New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: bernard herrmann

Slashing, Richly Acerbic New String Music and Reinvented Film Noir Sounds in the West Village

This past evening at Greenwich House Music School, the Sirius Quartet wound up their two-day annual festival of category-defying music with an incendiary, dynamic set, followed eventually but the historic live debut of a trio legendary for a classic of film noir music from two decades ago.

The quartet’s latest album, New World is a searing portrait of the here and now, focusing on discrimination and terror experienced by immigrants and minorities as well as the fascist assaults and bigotry of the Trump administration. While artistic communities as a whole have mobilized against the Trumpies, there are few ensembles in any style of music, let alone new serious concert music, who’ve been writing as consistently and acerbically as this group.

Violinist Fung Chern Hwei’s slashing downward cadenza early on in the night’s opening number, Beside the Point, reaffirmed that commitment, terrorized but still defiant. This piece came across as even more epic live than on album, cellist Jeremy Harman alternating between stark washes and a catchy, trip-hop flavored pizzicato bassline, Fung delivering a couple of mighty crescendos with tantalizingly brief, shivery solos. The tersely conversational interplay between violinist Gregor Huebner and violist Ron Lawrence provided sobering contrast.

They vividly brought to mind the great Kurdish composer Kayhan Kalhor with To a New Day, rising from relentlessly tense, sustained close harmonies to a fluttering, soaring theme punctuated by spare, similarly suspenseful pizzicato passages and a grimly sardonic Vivaldi quote from Lawrence. A little later, they reinvented Radiohead’s Knives Out as a spare, swinging. quasi-baroque string-rock anthem, diverging toward chaos for an instant before reconfiguring with a wary intensity.

The centerpiece was the new album’s savagely colorful title track, a portrait of the aftermath of the 2016 Presidential election. Quoting from Dvorak’s New World Symphony as well as Shostakovich’s shattering, horrified String Quartet No. 8, the group shifted grimly from anxious, massed, chattering voices, to mournful sustained passages spiced with sarcastic faux-pageantry and a buffoonish accent or two. Huebner took centerstage, finally rising to a frenetic, terrorized crescendo over the rest of the group’s plaintive, doomed ambience in Still, based on the Billie Holliday hit Strange Fruit and its grisly, surreal portrait of a lynching.

Theremin Noir – the trio of thereminist/keyboardist Rob Schwimmer, pianist Uri Caine and violinist Mark Feldman – put out a single 1999 album that’s become revered as a classic of film noir composition. The three seemed especially psyched to finally stage this material, a mix of reinvented Bernard Herrmann Hitchcock themes and originals. Schwimmer drew chuckles from the crowd, acknowledging the challenges of trying to lead a band, let alone turn pages, with both hands on the theremin:.. Throughout the trio’s hour onstage, a lot of head signals were involved.

They opened with Herrmann’s bookstore scene from Torn Curtain and its haunting, plaintive variations on a melancholy, neoromantic piano theme, Schwimmer switching between theremin and a touch-sensitive synth full of patches evoking everything from a choir to a wind tunnel to a bell tower, as well as a theremin. That enabled him to sit at the keys for long periods without having to leap up and switch back.

An enveloping, echoingly industrial tone poem brought to mind the lingering, metalloid menace of Philip Blackburn’s electronic tableaux. Schwimmer explained that his melancholy Waltz for Clara was a homage to the late, great theremin pioneer Clara Rockmore. His more film noir-inspired originals were spot-on, full of furtive, stairstepping motives, a wry interlude of door creaks amid angst-fueled, subtly shifting neoromantic piano-and-violin themes.

