New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: indie classical

A Massive, Exhilarating Double Album From the Spektral Quartet

One unexpectedly entertaining feature of the Spektral Quartet’s lavish double album Experiments in Living is an “online card deck emulator” that facilitates very strange, quirky yet also insightful ways to create playlists from its vast range of material. Modeled after a tarot deck, it’s meant to defamiliarize the listener and, one suspects, lure them into hearing something they might not otherwise choose. Plenty of diehards will see the Ruth Crawford Seeger quartet here and immediately dial up all four movements, in order. But the card deck is a cool idea: it never hurts to listen outside the box. And if you just want to listen to the album inside the box, literally, it’s streaming at Bandcamp.

The material ranges from the well-worn to the once-and-still-radical to the more recent, adventurous sounds the group are best known for. How do they approach the Brahms String Quartet No. 1? The first movement seems fast, a little skittish, very acerbically rhythmic: they’re keeping their ears wide open. Even if you find the music impossibly dated, this version definitely isn’t boring. Those echo effects really come into sharp focus!

By contrast, the nocturnal second and third movements come across as careful, pastoral tableaux, the changes very proto-ELO. The group – violinists Clara Lyon and Maeve Feinberg, violist Doyle Armbrust and cellist Russell Rolen – cut loose on the intertwining finale. The close-miked clarity of the individual instruments in the mix is superior: Rolen’s quasi-basslines have a welcome presence.

Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 3 is right up their alley, from the first movement’s icepick exchanges to its hypnotic yet restlessly acidic counterpoint and a paint-peeling ending. Dynamic contrasts are subtle but striking, particularly in the more muted second movement. Balletesque precision alternates with sullen sustain and soaring highs in the third; the quartet’s unexpectedly slinky groove in the fourth is a revelation. Defiance has seldom been more resolute than this.

It’s a hard act to follow, but the Seeger quartet is every bit as gripping and a brilliantly contemporaneous segue (1931 for her, 1927 for him). In a word, wow. The ensemble attack it with a light-fingered, sometimes almost fleeting pointillism, an endess thicket of echo effects and sudden tradeoffs in the first couple of movements. The griptite resonance of the third seems almost backward-masked as phrases or single notes pass around the sonic frame; the group, particularly Rolen, really dig in vigorously up to a sudden end that’s just as coy as Schoenberg’s.

The first of the 21st century pieces is a Sam Pluta diptych, a shivery, punchy round-robin punctuated with droll, often cartoonish extended technique: harmonics, white noise, things that go bump in general, all of it amusing to hear and brutally hard to play.

Flutist Claire Chase joins the quartet for Anthony Cheung‘s 2015 suite The Real Book of Fake Tunes. Her assertive, rhythmic swells balance with the strings’ pizzicato bounce, then a microtonal haze sets in, punctuated by wry echoes and leaps. The third segment, with its stark microtonal chords and flute scurrying amid them, is edgy fun, as is the alternatingly whirling and grittily suspenseful fourth part. The conclusion bristles with good jokes and peek-a-boo riffage: it stands up amidst some very formidable material here.

Singer Charmaine Lee, who writes and improvises in phonetic language, teams up with the group for her surrealistically playful 2018 piece Spinals. This is what the word “sillypants” on the tarot card generator will get you, complete with what sounds like turntable scratching, whether acoustic or electronically generated.

The quartet close with George Lewis’ String Quartet 1.5: Experiments in Living, from two years earlier. Keening glissandos and flickers dance and swing over chugging, sputtering, often ridiculous riffage, with circular, microtonal clusters punctuated by droll flicks and punches. Definitely sillypants – with daunting extended technique and a little horror movie ambience to keep you (and the band) on your toes.

