New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: electronic music

Soundscapes to Get Lost in and a Crown Heights Show by the Mesmerizing Arooj Aftab

Pakistani singer Arooj Aftab’s latest solo album Siren Islands – streaming at Bandcamp – is one of the most mesmerizingly enveloping releases of recent months. New Yorkers who really want to get lost this weekend can catch her with a guy who also knows a thing or two about swirling ambience, guitarist Gyan Riley, at Happy Lucky No. 1  Gallery in Crown Heights tomorrow night, March 16 at around 8. It’s likely to be an evening of improvisation, something the two excel at: cover is $20.

Aftab sings and plays all the guitars and synthesizers on the album, each recorded live with liberal use of loop pedals, and mixed to a single mono input. There are four tracks: the first three are “islands,” the fourth is a fifteen-minute meditation on Ovid’s Metamorphoses. It’s best appreciated as a single, immersive work.

You need details? As the first Island eases into view, there’s an icy, echoey, lo-fi swirl balanced by Aftab’s soulful, resonant voice. Which soon only comes through in waves, yet it’s vastly more comfortable than numb. The sweep grows more epic with Island No. 2, jangles and bubbles  spicing the slowly shifting sonic panorama.

Island No. 3 is almost eighteen minutes of a spare, gently galloping loop over tectonic washes of sound, Aftab’s vocalese lower and more poignantly insistent. Ovid’s Metamorphoses is the closest thing to Brian Eno here, a considerably sunnier, more tightly spiraling soundscape. For anybody who thinks Aftab’s talents are limited to vocals, guess again.

Trumpeter Steph Richards Brings Her Devious Sense of Humor to Lefferts Gardens Saturday Night

The cover illustration for trumpeter Steph Richards’ solo album Fullmoon (streaming at Bandcamp) shows an open palm holding what could be a postcard of the moon – a pretty warped moon, anyway. But when you click on the individual tracks to play them (on devices that play mp3s, anyway), it turns out that’s a phone the hand is holding, and you’re taking a selfie. Truth in advertising: Richards’ music is deviously fun. She’s bringing her horn and her pedal to a show at the Owl on March 2 at 9 PM; ten bucks in the tip bucket helps ensure she’ll make more appearances at that welcoming, well-appointed listening room.

The album’s opening track, New Moon is based around a catchy, repetitive two-note riff, spiced with gamelanesque electronic flickers via Dino J.A. Deane’s sampler, with unexpected squall at the end. The second number, Snare develops from a thicket of echo effects, insectile sounds and breathy bursts, to a wry evocation of a snare drum. Then, with Piano, Richards moves from desolate, echoey, minimalist phrases to wryly cheery upward swipes: the title doesn’t seem to have anything to do with either the instrument or the dynamic.

The coy humor of the atmospheric miniature Half Moon introduces the album’s first diptych, Gong, which develops into a querulous little march, then a weird kaleidoscope of polyrhythms. Timpani doesn’t sound anything like kettledrums; instead, it’s a funny bovine conversation that all of a sudden grows sinister – although the ending is ridiculously amusing. The album ends with the title track, Richards developing a complicated conversation out of late-night desolation in the first part, then a barnyard of the mind (or the valves). Her levity is contagious – and she’s capable of playing with a lot more savagery than she does here, something that wouldn’t be out of the question to expect Saturday night in Lefferts Gardens.

A Profoundly Entertaining, Interactive Night of Operatic Fun at the Edge of Chinatown

At his sold-out show last night to close a weekend of performances at the Abrons Arts Center, countertenor Ju-eh hit high notes that were as disconcerting as they were spectacular. It was a profound and often profoundly funny display of awe-inspiring technique matched with witty banter and deep insight into the relationship between audience and performer. In an era where more and more, the act onstage becomes a mere backdrop for social media posturing by wannabes in the crowd, Ju-eh’s generous interaction with the audience had unusual resonance.

He made his entrance from the side of the stage with a soaring aria by Handel over a solo organ recording. Seated centerstage, his verbal sparring partner Hwarg worked a series of mixers and laptop. Although Ju-eh was wearing a skirt, he revealed in a lengthy Q&A after the show that he didn’t choose that to be genderqueer: rather, it was a historical reference to an era when pretty much everyone wore the same robe, or the same daishiki. The rest of the outfit – plain white shirt and blue thermal socks, his hair knotted with a stick – mirrored his background as a Chinese-born New York avant garde artist who’s built a career singing western opera.

