New York Music Daily

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Tag: film music

An Iconic Noir Piano/Vocal Duo Put Out the Best Album of 2017 So Far

Town and Country, the new duo album by iconic noir pianist Ran Blake and his longtime collaborator, singer Dominique Eade, opens with with Lullaby, from the 1955 serial killer film Night of the Hunter. It’s over in less than a minute. Blake plays icy upper-register chromatics behind Eade’s wary resonance, more a wish than a convincing statement that “Birds will sing in the willows…hush!”

It’s hard to think of a more appropriate way to open a protest jazz record in 2017.

The other piece from that film score, Pretty Fly, isn’t that much longer, Blake’s allusive, Debussyesque pointillisms and reflecting-pool harmonies in tandem with Eade’s similarly allusive narrative of childhood death. On their 2011 masterpiece Whirlpool, the two had fun reinventing jazz standards as noir set pieces. Beyond the existential angst, this new album has a more distinctly populist focus.

Like every other artistic community, the jazz world has shown a solidarity not seen since the 1960s. The divide between the forces of hope and the forces of tyranny has never been more distinct, and artists are responding. Of all the protest jazz albums coming out – Noah Preminger’s was the first, and trombonist Ryan Keberle has an excellent one due out next month – this might be the best of all of them.

Jazz versions of Dylan songs are usually dreadful, but this duo’s take of It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) outdoes the original  – although Ingrid Olava’s version is awfully good. Eade’s rapidfire articulation underscores the venom and bitterness in Dylan’s exasperated capitalist treadmill tirade as Blake anchors it with his signature blend of eerie glimmer and murk.

Likewise, their take of Moon River is everything you could possibly want from that song. Again, Eade’s optimism is guarded, to say the least, with the same emotion if less theatrics than the version by Carol Lipnik and Matt Kanelos.

The unselfconscious pain in Eade’s plainspoken delivery in the first of two takes of the old Appalachian ballad West Virginia Mine Disaster resounds gently over what becomes a ghost boogie, Blake channeling centuries of blues-infused dread. The more insistent, angrier version that appears later on is arguably even more intense.

The spiritual Elijah Rock follows a jagged and torn vector rather than the mighty swinging drive that pretty much every gospel choir pulls out all the stops for, Eade anchoring it as Blake prowls around in the lows. He may be past eighty now, but his bleak vision is undiminished. In the same vein, the duo bring out all the grisly detail in the old English lynching ballad The Easter Tree.

As with Dylan, doing Johnny Cash as jazz is a minefield, but the version of Give My Love to Rose here echoes the stern New England gospel of The Church on Russell Street from Blake’s iconic 1961 collaboration with Jeanne Lee, The Newest Sound Around. Eade hits a chilly peak channeling nonstop uncertainty over Blake’s fractured blues stroll in Moonglow, which segues into the Theme from Picnic, an apt choice considering that Moonglow appears in that film’s score.

Thoreau features a spoken word passage from Walden over Blake’s distantly Ivesian backdrop.”You’ve got that wanderlust to roam,” Eade intones coyly as Open Highway gets underway: “No, I don’t,” Blake’s steady, brooding piano replies. The playfully creepy piano-and-vocalese number Gunther is based on a twelve-tone row by Blake’s old New England Conservatory pal, third-stream pioneer Gunther Schuller.

Their take of Moonlight in Vermont is more starless than starry, flipping the script yet again with potently dark results. Goodnight, Irene – the album’s title track, essentially – takes the bittersweetness and futility of Leadbelly’s original to new levels: this is a suicide song, after all.

There are also several solo Blake miniatures here. Harvest at Massachusetts General Hospital. an angst-fueled, close-harmonied, leadfoot stroll with a personality straight out of Titicut Follies, is represented by two versions. And the bell motives – always a favorite Blake trope, and a powerfully recurrent one here – are especially poignant in the elegaic Moti.