ShoutHouse Trace the Turbulent History of New York With an Ambitious Blend of Styles

ShoutHouse play a lavishly orchestrated, absolutely unique blend of postrock, art-rock and indie classical pageantry. The obvious point of comparison is Sara McDonald’s similarly majestic NYChillharmonic. Both bands are (typically) fronted by women; the big differences are that ShoutHouse relies on strings instead of traditional jazz instrumentation, and they have a hip-hop edge. The group’s debut album, Cityscapes – streaming at Bandcamp – is a song cycle tracing the history of New York, from the days before the European invaders arrived, to a possible future. Bandleader/pianist Will Healy wrote most of the material.

The first track, Mannahatta has a bubbly, spacious, optimism reinforced by rapper Nuri Hazzard, David Valbuena’s clarinet and Connell Thompson’s sax adding verdant textures. George Meyer’s violin spirals and dips above Healy’s steady minimalism as Hudson Drones rises toward a lush peak, verses by Akinyemi and and Maassai reflecting how 19th century struggles here mirror those of today. Akinyemi spells it out at the end:

The morning of peace, took a trip around the hill
The same dividend impacted me, subtracted thrill
Add in all the negative: the subway stops, delays in the mix
As I’m released from these trapped doors
I’m faced with the fate of these past laws
My passion would probably pull me in a positive direction
I stop at the river entrance
Enthralled by the possibility but worrisome
Of the penalties that change by the minute…

Singer Majel Connery delivers a setting of a Billy Collins poem with brassy passion over a relentless drive and increasingly nebulous bustle in Grand Central. Drummer Aaron Ewing’s rhythmically tricky For Those Who Look Up shifts on a dime from minimialist mathrock to a summery trip-hop groove.

Percussionist Jesse Greenberg opens his contribution to the album, Ancient Tools, with tinkling bells over hazy atmospherics. Hannah Zazzaro’s pensive vocals over a catchy, syncopated sway evoke the Chillharmonic in a sparse, dancing moment; Akinyemi returns to end it with a long, rapidfire lyric.

Over a driving, emphatic sway, MCs Bush Tea and Nuri Hazzard put a wary, urban 21st century update on the old ant-and-grasshopper fable in the next-to-last track, Ants. The ensemble close the album with Rebuild, its tricky metrics anchored by Healy’s Radiohead chords, MC Spiritchild contemplating a rather grim cycle of death and renewal over an increasingly epic sweep. An ambitious achievement from a group who also include violists Leah Asher, Sofia Basile, Linda Numagami, Lauren Siess and Drew Forde; violinists Megan Atchley and Allison Mase; cellists Maria Hadge, Olivia Harris, Philip Sheegog, Mosa Tsay and Daniel Hass; bassists Luiz Bacchi, John McGuire and Andrew Sommer; flutists Kelley Barnett, Izzy Gleicher and Fanny Wyrick-Flax; clarinetist David Valbuena; guitarist Jack Gulielmetti; drummer Cameron MacIntosh and rapper Adè Ra.

Transient Canvas Have Irrepressible Fun with Bass Clarinet and Marimba

What is the likelihood that a bass clarinet and marimba duo would even exist, let alone commission over sixty new compositions for such an unorthodox pairing? Transient Canvas – bass clarinetist Amy Advocat and marimba player Matt Sharrock – cover all the bases in the lows and the highs, and have built an often absolutely fascinating body of work. For anyone who feels daunted or overwhelmed by the sheer effort it’s going to take for us to end the lockdown, this group’s very existence is an inspiration: if they can succeed, so can we. The irrepressible duo’s latest album Right Now, in a Second is streaming at Bandcamp.

As is typical for this pair, there’s a lot going on here: this is new classical music as entertainment. They open with Barbara White’s Fool Me Once, beginning with a series of variations on a catchy, circling bass clarinet riff, Advocat up the scale just a little below the marimba. If the squall and then the hazy atmospherics afterward aren’t improvised, White’s done a great job imitating it. Looming ambience, a playful game of knuckles and a more wistful conversation ensue, going out with a wry whisper. Likewise, Jonathan Bailey Holland’s Rebounds begins with good-natured call-and-response and then calms, the amusement factor growing more subtle. 

