New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Category: indie classical

Terse, Otherworldly, Magically Textured Solo Piano Pieces by Benoît Delbecq

Benoît Delbecq inhabits a unique, often otherworldly, surreal sound world. That’s because he prepares his piano, putting metal and other materials on the strings and elsewhere, for textures that few other pianists would ever imagine, let alone seek out. His compositions span the worlds of jazz improvisation, 20th and 21st century classical music, often evoking the work of Messiaen or Federico Mompou. Delbecq can be sardonically funny or piercingly plaintive, sometimes in the same song. His new solo album The Weight of Light is streaming at Spotify.

The opening number, The Loop of Chicago has spare, bell-tinged righthand phrases over muted but dancingly catchy, prepared textures that sound like a cross between a mbira and a balafon. This is definitely the Loop on a rainy Friday night when pretty much everybody has traipsed home.

Dripping Stones is an aptly titled, bell-like tableau that strongly brings to mind Mompou, with more rhythmic freedom. For the album’s third number, Family Trees, Delbecq brings back the approximation of the balafon and adds a clock-like timbre (think of Pink Floyd’s Breathe), with cleverly clustering phrases using Fender Rhodes voicings.

It’s as if Delbecq has a couple of muted, hypnotic bass drum loops going behind his sparse, rainy-day righthand in Chemin Sur Le Crest. The skeletal, arrythmic textures of Au Fil De La Parole are a spot-on evocation of the metal chimes of a mobile, an important childhood influence on Delbecq’s music.

He returns to the balafon-and-chimes analogue, more hypnotically at first and then with more of a traditional postbop jazz edge, in Anamorphoses: that could explain the title. Timbres shift to what could be harmonic pings on the high strings of an electric bass in Havn En Havre: the overtones wafting from Delbecq’s simple chromatic loop are deliciously disquieting. Then his righthand belltones drive the point all the way home.

The album’s most epic track is Pair Et Impair, with an increasingly complex web of plinky, dancing, mbira and Rhodes tones. He winds up the album with Broken World, its spacious, warily ringing phrases tinged with murk.

Fun fact: Delbecq takes the album title from his physicist brother, whose doctoral thesis proposed to verify that light has mass.

Somberly Relevant Ambient Music From Desdemona and Percussionist Adam Holmes

Most of us tend to think of ambient music as hypnotic and soothing. Composer/percussionist Adam Holmes has written a trio of works, Music For a Small Shelter – streaming at Bandcamp – which have more bite than you typically find in calm, horizontal music. Depicting interminable isolation, in this case the grim early days of the lockdown, is hardly an easy task for any composer, but Holmes’ minimalist approach maximizes a small supply of sonic ingredients. It’s as if to remind us that sometimes we have to make do with what’s available.

Chamber ensemble Desdemona play with stark precision, joined by the composer’s incisive, spacious hammered dulcimer rhythms on the first track, First Names. On the third and final piece, Trust Fall, his rustles and misty press rolls alternate with echoey, astringently overtone-infused string swells and accents. Eventually the string trio – violinists Adrianne Munden-Dixon and Caroline Drexler and violist Carrie Frey – converge and then triangulate acerbically.

Long tones rise and fall away suddenly in the middle piece, Scattering, the strings smoldering with similarly otherworldly harmonics. Anyone terrified at the prospect of New Abnormal totalitarianism taking over the globe can find solace in this spare, somber music.

Richly Disquieting Music From Nomi Epstein

Pianist Nomi Epstein writes magical, otherworldly, spacious music that sometimes brings to mind Federico Mompou, other times Messiaen. The piano pieces on her new album Sounds – streaming at Bandcamp – linger with an often mournful, sparse belltone ambience. These works are deceptively minimalist: the way Epstein slowly shifts between relentlessly unsettled harmonies is artful to the extreme. She keeps the pedal down for maximum resonance.  If there was any sound tailor-made for the unreality and immersive angst of the lockdown, this is it.

The first composition is Till For Solo Piano, played meticulously by Reinier van Houdt. The obvious antecedent seems to be Satie’s Vexations; the way Epstein subtly shifts harmonies while maintaining a creepy, bell-like ambience is as masterful as it is hypnotic.

