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Tag: Denise Mei Yan Hofmann

Powerful Singer Kelsey Park’s New Song Cycle Tackles a Heartbreaking, Rarely Discussed Issue

Pianist Lana Norris put mezzo-soprano Kelsey Park in touch with composer Denise Mei Yan Hofmann, and the result was a meticulously poignant, painterly suite performed by all three along with clarinetist Artemis Cheung yesterday on the Upper West Side. It was probably the first public performance ever for any cycle of art-songs on the subject of battling infertility.

Park had written a series of poems as a way of dealing with the issue herself. To share them with Norris, her friend, was brave to begin with. Beyond that, it’s hard to imagine any more soul-baring performance by any singer in front of an audience in this city in recent memory. And the material was worthy of the musicians’ emotional attunement to the music.

Beyond the ever-present, looming backdrop, the genius of Hofmann’s score to those poems was the choice of instrumentation. Pairing the rich, resonant lows of Park’s voice with close harmonies from the clarinet – whose range is almost exactly the same – made for a relentless unease. At times, Cheung’s airy, crystalline lines would either follow or foreshadow Park’s path as the music rose ineluctably from rainy-day plaintiveness to a short series of spine-tingling arioso crescendos.

As with the material, the program didn’t follow any any easily stereotyped format. Norris opened with a tensely spare Hofmann solo piano piece spiced with distant gospel allusions and vividly mournful belltone accents. Hofmann then played acoustic guitar through a Fender amp, maxing out the reverb, joining Park and Cheung for a trio of spacious, uneasily crescendoing, circling songs, ending with a delicate, somewhat wounded waltz.

Hofmann then had the trio of Park, Norris and Cheung play short excerpts from the suite before tackling the whole thing. Was Park going to be able to make it through the relentless angst of one of its most dramatic moments, using all of her impressive upper register with the phrase “Why me?” over and over again? Much as she visibly teared up, the power in her voice wouldn’t give in to defeat. Ultimately, both Park’s lyrics and Hofmann’s music were resolute in the face of challenges to faith and hope, pushing despair away and finally finding calm and sense of renewed optimism.

Water imagery, both musical and lyrical, was a central theme early on. Cheung shifted calmly from long, airy tones to brief, moody phrases in her midrange and lower: there were points at which she could have been playing a bass clarinet. Likewise, Norris walked a steady line between Hoffmann’s deft blend of terse neoromanticism and postminimalist acidity while Park held steady, only to rise to the rafters in three explosive peaks, the first to open the suite.

“Is motherhood selfish?” Park asked herself during a brief mid-concert Q&A. No, she’d decided. She didn’t address the idea head-on, but her concept of motherhood embraces children without Instagram status-grubbing or turning them into yuppie bling. 

While the struggle to beat physical challenges to become a mother is seldom publicly discussed, it’s very common. And it’s hardly an exclusively female problem. Since the first atom bomb tests over seventy years ago, mens’ potency in terms of ability to conceive has diminished by almost fifty percent on a global level: toxic radionuclides have had a devastating effect. While she didn’t get into any kind of trouble on the male side of the equation, Park deserves enormous credit for having the courage to tackle an issue which, even while it impacts literally millions of people worldwide, is still seldom discussed in public, let alone onstage.

An Unpredictably Fun Album Release Show by Changing Modes

It’s hard to imagine a New York band that has as much fun onstage as Changing Modes. Or a band anywhere who can negotiate the endlessly tricky metrics and serpentine twists and turns of their artsy, often new wave-tinged songs as tightly as they do. At their album release show for their new one, Goodbye Theodora at Webster Hall this past weekend, everybody in the band except for drummer Timur Yusef switched instruments.

Singer Wendy Griffiths is the best keyboardist in the band, but she played the better part of the set on bass – as it turns out, she’s also their most nimble bass player. Co-frontwoman Grace Pulliam is a guitarist, but she played keys and bass synth. Guitarist Yuzuru Sadashige took over bass duties early on and ended the show on keys. As usual, Griffiths and Pulliam took turns on lead vocals, often in the same song, Pulliam’s soul-infused lower register blending with Griffiths’ crisp, crystalline soprano for some unselfconsciously spine-tingling moments and some that were a lot more devious. Griffiths worked the mystery angle; everybody else in the band was pretty much grinning from ear to ear for the duration of the show. They’re bringing their multi-instrumental prowess, good cheer and darkly lyrical songs to the one-year anniversary celebration at the Muse Brooklyn at 350 Moffatt St. in Bushwick tonight, April 2 at 7:30 PM. Cover is $15; take the L to Wilson Ave.

It takes nerve to open with an instrumental, but that’s what Changing Modes did, tackling the creepy, futuristic tumbles and swells of 2-1/2 Minutes to Midnight without breaking a sweat. They kept the enigmatic, surreal atmosphere going with a swaying take of Mind Palace, the first of the tracks from the new album and followed with the sly noir swing romp Amanda’s House, which sounds suspiciously like a song somebody with that name might write.