He and his collaborator call this piece Living Dying Opera: he lives to sing it, but it’s also killing him sometimes. Self-doubt quickly became a persistent theme, most poignantly portrayed via a plaintive John Dowland version of an old English air. Ju-eh’s voice reached for the rafters with an imploring wail as he crouched in the corner in the darkness, holding a simple lamp, Diogenes-style. On one hand, it’s reassuring to know that someone with such prodigious talent can also be self-critical; on the other, if this guy isn’t satisfied with his achievements, how about us mere mortals?

After the show, he explained that he always wants audiences at his performances to feel loved. That assessment in many respects makes a lot of sense, in that a lot of people go to a performance to transcend, to see themselves in the music or the narrative and come out on the other side to a better place. What he didn’t address is that audiences all too often have other, similarly self-involved reasons for going out. Whether watching something on Facebook Live and texting all your ‘friends” about it confers the same status as taking a selfie at the actual show, with the performer somewhere in the background, is open to debate.

But even with all that talent and that resume, Ju-eh remains a fish out of water, even in the rarefied world of countertenors. He explained that most operatic roles written for men singing in a soprano’s range are antagonists: they’re supposed to sound evil. Ju-eh’s voice, and his style, don’t fit that mold: they’re especially robust, an endless, thick rope ladder reaching into the clouds, with a muscular vibrato to match. Although he’s working in a range usually limited to women, he doesn’t hear his own voice as female, and he shouldn’t: it’s uniquely his.

There were a lot of very amusing, sometimes coy, sometimes disarmingly down-to-earth extemporaneous moments where he and Hwarg discussed how well, or not so well, the show was progressing. There were also points where he took crowd members and put them centerstage, then continued singing from their seats. The most haunting of those moments was when he delivered a stark, aching verse and chorus of Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child from the front row.

The after-show Q&A kept the audience as engaged as the performance itself did. The funniest revelation was that Ju-eh had come up with a brief interlude where he lay on the floor in order to give himself a breather rather than to add any kind of meaning. The man he’d pulled from the crowd to stand onstage – as “Mr. Mango” – confided that he’d encouraged Ju-eh to pick him because he wanted to find out if the other audience members had also been chosen randomly, or if they were shills. Over and over again, Ju-eh’s most existential questions of identity resonated more profoundly than anything else in this provocative encounter sponsored by the New York Chinese Culture Salon.

Leila Bordreuil Cooks Up Murk and Mysticism at the Kitchen

That Leila Bordreuil could sell out the Kitchen on Thanksgiving eve testifies to the impact the French-born cellist has had on the New York experimental music scene. After a long residency at Issue Project Room, she keeps raising the bar for herself and everybody else. This past evening she led a six-bass septet through her latest and arguably greatest creation, the Piece for Cello and Double Bass Ensemble II. To call it a feast of low tonalities would be only half the story.

At the concert’s stygian, rumbling, enveloping peak, it was impossible to tell who was playing what because the lights had been turned out. In the flicker of phones, backlit by the soundboard’s glow and the deep blue shade from the skylight, six bassists – Zach Rowdens, Sean Ali, Britton Powell, Greg Chudzik, Nick Dunston and Vinicius Ciccone Cajado – churned out a relentless low E drone. As they bowed steadily, keening flickers of overtones began to waft over a rumble that grew grittier and grittier, eventually shaking the woofers of the amps. Yet only Bordreuil seemed to be using a pedalboard, first for crackling cello-metal distortion, then grey noise, then flitting accents akin to a swarm of wasps circling a potential prey. Still, the overall ambience was comforting to the extreme, a womblike berth deep in a truly unsinkable Titanic, diesels at full power behind a bulkhead.

The rest of the show was more dynamic,and counterintuitive. Bordreuil didn’t begin to play until the bassists had gradually worked their way up from a stark drone, Ali and Dunston introducing fleeting high harmonics for contrast. Beyond that, the six guys didn’t move around much individually. The second movement began with the composer leading a pitch-and-follow sequence of slow midrange glissandos, then she deviated to enigmatic microtonal phrases over the somber washes behind her. The final movements were surprisingly rapt and quiet – and much further up the scale, a whispery, ghostly series of variations on high harmonic pitches.

Methodically working a series of mixers and a small keyboard, opening act Dylan Scheer turned in an entertaining, texturally diverse, industrially icy set of kinetic stoner soundscapes. Flying without a net is hard work, and Scheer made it look easy, dexterously shifting from an echoey, metallic drainpipe vortex, to gamelanesque rings and pings, starrily oscillating comet trails and hints of distant fireworks followed by allusions to a thumping dancefloor anthem that never materialized. That the set went on as long as it did – seemingly twice as long as the headliners – could have been intentional. It was also too loud. The Kitchen is a sonically superior space: sounds that get lost in the mix elsewhere remain in the picture here. So there was no need to blast the audience with almost supersonic highs which gained painfully, to the point that the earplugs the ushers were handing out became necessary.

