New York Music Daily

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Category: indie classical

Arooj Aftab’s Misty, Organic New Album Transcends Tragedy

Pakistani singer Arooj Aftab’s new album Vulture Prince – streaming at Bandcamp – takes its title from a Parsi funeral custom, where a body is left for the vultures in order to continue the natural cycle of life. The backstory is grim: the singer lost her younger brother Maher while making the record. Somehow she found the perseverance to transcend that tragedy. The central theme is revisiting places, and situations, and people, who may not exist anymore. With the lockdowners still exerting an iron grip on much of the world, the album couldn’t be more relevant.

As usual, Aftab defies categorization. Several of these songs could be called ghazals, but the instrumentation is more jazz and art-rock oriented. Baghon Main is a verdantly catchy remake of a track from her debut album, Maeve Gilchrist opening the song with a flourish on her harp, then Petros Klampanis’ stately bass and Juliette Jones’ distant violin enter the picture. Aftab’s meticulously modulated voice has taken on additional gravitas and maybe even more nuance – if that’s possible! – in the the years since.. And it’s the key to the album. Instrumental voicings that would have been spun through a mixer earlier in her career are organic now – the echo and doppler-like effects from the violin, for example.

Diya Hai has a similarly catchy, spiky backdrop, Badi Assad supplying  acoustic guitar with Jones’ shivery violin entering later, Aftab’s gently emotive voice just as haunting. She keeps her melismas low-key and lustrous in Inayaat, awash in violin, Aftab’s spare, hypnotic piano contrasting with the incisive pings and ripples of the harp. Percussionist Jamey Haddad’s shift from a drifting, ghazal-like feel to an implied qawwali groove is a striking touch.

Aftab multitracks her vocals in the starkly catchy minor-key dub reggae tune Last Night, a setting of a Rumi love poem with a handful of lines in English. Mohabbat comes across as a gently undulating mashup of Elizabethan British folk and Punjabi devotional music, Nadje Noordhuis’ resonant trumpet calm above Gyan Riley’s guitar, the harp and the tremoloing lines of the violin.

Aftab’s misty intonation of her late friend Annie Ali Khan’s lyrics in Saans Lo – an encouragement to move on and the closest thing here to Aftab’s swirly, immersive earlier work – is unselfconsciously wrenching. She closes the album with Suroor, her hazy vocals contrasting with the lively, lightly processed harp and a dancing rhythm: as imaginatively arranged as this is, it’s the closest thing to a traditional ghazal here.

Haunting, Intense, Politically Potent Pan-Asian Inspired New Sounds From Jen Shyu

Jen Shyu’s music is hypnotic, frequently nocturnal, incantatory and informed by ancient myths and traditions spanning across Asia. Inspired by those traditions, Shyu hardly limits herself to the kind of separation between artistic disciplines which so often dominates those practices in the west. Much of the music on her haunting, otherworldly new album Zero Grasses: Ritual for the Losses – streaming at Bandcamp – is a soundtrack for even more ambitious multimedia projects.

Throughout her work, Shyu has always focused on commonalities, drawing on artistic and cultural influences from Taiwan, East Timor, Indonesia, Japan and beyond. This album shares that universality yet is also her most personal one. It’s rooted in the here and now, a response to bereavement and tragedy, addressing the sudden loss of Shyu’s beloved father as well as the murder of Breonna Taylor and the lockdown. Here Shyu sings, narrates and plays Japanese biwa, Taiwanese moon lute and piano, joined by her Jade Tongue ensemble with Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet, Mat Maneri on viola, Thomas Morgan on bass and Dan Weiss on drums.

In the opening suite, Living’s a Gift, Shyu becomes a one-woman choir delivering a pastiche of lyrics written by choir students at MS51 in Brooklyn’s South Park Slope during the grim early days of the lockdown. The band waft and dance gently behind her as she mashes up classic soul balladry, punchy indie classical, acerbic theatricality and a little hip-hop. If there’s any music that’s been released since March 16 of last year that gives voice to the relentless psychological torture that children in New York have suffered at the hands of the lockdowners, this is it: “Hope for the best, expect the worst,” as one of the kids blithely puts it in the first segment. No wonder suicide among young people is up sixty percent over the past year.

