New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: ambient music

Oliver Beer Repurposes Ancient Artifacts For His Brand New Sound Installation at the Met Breuer

Oliver Beer placed microphones inside a large assortment of bowls and vessels in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collections to find out what musical pitches they resonated to.

Then he assembled an organ out of them.

If those artifacts were to be auctioned off, it would be the world’s most expensive electric organ. Beer calls it the Vessel Orchestra, and the installation is on display at the Met Breuer starting today, July 2 through August 11. The way it works is that the mic inside each artifact is patched into an individual channel on a simple analog mixing board, and activated by a specific key on an electronic keyboard. Each object was chosen for its ability to resonate a single, perfect pitch in the western scale. Every day, the “orchestra” will play a simple, peaceful, preprogrammed melody by Beer. But the result will be different each time.

For one, there’s going to be bleed and quite possibly feedback from the mics, which will vary according to the level of crowd noise in the somewhat boomy, sonically uninsulated fifth-floor space. And as singer Helga Davis demonstrated yesterday (and encouraged the crowd to join her), singers who project loudly enough will hear their own voices joining the misty hum…or the looming swells of sound.

In addition, many musicians have been invited to play their own works on Beer’s creation, and experiment with it on Friday evenings. Only a portion of the schedule has been announced; it should fill up soon, and impromptu performances – beyond patrons of the museum raising their voices to be heard – seem likely. Some extraordinary and adventurous talent is already on the bill. Indian singer Roopa Mahadevan with her Women’s Raga Massive bandmates Trina Basu on violin, Amali Premawardhana on cello and Roshni Samlal on tabla will be there on July 26 at 6:30. On August 9 at 6:15, John Zorn will be joined by singer Sara Serpa – whose softly enveloping, crystalline voice is ideal for this configuration – along with percussionists Sae Hashimoto, Kenny Wollesen and Ikue Mori.

The objets d’art are a mixed bag, to say the least. At one end, there’s a 19th century German cast metal vessel in the shape of a bull, who at first glance seems to be decapitated. A closer look reveals that his head is the lid. At the other, there’s a goofy, pink, hollow phallic object: Italian artist Ettore Sottsass’ 1973 Shiva Vase, modeled after classical Indian iconography. In between them are containers in metal, wood, clay and ceramic from across the centuries and around the world. In a stroke of considerable irony, some of the most ancient and also most resonant objects are from Iran, whose musical tradition doesn’t utilize the western scale.

Beer’s creation is cross-cultural and cross-generational in the purest sense of the word – and by repurposing these objects, casts them in a completely new light. In addition, one of the museum staff quipped that his installation has brought a new sense of harmony to the Met’s famously territorial curators, many of whose collections Beer sampled and eventually plundered while piecing together this unlikely, magical instrument.

Rumbling in Brooklyn with Josh Sinton

Friday night at Issue Project Room, Josh Sinton sat with his back to the audience in the middle of the stage, breathing into his contrabass clarinet. It’s a secondary instrument for him: his usual axe is the baritone sax, which he plays with some of New York’s most interesting big bands, notably Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society and Amir ElSaffar‘s Rivers of Sound.

The sound of the horn rumbled through a pedalboard and then a bass amp. In his black suit and matching fedora, he made a somber presence. It was clear from his silhouette, larger than life on the northern wall above the marble arch to the side of the stage, that he was breathing pretty hard. It takes a lot of air to fill those tubes. Sinton did that via circular breathing, in an almost nonstop, practically forty-minute improvisation. Is there an Olympic swimmer who can match that for endurance?

Likewise, the music conjured vast, oceanic vistas – when it wasn’t evoking an old diesel tractor. Several other machines came to mind: an encroaching lawnmower; a bandsaw; the hypnotically comforting thrum from the engine room of an ocean liner, through a heavy bulkhead. Overtones echoed, and pulsed, and sometimes hissed or howled, Sinton pulling back on the volume when that happened until the final ten minutes or so.

