New York Music Daily

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Tag: indie classical

Celebrating a Tragic, Iconoclastic Hungarian Hero at the National Arts Club

Wouldn’t you wash your hands after you touched a corpse? Hospital physicians at Vienna’s Algelemine Krankenhaus didn’t. From a 21st century perspective, the results were predictably catastrophic.

Ray Lustig’s grim, powerfully resonant song cycle Semmelweis, which premiered on September 11 at the National Arts Club, begins in 1848, One of Europe’s deadliest outbreaks of puerperal fever is killing one in ten new mothers at the hospital. Hungarian-born obstetrician Ignac Semmelweis is at a loss to explain it.

Semmelweis was a tragic hero in the purest sense of the word. Decades before Louis Pasteur, Semmelweis discovered the bacterial connection for disease transmission. But rather than being celebrated for his discovery and for saving countless of his own patients, he was derided as a medical heretic,  ended up losing his mind and died alone in a mental asylum seventeen years later. If not for the reactionary Viennese medical establishment, terrified of being blamed for the epidemic, today we would say “semmelweissed” instead of “pasteurized.” In an age where leakers are murdered, whistleblowers are jailed as terrorists and 9/11 historians are derided as conspiracy theorists, this story has enormous relevance.

And the music turned out to be as gripping as the narrative. Out in front of an impressively eclectic twelve-piece ensemble for the marjority of the performance, soprano Charlotte Mundy dexterously showed off a vast grasp of all sorts of styles, singing Matthew Doherty’s allusively foreboding lyrics to Lustig’s shapeshifting melodies. Pianist Katelan Terrell. accordionist Peter Flint and violinist Sam Katz wove an alternately austere and lustrous backdrop for the rest of the singers: Lustig himself in the role of Semmelweis, alongside Marcy Richardson, Catherine Hancock, Brett Umlauf, Charlotte Dobbs, Jennifer Panara and Guadalupe Peraza.

The suite began with a wash of close harmonies and ended on a similarly otherworldly note with a Hungarian lullaby sung in eerily kaleidoscopic counterpoint by the choir. The story unwound mostly in flashbacks – by women in peril, ghosts or Semmelweis himself, tormented to the grave by all the dead women he wasn’t able to save.

Many of the songs had a plaintive neoromanticism: the most sepulchral moments were where the most demanding extended technique came into play, glissandoing and whispering and vertiginously shifting rhythms. That’s where the group dazzled the most. Recurrent motives packed a wallop as well, voicing both the dread of the pregnant women and Semmelweis’ self-castigation for not having been able to forestall more of the epidemic’s toll than he did. The Hungarian government will celebrate the bicentennial of Semmelweis’ birth next year, a genuine national hero.

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Visionary Trumpeter Amir ElSaffar Explores Indian Themes at a Familiar Lincoln Center Haunt

Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Ensemble played the most epic, richly ironic show of 2017. Deep in the wicked heart of the financial district, completely unprepared for a frequent drizzle that threatened to explode overhead, they swept through a vast, oceanic suite largely based on Arabic modes in the shadow of a building festooned with the most hated name in the English language. That the visionary trumpeter/santoorist/singer’s mighty, heavily improvisational orchestra would be able to pull off such a darkly majestic, ultimately triumphant feat under such circumstances is reason for great optimism.

While this monumental suite, Not Two, references an Indian vernacular on occasion, that isn’t a major part of the work. However, ElSaffar has an auspicious concert coming up this Friday, September 8 at 7:30 PM at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St., where he’ll be leading a septet much deeper into Indian-inspired themes. Fans of the most deliciously rippling sounds imaginable should be aware that this band will feature both the Egyptian kanun and the Iraqi santoor. The show is free, and ElSaffar’s previous performance here sold out: it can’t hurt to get here early.

Another great irony is that this mid-June performance of Not Two featured lots of pairings between instruments. ElSaffar’s title reflects how few questions can be answered in black-and-white terms, and how manichaean thinking gets us in trouble every time. This is a profoundly uneasy, symphonic work with several themes: the two that jumped out the most at this show were a cynical fanfare of sorts and a swaying, anthemic Egyptian-influenced melody and seemingly endless variations.

