New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: Frederic Rzewski

Haunting, Potently Relevant New Protest Music From the Imani Winds

In French, “bruit” means “noise.” In English, it’s the medical term for a heart murmur caused by a vascular blockage, and pronounced as “brute.” The Imani Winds‘ new album Bruits – streaming at Bandcamp – references both meanings, in terms of access to justice for people of color as well as stirring up a mighty noise about it. New classical music doesn’t get any more relevant than this in 2021.

The group – flutist Brandon Patrick George, oboe player Toyin Spellman-Diaz, clarinetist Mark Dover, horn player Jeff Scott and bassoonist Monica Ellis – open with the title track, a five-part Vijay Iyer suite inspired by the murder of Trayvon Martin. Cory Smythe circles ominously on microtonal electric piano as individual wind voices pulse and swirl, darkly tropical Miami bustle giving way to still nocturnal foreshadowing. The second movement has a recitation of the Florida “Stand Your Ground” law – under which Martin’s murderer was acquitted – set to terse, grim piano syncopation.

Low, lingering suspense contrasts with uneasily wafting tones in the third movement; a tense, relentless rhythm returns in the fourth, only to recede to a haze and a grim quote from Georgia congresswoman Lucy McBath, whose own son was murdered less than a year after Martin. Somber and agitated themes conjoin in the conclusion, rising to a cold, fateful stop.

Spellman-Diaz and Ellis exchange Indian-tinged melismas as Reena Esmail’s The Light Is the Same gets underway, its mashup of contrasting raga themes rising to a delicate intertwine. John Whittington Franklin reads the words of his historian dad, John Hope Franklin in Frederic Rzewski’s triptych Sometimes. The first movement has Ellis playing somber variations on Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child behind a characteristically commonsensical observation: “We need a new American Revolution that will create a new ideology of comradeship in the great enterprise of building a society in which every man and woman can face tomorrow, unencumbered by the burdens of the past or the prejudices of the present. This calls for a revolution in the heart and soul of every American. This is what the first American Revolution did not have. This is what the new American Revolution must have.”

The harmonies grow more brooding over a stately pace, then the voices diverge in steady counterpoint before circling back in the second movement. Soprano Janai Brugger sings a Langston Hughes text in the bitterly circling conclusion. Rzewski has never shied away from tackling important political issues, from the Attica massacre onward, and this is one of his most memorable and unselfconsciously vivid works.

Canland: A Goldmine of Rare, Legendary New York Performances

What better time than now to launch an archive of irreplaceable live recordings from the past thirty-three years? Canland just went live a couple of days ago with several days worth of footage of concert performances by iconic figures as well as fringe players from across the worlds of the avant garde, jazz and new classical music since 1987.

On May 10 of that year, a trio of rising star composers – Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe and David Lang – staged the first annual Bang on a Can Marathon of new music in a stuffy Soho loft. Over the next three decades, the mostly-annual event would take over larger and larger venues and become a New York institution.

If you ever went to one of the marathons, it was obvious that everything was being painstakingly recorded. Relatively little has made it to youtube, one of the reasons why Canland is such a goldmine. The other is that it’s still a work in progress: what’s up now is merely a greatest-hits version, along with some obscure treasures from the marathon’s early years, plus some footage from various shows by the house art-rock band, the Bang on a Can All-Stars.

In keeping with the organization’s goal of breaking down boundaries between musical genres, the diversity of the music is astonishing. Need something soothing and soul-nourishing? Innov Gnawa‘s fifteen minutes of ancient Moroccan trance-dance grooves will do the trick (for the record, this blog wasn’t there when the band played it at the 2017 marathon at the Brooklyn Museum).

If you can handle something harrowing, click on Ensemble Signal’s meticulously grim 2011 version of Wolfe’s Cruel Sister, at the World Financial Center atrium. This blog didn’t exist until a couple of months later, but that piece ended up topping the list of that year’s best songs. One of many other fascinating Wolfe works here is her microtonal, drifiting, echoey Williamsburg Bridge, from the inaugural 1987 marathon.

Lots of big names are represented: Pauline Oliveros, Guy Klucevsek, Meredith Monk, the World Saxophone Quartet, Tania Leon, Phil Kline, Tan Dun, Keeril Makan and both guitarists in Sonic Youth. There are iconic pieces like Frederic Rzewski’s Coming Together – which appears many times in several different arrangements. Terry Riley’s In C is also here, less frequently. There are pioneering works by Ives, Xenakis, Glass, Andriessen and Saariaho plus snippets of Brian Eno’s Music For Airports.

