New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: 21st century music

Revisiting a Dark Moment in New York History with Laurie Anderson and the Kronos Quartet

“Sandy was a huge swirl that looked like a galaxy whose name I didn’t know,” Laurie Anderson muses in one of the broodingly atmospheric early numbers on her album Landfall, an epic collaboration with the Kronos Quartet and cellist Jeffrey Ziegler. As Halloweenish music goes, the record – streaming at Spotify – strikes awfully close to home for any New Yorker.

The October 2012 hurricane was a defining moment for Anderson. She lived just off the Hudson River, and lost innumerable, priceless scores, archival material and instruments when her basement was flooded. The irrepressible violinist/composer/agitator has never shied away from dark topics, beginning with O Superman, the cynical Iran hostage crisis-themed single that put her on the map. This is arguably her most personal and most music-centric album: she’s more terse instrumentalist than narrator here.

Most of the thirty tracks here are on the short side, three minutes or less. What’s most intriguing about the album is that each member of the quartet – violinists David Harrington and John Sherba, cellist Sunny Yang and violist Hank Dutt, along with guest cellist Jeffrey Ziegler – get to contribute to the compositions, beginning with an ominous, searching, often Indian-tinged opening theme. As the storm looms on the horizon, there’s heavy, portentous ambience, loopy horror-film trip-hop and leaping agitation.

An allusive danse macabre above murky atmospherics signals Anderson and husband Lou Reed’s move to temporary digs in a hotel after they lose electric power. Evidence of cataclysms more commonplace in warmer climates seem shocking here: boats blown from their docks onto the West Side Highway, street signs twisted in the wind.

Anderson devotes as much if not more time to the aftermath. The music is sometimes austere and melancholy, punctuated by frenetic activity as well as coldly surreal variations on the initial trip-hop theme: Anderson’s long relationship with digital technology has always been conflicted.

To her immense credit, she doesn’t lose her signature sense of humor: her observations on people telling their friends about their dreams is priceless. The epic centerpiece, Nothing Left But Their Names, is considerably more disturbing, reflecting on how 99% of all species that ever existed on earth are now extinct. But the most chilling moment of all is when she finally takes us down to the basement.

Pianist Liza Stepanova’s New Album Champions Brooding New Music by Immigrant Composers

As we’ve been seeing more and more over the last couple of years, many artists most closely associated with traditional classical repertoire have a not-so-secret passion for new music. Pianist Liza Stepanova lays claim to that cred with her new solo album E Pluribus Unum – streaming at Spotify – a collection reflecting her background as as an American immigrant. It’s mix of strikingly purposeful, accessible and rather dark works by her fellow immigrants, including several world premieres. Musically the takeaway is that if you think she’s good at, say, Tschaikovsky, wait til you hear this. And in a year where the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement has been committing crimes against humanity by forcibly performing hysterectomies on refugee women,, the album takes on even greater relevance.

She opens with An Old Photograph from the Grandparents’ Childhood, a brooding, steadily Chopinesque, chromatically biting miniature by Lera Auerbach. Kamran Ince’s partita Symphony in Blue is a study in stabbing acerbity versus calm, spacious, often mysterious resonance, with a little inside-the-piano flitting. Stepanova’s carnivalesque music-box upper register work is enabled by what sounds like tacks on the hammers.

Chaya Czernowin‘s Fardance Close has the same dichotomy, flickering highs in contrast with low rumbles and even more suspense. Stepanova next tackles two selections from Reinaldo Moya’s South American refugee suite The Way North. The first, La Bestia, follows scrambling upward tangents which grow more allusively ominous. The second, Rain Outside the Church has artful contrast between high pointillisms and more enveloping, low-midrange variations: Debussy is the obvious reference.

The point of Anna Clyne‘s On Track, a surreally produced, propulsively chiming electroacoustic theme and subtle variations, is that change is constant, like it or not: the ending is completely unexpected. Mool, a Lake Michigan tableau by Eun Young Lee, has strikingly understated, spaciously nocturnal phrasing and a distant, austere glitter: it’s one of the album’s most memorable moments.

