New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Category: indie classical

A Haunting New Album From the Perennially Relevant Meredith Monk

“We know these things because some of their ancient ones are still among us,” Michael Cerveris’ space alien character intones midway through the third track on Meredith Monk’s new album Memory Game.

Is it any wonder why the lockdowners are trying to kill off all the old people? After all, they remember what it was like not to be spied on, and tracked, or glued to a screen. If the rest of us have no memory of freedom, can we even aspire to it?

That track, Migration, was first performed at the end of the Reagan years, the era that spawned the “culture wars” ignited by that administration’s most florid extremists. In the years since, Monk has never wavered from her signature playful, questioning stance. And now this icon of the avant garde has a new album, Memory Game – streaming at Bandcamp – with members of her vocal ensemble bolstered by the Bang on a Can All-Stars. It’s a mix of previously unrecorded material from her dystopic opera The Games plus plus new arrangements of earlier Monk works dating back to the 80s. There are both instrumentals and vocal numbers here. On the surface, it’s trippy and playful, with a quirky sense of humor and all kinds of demands on the vocalists’ extended technique. But there’s a frequent undercurrent of unease.

The opening instrumental, Spaceship is a circling theme with bright clarinet, stark violin, starry keyboards and unprocessed, trebly electric guitar over a steady rhythm. It’s a potent reminder of how vast Monk’s influence has been on successive generations of minimalists, not to mention a substantial percentage of the indie classical demimonde.

Bleckmann has fun swooping over Monk’s blippy, warptoned, insistent electric piano in The Gamemaster’s Song, bolstered by spare guitar and bass. The other singers – Katie Geissinger and Allison Sniffin – enter over a creepy music box-like backdrop in Memory Song. The animal allusions are prime Monk, as is the litany of references to everything this civilization lost.

With its macabre synth cascades and Planet of the Apes vocals, Downfall is aptly titled. The similarly sardonic Waltz in 5s has echoey violin, stately circling piano and operatically-tinged vocalese. Tokyo Cha-Cha is a loopy faux-salsa throwback to Monk’s earlier, more carefree work. It’s more Asian than latin, until Ken Thomson’s gruff baritone sax enters the picture.

The best of the instrumentals is Totentanz, a blithely menacing, marionettish theme with gracefully leaping clarinet, piano and grimly insistent percussion. The group return to a closer approximation of salsa to close the album on a jaunty note with Double Fiesta. This coouldn’t have been released at a more appropriate time.

Meet Some People in a Legendary Brooklyn Graveyard This Month with Singer Gelsey Bell

Gelsey Bell devised her new album Cairns as a headphone-enhanced walking tour of Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, and much of it was recorded there. As fans of the space are aware, it is a working cemetery, and it’s open daily from 7 AM to 7 PM. In order to help get people off their screens and back into the outdoors this summer, she includes a map along with the album – a collaboration with composer Joseph White – streaming at Bandcamp.

Bell recommends that people who want to take the tour should download the album, since phone reception deep in the cemetery gets iffy. “It can also be experienced at home, letting the field recordings made at Green-Wood transport you there. Or you can get really weird with it and just listen walking in a totally different environment,” Bell explains. It’s meant to be an immersive experience, with helpful cues and some music too. “Let’s see if you can keep pace with me,” Bell says with a smile.

The music includes a soaring, Renaissance-influenced electroacoustic chorale, gentle accents that could be harp and bells, and lightly pulsing ambience. Bell is a friendly guide, full of historical insights and unselfconsciously poetic observations. You might not expect someone who can be such a force of nature onstage to speak as quietly as she does, with a break in her low register.

On this particular walk, she’s carrying a stone which she’s going to add to a cairn in the cemetery. There’s birdsong, sounds of wind, fragments of conversation and a vehicle or two. The first of a handful of permanent residents you will visit is an American Indian woman whose name, translated into English, means “Productive Pumpkin,” and who died while working while working for P.T. Barnum.

The others you will meet – in one way or another – include the guy who booked the Beatles into Shea Stadium; the feminist scientist who in the 1850s discovered the link between carbon dioxide emissions and global warming; a pair of women who lived beyond the century mark; and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Bell also loves trees: you will encounter several, and learn a lot about them as well.

She also doesn’t shy away from the many grim political realities associated with those who reside along the way. This is definitely a People’s History of the cemetery. And in the spirit of Pauline Oliveros, Bell suggests midway through the tour that everybody should take a five-minute break, without headphones, to listen to the musical quality of the surrounding nature.