There was a point about halfway through when it felt utterly shameful to sit back, eyes closed, and get lost in the rumbling ambience, considering how hard Sinton was working to create such a calming effect. Finally, he opted not to pull away from the rising wall of feedback, letting it shriek as the throb of the amp became more like a jackhammer. Suddenly, what had been incredibly soothing was absolutely assaultive: a couple of people exited the front row. Finally, slowly and methodically, Sinton brought the atmosphere full circle to a barely audible wisp. And then silence.

Sinton calls this project Krasa – it’s a deliberate attempt to push himself out of his comfort zone to spur new creative tangents. Another completely different gig which Sinton has excelled at lately has been as the leader of Phantasos, a Morphine cover band. He had a residency with that trio last month at Barbes, putting a somewhat more slinky edge on Mark Sandman’s noir bounces and dirges. He had Dana Colley’s alternately gruff and plaintive sound down cold, and a rotating cast of bassists and drummers – notably Sam Ospovat- rose to the challenge of doing justice to such an iconic band. Much as Issue Project Room was close to sold out for Krasa, Phantasos could be a money gig to be proud of if Sinton could find the time. 

Soundscapes to Get Lost in and a Crown Heights Show by the Mesmerizing Arooj Aftab

Pakistani singer Arooj Aftab’s latest solo album Siren Islands – streaming at Bandcamp – is one of the most mesmerizingly enveloping releases of recent months. New Yorkers who really want to get lost this weekend can catch her with a guy who also knows a thing or two about swirling ambience, guitarist Gyan Riley, at Happy Lucky No. 1  Gallery in Crown Heights tomorrow night, March 16 at around 8. It’s likely to be an evening of improvisation, something the two excel at: cover is $20.

Aftab sings and plays all the guitars and synthesizers on the album, each recorded live with liberal use of loop pedals, and mixed to a single mono input. There are four tracks: the first three are “islands,” the fourth is a fifteen-minute meditation on Ovid’s Metamorphoses. It’s best appreciated as a single, immersive work.

You need details? As the first Island eases into view, there’s an icy, echoey, lo-fi swirl balanced by Aftab’s soulful, resonant voice. Which soon only comes through in waves, yet it’s vastly more comfortable than numb. The sweep grows more epic with Island No. 2, jangles and bubbles  spicing the slowly shifting sonic panorama.

Island No. 3 is almost eighteen minutes of a spare, gently galloping loop over tectonic washes of sound, Aftab’s vocalese lower and more poignantly insistent. Ovid’s Metamorphoses is the closest thing to Brian Eno here, a considerably sunnier, more tightly spiraling soundscape. For anybody who thinks Aftab’s talents are limited to vocals, guess again.

Trumpeter Steph Richards Brings Her Devious Sense of Humor to Lefferts Gardens Saturday Night

The cover illustration for trumpeter Steph Richards’ solo album Fullmoon (streaming at Bandcamp) shows an open palm holding what could be a postcard of the moon – a pretty warped moon, anyway. But when you click on the individual tracks to play them (on devices that play mp3s, anyway), it turns out that’s a phone the hand is holding, and you’re taking a selfie. Truth in advertising: Richards’ music is deviously fun. She’s bringing her horn and her pedal to a show at the Owl on March 2 at 9 PM; ten bucks in the tip bucket helps ensure she’ll make more appearances at that welcoming, well-appointed listening room.

The album’s opening track, New Moon is based around a catchy, repetitive two-note riff, spiced with gamelanesque electronic flickers via Dino J.A. Deane’s sampler, with unexpected squall at the end. The second number, Snare develops from a thicket of echo effects, insectile sounds and breathy bursts, to a wry evocation of a snare drum. Then, with Piano, Richards moves from desolate, echoey, minimalist phrases to wryly cheery upward swipes: the title doesn’t seem to have anything to do with either the instrument or the dynamic.

