New York Music Daily

Music for Transcending Dark Times

Category: indie classical

A Lush, Sweeping Debut Album From the String Orchestra of Brooklyn

Although the String Orchestra of Brooklyn have been championing new composers for more than ten years, their debut album – streaming at Bandcamp – only came out late last year. It has two spacious, rather horizontal contemporary pieces alongside a couple of unselfconsciously vigorous Italian Renaissance works, The dynamics and range of the ensemble, as well as the singers, really shine here.

The first piece is Christopher Cerrone‘s High Windows, beginning with shivery sixteenth-notes behind sudden doppler bursts and a low drone. A sudden airy horizontality slowly gains momentum with terse moodiness rising from the low strings, the violins finally descending and joining the lattice. A muted loopiness in the return of the opening theme has icy echoes of electronic music; it ends in a long, somber series of waves.

Jacob Cooper‘s Stabat Mater Dolarosa unfolds at a glacial pace, sheets of sound drifting through the mix, akin to watching cirrus clouds on the horizon on a relatively windless day. Uneasy close harmonies rise and then fade away. The composer’s use of implied melody as the sound rises with an allusive ominousness from the low strings is very clever, especially as a choir enter wordlessly. With the singers sometimes adding harmony, sometimes doubling the violin lines, the atmosphere grows more somber, leading to a long descent into the abyss led by the basses. The rise to density afterward is much more disquieting, with a series of slow, massed glissandos. The effect where the singers have to pause for a breath is, well, breathtaking. Soprano Mellissa Hughes adds stark, plainchant-inspired lines over the waves of the concluding movement

Paganini’s Caprice No. 6 in G minor is actually more of a canon, also built around slowly shifting sustained lines, but with rapidfire, tremoloing violin. The ensemble close the album with a steadfastly marching interpretation of the first movement of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, the choir enhancing a gothic undercurrent.

Playful Baroque Jazz, Among Other Styles, From the Endangered Quartet

If you’ve felt endangered this year, the Endangered Quartet can relate. But their debut album, Heart – streaming at Bandcamp – isn’t harrowing or particularly troubled music. It’s actually a lot of fun, and blends a wide variety of styles, as you would expect from a group whose individual members move seamlessly between the worlds of jazz, old and new classical music, and bluegrass. Multi-saxophonist Roy Nathanson and trombonist Curtis Fowlkes are part of the core of the legendary, noir-tinged Jazz Passengers. Jesse Mills is a highly sought-after classical violinist, and bassist Tim Kiah is not only a brilliant composer of serious concert music, but also an accomplished bluegrass musician.

The opening track is the strangest version of Bach’s Chorale, BWV 244-44 that you’ll ever hear. Mills and Fowlkes provide statey harmonies as Nathanson adds droll microtones and Kiah sings a warmly homespun lyric.

The Home-Makers is genuinely acid jazz: a loopy, insistent violin riff and surreal vocals interrupt a tiptoeing swing tune. The individual members shift elegantly from a pavane of sorts to very individualistic paths in Same, Same, with the same combination of drollery and utter seriousness as Ron Hay’s work with the Erik Satie Quartet. The Beatles’ Blackbird works surprisingly well in that context here as well.

The quartet pulse gracefully through the second part of Ornette Coleman’s The Circle With a Hole in the Middle, with a rapidfire ascent from Mills. They follow it with the wryly conversational, minimalist Marbles, by Mills and Hugo Dwyer. Con Anima, also by Mills, comes as quite a change afterward, a moody baroque piece with much more somber exchanges of voices and a big shivery coda. Returning to the A-section of the Coleman piece, they diverge but without deviating from a swing beat.

The four go back to baroque jazz with the comfortable pulsing miniature Sweet Intentions and the more acerbic Cry of the Wild, a Dwyer/Kiah co-write with animated solos from Nathanson and Fowlkes. The trombonist’s vocals add a knowing gravitas to Kiah’s eco-disaster cautionary tale Endangered Hearts, a souful 6/8 soul ballad with a spiraling Mills solo.

Edges, a Mills tune, has baroque bursts and trills over a trip-hop bassline; then the rhythm drops out and a rather solemn exchange ensues. Bombardment Reconsidered, by Nathanson and Dwyer, features light-footed exchanges over loopy riffs, Fowlkes in the role of troll, Mills signaling a rise in agitation. Kiah takes over the mic on the album’s closing cut, a spare, nocturnal chamber pop take of Leadbelly’s Goodnight Irene.

