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Surreal, Individualistic Music For Sitar and Bass From the Travis Duo

Just the idea of a bass-and-sitar duo is enticing. The two players in the Travis Duo. ubiquitous bassist Trevor Dunn and sitarist Jarvis Earnshaw, join with some first-class special guests who make colorful contributions to their utterly surreal new album Hypnagogia, streaming at Bandcamp. It seems completely improvised, it’s often invitingly enveloping and psychedelic to the nth degree.

Much of the music is akin to a palimpsest painted wet: the undercoats bleed through, sometimes when least expected. To open the album, Dunn’s wryly warping, bowed lines linger below the judicious, warmly spare sitar lines, then the bassist adds more emphatic layers and dissociative loops. The sparse/busy dichotomy is a recurrent trope throughout the album. Earnshaw’s big payoff – a false ending of sorts – is worth the wait.

Daniel Carter and Devin Brahja Waldman’s saxes waft in to introduce the second track, FAQ, then there’s a steel pan-like xylophone line, Earnshaw a distant gleam behind the gently percolating upper-register textures. Dunn punctures the bubbles and joins with guest drummer Niko Wood to introduce a pulse as the sitar grows more prominent, then recedes.

Orchid Hoodwink has Earnshaw’s stream-of-consciousness vocals over a mingled web of sitar, xylophone and metal percussion. Is there a sense of betrayal in Fair Weather Friend? It doesn’t seem so; the washes of bass beneath the resonance of the sitar and Earnshaw’s earnest tenor vocals give the song a warmly rustic feel.

Carter floats in on flute over the hypnotic, sustained textural contrasts of Hitherto. He brings an unhurried, exploratory vibe on sax over increasingly bracing chaos in Uncanny Valley…and then gets pulled into the vortex. Meanwhile, Dunn is having tongue-in-cheek fun at the bottom of a waterslide.

The closest thing to a raga here, and the most contiguous piece, is Folie a Deux, Dunn bowing astringent harmonics and then taking over a very minimalist tabla role as Earnshaw chooses his spots. It’s very Brooklyn Raga Massive, and quite beautiful. There’s also a bonus track, Lollop, which could be a Sanskrit pun. Xylophone and sitar ripple and ping, the horns hover and flutter while Dunn pulses tersely in the midrange. The keening overtones emanating from the bass strings as the group wind out slowly are the icing on this strange and beguiling sonic cake.

Randall Harlow Puts Out a Wild, Epic Triple Album of Spine-Tingling Recent Concert Organ Music

With his epic new triple album Organon Novus – streaming at SpotifyRandall Harlow seeks to restore the king of the instruments to its rightful place in concert music. Current generations may not realize how prominent a role the organ has played in American history. A hundred years ago, pretty much every major concert hall – not to mention city hall, baseball stadium, movie theatre, skating rink, funeral parlor, wedding venue, even the occasional department store – had its own organ. Harlow’s criteria in selecting the material here is to focus on American composers who are not organists themselves.

He explains that rationale in the liner notes: “As a performer I am particularly attracted to works by non-organist composers, as they tend to refreshingly avoid the well-worn gestures and techniques oft overused by incorrigible organists. This is not to say there aren’t compelling and original works composed by organists, particularly by those whose professional compositional activities extend beyond the organ and choral worlds, but works by non-organists such as these here often present novel and challenging figurations and elicit compelling new sounds from the instrument.” That’s something of an understatement. Harlow plays them on the titanically colorful E.M. Skinner organ in Rockefeller Memorial Chapel at the the University of Chicago.

The music here runs the gamut as eclectically as any other instrumental album released over the last several years. If you want an in-depth survey of some of the most interestingly diverse works for organ since 1990, you can’t do any better than this. The majority of them are on the short side as organ works go, generally under ten minutes, many of them under five. The dynamic and timbral ranges are as vast as any fan of the demimonde could want, from whispery nebulosity to all-stops-out pandemonium. The quietest pieces are the most minimalist.