The coy humor of the atmospheric miniature Half Moon introduces the album’s first diptych, Gong, which develops into a querulous little march, then a weird kaleidoscope of polyrhythms. Timpani doesn’t sound anything like kettledrums; instead, it’s a funny bovine conversation that all of a sudden grows sinister – although the ending is ridiculously amusing. The album ends with the title track, Richards developing a complicated conversation out of late-night desolation in the first part, then a barnyard of the mind (or the valves). Her levity is contagious – and she’s capable of playing with a lot more savagery than she does here, something that wouldn’t be out of the question to expect Saturday night in Lefferts Gardens.

Mesmerizing Contrabass Clarinet Atmospherics From John McCowen

One of the most subtly magical atmospheric albums released in recent months is John McCowen’s Solo Contra album, streaming at Bandcamp. It’s a trio of solo compositions for contrabass clarinet. McCowen is a protege of Roscoe Mitchell and has a background in punk jazz; this album brings to mind the former if not the latter. Lesley Flanigan’s experiments with speakers and audio feedback are another strong point of comparison. McCowen’s formula seems simple but is actually very technically daunting: to employ this relatively rare, low-pitched instrument to produce surrealistically oscillating, keening high textures via tireless circular breathing.

Gritty, simmering ambience rises out of a mist as the first track, Fur Korv gets underway. Valves pop delicately in the room’s tantalizing natural reverb; high harmonics build slowly and disappear in a second.

It’s amazing how many of those harmonics McCowen is able to simultaneously tease out of the horn in the second number, Chopper HD, a study in burred high frequencies. Much as the sonics often evoke a circular saw, or a loose fanwheel that could use some grease, it doesn’t appear that McCowen uses any electronic effects to make his job easier.

McCowen’s magnum opus here is the practically seventeen-minute suite Berths 1-3. Digeridoo-like spirals contrast with barely audible, breathy white noise; as the pitches grow higher and more acidically scratchy, it’s a clinic in rattle and hum, a treble counterpart to the diesel-beyond-the-bulkhead ambience of Gebhard Ullmann’s BassX3 project. This isn’t music that will hit you over the head, but you can get completely lost in it.

Leila Bordreuil Cooks Up Murk and Mysticism at the Kitchen

That Leila Bordreuil could sell out the Kitchen on Thanksgiving eve testifies to the impact the French-born cellist has had on the New York experimental music scene. After a long residency at Issue Project Room, she keeps raising the bar for herself and everybody else. This past evening she led a six-bass septet through her latest and arguably greatest creation, the Piece for Cello and Double Bass Ensemble II. To call it a feast of low tonalities would be only half the story.

At the concert’s stygian, rumbling, enveloping peak, it was impossible to tell who was playing what because the lights had been turned out. In the flicker of phones, backlit by the soundboard’s glow and the deep blue shade from the skylight, six bassists – Zach Rowdens, Sean Ali, Britton Powell, Greg Chudzik, Nick Dunston and Vinicius Ciccone Cajado – churned out a relentless low E drone. As they bowed steadily, keening flickers of overtones began to waft over a rumble that grew grittier and grittier, eventually shaking the woofers of the amps. Yet only Bordreuil seemed to be using a pedalboard, first for crackling cello-metal distortion, then grey noise, then flitting accents akin to a swarm of wasps circling a potential prey. Still, the overall ambience was comforting to the extreme, a womblike berth deep in a truly unsinkable Titanic, diesels at full power behind a bulkhead.

The rest of the show was more dynamic,and counterintuitive. Bordreuil didn’t begin to play until the bassists had gradually worked their way up from a stark drone, Ali and Dunston introducing fleeting high harmonics for contrast. Beyond that, the six guys didn’t move around much individually. The second movement began with the composer leading a pitch-and-follow sequence of slow midrange glissandos, then she deviated to enigmatic microtonal phrases over the somber washes behind her. The final movements were surprisingly rapt and quiet – and much further up the scale, a whispery, ghostly series of variations on high harmonic pitches.

