignol wallop.

The opera’s totemic central symbol is a glass window, something every verifiable homestead needed to have. A question of provenance arises, with lethal results. As the story plays out, Mazzoli’s sinister, looming ambience is relentless. Her music has no shortage of troubling undercurrents, but this is the darkest and arguably best work she’s ever composed in a career that probably hasn’t even hit its high point yet.

Downward glissandos from both the singers and the orchestra cap off some of the night’s most emphatic crescendos, one crushing defeat after another. Solid grooves are dashed away in an endlessly daunting series of rhythmic shifts: nothing is solidly underfoot here. When the orchestra finally cuts loose with fullscale horror in the final act, the long build up to that point, through vast long-tone desolation, eerily twinkling piano, marionettish rhythmic jerks and sepulchral flickers throughout the ensemble, the takeaway is unmistakeable. We should be able to see the final results of this particular promise a mile away.

There’s one more performance tonight at the Miller, and that’s sold out. Programming here this season is characteristically diverse, from Brazilian rainforest nocturnes on Oct 9 at 6 PM, to one of the theatre’s signature composer portrait performances featuring the work and vocals of Kate Soper on the 27th at 8.

Macabre Piano Epics and Deep-Space Ambience From Elizabeth A. Baker

Pianist/multi-instrumentalist Elizabeth A. Baker’s new album Quadrivium – streaming at Bandcamp – is extremely long and often extremely dark. Her music can be hypnotic and atmospheric one moment and absolutely bloodcurdling the next. Erik Satie seems to be a strong influence; at other times, it sounds like George Winston on acid, or Brian Eno. It was tempting to save it for Halloween month – when all hell breaks loose here – but Baker’s playing the release show tonight, Sept 22 at Arete Gallery in Greenpoint at 7 PM. Cover is $15 – be aware that there is no G train between Nassau Ave. and Queens this weekend, so your options are either taking the L to Bedford and about a 20-minute walk, or the G to Nassau if you’re coming from Brooklyn and then hoofing it from there.

Baker’s striking high/low piano contrasts follow a hypnotically circling, glacial pace in the thirteen-plus minutes of the album’s opening track, Sashay. Subtly and slowly, her icicle accents grow more spacious, with the occasional unexpectedly playful accent. The second track, Command Voices – 251A is a lot more sinister, laced with Baker’s emphatic menace amid sepulchral rustles. Its eleven-minute second part is a pitch-black haunted house soundtrack complete with creaky inside-the-piano sonics and ghostly bells that finally come full circle with a long parade of macabre close harmonies.

Four Explosions Expanding From the Center is an awfully sardonic title for a deep-space Satie-esque tone poem echoing the album’s opening track as it grows more energetic. Quarks is a study in coy, fleeting accents followed by the brief spoken-word piece Identity Definitions, which contemplates how primitive attempts to rationalize existence still have resonance today.

The far more epic Lateral Phases & Beat Frequencies addresses interpersonal quandaries over drones and spacy squiggles. Headspace is as ambient and drifty as you would think. What Is Done in Silence builds a spot-on, sarcastically robotic cautionary scenario about getting caught in a digital snare. Baker works trippily oscillating loops in An Outcast; the album’s final cut is a coldly glimmering, practically 24-minute portrait of a dangerous powder drug, or so it would seem. It brings to mind the early loop collages of Phil Kline. Lots of flavors and lots of troubling relevance in an album which has a remarkably persistent awareness even as Baker messes with the listener’s imagination.

Rage Against the Machine in the Former Belly of the Beast

In their sold-out concert at the Park Avenue  Armory Wednesday night, cutting-edge 24-member choral ensemble the Crossing delivered a breathtakingly virtuosic rebuke to anyone who might think that rage is not all the rage these days. The Armory dates back to the 19th century and is decorated throughout with high quality Civil War memorabilia. According to heraldic engravings in all sorts of precious metals, sixty-five of New York’s entitled classes died fighting to keep the Union together. It’s hardly a stretch to consider that their patriotism may have reflected less of an endorsement of civil liberties for all Americans, black and white, than the desire to keep sources of raw materials in the south safe in the grip of northern banksters.

