New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: indie classical

Powerful Singer Kelsey Park’s New Song Cycle Tackles a Heartbreaking, Rarely Discussed Issue

Pianist Lana Norris put mezzo-soprano Kelsey Park in touch with composer Denise Mei Yan Hofmann, and the result was a meticulously poignant, painterly suite performed by all three along with clarinetist Artemis Cheung yesterday on the Upper West Side. It was probably the first public performance ever for any cycle of art-songs on the subject of battling infertility.

Park had written a series of poems as a way of dealing with the issue herself. To share them with Norris, her friend, was brave to begin with. Beyond that, it’s hard to imagine any more soul-baring performance by any singer in front of an audience in this city in recent memory. And the material was worthy of the musicians’ emotional attunement to the music.

Beyond the ever-present, looming backdrop, the genius of Hofmann’s score to those poems was the choice of instrumentation. Pairing the rich, resonant lows of Park’s voice with close harmonies from the clarinet – whose range is almost exactly the same – made for a relentless unease. At times, Cheung’s airy, crystalline lines would either follow or foreshadow Park’s path as the music rose ineluctably from rainy-day plaintiveness to a short series of spine-tingling arioso crescendos.

As with the material, the program didn’t follow any any easily stereotyped format. Norris opened with a tensely spare Hofmann solo piano piece spiced with distant gospel allusions and vividly mournful belltone accents. Hofmann then played acoustic guitar through a Fender amp, maxing out the reverb, joining Park and Cheung for a trio of spacious, uneasily crescendoing, circling songs, ending with a delicate, somewhat wounded waltz.

Hofmann then had the trio of Park, Norris and Cheung play short excerpts from the suite before tackling the whole thing. Was Park going to be able to make it through the relentless angst of one of its most dramatic moments, using all of her impressive upper register with the phrase “Why me?” over and over again? Much as she visibly teared up, the power in her voice wouldn’t give in to defeat. Ultimately, both Park’s lyrics and Hofmann’s music were resolute in the face of challenges to faith and hope, pushing despair away and finally finding calm and sense of renewed optimism.

Water imagery, both musical and lyrical, was a central theme early on. Cheung shifted calmly from long, airy tones to brief, moody phrases in her midrange and lower: there were points at which she could have been playing a bass clarinet. Likewise, Norris walked a steady line between Hoffmann’s deft blend of terse neoromanticism and postminimalist acidity while Park held steady, only to rise to the rafters in three explosive peaks, the first to open the suite.

“Is motherhood selfish?” Park asked herself during a brief mid-concert Q&A. No, she’d decided. She didn’t address the idea head-on, but her concept of motherhood embraces children without Instagram status-grubbing or turning them into yuppie bling. 

While the struggle to beat physical challenges to become a mother is seldom publicly discussed, it’s very common. And it’s hardly an exclusively female problem. Since the first atom bomb tests over seventy years ago, mens’ potency in terms of ability to conceive has diminished by almost fifty percent on a global level: toxic radionuclides have had a devastating effect. While she didn’t get into any kind of trouble on the male side of the equation, Park deserves enormous credit for having the courage to tackle an issue which, even while it impacts literally millions of people worldwide, is still seldom discussed in public, let alone onstage.

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The Bang on a Can Marathon 2018 – A Marathon Report

“I know so many of you have followed our nomadic trail to so many locations,” composer Julia Wolfe demurred, introducing today’s 31st anniversary of the Bang on a Can Marathon at NYU’s Skirball Auditorium. 

“Great to be in a space where we can all listen,” mused her fellow composer and husband Michael Gordon, possibly alluding to less sonically welcoming venues the annual New York avant garde music summit has occupied.

This year’s program was the most compact and New York-centric in a long time, and considering the venue, it’s no surprise that NYU alums mentored by the Bang on a Can composers featured prominently on the bill. Terry Riley’s influence circulated vastly throughout much of the early part of the show; the ageless lion of indie classical took a turn on vocals as the concert wound up.

