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No New Abnormal

Tag: du yun

Brooklyn Rider Pair First-Class 21st Century Works with an Iconic String Quartet

Brooklyn Rider are the rare string quartet who seem to have as much fun with the classical canon as they do with the new composers they champion. To violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violist Nicholas Cords and cellist Michael Nicolas, it’s all just good music. Their latest, lavish double-disc set, Healing Modes – streaming at Bandcamp – interpolates some fascinating new compositions among succesive movements of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15, a mainstay of their performances (before the lockdown, at least). The new repertoire here challenges the group’s extended technique arguably more than any other recording they’ve done, but they rise to its demands. As usual, among the new works, there are connecting threads, notably a constant tension between atmospherics and bustle. And the Beethoven bristles with surprises and erudition, even if you’ve heard it a million times.

The opening piece, Matana Roberts‘ Borderland is a contrast in ghostly and poltergeist sonics. Microtonal haze gives way to insistent, rhythmic phrases, hectic pizzicato, coy glissandos, and then back. There’s also a loaded, allusive spoken word element that packs a wallop at a time when our constitutional rights have been stolen from us by the lockdowners.

Reena Ismail‘s Zeher (Poison) has a similar resonant/rhythmic dichotomy spiced with doublestops and quavery, Indian-influenced ornamentation, shifting to an unexpectedly anthemic conclusion that brings to mind the quartet’s recordings of Philip Glass.

Gabriela Lena Frank’s Kanto Kechua #2 has acerbically harmonized, tightly leaping phrases, a round of biting chromatics at the center. The quartet revel in these flurries, which obliquely echo Bernard Herrmann film scores, Peruvian folk music and also the Beethoven here.

The second disc begins with Du Yun‘s I Am My Own Achilles Heel, its shivers, squeals, approximations of arioso vocalese and sharply strutting figures receding down to sepulchral ambience and back again. There may be an improvisational element at work here: beyond an animated, allusively Appalachian circle dance at around the halfway mark or so, and pastoral Asian tinges later, it’s hard to tell.

The take of Caroline Shaw‘s Schisma seems even more amiably plucky and subtly anthemic than the version they played as a New York premiere on the Upper West Side in the spring of 2019.

There seems to be new gravitas but also new vigor in the first movement of the Beethoven, compared to the group’s previous interpretations, although their stunningly legato approach throughout hasn’t wavered over the years. It’s less a nocturne than an anthem. There’s lilting grace and delicacy in unexpected moments of movement two, but with plenty of muscle.

The devious Bach quotes amid the hymnal lustre of the third movement are right up front, and irresistible, as is the lushness of its conclusion. The ensemble play up the drollery in the fleeting bit of a fourth movement as much as the bittersweet, Vivaldiesque grace of the final one. These guys know better than most anyone else that this particular quartet is more symphonic than it is chamber music, a celebration of being snatched from the jaws of death. What does it sound like mixed up amid the new compositions? Full disclosure: this blog tweaked the tracklist to play it contiguously. It’s that addictive.

Aakash Mittal at National Sawdust: A Major Moment in New York Jazz This Year

Alto saxophonist Aakash Mittal’s sold-out show with his Awaz Trio at National Sawdust on the 11th of this month was as mysterious as it was mischievous – and delivered an unmistakeable message that this guy’s time has come. The obvious comparison is Rudresh Mahanthappa, another reedman who draws deeply on classic Indian melodies and modes. But Mittal doesn’t typically go for the jugular like Mahanthappa does: a more apt comparison would be visionary Iraqi-American trumpeter Amir ElSaffar, who joined Mittal onstage for the second half of the program alongside guitarist Miles Okazaki and percussionist Rajna Swaminathan, who played both the boomy mridangam as well as a small, tabla-like hand drum.

Mittal has been simmering just under the radar in New York for awhile but has been increasingly in demand over the past year, playing with both both ElSaffar’s large ensemble and Pulitzer-winning singer/composer Du Yun, who gave him a rave review for an onstage introduction. The trio of Mittal, Okazaii and Swaminathan opened with a seven-part suite of night raga themes reinvented as jazz. Mittal explained that he’d written it during his a year in Kolkata studying traditional Indian sounds, and that his purpose was to redefine the concept of a nocturne to encompass both mystery and mirth. One suspects he had an awfully good time there.

He didn’t waste any time unleashing his daunting extended technique with some uneasy riffs punctuated by otherworldly overtones and microtones, yet throughout the rest of the night he held those devices in store for where he really needed them. Likewise, he chose his moments for puckish accents and sardonic chirps that got the crowd laughing out loud; as the show went on, Okazaki and Swaminathan got in on the act as well. Which made for apt comic relief amidst the lustrous, glimmering and often sparsely plaintive phrasing that pervaded the rest of the suite and the evening as a whole.

