New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: electronic music

A Rare New York Appearance by Haunting Norwegian Soundscaper Deathprod

For more than twenty-five years, Helge Sten a.k.a. Deathprod has been creating hauntingly provocative sounds that are impossible to turn away from. Elements of minmalism, Eno-esque soundscapes, spectral, microtonal and film music all factor into what he does, but he transcends genre. Three of his European cult favorite albums – Treetop Drive, Imaginary Songs from Tristan da Cunha, and Morals and Dogma are being reissued by Smalltown Supersound and are all scheduled to be streaming at Bandcamp (follow the preceding three links or bookmark this page) He’s playing a rare New York live show on March 28 at around 9 at Issue Project Room, 22 Boerum Place in downtown Brooklyn; cover is $15/$12 stud/srs.

On the triptych that comprises three-quarters of Treetop Drive, originally released in 1994, the instruments are Sten’s “audio virus” and Hans Magnus Ryan’s violin. Steady minor-key chordal washes build a hypnotic backdrop, finally infiltrated by flitting, sepulchral shivers. A ghostly choir of sorts joins as the waves rise, and almost as if on cue, a wintry seaside tableau emerges. The second part, an assaultive industrial fugue, has a similarly insistent, pulsing quality. The spoken-word sample in the unexpectedly catchy, allusively motorik conclusion addresses a death fixation in late 20th century society that extends even to young children: creepy, at the very least. The final cut, Towboat, juxtaposes a calm minor arpeggio against waves of chaotic industrial noise

On 2004’s Morals and Dogma, Ryan also plays harmonium on one track, joined by Ole Henrik Moe on violin. The approach is more enveloping and layered: distant echoes of breaking waves, thunder, perhaps bombs and heavy artillery, are alluded to but never come into clear focus, raising the suspense and menace throughout the opening track, Trom. The almost nineteen-minute Dead People’s Things filters shivery flickers of violin, and then what could be a theremin, throughout a muted, downcast quasi-choral dirge. Orgone Donor, awash in a haze of shifts between major and minor, reaches for serenity – but Sten won’t allow anything so pat as a calm resolution. The final, enigmatically and ominously nebulous piece, Cloudchamber, is aptly titled. Heard at low volume, it could be soothing; the louder it gets, the more menacing it becomes. Perhaps Sten is telling us that just like life, death is what you make of it.

Batida Stirs Things Up at Lincoln Center

“Somebody asked me what I thought about Black Lives Matter,” Pedro Coquenão, a.k.a. Batida mused to the crowd gathered around the stage at Lincoln Center last night. He didn’t address the matter any further, letting his multimedia performance answer that question. Footage from a rare 1972 Angolan film by Sarah Maldoror flickered on the screen above the stage, two Africans weighing the pros and cons of societal class structure. One espoused a proto-trickle-down theory: the rich are good to be around because you can work for them. The other guy was more blase: “The rich exist to keep the poor down.”

Meanwhile, Batida’s drummer kept a brisk shuffle beat going, his two dancers, a man and a woman leaping and pouncing while the Angola-born, now Lisbon-based electronic musician/rapper/freedom fighter worked a spare, catchy, pinging melody into the mix, like a mbira through a reverb pedal. But nobody was dancing: everybody was watching the screen, apprehensively. That’s Batida’s steez, sort of George Clinton in reverse: free your mind and your lower extremities will follow.

Although the atrium space was packed, this was an unusually small crowd for Batida. He typically performs for thousands at big outdoor EDM festivals, using that platform as an opportunity for tireless advocacy for human rights worldwide, and in his war-torn native country, as documented by Amnesty International. In roughly an hour onstage, his show came across as an Afro-Portuguese take on Thievery Corporation, but minus the doctrinaire worldview, with the welcome addition of a withering sense of humor. Batida is one funny guy. He jabbed at the crowd with a torrent of cynical banter between numbers, with a plainspoken charisma akin to Iggy Pop or Rachid Taha. He was that self-aware: when he broke the fourth wall and entreated the gradeschoolers in the crowd to disbehave, or self-effacingly made fun of his own penchant for appropriating imagery, for example. And he was just as intense.