“We have a duty to go up to the people who come in afterward and brag,” grinned Bang on a Can’s David Lang, referring to the afternoon’s first piece, Galina Ustvolskaya’s relatively brief Symphony No. 2. The NYU Contemporary Ensemble – with woodwinds, brass and percussion – negotiated it calmly but forcefully. David Friend’s steady hamfisted piano thumps ushered in and then peppered steadily rhythmic, massed close harmonies from the rest of the group, Vocalist Robert Osborne implored a grand total of three Russian words – God, truth and eternity – over and over in between pulses as the music veered between the macabre and the simply uneasy. The ensemble really nailed the surprise ending – gently.

Michael Gordon’s Sonatra, the composer explained, is the only solo piano piece in his repertoire, quite a surprise considering that he’s a strong pianist and the best musician among the Bang on a Can hydra. “Somehow Vicky Chow has learned how to play it,” he deadpanned. She made Gordon’s vast, subtly contrasting, rigorously crosshanded Terry Riley-like expanses of steady eighth notes seem easy, engaging every single one of the piano’s eighty-eight keys.

Murky faux-boogie woogie lefthand paired against relentlessly twinkling righthand riffage; that Chow could incorporate Gordon’s relentlessly tongue-in-cheek glissandos with as much aplomb as she did reaffirms her mighty chops as one of the world’s foremost avant garde musicians.

Chamber orchestra Contemporaneous tackled a carbonated, caffeinated, endlessly circling fifteen-minute slice of cellist Dylan Mattingly’s similarly daunting, epically ecstatic six-hour opera Stranger Love. The Bang on a Can All-Stars – as amazingly mutable as ever – made the first of their many appearances with Gabriella Smith’s Panitao, evoking the swoops and high swipes of whale song amid increasingly animated, rippling, sirening ambience. Then they pounced their way through the staggered math steps of Brendon Randall-Myers’ Changes, Stops, and Swells (For B).

A sextet subset of Contemporaneous returned for Fjóla Evans’s turbulent tone poem Eroding, an Icelandic river tableau. With its sharp contrasts – bass clarinet, cello and piano gnashing and swirling amid the flickers from violin, flute and vibraphone – and disarming trick ending, it was the first real stunner among the new material on the bill.

Purple Ensemble – a string trio augmented with vibes, viola and vocals – played three Yiddish songs from Alex Weiser’s cycle And All the Days Were Purple. Singer Eliza Bagg channeled joy shadowed by angst and longing, Lee Dionne’s piano beginning low and enigmatic and then slithering in a far more Lynchian direction over the strings.    

The All-Stars’ were bolstered by Contemporaneous’ strings and percussion for a trio of  commissions. Jeffrey Brooks was first represented by After the Treewatcher,  based on a trancey earlier work which was the composer recalled being vociferously booed when Gordon premiered it back in the early 80s. Guitarist Taylor Levine’s warily oscillating lines undulated amongst emphatic strings and rustling, peek-a-boo suspense-film percussion riffs, building a Riley-esque web of sound that was as gorgeously hypnotic as it was hard-hitting.

A second new work, Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother, featured additional reeds and brass along with pointillistic twin electric pianos. A bustlingly circular, Bollywood-inflected theme gave way to austere, lingering ambience and then a wryly gritty Beatles guitar knockoff.

The Flux Quartet played their first violinist Tom Chiu’s Retrocon, a meteorologically-inspired, spiraling, Philip Glass-ine series of rising and falling microtonal cell figures. Violinist Mazz Swift and keyboardist Therese Workman juxtaposed electroacoustic string metal, new wave pop, a classic spiritual and faux-EDM in their mini-suite Revolution:House.

The big hybrid ensemble reconfigured for a final Brooks work, The Passion – the triptych “Reflects the kind of suffering that goes on every day, not the biblical kind,” the composer emphasized. Lavishly kinetic pageantry with wry Black Sabbath allusions shifted to dissociative, Laurie Anderson-ish atmospherics, Bagg narrating sobering advice from the composer’s terminally ill sister to her children. The leaping, trebly counterpoint of the final segment brought to mind My Brightest Diamond.

Sō Percussion took the stage for Nicole Lizée’s increasingly dissociative, gamelanesque electroacoustic instrumental White Label Experiment, echoed with considerably louder hi-tech energy later on by neosoul singer/keyboardist/dancer Xenia Rubinos and drummer Marco Buccelli.