This isn’t just the best protest jazz album of the year so far, it’s the best album of 2017. Where can you hear it? You can catch a couple of tracks at Sunnyside Records’ page.

Moist Paula Henderson Brings Her Starry, Playful Improvisations Back to Greenpoint

Baritone sax star Moist Paula Henderson is, among other things, the not-so-secret weapon in gonzo gospel-funk pianist/showman Rev. Vince Anderson’s wild jamband. Last night at Union Pool, she was in a characteristically devious mood, having all sorts of fun in between the notes. But she’s not limited to baritone sax. Last month at Troost, she played a fascinatingly enveloping, psychedelic show with multi-instrumentalist and film composer Dorothea Tachler and inventor/guitar shredder Nick Demopoulos. She’s back there tomorrow night, April 26 at around 9 in a duo with Demopoulos, who will no doubt be improvising on the SMOMID, his own electronic invention that looks like a vintage keytar would look if such things existed back in the 50s.

Beyond her work as a hardworking sidewoman, Henderson is also a great wit as a composer. And she’s not limited to baritone sax, either: like the Sun Ra Arkestra’s Marshall Allen, she frequently employs the EWI (electronic wind instrument) for her more adventurous projects. Her most recent solo album, Moist Paula’s Electric Embouchere – streaming at Bandcamp – is a series of EWI compositions that harken back to the playfully cinematic pieces she explored with her late-zeros electroacoustic act Secretary, while also echoing her work with legendary downtown punk-dance sax-bass-drums trio Moisturizer.

The album’s opening track, I Dream of Dreams on Wheels juxtaposes wispy, fragmented, woozily tremoloing upper-register accents over a wryly shuffling, primitive, 70s style drum machine beat. We Always Fought on Thanksgiving – Henderson is unsurpassed at titles – is typical example of how she artfully she can take a very simple low-register blues-scale riff and build a loopy tune around it. 

Awake Against One’s Will is as surreal and distantly ominous as a starry dreamscape can be, awash in ambient waves and gamelanesque flickers. Old Ass Air Mattress is a jaunty electronic strut over a buzzy pedal note that threatens to implode any second: if there’s anybody alive who can translate sound into visuals, it’s Moist Paula. 

Riskily, She Named her 13th Child Friday sounds like P-Funk on bath salts, a rapidfire series of sonic phosphenes over which she layers the occasional droll, warpy accent. The album’s final cut is the mini-epic  Trick Or Treat Suite, ironically its calmest, most spacious and gamelanesque number, spiced with the occasional wry, unexpected swell amidst the twinkles and ripples. It’s like a sonic whippit except that it’s not as intense and it lasts longer. 

Bryan and the Aardvarks: The Ultimate Deep-Space Band

It’s impossible to think of a more apt choice of players to evoke an awestruck deep-space glimmer than vibraphonist Chris Dingman, pianist Fabian Almazan and singer Camila Meza. Back them with the elegantly propulsive drums of Joe Nero and bassist-bandleader Bryan Copeland, and you have most of the crew on Bryan and the Aardvarks’ majestic, mighty new album Sounds from the Deep Field, streaming at Bandcamp. Saxophonist Dayna Stephens adds various shades with his EWI (electronic wind instrument) textures. They’re playing the album release show on April 27 at the Jazz Gallery, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. Cover is $22.

Over the past few years, the band have made a name for themselves with their bittersweetly gorgeous epics, and this album, inspired by Hubble Telescope images from the furthest reaches of space, is no exception. The opening number, Supernova is much less explosive than the title implies: it’s an expansive, almost imperceptibly crescendoing epic set to a steady, dancing midtempo 4/4 groove, Almazan’s purposeful ripples mingling with subtle wafts from the EWI and Meza’s wordless vocals, setting the stage for Dingman’s raptly glistening coda. Meza doesn’t play guitar on this album: that’s Jesse Lewis’ subtle but rich and constantly shifting textures.