The most poignant and plaintive duet was between ElSaffar, who played both santoor and trumpet, and his similarly talented sister Dena (leader of brilliant Indiana Middle Eastern band Salaam) on viola. Playing a spinet piano retuned to astringent microtones, Aruan Ortiz calmly found his footing, then lept a couple of octaves and circled animatedly while vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, at the opposite edge of the stage, maintained a warier, more lingering presence.

As the suite rose and fell, Ole Mathisen’s desolate microtonal tenor sax and Mohamed Saleh’s oboe emerged and then receded into the mist. Three of the night’s most adrenalizing solos were pure postbop jazz: ElSaffar’s cyclotronic Miles-at-gale-force trumpet swirls, baritone saxophonist Josh Sinton’s artfully crescendong development of a moody circular theme, and finally alto saxophonist Aakash Mittal’s rapidfire, surgically slashing foreshadowing of the coda. Many of the rest of the players got time in the spotlight, ranging from cautious and ominous to an intensity that bordered on frantic, no surprise in an era of deportations and travel bans. For this distinguished cast, which also comprised cellist Naseem Alatrash, oudists/percussionists Zafer Tawil and Georges Ziadeh, multi-reedman JD Parran, guitarist Miles Okazaki, buzuq player Tareq Abboushi, bassist Carlo DeRosa, percussionist Tim Moore and drummer Nasheet Waits, it was the show of a lifetime.

ElSaffar has a similarly stellar lineup for the September 8 show: Alatrash on cello plus Firas Zreik on kanun; Arun Ramamurthy on violin; Abhik Mukherjee on sitar; Jay Gandhi on bansuri flute, and Shiva Ghoshal on tabla. What’s more, this show is the first in Lincoln Center’s new series Outside India, a collaboration with the Brooklyn Raga Massive and the India Center Foundation. The game plan is to “disrupt the hierarchical nature of many Indian music collaborations and position Indian classical music as a space for inclusion and conversation in an innovative and radical new way.” Artists who will be joined by Massive members at future concerts include adventurous Afro-Cuban drummer Román Diaz on Nov 10, and Malian singer Awa Sangho on Feb 9.

International Contemporary Ensemble Unveil a Rapturously Low-Key Program at the Miller Theatre

International Contemporary Ensemble probably cover more ground than any other indie classical group, in terms of territory,  personnel and repertoire. These days they’re more or less a bicoastal unit, with a revolving door of first-class players. Last week at the Miller Theatre, a characteristically eclectic New York subset of the organization rewarded the big crowd who’d come up to 116th and Broadway with a texturally delicious program of duo and trio works spiced with shimmering microtones, overtones and strange tunings. The ostensible theme was animal behavior; if that was meant to acknowledge how much more animals hear than we do, that made more sense.

The first really interesting piece on the bill was the world premiere of Dai Fujikura’s White Rainbow, which Jacob Greenberg played with a graceful spaciousness on harmonium. Despite the choice of instrument, there wasn’t any distinctive Indian flavor to the composer’s methodically spaced, minimalistic waves, sometimes employing a drone effect from phrase to phrase. This gave a lulling, comforting sense to what otherwise could have been construed as a wry series of trick endings.

Technically speaking, the piece de resistance was Ann Cleare’s Luna (The Eye That Opens the Other Eye), played solo on alto sax by Ryan Muncy. Employing every fragment of bandwidth in his daunting extended technique, Muncy built sepulchral overtones that pulled gently and wafted around a center, a study in mist, stillness and unselfconscious virtuosity.

Suzanne Farrin’s Polvere et Ombra was a playground for lush, lively glissandos by harpist Nuiko Wadden. Joined by acoustic guitarist Dan Lippel, the duo made their way cautiously through the allusively sinister microtones of Drew Baker’s Skulls. Muncy and Greenberg joined forces for the concluding piece, Alex Mincek’s Pendulum III, which when it built enough steam was a striking reminder of how subtle changes in a particular scale can create radical changes in the music’s colors.