Harlow opens with an alternately showy and calmly enveloping Libby Larsen study in bell-like tones which he calls an “all-limbs-on-deck work for the performer.” He closes with Aaron Travers‘ Exodus, an oceanic partita once considered unplayable for its complexity, wildly churning menace, leaps and whirling vortices. It will take your breath away.

In between we get Matt Darriau‘s crescendoing, anthemically circling Diapason Fall, which sounds nothing like his adventures in klezmer or Balkan music. Harlow follows Michael Daugherty‘s stormy, pulsing An Evangelist Drowns/Desert Dance with Roberto Sierra‘s Fantasia Cromática and its dervish dance of an outro.

He turns a Christian Wolff piece for either organ or celesta into a coy dialogue betweeen that relatively rare organ stop and the high flutes. Then he improvises against the rattle of dried beans and macaroni atop percussionist Matt Andreini’s snare and tom-tom in a droning, hypnotic Alvin Lucier soundscape. A “hair-raising study in how not to play the organ” by John Zorn, contrastingly careening and quietly macabre, concludes the second disc.

Other standouts from among the total of 25 composers represented here include John Anthony Lennon‘s allusively Doors-influenced, cascading Misericordia; a towering, picturesque Rocky Mountain tableau by George Walker; Samuel Adler‘s purposeful, tightly coiling Schoenberg homage From Generation to Generation; and Joan Tower’s delightfully blustery, aptly titled Ascent. The portents of the penultimate number, Lukas Foss’ Hiroshima-themed triptych War and Peace are among the album’s most riveting moments. Harlow attacks each of these pieces with equal parts meticulousness and passion. Even better, there’s a sequel in the works.

It’s Been a Typically Eclectic Year at Upper Manhattan’s Home for Adventurous New Classical Sounds

If new classical music is your thing, don’t let any possible twee, gentrifier associations scare you away from the Miller Theatre‘s series of so-called “pop-up” concerts. For almost a decade now, Columbia’s comfortable auditorium at the top of the stairs at the 116th St. stop on the 1 train has been home to an often spectacularly good series of free, early evening performances of 21st century works along with the occasional blast from the past. The name actually reflects how impromptu these shows were during the series’ first year, and while the schedule now extends several months ahead, new events still do pop up unexpectedly. Sometimes there’s free beer and wine, sometimes not, but that’s not the main attraction, testament to how consistently solid the programming here has become.

This past fall’s first concert was a revelatory world premiere of John Zorn’s new JMW Turner-inspired suite for solo piano, played with virtuosic verve by Steven Gosling; that one got a rave review here. The October episode, with indie classical chamber ensemble Counterinduction playing an acerbic, kinetic series of works by their charismatic violist Jessica Meyer, was also fantastic. Various permutations of the quintet, Meyer joined by violinist Miranda Cuckson, cellist Caleb van der Swaagh, clarinetist and bass clarinetist Benjamin Fingland and pianist Ning Yu began with the dappled shades of I Only Speak of the Sun, then brought to life the composer’s many colorful perspectives on Guadi’s Sagrada Familia cathedral in a dynamic, high-voltage partita. The most bracing number of the evening, Meyer explained, drew on a David Foster Wallace quote regarding how “ the truth will set you free, but not until it lets you go,”

There were many other memorable moments here throughout the past year. In February, Third Sound played an assured but deliciously restless take of Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1 along with a mixed bag of material from south of the border. A month later, pianist Marilyn Nonken parsed uneasily lingering works by Messiaen and Tristan Murail.

Then in April, Rebecca Fischer delivered a fascinating program of solo violin pieces along with some new arrangements. The highlight was a reinvention of Missy Mazzoli‘s incisively circling Death Valley Junction. Fischer also ran through an increasingly thorny, captivating Paola Prestini piece, along with brief, often striking works by Lisa Bielawa, Gabriela Lena Frank and Suzanne Farrin.

