New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: film music

Daniel Hart’s Colorful, Ambitious New Film Score Hits the Screen and the Web

The last time composer Daniel Hart was featured on this page, it was at the end of last year’s annual Octoberlong Halloween celebration of dark music here. The dark soundtrack being celebrated that day was Hart’s score to the 2017 film A Ghost Story. Hart’s latest soundtrack is for the new movie The Green Knight, streaming at Spotify.

This music is very colorful, entertaining, ambitious and speaks well for the film. Here Hart engages a choir as well as orchestra, through a much wider sonic palette than his horror cinematics. Most of the twenty-nine segments here are on the short side, three minutes or considerably less: there’s a lot going on this narrative, obviously.

The beginning is percussive and flutey. Harp and cello move to centerstage, then orchestra and choir drift through calm and storm. Most of the orchestration is organic, although there are surreal electronic flourishes and effects.

Portents – acidic woodwinds approximate birdsong, a knock-knock from the drums and a stern mini-fanfare from the choir – appear early on. A bucolic guitar-and-flute tune signals the birth of Christ, quite an outside-the-box depiction.

Two central themes are a striking, somberly circling, Philip Glass-like string interlude followed by an even more striking waltz in the style of a medieval Jewish nigun.

A woman sings in Italian to wind up a twinkling, harp-and-cello-driven all-night vigil. The choral interludes can be demanding, and dramatic, and the singers rise to the technical challenges. Interestingly, Hart doesn’t get Elizabethan til the end: throughout most of the score, his harmonies are on the austere, modernist side. This is a rewarding listen for fans of picturesque contemporary composers like Richard Danielpour and Caroline Shaw.

Murky, Dissociative Cinematics From the EFG Trio

Trumpeter Frank London has one of the most immense discographies of any New York musician. He’s on over five hundred records, which date back before his band the Klezmatics springboarded the carnivalesque sound that morphed into circus rock and Romany punk in the 90s. Some of London’s latest adventures have been especially adventurous: jazz poetry, Indian/klezmer mashups, and now a darkly cinematic trio album as part of the EFG Trio with guitarist Eyal Maoz and composer/keyboardist Guy Barash. Their new album Transluminal Rites is streaming at Bandcamp.

Often it’s impossible to figure out who’s doing what here – even the trumpet could be processed beyond the point of recognition, such is the grey disquiet of this morass. Many of the tracke here re brooding miniatures that suddenly rise with industrial abrasiveness, squirrel around, stroll briskly like a spy or offer moments of comic relief, One has a calmly circling, Indian-inspired trumpet melody that gets slowly decentered; its sequel is pure industrial noise

Spectralogy, one of the more epic numbers here, begins as an eerily warping guitarscape with traces of Maoz’s signature, incisively Middle Eastern-tinged sound, then Barash’s electric piano shifts to a much more noirish interlude before everything’s spun through a fuzzy patch. London’s circling, snorting lines rescue everyone from dystopia, more or less.

Winds of ill omen circle around London’s animated curlicues in Polysemia Deluxe, another largescale piece that leaps and bounds, out of focus, towards an abyss, London finally sounding an elephantine warning..

The big idystopic diptych here is titled Eau de Pataphysique: strange rumblings inside the drainpipe, short circuits and wheels going off the axle in the projection room. The concluding largescale piece, Sweet Thanatos is platform for some of London’s most plaintive, chromatically bristling resonance of recent years.

Dark and oppressive sounds for dark and oppressive times: those brave enough to plunge in, especially at the end, will be rewarded.

Hypnotically Intense, Resonant Psychedelic Instrumental Themes From the Mute Duo

If Big Lazy‘s creepy big-sky tableaux, the southwestern gothic vistas of the Friends of Dean Martinez or peak-era, late 80s Sonic Youth are your thing, you’ll love the Mute Duo. With just pedal steel and drums, their slowly unfolding, tectonically shifting soundscapes are as suspenseful as they are psychedelic. Their album Lapse in Passage is streaming at Bandcamp.

There’s enough reverb on Sam Wagster’s pedal steel here to drive a truck through, maxing out the icily overdriven resonance. A lingering menace slowly builds over airy drones as Derived From Retinas, the first track, coalesces out of spare, reverb-drenched phrases, Skyler Rowe’s drums and the spacious upward swoops from the steel hinting that the clouds will break. They don’t, and the rhythm never completely comes together, even as the duo make a grim modal anthem out of it.