These early evening, free “pop-up” concerts at the Miller Theatre can be hit-and-miss, but more often than not they’re a real treat. Originally conceived as an intimate series with free beer and the audience seated onstage, they’ve outgrown the stage (and sometimes the beer too). But this isn’t really a drinking event, it’s about the music. Since their inception in 2012, a steadily growing number of crowds have had the opportunity to hear John Zorn world premieres, Berio Sequenzas, a deliciously creepy performance of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and even a rare all-Michael Gordon bill of electroacoustic works in addition to scores of pieces by lesser-known but no less intriguing composers. The final one this season is tonight, June 13; doors are at 5:30, music at 6, played by Miller favorites the Mivos Quartet.

And International Contemporary Ensemble perform Pauline Oliveros’ Heart of Tones on the plaza at the Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival on July 28 at 7:30 PM.

Vast, Intricate, Awe-Inspiring Oceans of Sound Downtown

What’s the likelihood that the two opening works on a program featuring John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean would hold their own alongside that epically enveloping, meticulously churning, playfully palindromic masterpiece? It happened yesterday at St. Paul’s Chapel downtown, where Novus NY delivered a mighty coda to this season’s program of music on themes of water justice, staged by Trinity Church.

The pervasive cynicism that still exists at corporate rock concerts has roots in the classical world: “Let’s warm up the crowd with something short and random and then get down to business.” From the first few stark, distantly enigmatic notes of Luna Pearl Woolf’s After the Wave, a portrait of the 2004 Indonesian tsunami and its aftermath, it was clear that Julian Wachner’s fearlessly eclectic ensemble had come to deliver a message. With just the hint of foreshadowing, the methodical pulse of daily routine gave way to a flood of low tonalities and bracing close harmonies as haunting as anything in Adams’ work. From there the orchestra made their way through an unexpectedly triumphant latin-tinged fanfare of sorts, up to a conclusion that signaled triumph and recovery over an ocean of devastation.

The world premiere of violist/composer Jessica Meyer’s string orchestra piece Through Which We Flow was  even more consistently riveting. Introducing the work, Meyer explained how she’d been inspired by Masuru Emoto’s book The Hidden Messages in Water, which claims that human thought directed at water can affect the shape of its ice crystals. Considering that we’re 85% water, if science can validate Emoto’s thesis, this would be paradigm-shifting to the extreme.

Meyer has made a name for herself with her intricate, solo loopmusic, its intertwining themes and atmospheric electronic effects. That influence was apparent in the work’s subtle thematic shifts, intricately circular motives and rhythmic persistence, not unlike Julia Wolfe. But freed from the confines of the loop pedal, Meyer’s mini-suite flowed carefully and methodically from rapt, mantra-like permutations, through grim insistence to a peacefully hypnotic ending. All this demanded plenty of extended plucking and percussive technique, and the ensemble rose to the challenge. It’s the best thing Meyer’s ever written: there isn’t a string orchestra on the planet that wouldn’t have a field day playing this.

So it’s fair to say that Become Ocean wasn’t just the piece de resistance, but a fitting coda.  Performed by three separate segments of the orchestra – strings and percussion facing the church’s south wall, brass on the back balcony, with winds, harp and vibraphone under the nave of the church, Wachner (wearing headphones) led the groups through a seamless morass of tidal shifts, endlessly bubbly chains of rivulets and a titanic wall of sound that evoked dread and deadly power as much as awestruck wonder.

It’s easy to describe the early part of the work as orchestral Eno (and just as difficult to play: try pedaling the same note for ten minutes, nonstop, maintaining perfectly unwavering tone and timbre!). But that womb-like reverie gave way to a wall as menacing as anything depicted in Woolf’s piece – at five times the volume. As themes made their way slowly back and forth between the three groups of musicians, it was as if the audience had become part of the orchestra, literally immersed in the music. In an era where the Seventh Continent continues to expand – plastic springwater bottles no doubt being part of it – and the Fukushima reactors continue to leak their lethal toxins into the Pacific, it’s hard to think of a more relevant concert being staged in New  York this year.