Dingman and Almazan build and then drop back from a hypnotic, pointillistic, uneasily modal interweave as the rhythm of Eagle Nebula circles and circles, subtly fleshed out with Meza’s meteor-shower clarity and the occasional wry wisp from Stephens. Subtle syncopations give the distantly brooding Tiny Skull Sized Kingdom hints of trip-hop, Meza calmly setting the stage for an unexpectedly growling, increasingly ferocious Lewis guitar solo

Echoes of Chopin, a contemporaneous American Protestant hymnal and John Lennon as well echo throughout Soon I’ll Be Leaving This World. Almazan’s gently insistent, stern chords build to a trick turnaround, then Nero and Dingman finally come sweeping in and the lights go up. By the time the warpy electonic effects kick in, it’s obvious that this is not a death trip – at least not yet.

Meza’s tender, poignant vocals rise as the swaying waves of The Sky Turned to Grey build toward Radiohead angst. It’s the first of two numbers here with lyrics and the album’s most straight-ahead rock song, fueled by Lewis’ red-sky guitar solo. By contrast, Nero’s lighthanded, tricky metrics add to the surrealism of Strange New Planet,  a disarmingly humorous mashup of Claudia Quintet and Weather Report.

Interestingly, Bright Shimmering Lights isn’t a vehicle for either Dingman or Almazan: it’s a resonant Pat Metheny-ish skyscape that grows more amusing as the timbres cross the line into P-Funk territory. It segues into LV 426, a miniature that recalls Paula Henderson’s recent, irresistibly funny adventures in electronics.

Meza’s balmy, wistful vocals waft through Magnetic Fields, the closest thing to a traditional jazz ballad here, lit up by a lingering Dingman solo. Nero’s dancing traps, Dingman’s shivery shimmers and Almazan’s twinkle mingle with Lewis’ pensive sustain and Almazan’s rapidfire, motorik electric piano in To Gaze Out the Cupola Module. the album’s closing cut.

The next time we launch a deep-space capsule, we should send along a copy of this album. If anybody out there finds it and figures out what it is, and how to play it, and can perceive the sonics, it could be a soundtrack for their own mysterious voyage through the depths.

Can Iconoclasts Be Iconic?

It’s hard to believe that it’s been thirty years since Iconoclast, one of the world’s definitive noir jazz acts, put out their first album. Since then, the duo of saxophonist/violinist Julie Joslyn and drummer/pianist Leo Ciesa have built a distinctive body of work that’s part rainswept nocturnes, part edgy downtown improvisation and part punk jazz. Their brand-new thirtieth anniversary album, aptly titled Driven to Defiance, is due out momentarily, and the duo have an album release show on April 7 at 7 PM at stage 2 at Michiko Studios, 149 W 46 St on the second floor.

The album opens with the title track, rising from Ciesa’s spare, ominously crescendoing, echoey drum intro, then Joslyn’s similarly spare, bittersweet late-night streetcorner sax takes over. It’s been a pretty desolate journey, but not an unrewarding one.

Fueled by Joslyn’s violin, One Hundred Verticals builds from horizontal Americana, through a bracingly microtonal dance to gleefully marauding shred. Too Late to Worry, with its catchy, mantra-like sax hook and artfully shifting polyrhythms, comes across as a mashup of Raya Brass Band and legendary downtown punk-sax band Moisturizer. Likewise, More of Plenty is awash in biting Balkan tonalities, from a tongue-in-cheek, icily dripping Ciesa solo piano intro to Joslyn’s airy sax multitracks.

The two follow Ciesa’s judiciously strolling, Schoenbergian piano piece Thinking Thoughts with You Are So Very Touchable, his muted stalker drums eerily anchoring Joslyn’s gentle, lyrical sax. Spheres of Influence is Iconoclast at their sardonic, epically assaultive best, a cackling, chattering, often hilarious Tower of Babel that would make an apt theme for Donald Trump’s next reality tv show, assuming he’s around to do one.

