New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: indie classical

A Haunting New Album From the Perennially Relevant Meredith Monk

“We know these things because some of their ancient ones are still among us,” Michael Cerveris’ space alien character intones midway through the third track on Meredith Monk’s new album Memory Game.

Is it any wonder why the lockdowners are trying to kill off all the old people? After all, they remember what it was like not to be spied on, and tracked, or glued to a screen. If the rest of us have no memory of freedom, can we even aspire to it?

That track, Migration, was first performed at the end of the Reagan years, the era that spawned the “culture wars” ignited by that administration’s most florid extremists. In the years since, Monk has never wavered from her signature playful, questioning stance. And now this icon of the avant garde has a new album, Memory Game – streaming at Bandcamp – with members of her vocal ensemble bolstered by the Bang on a Can All-Stars. It’s a mix of previously unrecorded material from her dystopic opera The Games plus plus new arrangements of earlier Monk works dating back to the 80s. There are both instrumentals and vocal numbers here. On the surface, it’s trippy and playful, with a quirky sense of humor and all kinds of demands on the vocalists’ extended technique. But there’s a frequent undercurrent of unease.

The opening instrumental, Spaceship is a circling theme with bright clarinet, stark violin, starry keyboards and unprocessed, trebly electric guitar over a steady rhythm. It’s a potent reminder of how vast Monk’s influence has been on successive generations of minimalists, not to mention a substantial percentage of the indie classical demimonde.

Bleckmann has fun swooping over Monk’s blippy, warptoned, insistent electric piano in The Gamemaster’s Song, bolstered by spare guitar and bass. The other singers – Katie Geissinger and Allison Sniffin – enter over a creepy music box-like backdrop in Memory Song. The animal allusions are prime Monk, as is the litany of references to everything this civilization lost.

With its macabre synth cascades and Planet of the Apes vocals, Downfall is aptly titled. The similarly sardonic Waltz in 5s has echoey violin, stately circling piano and operatically-tinged vocalese. Tokyo Cha-Cha is a loopy faux-salsa throwback to Monk’s earlier, more carefree work. It’s more Asian than latin, until Ken Thomson’s gruff baritone sax enters the picture.

The best of the instrumentals is Totentanz, a blithely menacing, marionettish theme with gracefully leaping clarinet, piano and grimly insistent percussion. The group return to a closer approximation of salsa to close the album on a jaunty note with Double Fiesta. This coouldn’t have been released at a more appropriate time.

Matt Ulery Puts Out One of the Most Kinetically Gorgeous Albums of the Past Several Months

Bassist Matt Ulery is this era’s great Romantic. Nobody writes more lyrical songs without words than this guy. Blending classical elegance and art-rock intensity with jazz improvisation, his music has a consistently vivid, epically cinematic quality. His latest album, Delicate Charms is streaming at Bandcamp; just so you know, it’s not delicate at all.

Pianist Rob Clearfield gets most of the choicest, most poignant moments here, although everybody else in the band – alto saxophonist Greg Ward, violinist Zach Brock and drummer Quin Kirchner – get plenty of chances to make a mark as well. The harmonies between sax and violin sound much more orchestral than you could possibly get from just two instruments, and Kirchner nails the lush ambience with an impressive understatement, saving his tumbles and cymbal spashes for the most dramatic moments.

The opening number, Coping is a theme and variations, Clearfield’s plaintive lines giving way to achingly gorgeous sax/violin harmonies and eventually a steady, cantering drive to a decisive triplet groove through a real struggle of a coda on the wings of Brock’s dancing solo. It’s a mighty payoff.

The Effortless Enchantment has distant latin inflections and a wistful, hopeful theme set to a balletesque pulse, with a similarly hopeful upward trajectory, Clearfield’s insistence and defiant flourishes at the center.

Mellisonant has a slow, saturnine, syncopated sway lit up by Brock’s acerbic, leaping lines and Ward’s guarded optimism. A practically accusatory, lush crescendo, a wary litheness and a ferocious forest fire of a coda ensue before the band bring the song full circle.

The Air We Breathe, a restless, stormy jazz waltz, ironically has one of Clearfield’s most concise, emphatic solos and similarly vigorous work from Ward. At eight and a half minutes, Taciturn is anything but, and has the album’s most lightheartedly leaping moments before the piano and drums come crashing in.