Solo for Piano part I: Waves is aptly titled, its graceful series of low lefthand rumbles building a picturesque portrait of water washing a beach at night, and slowly brightening from there. The minute dynamic shifts in the brooding, steady conversation between left and righthand in the uninterrupted, eighteen-minute part two, Dyads are more celestially captivating. Again, Satie’s Vexations comes to mind

Van Houdt returns to the keys for the concluding number, Layers for Piano, with its contrasts between stygian reflecting-pool resonance in the lefthand with slowly shifting, spare, unsettling close-harmonied accents in the right. Occasional flinging gestures in the the upper registers dash any hope of a persistent, meditative state.

There are also two chamber works here. For Collect/Project, a hazy, lighthearted electroacoustic piece featuring vocalist Frauke Aulbert with Shanna Gutierrez on bass flute is ridiculously funny in places. And the composer herself plays the album’s sparest piano on the title track, Eliza Bangert’s flute and Jeff Kimmel‘s bass clarinet providing nebulous wave motion and a mist of overtones behind her. What a stunningly individualistic and often haunting album: let’s hope Epstein can continue build on what promises to be a brilliant body of work.

Two Violins + Two Violas = Bliss From Jessica Pavone’s String Ensemble

A ubiquitous presence in the New York improvisational community before the lockdown, violist Jessica Pavone has been making alternately lyrical and bracingly acerbic music since the zeros. Her previous album with her String Ensemble was one of her her most minimalist releases to date: her new one, Lost Found – streaming at Bandcamp – is one of her most atmospheric. The lineup is slightly altered this time out, with Erica Dicker and Angela Morris on violins, Joanna Mattrey switched out for Abby Swidler on viola here alongside the bandleader.

The aptly titled first number, Rise & Fall is a spectral anthem, if such a thing can exist: a warmly shifting series of sustained tones and harmonies that move slowly from comfortable consonance, to more acerbic, and then back. With its almost imperceptibly rising and falling microtones, Nice and Easy is as enveloping as it is otherworldly: Pavone adds rhythmic gestures in places to shake things up.

Those long, sustained, bending tones shift a just a hair faster in Pros & Cons, for more of a siren or doppler effect, the quartet’s elegantly executed, glissandoing harmonies followed by a deliciously slashing interlude. They close the record with the hypnotic title track, violins and violas exchanging roles as the austere haze of microtones rises and eventually loops into a lullaby. Cocoon with this and bliss out.

An Unintentionally Prophetic Choral Reflection on a Genuine Health Crisis From a Century Ago

The irony in renowned new-music choir the Crossing’s recording of David Lang’s Protect Yourself From Infection – streaming at Bandcamp – is crushing. In September 2019, about a month before the lockdowners got together for their first rehearsal for their planned global takeover the following year, Philadelphia’s legendary Mutter Museum sponsored a parade in memory of the 1918-19 Spanish Flu pandemic. This calmly pulsing, subtly funny, roughly six-minute chorale was commissioned for the event. It’s safe to say that at the time, neither the composer, choir or museum staff had the slightest idea that a cabal springboarded by the World Economic Forum would succeed in rebranding the 2019-20 seasonal flu as a terrifying plague, and a pretext for turning the world into an Orwellian nightmare.

The choir steadily punch in and out, harmonizing on a single chord, voicing a series of commonsense ways to stay healthy which are just as useful today as they would have been in 1918, had the general public been aware of how disease spreads. Meanwhile, individual voices from the ensemble sing a litany of names, presumably people who perished in the outbreak just over a hundred years ago. With choral performances on ice in most parts of the world, the Crossing have been releasing a series of videos over the past year, and this is the most compelling of the bunch.

A Lavish, Delightfully Phantasmagorical Anne LeBaron Career Retrospective

It was tempting to save composer/harpist Anne LeBaron’s lavish new double album Unearthly Delights – streaming at Spotify – for this coming October’s annual monthlong Halloween celebration here. But waiting that long would only deprive you of its many wicked treats. New classical music has seldom been so darkly and playfully entertaining.