Badie Khaleghian‘s triptych Táhirih the Pure, dedicated to the tragic 19th century feminist mystic, begins with The Day of Alert, a dynamically-charged, allusively Middle Eastern-tinged prelude built around an uneasily circling lefthand riff. Part two, Unchained is assembled around the album’s most persistent trope, high/low contrasts, in this case magnified by dissociative rhythms. The conclusion, Badasht is a sort of mirror image of the introduction, Stepanova nimbly tackling the daunting, insistent pointillisms ringing out over moody resonance.

Piglia, by Pablo Ortiz is part pensive prelude, part a more subtle take on what Kachaturian did with his Sabre Dance. Stepanova closes the record with Gabriela Lena Frank‘s rather wryly phantasmagorical Karnavalito No. 1. All of this is as thoughtfully and intuitively played as it is programmed. Let’s look forward to the day we get the chance to see Stepanova continue in this very auspicious direction, onstage, in front of an audience!

A Matter-of-Factly Harrowing Eco-Disaster Cautionary Tale by Sarah Kirkland Snider

Sarah Kirkland Snider’s Mass for the Endangered is not an appeal to a deity but to nature. Ultimately, it’s a cautionary tale, a plea for the survival of the environment rather than for the humans whose liturgies typically serve as text for such things. Backed by terse piano and a vivid chamber orchestra, Gabriel Crouch leads vocal ensemble Gallicantus in this intense, dynamic world premiere recording, streaming at Bandcamp.

Throughout the suite, Snider seamlessly interpolates the original latin with new text by first-class art-folk songwriter Nathaniel Bellows. The opening kyrie section, centered around variations on an eerie six-note riff, is a study in contrasts, somber ambience anchoring angst-fueled crescendos from the choir. Hypnotic yet acidic echo phrases rise to chilling heights: this is hardly an easy piece to sing, and the ensemble dig in mightily. 

The group negotiate the tricky counterpoint of the gloria over harp caught in limbo between icy belltone astringency and anthemic neoromanticism. A tritone menace appears as exchanges beetween the men and women of the choir rise and fall.

The alleluia is a mashup of Renaissance rhythmic grace and tensely pulsing minimalism. Snider’s gift for implied melody really comes to the forefront as the voices pick up with an uneasily dancing rhythm over steady harp, resonant winds and circling strings in the credo. A galloping low string figure stands out stunningly below the soaring, twinkling atmosphere above.

Snider combines the sanctus and benedictus sections with a minimalist bounce that brings to mind David Lang’s choral works. The voices reprise the suite’s initial angst, but also offer hope against hope, a bassoon swirling upward over the strings’ incisive, percussive phrases in the concluding agnus dei. Nothing like the apocalypse to inspire creativity, huh?

A Diverse, Playfully Eclectic Solo Violin Album From Michi Wiancko

Until the lockdown, violinist Michi Wiancko enjoyed a busy career in the New York new music scene. Like many arists have done in the last few months, she’s releasing a solo album, Planetary Candidate – streaming at Bandcamp – an eclectic collection of both organic and electroacoustic works by several of her favorite contemporary composers, along with one of her own. The sounds here are adventurous and often psychedelic, but not harsh or assaultive.

The album’s title track, by the artist herself, is a deceptively catchy, increasingly dense jungle of insistent, minimalist pizzicato chords bookending a still, sustained interlude. Wiancko’s vocals are multitracked as well. The theme is breathing, which could be a loaded metaphor: hard to do that with a muzzle over your face!

Wiancko’s similarly insistent eight-note phrases dirift further and further into dissonace as Christopher Adler’s Jolie Sphinx moves along, a trope that repeats in more pensive, subtly baroque-influenced cadences a little later on in Mark Dancigers‘ Skyline. Paula Matthusen’s Songs of Fuel and Insomnia has dissociatively drifting overlays, trippy electronic textures that extend into stygian depths, and some unexpectedly shreddy metal.

Wiancko shifts from briskly leaping arpeggios to hazy, steady close harmonies and then halfway back in Jessie Montgomery’s Rhapsody No. 2. Bizarrely processed echo effects pervade William Brittelle‘s alternately ambient and acerbic So Long Art Decade – a reference to the Bowie song?

A waterside tableau complete with found sounds, Matthusen’s Lullaby for Dead Horse Bay manages to be both the album’s most atmospheric and captivating piece. Wiancko winds up the record with a second Brittelle composition, Disintegration, a swooping, imaginatively overdubbed, increasingly kinetic series of echoey exchanges with coy, distant echoes of 80s new wave music.

