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.