October, with its brisk, pensive, uneasy stroll and bittersweetly rippling piano, could be the high point of the record. As usual, the bandleader’s inobtrusive drive and use of implied melody are a clinic in smart, interesting bass.

The group close the album with Nerve, glittering with echo phrases, glisteningly circular piano and finally a bittersweet bass solo (when’s the last time you heard one of those) from Ulery. Good luck multitasking to this; you might as well give up now and settle in for the ride.

A Strange, Disquieting Album For Disquieting Times

Pianist Cory Smythe has carved out an individualistic place between the worlds of indie classical, jazz improvisation and the avant garde. The strange and often disquieting sonics of his new album Accelerate Every Voice – streaming at Bandcamp – are created by a sampler which plays quartertones triggered by his phrases on the piano keys, a creepy bell-like device that brings to mind Vijay Iyer‘s collaborations with Hafez Modirzadeh as well as Aruan Ortiz‘s work with Amir ElSaffar.

The opening track, Northern Cities Vowel Shift sets the stage, the pianist joined by a vocal quintet interweaving leaps and bounds amid the uneasy chimes. Smythe explains that the unorthodox lineup of singers he asssembled – Kyoko Kitamura, Michael Mayo, Raquel Acevedo Klein and a vocal rhythm section of Steven Hrycalak on “vocal bass” and Kari Francis on “vocal percussion” – are often meant to evoke the kind of blithe optimism a collegiate choir: “Maybe a complicated kind of optimism, a poisoned-by-whiteness American kind of optimism.”

The Andrew Hill and James Weldon Johnson inspirations for the blippy, distantly hip-hop tinged title track don’t really come through, although Smythe’s lithe ripples and runs make a sharp contrast with the vocalists’ poltergeist flickers.

Track three, Marl Every Voice rises and falls with a distant, chilly menace and an occasional hint of gospel. There are two Kinetic Whirlwind Sculptures here, the first keening and oscillating with washes from inside the piano and what sounds like electronically enabled throat-singing. The second is much simpler and loopier; it sounds like a bunch of monks lowered a carillon to the bottom of a well.

Vehemently has a jaunty, bouncy lattice of vocals and spare piano accents, but also a persistent, unsettled ambience. The miniature Knot Every Voice comes across as a cuisinarted vocal warmup exercise. There’s a more devious, Meredith Monk-like comedic sensibility to Weatherproof Song (a snide reference to the famous Yale ditty, with its pompous lyrics by the king of jungle imperialism, Rudyard Kipling)

The album winds up with the epic Piano and Ocean Waves for Deep Relaxation, written as a follow-up to Annea Lockwood’s global warming-era parable Southern Exposure, where a piano goes out with the rising tide. It works equally well as subtle spoof of new age nature soundscapes, Satoko Fujii-esque extended-technique tone poem and ghostly Brian Eno-style tableau.

Beyond that cocoon of a conclusion, this isn’t easy listening; then again, these aren’t exactly easy times. Fans of intrepid avant garde singers like Ted Hearne and Sofia Rei will love this record.

A Characteristically Haunting, Dynamic New Album of Michael Hersch Works

Composer and pianist Michael Hersch was scheduled to play a marathon weekend at the Irondale Center in Greenpoint back in April. Hersch, who is best known for his compositions, is also a ferociously intense musician and rarely performs, so the series of shows promised to be one of the concert highlights of the year.

The lockdown killed that.

Fortunately, Hersch already had the material recorded. One of the albums featuring works on the bill is his recent release Carrion-Miles to Purgatory, streaming at Bandcamp.

The first work is titled …das Ruckgrat berstand (German for “bent back” ), a setting of Christopher Middleton poems translated into German and performed by  Patricia Kopatchinskaja on violin and vocals alongside Jay Campbell on cello. Sometimes horizontal and ambient, other times disquietingly stark, it contrasts long, airy, doppler-like phrases and acidic close harmonies punctuated by Hersch’s signature short, sharp, sometimes shrieking accents.

