New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: David Harrington violin

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.

The Kronos Quartet Explore Spare, Haunting Iranian Themes with Singers Mahsa and Marjan Vahdat

Today’s album is Placeless, by the Kronos Quartet with singers Mahsa and Marjan Vahdat, streaming at Bandcamp. It’s a frequently austere, often haunting Farsi-language song cycle exploring themes of displacement and alienation. It’s an inventive blend of Iranian, Indian and western classical sounds utilizing texts by Rumi, Hafez and more contemporary poets.

On the album’s first few tracks, the vocals are front and center, strings a little further back in the mix, rising up in the later numbers. The title track has a dramatic, melismatic crescendo bookended by tense, shivering ambience. My Ruthless Companion has spare, dancing, catchy looped phrases over a jaunty, strolling groove. With its achingly gorgeous resonance, My Tresses in the Wind is a ghazal, more or less, and the high point of the record.

Spiky, marching pizzicato and unsettled, hazy washes of sound alternate in I Was Dead, up to a cold, mysterious ending. Cellist Sunny Yang and violist Hank Dutt’s spare, plaintive lines rise and dip amid violinists David Harrington and John Sherba’s airy textures in the woundedly anthemic, Russian-tinged ballad Endless Embrace.

Misled Fate is a completely unexpected, steady, minimal theme with echoes of both Appalachian folk and new wave music. The Sun Rises has spare, ambient strings behind the two singers’ starkly brooding conversation, vocals panned left and right in the mix, their voices finally handing off to the quartet’s similarly plaintive, slightly baroque harmonies at the end.

Likewise, Vanishing Lines, a lush, striking waltz, comes across as a mix of elegantly medieval European and moody Iranian sounds. The Might of Love has a dancing pulse underneath one of the album’s sultriest vocals. The singers and strings return to uneasy, close-harmonied atmospherics in Far Away Glance and raise the unsettled intensity in the crescendos of Leyli’s Nightingale.

The ensemble alternate between occasional emphatic chords, shifting washes of sound and unexpected pauses in The Color of Moonlight. Angst-fueled, acidic swirls from the strings contrast with the often tenderly impassioned, anthemic vocals of Lover Go Mad. They close the album with Eternal Meadow, an allusively majestic, modal melody awash in disquieting echo effects. The Kronos Quartet have put out an awful lot of good albums, going back almost fifty years; this is one of the best.

Welcome Sonic Improvements For Another Reliably Good Slate of Shows at Prospect Park Bandshell

The best news about this year’s free concert series at the bandshell in Prospect Park is that the sound is vastly improved. Last year’s booking was as good as the sound mix was awful: bass and drums, mostly. An admittedly small sample – two shows last month – revealed that somebody actually seems to care about giving the bands onstage at least baseline-level (pun intended) respect this summer.

The first of those shows opened with Combo Chimbita playing a typically ferocious scamperingly psychedelic set, followed by a lavishly augmented 22-piece version of second-wave Afrobeat pioneers Antibalas. Of all the bands here this year who could have really suffered from a bad mix, Combo Chimbita top the list because of how much of a swirling vortex of sound they can create. This time, when they finally got to that point – more than a half hour into their set – the dubwise effect was obviously intentional.

Otherwise, the clarity of Niño Lento’s vineyard lattice of guitar, Prince of Queens’ hypnotically pulsing bass and Carolina Oliveros’ powerful, emphatic vocals over Dilemastronauta’s flurry of drumbeats was as sparkling as anyone could have wanted. Toward the end of the set, Oliveros finally unleashed her inner metal animal, a truly fearsome moment. Although it wasn’t as feral to witness as the band’s most recent Barbes show, it was pretty close. The bookers here have never hesitated to draw on the vast talent base who make Brooklyn’s best fulltime music venue their home, so it was inspiring to see a whole park full of people beyond the band’s usual Colombian fanbase entranced by the show.

With all the extra firepower, Antibalas hardly limited themselves to two-chord, Fela-inspired minor-key jams. There were a handful of those, perfectly executed, bass and guitars running the same catchy riffs over and over again without a split second’s deviation while the brass punched in and out. Special guests on vocals and horns, plus a trio of women dancers, took turns taking the spotlight with solos that were sometimes resonant and floaty, or ablaze with jazz phrasing. Dynamics rose and fell with lavish abandon, often down from the full orchestra to just the rhythm section and a single soloist, then suddenly up again with a mighty sweep.