Trinity Wall Street’s orchestra conclude this spring’s season with a performance of Philip Glass’ similarly rapturous if not necessarily water-themed Symphony No. 5 there tonight, May 19 and tomorrow, May 20 at 8 PM. Admission is free; early arrival is advised.

Sam Sowyrda Brings His Relentless, Spectacularly Hypnotic Percussion Pieces to Trans-Pecos

Percussionist Sam Sowyrda has a thing for dynamics. He likes to build his compositions almost imperceptibly, giving himself an enormous amount of range to explore when he wants to get really loud – or just sort of loud. That’s where the MalletKAT (electronic vibraphone) player from trippy quirk-instrumentalists Cloud Becomes Your Hand ends up about three minutes into the more than twenty-minute A-side of his debut solo album Luminous Horizons, streaming at Gold Bolus Recordings and also available on cassette. He’s airing out that material and probably a lot more at the release show on May 13 starting at around 3 at Trans-Pecos. Cover is $10; wild avant garde marching band Ashcan Orchestra (he’s a member) follow his opening set, then Sowyrda eventually closes the evening at around 5:30. Hallowed Bells, a synth duo who seem to be shooting for some kind of postrock/cinematic thing, play before the second set.

Vibraphone is his main axe, but here he plays a custom-built dulcimer made from a piano soundboard. After rising to a hammeringly precise pitch that brings to mind Louis Andriessen’s Worker’s Union, he lets the sound fall away to the occasional, resonant hit on what sound like temple gongs. Then, slowly and methodically, he builds toward a crescendo again with a calm, focused, gamelanesque approach that brings to mind Susie Ibarra. Is that a tremolo-picked guitar? A mbira? It’s just nuanced enough to give away the fact that it’s Sowyrda’s tireless fast-twitch muscles that are playing rapidfire volley after volley, rather than letting a laptop or a loop pedal do the work. The one-man orchestra effect that develops is as mesmerizing as any recent Michael Gordon percussion piece.

The B-side, the vibraphone piece Occidental Error, clocks in at a whopping 33 minutes plus. It follows a similar tangent, beginning louder but more minimalistic, creating more of a hypnotic effect with very subtle polyrhythmic shifts and then the album’s gentlest, most envelopingly resonant moments. For the hell of it, here’s how Sowyrda’s Bandcamp page is tagged: “experimental acoustic ambient beautiful noise drone textural New York.” Spot-on.

This Year’s MATA Festival of New Music: As Challenging and Inspiring As Ever

It’s been nineteen years since Philip Glass and his circle decided to begin programming the scores that people around the world were sending him. Since then, the annual MATA Festival has grown into an annual celebration of cutting-edge, and these days, increasingly relevant new music from around the world. In recent years, they’ve found a comfortable home at the Kitchen in Chelsea, where the festival continues nightly at 8 PM through Saturday, April 29; tix are $20; To keep the momentum going, the organizers are also staging a series of shows this summer featuring new chamber music from the Islamic world, as well as intimate house concerts (take THAT, Groupmuse!).

Night one of this year’s festival began with humor and ended, ok, humorously, if your sense of humor extends to unlikely sonic snafus onstage. Festival honcho Todd Tarantino proudly announced that the pieces selected for five nights worth of music were chosen from among works by 1159 composers from 72 countries. In their North American debut, Danish indie classical ensemble Scenatet tackled a dauntingly eclectic program from seven composers and acquitted themselves with equal parts spectacular extended technique and meticulous, minimalist resonance.

Their countryman Kaj Duncan David’s Computer Music was first on the bill, performed by the octet on matching laptops, each reading from a graphic score calling for the musicians to punch in on random heartbeats, more or less. The results created a pulse of light in addition to sound, an aspect that drew inadvertent winces from the performers until they’d become accustomed to a little blast of light from the screen. As it grew from spare to more complex, it got a lot funnier: a bad cop role (or a boss role) was involved. As an electronic music parable of The Office, maybe, it made a point and got the crowd chuckling.