Bordreuil’s next show is at Jack in Fort Greene on Nov 29 at 8 PM with her trio with Ali and violist Joanna Mattrey.

Macabre Piano Epics and Deep-Space Ambience From Elizabeth A. Baker

Pianist/multi-instrumentalist Elizabeth A. Baker’s new album Quadrivium – streaming at Bandcamp – is extremely long and often extremely dark. Her music can be hypnotic and atmospheric one moment and absolutely bloodcurdling the next. Erik Satie seems to be a strong influence; at other times, it sounds like George Winston on acid, or Brian Eno. It was tempting to save it for Halloween month – when all hell breaks loose here – but Baker’s playing the release show tonight, Sept 22 at Arete Gallery in Greenpoint at 7 PM. Cover is $15 – be aware that there is no G train between Nassau Ave. and Queens this weekend, so your options are either taking the L to Bedford and about a 20-minute walk, or the G to Nassau if you’re coming from Brooklyn and then hoofing it from there.

Baker’s striking high/low piano contrasts follow a hypnotically circling, glacial pace in the thirteen-plus minutes of the album’s opening track, Sashay. Subtly and slowly, her icicle accents grow more spacious, with the occasional unexpectedly playful accent. The second track, Command Voices – 251A is a lot more sinister, laced with Baker’s emphatic menace amid sepulchral rustles. Its eleven-minute second part is a pitch-black haunted house soundtrack complete with creaky inside-the-piano sonics and ghostly bells that finally come full circle with a long parade of macabre close harmonies.

Four Explosions Expanding From the Center is an awfully sardonic title for a deep-space Satie-esque tone poem echoing the album’s opening track as it grows more energetic. Quarks is a study in coy, fleeting accents followed by the brief spoken-word piece Identity Definitions, which contemplates how primitive attempts to rationalize existence still have resonance today.

The far more epic Lateral Phases & Beat Frequencies addresses interpersonal quandaries over drones and spacy squiggles. Headspace is as ambient and drifty as you would think. What Is Done in Silence builds a spot-on, sarcastically robotic cautionary scenario about getting caught in a digital snare. Baker works trippily oscillating loops in An Outcast; the album’s final cut is a coldly glimmering, practically 24-minute portrait of a dangerous powder drug, or so it would seem. It brings to mind the early loop collages of Phil Kline. Lots of flavors and lots of troubling relevance in an album which has a remarkably persistent awareness even as Baker messes with the listener’s imagination.

Quirk and Charm in David Lee Myers’ Analog Electronic Soundscapes

David Lee Myers released his debut, Gravity and Its Discontents, on cassette in 1984. Since then, he has a long history of coaxing unexpected sounds out of arcane devices, which was the name he recorded under for many years. His self-styled “feedback music” is 180 degrees from the shriek or whine of an overdriven amp. It’s both lively and atmospheric, which may seem like an oxymoron until you hear it, or find out that two of his major influences are electronic pioneer Tod Dockstader – with whom Myers collaborated – and also the Beatles. 

Myers’ extensive body of work comprises analog electronic music created completely free of interference from outside frequencies – which are almost invariably the reason why an amp will howl and scream if you push it under less than ideal sonic circumstances. His aptly titled yet dynamically diverse new album Ether Music is streaming at Starkland’s Bandcamp page, and he’s making a rare live appearance this Friday night, Dec 15 at 9 PM at New York’s Experimental Intermedia, 224 Centre St. at Grand, third floor; admission is $5.

Myers ges his sounds from what he calls a Feedback Workstation, which looks like Captain Sulu’s post on the Starship Enterprise but in the shape of an upright piano. Without getting overly technical, one of Myers’ great innovations is that each of its hundreds of channels is not only linked to every other one, but also loops back on itself. Myers at the controls is the orchestrator.

The result can be surreal, or lulling and peaceful, and deliciously psychedelic. The opening track has a subtly shifting drone behind what sounds like calm, matter-of-bact footfalls around a laboratory – this particular professor is anything but mad. Rigid and Fluid Bodies starts out as a bubbly aquarium, then goes into playfully echoey, blinking R2D2 territory and morphs into deep-space whale song.