Flickering, increasingly agitated ghosts from Pasha Tseitlin’s violin and apocalyptic waves from Nic Gerpe’s piano pervade the first number, Fissure, inspired by the crack that eventually brought down Edgar Allan Poe’s House of Usher. 

Playing, narrating and rattling around, pianist Mark Robson turns in a colorful rendition of Los Murmullos, a phantasmagorical setting of text from Juan Rulfo’s horror novel Pedro Páramo. A second piano-and-violin piece, Devil in the Belfry blends the otherworldliness of Federico Mompou with scampering phantasmagoria, illustrating the diabolical clock chimes from another Poe short story, an all-too-familiar narrative of conformity and its crushing consequences. LeBaron couldn’t have chosen a more appropriate historical moment to release it.

Bassoonists Julie Feves and Jon Stehney prowl and lurk and flurry through the electroacoustic, Hieronymus Bosch-inspired Julie’s Garden of Unearthly Delights. Quick, somebody tell ICE bassoon maven Rebekah Heller, whose collection of bassoon duo pieces is unsurpassed!

The album contains two versions of the dynamic, reflective, sometimes eerily pentatonic solo harp work Poem for Doreen, a tribute to harpist Doreen Gehry Nelson. Alison Bjorkedal’s is more elegantly legato; the composer’s own is somewhat more percussive and lively.

Mark Menzies plays the stark, steady, imaginatively ornamented Bach-inspired solo violin piece Four, as well as its graphic-scored shadow piece, Fore. His interpretation of the latter has more slash and a lot more space, and fits right in with the darkest material here.

The album’s second disc begins with Is Money Money, soprano Kirsten Ashley Wiest joined by clarinetist Chris Stoutenborough, bass clarinetist Jim Sullivan,violist Erik Rynearson, cellist Charlie Tyler and bassist Eric Shetzen. The title reflects a Gertrude Stein quote with serious relevance in a year where the lockdowners are trying to crash the US economy via hyperinflation. Musically, this allusively boleroesque, picturesque piece is the album’s most cartoonish interlude, but also one of its most sinister.

Stehney returns for the solo work After a Dammit to Hell, a genial salute to a now-shuttered Alabama barbecue joint. Gerpe plays the impressionistically glittering Creación de las Aves for solo piano, inspired by the surrealist art of Remedios Varo. Soprano Stephanie Aston and baritone Andy Dwan deliver the album’s epic triptych, A – Zythum, backed by Linnea Powell on viola, Nick Deyoe on guitar and banjo and Cory Hills on vibraphone and percussion. This dissociatively layered, Robert Ashley-esque piece provides a strange and dramatic coda to this lavish and eclectic mix of material. 

A Riveting, Poignant Collection of Alicia Terzian Microtonal Symphonic Works

One of the most spellbindingly edgy orchestral releases of the past several months is violinist Rafael Gintoli and the Siberian State Symphony Orchestra’s recording of Argentine composer Alicia Terzian’s Violin Concerto and Three Pieces for Strings, streaming at Spotify. Each is a prime early example of the paradigm-shifting microtonal work she would immerse herself in throughout the decades after she’d completed the former in 1955. Beyond the sheer catchiness yet persistently otherworldly quality of this music, both works are also rich with the slashing chromatics common to Terzian’s Armenian heritage.

The first movement of the Violin Concerto begins with a gorgeously ominous chromatic riff but quickly dips to pensive, sustained violin lines over misty stillness. Orchestra and soloist match Terzian’s determination to cover all the emotional bases here: a dancing heroic theme; vibrato-infused longing; and striking contrasts with the bassoon, oboe and full ensemble of winds against the soloist. After a deliciously blustery crescendo and some deviously orchestrated fugal moments, the music calms and the harmonies grow starrier, microtones coming into closer, uneasier focus. Gintoli’s matter-of-factness in the surrealistic yet ironclad tunefulness of his cadenza toward the end is one of many of his high points here.

The hauntingly windwept second movement is based on a plaintive song from the collection of the great Armenian composer and musicologist Komitas Vardapet, a father telling his daughter that her mother has died. Slowly, conductor Vladimir Lande develops an anthemic drive; again, Gintoli nimbly negotiates between resolve and persistent tension over a dancing pulse, which comes broodingly full circle.