Methodically working a series of mixers and a small keyboard, opening act Dylan Scheer turned in an entertaining, texturally diverse, industrially icy set of kinetic stoner soundscapes. Flying without a net is hard work, and Scheer made it look easy, dexterously shifting from an echoey, metallic drainpipe vortex, to gamelanesque rings and pings, starrily oscillating comet trails and hints of distant fireworks followed by allusions to a thumping dancefloor anthem that never materialized. That the set went on as long as it did – seemingly twice as long as the headliners – could have been intentional. It was also too loud. The Kitchen is a sonically superior space: sounds that get lost in the mix elsewhere remain in the picture here. So there was no need to blast the audience with almost supersonic highs which gained painfully, to the point that the earplugs the ushers were handing out became necessary.

Bordreuil’s next show is at Jack in Fort Greene on Nov 29 at 8 PM with her trio with Ali and violist Joanna Mattrey.

Dustlights Build a Catchy, Ethereal Sonic Cocoon

Dustlights’ enveloping debut album In a Stillness – streaming at Bandcamp – has a vastness you’d never expect from just a trio of sax, bass and drums. Part trip-hop, part stoner soundscape and part postrock, like Tortoise at their most concise, it’s music to get lost in. Yet bandleader/saxophonist Joe MF Wilson’s riffs have a purpose and directness that matches the material’s deep-space proportions, beefed up with layers of echo, reverb and other effects. The trio are playing the album release show tomorrow night, Aug 6 at around 10 PM at Wonders of Nature. Gritty, guitar-fueled postrockers Star Rover play beforehand at 9; cover is $10.

The album’s opening cut, Stolen Treasures and the Sea sets the stage for the rest of the album, bassist Ran Livneh (of amazing Ethio-jazz jamband Anbessa Orchestra) and drummer David Christian maintaining a litheness under Wilson’s catchy, subtly wafting hooks. Livneh’s hypnotic looping melody underpins the plaintive rainy-day melody, lingering ambience and hints of Ethiopiques in the second cut, Lifeworld

Throught Awoke, ghe rhythm section build a subtly echoing trip-hop groove beneath Wilson’s washes overhead. Blades That Bend has tastily astringent hints of Afrobeat contrasting with its balmy, low-key, minimalist pulse, while Tea Wars, with its flickering drum hardware and contrasting bass multitracks, is hardly bellicose.

The aptly titled, spare yet spacious Empty Porch Chairs floats along slowly; it’s arguably the album’s most nocturnal piece. Then the group pick up the pace – at least as much as they do here – with Night Tide, an echoey, rather wistful theme grounded by the rhythm section’s tight persistence, rising to a very unexpected peak.

Heart Counts begins as a ballad in disguise, featuring Wilson’s warmest phrasing here, then becomes a battle in disguise – more or less. With its dub reggae echoes, the album’s most animated, catchiest track is Shaken. The group wind it up with the epic Inner Stillness, practically ten minutes of spare, misty tectonic shifts over mystical, spacious djembe and bass pulses. Put this on and drift off to a better place.

Obscure Treasures at the Opening Night of This Year’s Mise-En Festival

Before last night’s otherworldly, flickering “composer portrait” of the individualistic proto-serialist Klaus Huber to open this year’s Mise-En Festival, had there ever been an all-Huber program performed in New York? Actually, yes – by Ensemble Mise-En, a couple of years ago. Which comes as no surprise. For the past several years, the Brooklyn-based new-music group have been adventurous as adventurous gets, with a wide-ranging sensibility and fearless advocacy for undeservedly obscure composers from across the ages unsurpassed by any other chamber music organization in town.

While Huber’s work sometimes echoes the stubborn kineticism of Ligeti, the rapture of Messiaen, the poignancy of Mompou and the ethereality of Gerard Grisey, ultimately Huber is one of the real individualists of 20th century music. George Crumb was another contemporary who came to mind as pianist Dorothy Chan shifted from simple, lingering chords, to a sudden horrified flurry capped off by a giant crash, to wispy brushing on muted strings inside the piano in a methodically shapeshifting take of Huber’s trio piece, Ascensus. Alongside her, fluitist Kelley Barnett and cellist Chris Irvine worked slow, deliberate mutations on brief accents and bursts, The audience was spellbound.