Feldman opened his original, Real Joe with a moody solo before Caine’s piano and Schwimmer’s increasingly surreal synth flourishes joines the mix. Two pieces from Herrmann’s Vertigo score – Carlotta’s Portrait and Scene d’Amour – were the highlights of the night. The former was rich with aching, increasingly enigmatic piano from Caine and morose violin from Feldman as Schwimmer put the quavering icing on the cake. The latter made an apt closer for the evening, with an unexpectedly playful, tongue-in-cheek, loungey jazz interlude midway through, before a return to ineluctable grimness. If the trio had the presence of mind to record their set, and the quality is even remotely usable, they’ve got a brilliant live album to follow up the original studio release.

Dynamic, Kaleidoscopic Massed Improvisational Sprawl from Ingrid Laubrock

As a saxophonist, Ingrid Laubrock has formidable chops, borderless ambitions and an often devious sense of humor. While she’s been increasingly sought after for prestige big band gigs in the last couple of years, her own compositions up til now have been mostly for small groups, heavy on the improvisation. This blog characterized her 2016 album Ubatuba as “free jazz noir.” Her latest release, Contemporary Chaos Practices – streaming at Bandcamp – is her most ambitious project to date: two lushly invigorating, Braxton-esque pieces for orchestra and soloists. Those looking for bouncy hooks and swing won’t find it here, but as far as grey-sky massed improvisation, vivid unease and wry humor are concerned, this album is hard to beat.

One big innovation here is that Laubrock employs two conductors. Eric Wubbels conducts the score, while the conduction of Taylor Ho Bynum guides the improvisational aspects of the performance. A big whoosh from the 42-piece orchestra kicks off guitarist Mary Halvorson’s insistent pointillisms as the first segment of the epic four-part title piece gets underway, quickly echoed by the full ensemble: the hammering effect is very Louis Andriessen. Echoey, after-the-battle desolation alternates with massive upward swells; hushed flickers interchange with assertive, massed staccato. From there, a big, portentous heroic theme gets devoured by a flitting swarm of instruments: the effect as funny as it is disconcerting.

The first two movements segue into each other; the third begins with Messiaenic birdsong-like figures, then Jacob Garchik’s trombone kicks off a deliciously off-center, frantic chase scene from the whole ensemble. Led by dissociative figures from the strings, the calm afterward foreshadows the eerie resonance of the coda, awash in enigmatic low brass while Kris Davis’ electric piano flickers and flutters like the celeste in a Bernard Herrmann horror film score.

The album’s second piece, Vogelfrei, begins lush and still, Davis’ muted, ghostly piano signaling a droll exchange between strings and low brass. The intricacy of the interplay, right down to the tongue-in-cheek whistling of the strings amid a slowly emerging, lustrous melody, may be more thoroughly composed than it seems. Comedic moments – Halvorson’s guitar detective hitting a brick wall and then collapsing, and a yes-we-can/no-you-can’t smackdown – liven an otherwise persistent disquiet. A sepulchral choir of voices enters as the instruments build to a crowded skatepark tableau, which disappears only to pop up again.

Davis’ brooding neoromantic figures echo over a distant whirl and bustle, followed by a couple of slow but vigorous upward crescendos. Moments of bittersweet melody fall away one after the other, fading down and out with a long shiver from the strings a la Julia Wolfe.

Laubrock’s New York home these days is the Jazz Gallery, although she also likes to explore the fringes, both literally and figuratively. Her next gig is on Jan 31 at Holo in Ridgewood with a like-minded cast of improvisers: guitarist Ava Mendoza, microtonal violinist Sarah Bernstein, bassists Adam Lane and Brandon Lopez, and drummer Vijay Anderson. It’s not clear who’s playing when or with whom, but the lineup is worth coming out for whatever the case might be. Showtime is 7 PM; cover is $15.

Harrowing Relevance and Conversational Charm from the Chelsea Symphony

Is there any orchestra in New York, the Philharmonic included, who have commissioned as many important, relevant new works as the Chelsea Symphony? Saturday night on their home turf on the west side, they debuted yet another impactful piece alongside a sinuously choreographed crowd-pleaser and a mighty favorite from the standard repertoire.