Emily Koh’s \Very/ Specifically Vague is inspired by from Singaporean English patois, Advocat’s precise trills and the occasional upward flare contrasting with Sharrock’s anchoring accents and ripples. Clifton Ingram’s triptych Cold Column, Calving draws on the 2008 Jakobshavn Glacier calving incident where a chunk of ice the size of lower Manhattan broke off into the Atlantic.  The composer also seeks to explore the development (some would say devolution) of bicameral brain hemispheres. Again, a lot of call-and-response is involved, in a spare, spritely, noirish, Bernard Herrmann-ish sense. Told you there was a lot going on here!

Resonance Imaging, by Crystal Pascucci reflects the composer’s many angst-filled experiences inside a MRI tube, both via a sardonic evocation of  mechanical blips and buzzes, and Advocat’s resolute spirals and sheets of sound as Sharrock edges toward more lyrical territory. A MRI as edge-of-your seat carnival ride, who knew?

The album’s title track, by Stefanie Lubkowski is a neat interweave of alternately sustained and rhythmic riffs for the duo to negotiate. They wind up the record with the jaunty, lilting, minimalist variations of Keith Kirchoff’s Monochrome.

Lively Ambience From Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti and Anna Thorvaldsdottir

Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti is a violist on a mission to build the repertoire for her instrument. One of the most captivating, immersive albums she’s released to date is her recording of Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s electroacoustic triptych Sola, streaming at Bandcamp.

For many listeners and critics, Thorvaldsdottir epitomizes the vast, windswept Icelandic compositional sensibility of recent decades. This mini-suite is on the livelier side of that zeitgeist. The first movement begins with slow modulations, dopplers and flickers of wind in the rafters of some abandoned barn on the tundra – or at least its sonic equivalent. However, Lanzilotti gets many chances to add austere color and the occasional moment of levity via steady, emphatic phrases and the occasional coy glissando.

There are places where it’s hard to figure out which is which, Lanzilotti’s nuanced, delicate harmonics, or Thorvaldsdottir’s own keening electronics, which are processed samples recorded earlier on the viola. The brooding, droning, fleeting second movement seems to be all Lanzilotti – at least until the puckish ending. The conclusion is more lush, similarly moody and enigmatically microtonal, again with the occasional playful flourish. Even in the badlands, life is sprouting in the ruts.

As a bonus, the album includes a podcast of sorts with both performers discussing all sorts of fascinating nuts-and-bolts details, from composing to performing. Listening to Thorvaldsdottir enthusing about traveling to premieres and leading master classes will break your heart: based in the UK, her career as a working composer has been crushed by the Boris Johnson regime.

An Enigmatic, Immersive Mini-Suite From Majel Connery

Singer Majel Connery‘s work, like pretty much every first-rate vocalist, spans a lot of styles. In her case, that runs from the baroque to the avant garde, as part of new music ensemble Oracle Hysterical and the duo Hae Voces. Her album Anything Chartreuse – streaming at Bandcamp – is a four-part suite told a woman’s perspective. in response to Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo.

The first part of August, the opening piece, recalls the catchy minimalism of recent Serena Jost: “Since we’ve washed ashore let’s shiver, sense the sensation of grasping flesh,” Connery intones, up to a big enveloping swell. Oracle Hysterical’s orchestration eventually recedes and the song comes full circle with an echoey, dissociative but triumphant conclusion.

This Much and More has a glitchy trip-hop groove and strangely oscillating, icily processed loops behind Connery’s pensive, calmly expressive voice. Pulsing with backward-masked textures, Rebeam Me could be Shara Nova in a particularly calm moment. Connery winds up this immersive and strange little partita with This Kind of Love, which distantly brings to mind the old Cindy Lauper hit Time After Time run through a pitch pedal for a chilly choir effect.