A metallic mist of overtones rises as the one-chord tableau Past Musculature Plains gathers momentum: it could be the great lost atmospheric track from Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation.

Canopy Bells, a minimalist mini-suite, gets a summery, hazy introduction, wind chimes gently rattling in the breeze before the drums begin prowling. The frenetic, roaring crescendo comes as a jolt;

The brief ambient interlude A Timbre Profile leads into the album’s most epic track, Overland Line, which could be the skeleton frame of an early PiL instrumental played with a slide. This time it’s the drums which hold this together as Wagster leaves plenty of distance between his phrases. Echoey loops mingle through a long crescendo;  Rowe’s decisive cymbal whacks kick off the coda.

Dallas in the Dog Days has sheets of steel floating over a similarly reverb-iced, moodily pastoral, slightly out-of-tune piano track. With its simple variations on a drone finally gathering into a flock of busy wings, Redwinged Blackbirds comes across as a minimalist take on early 70s instrumental Pink Floyd. The album winds up with Last Greys, the drums pulling its anthemic, loopy phrases further outside. This is a great lights-out, late night listen.

A Triumphant Action Movie For the Ears by Laura Masotto

Violinist Laura Masotto transforms into a one-woman orchestra on her new suite WE, streaming at Bandcamp. Much of this bright, riff-driven theme and variaitons is an action movie for the ears. A lot of this could be called loopmusic, although Masotto fleshes out her anthemic, stadium-worthy hooks with lush but terse harmonies and melodic shifts that transcend the usual vamping, circling limitations of playing against a backing track.

The album’s overture, Atoms, is a shimmery, shivery, minimalist tune seemingly based on a very famous raga (or maybe the first song on side two of Sergeant Pepper). Refugees, with Roger Goula on atmospheric keys, rises to a brisk motorik pulse: this sequence triumphantly reaches the shore rather than capsizing in the Mediterranean.

Blue Marble is awash in big sweeping broken chords, followed by Ithaki,. a muted, suspenseful variation on the refugee theme with Hior Chronik on twinkly keys. After that, 2020 starts out ambient but the energy returns: this is quite an optimistic record.

The title theme turns out to be an understatedly joyous, pulsing love ballad without words. Masotto returns to lavish variations on the central, arpeggiated melody. There’s a long descent through swirly, calming ambience as the music grows loopier and more baroque on the way out.

Min Xiao-Fen Releases a Darkly Surreal New Score to a Classic Chinese Silent Film

Min Xiao-Fen is one of the world’s great adventurers on the magical Chinese pipa lute. She first made a name for herself with her spiky, incisive arrangements of Thelonious Monk tunes, but she has done immense cross-pollination with the instrument in the years since. She’s also a brilliant singer and a composer whose eclecticism is as vast as you would expect considering her background. Her songs can be spare and intimate, in keeping with tradition, or explosively symphonic. Her latest album White Lotus – streaming at Spotify – is an original score for Wu Yonggang’s 1934 silent film The Goddess, a tragic melodrama about a Shanghai hooker who battles an evil pimp as she struggles to provide for her son’s education. The soundtrack is a duo collaboration with a similarly adventurous, cinematic artist, guitarist Rez Abbasi, who plays both acoustic and electric here

The album opens with a stark, hypnotically circling pipa theme and ambient guitar effects, dialogue from the film and fragments of the bandleader’s operatic vocals floating through the mix. There are moments where the textural contrast between Abbasi’s acoustic guitar and the pipa are subtle but distinct, others where it’s harder to distinguish between them since he sometimes uses a pipa-style tremolo-picking attack.

The galloping, syncopated, darkly windswept third track is mostly Abbasi multitracks. A handful of drifting passages for vocals and solo guitar are more spare and pensive.

A tableau for vocals and solo guitar channels utter desolation. There’s a bristling chase scene with occasional flickers of Greek rembetiko music. Echoes of bluegrass music, a tense nocturne, and a distantly sinister blend of ba-bump cabaret and the blues follow in turn. Interestingly, the moments where Asian pentatonics are front and center are few and far between, heightening the exotic effect. Toward the end, there are a couple of themes that come across as acoustic Pat Metheny with Chinese tinges. This is a gripping, dynamically shifting mix of styles that fits right into both artists’ constantly growing and paradigm-shifting bodies of work.