That the world premiere of Aaron Dai’s Four Miniatures for a Dark Age would threaten to upstage Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 speaks as much to the power of Dai’s suite as to the orchestra’s commitment to it. Shostakovich’s fingerprints were all over the music: macabre tritones and sudden bursts of eerie chromatics leapt out from every corner of the orchestra. There were also more than hints of sarcastic faux pageantry – a twisted variation on Hail to the Chief, front and center – and frequent descents to Bernard Herrmann-esque Hitchcock film territory. Cadenzas were fleeting, seldom more than a bar long, requiring instantaneous focus which the ensemble delivered over and over. As is, the suite deserves widespread programming; if Dai could expand each of the themes and make a symphony out of them, that would really be something to look forward to.

Soloist Sarah Koop McCoy got more than one standing ovation for her performance of Carl Nielsen’s Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra. With rich, woody lows, keening highs and slinky midrange, she maintained a constant intensity as conductor Matthew Aubin brought all hands on deck and kept them there. Nielsen’s music is so much fun to conduct, and play, because he keeps his ideas constantly shifting from one part of the orchestra to another. Aubin’s long association with this group shone throughout a warm, conversational rapport, notwithstanding the music’s persistent unease: Nielsen’s late-career, tentative flirtation with the Second Viennese School. Yet not everything here defied resolution – there was a nod in a samba direction, a dixieland detour, and finally one of the funniest fugues in the repertoire, played solo by McCoy with deadpan flair.

Aubin ceded the podium to Nell Flanders for Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2. The orchestra began almost tentatively, then got loud fast and careened forward from there. But if there’s any well-known symphony that an ensemble can do that with, it’s this one. On one hand, the composer’s vast interweave of one catchy riff after another never reached the point where it felt particularly contiguous, and the orchestra seemed rather rudderless. On the other, this was an opportunity to get to know parts of the score that easily get subsumed in epic grandeur. So maybe that’s six of one, half a dozen of another.

And those solos, bursting from every dusky nook at St. Paul’s Church on West 22nd Street, were consistently bright and briskly executed, from basses to brass. Over the decades, parts of the symphony have been used in scores of movies and NPR themes, emerging triumphantly here to remind everyone what their provenance was.

The Chelsea Symphony’s current season is dedicated to socially relevant works: it seems they’re finally making it official now after years of advocacy for important causes. Their next concerts are March 8 and 9 at 8 PM with a fascinating program beginning with the world premiere of bassist Tim Kiah‘s Fascist Baby; a second world premiere by Benjamin Louis Brody; the Haydn Trumpet Concerto in E-flat Major; a rare suite by 20th century composer Fernande Breilh-Decruck (a neglected figure this orchestra have rescued from obscurity), and Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin. The Saturday night show switches Haydn concertos, substituting one for cello. Both shows are at St. Paul’s Church, 315 W 22nd St.; suggested donation is $20.

The Michael Leonhart Orchestra Bring Their Epic, Ominously Cinematic Soundscapes to the Jazz Standard

The Michael Leonhart Orchestra’s debut album The Painted Lady Suite – streaming at Sunnyside Records – doesn’t concern a medieval femme fatale. The central seven-part suite portays the epic, over-the-North-Pole migration of painted lady butterflies from Mexico to North Africa. Even by the standards of Bernard Herrmann, whose work this album strongly resembles, its mammoth sweep and dark majesty is unrivalled in recent years. The band are bringing it to life with a two-night stand this July 17 and 18 at the Jazz Standard, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. Cover is $30.

Along with his singer sister Carolyn, the trumpeter/multi-instrumentalist bandleader is the rare child of musical talent (dad is bassist Jay Leonhart) who’s also produced noteworthy material. Beyond the jazz idiom, the vastness of the music echoes an army of influences as diverse as Pink Floyd, Brad Fiedel’s film scores, Steve Reich and Antibalas (some of whose members play on this album).