Troubled, Intertwining Atmospherics in Trumpeter Nate Wooley’s Latest Seven Storey Mountain Installment

Trumpeter Nate Wooley’s ongoing Seven Storey Mountain project has a new sixth edition available and streaming at Bandcamp. It’s nothing like anything else in the series: haunting, often chaotic and even downright macabre in places. Although it was recorded prior to the lockdown, it uncannily seems to prefigure what the world has suffered this year.

The single 45-minute work begins with allusions to Renaissance polyphony fueled by the slightly off-key violins of C. Spencer Yeh and Samara Lubelski. Met by droning washes of harmonies from Susan Alcorn’s pedal steel, the atmosphere grows more ominous, Emily Manzo’s spare piano building funereal ambience.

Isabelle O’Connor’s similarly minimalist Rhodes piano enters the picture and suddenly a disorientingly syncopated clockwork interweave appears, with the flutters from drummers Chris Corsano, Ryan Sawyer and Ben Hall. From there it grows even loopier, circular riffs and nebulous atmospherics filtering through the mix in the vein of a contemporary, electronically-enhanced horror film score. It’s here that Wooley’s agitated, echoey lines first appear through the sonic thicket.

Sirening violins, broodingly steady Rhodes chords and a kaleidoscope of flickering noise ensue. It’s not clear where or even whether guitarists Ava Mendoza or Julien Desprez join in, or whether those scrapes which could be guitar strings are coming from the percussion section, until finally an icy, squalling patch played through an analog chorus pedal. It’s probably Mendoza but maybe not.

Drums and guitars and who knows what else reach a terrorized Brandon Seabrook-like stampede as the band hit fever pitch. The group bring it full circle with what seems to be a twisted parody of an organ prelude and a baroque chorale: the final mantra is “You can’t scare me.” This is by far the darkest, most psychedelic, and ultimately most assaultive segment in Wooley’s series yet, perhaps an inevitability considering the state of the world in 2020.

Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti Playfully and Imaginatively Expands the Viola Repertoire

As a violist, Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti is keenly aware of the scarcity of repertoire for her instrument beyond orchestral and string quartet music. So she decided to do something about it with her debut full-length album, In Manus Tuas, streaming at Bandcamp. She takes the title from the centerpiece, a Caroline Shaw composition originally written for violin. Lanzilotti came up with a new arrangement for that one, along with a tantalizing handful of other recent works originally scored for either violin or cello in addition to a world premiere of her own. There are many different flavors on this beguiling and often deviously funny album: Lanzilotti chose her source material well.

She joins forces with pianist Karl Larson for the first of two Andrew Norman works, the five-part suite Sonnets. The fleeting introduction pairs eerie, close-harmonied, Mompou-esque belltones with droning minimalism and a surprise ending. The even more abbreviated To Be So Tickled is exactly that: a coy romp. Part three, My Tongue-Tied Muse is just as vivid, if very quiet and spacious. The two return to wryly romping humor with So Far From Variation and conclude with Confounded to Decay, Lanzilotti’s hazily straining harmonics contrasting with Larson’s moody, judicious phrasing.

Shaw’s piece is a solo work that comes across as a salute to Bach interspersed with gritty harmonics and dynamically shifting pizzicato: the cello-like low midrange is striking. Lanzilotti plays her own composition, Gray, with percussionist Sarah Mullins, who gets to deliver a very amusing intro and foggy drumhead work before Lanzilotti’s muted microtones and overtones enter the picture: they’re Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund up too early with a hangover.

The second Norman work, Sabina, is a quasi-raga punctuated by all sorts of carefully modulated harmonics. Lanzilotti concludes the album with the dissociative harmonies of Anna Thorvaldsdotttir’s uncharacteristically animated, sometimes drifting, grittily oscillating Transitions, originally a work for solo cello.