Conductor Donald Nally’s choice to stage the group’s performance there was as daring as it was obvious. Each room utilized for the concert’s two sets is rich with natural reverb. in a proud tradition that goes back long before Laurie Anderson‘s legendary performances at the Armory, this was yet another reclamation of the space in the name of something other than killing.

Eight of the pieces on the program were New York premieres. The trio of cellists Thomas Mesa, Arlen Hlusko and Sujin Lee opened with the subtly shifting, hypnotically circling riffs of David Lang’s Depart as the crowd filed in. The singers then took their places one by one and treated the audience to a night of daunting counterpoint, playfully challenging extended technique, kaleidoscopic interplay and glistering, often achingly enveloping polyphony.

Central to the program were two breathtaking pieces by Gabriel Jackson. Our Flags Are Wafting in Hope and Grief, with its cleverly expanding cell-like phrases and dramatic cadenzas, brought to life Latvian writer Doris Koreva’s poem addressing a crucial, pivotal historical moment from which there can be no return. There’s cruel ambiguity in its flag imagery; the ensemble’s  emphatic intensity weighed in on the side of the perils of nationalism rather than potential triumphs.

The similarly circling first segment of Jackson’s Rigwreck could have been dispensed with, but the diptych’s second part was as gripping as it is relevant, connecting the dots from the question of eternal vigilance to its absence in both the BP Gulf oil spill catastrophe, and also our own relationships. The pinpoint precision of the group’s gusts underscored the grim cautionary tale in Pierre Joris’ text, a fervent wakeup call about the corporate interests and money culture that pollute individual lives as toxically as the Gulf of Mexico and its coastline were in 2010.

Kile Smith’s Conversation on the Mountain – from his suite Where Flames a Word – gave the choir a wide-open field for all sorts of deft, subtly baroque-inflected call-and-response that twinkled and sometimes burst from every corner of the stage. A brief premiere, by Louis Andriessen rose to anguished close harmonies. By contrast, the group got to let off some steam with Ted Hearne’s Animals, voicing an entire Nile riverbank bestiary with unleashed abandon and an undercurrent of Orwellian cynicism.

The choice of opening the second half of the concert with the knifes-edge close harmonies of Suzanne Giraud’s Johannisbaum instantly set the tone for the unease of the rest of the program, the cellists joined by a trio of soprano Abigail Chapman, mezzo-soprano Elisa Sutherland and a masterfully precise blonde woman whose image hasn’t yet made it to Google. Unfair as it is to single out a singer from a performance where selfless teamwork is so crucial, Sutherland’s soul-infused expressiveness and unselfconscious joie de vivre explain why she was front and center throughout much of the show.

There was also hypnotic, atmospheric rapture in Sebastian Currier’s Sanctus, from his Night Mass, and a final, wistfully precarious contemplation of our ongoing existence by Lang. Needless to say, it was a sobering idea to take home.

The Crossing’s next concert, on Sept 29 at 8 PM features indie classical chamber group International Contemporary Ensemble, with works by Hearne, Lang and Caroline Shaw at Montclair State University’s Kasser Theatre. Tix are $30; a $10 shuttle bus leaves from behind Port Authority about an hour and a half before the show. It’s about a 45-minute ride from Manhattan. 