A second show last month was just as entertaining and stylistically diverse. The Kronos Quartet opened with a defiantly political set, beginning with a new arrangement of Jimi Hendrix’ take of the Star Spangled Banner that had the group keening, and leaping, and shrieking, a remarkable acoustic facsimile of guitar feedback and sonic protest iconography. From a stark, plaintive version of Strange Fruit, through mutedly bluesy takes of Summertime and House of the Rising Sun, to the spare anguish of John Coltrane’s elegaic Alabama, they kept the intensity simmering. The world premiere of Dan Becker’s No More followed an eerily circling path; then children’s artist Dan Zanes brought up his acoustic guitar and led the crew through a singalong of We Shall Overcome.

The second half of the program featured the string quartet – violinists David Harrington and John Sherba, violist Hank Dutt and cellist Sunny Yang – joined by Trio Da Kali, playing songs from their new collaboration, Ladilikan. It was fascinating to hear the strings playing loping, sometimes undulating Saharan riffs while Fode Lassan Diabate’s balafon rippled and pinged and Mamadou Kouyate played incisive, tricky syncopation on his bass ngoni, often adding an otherworldly, gnawa-like groove. Meanwhile, singer Hawa Kasse Mady Diabate delivered insistent, sometimes anguished lyrics addressing struggle against oppression and the omnipresent need for human rights for all people, regardless of gender, in her part of the world. The language, considering the venue, may have seemed exotic to most of the crowd, but the message was as resonant here as it would have been on her home turf in Mali.

The next free show at Prospect Park Bandshell is this Thursday, Aug 9 with noirish blue-eyed soul singer Fiona Silver and popular blues guitarslinger Gary Clark Jr. And Combo Chimbita are playing another free show, in the courtyard at Union Pool on Aug 11 at around 4 PM.

An Astonishingly Eclectic, Global Album and an Auspicious Laurie Anderson Collaboration at BAM from the Kronos Quartet

The original indie classical ensemble, the Kronos Quartet – violinists David Harrington and John Sherba, violist Hank Dutt and cellist Sunny Yang – are teaming up with Laurie Anderson for what promises to be one of the year’s best, and potentially one of the decade’s most auspicious runs at BAM next week. They’lll be performing their collaboration, Landfall, which explores Anderson’s experiences during Hurricane Sandy here in New York a couple of years ago. The concerts run from Sept 23 to Sept 27 at 7:30 PM. $20 balcony seats are still available as of today. You’ve been given the heads-up – this could be major.

The Kronos Quartet’s latest album, A Thousand Thoughts – streaming at Spotify – is also pretty major. It’s basically a survey of string music from around the globe, accent on intense and substantial. It’s also an unusually successful take on a format that’s often overrated and underwhelming: pairing a famous group with a bunch of equally famous special guests. But the Quartet has always been a mutable unit, as these fifteen tracks – recorded across the years, with every Kronos Quartet lineup – prove over and over again. They literally can play anything, yet always manage to put their own individualistic, out-of-the-box stamp on it. Celtic traditional music reinvented as ambient soundscape? Check. The Blind Willie Johnson delta blues tune Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground remade as Vietnamese art-song, with eerily quavering dan bao from Van-Anh Vanessa Vo? Doublecheck.

Maybe what’s most enjoyable here is that virtually all of these performance are acoustic. To be completely fair, when the Kronos Quartet have employed electronics, those effects aren’t usually gratuitous: the group tends to use them for extra atmospheric bulk and heft when a piece calls for it. But these performances are intimate, with an immediacy and vivid chemistry among the ensemble and with the guests. The Quartet teams up with Syrian star Omar Souleyman for a Bollywood-ish jam with biting accents and swirling microtones over a steady, hypnotic beat. Vo returns to join her countryman Kim Sinh for another alternately spiky and swooping Vietnamese number. A suspensefully crescendoing, rather epic Ethiopian theme by Ethiopiques sax legend Gétatchèw Mèkurya is one of the album’s highlights.

A far more stark, haunting highlight is Sim Sholom, by klezmer legend Alter Yechiel Karniol. A long, dynamically rich, slowly unwinding take of a Turkish classical theme by early 20th century composer Tanburi Cemil Bey might be the best track of them all. Or it could be the spare, haunting Greek gangster blues tune Smyrneiko Minore. Or for that matter, a rare. achingly beautiful excerpt from Astor Piazzolla’s Five Tango Sensations featuring the great bandoneonist/composer himself.

There’s also a shapeshiftingly lush Terry Riley piece featuring the vocals of Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares; a Homayun Sakhi Afghani rubab tune that straddles the line between Middle Eastern and Indian music; a scampering collaboration with Chinese pipa virtuoso Wu Man on a rousing traditional song; and a little gentle Bollywood and Irish folk at the end. It’s an apt summation of this group’s hall of fame career, one that simply refuses to stop.