The concluding movement begins with a gusty, astringently enveloping, rather bellicose theme, taking on more of a puckish quasi-Tschaikovskian bounce fueled by percussion, harp and high winds. Gintoli takes centerstage in the bucolic waltz that follows; the ensemble take it out with a defiantly marionettish strut. 

The Three Pieces for Strings date from a year earlier: it is astonishing how Terzian had already concretized her visionary style by then. Few western composers have written such memorable melodies utilizing harmonies more sophisticated than the traditional scale. The first part of the triptych, Sunset Song comes across as a stark Armenian melody in heavy microtonal disguise, calming to hazily echoing atmospherics.

The Pastorale with Variations begins by following a circling trajectory, but more rhythmically, before a lullaby of sorts drifts in. The distantly wary conclusion is one of the album’s most stunningly catchy moments. Momentary stillness and suspense alternate with a jaunty edge in the finale, a country dance.

While Terzian is revered in the microtonal demimonde, and her music has been widely performed, it deserves to be ubiquitous. Almost seventy years after she wrote these pieces, the world is still catching up with her.

Elori Saxl Releases a Super Spaceout Album

This observation could be completely off base, but it doesn’t seem that Elori Saxl’s new album of trippy electroacoustic soundscapes, The Blue of Distance – streaming at Bandcamp – was meant to be listened to while sober. Saxl has a good sense of humor and messes with your ears constantly, via tempos and textures and echo effects and just about every other trope in the psychedelic playbook. Whether you call this ambient music, film music, minimalism or indie classical, it’s hard not to get lost in.

Saxl processes both a chamber orchestra and field recordings of wind and water for the tracks here. The opening miniature, Before Blue is all bubble, bubble, no toil, no trouble. A couple of coy, blippy riffs at the end, and it’s over in a minuite 32. The ten-minute Blue begins more turbulently bubbly and ultimately a lot funnier, from a long bong hit to a whippit, sonically speaking. Just when you start wondering what’s wrong with your music player, the distantly ominous synth patches loom in. And then you’re back in the hall of mirrors.

Squiggles and blips and a catchy, playful clarinet hook intertwine in Wave, then a pseudo-ocean, the clarinet and strings gently rock your ears in Wave II. A Terry Riley-ish clarinet riff circles and subtly shifts against a staggered, diversely processed pizzicato violin loop in Memory of Blue, the album’s most epic track: the unexpected piano track pulls you back to earth just when it seems gravity has been left behind for good.

Soft gusts move methodically through Wave III; Saxl winds up the album with the title cut, the driftiest interlude here and an unexpectedly somber way to close an otherwise high-spirited record. Seems like the whole crew here – Finnegan Shanahan on violin, Helen Newby on cello, and a wind section of Erin Lensing on oboe, David Nagy on bassoon, Kristina Teuschler and Alec Spiegelman on clarinets, with Sarah Carrier on flute – had plenty of fun with this. 

James Ilgenfritz Makes a Troubling, Acidically Relevant Operatic Suite Out of a William Burroughs-Classic

In keeping with this month’s epic theme, today’s album is bassist James Ilgenfritz’s musical interpretation of William Burroughs’ cult classic novel The Ticket That Exploded, an “ongoing opera” streaming at Bandcamp. A collaboration with video artist Jason Ponce – who also contributes to the sound mix – it features Anagram Ensemble playing a mashup of surreal, often dadaistic free jazz and indie classical sounds. The text is delivered both as spoken word and by a rotating cast of singers including Nick Hallett, Ted Hearne, Ryan Opperman, Anne Rhodes and Megan Schubert. Burroughs’novel can be maddeningly dissociative, although in its more accessible moments it’s witheringly aphoristic, and often uproariously funny. That sense of humor does not often translate to the music here: it’s usually serious as death and relentlessly acidic. Most of it seems improvised, although that could be Ilgenfritz, a fixture of the New York creative jazz scene prior to the lockdown, toying with the audience.

With his weathered New York accent, Steve Dalachinsky – who knew Burroughs – was a good choice of narrator. In its best moments, this is classic jazz poetry. “It’s the old army thing: get dicked firstest with the brownest nose,” Nick Hallett muses about midway through. Sound familiar?