The big title suite begins lush and lustrous in the Mexican desert, tectonic sheets of brass alternating with a hefty Afrobeat groove anchored by the low reeds, punctuated by Donny McCaslin’s slashingly modal phrasing. From there the swarm moves north over El Paso in a wave of symphonic Morricone southwestern gothic, Nick Movshon’s shamanistic drums and Nels Cline’s menacing psychedelic guitar interspersed amid the big swells.

North Dakota big sky country is the next destination, Sam Sadigursky’s alto sax fluttering uneasily over ambient, ambered brass ambience in a brooding, Roger Waters-esque soundscape. A couple of ferocious “let’s go!” phrases from the whole orchestra signal a move further north to the wilds of Saskatchewan: Philip Glass as played by the Alan Parsons Project, maybe.

As the migration passes through the chill air high above the Arctic Circle, Movshon’s tersely dancing, staccato bass punctuates serene orchestration, then the circling bass melody shifts to the high reeds, Erik Friedlander’s cello and Pauline Kim’s viola peering through the ether.

The suite concludes with nocturnal and then daytime Saharan skyscapes. With its ominous, repetitive siren motives and the bandleader’s echoey, allusively Middle Eastern muted trumpet, the first is awash in dread and mystery. The second builds from a cheerily strutting Afrobeat tune to a blazingly brassy, triumphantly pulsing coda – but the conclusion is too apt to give away.

There are three more tracks on the album. In the Kingdom of M.Q. features dancing, loopy phrases and a little dissociative swirl beneath a bubbly McCaslin solo. The sardonically titled Music Your Grandparents Would Like has a slow, steady sway, tense close harmonies,a crime jazz interlude and a bizarrely skronky Cline guitar solo. The final cut is The Girl From Udaipur, its enveloping wave motion punctuated by allusions to bhangra.

The orchestra lineup is just as epic as the music. The rest of the trumpet section includes Dave Guy, Taylor Haskins, Andy Bush, Carter Yasutake and Andy Gathercole. Ray Mason and Mark Patterson play trombones, with John Altieri on tuba. Matt Bauder, Ian Hendrickson-Smith, Aaron Heick and Cochemea Gastelum round out the sax section, with Charles Pillow on bass clarinet and alto flute. Sara Schoenbeck plays bassoon; Mauro Durante plays violin; Erik Friedlander plays cello. A revolving drum chair also features Homer Steinweiss and Daniel Freedman. In addition to the bandleader, Joe Martin also plays bass, with Mauro Refosco and Leon Michels on percussion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Shattering Performance of Iconic Classical and Film Music Uptown

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Explosive New Album by Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society Explores the Menace and Monkeyshines of Conspiracy Theories

The term “conspiracy theory” was invented by the right wing as a facile way to dismiss investigative reporting, lumping it in with farcical myths about aliens and Zionists. As actor James Urbaniak narrates at the end of Real Enemies – the groundbreaking new album by innovative large jazz ensemble Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, streaming at Bandcamp – the right wing has actually been responsible for spreading many of those theories as disinformation in order to hide their own misdeeds. Argue and his eighteen-piece big band explore both the surreal and the sinister side of these theories – “You have to choose which ones to believe,” the Brooklyn composer/conductor told the audience at a Bell House concert last year. This album is a long-awaited follow-up to Argue’s shattering 2013 release Brooklyn Babylon, a chronicle of the perils of gentrification. The group are playing the release show on Oct 2 at 7 PM at National Sawdust; advance tix are $30 and are going fast. From there the band travel to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where they’ll be playing on Oct 7 at 7:30 PM; general admission is $25.

Although Brooklyn Babylon has the occasional moment of grim humor on its way to a despairing oceanside coda, this album is more overtly dark, but also funnier. Conversations between various groups of instruments abound. Most are crushingly cynical, bordering on ridiculous, in a Shostakovian vein. And once in awhile, Argue lifts the curtain on a murderously conspiratorial moment. A prime example is Dark Alliance, an expansively brassy mashup of early 80s P-Funk, salsa romantica and late-period Sun Ra. And the droll/menacing dichotomy that builds throughout Silent Weapon for Quiet Wars is just plain hilarious.