And he turned out to be a master at how to work a crowd. After he’d set the scene with with some matter-of-factly disturbing found footage from years of war in his native land, he’d run the visuals through a gel filter and pick up the pace. His samples were diverse and were absolutely fascinating, the most hypnotically entrancing one being a rare mid-70s wah-guitar-driven Angolan Afrobeat vamp that he said was noteworthy for not having drums (it did have what sounded like a djembe or two on it). Iimagine that, a dance music maven spinning the one Afrobeat tune on the planet without a drumbeat. Irony is not lost on this guy.

As scenes that weighed heavy postcolonial issues, such as the lingering effects of collaborating with enemy colonizers, shifted across the screen, the sonics and the beats grew more anthemic and the crowd surged. With a sardonic grin, Batida told them that “You’ll like this one, this one’s for the ladies, it works every time.” And then eventually painted himself into a corner while poking fun at just about every gender stereotype out there. The crowd got a kick out of that, but he also held their attention when he sent a shout-out to his compadres back home who’d been sprung by Amnesty Internation’s efforts after being jailed for a year for reading literature deemed subversive by the dictatorship.

“I’m so excited I could almost die,” confided Lincoln Center impresario Meera Dugal beforehand, who explained that it had been her dream to stage this show since discovering Batida’s music four years ago at Other Music. Then without missing a beat she scurried up to the front to join the dancers. In the back, a veteran chronicler of the New York music scene, still on the mend from a nasty injury, eventually rose from one of the press seats and began swaying back and forth. Physical therapy never felt so good.

The next show at the Lincoln Center atrium – the rectangular 62nd St. space where the most culturally diverse and happening acts perform – is Jan 5 at 7:30 PM with Burnt Sugar playing a “greatest hits” show, which might include everything from hard funk to ambient soundscapes to psychedelically danceable covers by James Brown, Prince, David Bowie and Steely Dan. As always, early arrival at these free shows is always a good idea.

Cocooning on Multiple Levels

If there’s ever been a time for soothing, enveloping sounds in New York, this is it. Two shows this week gave audiences a good idea of what’s available in an month where pretty much everybody’s women friends are afraid of losing their reproductive rights, everybody’s Mexican friends are worried about being lynched, and everybody’s up in arms about where they’re going to live after 1/19/17.

Virtuoso violist Ljova explained that he was new to loopmusic, so he cautioned the crowd at Barbes Tuesday night that they should take what they hear with a grain of salt. Then he launched into a characteristically ambitious solo soundscape that echoed the rigor of his Moscow conservatory training, his wide-ranging eclecticism as one of this era’s great film composers, as well as the wry humor and irony that pervade his work across the board. His setup was pretty simple, mirroring the directness of his melodies: his signature, custom-made six-string “famiola” running through delay, loop and volume pedals. It was interesting to watch him think on his feet: when he hit on a riff he liked, he ran with it. There were also a few times when he’d hit on one he didn’t think worth keeping, scowled a little and then moved on.

Then the great Syrian-born clarinetist Kinan Azmeh joined the festivities. While his music can be kinetic – he leads a fantastic jazz group, his City Band – it more frequently tends to be on the serious side, often extremely poignant. The early part of the duo’s calm, methodically shifting improvisation echoed the eerie washes of Azmeh’s upcoming album with the similarly brilliant Turkish guitarist and soundscaper Erdem Helvacioglu. But Ljova was in a restless mood, and began to pull away, and Azmeh stayed in sync with some judiciously spaced, bubbly phrases in contrast to his more usual brooding resonance. At the end of the set, the two joined in an enigmatically lilting, minor-key waltz by the violist. The two have played together many times, although this was their first joint improvisation. Azmeh plays his song cycle Songs for Days to Come, featuring the work of Syrian poets in exile, tomorrow night, Nov 19 at 8 PM at Symphony Space with pianist Lenore Smith, soprano Dima Orsho and cellist Kinan Abou-Afach. $25 tix are still available as of today. Ljova stays busy on the road: his next gig as a bandleader is with his vibrantly cinematic Kontraband string ensemble on Dec 3 at 7:30 PM PM at the San Fernando Cathedral, 115 W Main Plaza in San Antonio, TX, reservations to (210) 464-1534 are required.