As the years go on, it’s obvious the Bang on a Can hydra are keeping their collective eyes on the ball, showcasing new music by younger artists including Bora Yoon, Gabriella Smith, Amir ElSaffar, Missy Mazzoli and the late Johann Johannsson. The roots of this music also get their due. The Cassatt String Quartet revel in the otherworldliness of Ruth Crawford Seeger’s 1931 quartet. International Contemporary Ensemble play Galina Ulstvolskaya’s strange, insistent (and very brief, barely twelve-minute-long) Symphony No. 5.

And the more off-the-wall material is just as entertaining. The Kazue Sawai Koto Ensemble play one of the very first compositions to feature bass koto (some of it sounds like a posse of possums under the lid of a concert grand piano). In 1989, a pickup group who call themselves the World Casio Quartet play no wave guitar legend David First’s looming, atmospheric Plate Mass; nineteen years later, the Bang on a Can All-Stars tackle a similar yet more somber and animated Erdem Helvacioglu piece. All this is just the of the iceberg. In the mood to go way, way down the rabbit hole? This is your chance.

An Ambitious, Politically Charged New Album and a Carnegie Hall Concert by Pianist Conrad Tao

Every year, conservatories around the world turn out scores of hotshot pianists. There’s been a lot of cynical ink spilt over the “sovietization” of how piano performance at that level is all too frequently taught. It’s a career, after all, with endless mutability and speed-reading at the top of the list of desirable assets, right? One of the many problems with that model is that rugged individualists like Lionel Yu, Karine Poghosyan and Melody Fader – all favorites of this blog – don’t fit a cookie-cutter model. Perish the thought that a player with monster technique might actually prefer tunefulness to flash or trendiness.

One of Conrad Tao‘s distinguishing characteristics on his latest album American Rage– streaming at Spotify – is that he goes much more deeply than so many of his contemporaries into the many styles he’s called on to play. The record is all 20th and 21st century compositions, which shouldn’t be a bold move at this point in history – but let’s get real, it is. But lest anyone typecast him as an indie classical guy, he seems to be equally at home in the Romantic repertoire.

Tao gets off to a flying start on the album with the first of two daunting Frederic Rzewski compositions, Which Side Are You On. What’s most striking is how Tao lets the allusive bluesiness in the melody linger, taking his time, parsing the score for plaintiveness and rusticity before the hammering fireworks kick in. When that happens, Tao is there with a stilletto incisiveness, but even then, he backs away as soon as he can for a remarkable resonance, letting those bell-like righthand loops ring out, signaling a changing of the guard – or so it would seem. What an appropriate – and hopeful – piece of music to be immersed in for the first week of the 2019 public Presidential impeachment hearings.

The second of the Rzewski pieces. Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues closes the album. The low, low lefthand quasi boogie-woogie is mutedly chilling, vividly evocative of the mechanics of Jim Crow-style exploitation. And although Tao raises the ante a little, he doesn’t relent, looping the lefthand with almost imperceptibly crescendoing intensity as the righthand melody grows more accusatory. The icepick swell to the false ending just a little more than midway through is hair-raising; the sepulchral dynamics at the end are perfectly counterintuitive.

Julia Wolfe‘s Compassion, written in the wake of 9/11, makes a great segue into that work. Again, Tao works the hypnotic and crushing contrasts masterfully, a twistedly chiming funhouse mirror tour of a stalactite cave.

Including Aaron Copland in an album of music inspired by freedom fighters is a stretch, considering his penchant for conveniently folksy music for backwater orchestras…and orchestras in search of a backwater sensibility (for the record, Copland was from New York). But the anxious close harmonies, proto-minimalism and quasi-Mompou belltones of Copland’s Piano Sonata fit in well here. While it doesn’t rise to the invensity of the other two works, Tao’s thoughtfully considered pacing – especially in the rather still final movement – is noteworthy. Tao is playing the album release show at Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall on Nov 20 at 7:30 PM, with a wildly eclectic program of works by Bach, Rachmaninoff, Schumann, Wolfe, David Lang and Jason Eckart; tickets are $25

The Bang on a Can Marathon 2018 – A Marathon Report

“I know so many of you have followed our nomadic trail to so many locations,” composer Julia Wolfe demurred, introducing today’s 31st anniversary of the Bang on a Can Marathon at NYU’s Skirball Auditorium. 

“Great to be in a space where we can all listen,” mused her fellow composer and husband Michael Gordon, possibly alluding to less sonically welcoming venues the annual New York avant garde music summit has occupied.

This year’s program was the most compact and New York-centric in a long time, and considering the venue, it’s no surprise that NYU alums mentored by the Bang on a Can composers featured prominently on the bill. Terry Riley’s influence circulated vastly throughout much of the early part of the show; the ageless lion of indie classical took a turn on vocals as the concert wound up.

