New York Music Daily

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Tag: international contemporary ensemble

The 50 Best Albums of 2018

This is a playlist – click on the links below to hear every album in its entirety.

The best album of 2018 was also one of the shortest. Songwriter Rose Thomas Bannister’s lushly orchestrated latest release, Ambition, is not the first time she’s written on Shakespearean themes, but it is by far her darkest and most relevant album. Originally commissioned for a dance adaptation of Macbeth, the song cycle deals with the most fundamental questions of evil and how to deal with it. Many of the characters in Bannister’s distantly sinister narratives make the worst possible choices at the most crucial moments.

Bannister, who made a name for herself with spare, poignant Great Plains gothic songs, has never written more psychedelically or diversely, or sung with as much nuance and power. From the creepy flurries of the title track, through the grim understatement of Lady M, themes of betrayal and revenge permeate these songs’ constantly shifting, intricate arrangements, Bob Bannister’s elegant lead guitar lines weaving along the central seam. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Beyond the next ten albums or so – the creme de la creme of 2018 – these albums are listed in rough chronological order of when they were received here (which often doesn’t coincide with actual release dates over the past few months). Sp there’s no hierarchical ranking, considering how many completely different styles are represented on the list. If an album is one of the year’s fifty best, it has to be pretty amazing.

Ward White – Diminish
Catcny, erudite, purist three-minute janglerock tunesmithing matched to a withering, cynical, relentlessly grim lyrical sensibility. No songwriter alive writes more allusively macabre stories than this guy,  Endless puns, double entendres, and gallows humor are everywhere. White’s most surreal, psychedelic album to date, Bob, got the nod here as best album of 2013; everything he’s done since is on that level, this one included. The list of artists with as formidable a body of work as White has are very few: Bowie, Elvis Costello and Steve Wynn are points of comparison. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Elysian Fields – Pink Air
Lush jangle and clang, propulsive new wave and haunting dystopic scenarios in what might be the best ever album in haunting singer Jennifer Charles and polymath guitarist Oren Bloedow’s majestic, artsy band’s twenty-plus year carer. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Kotorino – Sea Monster
Carnivalesque latin noir, circus rock, suspenseful cinematic narratives and creepy steampunk tales on this brilliant New York crew’s tersest, most crystallized album yet. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Michael Hersch – Violin Concerto; End Stages suite: International Contemporary Ensemble with violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra
The most harrowing recording of the year combines two macabre, microtonal pieces, the latter exploring the tortured, fitful final moments of terminally ill patients. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Ensemble Fanaa – their debut albun
Multi-reedman Daro Behroozi’s otherworldly Middle Eastern/North African jazz trio play slinky, hypnotic, rivetingly microtonal originals. Bassist John Murchison doubles on the gimbri bass lute; percussionist Dan Kurfirst plays both a full kit and a boomy daf frame drum. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Klazz-Ma-Tazz – Meshugenah
High-voltage violinist Ben Sutin’s wild, klezmer-jazz-rock jamband whirl through ferocious, epic remakes of Yiddish vaudeville and theatre classics from over the decades. One of the most adrenalizing albums released this year. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

No-No Boy – 1942
A catchy, jangly, harmony-driven Elliott Smith-tinged concept album tracing the injustices suffered by Japanese-Americans during and after their incarceration in US concentration camps during World War II. One of the year’s most savagely relevant albums. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

The Brooklyn Raga Massive – Ragas Live Retrospective
The most epic album ever featured on this page contains over six hours of classical Indian ragas, recorded live in the studio. A cast of some of this era’s best younger Indian music instrumentalists team up with jazz, Americana and rock musicians for some outside-the-box reinventions, from large ensembles to spare duos and trios. Some of this is pretty crazy; a couple of the tracks are bullshit, but the traditional stuff is consistently sublime. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Todd Marcus – On These Streets: A Baltimore Story
The world’s only bass clarinetist currently leading a large jazz ensemble wrote this withering suite in the wake of the murder of Freddie Gray, a mix of lavish, intense, sometimes Middle Eastern-tinged epics and quieter, more somber material. Commentary from community members and activists is interspersed between songs for added, troubling context. One of the most politically important albums of recent years. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Mehmet Polat – Ageless Garden
Sometimes haunting, sometimes kinetic, this collection of originals by one of the world’s great oudists and composers of Turkish music draws on Kurdish, Andalucian and flamenco sounds as well. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Greek Judas – their debut album
One of the craziest albums on this list is this mix of heavy psychedelic remakes of classic Greek rembetiko anthems, originally dating from the 20s through the mid-50s. Rembetiko was the music of the gangster underworld, Turkish and Cypriot immigrants, and freedom fighters battling dictatorships; its slashing Middle Eastern chromatics take on extra menace when played with heavy metal savagery, Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Drunken Foreigner Band – White Guy Disease
Another crazy update on a slightly more modern sound. The lead instrument in this epic instrumental psychedelic band is an electrified phin lute, which gives their stately Laotian folk themes a surreal, twisted new dimension. If Country Joe & the Fish had been Laotian, they might have sounded something like this. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Gordon Grdina’s Marrow – Ejdeha
The album title is Farsi for “dragon;” the fiery jazz oudist and guitarist and his haunting, careening band switch between darkly slinky original levantine themes and smoldering guitar jazz that veers into dark metal in places. Listen at Spotify

Bombay Rickey – Electric Bhairavi
With her unreal four-octave vocal range, accordionist/sitarist/keyboardist Kamala Sankaram  fronts this catchy, slinky, darkly psychedelic unit, who mash up cumbia, surf and Bollywood with devious flair. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Ben Holmes and Patrick Farrell – The Conqueror Worm Suite
A subtle but luridly vivid, klezmer and Balkan-tinged piece inspired by the macabre  Edgar Allen Poe short story, from the innovative trumpet/accordion duo. Listen at youtube.