Music for Violin and Piano is a pastiche of excerpts from earlier Hersch works, culled from a 2018 concert at National Sawdust – only the second time violinist Miranda Cuckson and Hersch had performed together. He’s a whirlwind on the keys, his sudden, leaping, clustering phrases sometimes evoking Frederic Rzewski, but with a lot more space between phrases (a signature Hersch trope). The otherworldly, eerie minimalism of Messiaen and the dark, persistent restlessness of Ran Blake are other points of comparison. Cuckson’s jagged leads and wary sustain provide an anchor, such that there is in this relentlessly uneasy partita.

The album’s title suite comprises fifteen pieces for violin and cello, inspired by texts by Robert Lowell – madness, torment and death are recurrent themes in Hersch’s work. Austere clouds of harmony slowly shift through the sonic picture. Minute timbral changes alternate between airiness and grit, often drifting into richly unsettled microtonal territory. Sudden swells and fades give way to keening, oscillating harmonics, occasional Bartokian irony or muted gloom. The finale is a drifting, Shostakovian elegy. It’s music to get completely lost in, yet Hersch always finds a way to jar the themes out of any kind nof resolution.

This doesn’t have the sheer horror of Kopatchinskaja and International Contemporary Ensemble’s performance of Hersch’s End Stages, but it’s still plenty riveting. Of all the composers working in new music today, Hersch is as individualistic as anyone and may well be the very best.

Noveller Puts Out Yet Another Epic, Picturesque Album

Nobody writes epic, cinematic, stormy loopmusic more expertly or vividly than guitarist Sarah Lipstate, a.k.a. Noveller. Her latest album Arrow is streaming at Bandcamp. As usual, Lipstate’s sonic palette runs the gamut from blustery to soothing to distantly menacing. In general, this is one of her calmer releases so far.

Even considering the ridiculous number of digital sounds that a guitarist can get through one effect or another, the vastness of Lipstate’s orchestration is breathtaking. The album’s first track, Rune, has what could be distant cannon fire behind a simple, rising three-chord riff, minimalist jangle contrasting with blustery digital strings.

Effectology is a study in echoey, atmospheric washes with hints of Renaissance polyphony. The album’s most expansive epic is Zeaxanthin, a galaxy of somber waves, deep-space twinkle and echoey Kraftwerk loops,

In Pattern Recognition, Lipstate builds symphonic variations on a series of ringing, melancholy phrases. Canyons, with its staggered series of wave phrases, is the closest thing to a rock ballad here. From here the album grows more ambient, with the cocooning, lushly oscillating nocturne Pre-Fabled and then the slow, tectonically shifting Thorns. Lipstate introduces the album’s closing diptych, Remainder, with a poignant, Gilmouresque spaciousness, the music receding to a slow, orchestral pastiche running through what must be an immense pedalboard.

New Music for Harp With Edge, Bite and a Killer Sense of Humor

Once in a great while, someone writes album liner notes so priceless that they scream to be quoted. Here’s Michael Lewanski offering some background for Ben Melsky‘s album New Works for Harp with his group Ensemble Dal Niente:

“There might be many things that strike you as odd about the idea of a new music harp album…the first is that there’s very little, strictly speaking, that is less new than the harp… it seems that earliest exemplars are found in the Sumerian city of Ur, from the mid-fourth millennium BCE, perhaps before very many people had figured out how to write. You also find them, starting in 3000 BCE or so, painted on tombs of Egyptian pharaohs who apparently wanted enjoyable-but-not-too-noisy entertainment in the afterlife.) It doesn’t get much more basic than plucking a string; no wonder this instrument has been around for awhile.

Another has to do with the hackneyed cliché, found among both musicians and non-, of the harp as an instrument that is the ne plus ultra of the elegant and genteel, nudging in the direction of the effete and decadent. (Along those lines, one of its best known moments in the so-called “standard repertoire” is the cadenza in the Valse des fleurs from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker: a work titled in a language foreign to the composer for a piece in which a waltz (a genre inextricably bound up with the most ennui’d of aristocracy) is danced by flowers in the Land of Sweets. I challenge you to find me something more froo-froo in the history of art.”

Needless to say, Melsky’s record – streaming at Bandcamp– is not exactly froo-froo. The first number is Tomás Gueglio‘s brief After L’Addio, its muted glissandos punctuated by spare accents and percussive figures along with a handful of coy doppler riffs. The title references a Salvatore Sciarrino work for harp which attempts to maximize what little sustain the instrument can deliver. Steadily plucked close harmonies and deliciously subtle overtones dominate the diptych’s second half, Felt For Harp.