The soundscapes played last night at Spectrum by guitarist Martin Bisi, multi-instrumentalist Thursday Fernworthy and ambient music artist Robert Pepper were more  lushly enveloping, a dense, misty, slowly swirling vortex. Seated within an audience with closed eyes and slowly bobbing heads, just about everybody reclined in a comfy armchair, it felt weird to rise up and actually watch the musicians at work rather than  drifting off in a surrealistic tequila buzz. Although the overall sound was contiguous, a single river fed by a kaleidoscope of streams, there was a lot of interplay and camaraderie among the three. There were distinct segments where each musician essentially got to lead the trio, whether that meant Pepper intoning into what looked like a mini-digeridoo, or Fernworthy sending keening violin overtones spiraling through her mixers, or Bisi doing the same with an emphatically minimalist riff or gentle chordal wash. Meanwhile, trippy projections played on a screen behind them, the best being a slow walk into the woods, Blair Witch style. Likewise, about two-thirds of the way through their roughly forty-minute improvisation, the three laced their ultraviolet backdrop with bracing close harmonies, jarring rhythmic hits and lower, more distinctly ominous drones.

Pepper books and plays the regular Ambient Chaos series at Spectrum, typically on the third Thursday of the month starting at around 9 in the welcoming, comfortable second-floor Ludlow Street space. Bisi and Fernworthy – someone whom Facebook does not believe is an actual person, notwithstanding the evidence of her performance here – have been known to do live atmospherics at Bisi’s legendary Gowanus digs, BC Studios on Sunday evenings. It’s not a public venue per se, but if you know them or care to keep in touch, you may be able to get an invite.

Ambient Comfort and Distant Disquiet from Martin Bisi and Genevieve Kammel Morris

For those whose passion is diving as deep as possible into hypnotically swirly, psychedelically atmospheric sounds, there’s a tantalizing show coming up on Nov 17 at 11 PM at Spectrum when guitarist Martin Bisi joins forces with multi-keyboardist Genevieve Kammel Morris and Ambient Chaos impresario Robert Pepper. Bisi is best known as a purveyor of menacingly melodic art-rock (and for producing famous people like Swans, and Herbie Hancock, and Sonic Youth, and the Dresden Dolls, among many others). But he’s just as interesting when he jams: either way, there’s always a tune percolating through the mix somewhere.

This past evening at his legendary Gowanus digs, BC Studios – which deserve to be turned into a museum and landmarked – Bisi put down his guitar and mixed live with his usual psychedelic flair while Kammel Morris and Gabe Raines spun slowly oscillating, subtly shifting shades from banks of both analog and digital synths, plus flute, cymbals, a series of mixers and what sounded like an Indian veena but turned out to be an electric violin. The result was comforting and womb-like, an immensely satisfying experience considering the shock and horror of the past week. But the performance also had an edge.

It was akin to a goth chick falling asleep in your arms: soft skin, sharp shoulderblades underneath. Silky black hair that smells of acrylic and clove cigarettes. The acrid petrochemicals of her shiny black lipstick linger on your tongue. Her sleep is troubled, her breathing shallow and uneven. Once in awhile she mumbles something like “The music is reversible, turn back.” You reach to stroke her arm and the steel of one of her rings slices your wrist. There’s no pain, but you’re bleeding. Do you stop the blood? No, you let it drip onto the futon. She’s a goth chick. She’d like that.

Speaking in musical terms, uneasy close harmonies pulsed against a comfortable octave drone and then receded into the ether as the work went on. Astringently metallic timbres rose and fell while a comfortable sostenuto loomed and keened underneath. There were a few instances where the acoustic instruments could be heard for what they were before being spun out into space and then refracted in what seemed like dozens of concentric spheres.

A violin riff signaled a change, and then the goth chick morphed into Galadriel in a Barbarella outfit while warm, belltone chords rang out from one of the synths and a comet tail of attractive, baroque-tinged major-key melody began to emerge, winding down to a gentle wash of organ tones. The audience stretched out on the studio carpeting in a smoke-machine haze as prismatic visuals rose from the floor, fading from red to green to an aurora borealis and then back, many of the spectators choosing to view all this through dollar-store 3-D glasses supplied by the hosts. There’s no guarantee that there’ll be candles, or a smoke machine for that matter, at Spectrum, or that the performance will have much in common with this beyond enveloping bliss underscored with distanct menace. Either way, it will put you in some sort of trance.

