New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: bernard herrmann

A Chillingly Lynchian Soundtrack from Nathan Halpern

In the New York rock world, Nathan Halpern is known as an intense, melodic guitarist, a member of Kerry Kennedy’s brilliant Ghostwise band and a first-class dark rock songwriter in his own right. The film world knows Halpern as a composer. His most recent project is the soundtrack to the documentary film Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present, playing at Film Forum through July 5, on HBO all summer long, followed by a national theatrical release which is still in the works. Halpern is a master of noir, and this haunting, Eastern European-tinged theme and variations establishes him as a sort of 21st century counterpart to Angelo Badalamenti. One word to describe this: Lynchian. Analytically speaking, it’s absolutely fascinating how Halpern develops and orchestrates a series of variations on a series of allusively menacing ideas. But nobody’s going to sit and analyze this: as haunting, Balkan-inflected High Romantic angst, it’s something to get completely lost in. Other than the gypsy music, and Badalamenti – whose minimalist work with David Lynch comes to mind most obviously here – there are echoes of Bernard Herrmann’s Hitchcock scores, the Tin Hat Trio’s contributions to the Everything Is Illuminated soundtrack, and the occasional reference to Bach or Beethoven. In other words, this guy isn’t messing around, diving into the shadows from the first few lingering notes from his piano.

A lot of these pieces are tantalizingly brief, clocking in at just a couple of minutes or even less: how they segue into each other makes it next to impossible to keep track of which is which unless you’re keeping a close eye on which track is playing. There are two main themes. The first, a tensely moody, chromatically-charged melody, features Halpern’s piano and a string section of O’Death’s Robert Pycior (who is credited as co-writer of the main theme and a couple of variations) on violin and viola, Jody Redhage on cello and Andrew Platt on bass plus Thurston Moore collaborator Mary Lattimore on harp. The second is a morosely atmospheric waltz anchored by Halpern’s echoey, often bloodcurdling music-box broken chords. The title theme recurs again and again, strings rising and falling against it, sometimes warmly and lushly, sometimes agonizingly. The waltz channels unrequited love and longing as it recurs and shifts tempos, at one point morphing into a dark little Serbian dance. There’s also a chillingly stately interlude that toys cruelly with a Bach Invention motif; a gleefully dancing Balkan piece led by Pycior’s stark phrasing; and a couple of artful atmospheric passages where droning textures move sepulchrally into and then out of the picture. The orchestrations manage to be simultaneously terse yet enveloping, and are packed with neat, shadowy little touches: is that the choir patch on a synthesizer? No, that’s Lori Fisher’s ghostly, distant vocals leading into that stern, tense Jody Redhage pedal note. And V.S. Nabakov’s water-drop percussion adds a cruel inevitability to a miniature Beethoven-tinged nocturne about the passage of time, lit up by Halpern’s spaciously reverberating, plaintive electric guitar.

What about the film, and Abramovic? She’s a Belgrade-born performance artist, now in her sixties, who’s made a career of putting herself on display: she may be your cup of tea, or she may not. Not having seen the film, it’s not clear to what degree it comments on what she does, if at all, and the soundtrack gives nothing away. The suspense is crushing. The itunes link is here.

Beninghove’s Hangmen Get Noir at Spike Hill

Last year Beninghove’s Hangmen put out an amazing debut album of menacing noir jazz pieces, creepy Lynchian waltzes and macabre surf rock songs. Sunday night at Spike Hill they played a set of virtually all new material that was just as intense, and a lot more diverse. To those who know the band, it might come as a shock that they either would or could pull off a blissfully bouncy calypso jazz song, alto saxophonist Bryan Beninghove and trombonist Rick Parker meandering without a care in the world, until at the end it became clear that Parker had his tongue planted firmly in cheek. But it pays to be eclectic, if you get a lot of film work as Beninghove does.

The rest of the set was as lusciously creepy as their album, driven as much by the guitars as the horns, Ryan Mackstaller (of Little Worlds) handling most of the the eerily unhinged clanging surf lines while Eyal Maoz played a surprisingly low-key but smoldering mix of Middle Eastern and flamenco-tinged phrases. Elephantine blasts from Beninghove and Parker kicked off a furtive surf shuffle early in the set, Maox and Johnson trading increasingly agitated tremolo-picked lines that Johnson eventually picked up with a howling, chromatic intensity, Beninghove following with screams followed by agile downward swirls. Then he put down his sax for a melodica for a swinging two-chord vamp that sounded just a little too happy to be true, and sure enough that was the case when Parker brought in a some mournfully quavery ambience that Beninghove picked up energetically, this time on soprano sax, Parker’s low lurking menace contrasting with Maoz’ R2D2 blips and bleeps.

The album track they played was Roadhouse, a luridly stomping Twin Peaks nocturne featuring a searing noiserock duel between the guitars that finally dwindled to a brief interlude hinting at dub before the horns joined forces with some wry Peggy Lee allusions. Beninghove agilely led the group through a rhythmically tricky, tango-tinged surf tune, something akin to Booker T meeting Bernard Herrmann at the beach at night, with some haphazardly evil leads by Johnson and then Maoz as the horns swooped and dove. The rest of the set included a skronky Marc Ribot-style noir blues, ominously gritty guitar pitted against sultry, smoky sax, and a wild, klezmer-fueled number introduced by a long, chill-inducing Maoz intro that had the feel of a Middle Eastern oud jam. If you’re in New York and noir music is your thing, get out and see them now: they’ve been playing out a lot lately.