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.

Canland: A Goldmine of Rare, Legendary New York Performances

What better time than now to launch an archive of irreplaceable live recordings from the past thirty-three years? Canland just went live a couple of days ago with several days worth of footage of concert performances by iconic figures as well as fringe players from across the worlds of the avant garde, jazz and new classical music since 1987.

On May 10 of that year, a trio of rising star composers – Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe and David Lang – staged the first annual Bang on a Can Marathon of new music in a stuffy Soho loft. Over the next three decades, the mostly-annual event would take over larger and larger venues and become a New York institution.

If you ever went to one of the marathons, it was obvious that everything was being painstakingly recorded. Relatively little has made it to youtube, one of the reasons why Canland is such a goldmine. The other is that it’s still a work in progress: what’s up now is merely a greatest-hits version, along with some obscure treasures from the marathon’s early years, plus some footage from various shows by the house art-rock band, the Bang on a Can All-Stars.

In keeping with the organization’s goal of breaking down boundaries between musical genres, the diversity of the music is astonishing. Need something soothing and soul-nourishing? Innov Gnawa‘s fifteen minutes of ancient Moroccan trance-dance grooves will do the trick (for the record, this blog wasn’t there when the band played it at the 2017 marathon at the Brooklyn Museum).

If you can handle something harrowing, click on Ensemble Signal’s meticulously grim 2011 version of Wolfe’s Cruel Sister, at the World Financial Center atrium. This blog didn’t exist until a couple of months later, but that piece ended up topping the list of that year’s best songs. One of many other fascinating Wolfe works here is her microtonal, drifiting, echoey Williamsburg Bridge, from the inaugural 1987 marathon.

Lots of big names are represented: Pauline Oliveros, Guy Klucevsek, Meredith Monk, the World Saxophone Quartet, Tania Leon, Phil Kline, Tan Dun, Keeril Makan and both guitarists in Sonic Youth. There are iconic pieces like Frederic Rzewski’s Coming Together – which appears many times in several different arrangements. Terry Riley’s In C is also here, less frequently. There are pioneering works by Ives, Xenakis, Glass, Andriessen and Saariaho plus snippets of Brian Eno’s Music For Airports.

As the years go on, it’s obvious the Bang on a Can hydra are keeping their collective eyes on the ball, showcasing new music by younger artists including Bora Yoon, Gabriella Smith, Amir ElSaffar, Missy Mazzoli and the late Johann Johannsson. The roots of this music also get their due. The Cassatt String Quartet revel in the otherworldliness of Ruth Crawford Seeger’s 1931 quartet. International Contemporary Ensemble play Galina Ulstvolskaya’s strange, insistent (and very brief, barely twelve-minute-long) Symphony No. 5.

And the more off-the-wall material is just as entertaining. The Kazue Sawai Koto Ensemble play one of the very first compositions to feature bass koto (some of it sounds like a posse of possums under the lid of a concert grand piano). In 1989, a pickup group who call themselves the World Casio Quartet play no wave guitar legend David First’s looming, atmospheric Plate Mass; nineteen years later, the Bang on a Can All-Stars tackle a similar yet more somber and animated Erdem Helvacioglu piece. All this is just the of the iceberg. In the mood to go way, way down the rabbit hole? This is your chance.

A Harrowing Song Cycle Takes on New Relevance in a Time of Crisis

Ignac Semmelweis was a 19th century medical heretic who discovered the link between bacteria and infection decades before Pasteur codified it. But not only did the Hungarian-born, Vienna-based physician’s paradigm-shifting work go uncredited: he ended up being shunned by a medical establishment hell-bent on avoiding blame for deaths due to unsanitary hospital conditions. Seventeen years after saving countless women from lethal puerperal fever, Semmelweis died, forgotten, in a mental institution.

On September 11, 2017, singer Ray Lustig debuted his song cycle, Semmelweis, to a sold-out crowd at the National Arts Club. Reviewing it at the time, this blog said that “In an age where leakers are murdered, whistleblowers are jailed as terrorists and 9/11 historians are derided as conspiracy theorists, this story has enormous relevance.” Considering the events that are still unfolding, Lustig’s salute to an unjustly neglected hero has taken on even greater cultural resonance. Now, you can watch the Hungarian debut of the performance, from the following year, on VOD for free through May 31.