What about the goth chick?

You know the deal. Right?

She disappeared. That’s what goth chicks do.

Lesley Flanigan Builds Uneasily Enveloping Sonics at National Sawdust

Singer and sound sculptor Lesley Flanigan headlined at National Sawdust Friday night with the epic title track to her new ep, Hedera. Onstage, depending on the piece she’s creating, sometimes she ends up doing a floor ballet of sorts, a constant, rigorously physical dialogue with the mixer and speakers and mics positioned around her. This was not one of those situations. On her knees, brow knitted, almost motionless, she switched on an old, broken tape recorder, amplified to the rafters, and launched into the piece..

On album, and to an extent on the new ep, Flanigan’s sonic creations often have a dreamy quality. Not so at this performance. The sound was LOUD. National Sawdust has banks of custom-designed speakers positioned way up in the ceiling- think Issue Project Room multiplied by a factor of ten. This amplified both the distant menace of the mechanical loop as well as the dichotomy between that and Flanigan’s bright, resonant vocals. In the studio, she’s a strong and nuanced singer, with an unadorned, pure pitch: she was even stronger here. Adding one layer of vocals after another, she built a many-faceted sonic Rothko, up to a sudden moment of insistent angst. The effect was viscerally chilling. The recorded version seems to reach a calm resolution; this performance was more ambiguous and unsettling.

The opening acts were a mixed bag. Singer Daisy Press and keyboardist Nick Hallett joined forces for a trio of Hildegard Von Binghen songs, which they reinvented as starlit, twinkling art-rock. Hallet supplied a kaleidoscope of deep-space textures and baroque-pop loops for Press to soar over. There was an allusively Middle Eastern quality to her ripe, wounded soprano, channeling buttery, lascivious allusions in Latin: a cantor or a muezzin might have sounded much the same around 1150 AD. Getting to hear Flanigan and Press back to back was a rare treat: the former gets credit for having the guts to follow the latter on the bill.

Turntablist Maria Chavez built a pastiche out of spoken word albums; the only thing missing was “Number nine, number nine, number nine.” There was a joke about noisy neighbors that drew some chuckles, otherwise, it could have gone on for half as long and nobody would have suffered. Or maybe you just had to be 420ing a little early to appreciate it.

As for the night’s first act, C. Spencer Yeh, it took nerve to give the crowd a fat, raised middle finger for as long as he did. Puckering up and running his vocal pop-pops through a mixer, he first created a rain-on-the-roof tableau that suddenly became just a single stream of liquid. That was hilarious, and foreshadowed the rest of his act. That quickly became the kid upstairs at 6 AM bouncing the basketball on your ceiling. Over. And. Over. Again. And then farting noises. Self-indulgent? Totally. Puerile? Uh huh. Pure punk rock? No doubt. Yeh gets props for being fearless, but be aware that if he’s on the bill, you may be subjected to something like this.

Rapturously Enigmatic Soundscapes and a National Sawdust Performance by Lesley Flanigan

Lesley Flanigan is sort of this decade’s counterpart to Laurie Anderson. Like Anderson, Flanigan has a background in sculpture, which informs her dynamic, sometimes disarmingly intimate, sometimes toweringly lush soundscapes. Where Anderson leads an ensemble on violin or keys, Flanigan creates her aural sculptures with layers of vocals and custom-made speakers, which she builds herself and utilizes for subtle layers of feedback. She has a characteristially enveloping, hypnotic new album, Hedera – streaming at Bandcamp – and a show on April 1 (no joke) at 7 PM at National Sawdust, sharing a bill with similarly adventurous vocalists C Spencer Yeh, Daisy Press & Nick Hallet, and Maria Chavez. Cover is $20

The album comprises two epic tracks. The title cut, set to the looping, trance-inducing rhythm of a broken tape deck, subtly builds variations on an otherworldly, strangely disquieting two-chord vamp. Without effects, Flanigan sings in a strong yet ethereal voice that takes on an even more otherworldly quality as she subtly adds layers and layers of to the mix, with subtle changes in reverb, rhythm and timbre. As the piece rise to the level of a fullscale choir, Flanigan caps it with  a lead line that soars overhead with uncharacteristic angst. The dynamic underneath – cold mechanical loop versus reassuringly immersive human voices – underscores that unease. But as the voices reach a long peak at the end, there’s a sense of triumph in the sonic cathedral.