Uncivilized Plays Peaks
Guitarist Tom Csatari and his careening ten-piece pastoral jazz outfit had the good sense to record their 2017 Barbes performances of these sprawling, darkly haphazard reinventions of iconic Angelo Badalamenti Twin Peaks themes, plus some choice originals. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Alec K. Redfearn and the Eyesores – The Opposite
Hypnotically circling, kinetic, phantasmagorical original Balkan psychedelic rock, bandleader Redfearn running his accordion through a series of effects pedals for some wildly swirling, enveloping sounds. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Eva Salina & Peter Stan – Sudbina
The renowned Balkan chanteuse and her pyrotechnic accordionist remake songs made famous by one of the greatest Romany singers of the 20th century, Vida Pavlovic, who was sort of the Edith Piaf of Romany music. Abandonment and heartbreak have seldom sounded so visceral. Listen at Spotify

The Lemon Bucket Orkestra – If I Had the Strength
Dark, edgy, wildly punk-inspired original klezmer anthems and dance numbers that draw on a hundred-plus years of Ukrainian, Russian and Lithuanian traditions. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Gordon Grdina – Inroads
The great Middle Eastern jazz oudist and guitarist’s second album on this list features keys and alto sax rather than a string jazz lineup; it’s a little more sardonically funny and Sun Ra-like. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp..

The Michael Leonhart Orchestra – The Painted Lady Suite
The flight of a swarm of butterflies over the top of the world, all the way to Egypt, has never sounded more epic or cinematic. Saxophonist Donny McCaslin stars in this lavish, intense big band cycle of songs without words.  Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Twin Guns – Imaginary World
The latest album by these reverb addicts is slightly less Cramps-influenced, a bit quieter and more macabre than their previous mashups of horror surf and biker rock. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

The Electric Mess – The Beast Is You
These twin-guitar Brooklyn rockers channel the incendiary chromatic psychedelic punk attack of Australian legends Radio Birdman, with some of the most exhilarating fretwork of any album on this list. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Sarah Bernstein’s Unearthish – Crazy Lights Shining
The microtonal violinist – one of the world’s great string jazz players and composers – teams up with percussionist Satoshi Takeishi for an otherworldly, acerbic mix of jazz poetry tableaux and eerily wafting miniatures. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Xylouris White – Mother
The brooding Cretan lyra player and Dirty Three drummer team up for a bracing, sometimes slashing thicket of Middle Eastern-tinged themes. Listen at Spotify,

Sigurd Hole – Encounters
The Norwegian bassist leads a frequently Middle Eastern-tinged string trio through a brooding series of nocturnes, dirges and more atmospheric pieces. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

SUSS – Ghost Box
Starry, eerily lingering, Twin Peaks-style guitar nocturnes, big-sky tableaux and the occasional detour into southwestern gothic themes. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Mary Halvorson – Code Girl
Amirtha Kidambi handles lead vocals on the perennially incisive guitarist’s deepest, most lavish plunge into artsy, shapeshifting, improvisationally-inclined, sometimes darkly humorous rock. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Alicia Svigals and Uli Geissendoerfer – The Beregovski Suite
The iconic klezmer violinist and film composer teams up with the German pianist to rescue these alternately moody and romping, decades-old klezmer themes collected on the eve of the  Holocaust by the great Russian musicologist. Listen at Spotify,

Qais Essar  The Ghost You Love
Incisive, often hauntingly poignant Afghani folk-tinged new instrumentals by this rising star composer and virtuoso of the rubab lute. Listen ad-free at his music page,

Maya Youssef – Syrian Dreams
A dynamic mix of relatively short pieces from one of the world’s most focused, purposeful players on the kanun – the magically rippling Middle Eastern zither. Listen at Spotify,

Satoko Fujii – Invisible Hand
The brilliant pianist celebrated her sixtieth birthday last year by releasing an album a month, including several riveting live sets. This solo performance is dark and dead serious, if hardly as horror-stricken as her Fukushima Suite, picked for best album of the year here in 2018. She improvises as purposefully and tunefully as anyone who ever lived. Listen at Spotify,

Thumbscrew – Ours
The second Mary Halvorson project on this list is the reliably edgy guitarist’s grittiest release this year, often drifting into the shadows for reverberating film noir ambience. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Sean Moran – Sun Tiger
The guitarist’s trio with cellist Hank Roberts (who also appears on this list as part of another guitarist, Gordon Grdina’s band) and drummer Vinnie Sperrazza smolders and burns, with frequent detours into pastoral jazz.  Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Sean Noonan – The Aqua Diva
The weirdest album on this list. Alex Marcelo puts a slightly out-of-tune piano to better use than you would think possible, maxing out the overtones in this bizarre mix of mythologically-inspired stream-of-consciousness poetry, darkly magical jazz, gospel and theatre music. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