Emma Hospelhorn joins Melsky for a duo piece, Alican Çamci’s staggeredly syncopated, spacious Perde for Bass Flute and Harp, which with the flutist basically humming through her instrument much of the time is as playful as it is distantly disquieting. An alternate title for this increasingly magical, microtonally-spiced tableau could be Sonata for Fly and Music Box.

Another duo work, Fredrick Gifford’s Mobile 2015: Satirise features guitarist Jesse Langen and lots of extended technique, with plenty of whirry noise along with the spare, chiming interplay.

A Wang Lu shout-out to Christian Wolff contrasts Melsky’s slo-mo, acerbically circular phrases with Katie Schoepflin Jimoh’s alternately hazy and fluttery clarinet. The album’s longest, funniest and best number is Igor Santos‘ Anima. Percussionist Kyle Flens adds warpy. singing bowl-like textures and all sorts of quasi-vocalized buffoonery, going back and forth with Melsky’s wry whistles and peek-a-book moments. As cartoon music goes, it doesn’t get any better than this.

With its sudden swells and triumphantly gritty flourishes contrasting with moments of silence, the album’s final number is Eliza Brown‘s On-dit (French for “they say”), soprano Amanda DeBoer Bartlett adding perhaps the album’s most terse, minimalistic contribution. This is a great late-night listen for people who like quiet, thoughtful music with an edge.

A Timely Musical Celebration of One of the Great Poets of the Holocaust

This blog is not a guide to broadcasts and webcasts, but there’s an especially intriguing one coming up on Friday, June 26 at 9 PM when new music chamber group Ensemble for These Times are livestreaming the release show for their new album Once/Memory/Night: Paul Celan at YouTube.

“Why Paul Celan and why now?” the group ask. “The year 2020 is the centennial of the birth of the seminal poet, whose influential works speak to his experiences of loss, disempowerment, imprisonment and survival under a brutal regime; the themes in his work—the rise of fascism, “strong men” leaders, and nations marching to the drumbeat of nationalism—deeply resonate today with the global right-wing resurgence and rampant injustice.” Download the program notes here.

The webcast will include live chat with composers including Juliana Hall, Gabriela Lena Frank, and Kareem Roustom, interviews with Vivian Fung, Aleksandra Vrebalov, David Garner, and soprano Chelsea Hollow, music from the album, and videos of performances by the ensemble (Dale Tsang, piano, Anne Lerner, cello, soprano Nanette McGuinness, guests Laura Reynolds, English horn, Ilana Blumberg, violin, Xin Zhao, piano).

The group are officially releasing the record on June 30, a mix of new music premiered in 2018 by the ensemble’s co-founder David Garner and Jared Redmond to poetry by Celan; by Stephen Eddins to poetry by Czeslaw Milosz, including a reading of the poem by the translator and poet’s son Anthony Milosz, plus a relevant piece by Libby Larsen.

A Thoughtfully Enveloping Debut Album From Innovative Composer/Organist Molly Joyce

Composer Molly Joyce performs on the rarest of vintage instruments: the toy electric organ. She accumulated a serious collection in the wake of a horrific car accident that left her with limited mobility in her left hand – so she switched from piano to an instrument with easier action but an unexpectedly rich sonic palette, especially in the high midrange and above. Her debut album Breaking and Entering is streaming at Bandcamp. At low volume, this is soothing, enveloping music: played louder, its edges reveal themselves.

The first track, Body and Being, begins with twinkling, Terry Riley-ish loops and grows denser as Simon sends tectonic sheets from across the sonic spectrum through the mix, “Do you react to me, do you contract from me?” Joyce asks.

Her airy high soprano rises to stratospheric heights in Form and Flee: “You’re not normality, but you’re mortality,” she intones over an increasingly tense, circling pulse. Stereolab seems to be an influence on that track and also the title track, which she builds around a simple accordionish blues riff,

A fluttering, oscillating interlude leads into Who Are You, the album’s most anxious vocal contrasting with a calm undercurrent and some keening new wave riffage. Joyce brings the album full circle with Front and Center: “Try to remember your truest nature,” she reminds. Words of wisdom in an interminable season of alienation and atomization. Joyce is playing a webcast to celebrate the album’s release this Friday June 26, at 5 PM at youube.