A New Retrospective Album of Energetic, Irrepressibly Entertaining Dorothy Hindman Works

This blog has always gravitated toward music that reflects the world around us. Even so, over the past nine years, there has never been such a relentless barrage of persistently troubled and often tortured sounds as the year of the lockdown has given us. Today is a welcome break from that. Dorothy Hindman is all about fun, whether in your face or in the distance. She writes meticulously intertwining, generally optimistic, energetic music: she’s a one-woman cloudbreak. She tends to favor wind instruments, percussion, and dancing upper-register melodies, although what she writes in the lows is just as catchy. Her music has a carnivalesque side, but it’s playful rather than macabre. It’s hard to pin down her influences: there’s nobody who sounds remotely like her. Her new album Blow By Blow, featuring a multitude of inspired small groups and a couple of larger ones, is streaming at Spotify.

The Frost Flute Ensemble romp with a meticulous staccato through the first piece, Mechanisms, a clever series of variations on an incisive, pointillistic theme: is this about how much fun we can have with machines, or a cautionary tale about how they tend to take over our lives if we’re not careful?

Baritone saxophonist Frank Capoferri and pianist Lauralie Pow even more irresistible fun trading off catchy bass riffs in Big Fun, Pow both outside and under the piano lid, evoking Paula Henderson and Gina Rodriguez’s legendary New York dance-punk band Moisturizer.

The Splinter Reeds quintet premiere Hindman’s diptych Contents Under Pressure, its cheery, clustering riffs set to tricky staccato syncopation. Flutist Donald Ashworth plays Trembling, an etude with carefree motives and birdsong allusions punctuated by fleeting moments of daunting extended technique.

Drift, performed by the Atlas Saxophone Quartet has the same leaping, balletesque, staccato quality as the album’s opening number, with some richly suspenseful, Bernard Herrmann-esque harmonies and contrasting with tongue-in-cheek goofiness. Lori Ardovino plays Soliloquy for Clarinet, nimbly negotiating its enigmatic allusions to Messiaen, spacious cascades and shivery duotones.

Soprano saxophonist Carey Valente Kisselburg and pianist John Elmquist prance through Lost in Translation, whose title could be a sardonic reference to its variations on lively Indian-tinged themes. The Frost Saxophone Quartet follow with Cascade, a deviously expectant study in contrasts and suspense with a little Gershwinesque pageantry thrown in.

Untitled 1, performed by the Switch Ensemble, comes as a shock, vast Anna Thorvaldsdottir-like waves punctuated by spare piano, winds, washes of percussion and troubled, hovering motives. It’s uncharacteristically dark, yet it may be the strongest piece here.

The Georgia State University Percussion Ensemble tackle the marimba piece Multiverses, addressing the idea of infinite possibilities through intricate, dynamically shifting echo effects: it’s an upbeat, reverse image of Satie’s Vexations. Tapping the Furnace, a rather suspenseful solo drum-and-vocal piece performed by that group’s director Stuart Gerber, recalls the dangerous and often deadly blast furnaces of the 20th century steel industry in Birmingham, Alabama.

Marimba player Scott Deal’s solo take of Beyond the Cloud of Unknowing is similar but more spacious and enigmatic. The Frost Symphonic Winds conclude the album with Fission, Zarathustra throwing a benefit for Mr. Kite, bursting with lively circling horns over hazy atmospherics.

A Chilly Album of Solo Atmospherics For Our Time From Violinist Sarah Bernstein

Violinist Sarah Bernstein has written everything from microtonal jazz to string quartets to jazz poetry. As many artists have done this year, she’s released a solo album, Exolinger, streaming at Bandcamp. As you would expect, it’s her most minimalist yet, a chilly series of reverb-drenched instrumental and vocal soundscapes that directly and more opaquely reflect the alienation and inhumanity we’ve all suffered under the lockdown – outside of Sweden, or Nicaragua, or South Dakota, anyway.

The album’s first track, Carry This is a series of loopy car horn-like phrases that get pushed out of the picture by noisy fragments pulsing through the sonic picture, the reverb on Bernstein’s violin up so high that it isn’t immediately obvious she’s plucking the strings. It could be a song by Siouxsie & the Banshees spinoff the Creatures.