Veteran new-music string quartet Ethel’s percussively insistent, clenched-teeth performance of Aleksandra Vrebalov’s Balkan-infected Logbook, Part II took the intensity to redline in seconds flat: it was the highlight of the night. Fueled by cellist Dorothy Lawson’s darkly bluesy glissandos, their take of Jessie Montgomery’s rousing dance theme Voodoo Dolls was a close second. They wound up their trio of pieces, joining voices,instruments and eventually their feet throughout the bracing, allusively Appalachian close harmonies of Wolfe’s enveloping, driving Blue Dress for String Quartet.

The Bang on a Can All-Stars took back the stage alongside narrator Eric Berryman in a cinematic, suspensefully rocking arrangement of Frederic Rzewski’s Attica-themed Coming Together, cellist Ashley Bathgate and bassist Robert Black’s heroically furtive pedalpoint anchoring the story’s grim foreshadowing.

Cellist Maya Beiser and narrator Kate Valk teamed up for Lang’s pensively minimalist, gently amusing loopmusic piece The Day, its lyrics mostly a litany of tongue-in-cheek mundanities sourced off the web via a search on “I remember the day.” He explained that he’d deleted the product references and lewdness – a lot, he admitted. 

The night’s coda was Riley’s Autodreamographical Tales & Science Fiction, the composer joining the All-Stars on vocals. Chow’s bluesy Rhodes piano made a smooth segue out of the Lang work in tandem with Riley’s wry beat-poetry reminiscence. Levine’s Pink Floyd echoes added bulk and bombast; Bathgate’s powerhouse soul vocals were an unexpected treat. As was Riley’s turn solo at the piano, part Satie, part Tom Waits.

What’s the takeaway from all this? This year was less a sounding of what’s happening on a global level, as past years’ and decades’ marathons have been, than a simple celebration of the Bang on a Can inner circle, with a few tentative ventures outside. But that’s ok. They earned that a long time ago.

A Grand Finale From One of This Century’s Most Fearless String Quartets at the Met

How does a string quartet go out in style?  By grabbing Beethoven’s String Quartet, Op. 132 by the tail and speeding it up at the end, a practice considered treyf in traditional classical circles, but a fearlessly stunning way to cap off an eighteen-year career.

Or by joining a bill spiced with the stern, stygian, somber sonics of a sextet of men in monks’ outfits singing variations on Gregorian chant. ‘

Or with the New York premiere of a major work by the timelessly vital Philip Glass.

In their final major performance, the Chiara String Quartet did all this and more, bowing out at the absolute peak of their powers on familiar turf at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Since the early zeroes, they’ve championed obscure composers, brought standard repertoire to crowds in bars and jails, and played and recorded one of the most strikingly intuitive Bartok cycles ever released. Violist Jonah Sirota told the crowd soberly that everyone in the group found this concert moving beyond words – the three standing ovations at the end underscored this group’s potency and relevance. What a run they had.

They opened with Nico Muhly‘s Diacritical Marks, an impressively artful, distantly Balkan-tinged theme and variations that eventually circled back on itself – things coming full circle was a major theme throughout this show. Sirota, cellist Gregory Beaver, violinists Rebecca Fischer and Hyeyung Julie Yoon juggled between flickering and starkly resonating motives as tectonically rhythmic variations rose and fell.

Making a dramatic march from the back of the auditorium, the Axion Estin Chanters delivered an alternately severe and triumphant triptych, working permutations on the same Gregorian melody on which Glass based his Annunciation piano quintet. At first, that piece came across as a magically direct, lushly glittering, Lynchian piano concerto – until Glass’ steady arpeggios shifted to the quartet, and then back and forth. The quartet really dug in for the triumph of the outro against pianist Paul Barnes’ incisively liquid cadences.

Sirota introduced Beethoven’s famous late quartet a the kind of crazy piece that “makes a person want to become a musician.” That made sense, considering how cohesive yet individually focused the performance was. Sirota’s insight into how the lachrymose, prayerfully changing melody of the third movement echoed plainchant and foreshadowed Glass’ work was spot-on. He also alluded to how utterly bizarre the shifts were between those variations and what in this context seemed to be the sheer snark of a courtly dance that leaps further and further toward satire. They took it out with sheer abandon at the end and contrasted with the encore, a mutedly elegaic take of the third movement of the Debussy string quartet. How much fun these four must have had onstage…and how sad that the ride together is over.