In New York, in the title role, Lustig channeled understated angst and horror: Semmelweis can’t let himself off the hook for failing to save all his patients’ lives. Seamlessly negotiating several difficult shifts between idioms, from neoromantic lustre to acidic modernism, soprano Charlotte Mundy was the musical star of the show. The rest of the cast were impressive as well.

And let’s not forget the lesson that Semmelweis taught us: very often, conventional wisdom gets us in trouble. Just because someone who advocates drinking bleach also endorsed hydroxychloroquine doesn’t invalidate the drug’s promise as part of a treatment for coronavirus for some patients. It could be a grave mistake to assume that since the village idiot fixated on something, that idea is necessarily wrong.

Dynamic, Intense String Themes From One-Man Orchestra Christopher Tignor

Violinist Christopher Tignor occupies a unique place in the New York music scene, where the worlds of new classical music, improvisation and ambient psychedelia intersect. For a guy who plays a lot of brooding, overcast music, he’s a very entertaining performer, often doing the one-man band thing with a kickdrum and his trusty loop pedal. His latest album A Light Below is streaming at Bandcamp.

What’s new about this is that it’s hardly all grey skies and moody atmospherics. The first number, Flood Cycles has warmly drifting, coccoony sheets of sound, Tignoer gradually brightening the picture

Loopy, shivery strings and a dramatic, thumping beat make their entrance in Your Slowly Moving Shadow, My Inevitable Night: the majesty and drama rise as Tignor overdubs himself into a one-man symphonic ensemble.

Known By Heart is closer to his earlier work, alternating between hazy unease and ominously crescendoing cumulo-nimbus ambience: imagine a Noveller piece for string orchestra instead of guitar loops. Tignor builds A Mirrored Reliquary from steady, spare overlays to an elegant, plaintive, baroque-tinged theme and arresting swirls – and then brings it back down.

I, Autocorrelations (that’s the title) is a bracingly lush, loopily syncopated dance in 12/4 time. The dancing pulse continues, for awhile at least, in the album’s most epic track, The Resonance Canons, a partita. Echoey pizzicato loops leap beneath shimmery metal gongs, then an enveloping atmosphere return, followed by an oscillating, gamelanesque interlude. Tignor runs an otherworldly, pinging, microtone-spiced riff over organ textures as the looming lows rise; the ending is unexpected.

He winds up the album with the only slightly less expansive What You Must Make of Me, an increasingly disorienting web of simple, translucent motives mingling over a muted piledriver beat; then they filter out, leaving the most anthemic ones in place. The coda seems to be a guarded benediction. Good to see this rugged individualist expanding his sound into new terrain.

Vivid String-and-Piano Tableaux From Drum and Lace

Drum and Lace a.k.a. film composer Sofia Hultquist’s tantalizingly short album Semi Songs – streaming at her music page– comprises a quartet of bracingly tuneful, often hypnotically circling instrumentals for violin, two cellos and piano. You could call it minimalism, or new classical music: however you categorize it, this brief, verdant release leaves you wanting more.

The album begins and ends with a diptych, Outsider Complex. The first part opens with a burst of strings followed by some furious, machete-chop sixteenth notes. The piano joins the frenzy, then recedes with a brooding elegance; the strings follow as the song calms before a final volley. As terse and minimalistic as this is at heart, it takes serious chops to play. To wind it up, the piano rises to a loopy insistence, strings leading to a moody lull and tantalizing hints of what will eventually be a deliciously ominous return to tightly orchestrated savagery.

There are two other tracks. The swaying, summery Parhelion begins with a loopy contrast between stark, insistent cello and hazy violin; then the two switch roles as the harmonic web grows more complex, a rondo of sorts. Coyly bouncy piano suddenly leaps in; it ends brightly.

The epic, fourteen-minute Gardenia has a slower, more pensive sway, spacious piano chords and a steady, lullaby-like melody that begins to sound completely improvised. A light, echoey electronic drone moves toward the forefront as the strings echo each other; the piano kicks off the first of several successive rounds of circular riffs. Composer Matt McBane’s ensemble Build comes to mind, although Drum and Lace’s music is more springlike, closer in spirit if not in sound to Vivaldi than, say, Bach.