The second track – the b-side, if you want – is Can Barely Feel My Feet. Flanigan’s minute shifts in pitch add an enigmatic edge to the lustrous resonance, raised sevefal notches when oscillations from the speakers come into play. While Flanigan’s music is typically dreamy and peaceful, she gives herself a real workout in live performance. There’s practically a dance component to her stage work, lithe and agile as she tirelessly glides and scooches between her mixing board and speakers, even more impressive considering that all the while she doesn’t miss a beat and her voice continues to resonate, unwaveringly.

Jane LeCroy and Bradford Reed Challenge Your Place in the Universe

Jane LeCroy and Bradford Reed‘s kinetically hypnotic, thought-provoking performance last night at Dixon Place was a booster shot to the synapses. Becoming immersed in their performance was like re-reading Steppenwolf, or La Nausée, a gut check to make sure all systems are still working. Reed played not his famous invention, the pencilina, but a thicket of multicolored wires and effects, like something from under the hood of Martin Rev’s earliest synthesizer. Reed activated it by beating out a steady, syncopated groove on a snare and an ominous-looking, upside-down, jet-black steel chemical drum, then running those beats through the maze of wires and boxes for textures that varied from bleeps and bloops to gentle pulses and washes. The chemistry between the two performers was intuitive, varying the dynamics as the emotional arc of LeCroy’s vocals and poetry rose and fell. Meanwhile, time-lapse footage of boats on the Hudson and cloud formations overhead flitted and shifted shape, projected on a screen above the stage.

LeCroy alternated between a tersely considered spoken-word delivery imbued with a puckish existentialist humor, and hazy, dreamy vocals informed by vintage boudoir soul music. On the night’s most dramatic and intense piece, her voice took on a stern, stark, defiant quality that drew heavily on centuries-old African-American spirituals. Steadily and methodically, she drew the audience in and never let them go. Trying to figure out what was improvised and what was not was a lot of fun. As the music and grooves unwound, it was hard not to get lost in them, but LeCroy’s sometimes gentle, sometimes biting challenges to the audience peppered the reverie and, intentionally or not, jarred the crowd out of their dream state.

The grim progression of time, and by implication, the ravages of age, were recurrent themes. LeCroy offered matter-of-fact cajolement to anyone willing to listen, to exercise their freedom and seize the moment. But her tightly crystallized litany of images and mantras owed far more to Sartre or Kierkegaard than to any new age source. Her funniest stream of consciousness rap involved teeth and what happens to them when they’re neglected. Her final piece was an improvisation based on themes suggested by the audience, which turned out to be kindness and smoke. How she wove those images together into a bigger picture, bringing her calmly determined, angst-fueled contemplation full circle, was as subtly amusing as it was nonchalantly and unselfconsciously profound: LeCroy loves double entendres and subtext and can’t resist employing as much as she can come up with, on the fly, plotting her next move. The experience was as therapeutic as it was challenging.

Cutting Edge Sounds at This Year’s MATA Festival

Early in the second part of this evening’s portion of this year’s MATA Festival at the Kitchen, the audience looked on expectantly as a steadily oscillating timbre echoed through the auditorium. It was the motor rewinding the video screen above the stage. Was this part of the program, or just incidental noise? Moments like these are why the festival is worth checking out, year after year. They take more chances than pretty much anybody in the avant garde music world and cast a wider net than most, both in terms of finding global programming, and simply sonics. Could an electric motor be music? The answer, more often than not here, seems to be, “why not?”