All four have plans that dovetail with their pioneering work together. Sirota’s Strong Sad album, examining themes of everyday loss, is due out early this summer. Fischer is moving on with The Afield, a new multidisciplinary duo project with visual artist Anthony Hawley. Beaver and Yoon’s careers continue as educator and impresario, respectively.

A Shatteringly Relevant New Suite Casts a Cold Eye on Surveillance State Terror

“The last refuge of privacy,” is how the central object in The Secret Diary of Nora Plain was described by the song cycle’s lyricist, Lucky Fonz III at National Sawdust this past weekend. In their US debut, premiering this haunting, labyrinthine yet often shatteringly direct suite to a sold-out audience, Dutch ensemble the Ragazze Quartet were bolstered by the eclectic beats of percussionist Remco Menting.

In front of the ensemble, charismatic singer Nora Fischer channeled the increasing terror of being caught in the spycams’ deadly web, whether calm and stoic, shivering on the floor or twitching like a marionette, Ian Curtis-style.  “Let bygones be bygones,” she encouraged coolly during one of the early songs, hope against hope. At that point it wasn’t clear just what this story’s everywoman had done – if anything – to catch Big Brother’s merciless eye, a conclusion that the suite left hanging. That only raised the suspense, underscoring how anyone with an identifiable cellphone or a Facebook page  – or without one, conceivably – could be caught in the trap.

Fischer is force of nature. At her quietest, she brought a plaintive, sometimes prayerful quality to the narrative; at her loudest, she belted with a gale-force wail worthy of Aretha. Likewise, the quintet of musicians began with an atmospheric whisper and rose in a series of waves, through as many different styles as a string quartet augmented by a drummer with a full kit plus vibraphone could possibly play.

The stage direction was spare yet tightly focused on an ever-encroaching menace, pushing Nora further and further toward the edge. There were moments when the quartet drew ominously closer and closer to her; other times, they fell in line as good soldiers in a police state are required to. Menting took a couple of turns behind a small keyboard during quieter, more atmospheric interludes. Likewise, violinists Rosa Arnold and Jeanita Vriens shifted to Menting’s vibraphone and bowed icy, airy textures at a couple of the suite’s most whispery ebbs.

The songs, with music by Morris Kliphuis, rose and fell, akin to Elvis Costello’s Juliet Letters with music by Philip Glass and Caroline Shaw and played by Rasputina, perhaps. Cellist Rebecca Wise propelled those shifts with stark, raw washes along with elegantly incisive pizzicato; violist Annemijn Bergkotte was a spare, striking presence in both the low and higher registers as well. Stylistically, the segments ran the gamut from hypnotically circling, kinetic chamber rock – often spiced with allusively macabre, Glass-ine phrases – to an emphatic detour into funk, murky mood pieces, and a couple of rises to sheer terror, most grippingly in Rat in My Room. Whether that rat was the four-legged or two-legged kind was left to the audience to figure out.

Was Fischer’s final exit what it seemed on the surface, a coyly triumphant slip out the side door? Or was she going elsewhere? Readers of Lois Lowry‘s dystopic classic The Giver will get that reference. Anyone concerned with the perilous state of civil liberties should see this hauntingly enigmatic, rivetingly disturbing, potently relevant work. 

Vast, Turbulent, Troubled Oceans of Sound From the Chelsea Symphony

The Chelsea Symphony’s performance in the vast downstairs oceanically-themed space at the American Museum of Natural History on the 22nd of this month might well turn out to have been this year’s most epic, intense, mightily enveloping concert. It’s hard to think of a program more toweringly and often fearsomely majestic – and relevant – than the world premiere of Michael Boyman’s The Howling Wilderness, Alan Hovhaness’ And God Created Great Whales and John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean. To witness all that under deep-sea light beneath the museum’s famous fullsize facsimile of a blue whale really drove the show’s theme home. Much as the world’s oceans can take our breath away – literally and figuratively – they’re imperiled like never before in history.