The Flat Magnetic Girl is a jaunty, honking strut, and the catchiest tune on the album…with a trick ending. Although nine minutes long and awash in moody resonance, the mini-suite Part of the Hour, with its menacing jazz-poetry interlude, is no less tuneful.

Ciesa’s intricately tuned snare and toms develop a countermelody under Joslyn’s somber sax in The Customary Slip. He does the same thing throughout the neat clave-funk-punk of Luck is Relative. There’s also a bonus track, wryly titled Take 18 (Live at Funkadelic), a playfully plucky, shrieky violin-and-drums theme that sounds like it was recorded at the legendary, labarynthine rehearsal space’s old Flower District location. Perennially fresh and always with a dark undercurrent, Iconoclast have more than earned themselves iconic status.

A Contrast in Sonics: Matana Roberts and Supersilent at the Poisson Rouge Last Night

Matana Roberts stole the show at the Poisson Rouge last night. And she played solo, without the electronic rig she often employs. Purposefully, with a disarming, often shattering directness, she built songs without words, drawing on two centuries of gospel, blues and a little swing jazz. The first number was a matter-of-factly strolling gospel tune, more or less. After that, she developed a conversation for two or maybe even three voices, calm and resolute versus more agitated: Eric Dolphy and Coltrane together came to mind.

Although she has daunting extended technique and can squall with the best of them, the singing quality of her tone (which critics would have called cantabile in her days as a classical musician) along with her gentle melismatics told stories of hope and resilience rather than terror. In between numbers, sometimes mid-song, she talked to the crowd with a similarly intimate matter-of-factness. A shout-out to Bernie Sanders met with stony silence – this was a $20 ticket, after all, and beyond the means of a lot of 99-percenters – but by the end of the set, she’d won over everyone. “I don’t think Trump has four years in him,” she mused, which met with a roar of applause.

Roberts explained that for her dad, D.L. Roberts – whom she recently lost – music was an inspiration for political engagement. Her most recent solo album – streaming at Bandcamp – is dedicated to the activists at Standing Rock and has a subtle American Indian influence.

As she wound up her tantalizingly brief set, short of forty minutes onstage, she engaged the crowd, directing them to sing a single, rhythmic tone and then played judicious, sometimes stark phrases around it. In between riffs, she commented on how surreal the months since the election have been, fretted about touring internationally because she’s worried about what kind of trouble’s in store for her as an American, and pondered what it would take to bring a racist to New York to kill a random, innocent stranger. “I don’t think you know either, because we’re all in this together,” she said, unassumingly voicing the shock and horror of millions of New Yorkers – and Americans as well.

When Supersilent finally hit the stage for their second-ever New York concert, their first in thirteen years, the blend of Arve Henriksen’s desolate trumpet against the stygian, almost subsonic ambience of Ståle Storløkken’s vintage keyboards seemed like a perfect segue. Electronic music legend Helge Sten a.k.a. Deathprod (who has a show at around 9 tonight at Issue Project Room in downtown Brooklyn) mixed the brooding soundscape into a plaintive noir tableau with artful use of loops, reverb and delay, bringing to mind Bob Belden’s brilliant late-career soundtracks.

Then Storløkken hit a sudden, bunker-buster low-register chord that blasted through the club, following with one bone-crushing wave after another. The effect was visceral, and was loud to the point where Henriksen was pretty much lost in the mix. It was impossible to turn away from: pure bliss for fans of dark sonics.

That’s where the strobes began to flicker, and frantically shredded fragments of dialogue began to flit through the mix in tandem with a spastic, seemingly random rhythm. Was this fast-forward horror show a metaphor for how technology jerks us, and jerks us, and jerks us, and jerks us…? You get the picture. If that was Supersilent’s message, they made their point. But after thirty seconds, it was overkill. This may not be Aleppo, but in a different way we’ve also been tortured, and were being tortured as the PA continued to squawk and sputter. There’s no shame in assaulting an audience to get a point across, but a respite would have packed a mighty impact at that point. Matana Roberts knows a little something about that.