“We have a duty to go up to the people who come in afterward and brag,” grinned Bang on a Can’s David Lang, referring to the afternoon’s first piece, Galina Ustvolskaya’s relatively brief Symphony No. 2. The NYU Contemporary Ensemble – with woodwinds, brass and percussion – negotiated it calmly but forcefully. David Friend’s steady hamfisted piano thumps ushered in and then peppered steadily rhythmic, massed close harmonies from the rest of the group, Vocalist Robert Osborne implored a grand total of three Russian words – God, truth and eternity – over and over in between pulses as the music veered between the macabre and the simply uneasy. The ensemble really nailed the surprise ending – gently.

Michael Gordon’s Sonatra, the composer explained, is the only solo piano piece in his repertoire, quite a surprise considering that he’s a strong pianist and the best musician among the Bang on a Can hydra. “Somehow Vicky Chow has learned how to play it,” he deadpanned. She made Gordon’s vast, subtly contrasting, rigorously crosshanded Terry Riley-like expanses of steady eighth notes seem easy, engaging every single one of the piano’s eighty-eight keys.

Murky faux-boogie woogie lefthand paired against relentlessly twinkling righthand riffage; that Chow could incorporate Gordon’s relentlessly tongue-in-cheek glissandos with as much aplomb as she did reaffirms her mighty chops as one of the world’s foremost avant garde musicians.

Chamber orchestra Contemporaneous tackled a carbonated, caffeinated, endlessly circling fifteen-minute slice of cellist Dylan Mattingly’s similarly daunting, epically ecstatic six-hour opera Stranger Love. The Bang on a Can All-Stars – as amazingly mutable as ever – made the first of their many appearances with Gabriella Smith’s Panitao, evoking the swoops and high swipes of whale song amid increasingly animated, rippling, sirening ambience. Then they pounced their way through the staggered math steps of Brendon Randall-Myers’ Changes, Stops, and Swells (For B).

A sextet subset of Contemporaneous returned for Fjóla Evans’s turbulent tone poem Eroding, an Icelandic river tableau. With its sharp contrasts – bass clarinet, cello and piano gnashing and swirling amid the flickers from violin, flute and vibraphone – and disarming trick ending, it was the first real stunner among the new material on the bill.

Purple Ensemble – a string trio augmented with vibes, viola and vocals – played three Yiddish songs from Alex Weiser’s cycle And All the Days Were Purple. Singer Eliza Bagg channeled joy shadowed by angst and longing, Lee Dionne’s piano beginning low and enigmatic and then slithering in a far more Lynchian direction over the strings.    

The All-Stars’ were bolstered by Contemporaneous’ strings and percussion for a trio of  commissions. Jeffrey Brooks was first represented by After the Treewatcher,  based on a trancey earlier work which was the composer recalled being vociferously booed when Gordon premiered it back in the early 80s. Guitarist Taylor Levine’s warily oscillating lines undulated amongst emphatic strings and rustling, peek-a-boo suspense-film percussion riffs, building a Riley-esque web of sound that was as gorgeously hypnotic as it was hard-hitting.

A second new work, Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother, featured additional reeds and brass along with pointillistic twin electric pianos. A bustlingly circular, Bollywood-inflected theme gave way to austere, lingering ambience and then a wryly gritty Beatles guitar knockoff.

The Flux Quartet played their first violinist Tom Chiu’s Retrocon, a meteorologically-inspired, spiraling, Philip Glass-ine series of rising and falling microtonal cell figures. Violinist Mazz Swift and keyboardist Therese Workman juxtaposed electroacoustic string metal, new wave pop, a classic spiritual and faux-EDM in their mini-suite Revolution:House.

The big hybrid ensemble reconfigured for a final Brooks work, The Passion – the triptych “Reflects the kind of suffering that goes on every day, not the biblical kind,” the composer emphasized. Lavishly kinetic pageantry with wry Black Sabbath allusions shifted to dissociative, Laurie Anderson-ish atmospherics, Bagg narrating sobering advice from the composer’s terminally ill sister to her children. The leaping, trebly counterpoint of the final segment brought to mind My Brightest Diamond.

Sō Percussion took the stage for Nicole Lizée’s increasingly dissociative, gamelanesque electroacoustic instrumental White Label Experiment, echoed with considerably louder hi-tech energy later on by neosoul singer/keyboardist/dancer Xenia Rubinos and drummer Marco Buccelli.