Conductor Matthew Aubin didn’t bother trying to conceal how much fun he was having – or how closely he related to the music – during the program’s first half. The Chelsea Symphony are New York’s orchestral home to rising star composer-performers, and typically introduce at least one premiere at every concert. Boyman’s composition turned out to be a masterwork, Rimsky-Korsakovian in its use of every inch of the sonic register, from stygian lows to cirrus-cloud highs, something akin to a Bernard Herrmann Hitchcock film score underwater. Boyman is a violist, so the menacing, rustling strings and macabre tritone cadenzas from the high strings came as no surprise. Mighty deep brass, basses and cellos, and harrowing hailstorms from the timpani anchored this dynamically rich depiction of a world in peril, an apt choice for Earth Day 2018.

The ensemble followed with an impressively seamless performance of Hovhaness’ electroacoustic work, featuring samples of actual whale song timed to the split-second to coincide with the music. From its brassy depiction of undersea mountain ranges to its mighty swoops and dives, It’s hardly an easy piece to play. But the orchestra had really pulled out all the stops, with a grand total of four rehearsals. The whole crew seemed to relish its proportions, yet with close attention to the elegance of the Asian-tinged, pentatonic melodies that Hovhaness became so obsessed with during his later years.

Led by conductor Mark Seto, the orchestra’s take of Adams’ gargantuan work – which the composer introduced with a brooding, ecologically-themed poem – was a revelation. Given the size of the space and its rich natural reverb, were the orchestra going to take it into Titanic territory? Hardly. It’s impossible to imagine a group interpreting the most epic tone poem ever written with more clarity and vividness. Every clever echo effect, subtle metric shift and handoff of one looping phrase from one section of the orchestra to another – spread out in three separate configurations – had a focus so striking that that the overall lush, enveloping ambience seemed almost an afterthought: it just lingered while the soloists dug in and concentrated. Which they had to. Imagine playing the same pedal note or riff over and over again, with the exact same timbre and volume, for minutes on end – your fingers cramp, your carpal tunnel sounds the alarm! Yet there was no flinching.

Beyond mere attention to detail, Seto’s choice to begin the work at barely more than a whisper paid magnificent dividends when the percussion finally rose from the depths to launch a tsunami of a wave about four-fifths of the way through. Likewise, the long descent from shoreline-crushing turbulence to panoramic calm was just as spellbinding.

The Chelsea Symphony’s next concerts are on June 1 and 2 at 8:30 and then 7:30 PM, respectively, featuring works by Samuel Beebe, Jonathan Bruce Brown, and Respighi’s Pines of Rome, at St. Paul’s Church, 315 W 22nd St. The Friday concert features soloist Susanne Chen on the Victor Bruns Contrabassoon Concerto. the Saturday bill switches that out for Erich Korngold’s Violin Concerto featuring soloist Emanouil Manolov.

A Rapturous, Hauntingly Spare Solo Album From Enigmatic Cello Rock Songstress Serena Jost

The sheer hummability of cellist/multi-instrumentalist Serena Jost’s music contrasts with the opaqueness of her lyrics. In her music, nothing is ever as it seems despite all indications to the contrary. That enigmatic sensibility has served her well over the past fifteen years. The closest comparison is ELO’s Jeff Lynne, a similarly brilliant tunesmith whose signature sound blends classical ideas with rock, and has a similarly distinctively, elegant production style as well. Jost’s newest album, Up to the Sky – streaming at her music page – is her most ambitious to date. It’s a solo recording, just cello and vocals, recorded in the rich, reverberating sonics of St. Peter’s Church at 346 W 20th St. in Chelsea, where she’s playing the album release show on April 19 at 7:30 PM. Cover is $10; a reception will follow.

Window opens the album. Jost’s stark, ambered low chords, circling in a Philip Glass vein, anchor her clear, pensive vocals. A recurring shooting star reference adds to the nocturnal rapture and unease.

The influence of Jost’s frequent collaborator Amanda Thorpe shines through plaintively in The Cut, a canteringly hypnotic, Britfolk-tinged, plaintively imagistic lament. Likewise, the wave motion of Clement – just vocalese and cello – sets the stage for Great Conclusions. Playing this with her band, Jost cuts loose with a galloping, crescendoing intensity, but in this version, her pizzicato attack is muted, her vocals understated and clear, echoing Linda Thompson as the song’s gloomily allusive narrative winds out.

Hallway. another instrumental with vocalese, brings in a hazy late-afternoon sun, introducing the baroque-flavored vignette Happiness. “Happiness has come and gone without warning, just a lantern in the night.” Jost intones.