Mysers works a series of shifts in Astabilized: cold, grim post-industrial Cousin Silas-style sonics, a quasar pulse through a Martian Leslie speaker, keening drones and sputters. What’s Happening Inside Highs and Lows is a rather wry study in slow fades and echoes. shifting between lathe and harmonica timbres. Arabic Science, as Myers sees it, is a contrast between calm ambience and and lava lamp waveforms rather than anything specifically Middle Eastern.

The Dynamics of Particles is sort of a sonic counterpart to those old screensavers where the ball rises until it bounces off the top of the frame – it becomes more animated as it goes along. Echoey long-tone phrases and sputters fade out, replaced by pitchy, asymmetrical loops in Radial-Axial: imagine Terry Riley at his tranciest.

Royale Polytechnique is Myers’ On the Run, followed by Growth Cones, the only instance where the music takes on a discernible melody in the traditional western scale – but it’s more Revolution 9  than, say, A Day in the Life. Myers closes with the epic Dorsal Streaming, neatly synopsizing the album with keening lathe tones, rhythmic and ambient contrasts, a mechanical dog in heat. Turn on, tune in, you know the drill.

Trippy Guitar Loopmusic from Xander Naylor

Xander Naylor played some of the most refreshingly unhinged guitar recorded in this century as a member of trumpeter Ben Syversen’s Cracked Vessel. Their lone album remains a high point in recent New York creative music, which is quite an achievement considering that Syversen is also a member of feral Balkan group Raya Brass Band.

Since the late zeros, Naylor has also pursued a solo career. His latest album, Arc, inspired by unnamed tragic losses, is completely different. It’s hypnotic, and loopy, and occasionally motorik, drawing on influences from mathrock to Zappa and Robert Fripp. Another theme is basically, “Look, ma, can you believe all the sounds I’ve got stashed away in my pedalboard?” It’s streaming at Bandcamp and available on limited edition cassette for just seven bucks; Naylor is playing the album release show tonight, Nov 3 at 8 PM at Greenpoint Gallery at 390 McGuinness Blvd. Take the G to Greenpoint Ave.

The opening traci, Pinball, is true to its tiltle: it’s a pinging guitar-and-bass instrumental with very subtle rhythmic shifts and a wryly funny ending. Bad For Glass is a tapping exercise that grows blippier as it goes along, then Naylor hits a pedal for an approximation of an acoustic piano.

The even shorter Hellespont also follows a trancey circle of loops, but it’s more spiky and vampy. Another miniature, Observing Silence layers deep-space atmospherics. By contrast, Appearances is another subtly shifting, loopy piece but sounds as if Naylor is playing a vintage resonator, at least before the remainder of his overdubs kick in.

Natural Born Relic comes across as a spoof of both EDM and early video game music. Glass House is Naylor messing around with belltones, while Ratchet is funny and squirrelly: why won’t this damn lid come off?

Elegy hints at gamelan music; then Naylor explores echo effects, skronky distortion and slow decays in How to Ward Off a Werewolf, the closest thing to Cracked Vessel’s ferocity here. He closes with the album’s most melodically interesting track, the atmospheric rainy-day tableau Dry Your Boots.

Pensively Entertaining Cinematic Soundscapes From the Mexican Avant Garde

This year’s Celebrate Mexico Now festival wound up yesterday at the Queens Museum with the multimedia performance of Paisajes Sonoros, a deliciously textural, boisterously entertaining, relentlessly catchy electroacoustic score to powerfully metaphorical projections by Vanessa Garcia Lembo, performed by violinist/keyboardist Carlo Nicolau and percussionist Vicente Rojo Cama.

The projections pondered humankind’s dubious impact on nature, and its many ramifications. One recurrent, provocative image was fingerprints or zoning diagrams superimposed on imposingly out-of-focus images of a massive, grey Mayan temple. Another persistent image was a twisted, bright crimson heart. The funniest sequence of all  was when the percussionist crinkled a couple of empty plastic water bottles together, running them through heavy-duty reverb while an old, faded black-and-white turn-of-the-century German postcard of bathers at Coney Island faded into and then out of the picture: look what I found in the waves, ma!

Another amusing interlude involved an old 1950s beatnik avant garde trope: rubbing two balloons together. Put enough reverb on them, and suddenly the squeak and squonk take on an unanticipated menace. Symbolism anyone?

The rest of the program’s twelve pieces, segueing into each other, were more pensive and often downright troubled. A handful turned out to be intimate arrangements of orchestral pieces from Nicolau’s recent album Music For the Moving Imagination. One of the more animated themes was a Romany-flavored violin melody and variations, which could have been Schubert. When Nicolau wasn’t playing that on the violin, he was layering shadowy ambience and white noise, bubbling through an uneasy microtonal patch on the keyboard. In more concretely melodic moments, he built lingering, austerely moody piano themes. Meanwhile, the percussion echoed and whooshed in and out, other times evoking steel pans or a gamelan via an array of singing bowls and small gongs spun through a vortex of effects.