Lavish, Imaginatively Arranged, Individualistic Ballads From Le Mirifique Orchestra

Le Mirifique Orchestra play lush, vast, majestically arranged ballads from the worlds of jazz standards, classic chanson and pop music. The arrangements on their new album Oh! My Love – streaming at Bandcamp – draw on classical styles from the baroque to the 21st century, emphasis on the modern. It’s an absolutely unique, imaginative sound, with jazz solos, classical lustre and catchy, relatively short songs. The group like playful instrumental intros, and have six strong singers taking turns out front.

The orchestra open the record with calmly spacious minimalism and then make their way into the first song, Skylark, sung with soaring, vintage soul-infused hopefulness by Agathe Peyrat. With orchestration that spans the sonic spectrum, from Thomas Saulet’s flute and Nicolas Fargeix’s clarinet down to Jérémie Dufort’s tuba, the song sets the stage for the rest of the record.

Co-leader Alban Darche’s judicious sax flurries over Alexis Thérain’s bittersweet guitar chords introduce Don’t Explain, then back away for Alice Lewis’ similarly pensive vocals. The swirl of the reeds against the resonance of trumpeter Rodolph Puechbroussous and horn players Pierre-Yves Le Masne and Emmanuel Bénèche maintain an uneasy dichotomy over drummer Meivelyan Jacquot’s muted sway.

Chloé Cailleton moves to the mic for the wistful You Can Never Hold Back Spring, the orchestra shifting between terse lustre and bubbling optimism. After a coyly shapeshifting intro, crooner Loïs Le Van takes over the lead on Parce que je t’aime, the ensemble moving from a subtle fugue to bright pageantry and back.

After a suspensefully flurrying guitar-and-drums interlude, the strings of Le Quatuor Psophos add lushness to the moody, often rather troubled instrumental Answer Me. Darche opens Je crois entendre with a balmy solo, then Philippe Katerine offers a gentle vocal over a contrastingly brooding, tense backdrop.

The string quartet return for My Love, foreshadowing the album’s title track with disquieting close harmonies and dynamic shifts. Cailleton takes over vocals again in a hazily brassy take of I’ll Be Seeing You, the high reeds rising to a balletesque peak.

Lewis goes back to the mic with a moody understatement for the haunting Celian’s Complaint, guest trumpeter Geoffroy Tamisier winding it up with a desolate solo: it’s the high point of the album. The similarly somber, mysterious narrative Et pour autant qu’il m’en souvienne makes a good segue, Le Van’s sober spoken word set to spare, possibly improvised verses before the angst-fueled chorus kicks in. Thomas de Pourquery sings the title cut to close the album on a pensively pillowy note.

A Rare, Fascinating Program of String Quartet Music by African-American Composers at Bryant Park

Every year, this blog (and its predecessor) has chosen both a Brooklyn and Manhattan space as best venue of the year for each borough. In 2018, not wanting to settle for the obvious (i.e. Carnegie Hall and the Village Vanguard) and frustrated by the closure of so many small clubs, the pick for best Manhattan venue went to Bryant Park. Home to an annual, multi-night accordion festival as well as plenty of jazz festivals, chamber music and global sounds over the years, the space had earned it. In a long-awaited and highly auspicious return to live classical music there last night, a quartet featuring members of the American Symphony Orchestra played a rich, rare mix of music by African-American composers.

They opened with Adolphus Hailstork’s Three Spirituals For String Quartet, which quickly took on a gently benedictory ambience as the four musicians joined in unison in a lullaby theme. Cellist Alberto Parrini gave it a delicate pizzicato pulse, the group rising to distantly blues-tinged variations over an increasingly vibrant, dancing drive.

Violinist Phillip Payton, who’d put together this fascinating program, played first chair for that one and then switched positions with the ASO’s concertmaster, Cyrus Beroukhim for Jessie Montgomery’s 2008 piece Voodoo Dolls. Parrini and first-chair ASO violist William Frampton dug in with their bandmates for a recurrently grim, staccato pedalpoint, akin to Julia Wolfe at her bluesiest. Bracingly glissandoing chords set off a suspenseful lull, then the group bowed hard and swooped through the finale. Payton made no secret of how much he loved that piece: it was the big hit of the night with the audience, a relatively sparse but raptly attentive crowd of maybe sixty people scattered across the space behind the library.