Lullaby is a melody much of the world knows from childhood; the cello adds a newly somber undercurrent. By contrast, It’s a Delight rises to an unexpectedly triumphant crescendo over the sparest, circling low-register riff. Jost works that dichotomy again in Silver Star, its images of escape and release over subtle variations on a mantra-like cello phrase. The album concludes, unresolved, with the fragmentary, echoing, mysterious Red Door. Fans of darkly individualistic songwriters from Carol Lipnik to Connie Converse will devour this. Indie classical people ought to check this out as well – for what it’s worth, Jost once arranged and led a fifty-cello performance of Terry Riley’s In C!

A Shattering Performance of Iconic Classical and Film Music Uptown

In terms of pure thrills and chills, there hasn’t been a concert in New York this year more exhilarating than string ensemble Shattered Glass’ performance last night at the popular Washington Heights classical spot Our Savior’s Atonement. And that includes all of Golden Fest, trumpeter/santoorist Amir ElSaffar’s oceanically intense Middle Eastern mass improvisation in February at NYU, and cinematic noir trio Big Lazy’s shattering performance of mostly new material at Barbes later that month. This crew are like another popular conductorless string orchestra, ECCO…on steroids.

Just back from midwest tour, the fourteen-piece ensemble were clearly psyched to be back on their home turf. They played in the round, gathered in a circle under the church’s low lights. Between works on the bill, the group shifted positions so that everyone could get to see who was playing what. It was a transcendent program, kicking off with a relentlessly angst-ridden, percussive take of Shostakovich’s Two Pieces for String Octet. The sonics in the church enhanced the resonance of the pizzicato phrases to the point where they lingered almost like guitar chords. That effect would also help the delicately overtone-spiced, challenging extended technique required in Caroline Shaw’s concentrically circling Entr’acte to resound. It’s on Shattered Glass’ debut album; they’re the first group to record it.

Philip Glass’ diptych Company, its signature cell-like melody expanding deliciously outward, had distantly ominous chromatics that reminded of his Dracula soundtrack. It set the stage for what under ordinary circumstances would have been the night’s piece resistance, Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho Suite for Strings. The whole group got into the act on that lusciously chilling arrangement of the iconic horror film soundtrack. The sinuous menace of the central up-and-down staircase riff at its center, the machete attack of the shower scene, cumulo-nimbus buildups to icepick attacks and a final somber conclusion left the crowd breathless.

The group ended the night with a harrowing, dynamically epic arrangement of second Shostakovich piece, the String Quartet No. 3. The quartet of violinists Christina Bouey and Ravenna Lipchik, violist Michael Davis and cellist Max Jacob played the work as written, augmented with sinister force by the rest of the circle around them. Davis spoke passionately about how much the work means to them, and how wrenching it is to play, emotionally speaking. He didn’t say outright that there’s a psycho in the White House, or that wartime horror is that situation’s logical conclusion, but the piece spoke for itself.

And the group really nailed the narrative: the cynically lilting faux country dance that tries to come back valiantly but never does; the franticness, furtiveness but also the resilience and heroism of the second movement, Russians fending off the Nazi attackers; and the exhausted, mournful sweep of the concluding movements. It was as searing and relevant as any piece of music could have been in this country on this date.

Watch this space for Shattered Glass’ next performance. The next concert at Our Savior’s Atonement is on April 29 at 8 PM with the Jack Quartet playing a free program of “maverick American composers” TBA.

Fearlessly Individualistic, Poignant Singer Sara Serpa Brings Her Catchy, Intimate New Album to Deep Brooklyn

That Sara Serpa’s voice is able to convey such a frequently harrowing depth of feeling is all the more remarkable considering that she doesn’t usually sing lyrics. But that doesn’t stop her music from addressing a wide range of relevant and sometimes controversial topics, from the disastrous effects of western imperialism in Africa, to philosopher Luce Iragaray’s radical proposals for how to eliminate sexist bias in language. Serpa’s latest album Close Up is due out momentarily, with three tracks streaming at her audio page. Serpa titled it after the Abbas Kiarostami film and the layers of meta created when non-actors played actors in a movie about themselves. She and her trio, who recorded it in a single June day last year, are playing the album release show on April 4 at around 8 at the Owl. Suggested donation is $10.