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.

Rising Star Composer Ayumi Okada Brings Her Vivid, Picturesque, Cinematic Sounds to Upper Manhattan

Pianist/composer Ayumi Okada writes vivid, cinematic songs without words. Her music is full of stories, and humor, and unselfconscious depth. Much as her sense of melody is appealingly consonant, it would be a mistake to pigeonhole her as a neoromantic: she’s most at home in the borderlands with Debussy and Ravel. A composer-performer, she’s premiering a new piano quintet with a first-class chamber ensemble including star cellist James Waldo on March 10 at 7:30 PM at Holy Trinity Church, 20 Cumming St. in Washington Heights. The group will also play music of Dvorak, Bach, Johann Goldberg, Caroline Shaw and Doug Balliett; admission is $15/$10 stud. Take the 1 train to Dyckman St.

Okada’s debut album is Here, Where the Land Ends and the Sea Begins – streaming at Spotify  – a beguiling mix of chamber works. It opens with Okada’s String Quartet No. 1 a steady, bittersweetly theme with echoes of Dvorak and baroque-inflected counterpoint that gives way to a stormily dancing pulse which she elegantly ends up bringing full circle. There’s an arthouse film with a philosophical poignancy that needs this for when the main titles roll, a strongly voiced performance by Waldo, violinists Karen Dekker and Meredith Ezinma Ramsay and violist Rose Hashimoto.

The second work, Cape Roca has a similarly picturesque sweep, Waldo’s austere lines against resonant glimmer and then gracefully ornamented neoromanticism from pianist Alyona Aksyonova. The miniature A Walk in the Park is a showcase for Okada’s playful sense of humor, Aksyonova’s devious leaps and bounds in tandem with peek-a-boo clarinet from Yumi Ito bookending a momentary cloud passing across the sky.

Okada’s Piano Trio No. 1, with the standard orchestration of piano, violin and cello hints at chromatic Shostakovian menace in between stately Piazzolla-esque passages and hints of late Romanticism. The album concludes with a triptych, the Light Princess Suite. Aksyonova plays a majestically enigmatic, emphatically waltzing theme over Waldo’s austere washes in the first movement. The second, where the rest of the strings join in, is awash in moody high/low, still/kinetic contrasts in the same vein as Rachmaninoff’s more airy chamber works. Once again, Waldo’s starkness grounds the piano’s dancing, Debussyesque figures as the suite winds out, artfully shifting meters. It’s Okada at her most colorful and picturesque: this intrepidly dancing  creature takes a lot of detours, but she can’t be stopped.

Another Dark Chapter in Morricone Youth’s Marathon Series of Film Scores

Avi Fox-Rosen‘s record of releasing a dozen albums in a dozen months may be safe, but Morricone Youth aren’t far behind. The latest album from New York’s most prolifically cinematic band – in a planned series of fifteen soundtracks to films they’ve played live to over the past five years – is guitarist/bandleader Devon E. Levins’ original score for George Miller’s pioneering, dystopic 1979 post peak oil monster truck epic Mad Max. Like the rest of the series, the record is available on limited edition vinyl, in translucent Coke bottle greeen, and streaming at soundcloud.

The initial release in the series, a mix of the original score and new material composed for George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, explores the darkest corners of 60s psychedelia. The second, for the 1926 silent film The Adventures of Prince Ahmed, is more Morricone-esque, with Middle Eastern and Italian influenes. This new one is a mix of 70s art-rock and early new wave. Which makes sense: when the movie was in production, new wave rock was in its embryonic stages (and Mel Gibson, if he was a rightwing Christian supremacist nutjob then, hadn’t yet become famous for it).