Irresistibly Fun Retro Cinematic Themes From Sven Wunder

Sven Wunder, like the soul/funk icon whose name he’s appropriated, is pretty much a one-man band. His specialty is balmy, cinematic instrumental themes with a psychedelic, late 60s/early 70s European feel. One good comparison is Manfred Hubler’s Vampyros Lesbos soundtrack in a particularly calm or pastoral moment. Among current bands, Tredici Bacci are another. This second Wunder’s playful, entertaining new album Natura Morta is streaming at Bandcamp.

Tinkly piano and fluttering flute breeze into the album’s opening track, En Plein Air before the strings go sweeping over a lithe, bouncy beat spiced with chiming keys. Is that an electric harpsichord? Is that real brass or the artificial kind?

More of those brassy patches alternate with brittle, trebly vintage clavinova, echoey Rhodes and sinuous hollowbody bass in Impasto. Prussian Blue begins with a cheery piano cascade and rustling flute but quickly becomes a strutting motorik surf rock theme. Surf popcorn? Popcorn surf?

The album’s title track is hardly the dirge the title implies: it comes across as a sort of orchestrated 70s soul take on Bob Marley’s Waiting in Vain. Wunder subtly edges the beat in Panorama into a 6/8 sway with 12-string acoustic guitar, wafting strings and winds, and vintage keyboard textures.

He goes back to vampy, lushly orchestrated early 70s soul with Alla Prima, those layers of 12-string guitar sparkling overhead. The sparkle continues in Umber, which has a somewhat more uneasy, pensive edge. Barocco, Ma Non Troppo is a funny little number: it’s a canon of sorts, but with shuffling syncopation and a funky Rhodes interlude

Wry low-register clavinova contrasts with the sweep of the strings in Memento Mori: the message seems to be, let’s party while we can. Pentimento is the album’s most hypnotic track, sheets of strings and winds shifting through the mix over growly, clustering bass. Wunder reprises the title track at the end with slip-key piano that’s just a hair out of tune. Somewhere there’s an arthouse movie director or two who need this guy.

A Foundationally Haunting, Influential 70s Political Thriller Soundtrack Finally Available on Vinyl

Alan Pakula’s 1974 political assassination thriller The Parallax View is arguably more relevant today than when it was released at the height of the Watergate scandal. And while fewer film scores were released in those days as stand-alone records, it was not uncommon: some of the era’s bestselling albums, from 2001: A Space Odyssey, to Star Wars, were movie soundtracks. So it’s something of a shock to discover that Michael Small’s Parallax View score, one of the most iconic and influential of its kind, has never been released on vinyl until now. The whole album is not online, but bits and pieces of the score are floating around youtube.

Generally speaking, it’s amazing how much mileage Small gets from so few moving parts, especially in the tensest moments, presaging the minimalist meme of fifteen years later. Eerily twinkling accents peek out over ominous, sustained low strings as the title theme wafts in, a distantly brassy allusion to a Richard Strauss tune which had been resurrected very successfully just five years previously. That dichotomy continues throughout the brief morgue scene and dips to pitchblende cellos for the sheriff’s house interlude.

The momentary chase scene is classic: jagged Bernard Herrmann strings, but also icepick flutes, machinegunning drums and more Strauss from the lows of the piano. Spare violins accent a wary, slow stroll through the Testing Center. Eerie close harmonies and creepy tritones linger over the sparest, syncopated pulse, bells against massed basses in the nocturnal tableau that follows.

The famous brainwashing scene at the Parallax Corporation comes complete with dialogue: the way Small shifts from wistful folk-pop, to faux-pomp, to a contented Jimmy Webb-esque nocturne, is a clinic in mashup science. Lows balance keening, tense highs, sheets of strings and brass shifting slowly through the sonic picture as a suitcase bomb is delivered. Did Angelo Badalamenti nick one of the riffs from the bells for a famous Twin Peaks theme? Maybe!

Small gets classic again, with the most minute, insectile string flickers against looming lows as the death squad make their way in. Zarathustra hangs in the wings through a bit of chaos before the closing credits, where the quasi-pageantry reaches Shostakovian heights of sarcasm. No spoilers; see the movie or even better, get the vinyl.