The video aspect was often similarly grim. Something that could have been a mossy rock but also some kind of dead cetacean washed up on a beach; gritty industrial decay contrasting with serene, ornate doorways and architectural ornaments from bygone centuries. Yet ultimately both the music and visuals reflected a resolute optimism, hope residing in the handmade and the artistic rather than the machine. At the end, the musicians dedicated the suite to the survivors of the Mexico City earthquake, and also to the hope that cross-cultural collaboration will trump conflict. It made a vivid reminder that long before the days of Frida Kahlo or Luis Buñuel, Mexican artists have been a force in the avant garde.

Ominously Enveloping Ambience in La Equidistancia

Today’s Halloween album, streaming at Bandcamp, is A Strangely Isolated Place, by La Equidistancia, the dark ambient project of Kompakt’s Leandro Fresco and Rafael Anton Irisarri of Room 40. It’s less overtly menacing than allusively ominous, a storm looming on the distant horizon but with shafts of light filtering through.

A nebulous choir of voices awash in reverb rise as the first track, Cuando El Misterio Es Demasiado Impresionante, Es Imposible Desobedecer (When the Mystery Is Too Much, It’s Impossible to Disobey) gets underway. Bubbles of keys linger back in the mix, then a steady, staccato synth-piano rhythm moves to the center. Likewise, densely layered clouds shift through Bajo un Ocaso Desteñido (Under a Fading Sunset), the waves circling more tightly as the piece develops, then shifting to an unexpected calm.

Drips of wind chimes flicker against the synths’  echoing major third interval in Lo Esencial Es Invisible a Los Ojos (The Essential Is Invisible to the Eye): the way the duo imply a catchy folk tune as lingering, sustained guitar phrases rise is especially artful.

Las Palabras Son Fuente De Malentendidos (Words Are a Source of Misunderstanding – great title for an instrumental, huh?) – has a vaster, deep-space unease with hints of a brooding chromatic melody amid the grey expanse, Entre la Niebla (In the Mist) whirs and echoes, with what’s by now become a consistent trope: echoing highs in the right channel, tidally shifting lows in the left punctuated by the occasional blip, click or strike of one thing against another.

The final cut is Un Horizonte En Llamas (Horizon in Flames), a slow, tectonic gothic theme pushing wispy waterfall sonics out of the picture for moody minimalist guitar in the same vein as Brian Eno’s Apollo suite. Not for use while operating machinery.

Bleak, Chilly, Distantly Menacing Urban Soundscapes From the Metro Riders

In somber recognition of Halloween month, today’s album – streaming at Bandcamp – is Europe By Night, by Stockholm soundscaper Henrik Stelzer a.k.a. the Metro Riders. The album title is apt: Stelzer’s world is relentlessly overcast and stops after black fades to grey. The production is opaque and sounds analog, an early 80s lo-fi atmosphere Stelzer builds with vintage or neo-vintage synth textures spun through walkmans and other oldschool devices.

Coldly anonymous tenements, smog-stained bridges and endless expanses of concrete come to mind in the opening track, Stockholm 2024. It’s an icily syncopated, hypnotically loopy mood piece, plastically acidic Roland Juno organ swirling around over what sounds like echoey conga samples. Things get darker from there.

Tension on the Train follows a similar pattern, but with a groove that’s  not quite trip-hop and muddy, loopy synths that edge toward symphonic grandeur, but can’t escape the overwhelming claustrophobia. In lieu of plague-bearing rodents, Rats evokes more of the previous track’s motorik, semi-insulated subway car milieu.

As high-pressure waves squiggle and bubble tightly through the mix, Trauma alludes to a very, very, very famous horror movie theme (hint: the girl’s head does a 360). A New Dawn follows swirly, steady variations of an almost painfully simple synth riff where Stelzer just moves the bass around, ending with an unexpected and welcome joke.

Bruno Mattei –  an echoing shout-out to the low-budget Italian film director – sounds like something pretty much any kid messing around with Ableton could come up with. The mood lifts temporarily with Suburban Youth, which could be a cheery trip-hop stroll if not for that latin-influenced percussion loop. Endgame brings the album full circle. Fans of artists like Deathprod and Cousin Silas as well as obscure late 70s/early 80s dustbunny four-track sounds like Young Marble Giants can’t go wrong with this.