An Auspicious Debut Album and a Brilliant String Quartet From Composer Reinaldo Moya

The sophistication and purposefulness of the compositions on the new album Hearing It Get Dark: Music of Reinaldo Moya – streaming at youtube – speaks to the composer’s formative years in Venezuela’s El Sistema. His music is remarkably translucent and evocative, with influences from minimalism to the baroque.

Chamber ensemble Latitude 49 play the opening piece, Polythene Sonata Product. It’s meant to evoke a factory milieu; there are disquietly starry, Bernard Herrmann-esque moments with the piano front and center, with a tantalizingly lyrical clarinet solo and insistently rhythmic, circular phrases that bring to mind Louis Andriessen.

Moya’s violinist wife Francesca Anderegg plays Bonsai, a tersely dancing, disarmingly anthemic, dynamically shifting solo theme and variations. She tripletracks herself in Violin 3.0, which began as an etude and then took on a life of its own as a bracing, uneasy study in triangulated counterpoint. Philip Glass’ string quartets occasionally come to mind here.

The Attacca Quartet play Moya’s brilliantly picturesque, understatedly haunting string quartet Hearing It Getting Dark, inspired by William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. The first movement employs a series of short, jabbing echo phrases, striking staccato/sostenuto contrasts and individual voices shadowing each other, with an undercurrent of violence.

The second depicts the fateful final day of central character Quentin Compson, someone whose existential angst has been ripe material for musical interpretation across the decades. Cellist Andrew Yee’s eerily brisk pulse captures a cruelly fleeting present, the quartet nimbly negotiating Moya’s short, practically cell-like phrases which offer neither hope nor closure for a Romantic who has lost his way for good. The coda comes earlier than you would expect.

The concluding movement is a synopsis of sorts, both thematically and structurally, reflecting the dissociative inner world inhabited by Benjy, a classic Faulknerian wise-fool character mourning the loss of his sister. Again, Moya challenges the quartet and taunts the listener with a fleeting lack of resolve. It’s a powerful novel and a powerful piece of music that deserves to be part of the standard repertoire.

A Strange, Disquieting Album For Disquieting Times

Pianist Cory Smythe has carved out an individualistic place between the worlds of indie classical, jazz improvisation and the avant garde. The strange and often disquieting sonics of his new album Accelerate Every Voice – streaming at Bandcamp – are created by a sampler which plays quartertones triggered by his phrases on the piano keys, a creepy bell-like device that brings to mind Vijay Iyer‘s collaborations with Hafez Modirzadeh as well as Aruan Ortiz‘s work with Amir ElSaffar.

The opening track, Northern Cities Vowel Shift sets the stage, the pianist joined by a vocal quintet interweaving leaps and bounds amid the uneasy chimes. Smythe explains that the unorthodox lineup of singers he asssembled – Kyoko Kitamura, Michael Mayo, Raquel Acevedo Klein and a vocal rhythm section of Steven Hrycalak on “vocal bass” and Kari Francis on “vocal percussion” – are often meant to evoke the kind of blithe optimism a collegiate choir: “Maybe a complicated kind of optimism, a poisoned-by-whiteness American kind of optimism.”

The Andrew Hill and James Weldon Johnson inspirations for the blippy, distantly hip-hop tinged title track don’t really come through, although Smythe’s lithe ripples and runs make a sharp contrast with the vocalists’ poltergeist flickers.

Track three, Marl Every Voice rises and falls with a distant, chilly menace and an occasional hint of gospel. There are two Kinetic Whirlwind Sculptures here, the first keening and oscillating with washes from inside the piano and what sounds like electronically enabled throat-singing. The second is much simpler and loopier; it sounds like a bunch of monks lowered a carillon to the bottom of a well.

Vehemently has a jaunty, bouncy lattice of vocals and spare piano accents, but also a persistent, unsettled ambience. The miniature Knot Every Voice comes across as a cuisinarted vocal warmup exercise. There’s a more devious, Meredith Monk-like comedic sensibility to Weatherproof Song (a snide reference to the famous Yale ditty, with its pompous lyrics by the king of jungle imperialism, Rudyard Kipling)

The album winds up with the epic Piano and Ocean Waves for Deep Relaxation, written as a follow-up to Annea Lockwood’s global warming-era parable Southern Exposure, where a piano goes out with the rising tide. It works equally well as subtle spoof of new age nature soundscapes, Satoko Fujii-esque extended-technique tone poem and ghostly Brian Eno-style tableau.