Last month, Tak Ensemble tackled elegantly minimalist chamber material by Tyshawn Sorey and Taylor Brook. And December’s concert featured firebrand harpist Bridget Kibbey, who played the Bach Toccata in D faster than any organist possibly could, then slowed down for simmering, relatively short pieces by Albeniz and Dvorak among others.

The next Miller Theatre “pop-up” concert on the calendar is next January 21 at 6 PM with violinist Lauren Cauley.

Airy, Low-Key Ambience and Choral Themes From Carolina Eyck

Carolina Eyck‘s new album Elegies for Theremin & Voice – streaming at Spotify – blends multitracked, wordless vocals with theremin. which she uses for for both steady sustain as well as the instrument’s signature quaver. In places, it’s impossible to tell which is human and which is machine. It also tends to be minimalistic: from time to time, the music recalls John Zorn’s work for small vocal ensemble, as well as Sophia Rei in a rare pensive moment, or Emilie Wiebel. There’s a general sense of calm in these pieces: as elegies go, this is not a dark album.

The album’s opening track is Duet 1, a simple, gentle miniature, fuzzy lows from the theremim almost buried in the mix. The second number, Remembrance is a happy one, an increasingly complex web of harmonies based on a blithely dancing ba-ba vocal riff,  with a choir of voices massing in the background, the theremin occasionally diverging into tremoloing microtones.

Eyck’s vocals seem taken by surprise during the first part of Absence, a diptych. As the theremin grows more present, they grow more wistful. She builds Uncle from a simple descending progression into a steady, sober choral piece: it’s the album’s most recognizably elegaic theme. She follows that with a fleeting solo theremin miniature and then the slowly shifting tectonic sheets of Duet II

The hazily looped Commemoration brings to mind Caroline Shaw’s choral work, reduced to simplest terms. The playfully rhythmic Presence is Eyck’s take on Indian takadimi vocal exercises, while Friend, a synopsis of sorts, wouldn’t be out of place in the early Meredith Monk catalog. Eyck winds up the album with the baroque-tinged Solo II. She’s playing the album release show tomorrow night, Oct 16 at 8:30 PM at Constellation, 3111 N. Western Ave in Chicago; cover is $10.

Relive a Lost, Rarely Documented Era in New York Music History…and Discover a New One at the Roulette Archive

If you ran a club, would you record everything ever played there? Among venues around the world, never mind New York, Roulette probably holds the record for owning the most exhaustive archive of concert performances. Smalls has been documenting their own scene since the zeros, but Roulette goes back over two decades before then. What’s most astonishing is the wealth of material in the Roulette archive. Sure – virtually everyone who ever played a gig anywhere in the world where there’s an internet connection has been documented on youtube. But Roulette’s archive goes back to 1980, long before most people even had video cameras. It got a gala, mid-February relaunch, with a characteristically celestial, rippling performance by inventor, composer and one-man electric gamelan Pat Spadine a.k.a. Ashcan Orchestra.

Although Roulette has deep roots as a spot for free jazz, practically since the beginning they’ve been programming music and multidisciplinary work that few other venues would touch. The archive validates founder and trombonist Jim Staley’s vision of how crucial that stubborn commitment to music at the furthest, most adventurous fringes would become. Staley originated the Roulette brand in the late 70s. As a New York venue, it opened as a jazz loft on West Broadway in 1980, eventually migrated to Wooster Street and now sits across from the site of another storied New York music hotspot that was forced to move, Hank’s, on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn.

Looking back, it’s astonishing to see how many artists who would become iconic, not only in the free jazz or avant garde demimondes, were part of the 80s Roulette scene. Shows from early in the decade featured a characteristically diverse cast: John Zorn, big band revivalist Jim McNeely and doomed polymath/indie classical pioneer Julius Eastman each played solo piano here. A young Ned Rothenberg led several ensembles, as did Butch Morris, refining his signature conduction in front of a relatively small (for him) improvisational ensemble.