As with much of Morricone Youth’s work, the album is a series of themes and variations. In general, the music is more overtly dark than the film’s exuberantly cynical narrative about vigilantes who can’t quite figure out how to get the max out of their prized but rapidly evaporating stash of petrochemicals. Dan Kessler’s washes of keyboards fuel the brief title theme: its motorik foreshadowing takes centerstage in the second piece, Mad Goose, over the furtive new wave pulse of bassist John Castro and drummer Brian Kantor.

Noir singer Karla Rose – whose forthcoming album of hauntingly lyrical songs is reputedly amazing – contributes distantly ghostly vocals to Clunes Town, a mashup of Del Shannon and Morricone spaghetti western. From there the band segues into Revenge of the MFP, which sounds like the Ex taking on a Richard Strauss theme famously repurposed for outer space.

Fraser Campbell’s balmy sax floats over a starry backdrop throughtout Jessie, a surrealistic love theme. Then Levins puts the rubber to the road with his grittily circling riffage in Nightrider, a careening chase scene. The band channel their main inspiration in the creepy, woozily psychedelic bolero Anarchie Road, followed by Johnny the Boy. a sardonic mashup of early Squeeze and Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, Kantor propelling it with a tumbling leadfoot drive. Castro’s Geezer Butler-like, growling bass pushes Toecutter as it rises from Pink Floyd ominousness toward krautrock. The closing credits roll to the surprisingly upbeat, starlit spacerock of Bad Max. That there are another dozen albums like this in the works is really something to look forward to in what’s been a horror movie of a year so far.

A Hauntingly Allusive New Album and a National Sawdust Show From David Smooke

David Smooke explains the premise of his fantastic, eclectic new album,  Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death – streaming at Bandcamp – as being an exploration of “unreal landscapes that sonic events can evoke.” Smooke takes his title from a series of grimly allusive training dioramas in the Maryland State Medical Examiner’s Office. As troubled, picturesque, cinematic music goes, it doesn’t get any better than this in 2017. As a demo reel, this album should score Smooke  a long list of clients in film and video if he wants the commissions. He and several of the ensembles on the album – including the mighty Peabody Wind Ensemble, a stormy chamber group comprising brass, winds and percussion, are playing the album release at 7 PM on Jan 22 at National Sawdust. Advance tix are $25.

Smooke’s axe is the toy piano. He ranks with Phyllis Chen as one of the few people to get the absolute max out of that improbable instrument. The album opens with the title composition, a concerto for toy piano and the big ensemble. It’s a real showstopper: if you ever wondered what a toy piano sounds like while being tortured, this will open your eyes. Horrified Bernard Herrmann tritone cadenzas punctuate thunderous swells from the brass, unexpectedly dusky microtonal banjo, and the toy piano plinking and clicking mutedly under extreme duress.

The second number is Transgenic Fields, Dusk, played solo with characteristically detailed attention by pianist Karl Larson. It’s a mashup of Debussyesque clusters, understatedly kinetic Andriessen clock-chime phrases and long, stygian, tentatively stairstepping Messiaenic passages: a reflection on baby raptors turning into big ones someday, maybe?

The album’s most twisted moment is A Baby Bigger Grows Than Up Was, sung with deadpan Tourette glee by Jefffey Gavett against the marionettishly dancing winds of his indie chamber ensemble Loadbang. Some Details of Hell, an orchestration of a Lucie Brock-Broido poem, is delivered with knifes-edge stateliness by chamber group Lunar Ensemble with some dramatic flights to the upper registers by soprano Lisa Perry. As the epic Down Stream methodically unravels, Smooke becomes an increasingly dissociative one-man anvil choir, his toy piano over calm, distant drones.  Michael Parker Harley’s multitracked bassoons build an increasingly bubbly, allusively nocturnal tableau in 21 Miles to Coolville, the album’s final cut. What a deliciously dark late-night playlist.