Beyond that cocoon of a conclusion, this isn’t easy listening; then again, these aren’t exactly easy times. Fans of intrepid avant garde singers like Ted Hearne and Sofia Rei will love this record.

A Characteristically Haunting, Dynamic New Album of Michael Hersch Works

Composer and pianist Michael Hersch was scheduled to play a marathon weekend at the Irondale Center in Greenpoint back in April. Hersch, who is best known for his compositions, is also a ferociously intense musician and rarely performs, so the series of shows promised to be one of the concert highlights of the year.

The lockdown killed that.

Fortunately, Hersch already had the material recorded. One of the albums featuring works on the bill is his recent release Carrion-Miles to Purgatory, streaming at Bandcamp.

The first work is titled …das Ruckgrat berstand (German for “bent back” ), a setting of Christopher Middleton poems translated into German and performed by  Patricia Kopatchinskaja on violin and vocals alongside Jay Campbell on cello. Sometimes horizontal and ambient, other times disquietingly stark, it contrasts long, airy, doppler-like phrases and acidic close harmonies punctuated by Hersch’s signature short, sharp, sometimes shrieking accents.

Music for Violin and Piano is a pastiche of excerpts from earlier Hersch works, culled from a 2018 concert at National Sawdust – only the second time violinist Miranda Cuckson and Hersch had performed together. He’s a whirlwind on the keys, his sudden, leaping, clustering phrases sometimes evoking Frederic Rzewski, but with a lot more space between phrases (a signature Hersch trope). The otherworldly, eerie minimalism of Messiaen and the dark, persistent restlessness of Ran Blake are other points of comparison. Cuckson’s jagged leads and wary sustain provide an anchor, such that there is in this relentlessly uneasy partita.

The album’s title suite comprises fifteen pieces for violin and cello, inspired by texts by Robert Lowell – madness, torment and death are recurrent themes in Hersch’s work. Austere clouds of harmony slowly shift through the sonic picture. Minute timbral changes alternate between airiness and grit, often drifting into richly unsettled microtonal territory. Sudden swells and fades give way to keening, oscillating harmonics, occasional Bartokian irony or muted gloom. The finale is a drifting, Shostakovian elegy. It’s music to get completely lost in, yet Hersch always finds a way to jar the themes out of any kind nof resolution.

This doesn’t have the sheer horror of Kopatchinskaja and International Contemporary Ensemble’s performance of Hersch’s End Stages, but it’s still plenty riveting. Of all the composers working in new music today, Hersch is as individualistic as anyone and may well be the very best.

Elegant, Intricate, Individualistic Guitar Instrumentals From Duo Tandem

Duo Tandem play gorgeously interwoven, largely minor-key acoustic guitar music with elegant climbs, moving basslines, exchanges of roles and lead lines. Their new album Guitar Duos of Kemal Belevi is streaming at Spotify. Guitarist Necati Emirzade is typically in the right channel, his bandmate Mark Anderson in the left.

They open the record with the first of a handful of Cyprian Rhapsodie, a steady, brooding, briskly strolling minor-key blend of Romany jazz, the baroque and rembetiko. It’s essentially an overture to the triptych which follows. The first part is slower, with a spare Emirzade solo and a little more counteproint; the second is more sober and austere, with some magically nuanced echo phrases from Anderson over walking bass figures. The conclusion comes across as a sunny Mediterranean bouzouki tune with an unexpectedly moody bridge, the lead shifting from Emirzade’s precise walks and chords to Anderson’s bracing tremolo-picking.

The two slowly shift Valse No. 1 from melancholy to somewhat more animated terrain, with more of the album’s initial Greek Django atmosphere. The album’s sixth track, another rhapsody, has some coy call-and-response amid the Mediterranean baroque phrasing.

Valse No. 2 is more wistfully reflective, with lots of gentle twin lead lines. The three-part Turkish Suite begins with an enigmatic circular theme and variations, shifts to a slow, spacious, mutedly saturnine midsection and winds up with the album’s most intensely crescendoing, chromatically biting coda.

Romance has the most traditional baroque counterpoint on the record. The next rhapsody reprise makes a good segue, adding a little beachy Greek flavor to what otherwise could be Telemann or Handel. The album’s final suite, Three Fragments begins with could be a Django Reinhardt reinvention of Duke Ellington’s Caravan, continues with echoes of Debussy and Satie and concludes with surreal baroque Romany swing.