Akinmusire plays a solemn farewell over Maneri and Morgan’s stark, microtonal washes, Shyu’s piano driving a seething undercurrent in Lament for Breonna Taylor: the lyrics are from Taylor’s mom Tamika Palmer’s remiscence about her daughter’s plans to become a nurse before she was gunned down in a home invasion by Louisville police.

The Human Color, an understately lustrous piano ballad originally released in 2009, reflects on the enslavement of Chinese alongside Africans under the conquistadors in 19th century Cuba. A Cure for the Heart’s Longing, a more intertwining ballad spiced with spiky moon lute, is a setting of Javanese poetry by legendary wayang artist Sri Joko Raharjo. Shyu reprises a similar mood later, with more of a nocturnal sweep, in Finally She Emerges.

Shyu’s voice reaches an imploring, chilling intensity in Body of Tears, an anguished account of the moment she was informed she’d lost her dad, rising from troubled grace to anguished insistence. The stark, shamanistic When I Have Power is arguably the most powerful track on the album, Shyu singing from her high school diary. At 15, while selling candy on the bus on the way home from school, she was confronted by a kid who harrassed her and used a racist slur. “When I’m famous, I’m going to set things straight,” she resolved.

Display Under the Moon, a traditional Japanese biwa song, has fiercely plucked, operatic drama, a soldier in the moonlight dreading the next day’s battle. Plus ça change

The album’s final three tracks are dedicated to Shyu’s dad. Father Slipped into the Eternal Dream, based on a parable by Zhuangzi, is a kinetically soaring exploration of how to carry on in the face of bereavement and despondency. The lyrics reaffirm that our capacity to feel such emotional intensity is what makes us human.

With Eyes Closed You See All, a towering, bustling piano-fueled tone poem of sorts, channels hope and feminist determination to shift the paradigm toward equality. Shyu closes the album with Live What You Envision, a carpe-diem theme that picks up from elegantly plucked multitracks to a fierce coda.

For a listener who doesn’t speak any of Shyu’s many Asian languages, it’s a treat to be able to understand the lyrics without a cheat sheet, and to hear her assert herself as a great song stylist in the Betty Carter tradition. The only thing better than listening to this often harrowing record would be to witness what she would do with it onstage if she could. Hmmm…Shyu’s a native Texan, and Texas is one of the free states…

Anna Heflin Blends Clever, Hilarious Spoken Word With Enigmatic New Music For Strings

Violist Anna Heflin calls her debut album The Redundancy of the Angelic – streaming at Spotify – “an interluding play.” Blending surrealistic, sometimes cut-and-pasted spoken word in between austere string themes, the record – which isn’t online yet – is alternately very serious and ridiculously amusing. Heflin is an acute observer and an imaginative composer; the push-pull of the album’s central dynamic ramps up the surreal factor. The album’s unifying and very best joke doesn’t reveal itself until the end, and it’s way too good to give away.

Tensely enunciating, Heflin opens the album with a disjointed poetic tableau, a beauty parlor recast as the center of a strangely benign universe. Then the music begins. A slowly sirening riff gives way to a close-harmonied string trio – Heflin with violinists Shannon Reilly and Emily Holden. Their alternately puckish, rhythmic and soberly spacious phrases and variations descend to a a hazy, hypnotic interlude, which they end up bringing full circle.

The second spoken word piece, Fell This Blonde, is devastatingly funny: let’s say it turns an ugly American beauty myth upside down. The strings return in As Above, So Below, first with an austere, stairstepping theme, then sandpapery harmonics and a hair-raising coda.

Heflin allusively ponders apocalyptic portents and escape therefrom in We Made It Out: ultimately, she’s optimistic. In Heflin’s closing pastiche poem, the joke is on the listener as she ties up all the loose ends, Hitchcock style: again, no spoilers.

The Berlin Mallet Group Ring In a Unique, Imaginative, Colorful Debut Album

One of the most imaginative and unique albums to reach the front page here in recent months is the Berlin Mallet Group‘s debut album Sogni D’oro, streaming at Spotify. It rings, and pings, and whirs, and whooshes and bubbles in ways few other groups ever have, no surprise considering the instrumentation. Bandleaders David Friedman and Taiko Saito play vibraphone and marimba, respectively, along with Julius Heise and Hauke Renken, who alternate between those two instruments, and Raphael Meinhart, who sticks with the marimba here. The world is full of percussion ensembles and vibraphone jazz groups, but this crew sound like no other band in the world, part precise orchestra, part outside-the-box jazz ensemble. This is very lively, colorful music.