Sadashige fired off some evil noiserock in between Pulliam and Griffiths’ vocal handoffs in Red, followed by the macabre, lingering anthem Arizona, the night’s best song. Fueled by Sadashige’s searing solo, they growled through the postapocalyptic allusions of Door, then had fun with Sharkbird, the night’s monster surf-tinged second instrumental.

After the uneasy dynamic shifts of Firestorm, they lightened the mood with Pulliam singing an Amy Winehouse-esque cover of Elle King’s Ex’s & Oh’s, and later elevated Radiohead’s Karma Police toward late Beatles grandeur. Too Far Gone – a co-write with their indie classical composer pal Denise Mei Yan Hofmann – made a detour back to grimly anthemic territory. They wound up the set with the poppy, bouncy Vital Signs and the woozy, fuzzy, older new wave song Pretty Vacant, which is nothing like the Sex Pistols. Changing Modes have a deep back catalog, seven albums worth of songs just as eclectic and unpredictably fun as these.

Another Darkly Brilliant Album and a Webster Hall Release Show from Art-Rockers Changing Modes

How many bands or artists have put out seven albums as strong as New York art-rockers Changing Modes’ catalog? Elvis Costello, sure. But the Clash? No. The Doors? Nope. Pink Floyd? Maybe. The Stones, or the Beatles? That’s open to debate. What’s clear is that Changing Modes deserve mention alongside all of those iconic acts, a distinction they’ve earned in over a decade of steady playing, touring and recording. Their latest release, Goodbye Teodora, is due out this Sunday. They’re playing the album release show on March 26 at 6:45 PM at the downstairs space at Webster Hall; cover is $15.

Changing Modes distinguish themselves from their many shapeshifting, ornately psychedelic colleagues around the world in many ways. They’re one of the few art-rock acts fronted by a woman. And they’re dark. Co-leader Wendy Griffiths’ sharply literate lyrics and allusive narratives are as intricately woven as the band’s musical themes, and they keep their songs short, seldom going on for more than three or four minutes. The lineup on the new record is the same as their previous masterpiece, 2014’s The Paradox of Traveling Light. Griffiths switches between keys and bass, joined by guitarist/bassist Yuzuru Sadashige, multi-keyboardist Grace Pulliam and expert drummer Timur Yusef. The album opens with the uneasy Mind Palace, part scampering circus rock-tinged anthem, part jagged King Crimson. It’s a characteristically intriguing, enigmatic number that could be about a robot, or not a robot: “He is a hoarder of broken memories, a savage mistake, a victim of technology.”

Griffiths’ hard-hitting piano and Pulliam’s swooshy organ fuel Amanda’s House, a vivid and wryly detailed portrait of a goth girl which also might be satirical – consider the song title. Sadashige’s sharped-edge, steadily stalking guitar builds to menacingly anthemic proportions throughout Door, a creepy study in suspense. Yusef’s tersely boomy Middle Eastern percussion in tandem with Sadashige’s sparse crime-jazz lines underscore Griffiths’ crystalline, nuanced vocals in Arizona: southwestern gothic doesn’t get any darker than this.

Sharkbird is a dancing surf rock instrumental in the same vein as the Slickee Boys’ psychedelically creepy adventures in that style. The surrealistically elegaic Wasted shifts between dub-infused reggae and catchy, windswept orchestrated rock. The brooding, dynamically shifting Too Far Gone – not the Emmylou Harris classic but a co-write with rising star indie classical composer Denise Mei Yan Hofmann, who also contributes guitar – comes across as a mashup of Throwing Muses grit and allusively dark Invisible Sun-era Police.

With its flickering electric piano, moody Middle Eastern guitar, tense flurries of drums and a majestically wounded Sadashige solo midway through, the album’s title track is a requiem:

Goodbye Teodora
Hello to my emptiness
Over time you’ll be inclined
To give it all a rest

Likewise, Sadashige’s unselfconsciously savage, distorted lines contrast with Griffiths’ stately piano throughout the metrically tricky Firestorm. The allusively Beatlesque symphonic-rock anthem Chinese Checkers explores power dynamics via boardgame metaphors. The album’s most straightforward track, Vigilante, has grim political overtones. The album winds up with Dust, a vast, ineluctably crescendoing postapocalyptic anthem. We’re only in March now, but this could be the best rock album of 2017, hands down. 