A Strange, Innovative New Mixtape Album and a Williamsburg Show From Agnes Obel

Of the 21 tracks on Agnes Obel’s latest aptly titled album Late Night Tales – streaming at Bandcamp – only four of the songs are hers. But it’s not a covers album – it’s a cleverly assembled mixtape, often a very good one. Considering how many decades’ worth of material across about as wide a stylistic swath as you could imagine are represented here, segues aren’t the point. Obviously, the goth-tinged Danish multi-keyboardist/singer is going to be playing her own material at her gig tomorrow night, Sept 15 at Warsaw. Showtime is 8 PM; general admission is $20. If you’re going, be aware that there is no G train this weekend: the venue is about a five minute walk from the south exit (i.e. the one without the lines) at the Bedford Ave. L station.

To open the album, the shifting ominousness of Henry Mancini’s Evil Theme segues into the creepy arpeggios and vocalese of Moonbird, a 1971 instrumental by the Roger Webb Sound. Campy faux-tropicalia by Eden Ahbez quickly breaks the mood; the grim Lee Hazelwood western gothic track after that also hasn’t aged well.

Jamaican singer Nora Dean’s distantly menacing dub plate Ay Ay Ay Ay (Angle-Lala) is a welcome return to the darkness, echoed a bit later by Lena Platonos’ Bloody Shadows from a Distance. A loopily cinematic bass-and-narration miniature by Yello quickly gives way to the surreal 196os Brazilian renaissance choral psych-pop of Aleluia, by Quarteto Em Cy with the Tamba Trio

Ray Davies’ 2015 cover of his ex Chrissie Hynde’s I Go to Sleep is almost as surreal, awash in an echoey chamber pop arrangement. The lingering unease of the fifth movement from Alfred Schnittke’s Piano Quintet, (uncredited, but the piano sounds like Obel) connects to her first original here, Stretch Your Eyes and its rainy-day Dead Can Dance ambience. 

An otherworldly folk melody sung by the Bulgarian State Radio & Television Female Choir bridges to Obel’s second number, Glemmer Du and its twistedly twinkling music-box piano. Her third composition, Bee Dance is a ghostly waltzing instrumental for strings and piano.

The stark freak-folk of Sibylle Baier’s The End, from 2006, leads into Michelle Gurevich’s similarly spare, sarcastic Party Girl, from a year later. The mix shifts back to noir with Can’s wintry, swooshy instrumental Oscura Primavera, followed by indie classical composer David Lang’s minimalist choral fugue I Lie, performed by the Torino Vocalensemble (uncredited). Arguably the highlight of the whole mix is a live 1964 concert recording of Nina Simone singing an a-cappella version of her excoriating, ferociously relevant ode to black female beauty, Images. Obel’s emphatic, minimalist dreamscape setting of Inger Christensen’s Poem About Death concludes this strange and unsettling mix.

One minor issue with the album is that the times listed for every single track on the Bandcamp page are completely wrong. Don’t be surprised when what’s ostensibly six minutes worth of Obel suddenly cuts off at the 1:45 mark.

Persistent Disquiet, a Roulette Show and New Material From Individualistic Keyboardist Kelly Moran

Although multi-keyboardist Kelly Moran’s albums are all solo recordings, they frequently have a psychedelic, gamelanesque quality to go along with a relentless unease. That’s because Moran multitracks herself, and prepares her piano strings for all sorts of strange muted and clock-chime effects. Her most recent album Bloodroot – streaming at Bandcamp – celebrates different species of plants, some of them garden variety, some much less so.

The eleven tracks are purposeful to the nth degree, seldom much longer than two minutes apiece. Although she’s playing brand-new material with projections at her show on Sept 7 at 8 PM at Roulette, if you’re lucky you’ll get to hear some of this deliciously brooding material as well. Advance tix, available at the front desk on show nights, are $18.

The first track on the album, Iris, is a miniature, a chiming theme with pregnant pauses. The muting of the strings adds an enigmatic click beneath Moran’s belltone phrasing. Celandine – a close relative to the buttercup – is represented by steady, elegantly circling broken chords that Moran shifts eerily toward the shadows as she adds dissonances. From there she segues into the ornate rivulets of Freesia – it’s not clear how much electronic processing there is on the track, or if Moran has cleverly overdubbed a toy piano into the mix.