Revisiting a Rewarding, Diverse Collection of New Classical Works

Editor’s note: As longtime readers may remember, in the days before the lockdown, New York Music Daily’s coverage was focused on live music. Nobody here, or probably anywhere in the world, expected the lockdown to last so long. The first few weeks after March 16 created an opportunity to revisit some albums that had been sitting on the hard drive here but hadn’t gotten the attention they deserved. This is one of them. You may see some of those records pop up here from time to time. Enjoy!

Today’s album is Dreamfall, released by distinctive indie classical group Now Ensemble in 2015 as a follow-up to their harrowing 2012 recording of Missy Mazzoli‘s Songs From the Uproar. It’s more stylistically diverse and somewhat more upbeat but just as adventurous for this wind ensemble enhanced by guitar and piano. The album is still streaming at Bandcamp.

A low, looming metallic fog rises, keening with overtones as Scott Smallwood‘s Still in Here gets underway, flickering bits appearing from time to time. As the drone becomes more of a rumble, tectonic sheets of sound color the upper part of the picture, oscillating at a glacial pace. Although there are discernibly piano and reed textures, the rest of the murk is deliciously mysterious.

The album’s title track, by Mark Dancigers, is a triptych. The first part begins with a playfully dripping piano phrase over orchestration that grows more stark, then the casual, intricately synocopated mood returns. Big neoromantic cadenzas alternate with more carefree interludes: the appearance of the composer’s ringing, ever-so-slightly distorted electric guitar is something of a shock, all the more so because it anchors the music in an attractively wistful folk rock-tinged theme.

Part two follows a dancing, sparkling staccato tangent that grows more kaleidoscopic and then coalesces back toward the neoromantic. Clarinet floats over a gritty, insistent piano-driven glitter in the first half of the conclusion, then the group use a momentary solemn Michael Mizrahi solo piano interlude as a springboard for a lively upward drive over insistent, loopy staccato strings. It’s a fun ride.

Divine the Rest, by John Supko is still and echoey, awash in reverb, with a whispery spoken-word component and gently fluttery phrases that rise toward the end. An enigmatic calm and hammering bustle alternate in Nathan Williamson‘s Trans-Atlantic Flight of Fancy; bristling suspense-movie accents from throughout the ensemble grow more warmly agitated

Sarah Kirkland Snider’s Pale As Centuries is the album’s most striking piece. Its wary guitar theme recedes for Terry Riley-ish upper-register circles, clarinet floating amid piano turbulence and eerie concentric circles just below: it wouldn’t be out of place in the Darcy James Argue catalog.

Andrea Mazzariello‘s Trust Fall makes a great segue, from its similarly uneasy slow guitar/bass/clarinet interweave, rising to exchanges between triumphant peaks, a twinkling calm and river of a coda from the piano. The album concludes with Judd Greenstein’s City Boy, sparkling with spiky, circular motives, a bit of a jig, and hints of Carole King woven together up to an unexpectedly sober ending.

A Fun, Playful Solo Percussion Album by Adam Holmes

Percussionist Adam Holmes has a very entertaining short solo album, Compartments, streaming at Bandcamp. To an extent, it’s ambient, but there’s a lot going on here. Holmes’ music has a welcome sense of humor, so often missing from the indie classical scene he comes out of: he validates the argument that drummers by nature tend to be funny people.

The album’s opening, title track is is a very playful, hypnotic seven-minute piece for small metal gongs, Holmes working subtle variations on a racewalking, steady rhythm. If this isn’t loopmusic, Holmes has the steadiest hands on the planet. The dynamics, and the overtones ringing out as he varies his attack, are very cool.

Track two, Deluge, is an electroacoustic piece, an echoey circling-the-drainpipe loop punctuated by what sounds like a crazed plumber trying to get a handle on what’s going on down there. Hypnotic, blippy muted polythythms on what could be a glass marimba spiral around backward masked loops in the third track, Cambium. Holmes winds up the record with All-American, those metal gongs again creating an increasingly complex web akin to a music box approximating the sound of dripping stalactites.

Who is the audience for this? Anyone who likes drifty music, wherever your mind might be drifting to.