The Women’s Raga Massive Compilation
The only reason that this is further down the list from the other compilation by the irrepressible Brooklyn Indian music collective is that it’s shorter – by about five hours. This mix of hypnotic, epic traditional performances along with rock and soul-tinged remakes of classic carnatic themes features seventeen of the women artists and female-fronted bands among the Raga Massive’s vast membership. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Bill Frisell – Music IS
This era’s preeminent jazz guitarist breaks out his trusty loop pedal for a characteristically tuneful, concise mix of pastoral themes, atmospherics, oldtimey melodies and noir-tinged cinematics. Listen at Spotify,

Elisa Flynn – The World Has Ever Been on Fire
The first-ever solo album by this historically-inspired, hauntingly soaring singer and multi-instrumentalist, with songs ranging from hypnotic, Radiohead-ish art-rock to jangly, toweringly angst-fueled anthems. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Lorraine Leckie – Live at Mercury Lounge
Further evidence that psychedelic bands should all be making live albums. The guys in this band seem so psyched to be playing these pulsing, Slavic-tinged themes that they’re jumping out of their shoes. There’s a sad backstory: this was the final show played by the late, great drummer Paul Triff. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Banda Magda – Tigre
A characteristically cinematic, mightily shapeshifting mix of Mediterranean psychedelia, coy French chanson, cumbia and lavish instrumentals by accordionist/multi-instrumentalist Magda Giannikou’s subtle, richly textured band. The theme is resilience in troubled times, inspired by the Greek struggle against European community bankster terrorism. Listen at Spotify,

Johnny Gandelsman – Bach: The Complete Sonatas and Partitas
It took the great Brooklyn Rider and Knights violinist eight years to finish recording this astonishingly dynamic album. The physicality, lithely dancing quality and Gandelsman’s signature, silken legato help explain why it soared to the top of the classical music charts. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

The BC 35 compilation
In January of 2016, legendary producer and dark rock icon Martin Bisi held a marathon weekend session to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the revered Gowanus recording room, BC Studios, which he’d started while still in his teens. Many of the edgy rock acts he’s worked with since the 80s are featured on this vast collection of gothic, industrial, metalish and folk noir acts. Most notable is the first recording by 80s noiserock legends Live Skull. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

The Coolerators – Diggin’ Bones
Australian soprano saxophonist Phillip Johnston leads this moody, carnivalesque, utterly individualistic  Monk-inspired organ jazz trio. Organist Alister Spence contributes deliciously smoky, Greg Lewis-tinged playing. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Mary Halvorson and Robbie Lee – Seed Triangular
The third and final Mary Halvorson project here is an acoustic-electric duo record with the brilliant, unpredictable guitarist playing vintage 18th century models in addition to her trusty electric, alongside multi-instrumentalist Lee. Pastoral jazz never sounded so unsettling and enigmatic. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Cliff Westfall – Baby You Win
If Elvis Costello had made an album of original country songs, it would have sounded something like this. The country crooner and songwriter writes period-perfect, aphoristic honkytonk and Nashville gothic tunes, spiced with lead guitarist Scott Metzger’s ferocious solos. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Jessie Kilguss – The Fastness
The title is a North Atlantic term for secret hideaway. The lustrous, soaring folk noir singer leads a concise, purposeful band through this brooding mix of rainy-day tableaux, new wave-tinged tunes and an offhandedly savage murder ballad. Listen at Spotify,

Amy Rigby – The Old Guys
Elvis Costello-class wordplay; broodingly silken Skeeter Davis-class vocals and a deeper drift into psychedelia than ever before from one of the most brilliant, hilarious, relevant tunesmiths of the past 25 years. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Edward Rogers – TV Generation
One of the world’s great voices in retro Britrock turns a withering eye on surveillance state fascism in this mix of artsy rock, spare acoustic ballads and Bowie-esque glam. Listen at Spotify,

Jen Shyu – Song of Silver Geese
A lavish, surreal, atmospherically haunting suite by the pan-Asian jazz multi-instrumentalist-singer. The nonlinear narrative follows the trail of the spirits of several friends, very young and somewhat older, whom Shyu recently lost. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Sleep  – The Sciences
Heavy psych album of the year. Who knew that these icons of doom metal would be completely undiminished – and surprisingly upbeat, and more psychedelic than ever – 25 years after they picked up where Black Sabbath left off. Listen at Spotify,

The Arcane Insignia – A Flawed Design
An all-acoustic string band playing vintage 70s style art-rock. Imagine ELO’s first album beefed up by an entire symphony orchestra, playing classic Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. After awhile it’s hard to figure out where one song ends and another begins, but it’s a hell of a song. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

The Mystery of the Bulgarian Voices – BooCheeMish
Dead Can Dance’s Lisa Gerrard and others from the rock world guest on the renowned Bulgarian women’s choir in this surprisingly upbeat mix of otherworldly, chromatically charged folk themes and originals in the same vein. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

The 25 Best New York Concerts of 2018

2018’s best concert was Golden Fest. For the second year in a row, the annual two-night Brooklyn festival of Balkan, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean music tops the list here. This year’s edition in mid-January began with the original gangsters of New York Balkan brass music, Zlatne Uste – who run the festival – and ended around two in the morning, 36 hours later, with Slavic Soul Party spinoff the Mountain Lions playing otherworldly, microtonal Turkish zurna oboe music. In between, there were equally haunting womens’ choirs, more brass than you could count, rustic string bands playing ancient dance tunes, the most lavish klezmer big band imaginable, and a searing Greek heavy metal group, among more than seventy acts from all over the globe.