The night got off to a hilarious start with a US premiere, Mirela Ivecevic‘s Orgy of References. Mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer made the most of its over-the-top satire of music-academy pretentiousness, delivering it with operatic high camp against a similarly sardonic mashup of florid dramatic themes, flurries of crowd noise and oration. The text was Ivecevic’s own resume, Fischer having a great time with every gushing, adulatory adjective – and then relished the chance to pronounce the word “oeuvre.” On one level, Ivecevic can personally relate to how misleading and utterly useless a composer or musician’s CV can be, since she books an ongoing series in her native Croatia. On the other hand, she got Abigail Fischer not only to namecheck her but to sing her resume. If that’s not “making it” in the avant world, you figure out what is.

Another highlight and US premiere was Jasna Velickovic‘s solo performance on an instrument of her own invention, the velikon, an amplified board on which she manipulates a series of magnets and coils producing oscillations which grow lower in timbre as they become more magnetized. What began as blips and beats slowly took on jawharp-like warp and then grew lower and lower until she was approaching stygian ocean liner diesel depths. Was she going to take it all the way to where there would be no sound, only subsonics? Not quite. Watching this unfold – with Velickovic’s perfect, practically metronomic timing, as she played a furious chess game of sorts with the objects on the board – was as thrilling as it was to hear. It was like a more smallscale take on Eli Keszler‘s similarly murky sonic explorations.

Even more intense to witness was dancer Melanie Aceto, her wrists and ankles attached to fishing line that manipulated strings inside a piano via a series of pulleys assembled overhead. Performing the New York premiere of Megan Grace Beugger‘s Liaison, Aceto began carefully and fluidly before evoking the relentless angst of a prisoner straining against her bonds. And the choreography actually produced genuine melodies, albeit simple ones, typically low drones and hammering motives (the low A and B flat were conjoined and attacked to one of the pulleys) against keening high overtones. Which would rise, raising the angst factor every time Aceto retreated back toward the piano after another seeming attempt to break free of her shackles. As the frame holding the pulleys over the piano trembled and swayed, the spectre of real horror – Aceto cutting a carpal vein or even her jugular, as she pulled and twisted – appeared within the realm of possibility. As far as sheer fireworks were concerned, it was impossible to top – and happily, there was no bloodshed.

There were also a couple of other works on the program, one a brief, mechanistically blippy audio-video montage  – ostensibly taken during the first Gulf War – sped up long past the point of unrecognizability. Maybe that was the point – although that point would have been lost if there hadn’t been program notes for it. There was also a droning piece by the Montreal trio of Adam Basanta, Julian Stein and Max Stein that paired long sustained electronic tones, simple chords and sudden electronic cadenzas with amplified lamps of assorted sizes and sounds. Given the three guys onstage with their laptops, there were umpteen opportunities for interplay and drollery that went by the board. Rather than any kind of conversation, amusing or otherwise, it evoked the experience of living in a building with bad wiring. Somebody comes home, turns on the AC…everybody on the hall loses power. Then somebody hits the breaker box and it’s back.

The MATA Festival continues through April 18; the remaining schedule is here.

A Darkly Entrancing New Album and a Shea Stadium Show from Opal Onyx

Opal Onyx sound like Portishead with a much better singer and more organic, imaginative, atmospheric production values. Frontwoman/guitarist Sarah Nowicki varies her approach depending on the song: her voice can be acerbic and biting, or misty and dreamy, or bloodcurdlingly direct. Matthew Robinson adds texture and terse tunefulness on cello, lapsteel and keys, while Heidi Sabertooth’s electronics enhance the otherwordly ambience. Rich Digregorio plays drums and Cedar Appfell joins on bass on the more propulsive numbers. While some of the tracks on their new album Delta Sands – streaming at Bandcamp – sway along on a trip-hop groove, others are more nebulous and minimalistic. It’s pretty dark music, and much of it you can get seriously lost in. They’re playing Shea Stadium in Bushwick on Dec 9 at 10ish, door charge TBA.

The opening diptych, Black & Crimson could easily pass for a song from the Portishead Roseland album, Nowicki’s eerie chromatics rising high over a staggered, loopy backdrop; then it hits a straight-ahead trip-hop sway. Personal is a big anthem:  the band takes elegantly fingerpicked electric and acoustic guitar tracks and loops them while swirling textures filter through the mix behind them, Noveller style. Likewise, Evaun makes stadium rock out of a darkly bluesy vamp – but keeps a tense, cinematic pulse going, quiet drums way back in the mix with the atmospherics.