Barnett and Irvine joined forces with oboeist Erin Lensing, trombonist Mark Broschinsky, violinist Maria Im and violist Carrie Frey for the night’s opening number, In nomine – ricercare il nome. It was akin to watching an illuminated Rubik’s Cube…or the deck of the Starship Enterprise in slo-mo as harmonies shifted back and forth between the strings and winds.

Im’s solo take of a very late work from 2010, Intarsimile für Violine came across as a less petulant take on a Luciano Berio sequenza, employing extended technique, wispy overtones and the occasional microtonal phrase for subtlety rather than full-on assault. Barnett serenaded the crowd from the Cell Theatre’s balcony with Huber’s 1974 solo piece Ein Hauch von Unzeit, whose trills and misty ambience became more of a lullaby,

Pianist Yumi Suehiro teamed with Barnett, Frey and percussionist Josh Perry for a methodically calm, somewhat benedictory coda, Beati pauperes, whose deep-space stillness brought to mind the awestruck, concluding expanses of Messiaen’s Quartet For the End of Time. Perry enhanced the mystery with spacious, distant booms on a big gong as the melody grew more warmly consonant, the group conducted with equal parts meticulousness and quiet triumph by founder Moon Young Ha.

This year’s Mise-En Festival continues through this Saturday, June 30 Tonight’s 8 PM Brooklyn program features solo works by Victor Marquez-Barrios, Patrick McGraw, Amelia Kaplan, Lydia Winsor Brindamour and an electroacoustic piece by Steven Whiteley, performed at the group’s Bushwick home base at 678 Hart St, #1B (at Marcy Ave). Admission is $15/$10 stud/srs; take the G to Myrtle-Willoughby and be aware that there’s no Brooklyn-bound service afterward.

An Uneasy, Mind-Altering, Atmospheric Layer Cake From Spirit Radio

Spirit Radio is the hypnotic, frequently otherworldly, often chilling duo project of Tamalyn Miller and Stephen Spera. Their new album A LIght Is Running Along the Ropes is streaming at Bandcamp. Miller contributes vocals and plays her signature, handmade single-string horsehair fiddle, which she also wields as the lead instrument in phantasmagorical New York art-rock band Goddess.

In its natural state, it induces all sorts of goosebumps, throwing off layers of sepulchral microtones. Here, it’s typically somewhat muted. Multi-instrumentalist Spera is a loopmusic pioneer whose career in minimalist atmospherics goes back to the 80s. Themes of transformation, death and rebirth permeate this relentlessly restless suite of trance pieces.

In the opening first segment of the album’s title triptych, a low, slowly shifting distorted guitar drone anchors tinkly piano, echoing loops and eventually Miller’s magnetic, uneasy wordless vocals. The track decays into a dusty wash at the end. It’s reprised midway through the album, balancing distantly quavery fiddle, poltergeist vocal angst and simple, unadorned guitar, eventually brightening somewhat. Both Miller’s voice and the guitar drone rise in the epic, almost fourteen-minute conclusion, Miller’s macabre fiddle shivers edging to the center and then falling away as starry keys and a tabla move in.

“This is a changing course, have you fallen off?” Miller’s disembodied, increasingly staggered vocal overdubs ask as the backdrop becomes more chaotic in the album’s second track, Earthbound. Then the menace really kicks in with Something About Fire, Miller’s recollection of childhood obsession with an unnamed song about a little girl who burns down her house.