And there was tons of Eastern European and Turkish food – every kind of pickle ever invented, it seemed, plus stews and sausages and dips and desserts and drinks too. Golden Fest 2019 takes place January 18 and 19: it’s a New York rite of passage. Pretty much everybody does this at least once. The festival is going strong right now, but perish the thought that Grand Prospect Hall, the gilded-age wedding palace on the south side of Park Slope, might someday be bulldozed to make room for yet another empty “luxury” condo. If that happens, it’s all over. Catch it while you can.

The rest of the year was just as epic, if you add it all up. That live music continues to flourish in this city, despite the blitzkrieg of gentrification and the devastation of entire neighborhoods to make room for speculator property, is reason for optimism. That’s a rare thing these days, but the immigrants moving into the most remote fringes of Queens and Brooklyn, along with many millions born and raised here, still make up a formidable artistic base.

On the other hand, scroll down this list. Beyond Golden Fest, every single one of the year’s best shows happened either at a small club, or at a venue subsidized by nonprofit foundation money.

OK, small clubs have always been where the real action is. And historically speaking, larger venues in this city have always been reticent to book innovative, individualistic talent. But there’s never been less upward mobility available to artists than there is now. Which mirrors the city’s changing demographics.

Recent immigrants face the same situation as the majority of New Yorkers; if you’re working sixty hours a week just to pay your share of the rent, where do you find the time, let alone the money, to go out? And the ones who have money, the privileged children moving in and displacing working class people from their homes in places like Bushwick and Bed-Stuy, don’t support the arts.

So here’s to small clubs, nonprofit money, hardworking immigrants and the superhuman tenacity and resilience of New York’s greatest musicians. The rest of this list is in chronological order since trying to rank these shows wouldn’t make much sense. If you or your band didn’t make the list, sorry, that doesn’t mean you don’t rate. There were so many good concerts this year that it feels criminal to whittle it down to a reasonably digestible number.

Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society at the Miller Theatre, 2/3/18
High-octane suspense, spy themes, blustery illustrations of doom in outer space and an Ellington-inspired epic by this era’s most politically relevant large jazz ensemble

Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Ensemble at NYU, 2/10/18
Just back from a deep-freeze midwestern tour, the trumpeter/santoorist/singer’s epic Middle Eastern big band jazz suite Not Two – which the group played in its entirety – was especially dynamic and torrential

Greg Squared’s Great Circles at Barbes, 3/1/18
Two long sets of eerie microtones, edgy melismas and sharp-fanged chromatics from these ferocious Balkan jammers

Lara St. John and Matt Herskowitz in the Crypt at the Church of the Intercession, 3/15/18
The pyrotechnic violinist and her pianist collaborator turned a mysterious, intimate underground Harlem space into a fiery klezmer and Balkan dance joint

Tarek Yamani at Lincoln Center, 3/23/18
The Lebanese-American pianist and his trio evoked peak-era 70s McCoy Tyner with more Middle Eastern influences, a confluence of Arabian Gulf khaliji music and American jazz with a healthy dose of Afro-Cuban groove

Dark Beasts at the Gatehouse, 3/27/18
The three young women in the band – Lillian Schrag, Trixie Madell and Violet Paris-Hillmer – painted their faces and then switched off instruments throughout a tantalizingly brief set of menacing, haunting, often environmentally-themed, often glamrock-inspired originals. What was most impressive is that nobody in the band is more than eleven years old.

The Rhythm Method Quartet at Roulette, 3/29/18
Magical, otherworldly wails, wisps and dazzling displays of extended technique in the all-female string quartet’s program of 21st century works by Lewis Neilson, Kristin Bolstad and the quartet’s Marina Kifferstein and Meaghan Burke. It ended with a swordfight between the violinists.

Hannah vs. the Many at LIC Bar, 4/4/18
Frontwoman Hannah Fairchild’s banshee voice channeled white-knuckle angst, wounded wrath and savage insight as she delivered her torrents of puns and double entendres over a tight, pummeling punk rock backdrop. There is no lyrical rock band in the world better than this trio.

Klazz-Ma-Tazz at City Winery, 4/8/18
Violinist Ben Sutin’s pyrotechnic band transcended their klezmer origins and the early hour of eleven in the morning at this ferociously eclectic brunch show, reinventing classic themes and jamming out with equal parts jazz virtuosity and feral attack.

Shattered Glass at Our Savior’s Atonement, 4/13/18
The string orchestra stood in a circle, facing each other and then whirled and slashed through Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho Suite for Strings, plus harrowing works by Shostakovich and hypnotic pieces by Caroline Shaw and Philip Glass. 

Yacine Boulares, Vincent Segal and Nasheet Waits at Lincoln Center, 4/19/18
The multi-reedman, cellist and drummer hit breathtaking peaks and made their way through haunted valleys throughout Boulares’ new Abu Sadiya Suite of Tunisian jazz nocturnes

The Chelsea Symphony at the American Museum of Natural History, 4/22/18
Other than a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, maybe, it’s impossible to imagine a more lavish, titanic concert anywhere in New York this year. The intrepid west side orchestra enveloped the audience in an environmentally-themed program: the world premiere of an ominous Michael Boyman eco-disaster narrative, a shout-out to whales by Hovhaness, and John Luther Adams’ vast Become Ocean, played by three separate groups in the cathedral-like confines of the museum’s ocean life section.

