New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: indie classical

Revisiting a Favorite of the New Classical Scene

“Anybody who thinks that classical music is dead wasn’t here,” this blog enthused about Caroline Shaw‘s sold-out concert with the Attacca Quartet at Lincoln Center a little over a year ago. Lincoln Center’s concert halls may be cold and dead at the moment – what a hideous reality, huh? – but you can hear some of what she played that night on their most recent album, Orange, streaming at Bandcamp.

Before Shaw won a Pulitzer (for a piece that wasn’t even one of her best), she was highly sought after as a sidewoman, both as a violinist and chorister. Since then, she’s become more widely known as one of the foremost composer-performers in the new classical scene. By the time she recorded this, most of the material had been thoroughly road-tested, and it sparkles with catchy, emphatic riffage and clever humor.

The title track, essentially, is Valencia, inspired by a big, juicy orange. Circling high harmonics, driving glissandos in the lows, echo riffs, suspenseful dopplers and brisk handoffs populate this artfully minimalist theme and variations. Brooklyn Rider gave the New York premiere of the trickily rhythmic yet anthemic opening track, Entr’Acte, earlier that year. The version here seems more spacious and richly textured with microtones, not to mention dynamics. The ensemble  – violinists Amy Schroeder and Keiko Tokunaga, violist Nathan Schram and cellist Andrew Yee – take advantage of the studio space to sink to a whisper and then pluck their way back up toward a Philip Glass-ine circularity.

The album’s centerpiece is Plan & Elevation, a seven-part suite inspired by the same landscaped Washington, DC greenery that Igor Stravinsky was drawn to over a half-century ago. Steady pulses, jaunty pizzicato, indian summer haze, spirals across the strings and expertly textured harmonics interchange, rise and fall: Shaw’s reliance on the low midrange, here and elsewhere, is striking, particularly in the third movement’s slow upward slide.

In Latin, Punctum means “point;” it’s also the opening of a tear duct. The group really max out the dynamics, from a wry off-scene strut, to obliquely resonant late Beethoven references and some neat polyrhythms. The album’s longest and most hypnotic piece, Ritornello contrasts shifting tectonic sheets with playful pizzicato riffs over a quasi-palindromic structure with a devious false ending. The concluding number is the plucky, pastoral Limestone & Felt.

Terse, Otherworldly, Magically Textured Solo Piano Pieces by Benoît Delbecq

Benoît Delbecq inhabits a unique, often otherworldly, surreal sound world. That’s because he prepares his piano, putting metal and other materials on the strings and elsewhere, for textures that few other pianists would ever imagine, let alone seek out. His compositions span the worlds of jazz improvisation, 20th and 21st century classical music, often evoking the work of Messiaen or Federico Mompou. Delbecq can be sardonically funny or piercingly plaintive, sometimes in the same song. His new solo album The Weight of Light is streaming at Spotify.

The opening number, The Loop of Chicago has spare, bell-tinged righthand phrases over muted but dancingly catchy, prepared textures that sound like a cross between a mbira and a balafon. This is definitely the Loop on a rainy Friday night when pretty much everybody has traipsed home.

Dripping Stones is an aptly titled, bell-like tableau that strongly brings to mind Mompou, with more rhythmic freedom. For the album’s third number, Family Trees, Delbecq brings back the approximation of the balafon and adds a clock-like timbre (think of Pink Floyd’s Breathe), with cleverly clustering phrases using Fender Rhodes voicings.

It’s as if Delbecq has a couple of muted, hypnotic bass drum loops going behind his sparse, rainy-day righthand in Chemin Sur Le Crest. The skeletal, arrythmic textures of Au Fil De La Parole are a spot-on evocation of the metal chimes of a mobile, an important childhood influence on Delbecq’s music.

He returns to the balafon-and-chimes analogue, more hypnotically at first and then with more of a traditional postbop jazz edge, in Anamorphoses: that could explain the title. Timbres shift to what could be harmonic pings on the high strings of an electric bass in Havn En Havre: the overtones wafting from Delbecq’s simple chromatic loop are deliciously disquieting. Then his righthand belltones drive the point all the way home.