Time and Dust, awash in both envelopingly resonant and flitting textures, brings to mind Laurie Anderson. “There is no time, but there is dust,” Miller intones, allusively sultry and sinister. From there, a circling, minimalist miniature leads into Sea Monk, an uneasy tableau blending echoey footfalls and a ghostly choir on loop. Always, with its gentle bells and “Forever is a long time” mantra, brings to mind Bora Yoon at her most comforting. After that, The Poisoned Knight juxtaposes cold coppery echoes against peaceful deep-forest samples. I Took a Long Walk, with its calm spoken-word multitracks, is both the trippiest and most relaxed track here. Fire this up, lean back and enter these not-quite-parallel universes if you dare.

Sprit Radio don’t have any shows coning up, but Goddess are making a rare Queens appearance at the Queens Museum in Corona Park on June 9 at around 3 PM, preceded by readings by Miller, Jen Bevin, Nick Flynn and Rachel Zucker in conjunction with Mel Chin’s installation The Funk & Wag from A to Z. Admission is free.

A Spare, Edgy, Incisive Jazz Poetry Album From Brilliant Violinist Sarah Bernstein

Sarah Bernstein has to be the most fearlessly protean violinist in any style of music. Just when you think you have her sussed, she completely flips the script. Beyond her brilliance as an improviser, she’s a master of eerie microtonal music. As a result, she’s constantly in demand, most recently this past weekend at Barbes as part of thereminist Pamelia Stickney’s hypnotically haunting quartet.

But Bernstein’s best music is her own. Her previous release, Propolis was a live benefit album for Planned Parenthood with an alternately stormy and squirrelly improvisational quartet including Alexis Marcelo on keys, Stuart Popejoy on bass and Nick Podgursky on drums. Her latest release, Crazy Lights Shining – streaming at Bandcamp – is with her Unearthish duo featuring percussionist Satoshi Takeishi, a return to the acerbic jazz poetry she was exploring a few years ago. Patti Smith’s adventures in ambient music are a good comparison; Jane LeCroy’s Ohmslice project with Bradford Reed on electronics is another. Bernstein’s playing the album release show on a great triplebill on May 30 at around 10 PM at Wonders of Nature; cover is $10. Similarly edgy, eclectic loopmusic violinist Laura Ortman opens solo at 8, followed by fearlessly relevant no wave-ish songwriter Emilie Lesbros.

“Come in to feel free, no fear,” Bernstein’s echoey, disemodied voice beckons as the album’s initial soundscape, For Plants gets underway. Takeishi’s playfully twinkling bells mingle with Bernstein’s shimmery ambience and resonant, emphatic vocalese.

Bernstein has never sung as storngly as she does here, particularly in the delicately dancing, sardonic Safe:

No one can find you
No one can eat you
You’re not alive
You are safe

Is that a balafon that Takeishi’s using for that rippling, plinking tone, or is that  Bernstein’s violin through a patch?

She subtly caches her microtones in the deceptively catchy, balletesque leaps and bound of Map or Meaningless Map:

…A calm enthusiasm should suffice
The fuzziness of an empty sleep
The rush to extrovert, sure thing!
Expressing can feel like living…

Bernstein’s uneasily echoey pizzicato blends with Takeishi’s rattles in the album’s title track, which could be the metaphorically-charged account of a suicide…or just an escape narrative. In the instrumental version of The Place, the two musicians build from a spare, slowly shifting mood piece to a slowly marching crescendo. A bit later in the vocal version, Bernstein sings rather than speaks: “There are war crimes and recipes and kisses remaining,” she muses.

The acerbically brief Drastic Times starts out as a snippy cut-and-paste piece:

Drastic times require tragic measures?
We live under a system (drastic)
…Like anyplace where thought control is under physical control
..Maybe that will change when the rest has exploded
Drastic time
Maybe that is something to look forward to!

Little Drops follows an allusively twisted narrative into chaos, in the same vein as Meaghan Burke’s most assaultive work. The album’s final cut is the kinetic Four Equals Two, its catchiest and seemingly most composed number, complete with a nifty little drum solo. Count this among the most intriguingly relevant albums of 2018.