The second track, Ratiocinations is an increasingly assaultive series of variations on echo effects using a variety of chilly reverb timbres. The third piece, Tree, is definitely one for our time:

Crisis of mixed proportions
Manageable in ways
Mitigated, maximized, handled, contained
Sitting outside the birds have sirens
Fresh city air
The tree has been here awhile,
Has always been here
Before 1984, before 2020

Does Ghosts Become Crowds refer to a return toward normalcy…or a parade of the dead? The mechanical strobe of the grey noise behind Bernstein’s spare vocalese seems to indicate the latter.

The Plot works on multiple levels. On the surface, it’s a lengthy, shivery, blustery commentary – and demonstration – of the music inherent in language, and vice versa. In this case, apocalyptic industrial chaos trumps pretty much everything.

Through Havoc is a series of echoey, crunchy, noisy loops. “How strong is your will? Do you last a few hours?” Bernstein asks in We Coast, a moody study in resonance versus rhythm. She closes the album with its one moment of levity, Whirling Statue, which opens with what sounds like a talkbox.

Brooklyn Rider Pair First-Class 21st Century Works with an Iconic String Quartet

Brooklyn Rider are the rare string quartet who seem to have as much fun with the classical canon as they do with the new composers they champion. To violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violist Nicholas Cords and cellist Michael Nicolas, it’s all just good music. Their latest, lavish double-disc set, Healing Modes – streaming at Bandcamp – interpolates some fascinating new compositions among succesive movements of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15, a mainstay of their performances (before the lockdown, at least). The new repertoire here challenges the group’s extended technique arguably more than any other recording they’ve done, but they rise to its demands. As usual, among the new works, there are connecting threads, notably a constant tension between atmospherics and bustle. And the Beethoven bristles with surprises and erudition, even if you’ve heard it a million times.

The opening piece, Matana Roberts‘ Borderland is a contrast in ghostly and poltergeist sonics. Microtonal haze gives way to insistent, rhythmic phrases, hectic pizzicato, coy glissandos, and then back. There’s also a loaded, allusive spoken word element that packs a wallop at a time when our constitutional rights have been stolen from us by the lockdowners.

Reena Ismail‘s Zeher (Poison) has a similar resonant/rhythmic dichotomy spiced with doublestops and quavery, Indian-influenced ornamentation, shifting to an unexpectedly anthemic conclusion that brings to mind the quartet’s recordings of Philip Glass.

Gabriela Lena Frank’s Kanto Kechua #2 has acerbically harmonized, tightly leaping phrases, a round of biting chromatics at the center. The quartet revel in these flurries, which obliquely echo Bernard Herrmann film scores, Peruvian folk music and also the Beethoven here.

The second disc begins with Du Yun‘s I Am My Own Achilles Heel, its shivers, squeals, approximations of arioso vocalese and sharply strutting figures receding down to sepulchral ambience and back again. There may be an improvisational element at work here: beyond an animated, allusively Appalachian circle dance at around the halfway mark or so, and pastoral Asian tinges later, it’s hard to tell.

The take of Caroline Shaw‘s Schisma seems even more amiably plucky and subtly anthemic than the version they played as a New York premiere on the Upper West Side in the spring of 2019.

There seems to be new gravitas but also new vigor in the first movement of the Beethoven, compared to the group’s previous interpretations, although their stunningly legato approach throughout hasn’t wavered over the years. It’s less a nocturne than an anthem. There’s lilting grace and delicacy in unexpected moments of movement two, but with plenty of muscle.

The devious Bach quotes amid the hymnal lustre of the third movement are right up front, and irresistible, as is the lushness of its conclusion. The ensemble play up the drollery in the fleeting bit of a fourth movement as much as the bittersweet, Vivaldiesque grace of the final one. These guys know better than most anyone else that this particular quartet is more symphonic than it is chamber music, a celebration of being snatched from the jaws of death. What does it sound like mixed up amid the new compositions? Full disclosure: this blog tweaked the tracklist to play it contiguously. It’s that addictive.