The album’s most epic track is Pair Et Impair, with an increasingly complex web of plinky, dancing, mbira and Rhodes tones. He winds up the album with Broken World, its spacious, warily ringing phrases tinged with murk.

Fun fact: Delbecq takes the album title from his physicist brother, whose doctoral thesis proposed to verify that light has mass.

Somberly Relevant Ambient Music From Desdemona and Percussionist Adam Holmes

Most of us tend to think of ambient music as hypnotic and soothing. Composer/percussionist Adam Holmes has written a trio of works, Music For a Small Shelter – streaming at Bandcamp – which have more bite than you typically find in calm, horizontal music. Depicting interminable isolation, in this case the grim early days of the lockdown, is hardly an easy task for any composer, but Holmes’ minimalist approach maximizes a small supply of sonic ingredients. It’s as if to remind us that sometimes we have to make do with what’s available.

Chamber ensemble Desdemona play with stark precision, joined by the composer’s incisive, spacious hammered dulcimer rhythms on the first track, First Names. On the third and final piece, Trust Fall, his rustles and misty press rolls alternate with echoey, astringently overtone-infused string swells and accents. Eventually the string trio – violinists Adrianne Munden-Dixon and Caroline Drexler and violist Carrie Frey – converge and then triangulate acerbically.

Long tones rise and fall away suddenly in the middle piece, Scattering, the strings smoldering with similarly otherworldly harmonics. Anyone terrified at the prospect of New Abnormal totalitarianism taking over the globe can find solace in this spare, somber music.

Richly Disquieting Music From Nomi Epstein

Pianist Nomi Epstein writes magical, otherworldly, spacious music that sometimes brings to mind Federico Mompou, other times Messiaen. The piano pieces on her new album Sounds – streaming at Bandcamp – linger with an often mournful, sparse belltone ambience. These works are deceptively minimalist: the way Epstein slowly shifts between relentlessly unsettled harmonies is artful to the extreme. She keeps the pedal down for maximum resonance.  If there was any sound tailor-made for the unreality and immersive angst of the lockdown, this is it.

The first composition is Till For Solo Piano, played meticulously by Reinier van Houdt. The obvious antecedent seems to be Satie’s Vexations; the way Epstein subtly shifts harmonies while maintaining a creepy, bell-like ambience is as masterful as it is hypnotic.

Solo for Piano part I: Waves is aptly titled, its graceful series of low lefthand rumbles building a picturesque portrait of water washing a beach at night, and slowly brightening from there. The minute dynamic shifts in the brooding, steady conversation between left and righthand in the uninterrupted, eighteen-minute part two, Dyads are more celestially captivating. Again, Satie’s Vexations comes to mind

Van Houdt returns to the keys for the concluding number, Layers for Piano, with its contrasts between stygian reflecting-pool resonance in the lefthand with slowly shifting, spare, unsettling close-harmonied accents in the right. Occasional flinging gestures in the the upper registers dash any hope of a persistent, meditative state.

There are also two chamber works here. For Collect/Project, a hazy, lighthearted electroacoustic piece featuring vocalist Frauke Aulbert with Shanna Gutierrez on bass flute is ridiculously funny in places. And the composer herself plays the album’s sparest piano on the title track, Eliza Bangert’s flute and Jeff Kimmel‘s bass clarinet providing nebulous wave motion and a mist of overtones behind her. What a stunningly individualistic and often haunting album: let’s hope Epstein can continue build on what promises to be a brilliant body of work.

A Dynamic, Edgy Solo Album From Violinist Barbora Kolářová

Violinist Barbora Kolářová calls obscure repertoire her “biggest passion.” There’s plenty to get passionate about on her latest album, Imp in Impulse, streaming at Bandcamp. It includes both a world premiere as well as two other partitas for solo violin which should be better known than they are.