Pauline Oliveros made her Roulette debut in 1984, Elliott Sharp and Bill Frisell the following year. The earliest performance currently available online dates from 1985: the late Jerry Hunt building a swirl of insistent, astringent analog loops behind what must have been a spectacularly physical, outlandish performance. As the archive describes it, he was “Wearing his ubiquitous jacket and tie, with his equipment suitcase that doubled as a performance seat and percussion instrument, button controllers made from Bakelite dishes, optical sensors triggering video disks, fetish objects including shakers, sticks, and rattles made by David McManaway, and convincing all in attendance that they were watching a ceremonial magician.”

The next one is from October, 1986: Tenko and Kamura singing over skronky guitar and snapping, distorted bass, with Zeena Parkins on both her usual harp and also piano. Later that month the venue booked a night of all women improvisers: once again, Roulette was way ahead of its time.

From later in the decade, you can hear Tom Johnson’s 1978 composition Chord Catalogue, comprising the 8,178 chords that can be made using the notes in a single octave. ”The audio recording is interrupted briefly at the 74 minute point as the original recording media capacity was reached and the tape was changed.” Another rare treat is Frisell playing solo on March 13, 1989: “Solo guitar: electric, acoustic and banjo covering Thelonious Monk, Nino Rota, Disney soundtrack tunes, plus originals.”

The past twenty years are also represented: here’s a random, envelopingly ambient clip of sound sculptor and singer Lesley Flanigan from 2015. The venue also has the Roulette TV series up online, including both live performances and studio footage of artists they’ve championed recently.

These days Roulette keeps programming weird and often rapturously good stuff. Multimedia is big, but they still have regular free jazz, ambient and new orchestral and chamber music. In the past few years, they’ve also become a Brooklyn home for Robert Browning Associates’ annual slate of amazing performers playing traditional music from around the world. One such is this Friday, March 12 at 8 PM, a rare NYC concert of Indian veena music by virtuoso Jayanthi Kumaresh. You can get in for thirty bucks in advance.

The Momenta Quartet Stage a New Classic of Classical Music for Children

How can you tell if a chamber music performance is appropriate for children? By how the kids react, for one. Yesterday morning, the Momenta Quartet’s boisterously amusing multimedia show, The Lost String Quartet – by their violist Stephanie Griffin – kept two busloads of five-year-olds engaged and for the most part equally well-behaved for over an hour. It’s one thing to keep a preschooler close to you, with the occasional reminder to sit still. Two whole posses of them, all surrounded by their fellow crazymakers, completely change the game.

The plot, based on N. M. Bodecker’s now out-of-print 1983 children’s book, concerns not a missing piece of music but a missing ensemble. The Momentas  cast themselves as the musicians, abetted by actor Fernando Villa Proal, who chewed the scenery with relish in multiple roles as emcee, truck driver, prison warden and several other personalities. The plot follows the misadventures of a quartet who have to deal with all sorts of vehicular drama on their way to a gig – late. And much as the humor is G-rated, it’s far more Carnival of the Animals than Peter and the Wolf. The group have to go down into the sewer at one point – ewwww! The kids loved that.

And like the Simpsons, the jokes have multiple levels of meaning, the musical ones especially. Adults, as well as older gradeschool children who have some familiarity with standard classical repertoire, will no doubt get a big kick out of them. In a mostly wordless performance, the group acquit themselves impressively as actors, in expressively vaudevillian roles. Are violinists Emilie-Anne Gendron and Alex Shiozaki really the merry prankster and space-case introvert in the group? Is cellist Michael Haas as dangerously stubborn as his role, or Griffin the quartet’s deus ex machina? That could be an inside joke.