In Hyacinth, she bows the strings inside the piano for a shimmering autoharp effect and icy, doppler-like waves. Liatris – a flower akin to smaller-scale tall phlox –  is portrayed with music box-like voicings, anchored by terse, graceful piano harmonies. Moran segues from there directly into the album’s title track, a spare, moody, Satie-esque theme. A flickering prepared piano track approximating the sound of castanets echoes the melody – t’s the strongest and most disconcerting number here.

Moran is done with the calla lily in less than a minute and a half of what could be a mashup of Webern, Mompou and Margaret Leng Tan (for a completely different take on the flower, check out the bittersweet Amy Allison song)

Sea lavender – a favorite of the composer, maybe? – gets two tracks. Statice – a common synonym – is a plaintive anthem with spiky, muted carillon-esque textures. Limonium – the flower’s taxonomical name – could be a duet between horror film composer Clint Mansell and toy pianist Phyllis Chen.

In between the two rests Aster, uneasily – it’s the closest thing to the otherworldly belltones of Mompou here, punctuated by plenty of pauses. Moran closes the album with a salute to the Heliconia, a bright red-and-yellow tropical flower and distant relative of the banana. It gets a surprisingly dark, epic portrayal, the closest thing to grand guignol on this beguiling, rather troubled album. It’ll be fascinating to see what kind of distant menace Moran can conjure up in Brooklyn this weekend. 

Us, Today Bring Their Catchy Postrock Grooves to the Lower East Next Weekend

Cincinnati trio Us, Today are one of those rare bands who’ve refined a sound like no other out group there. It’s easy to categorize them as postrock: the obvious comparison is Tortoise. At other times, they come across as a more minimalist take on Ensemble Et Al at their most energetic. Us, Today’s instrumentals are both purposeful and psychedelic, catchy and hypnotic. Kristin Agee plays vibraphone and keys, with Joel Griggs on guitar and and Jeff Mellott on drums. They’re playing the big room at the Rockwood at 10 PM on Sept 2.

Their latest album, Computant is streaming at Bandcamp. The opening track, No Funny Game is actually far from sinister – Agee’s tight vibraphone riffs dance gracefully over a smoothly undulating, funky groove spiced with Griggs’ gritty textures as it winds out.

Spellcaster (Dr. Spirit) begins in a similar vein but goes through some subtle rhythmic shifts. Griggs mutes his emphatic low notes for basslines and eventually goes echoing through the Van Allen Belt; Agee holds her pedal down for a woozy organ effect. Hello Viewers, a carillon-like miniature, introduces Sharin’, a trickily rhythmic, propulsive number: is that Griggs playing bass or is that fat envelope sound coming from Agee’s bass synth? 

Best Unfriends is a tasty, propulsive motorik groove with echoey dreampop riffage from Griggs. Likewise, WHAT IS TIME NOW. GOODMORNING? has a tense krautrock pulse, Griggs’ incisive riffage burning through Agee’s raindrops.

Circling, buzzy syncopated guitar riffs exchange with the twinkle of the vibraphone over flitting, woozy lows in Greetings from the Master. The album’s most colorful track is Wealthe + Fame + Love + Luck, mashing up minimalist P-Funk, indie classical, dreampop and hints of 80s goth, Griggs’ machete chord-chopping fueling the blaze over a deadpan backdrop. The trio segue into the lingering final number, Eracism and its amusing trick ending.

Some people might hear a few bars of this and confuse it with mathrock. Much as Us, Today’s music is all instrumental, with textures straight from the video game theme park, it’s much more interesting and cinematic. Isn’t it funny how music equated with mathematics so often tends to be spastic and awkward…hardly mathlike, when you think about it.

Fun fact: the band’s catalog also includes the acerbic single The Compulsion of Picture Taking. Somebody had to do that and it’s a good thing it was these guys.