An Auspicious, Surrealistically Intense Performance of Denise Mei Yan Hofmann Chamber Works at Mannes College of Music

Up-and-coming composers on the conservatory track face the daunting challenge of having to assimilate an overwhelming amount of material, all the while being expected to establish an individual voice. Too often, that puts a young composer in the position of having to regurgitate whatever stylistic tropes happen to be in vogue at a particular institution. Sometimes that makes sense: you like ambient music? IRCAM’s your place. Just as obsessed with improvisation as composition? New England Conservatory might be where you want to be. Is melody your thing? Try Mannes. That’s where Denise Mei Yan Hofmann is finishing her Master’s in music. Sunday night’s standing-room-only performance of an almost impossibly diverse mix of her recent chamber and choral works revealed how popular she is there. And she ought to be. Her music has a richly sardonic wit and also an acutely relevant angst: she is most definitely in the here and now. Somewhere there’s a dark comedy, a Coen Brothers film or its more modestly budgeted equivalent, screaming out for her to write its score.

The trombone quartet of Aden Brooks, Jacob Elkin, Nathan Wood and Daniel Dunford opened the concert auspiciously with Les Dents du Midi. Awash in uneasy close harmonies, tricky counterrythms and subtle, wry trainwhistle effects, this imposing Alpine tableau was a triumph of ambered low-midrange sonics perfectly suited to the instrumentation. Its dark majesty brought to mind John Zorn’s work for brass.

Backed by pianist Dimitry Glivinskiy, mezzo-s0prano Caitlin Cassidy gave a dynamic, expressive reading to The Ink Dark Moon, a suite of miniatures based on based on disconsolate tenth-century Japanese love poems by Izumi Shikibu, Hofmann’s scampering neoromanticism juxtaposed with lingering balladry and jaunty hints of cabaret.

The a-cappella quartet of Rachel Rosenberg, Virginia Weant, Gardner Fletke and Robert Frost sang There Is No Rose, conducted by Glivinskiy. Based on a fourteenth-century carol, it was more straightforwardly rhythmic and insistent, fueled by an imploring, rising, looping cadenza.

Hofmann’s sense of humor came front and center with Morning Thoughts, for vocal quartet and large ensemble. Originally written as a piece for vocal and percussion, it subsequently took on a life of its own, complete with crowdsourced lyrics based on sunrise and predawn musings, obsessions and terrors. Hofmann deadpanned that this was an experiment she was not likely to revisit, although she’d found the project to be as much fun as it was ambitious. From all sorts of suggestions, ranging from ultra-silly to ultra-serious, she culled some pretty harrowing themes: addiction, existential angst, struggles with faith and body image included. Deep heartbeat percussion immediately established a Dark Side of the Moon milieu, with droll and tongue-in-cheek flourishes interspersed amid the uneasily shifting, surrealistically disquieting narrative. Recitatives of antidepressant warning labels twitched alongside petulant choral passages; echoey vibraphone was punctuated by nagging trombone; repeated food references started out as comic relief and then became troubling in themselves. The piece’s declamatory phrasing and constantly shifting rhythmic center sometimes reminded of Ted Hearne at his most acerbic. As obvious as the ending turned out to be, it was also cruelly funny.

This challenging, kaleidoscopic concert version of the suite’s first movement (yup – there’s more!) was ably conducted by Robert Kahn, leading Rosenberg alongside mezzo-soprano Chelsea Kluga, tenor Mark Nimar and bass Enrico Lagasca, with Robby Bowen, Karen Hida and Jessica Tsang on percussion; Michael Tropepe on violin; Minjee Kim on flute; Wood on trombone and Margaret Kim on piano.

Denise Mei Yan Hofmann’s New Works Hold the Audience Rapt at Spectrum

Spectrum was packed last night. Granted, composer/guitarist Denise Mei Yan Hofmann used to be in a popular rock band, the wickedly catchy, lyrical Changing Modes, but all the same it was awfully cool to see a venue filled to capacity with young people listening intently to serious composed music. A tantalizingly brief program of new chamber works revealed that Hofmann is a young composer who’s already developed a distinctive and thoughtfully compelling voice. Her harmonies transcend the tonal/twelve-tone dichotomy; her narratives are vivid, she doesn’t waste notes and is rather meticulous about that.

Hofmann performed the opening diptych, a more-or-less steadily strolling miniature featuring lots of close harmonies and flitting exchanges between her terse, minimalist guitar and Salome Scheidegger‘s piano. Hofmann described it afterward as “harsh” – as a depiction of push-pull, lost in the wilderness, randomly searching and then very purposefully seeking a way out, it hit the mark.

Scheidegger played Hofmann’s Dear Son of Memory solo, an aching and dynamically rich depiction of letters never sent. It turned out to be a considerably challenging work. Scheidegger didn’t shy away from it, beginning almost as a march and then negotiating through starlit austerities, flitting sort-of-segues and then a rather violently percussive crescendo before finding home in the calm beyond it. One of Hofmann’s signature tropes seems to be working tension against a central point, raga style, a prominent and effective device here.