Griffin’s score, some of it improvisational, is sublime, and the group sink their fangs into it, no small achievement considering the physical demands of the acting. Just the slithery, menacing, distantly Indian-tinged viola solo that opens the show, and appears later in disguise, is worth the price of admission. The deliberately educational moments, i.e. how a string quartet’s instruments differentiate from each other, are understated and flow seamlessly within the narrative.

As you would expect, a lot of the music – usually performed in configurations other than the full foursome – is pretty broad too, if hardly easy to play. Doppler effects, sirens, sad-face wah-wah riffs and the like pop up all over the place. But the rest is more carnivalesque than cartoonish There’s vastly more of a Bartok influence, or for that matter echoes of Luciano Berio or Jessica Pavone, than there is buffoonery.

What’s most impressive is that the quartet do double duty as what might, in tightlipped chamber music lingo, be called a hybrid ensemble. Who knew that Haas was such a capable percussionist, playing discernible melodies on found objects including a car door panel and oil pan? Or that Griffin could spiral around on melodica as if she was Augustus Pablo?

This is where the show’s subversive undercurrent takes centerstage What the Momenta Quartet are proposing is tthat if we expose kids to the avant garde when they’re young enough, they’ll be smart enough to laugh at any older, know-it-all Grinch who might sneer, “Oh, contemporary classical music, it’s so harsh and boring and pretentious.”

This piece has a huge upside. The quartet could tour it if they could find the time – it’s hard to imagine a cultural center in this country who wouldn’t stage it. It’s probably an overstatement to suggest that it could be a Broadway hit. Then again, kids are certainly ready for it. Be the first family on your block to see it when the Momenta Quartet’s perform it tomorrow, Dec 10, with sets at 10 and 11 AM at the Time In Children’s Arts Initiative, 227 W. 29th St, Studio 4R just north of FIT. Admission is free, and reservations are highly recommended.

Forro In the Dark Return to a Cozy, Familiar Haunt

As thorny and almost perversely challenging as John Zorn’s compositions can be, sometimes people forget what a hookmeister the guy is. He can write a catchy tune with anybody, referencing the better part of a century worth of jazz, classical, rock and film noir soundtracks. And somewhere inside, there still beats the irrepressibly tuneful heart of the surf rock bassist that he once was. Forro in the Dark, who add surfy touches to their often sepulchral Brazilian rainforest nocturnes, had the good sense a couple of years ago to put out an album of John Zorn covers, which makes more sense than it might seem considering the composer’s fondness for Brazilian sounds. And for those who might have missed Forro in the Darks long series of Barbes gigs around that time – or their fantastically tight, fun, sadly abbreviated set a couple of years ago at Lincoln Center Out of Doors – they’re playing tomorrow night, September 4 at 8 at Manhattan Inn in Greenpoint. It’s a pass-the-tip-jar situation, a good thing because this bar is expensive.

Uluwati, a coyly modulating rainforest take on Lee Hazlewood spaghetti western surf, opens the album. The band’s swirling arrangement, with Jorge Continentino’s flutes multitracked over Guilherme Monteiro’s guitar and Mauro Refosco’s percussion, gives the song an epic feel far greater than the sum of its its relatively limited parts.

Novato artfully blends Vitor Gonçalvez’s dancing accordion with similarly gentle, kinetic guitar and flute. The group does most of Forro Zinho as a droll, slinky LA lowrider theme of sorts, bassist Rea Mochiach bubbling just beneath the surface – and then they take it abruptly toward Jethro Tull territory before Monteiro reins it in.

The band scampers and struts through Life Is Only Real Then When I Am with Monteiro and Continentino each channeling classic Spy vs. Spy furtiveness. Guest pianist Marcos Valle’s reverberating Wurlitzer and Sofia Rei’s deadpan, blithe vocalese help take the the trippy surrealism of Shaolin Bossa to redline. Sunset Surfer, with its playfully nicked riffage and mashup of grittily hypnotic postpunk rhythm and twinkling tropical lounge sonics, is even trippier.