The album opens on a considerably more serious note with You Are Here, a flittingly apt Roger Waters-style scan of tv headline news followed by tongue-in-cheek, chattering muted trumpet. A single low, menacing piano note anchors a silly conversation as it builds momentum, then the music shifts toward tensely stalking atmospherics and back. The second track, The Enemy Within opens with a wry Taxi Driver theme quote, then slinks along with a Mulholland Drive noir pulse, through an uneasy alto sax solo and then a trick ending straight out of Bernard Herrmann.

With Sebastian Noelle’s lingering, desolately atonal guitar and Argue’s mighty, stormy chart, Trust No One brings to mind the aggressively shadowy post-9/11 tableaux of the late, great Bob Belden’s Animation. Best Friends Forever follows a deliciously shapeshifting trail, from balmy and lyrical over maddeningly syncopated broken chords that recall Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, to an explosively altered gallop with the orchestra going full tilt. Likewise, The Hidden Hand builds out of a blithe piano interlude to cumulo-nimbus bluster.

The Munsters do the macarena in Casus Belli, a scathing sendup of the Bush/Cheney regime’s warmongering in the days following 9/11. Crisis Control opens with a mealy-mouthed George W. Bush explaining away the decision to attack Afghanistan, and contains a very subtle, ominous guitar figure that looks back to Brooklyn Babylon: clearly, the forces behind the devastation of great cities operate in spheres beyond merely razing old working-class neighborhoods.

Caustically cynical instrumental chatter returns over a brooding canon for high woodwinds in Apocalypse Is a Process, seemingly another withering portrait of the disingenuous Bush cabinet. Never a Straight Answer segues from there with burbling, ominously echoing electric piano and Matt Clohesy’s wah bass, talking heads in outer space. The apocalyptic cacaphony of individual instruments at the end fades down into Who Do You Trust, a slow, enigmatically shifting reprise of the opening theme.

Throughout the album, there are spoken-word samples running the gamut from JFK – describing Soviet Communism, although he could just as easily be talking about the Silicon Valley surveillance-industrial complex – to Dick Cheney. As Urbaniak explains at the album’s end, the abundance of kooky speculation makes the job of figuring out who the real enemies are all the more arduous. As a soundtrack to the dystopic film that we’re all starring in, whether we like it or not, it’s hard to imagine anything more appropriate than this. And it’s a contender for best album of 2016.

Pianist Judit Gabos Plays a Brilliantly Enlightening, Eclectic Portrait of Bela Bartok

Romanian-born Judit Gabos was Gyorgy Ligeti’s go-to pianist, so it’s no surprise that she would negoatiate a series of pieces from the composer’s rhythmically challenging Musicaricercata as precisely and effortlessly nimbly as she did in a “composer portrait” of Bela Bartok at the Hungarian Consulate last night. And as much as her performance of works by Bartok and Liszt were nothing less than a revelation, the icing on the cake was how she took the audience on a journey that connected the dots between the late Romantic period and postminimalism. Piano music doesn’t often get performed with as much insight and emotionally attuned prowess as Gabos gave to this program

She opened with Liszt’s Sursumcorda, explaining that Bartok often played it in concert early in his career. It’s awash in resonant lustre that eventually gives way to…well, it’s Liszt, you know what’s coming, it’s just a matter of time before the pyrotechnics appear. So an aptly triumphant, blazing take of Bartok’s Allegro Barbaro made for a good segue. Then Bartok the individualist appeared. Gabos reveled in the creepily cartoonish hide-and-seek of the dyptich Out of Doors, raising the question of whether or how much Raymond Scott or Bernard Herrmann might have stolen from its poltergeist cinematics.