The final piece was a triptych for string trio, Deep Calls Unto Deep – another 2014 composition – performed elegantly by violinist Francesca Dardani, violist Yumi Oshima and cellist Xue Yang Liu. With a little editing, this could be something really special. At the core, it’s a rondo, a carefully articulated exchange of voices which began with a rather wounded, austere tone, picked up the pace with a precise, balletesque pulse in the second movement and then with a more resonant, angst-fueled quality in the third even as the rhythm came back to the forefront. The Debussy String Quartet seems to be an influence.

If there’s any criticism of what Hofmann does, it’s that she needs to work on her transitions. There were places throughout both the solo piano and trio pieces which came across as momentary lapses. Full stops would have been one answer; fleshing out those fragmentary segues to eliminate jarring with what came before and after would also be an option. So would nixing them completely. But those are minor quibbles. Here’s looking forward to what this individualistic and auspicious new voice has in store.

Artsy Rockers Changing Modes Put Out Their Darkest and Best Album

For a dozen years, New York band Changing Modes have been been putting out solidly good, smart albums that blend an artsy 80s pop vibe with darker, sometimes more punk-oriented sounds. It’s not clear what the band name refers to – maybe that fashions come and go, but that good music is timeless. Although the group has three synthesizers, it would be a mistake to pigeonhole them as retroists since they’re a lot more eclectic than the legions of Simple Minds and New Order worshippers. Their songs aren’t exactly trendy – imagine Pulp at their most enigmatic and biting, casually ferocious guitars amid swirly, sometimes atmospheric, sometimes lurid keys. Of their seven albums, Changing Modes’ new one, In Flight, is their fifth full-length effort, their most complex and opaque and arguably their best. Keyboardist Wendy Griffiths – who has a second career as an indie classical composer – typically fronts the band; the rest of the group includes singer/keyboardists Jen Rondeau (who also plays theremin) and Grace Pulliam (who also plays percussion), while Yuzuru Sadashige and Denise Mei Yan Hofmann switch between guitar and bass and David Oromaner provides brisk, punchy beats behind the drum kit.

Anger, apprehension and disappointment run deep in these hard-hitting songs. “Will you save for a Brave New World?” Griffiths scarcastically asks over the shuffling disco beat of Particle Collider as it spins further and further toward total annihilating chaos. The insistent piano pop of Life Drawing reflects on a lifetime of regret and disillusion, while Ghost in the Backseat, all one minute 42 seconds of it, reminds of X with its roaring guitar chromatics and unhinged noiserock solo. Anger and menace take centerstage in Down to You, lit up by tremoloing noir guitar: “Comatose and broken, you escape into a dream – did it hit you like a ton of bricks when she told you it wasn’t?” Griffiths asks with a vengeful swoop at the end of the line.

The closest thing to Pulp here is Blue, a cynical, murderously creepy piano tune sung by one of the guys in the band. The Politics of Fear strips the psychology of a police state to the basics, switching from snarling guitar-disco to a darkly carnivalesque waltz and then back again, with a deliciously atonal horror-guitar solo from Sadashige, while Professional Girl puts a feminist spin on uneasy Henry Mancini-style latin pop. Twisted circus piano, an all-too-brief theremin solo and some neat counterpoint between the keyboards all factor into the cryptic Firewall; To the Left sets a venomous lyric over sunny, bouncy 60s Carnaby Street pop. Likewise, Chinatown tells the anxious tale of a killer on the lam over torchy, pulsing cabaret-pop: “A list of accusations, DNA and information, read it on a sunny afternoon when Chinatown looks beautiful.” Houses of Cards, a cinematic noir-pop spy-on-the-run tale, unwinds with surreal layers of vocals; the album closes with the title track, its ominous Pink Floyd melody twinkling out with the steady pings of a glockenspiel.

While Griffiths is responsible for most of the writing here, Rondeau’s three contributions make up some of the strongest tracks. Nature of the Beast, a brooding, funereal, bitter kiss-off anthem blends Procol Harum gothic with a torchy cabaret vibe: “Left his message on the pillow sham/Doesn’t say a word, he’s an honest man,” Rondeau asserts coldly. Knock Once adds a macabre edge to a wounded, vintage soul-infused ballad, while the barely two-minute Thunderwing pulses along on a delicately reverberating Fender Rhodes bossa beat. And Reflection, by Pulliam, mines a lushly orchestrated wah-wah Philly soul ambience, layers of keyboards blaring ominously in place of what would have been guitars and strings forty years ago. Sixteen songs, and they’re all excellent – can you name another band who’ve done that this year? Probably not. Count this among the year’s best albums, another triumph for a group that deserves to be vastly better known than they are. Changing Modes are busy right now: they’re playing Trash tonight at 9, then a Make Music NY show scheduled for 3 PM at the boathouse in Prospect Park tomorrow. They’ll also be at Local 269 on July 5 at 10.