The percussive, high-voltage Zavebe makes psychedelic rock out of what sounds like a centuries-old cantorial theme, in the same vein as the Sway Machinery, Continentino growling away on baritone sax while Monteiro blasts and burns and pans the speakers. While Ode to Delphi also has a percussive, hypnotic groove, it’s basically a glimmering one-chord jam with more than a little Grateful Dead in it, Rei’s dynamic vocalese rising and falling overhead.

With its hobbity rhythms, distorted guitar and dancing flute, Number 2 raises the question as to whether Zorn was a big Tull fan as a kid (likely answer: not really, and that any resemblance before the big free jazz freakout in the middle is probably a coincidence). The group makes an unexpected mashup out of forro and the Ramones with Annabel and then segues into The Quiet Surf. a return to balmy, surrealistic tropicalia. You can’t find this anywhere on the internet, but you can presumably pick up a copy from the band at shows.

Mycale’s Sara Serpa Enchants the Stone

If Sara Serpa quit right now, her body of work would still leave her a major figure in the history of early 21st century jazz and beyond-category vocal music. As one small example, consider the influence of the addition of Serpa’s otherworldly vocalese on Asuka Kakitani‘s landmark Bloom album a couple years ago. Yet, one suspects that Serpa’s best years are still ahead of her. This week through September 20, the individual members of Mycale – the vocal quartet John Zorn assembled, with Serpa, Ayelet Rose Gottlieb, Sofia Rei and Malika Zarra – are booking the Stone, an audience-friendly way to discover the eclectic and distinctive work of each of these singer/composers. With two sets a night, 8 and 10 PM, there are plenty of enticing shows, especially the album release show for Mycale’s new one at 8 PM this Saturday the 19th.

Last night the late set was Serpa’s, leading her City Fragments sextet. As the group made their way gently, pointillistically and hypnotically into the opening Andre Matos composition, listening to Serpa blend voices with the similarly lustrous-timbred Aubrey Johnson conjured such resonant radiance that it didn’t seem fair. Sofia Rei, who has the powerful low register that those two do not, perfectly completed the vocal frontline.

And yet, as unselfconsciously mesmerizing as those voices were, the number belonged to Matos, Serpa’s longtime collaborator. It’s so rare to see a guitarist with the depth of vision that he brought into play, being able to see this music from five thousand feet and realize it for all its uneasily majestic heights without cluttering it. This number had elements of 70s Morricone crime jazz and David Gilmour angst, but with neither the busyness of the former nor the bluster of the latter. Matos’ lingering, austere lines were like a distillation of both, reduced to most impactful terms. Underneath it all, bassist Matt Brewer supplied a bubbling tar-trap low end while drummer Tyshawn Sorey shuffled and spun an intricate web of cymbals, adding the occasional, stark, emphatic hit when least expected.

Serpa’s long suite after that again featured a similarly intricate, steady lattice of three-way vocal counterpoint, in the same vein as the new Mycale album. The three womens’ gentle bell-tone harmonies often gave way to mysterious, almost inaudible, fragmentary segues, Matos’s stiletto guitar often joining as a fourth voice in the choir, building to an unexpected, knifes-edge, sometimes darkly bluesy apprehension as it went on. Serpa’s spoken-word segments contemplated the human race’s alienation from nature, and a possible return to it, imbuing the work with a defiant, mid-80s punk-jazz edge. It was a characteristically ambitious move for Serpa, oldschool European intellectual to the core, constantly finding new ways to ground her ethereal sonic explorations in relevant concrete terms. The three women brought the night full circle with a radically reinvented, gently lilting take of an old fado hit. Serpa next performs with Mycale at the Stone this week on September 17 at 8, with Ikue Mori sitting in with her trusty laptop and its bottomless well of percussion samples. Cover is $15.