German composer Martin Grütter’s Messer Engel Atem Kling called for some squalling, bow-shredding extended technique from violinist Kirsten Riis-Jensen and violist Mina Luka Fred as they worked an uneasy push-pull against the stygian anchor of My Hellgren’s cello. Yet as much as the high strings pulled away from the center, the harmonies stayed firmly nailed in. Part cello metal, part Zorn string piece, it was a clever study in contradictions – a depiction of a composer struggling to break free of convention, maybe?

Murat Çolak’s electroacoustic Orchid, an astigmatic mashup of eras, idioms and atmospheres, blended grey-sky horizontality, hazily uneasy percussion and shards of brooding, acerbically chromatic Turkish classical music. What would have been even more fun is if there’d been a second ensemble for the group onstage to duel it out with instead of doing haphazardly (and cruelly difficult) polyrhythms with the laptop, clarinetist Vicky Wright front and center. In a similar vein, Japanese/Dutch composer Yu Oda’s Everybody Is Brainwashed blended a simple, cliched EDM thump with live cajon and a simple, rather cloying violin theme that more than hinted at parody.

Like the opening piece, Eric Wubbels’ mini-suite Life-Still – one of several world premieres on the bill – had an aleatoric (improvisational) element, its simple, carefully considered, resonant accents gradually building into a distantly starlit lullaby. For the final movement, string and reed players switched to bells and brought it down to a comfortable landing.

Daniel Tacke’s Musica Ricercata/Musica Poetica for viola, clarinet and vibraphone. followed a similarly starry, nocturnal trajectory, a fragmentary canon at quarterspeed or slower, inspired by the motion of voices in Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Putting two such rapturously calm pieces back to back made for a quietly powerful anti-coda. A final number was derailed by technical difficulties, a rare event at this festival: watching it was like being in an iso booth in a recording session with bad headphones and wondering what everybody else was doing. 

Tonight’s show at the Kitchen continues the festival’s vast global sweep with music for piano, viola and percussion. Thursday’s lineup promises to be more lush and expansive; according to Tarantino, Friday’s looks inward, deeply. The final night, Saturday, features all sorts of unusual instruments in addition to those typically employed by chamber orchestra Novus NY. If you happen to miss these, the summer programming is something to look forward to.

The Skylark Vocal Ensemble Bring Their Haunting, Otherworldly Exploration of Near-Death Themes to the French Institute

The Skylark Vocal Ensemble’s latest album, Crossing Over – streaming at Spotify – is as haunting a collection of music as has been released over the past year. It’s meant to be. Making their way through a dynamic mix of works from around the globe and the past hundred years or so, with an emphasis on contemporary composers, the lustrous choir explore themes addressing an end-of-life dream state and the prospect of life after death. They’re bringing their rapt intensity to a concert at the French Institute/Alliance Française, 55 E 59th St. on April 27 at 7:30 PM where they’ll be singing Poulenc’s Figure Humaine along with stark American Civil War hymns. Tix are $30, $10 for students, and worth it.

The album opens with Daniel Elder’s Elegy and its somberly memorable variations on a stark three-chord theme based on the familiar trumpet tune Taps, punctuated by an energetic soprano solo. The group follows that with John Tavener’s Butterfly Dreams, an eight-part suite of mostly Japanese haiku-inspired miniatures. A calm processional sets the stage for brief variations that vary from more hazy to disarmingly direct and minimalist, to fluttering and echoey, often anchored by an unwavering resonance. The suite concludes with the warily anthemic The Butterfly, an austere Acoman Indian folk tune and an overture on the main theme. Hardly easy material to sing, but the performance is steely and focused.

Nicolai Kedrov’s brief Otche Nash maintains the steady, sober ambience, followed by Jón Leifs’ Requiem with its cavatina-like pulse and low//high contrasts. The harmonies grow denser and more nebulous, then pair off in treble and bass registers in the dynamically shifting, brooding John Donne-inspired Heliocentric Meditation, by Robert Vuichard.