The Dream Syndicate at the Hoboken Arts & Music Festival, 5/6/18
That the best New York rock show of the year happened in New Jersey speaks for itself. Steve Wynn’s legendary, revitalized, careeningly psychedelic band schooled every other loud, noisy act out there with their feral guitar duels and smoldering intensity.

Rose Thomas Bannister at the Gowanus Dredgers Society Boathouse, 6/16/18
A low-key neighborhood gig by the ferociously lyrical, broodingly psychedelic, protean Shakespearean-inspired songstress, playing what she called her “bluegrass set” since drummer Ben Engel switched to mandolin for this one.

The Sadies at Union Pool, 6/30/18
A ringing, reverb-iced feast of jangle and clang and twang, plus a couple of trips out into the surf and some sizzling bluegrass at one of this year’s free outdoor shows

Charming Disaster at Pete’s Candy Store, 7/3/18
What’s most impressive about New York’s creepiest parlor pop duo is how much new material Jeff Morris and Ellia Bisker have – and how eclectic it is. Hints of metal, psychedelia and the group’s signature folk noir and latin-tinged sounds, with some of the most memorably macabre stories in all of rock.

Ben Holmes’ Naked Lore and Big Lazy at Barbes, 8/24/18
The perennially tuneful, cinematic trumpeter/composer’s edgy Middle Eastern-tinged trio, followed by this city’s ultimate cinematic noir instrumentalists, who took a dive down to dub as deep as their early zeroes adventures in immersively menacing reverb guitar sonics.

Souren Baronian’s Taksim at Barbes, 9/7/18
The ageless octogenarian multi-reedman and king of Middle Eastern jazz channeled deep soul, and Parker and Coltrane, and seemed to be having the time of his life throwing elbows at the music, and his bandmates. The older he gets, the more energetic he sounds. His gig a month later in midtown – which was videotaped in its entirety – was awfully good too.

Mohamed Abozekry & Karkade at Roulette, 9/21/18
The Egyptian oudist and his sizzling, eclectic band paid their respects to a thousand years of otherworldly, kinetic sounds while adding an individualistic edge equally informed by American jazz, psychedelic rock and even funk.

International Contemporary Ensemble playing Missy Mazzoli’s Proving Up at the Miller Theatre, 9/26/18
An endlessly suspenseful, bloodcurdling, macabre New York debut for Mazzoli’s latest avant garde opera, a grim parable concerning the American Dream and how few actually attain it – and what happens when they don’t.

Cecile McLorin Salvant’s Ogresse at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 9/28/18
Everybody’s pick for this era’s best and most versatile jazz singer turns out to be as diverse and haunting a songwriter. Darcy James Argue conducted a mighty alllstar ensemble shifting between torch song, noir Americana and lavish, Gil Evans-like sweep throughout this withering suite, a parable of racial and gender relations in the age of Metoo.

Youssra El Hawary at Lincoln Center, 10/4/18
The Egyptian accordionist/singer and her fantastic band mashed up classic levantine sounds with retro French chanson and an omnipresent, politically fearless edge, no less defiant when she was singing about pissing on walls in the early, optimistic days of the Arab Spring.

The Ahmet Erdogdular Ensemble at St. Paul’s Chapel at Columbia, 11/13/18
The brooding, charismatic Turkish crooner and his brilliant band – featuring Ara Dinkjian on oud, Dolunay violinist Eylem Basaldi and kanun player Didem Basar – played rapt, haunting anthems, ballads and improvisations spanning three hundred years’ worth of composers and influences.

Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah and many others at Symphony Space, 11/17/18
Giddens’ soaring wail, multi-instrumental chops and searingly relevant political focus was matched by powerful contralto singer, guitarist/banjoist and songwriter Kiah, who brought a similar, historically deep edge to a night of protest songs from across the ages.

Practical Strategies For Introducing Audiences to New Composers of Serious Music

The panel discussion this past evening at Lincoln Center was less a skull session about how to fix the crisis of diminishing audiences at concerts of serious music and more about how two of the most colorful individuals in the business are tackling it. The New York Philharmonic‘s Isaac Thompson, who moderated, wisely picked the orchestra’s first-ever Creative Partner, Nadia Sirota, along with her International Contemporary Ensemble bassoonist pal Rebekah Heller, then let the two of them chew the scenery. The result was refreshingly optimistic, all the more so for being grounded in the grim reality of experience and history.

Both approach the situation from a programming rather than audience perspective – one that goes completely against the grain of conventional corporate strategy. These days we’re told to mine data to the nth degree, then bombard those attached to that data with lures and incentives to buy more and more of what the numbers say they already like. In so doing, you take absolutely no chances.

But as Heller put it, “Sometimes the riskiest thing you can do is also the safest.” She was referring to Ashley Fure’s Filament, which the Philharmonic chose to open their season this year. Heller played that piece from a position in the audience. Unorthodox spatial configurations of musicians are old hat in the avant garde, and there’s plenty of mainstream precedent – Fiddler on the Roof, anyone? – yet have been quite the exception in this particular milieu. Was this a one-off? Far from it, Heller vigorously asserted.

“I didn’t get called by the New York Philharmonic because I’m an amazing bassoonist,” she demurred. “I got the call because I’m part of this community with Ashley. This is a generation of community-building, with and for each other, and giving back to the field,” she explained. What Heller could have said but didn’t is that she’s actually a very dynamic bassoonist, a disciple of  Pauline Oliveros with a flair for the unusual. Her Dark and Stormy project with Adrian Morejon might be the only group in history to have played the entire extant repertoire for bassoon duo.