Veteran new-music string quartet Ethel’s percussively insistent, clenched-teeth performance of Aleksandra Vrebalov’s Balkan-infected Logbook, Part II took the intensity to redline in seconds flat: it was the highlight of the night. Fueled by cellist Dorothy Lawson’s darkly bluesy glissandos, their take of Jessie Montgomery’s rousing dance theme Voodoo Dolls was a close second. They wound up their trio of pieces, joining voices,instruments and eventually their feet throughout the bracing, allusively Appalachian close harmonies of Wolfe’s enveloping, driving Blue Dress for String Quartet.

The Bang on a Can All-Stars took back the stage alongside narrator Eric Berryman in a cinematic, suspensefully rocking arrangement of Frederic Rzewski’s Attica-themed Coming Together, cellist Ashley Bathgate and bassist Robert Black’s heroically furtive pedalpoint anchoring the story’s grim foreshadowing.

Cellist Maya Beiser and narrator Kate Valk teamed up for Lang’s pensively minimalist, gently amusing loopmusic piece The Day, its lyrics mostly a litany of tongue-in-cheek mundanities sourced off the web via a search on “I remember the day.” He explained that he’d deleted the product references and lewdness – a lot, he admitted. 

The night’s coda was Riley’s Autodreamographical Tales & Science Fiction, the composer joining the All-Stars on vocals. Chow’s bluesy Rhodes piano made a smooth segue out of the Lang work in tandem with Riley’s wry beat-poetry reminiscence. Levine’s Pink Floyd echoes added bulk and bombast; Bathgate’s powerhouse soul vocals were an unexpected treat. As was Riley’s turn solo at the piano, part Satie, part Tom Waits.

What’s the takeaway from all this? This year was less a sounding of what’s happening on a global level, as past years’ and decades’ marathons have been, than a simple celebration of the Bang on a Can inner circle, with a few tentative ventures outside. But that’s ok. They earned that a long time ago.

A Characteristically Vivid, Potently Relevant Performance by Ensemble Pi

For the past ten years, adventurous indie classical chamber group Ensemble Pi have played an annual “peace concert,” featuring socially relevant compositions from across the years as well as most of the classical music spectrum. This year’s sold-out multimedia performance Saturday night in the comfortable downstairs auditorium at the Sheen Center on Bleecker Street explored music and writing on themes of captivity and imprisonment. In an era when the Guantanamo Bay gulag is still open, and in a city where atrocities on Rikers Island have recently come to light, it was especially relevant, played with equal amounts vividness and attention to the underlying content.

Which was harrowing. Group impresario/pianist Idith Meshulam led a sextet comprising cellist Alexis Gerlach, clarinetist Moran Katz, violinist Airi Yoshioka, trumpeter Sycil Mathai and vibraphonist Bill Trigg through the thorny, endlessly looping Coming Together, Frederic Rzewski’s portrait of the 1971 Attica prison uprising. An illustration of the crushing tedium and repetition of prison life, it’s cruelly difficult difficult to play. But Meshulam and her steely right hand were undaunted by the challenge of its endlessly metronomic pulse and dizzying permutations. Meanwhile, actor Joseph Assadourian narrated the text, a similarly looping quote from a letter by inmate Sam Melville, killed when troops and police stormed the prison. Later in the program, Assadourian provided his own blackly amusing chronicle of arbitrary judicial conduct in New York criminal court.

Eleanor Cory‘s poignant, carefully voiced short work Riker’s Island, for piano, clarinet, cello and violin, was preceded by a similarly troubling account of women’s prison, read by poet Ashley Mote. The program wound up auspiciously with an unexpectedly and very strongly dynamic rendition of Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, in fact so dynamic that it seemed as if the group was playing it at a much faster tempo than it was written for. As it turned out, they didn’t, but the effect was visceral. Messiaen famously composed it in the men’s latrine in a Nazi prison camp in 1941, not knowing that he’d survive or be released. its instrumentation derives from the fact that clarinet, violin, cello and piano just happened to be the instruments played by the prisoners who debuted it.

Considering how unorthodox this lineup is, the piece is relatively rarely staged. It’s even harder for a musician to wrap his or her hands around since the group playing it is usually a pickup band, more or less. But Meshulam and the rest of her quartet left no doubt that they’d internalized Messiaen’s angst, and muted terror, and also his defiance. On the surface, like pretty much everything else the composer wrote, it traces a liturgical theme, but it’s also the story of a successful prison break. Katz animatedly voiced the birdsong beyond Messiaen’s cell window, not to mention his anguish at not being able to see his feathered friends…and all the subtext that image carries. Likewise, Meshulam scampered animatedly through the tiptoeing, furtive theme that recurs just before the rapt, awestruck conclusion – which seemed to pass by in a heartbeat rather than lingering as other groups tend to do with it. It’s hard to think of a more apt way to close such an impactful, meaningful program.