Next on the bill were movements one, three and four of Florence Price’s Negro Folksongs in Counterpoint for String Quartet. The quartet matter-of-factly worked steady, Mozartean exchanges as the music shifted from a pensive, old-world minor-key theme to a more warmly enveloping atmosphere that seemed to draw as much on the French Romantics (Faure most noticeably) as the African-American gospel tradition.

Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, as Payton explained, bridged a lot of genres. He played in Max Roach’s jazz group and later arranged for Marvin Gaye. His String Quartet No. 1, “Calvary, ” contained “A lot of notes we’re not expected to play,” Payton grinned, “Very jazzy harmonies!” He wasn’t kidding. Steady, rapidly strolling bluesiness quickly receded for more chromatic, brooding passages, like Bartok at his most unadorned. From there the ensemble followed a counterintuitive downward arc, from shivery counterpoint, a tease of a big swell and then crepuscular, flickering pianissimo textures that gently filtered away. The final movement, with its wickedly catchy cello lines, delivered a triumphant, anthemic payoff.

Trevor Weston’s Juba for String Quartet, the newest piece on the bill, seemed to be a study in how far from the blues a series of variations can go. In this group’s hands, that meant pretty far, and involving some extended technique, but also not so far that the center was lost. Terse, spare riffs were spun through a kaleidoscope and then back, through numerous dynamic shifts and ghostly harmonics.

William Grant Still’s first symphony, Payton explained, was in its time the most-played orchestral work by an American composer. His three-movement Lyric Quartette (Musical Portraits of Three Friends), from 1960, was the final piece on the bill. The composer’s eclecticism was front and center here, more than alluding to Romany swing after a fondly Romantic song without words to open the triptych, later finding common ground between Indian carnatic music and the blues. Quasi-microtonal flickers added depth to the incisively minor-key, jubilantly emphatic conclusion and its coyly Beethoven-ish series of false endings.

The quartet encored with Price’s heartwarmingly familiar variations on Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. The organizers behind the music at Bryant Park seem to be determined to help this city get back to normal; their long-running series of solo shows on the park’s electric piano continues on several weekdays into next month. This string quartet return there on Sept 21 at 5:30 PM with a program including works by Samuel Barber and Nino Rota.

A Subtly Harrowing, Incredibly Timely Musical Parable From David Serkin Ludwig and Katie Ford

In the west, extrasensory perception has typically been associated with women. Those believed to be clairvoyant were typically shunned or banished….or worse. Among women in Europe in the Middle Ages who weren’t gruesomely murdered for ostensibly possessing a well-developed sixth sense, one option was to be walled up inside a church. Townspeople could come and consult the mystic through a small window, her only connection with the outside world. In their new cantata The Anchoress – streaming at youtube – composer David Serkin Ludwig and poet Katie Ford relate an incredibly timely and understatedly disturbing narrative about one woman so confined.

In the title role, soprano Hyunah Yu demonstrates as much remarkable clarity as range: she’s not one to let the challenges of hitting the notes get in the way of telling a story. Behind her, the looming resonance and mysterious microtones of saxophone ensemble the PRISM Quartet contrast with the lively flurries of Renaissance ensemble Piffaro. Informed by minimalism and spectral music as much as the baroque works he frequently quotes here, Ludwig’s themes are dynamic and dramatic if usually on the quiet side.

Priscilla Herreid‘s dancing, leaping, occasionally shrieking recorder is a persistent contrast with the sustained clouds of massed saxes. Terror is more of an omnipresent threat than actually front and center, for the most part, although when it is Yu and the ensembles make that ineluctably clear. Ford’s tale begins as Yu’s stricken narrator starts to come to grips with the prospect of never again being part of the outside world. It ends as you would expect, considering the circumstances. Some details are left to the listener to fil in, because Ford has built ommissions into the text, as if it had been censored, in “A time of great mortality.”

A theft, an injury while making an escape, and an angry mob are involved, or at least alluded to, through sudden swoops and dives over a more-or-less persistent calm. Ludwig and Ford wrote this before the lockdown, so this isn’t specifically a parable of the perils of being unmasked in a world of psycho maskers. But it’s hardly a stretch to read it that way.