Sirota enthusiastically affirmed Heller’s communitarian philosophy. “New York is this incredible farm team of nineteen and twenty-year-old musicians just dying to play new music. It wasn’t always that way,” she reminded soberly. “In twenty or thirty years I hope that audiences for this will have octupled,” she enthused.

The Juilliard-trained violist and founder of indie classical chamber ensemble yMusic speaks from experience. You can see the wheels turning at the Phiilharmonic: it’s impossible to think of a more likable ambassador for new composers. With her rapidfire wit and livewire enthusiasm, she earned the position after three years running arguably the best new music podcast out there, Meet the Composer. Her agenda: to bring that passion – along with a considerable following – to a new series of Sunday afternoon concerts in the comfortable amphitheatre sonics of the Allen Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center. There’s also the late-night Kaplan Penthouse Nightcap series of intimate performances featuring composers whose work is on the bill in the hall downstairs – and where you can actually meet them.

She’s also booked her first Young People’s Concert for March 2 of next year, pairing Beethoven with Andrew Norman. She took her cue for the afternoon’s video game theme from a comment by Norman comparing motivic development in Beethoven with the challenges of increasingly complex gaming levels.

Heller is one of several ICE musicians do double duty as administrator and programmer. The group’s ICE Lab program, a workshop for emerging composers, springboarded her connection to Fure. And the long-running, free OpeniCE series – the latest of which are happening this week through Nov 8 at the New York Library for the Performing Arts – continues to offer exciting, eclectic programming accessible to everyone.

The elephant not in the room was the Philharmonic’s new Music Director, Jaap van Zweden. “He is so game!” Heller asserted. “He made his name on these big Germanic pieces but that’ s not the only thing he likes or is good at,” pointing to his advocacy for new composers with the Dallas Symphony. “So with this orchestra, he gets to be this amazing explorer with them.” It will be interesting to see how far he can take that: Alan Gilbert’s adventurous and often absolutely delightful Contact! series, dedicated to emerging composers, got off to a smashingly good start but stalled out as the venues got smaller and smaller while ticket prices went up.

In the Q&A afterward, one audience member asked why the Philharmonic doesn’t open every performance with a new work. Neither SIrota nor Heller acknowledged that they used to do that all the time. Half the audience would leave at the intermission, dejected, while the other half would show up then for the big Germanic piece. Instead, the two women simply acknowledged that new music belongs on the program wherever it makes sense to put it: in the middle of the bill wouldn’t be a bad idea. As musicians, Sirota and Heller know that better than anyone. We’ve come a long way since the days when, as Heller explained it, the twelve-tone camp and the neoromantics were duking out over which was preferable: ”Music that was intelligent but emotionally lacking, or emotional but stupid.”

The Philharmonic’s next performances are Nov 7-8 at 7:30 PM and Nov 9 at 8 PM with Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony plus two works by Schubert: the Fifth Symphony and a “joyous, charming mini-cantata,” featuring Principal Clarinet Anthony McGill and soprano Miah Persson. You can get in for $34. 

Two Michael Hersch Works Top the List of the Most Disturbing Music of 2018

One of the most sepulchral and chilling albums of recent years is the Blair String Quartet’s 2014 recording of Michael Hersch’s Images From a Closed Ward. That one was inspired by Michael Mazur sketches made inside a Rhode Island mental asylum in the early 1960s. The latest recording of Hersch’s characteristically harrowing work is even more so, evoking the fitful last gasps and lingering pain of the final stages of terminal illness. Hersch’s Violin Concerto, performed by soloist Patricia Kopatchinskaja with International Contemporary Ensemble is paired with his End Stages suite, played by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and streaming at New Focus Recordings.

The twisted march that introduces the concerto – arranged with an emphasis on strings rather than a full orchestra – kicks in with a savage downward slash from Kopatchinskaja. Within the first minute, the message is clear: the horror is going to be relentless. The brooding string quartets of Per Norgard are an antecedent. Kopatchinskaja’s role is less traditional soloist than member of the ensemble who gets the most shivery, terror-stricken lines and cruelly demanding cadenzas.

A sense of desperation pervades this piece, foreshadowing the suite to follow. Evil faces from every corner of the sonic picture peek out and then slash at each other, the horns rising over a cruel, emphatic low note from the piano. Astringent microtones linger side by side, a macabre march anchoring the shrieks overhead – not that anyone would want to be anchored in this skin-peeling acidity.

That’s the first movement. In the second, Similar shrieks burst from accordion-like textures throughout as much welcome calm as there is, the occasional piano accent piercing the veil. The third is a vast, spacious, defeated tableau punctuated by funereal piano, a horrified fragment from the strings eventually leading to a horrified quasi-march with a frantic couple of duels amid the string section, then a series of cruelly sarcastic faux-fanfares. The stillness in the fourth remains constant and sadistically icy: Hersch’s orchestration is every bit as inventive as his music is disturbing.

End Stages, which is also a microtonal work, begins with an austere mist punctuated by a sudden evocation of a scream or a brief moment of neoromantic clarity. The rest of the movements, many of them barely a minute or two long, shift from surreal, cinematic, conversational exchanges, to macabre dirges.