“If I had a talking picture of you, would I still read you?” Dalachinsky ponders a little later. Again, Burroughs is being prophetic: remember, this was written in the 1960s. An astringent guitar duel – Ty Citerman and Taylor Levine – pushes him out of the picture, only to be eclipsed by an almost shockingly calm moment from the string section at the end. That’s characteristic of how this unfolds.

After a rather skeletal opening number, the two women’s voices reach crushingly screaming and tumbling peaks, contrasting with a persistently offkilter minimalism. Many of the most ominous moments here pair the strings – Julianne Carney on violin and Nathan Bontrager on cello – with Denman Maroney’s eerie piano tinkles.

Ted Hearne gets the plum assignment of introducing the cast of characters in the Nova Mob which several generations of writers and punk rockers would reference in the decades that followed. The brass and strings drift and rustle uneasily, occasionally coalescing for unexpected pockets of clarity or a rare vaudevillian interlude. Percussionists Andrew Drury, John O’Brien and Vinnie Sperazza squirrel around, sparely, on anything that can be wacked.

Dichotomies – man versus machine, the sacred versus the very sacreligious, reason versus unbridled lust, reality versus hallucination – abound, both lyrically and musically. As challenging a listen as this is, in an age where surveillance is becoming a more and more omnipresent threat, it’s also timely:

Why don’t we shut this machine off?
I had all the answers a thousand years ago…
All we had to do is shut the thing off
Soundtrack calls the image police?
Shut off the soundtrack!

Magical New Music For Bass and Harp Duo

The River Town Duo‘s lineup – bass and concert harp – may be extremely rare, but they’re not the only such ensemble in the world. In fact, more than twenty composers have written for this unorthodox and magical pairing, which was somewhat more prevalent during the baroque era. The new album by the duo of bassist Philip Alejo and harpist Claire Happel Ashe – which hasn’t hit the web yet – comprises six fascinating, mostly rather quiet pieces by contemporary composers, covering all the bases throughout pretty much the entirety of the sonic spectrum. Alejo is called on to use his bow more than his fingers here, although he does both, while Ashe is occasionally engaged for extended technique as well.

They open with Caroline Shaw‘s dedication to them, For Claire & Philip. It’s pensive, driven by suspenseful pedalpoint from both instruments, and although the two get to build to some of the jaunty polyrhythms often found in Shaw’s work, it’s absolutely unique in her catalog.

Whitney Ashe‘s spaghetti western-influenced The Circuitous Six is even more starrily mysterious, Alejo’s stark bowing beneath its rhythmically shifting variations on a circling phrase. Derick Evans‘ surreallistically shapeshifting tableau On Lotusland draws inspiration from overlooking the Tucson cityscape at night, its cluster of lights surrounded by desolation. Alejo shifts from gritty overtones to keening, harmonically-tinged glissandos, Ashe bending her notes, the two rising to a slinky pulse tapped out on the body of the bass and eventually a plaintive neoromantic theme.

Hannah Lash‘s diptych Leaves, Space calmly and broodingly explores terse contrapuntal riffs and echo effects as well as the ways the harp can amplify phrases from the bass, Alejo fingerpicking emphatically before he picks up his bow again. The sepulchral second half is arguably the high point of the album.

Evan Premo contributes Two Meditations on Poems of Mary Oliver. The first, Early Morning, New Hampshire is a wistful, bucolic portrait of an old stone wall in the woods, Alejo backing away to provide atmospherics behind Ashe’s more enigmatic plucking. Although the second, Linen of Words explores the workmanlike, repetitive side of creating art, its folksy theme and variations make it one of the album’s catchiest tunes.

The duo conclude with Stephen Andrew Taylor‘s brief, lively five-part suite Oxygen. They follow a dancing, enigmatically circling theme with depictions of blood components, DNA and breathing. Alejo strains, bounces, slides and squirrels around while Ashe frequently mutes her strings for timbral unease. The moments of clarity are especially striking, especially the somber/twinkling dichotomies of the coda. It’s like the notorious PCR test come to life: you never know what kind of gunk might be floating through your veins until after many orders of magnification.