The title track is a caprice by Pascal Le Boeuf, who’s better known for jazz than he is new classical music. The central theme is the irony of trusting one’s intuition: seemingly impulsive leaps are often informed by considerably deep faith. Kolářová tackles this mashup with aplomb, her shivery waves, mini-cadenzas and hypnotically rhythmic gestures giving way to wry evocations of turntable-scratching and eventual microtonal haze. A bit of a sad Appalachian-inflected waltz shifts to an insistent, jaggedly pulsing coda.

The centerpiece is her puckish interpretation of Jean Françaix’s 1980 Theme with 8 Variations for Solo Violin, a bracing, incisive series of short pieces equally informed by the baroque, the Romantic and afterward. Sweeping, dramatic yet often allusive melody alternates with emphatic pizzicato. marvelously ghostly harmonics and a coyly chromatic coda. Françaix is underrated. His music for organ, in particular, is purposeful, lyrical and worth seeking out.

The inspiration, thematicallly if hardly idiomatically, for Moravian composer Klement Slavický’s Partita for Solo Violin is Bach’s Six Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin. The counterpoint is more oblique, maybe because the composer leaves it up to the performer to figure out the rhythmic architecture. Kolářová leaps, sails, swoops and trills, often with shivery high harmonics and a starkly piercing tone. The plaintive second movement and utterly morose second half of the fourth are riveting. It’s a strong choice of closer.

An Unintentionally Prophetic Choral Reflection on a Genuine Health Crisis From a Century Ago

The irony in renowned new-music choir the Crossing’s recording of David Lang’s Protect Yourself From Infection – streaming at Bandcamp – is crushing. In September 2019, about a month before the lockdowners got together for their first rehearsal for their planned global takeover the following year, Philadelphia’s legendary Mutter Museum sponsored a parade in memory of the 1918-19 Spanish Flu pandemic. This calmly pulsing, subtly funny, roughly six-minute chorale was commissioned for the event. It’s safe to say that at the time, neither the composer, choir or museum staff had the slightest idea that a cabal springboarded by the World Economic Forum would succeed in rebranding the 2019-20 seasonal flu as a terrifying plague, and a pretext for turning the world into an Orwellian nightmare.

The choir steadily punch in and out, harmonizing on a single chord, voicing a series of commonsense ways to stay healthy which are just as useful today as they would have been in 1918, had the general public been aware of how disease spreads. Meanwhile, individual voices from the ensemble sing a litany of names, presumably people who perished in the outbreak just over a hundred years ago. With choral performances on ice in most parts of the world, the Crossing have been releasing a series of videos over the past year, and this is the most compelling of the bunch.

A Lavish, Delightfully Phantasmagorical Anne LeBaron Career Retrospective

It was tempting to save composer/harpist Anne LeBaron’s lavish new double album Unearthly Delights – streaming at Spotify – for this coming October’s annual monthlong Halloween celebration here. But waiting that long would only deprive you of its many wicked treats. New classical music has seldom been so darkly and playfully entertaining.

Flickering, increasingly agitated ghosts from Pasha Tseitlin’s violin and apocalyptic waves from Nic Gerpe’s piano pervade the first number, Fissure, inspired by the crack that eventually brought down Edgar Allan Poe’s House of Usher. 

Playing, narrating and rattling around, pianist Mark Robson turns in a colorful rendition of Los Murmullos, a phantasmagorical setting of text from Juan Rulfo’s horror novel Pedro Páramo. A second piano-and-violin piece, Devil in the Belfry blends the otherworldliness of Federico Mompou with scampering phantasmagoria, illustrating the diabolical clock chimes from another Poe short story, an all-too-familiar narrative of conformity and its crushing consequences. LeBaron couldn’t have chosen a more appropriate historical moment to release it.

Bassoonists Julie Feves and Jon Stehney prowl and lurk and flurry through the electroacoustic, Hieronymus Bosch-inspired Julie’s Garden of Unearthly Delights. Quick, somebody tell ICE bassoon maven Rebekah Heller, whose collection of bassoon duo pieces is unsurpassed!

The album contains two versions of the dynamic, reflective, sometimes eerily pentatonic solo harp work Poem for Doreen, a tribute to harpist Doreen Gehry Nelson. Alison Bjorkedal’s is more elegantly legato; the composer’s own is somewhat more percussive and lively.