Lately Serpa has been exploring unorthodox lineups; here she’s joined by Ingrid Laubrock on tenor and soprano sax and Erik Friedlander on cello. Although he sometimes plays basslines here, the absence of drums and traditional chordal instrumentation enhance the music’s intimacy. In her liner notes, Serpa explains that the configuration creates “a vulnerability that sometimes verges on discomfort,” a consistent theme throughout her work, from Camera Obscura, her cult favorite noir jazz duo album with iconic pianist Ran Blake, to her role as a member of John Zorn’s Mycale vocal quartet.

Throughout the album, Serpa’s crystalline, starkly direct voice is calm yet often anything but serene. The opening cut, Object is as arresting as a canon for scat singing, soprano sax and cello could possibly be: Friedlander’s rhythmic riffs, Laubrock’s Balkanic trills and Serpa’s steady ba-do-ah keep the suspense going despite the catchiness of the melody.

Pássaros (Birds), with lyrics by her late Portuguese compatriot Ruy Bello, examines Messieanically and rhythmically how our feathered friends can turn trees into a forest of playful call-and-response. A catchy yet wary pavane, Sol Enganador has Friedlander plucking out a catchy, baroque-tinged backdrop for Serpa’s nebulous vocalese, Laubrock finally floating into the picture – then things get crazy!

The Future is a chillingly rhythmic duo piece for vocals and cello, Serpa drawing on Virginia Woolf as an update on the Sex Pistols; historical mashups have never been so apt. The next track, Listening is even more sparse, Serpa and Laubrock rising to the top of their ranges for austere harmonies as Friedlander holds down a sparse rhythm.

The trio develop Storm Coming from Laubrock’s terse, overtone-spiced intro to a series of hypnotic cloudbank phrases, in an Anna Thorvaldsottir vein. Then Serpa returns to neo-baroque for Woman, singing a text by Irigaray that “exposes the invisibility of motherhood, the lack of support women artists receive as mothers,” as she puts it. And she’s right: how many women artists do you know whose careers went on ice the moment the kid was born?

Quiet Riot is not a tribute to a headbanging one-hit-wonder rock band from the 80s, but a coyly bubbly, minimalist, briskly strolling exercise in counterpoint. The trio close with Cantar Ao Fim, whose intro Serpa came up with singing by herself in the mountains one evening: its starkly circling, distantly Andalucian modalities make a gorgeous coda. It’s rare to find three artists who can so seamlessly merge classical, jazz improvisation and new music.

Subtlety and Savagery From the Rhythm Method String Quartet at Roulette

This past evening’s performance by the Rhythm Method String Quartet at Roulette was a stunning display of fearsome extended technique and fearless programming. The American avant garde has a long and sometimes painfully precious tradition of art strictly for art’s sake – and this all-female quartet seem hell-bent on changing that. Beyond the concert’s transgressive themes, from Margaret Atwood dystopia to the struggles of women and immigrants, the segues between the works on the bill followed as well musically as they did thematically.

To what degree was this music successful in conveying those ideas? Circling, repetitive phrases stopped and started unexpectedly, with syncopation that defied any attempt to predict it. Slowly and methodically, the group built momentum, a vividly recurrent trope throughout a series of works, mostly by the group themselves. A reflection on, say, how the Metoo movement has reached critical mass, or how gains for human rights won by previous generations built a foundation for today’s victories? Maybe. Whatever the case, there was plenty of suspense punctuated by drama…and a savagely conflagrational payoff at the end.

All of this pushed the limits of how a stringed instrument can be played. If there was a central theme, musically, it was flickery, slithering, whispery, silken textures punctuated by more emphatic gestures. all of them requiring minute inflections within the most delicate high harmonics.

The centerpiece was Lewis Nielson’s Le Journal du Corps, whose sepulchral wisps and poltergeist accents engaged not only the violins of Leah Asher and Marina Kifferstein but also Wendy Richman’s viola and Meaghan Burke’s cello. Subtly but matter-of-factly, the group developed a theme and variations that relied more on attack than melodic shifts, an illustration of an Aime Cesaire poem giving voice to the horrors endured by slaves, and their resilience against those injustices.