The melodies leap around more in William Schuman’a triptych Carols of Death, although they’re far from celebratory and awash in tense close harmonies. Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Heyr þú oss himnum á has the stately pace of a medieval funeral procession. Strange as it is to say, this new setting of an ancient psalm is a lot more upbeat than the rest of the composer’s vast, spacious work. The album concludes with a final hymn-like Tavener piece, Funeral Ikos.

Bearthoven Take a Bite Out of the Accessible Side of the Avant Garde

Bearthoven’s piano/bass/percussion lineup would be as orthodox as orthodox gets if they were a jazz trio, In the world of indie classical and chamber music, that’s a much less likely configuration. The eclectic, disarmingly tuneful debut album by pianist Karl Larson, Gutbucket bassist Pat Swoboda and Tigue percussionist Matt Evans, aptly titled Trios, features the work of six cutting-edge composers and is due to be streaming this May 5 at the Cantaloupe Music Bandcamp page. They’re playing the album release show at 7:15 sharp on April 18 at the Poisson Rouge; advance tix are $15.

A lot of this music follows a rapid, steady staccato rhythm that is maddeningly difficult to play, but the trio make it sound easy. Brooks Frederickson’s catchy, anvilling, minimalist Undertoad opens the album, a steady but intricate and subtly polyrhythmic web of melody. A little later on, Ken Thomson’s Grizzly follows a similar tangent with bells, both struck and bowed, dancing through the mix as it brightens, then descends into the murk briefly only to emerge re-energized. By contrast, Anthony Vine’s From a Forest of Standing Mirrors moves glacially and raptly through an Arvo Part-like haze to slightly more kinetic, distantly Japanese-flavored belltones.

Fjóla Evans’ tone poem Shoaling explores individual voicings within a group arrangement, rising out of almost imperceptible, shifting fogbanks of sound to a series of grimly catchy low-register piano melodies within the smoky vortex. Larson’s subtly dynamic yet forceful attack pierces the surface above his bandmates’ bowed bass and other instruments. Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s atmospheric/arrestive dichotomies come to mind: it’s album’s the most intense and captivating track.

Simple Machines, by Brendon Randall-Myers is a a cleverly and dauntingly arranged series of polyrhythmic melodies, its motorik cadence interrupted by the closest thing to free jazz here on its way to a triumphant, cinematic sweep. The album’s final piece is Adrian Knight’s uneasily serene The Ringing World, which appropriates its title from the journal of the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers. Swoboda’s wispy harmonics flit like ghosts in a churchyard amidst Mompou-like belltones played in unison by Larson and Evans on piano and bells. 

As accessible as it is cutting-edge, this album could go a long way toward changing plenty of misconceptions. As if we need more proof that this century’s serious concert music isn’t all necessarily awkward and spastic, this is it.

Olga Bell’s Irreverently Funny, Relevant Lincoln Center Debut Trumps Adversity

Olga Bell is hilarious. In her American Songbook debut at Lincoln Center’s Kaplan Penthouse last night, the Russian-born art-rock/avant garde keyboardist/singer validated a brave piece of booking, in the process triumphing over all sorts of adversity. This was a tough gig from the git-go. Cheefing on what seemed like a bottomless thermos til it was gone, then finally switching to water, she battled a cold along with some unfamiliar gear that malfunctioned to the point of threatening to completely derail her show. But she persevered, cheerfully breaking the fourth wall when she wasn’t mercilessly pillorying the yuppie careerism, incessant status-grubbing and money obsessions of gentrifier-era Brooklyn, which she now calls home.

And she did it with more than just her lyrical jabs, which turned out to be a lot subtler than her musical barbs. Those drew the heartiest laughs from a sold-out audience of well-heeled twentysomethings whose mere presence in Manhattan on a Friday night was something of a surprise: turns out that not everyone in zip code 11221 is petrified of being geotagged outside it.

When she hit her pitch pedal and ran her vocals through a toddler-voice patch to make fun of a guy who’s too big for his britches, and then a little later turned the kiss-off anthem Power User into phony hip-hop, the crowd roared. She had similar fun with her electronics and all the loops she’d stashed away in her sequencer, particularly a Bernie Worrell-style low bass synth setting that she worked for every droll riff she could think of.