Rapturous, Innovative String Music All Over Midtown

When she first formed the Momenta Quartet, violist Stephanie Griffin probably had no idea of how many hundreds of premieres the group would play, a list that continues to blossom. That same fascination with brilliant obscurities and new ideas has informed her work outside the classical world, as one of the few conservatory-trained players who’s just as comfortable and acerbic in jazz improvisation (some would call that “creative music,” but all good music is creative). Her next scheduled New York gig was scheduled for March 20 on a killer triplebill that starts at 7:30 PM at Metro Baptist Church at 410 W 40th St. past 9th Ave.) but is now cancelled. Jazz guitarist Amanda Monaco, who lately has been exploring klezmer infuences, was slated to open the night with her trio, followed by flutist Cheryl Pyle‘s Musique Libre trio, and then Griffin with a chamber jazz quartet, along with pianist Gordon Beeferman playing the world premiere of her first-ever work for solo piano.

One of Griffin’s most interesting recent New York performances was last month, as a member of the Argento Ensemble, on a characteristically diverse, edgy program featuring works by Schoenberg and Erin Gee. It was more than a little embarrassing to get to the show almost an hour late, but the friendly folks at the Austrian Cultural Forum had saved a seat, even though the show was sold out: thanks, guys! And fortuitously, there was still time to catch the group playing a deliciously dynamic, sometimes velvety, occasionally chilling version of Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht as well as the world premiere of Gee’s Mouthpiece 29b.

Throughout the former, the sense of the composer aching to break free of late 19th century conventions was visceral. Contrasts between starkness and lushness, Debussyesque bittersweetness and the strange new world that Schoenberg would open the floodgates for were consistently striking. The sting of Mari Lee’s violin was a standout, from the work’s almost frantically volleying crescendos, to the somber lullaby at the end. The rest of the group, which along with Griffin also included violinist Doori Na, violist Jocelin Pan, cellists Michael Katz and Serafim Smigelsky and bassist Tristen Kasten-Krause, dug in just as deeply.

Gee explained to the crowd that she’d written her playful, dauntingly innovative piece in the International Phonetic Alphabet rather than in any extant language. Just witnessing her command of flittingly crisp, almost backward-masked syllables as the ensemble echoed her with sepulchral wisps and glissandos was breathtaking. It’s a very entertaining piece of music, just as challenging for the strings as for Gee, involving both singing and occasional whistling from what seemed to be most of the group. Gee’s surreal, individualistic sound world is like no other on this planet because there isn’t one, other than maybe Meredith Monk’s, as a point of comparison.

Argento’s next scheduled performance is April 18 at the Tenri Institute, with works by Bethany Younge, Yotam Haber and Alma Mahler; cover is $tba.

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.

Catchy, Edgy Themes and Contrasting Textures From Big Dog Little Dog

The duo of violinist Jessie Montgomery and bassist Eleonore Oppenheim call themselves Big Dog Little Dog. That may have something to do with the relative size of their instruments, or maybe not. The two were asked who is which animal at a show at a mesmerizing show at Metropolis Ensemble’s Lower East Side digs late last year: “We switch off,” Montgomery grinned. Their edgy, dynamic debut album is streaming at Bandcamp. As a unit, they like long crescendos and playing off catchy, direct ideas.

It begins with a brief, nocturnal bit of found sound: somebody crosses a yard and approaches a house, tree frogs contentedly peeping in the background. Then the duo launch into the first piece, Panorama, a catchy, swaying series of variations on a couple of terse, blues-rooted riffs, Oppenheim bowing steady, overtone-rich chords as Montgomery plays slithery, rapidfire arpeggios and cascades.

Hypnotically pulsing, loopy bass anchors Montgomery’s drifting airiness and incisive pizzicato chords as Man Without a Face builds momentum, up to a stabbing peak with echoes of Appalachian music. In Ice, the two shift between variations on coyly slipsliding, “wheeeeeee” phrases and a keening, rather wistful horizontality over Oppenheim’s rich, chocolatey chords.

With its punchy, rhythmic drive, Woods seems to be an increasingly lively woodchopper’s ball. Wafting sheets of harmonics slowly make their way through the sonic picture and finally coalesce into stern chords in the album’s most expansive and most horizontal track, Blue Hour. The coda, a contrast between Montgomery’s enigmatic close harmonies and Oppenheim’s rumbling low E drone, is just plain luscious.

Brisk wave pulses echo with an increasingly animated syncopation in Cipher, one of several tracks here that bring to mind Julia Wolfe‘s work for strings. Ultraviolet makes a good segue, Montgomery’s stabbing, muted phrases and uneasy movement outward from a central note above Oppenheim’s deadpan bump-bump and glissandos. They go out the way they came in, peepers and all.