Magical Vocal Quartet Mycale Sings the Fun Side of John Zorn at the Stone This Week

John Zorn assembled vocal quartet Mycale in 2009 to create new arrangements from his exhaustive magnum opus Book of Angels – Volume 2. The group’s debut, Mycale: Book of Angels, Vol 13 (hard to keep track of all of this, isn’t it?), came out a year later. Now the quartet – Ayelet Rose Gottlieb, Sofia Rei, Sara Serpa and Malika Zarra – have a brand new release, Gomory, and a weeklong stand at the Stone starting on September 15 and continuing through the 20th with sets at 8 and 10 PM; cover is $15. Two choice options among many standout lineups include the late set opening night at 10 PM with Serpa’s City Fragments Ensemble – Serpa, Sofia Rei and Aubrey Johnson (voices); Andre Matos (guitar); Matt Brewer (bass); and Tyshawn Sorey (drums), and then the official album release shows with the full Mycale quartet at 8 on Saturday the 19th.

That much of Zorn’s more recent oeuvre has been thorny and challenging has somewhat overshadowed the sheer fun and liveliness of much of his previous output, and this album is a prime example. All the singers here are composers and bandleaders, and offer their individual lyrics and arrangements to the album’s eleven tracks, each of then named for a specific angel. The choir members also bring their own strongly distinctive vocal styles. Here, Gottlieb is the most plush and powerful, Serpa the most individualistic: she is unsurpassed in the world for awestuck reflecting-pool clarity. Zarra is the most down-to-earth and gives Gottlieb a run for her money in the power department. Sofia Rei is the most versatile and hardest to pin down: she hasn’t yet settled on a style that’s distinctively her own, maybe because she’s so good at so many things.

The album opens with her ticklishly polyrhythmic chart (a theme that develops into many subsequent variations) for the opening track, Huzia, equally informed by tango and takadimi drum music, with a numerological Spanish lyric by Lindy Giacomán Canavati that wouldn’t be out of place on a heavy metal record. In the same vein, Sofia Rei also provides the arrangement for the Renaissance-tinged, austerely angst-laden Yofiel, as well as an ominous lyric for Peliel (translated from the Spanish):

Pouring your soul into a paper river
You broke the silence and its accomplices.
Afternoon charm, dawn betrayal,
The feeble knife quenched your thirst

Zarra provides Arabic lyrics and an boisterously crescendoing arrangement for Tzadkiel, a mashup of Veracruz folk and West African traditions. In Grial, she switches to French to illuminate an playfully dancing atmosphere that’s “Seductive as a sign…magical, ephemeral, that we cannot keep in a corner or hold in our hands.” Gottlieb’s contributions include arrangements for Mumiah – with text by Almog Behar – as well as the swinging Qaddisin – a blend of Bulgarian and klezmer tonalities – and Shahariel, a canon that turns hilariously goofy in a split-second.

Serpa – who seems to be the ringleader of this merry band – provides the architecture for Achuston, a primordial ocean tableau, akin to the Swingle Singers covering an uneasily creeping Procol Harum song, maybe. She also gets credit for the distant, ominously circling arrangement for Belial, and also Paschar, the starkest track here. For whatever reason, at least from this small sample, she seems the most at home with Zorn’s signature Orientalisms.

Musical mystery fans will have a field day trying to figure out who’s singing what – for purposes of enjoyment, it’s best just to let these four singers draw you into their alternate universe. If the angels had a party, this is what it would sound like. There’s tantalizingly little of this online right now, but you can get a taste at Gottlieb’s music page.

New Documentary Film Chronicles Martin Bisi’s Legendary and Endangered Gowanus Recording Studio

[republished from Lucid Culture, New York Music Daily’s sister blog, which from time to time covers film and theatre along with jazz and classical music]

When Martin Bisi signed the $500-a-month lease for what would become BC Studio, it’s unlikely that anyone would have predicted that the Gowanus basement space would become one of the world’s most revered places to record, to rival Abbey Road, Electric Ladyland and Rockfield Studios in Wales. Sara Leavitt and Ryan C. Douglass‘ gracefully insightful and poignant new documentary film Sound and Chaos: The Story of BC Studio chronicles Bisi’s individualistic rise to underground music icon, via talking heads, candid conversation with Bisi himself and tantalizing archival footage of bands throughout the studio’s thirty-three year history.