The opening number, Friedman’s Penta e Uno, is a mini-suite full of playful twists and turns, from a rapturous, minimalist ballad, to tantalizingly brief, bouncy swing and bossa themes and fleeting moments of Lynchian suspense. What’s most fascinating about it is the group’s meticulously orchestral intertwine. There’s a thicket of tremolo and ripples, but also a steady bassline, and circling low midrange.

The second number, by Saito, is Komodo No Kodomo, a vampy, distantly Asian, cleverly polyrhythmic web anchoring a series of terse vibraphone solos that finally mingle down into hypnotic rivulets. The group reinvent Kenny Wheeler’s Sea Lady as an epic bell choir: Saito’s evocative arrangement gets the group bowing oceanic ambience, right down to coy shorebirds and waves leisurely washing onshore. From there they take turns drifting and ringing out a summery tropical tableau.

Carousel, another Friedman tune, shifts from warmly hypnotic to emphatically assertive, with both motorik and west African balafon flavors and catchy solos from the vibes. The group dedicate this album to the late composer and percussionist Rupert Stamm and follow with two of his compositions. Friedman’s spare phrases resonate broodingly over suspenseful marimbas as Xylon 1 gets underway, the group maintaining a tight but mysterious pulse as a more tropical rhythm picks up. Xylon 4 is the album’s most anthemic track, with some breathtaking interplay in the highs as it peaks out.

Friedman’s title track shifts between summery atmosphere, a puffing pulse and a casual, shuffling bounce, with lushly expanding textures as it goes on. Scharfenberg, a fond ballad by Heise, concludes the album, the ensemble’s keening, pinging layers rising to a cheery series of waves that underscore the song’s sly resemblance to an old Elvis hit.

Surrealistically Captivating Electroacoustic Solo Clarinet Sounds From Esther Lamneck

On one hand, clarinetist Esther Lamneck’s new album Sky Rings – streaming at Spotify – is primarily for fans of her axe, her silken sostenuto, her effortless legato and command of extended technique. On the other, devotees of adventurous new classical music ought to check it out. It’s a collection of six solo electroacoustic pieces, testifying to the fact that we’ve probably barely scratched the surface of how many solo records have been made in the fateful days since March 16 of last year. Often it’s hard to tell what’s an overdub and what’s getting reprocessed and spun back through the mix, enhancing the psychedelic factor.

The opening piece is Lars Graugaard‘s Quiet Voice. It begins as a wafting reverbtoned soundscape that picks up slowly: the distantly chimey multitracks sound suspiciously like the mixer picking up the clicking of the keys. A loopy, uneasy, chromatic phrase hints at the development of more anthemic melody, then Lamneck fires off a sudden cadenza akin to a stone hitting a pond. The sonic thicket grows thicker and more flutelike, even as it’s balanced by fliting low notes against the trills and leaps. Playfully bubbly phrasing alternates with austere atmospherics as she winds up this colorful showpiece.

The album’s title track, by Michael Matthews, has a bracing,, heavy-gamelanesque electronic introduction that gives way to lively allusions to Messiaen’s Quartet For the End of Time and dynamically shifting variations which come full circle almost imperceptibly.

Kyong Mee Choi‘s Ceaseless Cease gives Lamneck alternately drifting and playfully percussive backdrops for leaps and bounds as well as more pensive phrasing that eventually weaves into a sort of catch-and-follow. She airs out her blues phrasing in the intro of Ihbtby, by Paul Wilson, a minimalist take on a Gershwinesque stroll; from there,surreal ambience alternates with hectic flutters.

Although it’s awash in gritty harmonics and keening duotones, Michal Rataj‘s Small Imprints is the most straightforward and subtly playful number here. Lamneck winds up the record with David Durant’s rather brooding Faji, sailing tersely and then glissandoing frenetically over an ominous series of noirish electronic textures and accents.