After the story has run its course, the ensembles conclude with an instrumental triptych: puffing winds in contrast with stillness, a cantabile Debussy-esque interlude and an increasingly ghostly conclusion. As accessible and profoundly relevant as this is, it should reach an audience far beyond the avant garde.

Live Music at Lincoln Center Again: #exhale?

What a beautiful, heartwarming experience it was to be walking past Lincoln Center in the early evening of August 7, right at the moment when a fifteen-piece brass ensemble was premiering a newly commissioned Anthony Barfield piece.

That’s not to imply that there hasn’t been plenty of live music all over New York during the lockdown. But lately a lot of it is restaurant gigs. On one hand, it’s great to see musicians being able to get at least a little paying work. But there’s no need for reportage on background music that hungry crowds with cabin fever are bound to talk over.

And much of the rest has been been fraught with anxiety. What if somebody on the invite list is a collaborator? Are we being too loud and obvious? Are we going to end up in some hideous new Auschwitz somewhere in the wilds of Arkansas if a sinister, nameless squad in riot gear shows up and catches us sitting a comfortable two or three feet from one another? The Afghani people dealt with issues like that under the Taliban. A wide swath of population from the Black Sea to the Danube dealt with similar situations under the Ottomans. Who knew that we ever would under Cuomo.

Which is why Barfield’s brand-new Invictus – latin for “unconquered” – was so uplifting to witness. He’d obviously sussed out the sonics on the Lincoln Center plaza to maximize the natural reverb that bounces off the opera house and back past the fountain, the musicians spaced at least ten feet apart in a semi-ellipse. The work itself is a guardedly optimistic, circular series of variations on a catchy three-note riff, with more than an echo of Philip Glass. The group played it twice, with some impromptu rehearsing in between. You can watch the final take at Lincoln Center’s streaming page. Introducing it, the composer explains that it reflects both the hope of the Black Lives Matter protests as well as the grim uncertainty of the lockdown.

Looking toward the center of the campus from the street, was that New York Philharmonic principal trombonist Joseph Alessi in the hat? Actually not. The group, a mix drawing from several Lincoln Center ensembles, played with dignity and seamlessness. Hats off to trumpeters Marcus Printup, Marshall Kearse, Raymond Riccomini, Christopher Martin, Neil Balm and Thomas Smith; trombonists John Romero, Colin Williams, David Finlayson, Dion Tucker and Zachary Neikens, horn players Anne Scharer, Richard Deane and Dan Wions, and tuba player Christopher Hall.

There’s likely to be more like this in the weeks to come; you will probably have to be in the neighborhood to catch it live. And the Philharmonic are sending a truck featuring various small groups around the five boroughs for impromptu performances. They’re not disclosing where they’ll be for fear of drawing crowds. If such a beloved and life-affirming institution as the New York Philharmonic are that worried, you know we’d better be too.

A Fearlessly Kaleidoscopic, Diverse Album of Modern Harpsichord Music From Mahan Esfahani

Harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani bristles at the idea that his instrument could possibly be archaic, or that its usefulness is limited to music from the Renaissance or before. In the liner notes to his paradigm-shifting new album Musique, he credits “One perhaps unlikely source of inspiration…the people who, over the years, booed, cat-called and/or walked out of halls worldwide in anger and confusion (in other words, fear) during the live performances of these and many other modern and contemporary works. Be assured, my friends, that much more of this is on its way.”

If fearlessness is your thing, this album – streaming at Bandcamp – is for you. Esfahani plays a custom-made 2018 model by Jukka Ollikka, with an additional soundboard which essentially turbocharges the sustain – and Esfahani uses all of it. The album’s first piece is Toru Takemitsu’s Rain Dreaming, Esfahani’s steady, precise, eerily twinkling close harmonies contrasting with spare, pensive phrases. The washes of overtones reverberating from inside are nothing short of otherworldly: this piece alone proves Esfahani’s point about the harpsichord’s enduring vitality.