Gabos then spanned the emotional spectrum, illustrating both Bartok’s meticulousness as a musicologist as well as his irrepressible penchant for using folk themes as a launching pad for his signature, thorny blend of chromatics and rustically bracing close harmonies. She began with his suite of Three Folk Songs from Csik County, then his expansive Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs, Op. 20 and closed with a rousing take of his Romanian Folk Dance. On one hand, the Ligeti pieces afterward couldn’t help but be anticlimactic even as they offered a look at where one composer springboarded off of Bartok. But Gabos’ decision to close with a change of pace, a rather stately, consonantly anthemic segment brought the program full circle: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

This recital was staged by the Balassi Institute, who program all sorts of excellent Hungarian cultural events around the globe. The next one in New York is a concert by adventurous large jazz ensemble the Modern Art Orchestra downstairs at Symphony Space on November 11, with sets at 6:15 and 7:30 PM; advance tix are $16.

Bob Belden’s Brilliant Portrayal of New York in the Here and Now

Transparent Heart, the new suite by saxophonist Bob Belden’s Animation project, is one of the most important and gripping albums in any style of music released this year, especially as far as New York is concerned. “This record is not a jazz record. In essence, the music is a reflection of the lingering tension since 9/11. It’s an honest look at Manhattan through music,” says Belden. And it’s a crushingly honest one at that. Belden rightly identifies 9/11 as the single central factor in the decline of New York dating from 2001. And he speaks from experience: he was about five blocks away from the World Trade Center when the planes hit. He dedicates the album to those murdered in the attack and to their survivors.

Belden is equally outraged by the Bush regime’s reign of terror that followed: “The intense buildup of the New York Police Department to the point of having one of the largest standing armies in the world, placing citizens under surveillance on the streest and in the subways – stop-and-frisk developed from this quasi-military policing initiative,” he reminds us. Nor is he happy with the ongoing displacement of the small businesses that have given New York so much of its individuality over the centuries, replaced by the generic blandness of fast food restaurants and national chain stores. He may not have made it to New York until 1979, but Belden is a New Yorker to the core.

The album defies categorization. Lush and picturesque in the style of late 70s film music, with jazz flourishes from Belden’s saxes and Pete Clagett’s trumpet, richly orchestrated with Roberto Verastegui’s electronic keyboards over the relentless pulse of electric bassist Jacob Smith and drummer Matt Young, it’s a film for the ears. It opens with Terra Incognito (a reference to late 70s/early 80s Central Park above 96th Street). Its uneasy cinematics shift over a determined trip-hop rhythm with Rhodes piano, tersely sailing sax and trumpet lines. Urbanoia – an examination of the pervasive sense of danger that despite gentrification has never abated in the city’s poorer neighborhoods – opens with desolate washes and electronic bleeps and a thicket of samples from tv a la Roger Waters and The Wall. As it builds over a tensely bubbling background, alienation-fueled trumpet and then Belden’s own agitated crescendo combine vividly to recall Bernard Herrmann’s Taxi Driver soundtrack..

Clagett’s trumpet also carries the hauntingly brief tone poem Cry in the Wind, inspired by the time Belden came to the rescue of a late-night stabbing victim. They follow that with the sweeping, majestic title track, driven by distantly lurid, epic washes of string synthesizer, plaintive horn lines and Young’s relentless yet terse drum volleys. If there’s any star of this album, it’s Young, with his sledgehammer attack on the kick drum: even when the music reaches a lull, he never lets the intensity diminish, and fuels the many crescendos here with a mighty force that somehow manages to be more matter-of-fact than dramatic.

Seven Towers begins with a tense, rubato series of bass pulses, revisits the brooding opening theme as Young subtly foreshadows what’s looming beyond the horizon: we all know what’s going to happen. Yet the band approaches it with a frantic precision that perfectly captures the events of that morning in downtown New York: after all, the towers had been bombed before, and had caught fire, and they didn’t collapse either time. Belden’s microtonal, desolate flute and then Verastegui’s surreal, darkly starry electric piano capture the horror and numbed shock afterward, Young’s drums finally veering toward pandemonium.