Kifferstein’s An Alien with Extraordinary Abilities foreshadowed that piece, notably with its herky-jerky, off-kilter rhythms, although melodically it was closer to horizontal music. Likewise, Asher’s Hollux Rey relied on rhythmic variations for its dynamics, an almost punishing maze of glissandos, plucks, squirrelly shivers and the occasional siren or doppler effect.

Everyone in the group sang, cool and calm, in contrast to the music’s flashes of agitation. Burke spent more time on the mic than anyone else since she’d contributed two pieces to the program, driving the music to a crescendo midway through. Her work as a soloist and bandleader is closer to the subversive cello rock of Rasputina or the stark grooves of the Icebergs, and this pair of alternately atmospheric and incisively propulsive tunes had a similarly sharp sense of melody. The first, Siren Song, referred to The Handmaid’s Tale and was the more serious. The second, Hysterie, was inspired by primitive medical attempts to cure hysteria, once thought to be exclusively a female malady. Burke got the crowd howling by revealing that doctors once employed primitive vibrators as a treatment: “Everybody wins…or maybe doesn’t win,” she mused.

The quartet encored with the incendiary shrieks and jet-engine trajectories of Kristin Bolstad‘s And Nobody Gets Everything Right, screaming their way through the intro – literally – and concluding with a fierce swordfight, Asher and Kifferstein duking it out with their bows. Asher won; the audience basically didn’t know what hit them.

The next concert at Roulette is April 3 at 8 PM with new music chamber group Tak Ensemble – with Kifferstein on violin once again – playing an all-Mario Diaz de Leon program including a New York premiere for bassoon and electronics and his 2016 Sanctuary suite. Advance tix are $20; there may be some sonic extremes but probably no swordfighting. 

A Strikingly Accessible, Dynamic Solo Album from Mivos Quartet Violinist Olivia De Prato

Olivia De Prato is a founding member of the perennially fearless Mivos Quartet and one of the most highly sought-after violinists in new music. Her technique is stunning: depending on the needs of a piece, she can deliver flash, nuance, lyricism or the kind of acidity that one often finds in the edgy kind of repertoire the quartet specializes in. And all of the above, as does throughout her new solo album Streya, streaming at New Focus Recordings. She’s playing the album release show on March 13 at 7:30 PM at the second-floor space at 1 Rivington St. at the corner of Bowery. Cover is $20.

The opening number, Samson Young’s Ageha.Tokyo gives De Prato a vast playground to air out her extended technique and effects pedals: crunching lows, enigmatic microtonal swoops, jarring scrapes, twinkly electronics, rhythm-shifting loops and subtle variations on a disarmingly simple central theme. You could call parts of this cello metal – although it’s not played on one.

The title track, a diptych by her Mivos Quartet bandmate, violist Victor Lowrie is a fragmented study in extreme dynamics: whispery harmonics, caustic close harmonies, brooding lyricism side by side with splashes of pizzicato and austere washes. Playing this to open the quartet’s show last month at the Miller Theatre, De Prato didn’t make it look easy, but clearly relished the challenge of Lowrie’s constant gear-shifting. The second half is calmer and disarmingly catchy.

Ned Rothenberg’s Percorso Insolito is a picturesque, shapeshifting pastorale that De Prato builds from a quasi-stroll to cheerily soaring flights as the sun lights up the hillside. Taylor Brook’s slow, methodically crescendoing, microtonally rich Wane is constructed out of cleverly assembled multitracks: what appear to be echoey, furtive glissandos are actually simultaneous smeared notes from the five individual voices, each in a different tuning. There’s more reverb on this piece than the others, amping up the wash of delicious overtones.

In its jaunty octaves and variations, Reiko Fueting’s Tanz.Tanz rather obliquely references both the chorale riffs woven into the famous Bach Chaconne, and also the Haruki Marakami novel Dance Dance Dance. The final piece is Missy Mazzoli’s Vespers for Violin, based on her intense, dramatic chamber work Vespers For a New Dark Age. But aside from the arresting, opening echo phrases, this electroacoustic work is considerably different, mournful motives leaping and lingering against a somber deep-space backdrop. Either De Prato is singing vocalese here, or she’s running her violin through a vocal patch. Spin this colorful mix for any curmudgeon who might dismiss avant garde music as shrill or pointless.