Bells and stark string horror permeate the third movement. There could be a death in a sudden pained cadenza here, and also in the grim codas of the fourth and fifth, puncturing their lingering, ghastly suspense. A sadistic parody of churchbells and grey-sky Shostakovian ambience sit side by side with long shrieking motives and every foreshadowing device ever invented, as these tortured voices stare down the end.  This is the best piece of new orchestral music since Julia Wolfe’s Cruel Sister album, which was rated the best record of 2011 here. Look for this one on the best albums of 2018 page here at the end of the year.

Missy Mazzoli’s Grim, Grisly Great Plains Gothic Tour de Force

As a sold-out crowd filtered into the Miller Theatre Wednesday night, a strange interweave of short melodic phrases rose from the newly reopened orchestra pit, played more or less in turn by a large subset of International Contemporary Ensemble’s rotating multi-city cast. They weren’t warming up for the New York premiere of Missy Mazzoli’s harrowing opera, Proving Up: the surreal, acidic exchange was foreshadowing in disguise. It only hinted at the ghastly narrative to come.

Royce Vavrek’s libretto, based on a Karen Russell short story, follows the misfortunes of a family of 19th century Nebraska homesteaders. The only possible hardship they don’t have to face is Indian raids: presumably the original occupants of the land to which the Zegner family hopes to claim the deed have already been murdered. A cast of seven, both the living and the dead, carry out a grim narrative, clinging to the illusion of a destiny they can manifest despite all odds against that ever happening. They’re forced to recycle things you never would. Such a sobering wake-up call, from an American dream that has historically eluded most of those who embraced it, could not be more relevant than it is now.

Mazzoli’s score mirrors the Zegners’ determination to prove to a Godot of a government inspector that they’ve fulfilled every surreal requirement to make the land their own. The melodies are elusive, often maddeningly so. Folksy themes gather momentary momentum, only to be twisted into cruel shadows of themselves. Mazzoli’s orchestration is sublimely strange and counterintuitive: a melodica and a big gong figure notably in the score alongside aching strings, spare brass, sepulchrally glittering piano and woodwinds.

The singers take similarly challenging melodies which seldom stayed in any one particular scale or mode and deliver a confidently chilling performance. John Moore gives poignancy to the family’s drunken, abusive yet fiercely populist patriarch. Soprano Talise Trevigne brings an immutably soaring strength to his wife, the family’s truest believer and possibly truest victim. As their son, riding across the lone prairie on a joke of a horse, Michael Slattery witnesses the mark of the beast on midwestern sentimentality  As a very differently imperiled brother, Sam Shapiro has to hold some contorted poses, and his ballet training doesn’t let him down. Bass Andrew Harris plays a grim reaper figure with relish. And Abgail Nims and Cree Carrico, as ghost Greek choir, channel diabolical schadenfraude. Director James Darrah’s decision to stage an exhumation in the midst of all the drama packs grand guignol wallop.

The opera’s totemic central symbol is a glass window, something every verifiable homestead needed to have. A question of provenance arises, with lethal results. As the story plays out, Mazzoli’s sinister, looming ambience is relentless. Her music has no shortage of troubling undercurrents, but this is the darkest and arguably best work she’s ever composed in a career that probably hasn’t even hit its high point yet.

Downward glissandos from both the singers and the orchestra cap off some of the night’s most emphatic crescendos, one crushing defeat after another. Solid grooves are dashed away in an endlessly daunting series of rhythmic shifts: nothing is solidly underfoot here. When the orchestra finally cuts loose with fullscale horror in the final act, the long build up to that point, through vast long-tone desolation, eerily twinkling piano, marionettish rhythmic jerks and sepulchral flickers throughout the ensemble, the takeaway is unmistakeable. We should be able to see the final results of this particular promise a mile away.

There’s one more performance tonight at the Miller, and that’s sold out. Programming here this season is characteristically diverse, from Brazilian rainforest nocturnes on Oct 9 at 6 PM, to one of the theatre’s signature composer portrait performances featuring the work and vocals of Kate Soper on the 27th at 8.

A Hypnotic, Soothing Beehive of Avant Garde Activity at the Mostly Mozart Festival

Last night’s performance of Michael Pisaro’s A Wave and Waves at the Mostly Mozart Festival began with a single, momentary trill from one of the roughly hundred performers seated within the Lincoln Center audience. A woman with her back to one of them turned in her seat indignantly: hadn’t her neighbor heeded the reminder to turn off her phone?

As another, more muffled sound flitted from the other side of the atrium space, the look on the woman’s face was priceless. That little ripple wasn’t a phone. It was a percussion instrument: bells on a string.

There were other comedic moments during the roughly 75-minute diptych, but those were limited to pregnant pauses – the ready-to-pop kind – along with dropped instruments and scores. For the most part, the piece was calm, a minor-league take on John Luther Adams’ vast, enveloping Become Ocean. The effect was like a Soviet Realist poster come to life, a steady bustle of happy worker ants.

The composer introduced the work as a landscape where no perspective is identical. Obviously, no perspective at any concert is exactly the same, sonically speaking, irrespective of one’s proximity to a particular instrument.  Here, these really ran the gamut, from bowed bells and a couple of huge bass drums, to a repurposed coffee can, an upside-down kitchen drawer and what appeared to be a wok with a chain inside, whose player rattled and clinked as she raised and lowered metal against metal.