Fun fact: in pulling together this release, the Cinema Paradiso crew were required to identify the uncredited voiceover actor in the brainwashing scene in order to secure permission from Paramount Pictures to include it. Considerable sleuthing finally revealed that it was Pakula himself, who had recorded a scratch track. The director, apparently satisfied with his own Hitchcockian cameo, ended up keeping it

Clever, Deviously Picturesque Themes and an Upper West Side Album Release Show by the Daniel Bennett Group

One icy Sunday in Manhattan about six months ago, the Daniel Bennett Group were busking on the sidewalk, out in front of a shuttered computer repair store and a vacant barbershop.

It was about ten in the morning.

That’s a typical kind of stunt for Bennett. Why play later and compete with the likes of Jeremy Pelt or Chris Potter? All of them elite jazz musicians who appear at major venues and festivals. All reduced to playing on the street or in the park for spare change at one point or another this past fifteen months.

That’s what happens when live music is criminalized.

Being one of the great wits in jazz no doubt helped Bennett stay sane through the lockdown. He emerged with a characteristically sly new album, New York Nerve, streaming at Bandcamp. He also has – gasp – a real-life album release show this June 26 at 7 PM at the Triad Theatre, 158 W 72nd St. between Broadway and Amsterdam. Cover is $20; be aware that the venue has a two-drink minimum as well.

The album is a suite, a theme and variations. The opening number is titled Television. It’s a steady, suspiciously cheery, motorik rock tune, percolating over an endless series of gritty guitar changes, Bennett driving it forward with his steady alto sax and then clarinet. It sets the stage for the rest of the record.

The Town Supervisor, as Bennett sees him, is a folksy, wistful kind of guy, bassist Kevin Hailey and drummer Koko Bermejo maintaining a muted 6/8 beat as guitarist Assaf Kehati jangles and bubbles and exchanges verses with Bennett’s alto.

The group return to the brisk pulse of the opening track in Gold Star Mufflers, Bennett’s keening organ fueling an increasingly subtle disquiet beneath the busy pulse and occasional cartoonish touch. Likewise, Human Playback is a subtly altered reprise of the opening theme, Kehati hitting his distortion pedal for a sunbaked, resonant solo, Bennett’s electric piano tinkling and rippling. Then he shifts back to sax for a surreal, floating, spacy outro.

Bennett and Kehati burble and intertwine arrythmically over a deadpan, steady beat as Rattlesnake gets underway, sax pulling the theme together with a catchy, biting minor-key intensity. The group go back to pastoralia to wind up the album with The County Clerk, who comes across as more brooding than his boss (presumably that’s the Town Supervisor). The humor in Bennett’s songs without words always comes across most strongly onstage: these guys are probably jumping out of their shoes to be able to play indoors again without having to do it clandestinely.

DWB: The Most Relevant, Hauntingly Evocative New Chamber Opera in Years

It’s hard to imagine a song cycle more apropos to our era than composer Susan Kander and soprano Roberta Gumbel’s chamber opera DWB (Driving While Black), streaming at Spotify. Gumbel’s lyrics draw on her own experiences and worries as the parent of a black adolescent who’s approaching driving age. Interspersed amid this mom’s reveries are real-life “bulletins” ranging from incidents of mundane everyday racism – Henry Louis Gates arrested for trying to enter his own home – to allusively macabre references to the murders of Trayvon Martin and Philando Castile.

Kander’s dynamic, sometimes kinetic, often haunting series of themes bring to mind Bernard Herrmann’s Hitchcock movie scores, Gumbel nimbly negotiating their dramatic twists and turns. With tense close harmonies and chiming arrangements, Messiaen and maybe George Crumb seem to be influences. The duo New Morse Code come across as a much larger ensemble: credit percussionist Michael Compitello, who plays a vast variety of instruments, most notably vibraphone and bells, alongside cellist Hannah Collins. Together they shift, often in the span of a few seconds, from a creepy, deep-space twinkle to a stalking, monstrous pulse and all-too-frequent evocations of gunfire.