An Old World Premiere and an Ambitious New Choral Work From New York Polyphony

New York Polyphony are pretty much unique in the world of choral music in that they sing world premieres from five hundred years ago as well as from the here and now. The quartet – countertenor Geoffrey Williams, tenor Steven Caldicott Wilson, baritone Christopher Dylan Herbert and bass Craig Phillips – are as expertly protean as protean gets. One reason why they’re able to find so much fascinating, previously unreleased early music – beyond simply being experts at sleuthing it out – is that they’re smaller than most choirs and focus on the most intimate side of medieval masses and motets. The other is that they have sufficiently formidable chops to tackle this material – some of which was sung by boys at the time it was written – and Herbert’s steely upper register has a lot to do with that.

Their latest album And the Sun Darkened: Music for Passiontide is streaming at Spotify. The group open with fifteenth century Flemish composer Loyset Compère’s stately, utterly otherworldly Crux Triumphans. The group’s resolute command of the pairing of highs against lows leaves the impression that they are a much larger ensemble: it’s a device that’s worked for everyone from Mozart to Gil Evans.

From there, the group shift seamlessly from a spaciously soaring, brief Josquin piece, to the hypnotic, swaying, terse echo effects and persistently unsettled ancient/modern harmonic juxtapositions of contemporary composer Andrew Smith‘s Salme 55.

A diptych by a slightly later fifteenth century Flemish composer, Adrian Willaert, features more dramatic upper register work. From there the group move on to alternately desolate and delicately rhythmic 20th century Estonian terrain for a psalm setting by Cyrillus Kreek.

Their latest old world premiere is Compère’s nine-part suite Officium de Cruce. It’s a Book of Hours meditation, its brief segments ranging from proto-operatic counterpoint to a mystical sway and back. The rather brooding sixth segment, where those rhythms intertwine, is the highlight. The quartet close the album with a thoughtful, spacious, benedictory work by a Compère contemporary, Pierre de la Rue [editor’s note – no relation :)].

The kinds of venues these guys would typically serenade a year ago are dragging their feet reopening, which only means that crowds are going to stick with the vastly less expensive speakeasy circuit when they do. A radical shift in how live music is presented in New York City is underway. The old venue-centric model is being replaced by a community and artist-based scene…and some would say that change is long overdue.

Joy and Desolation From the Tesla Quartet

The Tesla Quartet have been around for more than a decade. In keeping with this century’s zeitgeist, artists release albums when they’re ready, not when some accountant says they have to in order to fulfill some sleazy record label contract. So their debut album, Joy and Desolation – streaming at their music page – was worth the wait. It’s a mix of very familiar repertoire and more adventurous material.

They open the record with a classical radio staple: Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in A Major, with soloist Alexander Fiterstein. Let’s not kid ourselves: pensive third movement notwithstanding, this is wine-hour music for the thieving dukes and abbots and the gentry of suburban Vienna, such as suburbs existed in 1789. The more you drink, the easier it is to get lost in its lustre and exchanges of subdued revelry. But it’s gorgeously executed. Fiterstein maintains a stunning, wind-tunnel clarity, throughout both extended passages and bubbly staccato phrases. Violinists Ross Snyder and Michelle Lie, and violist Edwin Kaplan provide echoes and a strong backdrop, and cellist Serafim Smigelskiy switches seamlessly between resonant ballast and serving as bass player.

Next on the bill are Gerald Finzi’s innocuously neo-baroque Five Bagatelles. A drifting legato quickly transforms to leaps and bounds in the opening Prelude. Fiterstein’s moody vistas echo in Smigelskiy’s undercurrent in the nocturnal Romance, followed by a nostalgically snowy, waltzing carol of a third movement. The fourth relies more on stark pastoral textures from the strings; the concluding fughetta, on bubbly exchanges. Aaron Copland comes to mind often here: this music is facile, derivative – and seamlessly played.

So much for joy. There’s a slow, fugal contrast between icy, troubled, tectonically shifting close-harmonied strings, built around a creepy chromatic riff and the clarinet’s looming textures, in John Corigliano‘s Soliloquy. The windswept, ghostly outro is absolutely gorgeous. The group wind up the album with Carolina Heredia’s Ius in Bello, its haunted flickers and flutters behind plaintive clarinet up to a fire dance within the first couple of minutes. Demands on the ensemble increase from sudden shocked cadenzas to chilling mictrotonal interludes: what a piece de resistance to choose as a coda.