Likewise, the album’s epic closing number shifts from brooding chromatics to Bach-like interplay. This is a richly melodic showcase for Belevi’s distinctive, elegant compositions, which deserve the inspired interpretations they get from Emirzade and Anderson.

Ted Hearne Catches a Grimly Pivotal Moment in New York History

Fort Greene will always hold a special place in this blog’s heart. It was a satellite office for the better part of a couple of years.

Browsing at Greenlight Books. Tacos at Castro’s. Secret theatre staged by the sharpest ten-year-old dramatist on the planet. Bluegrass music. Perfect made-to-order sandwiches at Fulton Finest Deli, coffee and the Sunday Times in Fort Greene Park. Stoop sales, organic herbs from the community garden, a pair of headphones left curbside at the most serendipitous moment. The Biggie Smalls mural on the corner. The Waverly Avenue Halloween block party.

An irresistible, devastatingly smart brunette cultural critic who would soon move on to the Ivy League from her city college professorship. You get the picture.

So what the hell does Ted Hearne‘s lavishly epic new album Place- streaming at Bandcamp – have to do with all this? As the narrative coalesces, his critique of how gentrification has devastated the neighborhood takes on a withering focus. Charles Mingus is cited as an influence, although that’s through a glass, darkly. This is Hearne’s most psychedelic rock-influenced album to date, and in that sense, his most accessible, which could be construed as a positive development considering the abstruseness of, say, his 2015 album The Source, a shout-out to American heroine Chelsea Manning

The record begins innocently and minimallistically with a father and his six-year-old son asleep next to him, and ends with “projectile vomit of the stars.” Lavish gospel interludes give way to acerbically kinetic chamber pop, psychedelic funk, glitchy autotune, abrupt channel-switching non-segues and High Romantic orchestral angst, and then back. You could call this Hearne’s Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. He’s known as a singer, but his piano work here is solid, especially when it comes to the gospel stuff. He also shares the mic: Saul Williams, Ayanna Woods, Isaiah Robinson Josephine Lee, Steven Bradshaw and the Chicago Children’s Choir contribute passionately.

“Is it ok to say ‘white supremacy’ in white spaces? Is it ok to say ‘Your kind ain’t welcome here’? Is it ok to say welcome?” Woods asks in the album’s first disquietingly hip-hop influenced interlude. It’s here that Hearne’s satire reaches redline. In typical yuppie fashion, children serve as pawns in the status game in a twee dystopia where “We’ve got pop-up shops that give out water for free.”

“The land is mine, and the land was mined,” is one of several particularly telling refrains. Hearne addresses both the Great Migration out of the former slave territories, as well as the yuppie puppy infestation of the past twenty years or so. “Systemic prejudice, don’t blame me,” the future McMansion owner blithely insists – as he buys into a system that’s about to crash, with potentially lethal results. The avant garde has long been an insular demimonde largely funded by and targeted to the idle classes, but Hearne seems hell-bent on changing that. If there’s reason, or time, or necessity for a music blog to exist at the end of 2020, you will see this on the best albums of the year page here.

New Music for Harp With Edge, Bite and a Killer Sense of Humor

Once in a great while, someone writes album liner notes so priceless that they scream to be quoted. Here’s Michael Lewanski offering some background for Ben Melsky‘s album New Works for Harp with his group Ensemble Dal Niente:

“There might be many things that strike you as odd about the idea of a new music harp album…the first is that there’s very little, strictly speaking, that is less new than the harp… it seems that earliest exemplars are found in the Sumerian city of Ur, from the mid-fourth millennium BCE, perhaps before very many people had figured out how to write. You also find them, starting in 3000 BCE or so, painted on tombs of Egyptian pharaohs who apparently wanted enjoyable-but-not-too-noisy entertainment in the afterlife.) It doesn’t get much more basic than plucking a string; no wonder this instrument has been around for awhile.

Another has to do with the hackneyed cliché, found among both musicians and non-, of the harp as an instrument that is the ne plus ultra of the elegant and genteel, nudging in the direction of the effete and decadent. (Along those lines, one of its best known moments in the so-called “standard repertoire” is the cadenza in the Valse des fleurs from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker: a work titled in a language foreign to the composer for a piece in which a waltz (a genre inextricably bound up with the most ennui’d of aristocracy) is danced by flowers in the Land of Sweets. I challenge you to find me something more froo-froo in the history of art.”