In general, the sold-out audience’s reaction was rapt attention. More than one person assumed a yoga position (one of them ended up falling asleep, or so it seemed). One of the very few people to leave during the performance did that at the break between pieces – but only after videoing the entire first half.

Where the first part was a calm beehive of rustling. swooshing activity juxtaposed with a series of high, keening textures from the bowed bells, the second half was more animated. Ostensibly a series of shorter waves, those bursts of activity began suddenly and ended cold – and were considerably louder than the hypnotic ambience of the first half of the show. It was here that the musicians – percussionist Greg Stuart and members of International Contemporary Ensemble, along with a motley assortment of performers who ranged from gradeschool age to maybe six times that – were able to cut loose, at least to the extent that they could. Frenzies were hinted at, but never quite emerged, although the maze of stereo effects grew much more lively, with hints of call-and-response.

The remainder of the Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center is sold out. However, there is a free concluding event, a spatially arranged world premiere by four choirs singing John Luther Adams‘ ecological parable In the Name of the Earth at the Cathedral of St.  John the Divine on Aug 11. The concert is at 3 PM; doors open at 2. Get there early if you want to get in.

And the next performance at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway north of 62nd St. – where almost all of the most ambitious programming on campus takes place – is on Aug 16 at 7:30 PM with the Jimi Hendrix of the cuatro, Jorge Glem. The show is free: get there early if you’re going.

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.

A Magical Pauline Oliveros Chorale That Every Musician Should Sing At Least Once

If you think that group improvisation is challenging for an instrumentalist, try doing that as a vocalist – along with about hundred and twenty other singers. Friday afternoon at the Cloisters, WQXR’s Nadia Sirota led a determined ensemble of college kids, tourists and at least one proprietor of a music blog through two performances of Pauline Oliveros’ 1971 improvisational chorale Tuning Meditation, the shorter of which will be broadcast on Sirota’s Meet the Composer.

The intimate sonics and medieval polished marble ambience of the Fuentidueña Chapel there made for a choice of venue that did justice to the composer who fine-tuned the concept of deep listening. Beyond a few gaggles of college-age friends, it didn’t appear that any of the singers knew each other. While it also wasn’t clear what percentage of the participants were trained or had performing experience, many of them, especially the women, turned out to have strong and expressive vocal range. Having been in the audience at what might have been Oliveros’ final New York performance – a lustrously crafted, largely improvisational set in Fort Greene in 2015 where she played accordion alongside members of International Contemporary Ensemble – there’s no question that she would have found this experience validating.

The instructions for the piece – an etude, essentially, designed to build listening and collaborative skills – were very simple, Sirota explained. You take a deep breath – in both senses of the word – then you hit a pitch of your choice (and hopefully maintain it). Your second note matches one sung by one of your choirmates; your third is a pitch that has not been used before. Barely a minute elapsed before the slowly but methodically shifting blend of voices had combined to produce just about every note that a human voice can reach.

The music itself was enveloping, and otherworldly, and often absolutely magical, in both an unselfconscious and very self-conscious way. The latter became a central issue because the singers started out rather tentatively, no one ever reaching for the rafters throughout about twenty-five minutes worth of music. But in the context of this performance, cutting loose and belting wouldn’t have worked.

Which was a challenge, as anyone who’s ever fronted a band, or sung in a choir, or harmonized around a guitar or a piano would realize. It’s one thing to stay on key while you’re projecting; it’s another thing to hold a long tone quietly. But everyone was game, and stayed focused to the point that a rhythmic cycle developed, the echoey mist of notes contracting toward a center and then expanding outward.

What was it like to be part of the choir? It was hard work, not only singing alongside some terrific voices, but matching their pitches and resonances. Ironically, it was more daunting to find a rhythm within the music’s elegant sway than if there had been a steady beat to follow. It was also easy to get hopelessly lost: was that last note supposed to be a new one, or a match for somebody else’s? After awhile, it became hard to keep track. As the improvisation went on, higher pitches began to stand out, as women in the crowd became more expressive – or had run out of lower notes. This resulted in extra sparkle and lustre – and also created the need for balance on the low end.

Which is a biased argument. If you buy the premise that low registers should be utilized whenever feasible – a stereotypical bass player-like point of view – that development opened up plenty of space for extra anchorage in the bass clef. Which is where the opportunity to cheat and go off script proved irresistible. If you manage to catch Sirota’s broadcast and hear a long series of simple, long-tone variations on the E below middle C during the last five minutes or so, let’s hope they’re on key. If not, you know who to blame.

As a participant, what was the takeaway? Oliveros’ etude is everything she meant it to be, a great exercise in listening, and vocal control, and being a good bandmate in general. It’s worth repeating, especially if your own creative music is limited to playing an instrument. Any group of people can do this, anywhere: the glorious natural reverb of an old stone chapel is a luxury option.

While this performance certainly qualified as microtonal, trying to sing microtonally turned out to be anything but easy. An internal autotune kicked in, along with a tendency to resolve to a nearby pitch. Clearly, to paraphrase Wadada Leo Smith, the tyranny of the key of C runs deep. So here’s a variation on Oliveros for the microtonally-challenged:

1. Take a deep breath and exhale the note of your choice.

2. Choose a pitch just a hair lower or higher than your neighbor’s, but not a sharp or a flat in the western scale. It could be a halftone, or a quartertone, or something more shady. And hold it!

3. Take that note you just sang and sharp it. 

4. Repeat steps 1-3!