Her between-song patter also had edge and bite. Acknowledging that for her, this gig spelled revenge for having been rejected by the Juilliard folks a few floors below, she played elegantly nuanced, neoromantically-tinged piano when she wasn’t fiddling with her mixer, or loading a stubborn loop device, or feeding layers of melody into an arpeggiator. Such things exist: clearly, there’s a market among players who prefer chords instead. She namechecked “aspirational hipsters,” including the guy at the corner bar who’s on the take more than he’s on the make.

“Wherefore art thou, Doppio?” she posed to another would-be romantic doofus. Even the simpler, techier, disco-oriented numbers were laced with taunts and sarcasm, particularly Stomach It and Your Life Is a Lie, among other tracks from her 2016 album Tempo. Toward the end of the show, she was joined by cellist Andrea Lee for a moody Russian border-rock ballad from the 2014 album Krai, and then soul singer Sarah Lucas, who belted out one of the more pop-oriented electronic numbers. Bell encored with a vaudevillian piano tune about finding romance on the L train, which she’d written in 2006 for the Rockwood Music Hall open mic. Who knew there was once such a thing – and who knew that somebody who played there would someday headline at Lincoln Center.

This year’s American Songbook series continues to venture much further afield than the theatre music and pop hits from the 1930s and 40s that it was created for almost twenty years ago. There are two Kaplan Penthouse shows next week that deserve special mention: on Tuesday, March 28 at 8 PM, the Cactus Blossoms, who have an eerie resemblance to the Everly Brothers, bring their rapturous harmonies and disconsolate Americana ballads. And the following night, March 29, powerhouse Ghanian-born oldschool soul belter Ruby Amanfu leads her band.

A Rare New York Appearance by Haunting Norwegian Soundscaper Deathprod

For more than twenty-five years, Helge Sten a.k.a. Deathprod has been creating hauntingly provocative sounds that are impossible to turn away from. Elements of minmalism, Eno-esque soundscapes, spectral, microtonal and film music all factor into what he does, but he transcends genre. Three of his European cult favorite albums – Treetop Drive, Imaginary Songs from Tristan da Cunha, and Morals and Dogma are being reissued by Smalltown Supersound and are all scheduled to be streaming at Bandcamp (follow the preceding three links or bookmark this page) He’s playing a rare New York live show on March 28 at around 9 at Issue Project Room, 22 Boerum Place in downtown Brooklyn; cover is $15/$12 stud/srs.

On the triptych that comprises three-quarters of Treetop Drive, originally released in 1994, the instruments are Sten’s “audio virus” and Hans Magnus Ryan’s violin. Steady minor-key chordal washes build a hypnotic backdrop, finally infiltrated by flitting, sepulchral shivers. A ghostly choir of sorts joins as the waves rise, and almost as if on cue, a wintry seaside tableau emerges. The second part, an assaultive industrial fugue, has a similarly insistent, pulsing quality. The spoken-word sample in the unexpectedly catchy, allusively motorik conclusion addresses a death fixation in late 20th century society that extends even to young children: creepy, at the very least. The final cut, Towboat, juxtaposes a calm minor arpeggio against waves of chaotic industrial noise

On 2004’s Morals and Dogma, Ryan also plays harmonium on one track, joined by Ole Henrik Moe on violin. The approach is more enveloping and layered: distant echoes of breaking waves, thunder, perhaps bombs and heavy artillery, are alluded to but never come into clear focus, raising the suspense and menace throughout the opening track, Trom. The almost nineteen-minute Dead People’s Things filters shivery flickers of violin, and then what could be a theremin, throughout a muted, downcast quasi-choral dirge. Orgone Donor, awash in a haze of shifts between major and minor, reaches for serenity – but Sten won’t allow anything so pat as a calm resolution. The final, enigmatically and ominously nebulous piece, Cloudchamber, is aptly titled. Heard at low volume, it could be soothing; the louder it gets, the more menacing it becomes. Perhaps Sten is telling us that just like life, death is what you make of it.