The militaristic response afterward is portayed via a return of the main theme, plaintive against a practically satirical, funkily fusionesque beat. Vanishment – inspired by how so many mom-and-pop stores downtown were shuttered for good in the wake of 9/11 – works variations on the theme with a steady yet practically weeping electric piano solo over a remoreseless drum vamp. The final track, Occupy!, at first maintains a disconsolate tone, then offers guarded hope via Belden’s spirited soprano sax, yet ultimately returns to an angry agitation and ends unresolved, perhaps a reminder that eternal vigilance is a price we can’t avoid paying. Many of the songs are streaming at Soundcloud (including Planetarium, a bonus track); the album is out now on the Rare Noise label.

Ulrich Ziegler at Barbes: Best Single-Band Concert of 2012

Friday night at Barbes, the back room was packed. Some of the crowd swayed, lost in the menacing grooves that echoed from Ulrich Ziegler’s amps, while other people responded with more obvious enthusiasm. This was a diverse bunch: that they were all entranced by this band’s hypnotically pulsing noir soundscapes is a welcome reminder that there still is an audience for dark sounds in a city increasingly decked out in simpering pastel shades.

Over the last five years or so in this project, Itamar Ziegler has gone from apprentice to sorcerer. The Pink Noise guitarist carried most of the lead melodies – such that there were distinct leads – digging in hard as the reverb resounded from his amp in tandem with his guitarist pal, Stephen Ulrich, the noted film composer and heir to the Bernard Herrmann noir soundtrack legacy. And who knew Ziegler was such a great bass player? The first number he played four-string on was a lickety-split, bustling tune that built to a screaming crescendo capped by one-man woodwind section Peter Hess’ shivery, shuddering, sustained clarinet lines. Ulrich delivered more softly screaming, minutely tremolo-picked lines as the organ’s funereal tones swirled and dipped over Wave Sleep Wave drummer Yuval Lion’s tense pulse. It seemed that these guys had come to kill – literally.

Ulrich had a memorable run as the leader of Big Lazy, arguably the world’s best and darkest instrumental rock band for a good ten years starting in the mid-90s. Since then, he’s collaborated with Sway Machinery’s Jeremiah Lockwood and written all sorts of film scores for PBS and others. Which put this project on the back burner, at least as far as live performance is concerned, until recently. They’ve got a new album just out and played several tracks from it. The highlight of the night was a macabre waltz driven by a cruel marionette theme, Ulrich’s spiky slashes contrasting with Hess’ pensively atmospheric flute, building to a toxic mist of organ, bass clarinet and guitars. Or, it could have been the lickety-split Tickled to Death, equal parts 4 AM urban drizzle, southwestern gothic and warped latin groove. The most morbid of all the song was another absolutely morose, haunting waltz, Ulrich’s endlessly meticulously, surgical tremolo-picking anchoring Hess’ tensely suspenseful flute and Ziegler’s menacingly direct lead lines.

A Bill Frisell-ish grey-sky tableau quickly got dragged deeper into the shadows, cleverly concealing its simple, innocent, underlying 60s pop riff. Then they got quieter and more jazzy, swinging into 7/4 time. They closed their first set with a hypnotic, bitterly sad vamp that Ulrich sardonically predicted would clear the room. But it didn’t, and those who stayed were rewarded with brooding close harmonies, murky bass clarinet and a theme that morphed into a Russian dirge of sorts before retreating to its earlier angst and alienation. And for all the darkness, there were all sorts of deviously humorous touches. The organist delivered quietly bone-rattling percussion on woodblock and syndrums on a handful of songs, Hess swooped and dove when least expected, and Ulrich tuned down his Les Paul a la Alvin Lee at the end of the Frisell-ish number. Other than Beninghove’s Hangmen at Zirzamin a couple of weeks ago, there hasn’t been such a darkly engrossing show in this town in a long time.