Needless to say, Melsky’s record – streaming at Bandcamp– is not exactly froo-froo. The first number is Tomás Gueglio‘s brief After L’Addio, its muted glissandos punctuated by spare accents and percussive figures along with a handful of coy doppler riffs. The title references a Salvatore Sciarrino work for harp which attempts to maximize what little sustain the instrument can deliver. Steadily plucked close harmonies and deliciously subtle overtones dominate the diptych’s second half, Felt For Harp.

Emma Hospelhorn joins Melsky for a duo piece, Alican Çamci’s staggeredly syncopated, spacious Perde for Bass Flute and Harp, which with the flutist basically humming through her instrument much of the time is as playful as it is distantly disquieting. An alternate title for this increasingly magical, microtonally-spiced tableau could be Sonata for Fly and Music Box.

Another duo work, Fredrick Gifford’s Mobile 2015: Satirise features guitarist Jesse Langen and lots of extended technique, with plenty of whirry noise along with the spare, chiming interplay.

A Wang Lu shout-out to Christian Wolff contrasts Melsky’s slo-mo, acerbically circular phrases with Katie Schoepflin Jimoh’s alternately hazy and fluttery clarinet. The album’s longest, funniest and best number is Igor Santos‘ Anima. Percussionist Kyle Flens adds warpy. singing bowl-like textures and all sorts of quasi-vocalized buffoonery, going back and forth with Melsky’s wry whistles and peek-a-book moments. As cartoon music goes, it doesn’t get any better than this.

With its sudden swells and triumphantly gritty flourishes contrasting with moments of silence, the album’s final number is Eliza Brown‘s On-dit (French for “they say”), soprano Amanda DeBoer Bartlett adding perhaps the album’s most terse, minimalistic contribution. This is a great late-night listen for people who like quiet, thoughtful music with an edge.

A Timely Musical Celebration of One of the Great Poets of the Holocaust

This blog is not a guide to broadcasts and webcasts, but there’s an especially intriguing one coming up on Friday, June 26 at 9 PM when new music chamber group Ensemble for These Times are livestreaming the release show for their new album Once/Memory/Night: Paul Celan at YouTube.

“Why Paul Celan and why now?” the group ask. “The year 2020 is the centennial of the birth of the seminal poet, whose influential works speak to his experiences of loss, disempowerment, imprisonment and survival under a brutal regime; the themes in his work—the rise of fascism, “strong men” leaders, and nations marching to the drumbeat of nationalism—deeply resonate today with the global right-wing resurgence and rampant injustice.” Download the program notes here.

The webcast will include live chat with composers including Juliana Hall, Gabriela Lena Frank, and Kareem Roustom, interviews with Vivian Fung, Aleksandra Vrebalov, David Garner, and soprano Chelsea Hollow, music from the album, and videos of performances by the ensemble (Dale Tsang, piano, Anne Lerner, cello, soprano Nanette McGuinness, guests Laura Reynolds, English horn, Ilana Blumberg, violin, Xin Zhao, piano).

The group are officially releasing the record on June 30, a mix of new music premiered in 2018 by the ensemble’s co-founder David Garner and Jared Redmond to poetry by Celan; by Stephen Eddins to poetry by Czeslaw Milosz, including a reading of the poem by the translator and poet’s son Anthony Milosz, plus a relevant piece by Libby Larsen.

A Thoughtfully Enveloping Debut Album From Innovative Composer/Organist Molly Joyce

Composer Molly Joyce performs on the rarest of vintage instruments: the toy electric organ. She accumulated a serious collection in the wake of a horrific car accident that left her with limited mobility in her left hand – so she switched from piano to an instrument with easier action but an unexpectedly rich sonic palette, especially in the high midrange and above. Her debut album Breaking and Entering is streaming at Bandcamp. At low volume, this is soothing, enveloping music: played louder, its edges reveal themselves.

The first track, Body and Being, begins with twinkling, Terry Riley-ish loops and grows denser as Simon sends tectonic sheets from across the sonic spectrum through the mix, “Do you react to me, do you contract from me?” Joyce asks.

Her airy high soprano rises to stratospheric heights in Form and Flee: “You’re not normality, but you’re mortality,” she intones over an increasingly tense, circling pulse. Stereolab seems to be an influence on that track and also the title track, which she builds around a simple accordionish blues riff,

A fluttering, oscillating interlude leads into Who Are You, the album’s most anxious vocal contrasting with a calm undercurrent and some keening new wave riffage. Joyce brings the album full circle with Front and Center: “Try to remember your truest nature,” she reminds. Words of wisdom in an interminable season of alienation and atomization. Joyce is playing a webcast to celebrate the album’s release this Friday June 26, at 5 PM at youube.