Bisi recorded Herbie Hancock’s Rockit while still in his teens, winning a Grammy in the process, which brought in a deluge of work. Beginning in the mid-80s, Bisi became the go-to guy in New York for bands that went for a dark, assaultive, experimentally-inclined sound. A short list of his best-known production gigs includes John Zorn’s Spy vs. Spy album, multiple projects for Sonic Youth, the Dresden Dolls’ debut as well as more recent work with Serena-Maneesh, Black Fortress of Opium, Ten Pound Heads and Woman, to name just a few.

In the late 70s, when he wasn’t doing sound and stage work for Bill Laswell’s Material, Bisi could be found hanging out at CBGB and offering to do do sound for bands. “I like to be around things that are happening and this was one way to do that,” he explains early in the narrative. The Material connection led to Brian Eno putting up the seed money for the studio – although after some initial ambient experiments there, the composer pretty much backed out of the picture, something the film doesn’t address. Perhaps the space was grittier than what he’d envisioned for his more outside adventures in ambient sounds.

The film vividly captures Bisi’s sardonic humor and surprising humility but also a fierce pride of workmanship and sense of place in New York history. All of these qualities inform the grimness that underscores the story. Bisi’s “blood is fifty percent coffee,” as Dresden Dolls drummer Brian Viglione, one of the more colorful interviewees, puts it, and that intensity fuels plenty of the film’s more memorably twisted moments. As the story goes, Bisi kills a rodent with a dumbbell during a Swans session and gets credit for it in the cd liner notes. Thurston Moore pulls a rather cruel practical joke on Lee Ranaldo during a particularly tough Sonic Youth take that ends up immortalized on vinyl. Fast forward about twenty years, and Viglione takes a ball peen hammer to the wrought iron stairs on the way down to the main room, the results of which can be heard on the recording of the Dresden Dolls’ Miss Me. Plenty of time is also devoted to the studio’s role as a focal point in the formative years of hip-hop in the Bronx and Brooklyn.

The film winds out on a rather elegaic note, as Bisi and the rest of the Gowanus artistic community uneasily await the opening of a branch of an expensive organic supermarket, anticipating a deluge of evictions and gentrification as the neighborhood’s buildings are sold off to crowds of yuppies and trendoids. The talented drummer Sarah Blust, of Rude Mechanical Orchestra and Marmalade, eloquently speaks for her fellow musicians in the neighborhood, with a resigned anger. In the film’s climax, Bisi goes out into a snowstorm to pay his first visit to the new store: the scene is priceless. In addition to its aisles and aisles of pricy artisanal food, this particular branch of the chain is especially twee: it sells used vinyl. Bisi’s reaction after thumbing through the bins there drew howls from the audience at the film’s premiere at Anthology Film Archives.

There’s a long wishlist of stuff that’s not in the movie. Admittedly, a lot of it is soundguy arcana: how Bisi EQ’d the room; his trick for mic placements in the different spaces for various instruments; or the magic formula for how he achieves such a rich high midrange sound, his signature throughout his career, in what appears to be a boomy, barewall basement milieu. What’s also strangely and very conspicuously absent is even a single mention of Bisi’s career as a solo artist. A distinctive songwriter, composer and guitarist, his work as a musician has the same blend of old-world craftsmanship and outside-the-box adventure that marks his career behind the board. Other than a playful few bars behind the drum kit – which he appears simply to be setting up for a session – there’s not a hint that he even plays an instrument. But Bisi seems ok with that. Maybe that’s the sequel.