Lincoln Center Out of Doors Kicks Off with an Eclectic Triplebill

[repost from NY Music Daily’s sister blog Lucid Culture]

The Kronos Quartet are celebrating their fortieth anniversary this year, so it makes sense that the beginning of this year’s Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival – one of the best ever – would be centered around that landmark occasion. The world’s most adventurous string quartet have an auspicious new cellist, Sunny Yang (replacing Jeffrey Ziegler) and their usual slate of premieres and new commissions. Even by their paradigm-shifting standards, their world premiere of Ukraine-born Mariana Sadovska’s Chernobyl: The Harvest – with the composer on vocals and harmonium – last night at the Damrosch Park bandshell was nothing short of shattering,  It’s a suite of old Ukrainian folk songs reinvented to commemorate the horror of the 1986 nuclear disaster, which by conservative standards killed at least a million people around the globe and caused the breakup of the Soviet Union, the world’s second-greatest power at the time.

Singing in Ukrainian, Sadovska began it a-cappella with her signature nuance, a thousands shades of angst, sometimes barely breathing, sometimes at a fullscale wail, occasionally employing foreboding microtones to max out the menace. Violist Hank Dutt got the plum assignment of leading the ensemble to join her, Yang’s foreboding drone underpinning a series of up-and-down, Julia Wolfe-esque motives. Quavering, anxious Iranian-tinged flutters from the cello along with violinists David Harrington and John Sherba, astringently atmospheric harmonics and a big, uneasy crescendo, the harmonium going full steam, built to a savagely sarcastic faux circus motif and then a diabolical dance. That was the harvest, a brutal portrayal whose ultimate toll is still unknown. Through a plaintive theme and variations, Sadovska’s voice rose methodically from stunned horror to indignance and wrath: again, the triptych’s final theme, Heaven, appeared to be sarcastic to the extreme, Sadovska determined not to let the calamity slip from memory. Nuclear time forgives much more slowly than time as we experience it: 26 years after the catastrophe, wild mushrooms in Germany – thousands of miles from the disaster scene – remain inedible, contaminated with deadly nuclear toxins.

In a counterintuitive stroke of booking, luminous singer Shara Worden’s kinetic art-rock octet, My Brightest Diamond headlined. They’re like the Eurythmics except with good vocals and good songs – hmmm, that doesn’t leave much, does it? Or like ELO during their momentary lapse into disco, but better. Sh-sh-sh-sh-Shara can get away with referencing herself in a song because she does it with tongue planted firmly in cheek, and because she’s as funny as she can be haunting. She loves props and costumes – a big cardboard moustache and a fez among them, this time out – and draws on a wide-ranging musical drama background. But she saves the drama for when she really needs to take a song over the edge, belting at gale force in contrast to a fat, droll synth bass pulse late in the show. Her lively arrangements rippled through the ensemble of Hideaki Aomori on alto sax, Lisa Raschiatore on clarinet and bass clarinet, CJ Cameriere on trumpet, Michael Davis on trombone and Alex Sopp on flutes, like the early/middle-period Moody Blues as orchestrated by Carl Nielsen. Sopp’s triumphant cadenzas capped off several big crescendos, as did Aomori on the second number, a circus rock song with dixieland flourishes. Worden brought the energy down to pensive for a bit, crooning with a low, ripe, Serena Jost-like intensity and playing Rhodes piano on a hypnotic trip-hop number. Worden switched to minimal but assured electric guitar on a slow, pensive tune and then a warm, gently arpeggiated love song, then to mbira on a similarly hypnotic but bouncier Afro-funk song. “A girl from the country had a dream, and the best place she could think of was here,” Worden beamed to the packed arena as she wound up the night. “We’re living the dream.”

Emily Wells was lost in limbo between the two. The smoky patterns on the kaleidoscopic light show projected behind her on the back of the stage offered more than a hint of the milieu she’s best suited to. It was a cruel if probably unintentional stroke of fate that stuck Wells, a competent singer, between two brilliant ones. Her music is quirky, playful and trippy to the extreme. Wells can be very entertaining to watch, when she’s building songs out of loops, adding layers of vocals, keys and violin, switching between instruments and her mixing board with split-second verve. But as her set – the longest one of the night – went on, it became painfully obvious that she wasn’t doing much more than karaoke. She sang her dubwise, trippy hip-hop/trip-hop/soul mashups in what became a monotonously hazy soul-influenced drawl without any sense of dynamics. Where Sadovska sang of nuclear apocalypse and Worden tersely explored existential themes, the best Wells could do was a Missy Elliott-ish trip-hop paean to Los Angeles. And when she addressed the crowd, Wells seemed lost, veering between a southern drawl and something like an Irish brogue. But the audience LOVED her, and gave her the most applause of anyone on the bill.

Lincoln Center Out of Doors is phenomenal this year: the Kronos Quartet will be there tomorrow and then Sunday night. The full calendar is here.