What hits you right off the bat is that this narrator mom is smart. She frets about putting her infant in a backwards-facing car seat, because he won’t be able to see her, and she won’t be able to offer him a smile to comfort him. We get to watch him grow up: to Gumbel’s immense credit, there’s a lot of humor in the more familial moments, welcome relief from the relentless sinister outside world. The driver’s ed scene is particularly hilarious. Yet this doesn’t turn out to be a trouble-free childhood: Gumbel casts the kid as the son in a single-parent household, reflecting the reality that an inordinate percentage of people of color are forced to cope with.

Most of the numbers are over in less than a couple of minutes, a kaleidoscope of alternately fond and grisly images. A soaring, drifting lullaby, a slinky soul-tinged groove and a plaintive cello solo break up the furtive, often frantic sequences. One of the most chilling interludes involves not a police shooting but a near-miss. In a case of mistaken identity with a rare happy ending, the cops end up dumping the ex-suspect out of the police van in an unfamiliar part of town. He has to walk all the way home from there. Wait til you find out how old he is.

Calm Transcendence, Gravitas and Haunting Film Noir Sonics on Wadada Leo Smith’s Latest Epic Triple-Disc Album

It’s hard to imagine another artist who has been as prolific and perennially relevant in his seventh decade as Wadada Leo Smith. His epic Civil Rights Era-themed 2013 triple-disc set Ten Freedom Summers is probably one of the hundred best albums ever made in any style of music.

Occupy Wall Street? Why not Occupy the World, as Smith suggested with a transcendently good orchestral album. He’s also saluted America’s National Parks, composed a rapt, oceanic Great Lakes suite, played huge amounts of solo Monk on trumpet, and now has a brand new triple-disc set of often darkly inspiring duo and trio recordings, Sacred Ceremonies, streaming at Spotify, It’s music to get completely lost in and will give you hope at a time when we really, really need it.

The sad undercurrent here is that we lost the iconic Milford Graves last year. In a crushing stroke of irony, it was a heart ailment that claimed the greatest cardiac medical pioneer to ever play the drums. Fortuitously, two of these discs feature Graves, the first in a duo with Smith, the other in a trio set with bassist Bill Laswell. In between, Smith and Laswell explore less friendly atmospheres.

Graves’ shamanic toms, oscillating cymbals and mystical rimwork back Smith’s characteristically spacious, terse lines on the opening disc’s five expansive tracks. Sometimes Graves’ boom is such that it’s as if he’s playing a tapan barrel drum from the Balkans. In what could have been a stroke of intuition on Smith’s part, he gives his bandmate centerstage much of the time, when he’s not channeling somber 19th century blues and gritty variations, mournful foghorn washes, austerely sailing lines punctuated by deft trills and clusters, and the occasional call of the wild.

The two slowly bring in a fond, mutedly suspenseful ballad, in just short of fifteen minutes, in the fourth track. As the two make their way upward, part of Graves’ kit sounds like a giant tabla from the great beyond. And his chugging, gnawa-like cymbals behind Smith’s coy Stevie Wonder paraphrases in the final duo number are a stunningly surreal touch.

The Smith/Laswell duos on disc two are 180 degrees from that, typically edging toward a Bob Belden post-Miles noir atmosphere, with a more defined low/high dichotomy and less interplay. To Laswell’s infinite credit, he chills – literally – in the background as Smith takes flight, frequently with a mute. Feeling some low pressure here, the trumpeter picks up the energy and the catchy riffage significantly. If you want to hear Wadada Leo Smith playing parts – well, a little bit – this is it. Laswell loves loves loves that flange pedal, or its digital equivalent, set to deep freeze, and sticks with it, sometimes in tandem with a wah, a loop box and an arsenal of light sabers. Smith’s utterly Lynchian chromatics over spare pedalpoint in Mysterious Night and then the concluding Minnie Riperton elegy are the highlights.

Smith’s spine-tingling flares and Graves’ churning, kaleidescopic murk (who knew such an oxymoron could exist? He did) pair off over Laswell’s warp and wooze to open the third disc, essentially a reprise of the second disc with more of a dystopic drive. Smith holds the whole thing together, more or less, playing with a mute, a white-knuckle angst and a clenched-teeth smile as Graves motors along the stygian underground, Laswell’s robotically cold calculations piercing the veil now and again. Yet Smith’s saturnine solo intro to the fourth track here could be the most heartbreakingly beautiful moment on the whole record.