Mark Menzies plays the stark, steady, imaginatively ornamented Bach-inspired solo violin piece Four, as well as its graphic-scored shadow piece, Fore. His interpretation of the latter has more slash and a lot more space, and fits right in with the darkest material here.

The album’s second disc begins with Is Money Money, soprano Kirsten Ashley Wiest joined by clarinetist Chris Stoutenborough, bass clarinetist Jim Sullivan,violist Erik Rynearson, cellist Charlie Tyler and bassist Eric Shetzen. The title reflects a Gertrude Stein quote with serious relevance in a year where the lockdowners are trying to crash the US economy via hyperinflation. Musically, this allusively boleroesque, picturesque piece is the album’s most cartoonish interlude, but also one of its most sinister.

Stehney returns for the solo work After a Dammit to Hell, a genial salute to a now-shuttered Alabama barbecue joint. Gerpe plays the impressionistically glittering Creación de las Aves for solo piano, inspired by the surrealist art of Remedios Varo. Soprano Stephanie Aston and baritone Andy Dwan deliver the album’s epic triptych, A – Zythum, backed by Linnea Powell on viola, Nick Deyoe on guitar and banjo and Cory Hills on vibraphone and percussion. This dissociatively layered, Robert Ashley-esque piece provides a strange and dramatic coda to this lavish and eclectic mix of material. 

Magical New Music For Bass and Harp Duo

The River Town Duo‘s lineup – bass and concert harp – may be extremely rare, but they’re not the only such ensemble in the world. In fact, more than twenty composers have written for this unorthodox and magical pairing, which was somewhat more prevalent during the baroque era. The new album by the duo of bassist Philip Alejo and harpist Claire Happel Ashe – which hasn’t hit the web yet – comprises six fascinating, mostly rather quiet pieces by contemporary composers, covering all the bases throughout pretty much the entirety of the sonic spectrum. Alejo is called on to use his bow more than his fingers here, although he does both, while Ashe is occasionally engaged for extended technique as well.

They open with Caroline Shaw‘s dedication to them, For Claire & Philip. It’s pensive, driven by suspenseful pedalpoint from both instruments, and although the two get to build to some of the jaunty polyrhythms often found in Shaw’s work, it’s absolutely unique in her catalog.

Whitney Ashe‘s spaghetti western-influenced The Circuitous Six is even more starrily mysterious, Alejo’s stark bowing beneath its rhythmically shifting variations on a circling phrase. Derick Evans‘ surreallistically shapeshifting tableau On Lotusland draws inspiration from overlooking the Tucson cityscape at night, its cluster of lights surrounded by desolation. Alejo shifts from gritty overtones to keening, harmonically-tinged glissandos, Ashe bending her notes, the two rising to a slinky pulse tapped out on the body of the bass and eventually a plaintive neoromantic theme.

Hannah Lash‘s diptych Leaves, Space calmly and broodingly explores terse contrapuntal riffs and echo effects as well as the ways the harp can amplify phrases from the bass, Alejo fingerpicking emphatically before he picks up his bow again. The sepulchral second half is arguably the high point of the album.

Evan Premo contributes Two Meditations on Poems of Mary Oliver. The first, Early Morning, New Hampshire is a wistful, bucolic portrait of an old stone wall in the woods, Alejo backing away to provide atmospherics behind Ashe’s more enigmatic plucking. Although the second, Linen of Words explores the workmanlike, repetitive side of creating art, its folksy theme and variations make it one of the album’s catchiest tunes.

The duo conclude with Stephen Andrew Taylor‘s brief, lively five-part suite Oxygen. They follow a dancing, enigmatically circling theme with depictions of blood components, DNA and breathing. Alejo strains, bounces, slides and squirrels around while Ashe frequently mutes her strings for timbral unease. The moments of clarity are especially striking, especially the somber/twinkling dichotomies of the coda. It’s like the notorious PCR test come to life: you never know what kind of gunk might be floating through your veins until after many orders of magnification.

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.