Suspensefully Cinematic, High-Spirited New Classical Works From the CCCC Grossman Ensemble

The Chicago Center for Contemporary Composition’s Grossman Ensemble is the brainchild of Augusta Read Thomas. Her game plan was to create a group which could intensely workshop material with composers rather than simply holding a few rehearsals and then throwing a concert. Their album Fountain of Time – streaming at youtube – is contemporary classical music as entertainment: a dynamic series of new works, many of them with a cinematic suspense and tingly moments of noir. Percussionists Greg Beyer and John Corkill, in particular, have a field day with this.

They open with Shulamit Ran’s picturesque Grand Rounds. Oboe player Andrew Nogal, clarinetist Katherine Schoepflin Jimoh, pianist Daniel Pesca and harpist Ben Melsky get to send a shout-out to Messiaen and then a salute to Bernard Herrmann’s Hitchcock film scores. Terse accents from horn player Matthew Oliphant and saxophonist Taimur Sullivan mingle with the acerbic textures of the Spektral Quartet: violinists Clara Lyon and Maeve Feinberg, violist Doyle Armbrust and cellist Russell Rolen. Furtiveness ensues and then the chase is on! The ending is anything but what you would expect. Told you this was fun!

Anthony Cheung’s triptych Double Allegories begins with sudden strikes amid suspenseful, wafting ambience, heavy on the percussion: Herrmann again comes strongly to mind. The midsection is built around a deliciously otherworldly series of microtonal, stairstepping motives, subtle echo effects and ice-storm ambience. The finale comes across as a series of playful but agitated poltergeist conversations….or intermittent stormy bursts. Or both, Tim Munro’s flute and the percussion front and center.

David Dzubay conducts his new work, PHO, which is not a reference to Vietnamese cuisine: the title stands for Potentially Hazardous Objects. The ensemble work every trick in the suspense film playbook – creepy bongos, shivery swells, tense bustles, pizzicato strings like high heels on concrete, breathy atmospherics and hints of a cynical Mingus-esque boogie – for playfully maximum impact. It’s the album’s most animated and strongest piece.

Tonia Ko‘s Simple Fuel was largely improvised while the ensemble were workshopping it; it retains that spontaneity with all sorts of extended technique, pulsing massed phrasing in an AACM vein, conspiratorial clusters alternating with ominous microtonal haze.

A second triptych, by David “Clay” Mettens, winds up the record. Stain, the first segment, bristles with defiantly unresolved microtones, gremlins in the highs peeking around corners and hints of Indian carnatic riffage. Part two, Bloom/Moon pairs deviously syncopated marimba against slithery strings. The textures and clever interweave in Rain provide the album with a vivid coda. Let’s hope we hear more from this group as larger ensembles begin recording and playing again: day after day, the lockdown is unraveling and the world seems to be returning to normal.

Darkly Colorful Cellist Gyda Valtysdottir Celebrates Her Fellow Icelanders

The last time that cellist Gyda Valtysdottir was on this page, it was 2013 and her atmospheric trip-hop/postrock band Mum had just put out their Smilewound album. Since then she’s taken a deeper plunge into new classical music. Her latest album Epicycle II – streaming at Bandcamp – is a collection of enveloping new electroacoustic works by colleagues from her native Iceland.

The first track, Skúli Sverrisson’s Unfold, is an increasingly brooding, almost maddeningly unresolved series of duotone chords, up the staircase, then down and around. In her airy high soprano, Valtysdottir half-whispers over stately, minimalist pizzicato in Ólöf Arnalds’ loopy waltz Safe to Love, rising to some bracing doublestops.

Anna Thorvaldsdóttir’s Mykros has looming lows, hazy atmospherics and approximations of whale song. Valtysdottir digs in triumphantly when Úlfur Hansson’s Morphogenesis….well…morphs out of pulsing, looped phrases to a gritty swell and then a long, stark upward climb with some flute-like harmonics – it’s musical M.C. Escher.

Kjartan Sveinsson’s Liquidity features stately, spare piano and also percussion. It’s the album’s lone departure into uneasily if anthemically crescendoing art-rock, in keeping with the composer’s background in atmospheric rock. The lingering tone poem Air to Breath, by Daníel Bjarnason has some breathtakingly anticipatory, cantabile phrasing.

Jónsi’s Evol Lamina (spell it backwards, Sonic Youth style) reflects the title – it’s the album’s lone throwaway. Appropriately, the record’s eighth and final composition is María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir’s Octo, an increasingly atmospheric series of variations on a brooding four-note phrase.

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.