Henry Cowell wrote his Set of Four in 1960, twenty-six years before Takemitsu’s piece. The first, a rondo, is a disquietingly flamenco-inflected number with big, splashy glissandos and crashing, reverberating chords intermingled within shifting, stairstepping phrases. The ostinato of a second movement is a darkly bristling twelve-tone baroque invention that gives Esfahani a chance to take some jubilant leaps out of its otherwise rigid, brisk counterpoint. The third movement, a chorale, comes across as both homage to and devious parody of Bach. The conclusion blends quasi-Chopin with more conventional twelve-tone exchanges and a fleetingly deliciously chugging low lefthand attack

Kajia Saariaho‘s Jardin Secret II, written in the same year as Takemitsu’s work, is a rapidfire, minimalist electroacoustic piece with electronics by the composer herself: the contrast between organic and robotic is striking. A swordfight ensues: it’s not clear who wins.

Gavin Bryars‘ 1995 partita, After Handel’s “Vespers” is a rhythmically shifting exploration of baroque gestures, alternating methodically between harmonic worlds old and new, minimalism and medieval loquaciousness.

Esfahani has his hands full with the pointilllistic needles and epic, organ-like crush of Anahita Abbasi‘s 2018 Intertwined Distances, but his attack is unrelenting, the cumulo-nimbus ambience amplified by light electronic enhancements. A distant carillon effect is a clever touch.

He closes the record with Luc Ferrari’s 1972 Programme Commun – Musique Socialiste?, which could be a sardonic commentary on Pompidou-era French politics, or a prescient attempt to replicate the staccato sound of a Fender Rhodes elecric piano via one of its most venerable predecessors. This is the album’s most overtly amusing and pulsingly accessible piece, Esfahani reveling in how it seemingly inevitably falls apart, held together only by a pulsing electornic drone.

It’s a good bet that even the most diehard devotees of new music have never heard timbres or textures anything like this, especially not over the length of a whole record. Let’s hope Esfahani lives up to his vindictive promise in the album booklet, many times over.

A Bracing, Vividly Uneasy New Album of Eric Nathan Orchestral Works

“I compose for my music to be performed live and to be experienced from beginning to end,” Eric Nathan explains in the liner notes for the Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s new album of his compositions, The Space of a Door, streaming at Spotify. He’s hardly alone in that viewpoint – and these days, it’s against the law in New York to perform most of what’s on the record. If we want our culture to survive, we have to end the lockdown ourselves. Nobody’s going to do it for us.

Back to the music: the album is bookended by both a full symphonic arrangement and a chamber orchestra version of the bracing, persistently uneasy Paestum, inspired by the ruins of a Greco-Roman temple. The large-ensemble version begins with a bang – literally – which sets off an agitated, swirling flock of birds, or so it would seem. Conductor Gil Rose brings out a lustrous calm which is all the more suspenseful in contrast to the composer’s unwillingness to let it settle in: those ruins obviously left an impact. In both versions, the disquieting bustle returns with a fanfare and ends with unresolved Messiaenic clarinet.

With its lushly acidic close harmonies, slow doppler-like phrases, tense flutters and bubbles, Omaggio a Gesualdo has less in common with pre-Renaissance Italy than Henryk Gorecki (with some spiky Bartok thrown in for spice).

The album’s title track begins with a robust nod to Brahms but quickly shifts to an uneasy lustre and decays to a suspenseful stillness before Rose pulls one of many sudden upward spirals – a persistent trope here – out of the calm again. In many ways, the shifts between atmospherics and bordering-on-frantic activity mirror the album’s opening and closing segments.

Timbered Bells is a triumphantly brassy, regal shout-out to the distinctive echoes off the hills surrounding the Tanglewood complex, The triptych Missing Words has similarly playful origins, in this case the illusion of motion that passengers on a stopped train experience while watching one that’s actually moving – and also the joys of romping through piles of autumn leaves. Glissandos and razorwire microtones build vividly dissociative ambience. Big brass gestures answered by ghostly flickering strings pervade the middle miniature and the coyly furtive conclusion.

Flutter and bluster – Nathan really likes those clustering high winds and reeds – stand out in front of increasingly somber ambience and dramatic, windswept counterpoint in Icarus Dreamt, a Matisse reference  Nathan’s repertoire has been well represented by major new-music ensembles in concert here in his hometown in recent years; it’s good to have this record to spread the word about this distinctively compelling composer’s work