Iron Age begins with a minimalist insistence, like Randi Russo as produced by Daniel Lanois, maybe – the music calms, but the menace persists as the echoing vortex grows thicker. Both Fruit of Her Loins and The Devil blend bluesy minimalism and eerie, chromatically-charged cinematics, Nowicki’s impassioned vocals sailing over the murk behind them.

Desperate also evokes orchestrated Portishead, but with cumulo-nimbus Pink Floyd sonics. Arrows Wing begins as folk noir before the rippling keys and atmospheric washes take it even further into the shadows. The album winds up with the stark Bright Red Canyons – just Nowicki’s acoustic guitar and vocals – and then the woundedly echoing title track. Fans of artsy acts as diverse as St. Vincent and My Brightest Diamond will love this.

A Riveting Patti Smith Premiere at the French Institute

Considering that France is spiritual home to Patti Smith‘s music and art, it made sense that she would premiere her latest composition, Killer Road, at the French Institute last night. At the sold-out show at the Institute’s Florence Gould Hall, she worked a somewhat more low-key take on the spontaneous, literary-inspired performance art magic of her early collaborations with Lenny Kaye, but with 21st century production values.

Killer Road is an atmospheric electroacoustic setting of the last poems written by legendary gothic chanteuse Nico, with music provided by Smith’s daughter Jesse Paris Smith in tandem with indie classical chamber ensemble Soundwalk Collective. The trio – Stephan Crasneanscki, Simone Merli and Kamran Sadeghi – moved nimbly between mixers and singing bowls while Smith fille – trained as a pianist -colored the music with percusssion, glockenspiel and a mysterious bowed instrument (an Ethiopian riti?) when she wasn’t rubbing the inside of the bowls for lingering, resonant washes of sound, often in gentle harmony. Meanwhile, samples of Nico’s harmonium emanted from the mixing desk, along with found sounds from the seaside and the forest, an ironic juxtaposition with Nico’s doomed, imagistic texts.

It would be an exaggeration to explain them away as a self-penned obituary: that describes pretty much everything Nico ever wrote from day one. Smith mère parsed them pensively, often landing on a central phrase and running it like a musical loop for extra emphasis. When she broke the fourth wall, that was welcome comic relief from the relentless bleakness of what she’d been reading and occasionally singing, the shamanistic, mesmerizing quality of the latter bringing to mind the work of Patti Smith-influenced songwriter Randi Russo. Interesting how these things come full circle, isn’t it?

As the show revealed, the erstwhile Krista Paffgen wrote these lyrics not in her native German but in the English in which she recorded most of her songs. Many of them were fragmentary, speaking of utter desolation, abandonment and despair. Some rather tender lines seemingly dedicated to her son intimated that he would be surrounded by insensitivity and cluelessness, yet he’d rise above it all (a little projecting on mom’s part, maybe?). Though Nico is remembered as an existentialist icon, if her lyric junkyard is to be taken at face value, there were mentions of an afterlife and a possible reference to her father, whom she lost at a young age. There was also occasional bleak humor, notably a sarcastic dig at a nameless guy whose self-described empty heart didn’t stop him from writing her love songs. And the coda, with its references to bent spokes on a bicycle wheel – Nico died at the handlebars of hers, in a ditch in Ibiza after nodding off on heroin – seemed to be the point at which Smith gave a graceful adieu to an artist who’d inspired her more than it might seem. Then again, it’s hard to think of an edgy woman songwriter who came of age forty years ago who wasn’t influenced by Nico.

This concert was part of the French Institute’s current Crossing the Line festival of avant garde performance. Upcoming musical events include 600 Highwaymen‘s creepy collaboration with David Cale, Employee of the Year – performed by six girl actors and told from the point of view of a gradeschooler who loses her home and family in a fire – on October 15-16, and then sound sculptor Ryoji Ikeda‘s futuristic multimedia extravaganza, Superposition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Oct 17-19.