Sarah Small’s Provocative Secondary Dominance: Highlight of This Year’s Prototype Festival

Sarah Small’s work draws you in and then makes you think. It says, “Get comfortable, but not too comfortable.” It questions, constantly. Throughout her fascinating, understatedly provocative multimedia work Secondary Dominance last night at Here – part of this year’s Prototype Festival – there was so much happening onstage that the leader of the Q&A afterward confessed to having a page worth of notes and no idea where to start.

Executive produced by Rachelle Cohen, the roughly hourlong performance began immediately as the audience settled into their seats, a warm, lustrous voice singing a gorgeous love song in Arabic wafting over the PA. Who was responsible for this gentle and reassuring introduction? It turned out to be Small’s Black Sea Hotel bandmate Shelley Thomas, seated stage right with an assortment of drums and percussion implements.

About midway through, the composer herself emerged from behind her two keyboards and mixing desk – mounted on a podium colorfully decorated like a curbside shrine out of the George Lucas universe – and stooped over, to the side as a trio of dancers – Jennifer Keane, Eliza S. Tollett and Carmella Lauer, imaginatively choreographed by Vanessa Walters – floated on their toes. Meanwhile, Small’s chalked-up collaborator Wade McCollum lurked tenuously behind her as her calmly uneasy vocalese mingled with the atmospherics looming from Marta Bagratuni’s cello, Peter Hess’ flute and Thomas’ voice and drums. A simultaneous projection of the action onstage played on a screen overhead, capturing Small’s lithely muscular, spring-loaded presence in shadowy three-quarter profile.

McCollum’s wordless narrative behind Small’s music explores power dynamics, memory and family tension. Gloria Jung and Henry Packer exuded regal integrity and a stolidity that cut both ways:  there was a moment where someone tried to pry something out of someone’s hand that was as cruelly funny as it was quietly vaudevillian. Ballet school, its rigors and demands was another metaphorically-loaded, recurrent motif, and the dancers held up under duress while barely breaking a sweat. McCollum’s ghostly character didn’t emerge from a fetal position until the spectacle had been underway for awhile, which ended up transcending any ordinary, otherworldly association.

What was otherworldly was the music, which, characteristically, spans the worlds of indie classical, art-rock and the Balkan folk traditions that Small has explored so vividly, as a singer, arranger and composer since her teens. What’s most notable about this surreal, nonlinear suite is that while it encompasses Balkan music – with brief, acerbic, closer harmonies sung by Small, Thomas, Bagratuni and McCollum, in addition to a projection of a lustrously lit seaside Black Sea Hotel music video directed by Josephine Decker  – the majority of it draws on western influences. Inspired by a series of dreams and an enigmatic, recurrent character named Jessica Brainstorm – who may be an alter ego – the sequence has the same cinematic sweep as Small’s work for the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, grounded by Bagratuni’s austere, sometimes grim low register, Hess sailing warily overhead, sometimes mingling with the voices and electronic ambience. As the show went on, the music grew more detailed, with interludes ranging from gently pulsing, midtempo 80s darkwave, to rippling nocturnal themes evocative of Tuatara’s gamelanesque mid-90s psychedelia.

The work as a whole is a stunning example of how Small so often becomes the focal point of a collaboration that brings out the best in everyone involved.  Over the years, these efforts cross a vast swath of art forms: from her playfully ambitious body of photography in the early zeros, to Black Sea Hotel, to her surrealistically sinister starring role in Decker’s cult classic suspense/slasher film Butter on the Latch, and her lavish “tableaux vivants” staged earlier in this decade, equal parts living sculpture, slo-mo dance flashmob, dada theatre and fearless exploration of intimacy in an era of atomization, data mining and relentless surveillance. Small and McCollum have plans for both a more small-scale, “chamber version” of this piece as well as an epic 1200-person version for the Park Avenue Armory, still in the early stages of development. For now, you can be provoked and thoroughly entertained at the remaining three performances at 9 PM, tonight, Jan 12 through 14 in the downstairs theatre at Here, 145 6th Ave south of Spring (enter on Dominick Street). Cover is $30.