Mittal peppered the dreamlike state with lively, often circling, edgily chromatic phrases: he likes lights in the night, but he knows the dark side of the bright lights just as well. Okazaki ranged from spare, emphatic accents, often in tandem with Swaminathan, to expansive, lingering chords, to long interludes where his spiky phrasing evoked a sarod. The evening’s biggest crescendo fell to Swaminathan, and she welcomed a chance to bring some thunder to the gathering storm.

ElSaffar joined the group for the final numbers, opening a brand-new suite – which Mittal had just finished a couple days before, based on a poems by his sister Meera Mittal – with a mesmerizing series of long tones where time practically stood still. From there he and Mittal developed an increasingly animated conversation, through alternately lush and kinetic segments underscoring the influence that the trumpeter has had on the bandleader: it was a perfect match of soloists and theme. The group closed with what Mittal offhandedly called a jam, but it quickly became much more than that, a jauntily voiced mini-raga of its own laced with both utter seriousness and unleashed good humor. Both Mittal and ElSaffar’s music is full of gravitas and sometimes an almost throttle-like focus, but each composer also has a great sense of humor, and that really came to the forefront here.

This was the final show in this spring’s series of concerts at National Sawdust programmed by Du Yun, focusing on composers of Asian heritage who may be further under the radar than they deserve to be. The next jazz show at National Sawdust – or one that at least skirts the idiom with a similar outside-the-box sensibility – is by thereminist Pamelia Stickney with Danny Tunick on vibraphone and marimba and Stuart Popejoy on keyboards on March 28 at 7 PM; advance tix are $25 and highly recommended.

A Fascinating, Occasionally Vexing Night of New Music at the MATA Festival

MATA Festival honcho Todd Tarantino’s program notes for last night’s concert in the plush downstairs Victor Borge Hall at Scandinavia House in Murray Hill are instructive, and worth repeating here. “For this year’s festival an astonishing 1156 composers from 71 countries submitted their work…In hearing so much of the music of early career composers, there are trends that still stand out: baroque ensembles like to play modern music too; the harpsichord is enjoying a renaissance; tonal microtonal music is scarce; like it or not, the accordion remains popular; IRCAM has a phenomenal sound system; performance is at incredibly high levels; and Schoenberg is dead.”

MATA has been showcasing the work of youngish (20s/30s) composers for eighteen years now, since Philip Glass and his pals figured that some of the scores he’d been receiving from admiring, up-and-coming colleagues were worth presenting. From last night’s performance, this year’s slate looks especially promising. The chamber group charged with delivering this particular evening’s worth of material was Norway’s astonishingly mutable Ensemble Neon: flutist Yumi Murakami; clarinetist/bass clarinetist Kristine Tjogersen; saxophonist Ida Kristine Zimmerman Olsen; pianist Heloisa Gomes do Amaral; drummer/percussionist Ane Marthe Sorlien Holen; violinist Karin Hellqvist; cellist Inga Byrkjeland; and soprano Silje Aker Johnsen. Magnus Loddgard conducted.

The first piece, for most of the ensemble, was an Alexander Kaiser reflection on current dystopia such as NSA surveillance and the Syrian refugee crisis. Flitting, pesky motives contrasted with murky horizontal textures, and spaces that grew further and further between as a series of false endings developed (a shtick that would recur throughout the night). The political narrative wasn’t obvious from the music itself; then again, music with an obvious political content can be strident, and this was more attuned to the push-pull of free jazz.

The piece de resistance was Sean Clancy‘s Fourteen Minutes on the Subject of Greeting Cards. Short titles from actual greeting cards were projected behind the trio of piano, violin and cello as variations on a brief series of cells unfolded dreamily, measure by measure, each with its own distinct time signature. Suddenly the infant is three, then he’s getting his license; woops, he’s had an accident. By now, it was obvious where this was going. Or was it? Hint: as a minimalist cavatina, it had brought MATA artistic director Du Yun to tears.

Diego Jimenez Tamame‘s Don’t Condescend followed the same pattern as the first piece, a drony/kinetic dichotomy. Jan Martin Smordal‘s All Play had the musicians playing transcriptions of a noise guitar solo by Astrid Marie Huvestad, whose solo performance via concert film – featuring a bangup job of how to max out the feedback from a Fender amp – upstaged the musicians. It brought to mind a recent chamber transcription of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music.

As a satire of indie classical self-indulgence, Neil Luck‘s Bubbles hit the mark, although the sight of the vocalist chugging from a big bottle of soda and then belching over a carefree cut-and-paste of an old English dancehall ditty went on to the point where parody became self-parody. Spike Jones would have nailed this in two minutes ten seconds. The final work, Matthew Welch‘s Comala’s Song, evoked the cumulo-nimbus art songs of Sarah Kirkland Snider as well as Glass’ oeuvre, with its circling, uneasy variations on a medieval bagpipe mode.

The MATA Festival runs through Sunday; tonight’s performance at 8 PM at National Sawdust features French group Ensemble Linea playing even more relevant, politically-charged works. Cover is $25.